As a whole, North-West Scotland is widely known for its rugged landscape and both low population and road network density, but there are only a few regions which come close to offering a real “wilderness experience”. One of these is a region known as Fisherfield Forest, a vast undeveloped area to the north of Torridon, roughly sitting in between Letterewe and the fabled mountain of An Teallach. Despite its name, very few trees are found here. Instead, it is proper mountain territory. Not less than five Munro summits can be found here, collectively known as the Fisherfield 5. Until recently there were six Munros (and the hills were known as the Fisherfield Six), but one summit (Beinn Chlaidheimh) was downgraded to Corbett status. But as all six summits can be combined in one circuit, many (including me) still refer to them as the Fisherfield 6.
Though they can be bagged in one single outing, regardless of which route is chosen, it is not a route to be sneered at. A very popular (and very sensible, or at least as sensible as possible given the distance involved) option is to walk in from Corrie Hallie and stay overnight at the bothy at Shenavall (a 7km walk), doing the full mountain circuit the following day (29km and almost 3000m of total ascent!) only having to carry a light daypack, saving the walk back to Corrie Hallie till the next day after a night in the Bothy. The length and total ascent is only a part of what makes the walk difficult. Doing the full circuit from this side involves three river crossings, all of which are impossible if the river is in spate. Hence, the walk should not be undertaken after heavy rain or if there is a possibility of weather turning for the worse.
Needless to say that this walk had been very high on my to-do list for a while now. And last week I finally managed to find time to escape for a day or two while the weather was relatively benign, meaning that the river water levels would likely be low enough not to cause any problems. The plan (a far less sensible one than most other walkers would have) was to wild camp on the summit of A’Mhagdhean, which would be reached after a 24k walk and almost 2400m of ascent. For most of my recent mountain wild camping trips I had been walking less than that over two days, so I anticipated unprecedented levels of suffering. I have been tinkering with my kit, thinking which bits of gear were redundant or replacing equipment with more lightweight alternatives, so my rucksack was a good few kilos lighter than it must have been last year. I weighed my packed rucksack (including 4.5 kilos of photo gear but excluding all food and water) before the trip and it weighed 15.5 kilo which is still not quite ultra-light, but almost manageable. The annoying bit of long ridgewalks is that a lot of water will need to be carried up the first hill, and between water pouches and a Nalgene bottle I had a total capacity of 5 litres (which I did all fill up at the last burn before the first hill).
After a very early wake-up call (before 4AM), a nice cruise on quiet roads and the usual faffing around at the almost filled up car park at Corrie Hallie I set off shortly after 9 in bright sunshine. The track over to Fisherfield Forest made for great walking, and I made much more rapid progress than I anticipated. I barely felt the weight the rucksack, the sun was shining, there was no midge to be seen or felt, the views improved with every step I took and I smugly thought that this was all going to be a breeze! Even when I felt some hot spots on my heels indicating the inevitability of imminent blisters I was determined not to let go of some seriously positive vibes. After all it has been way too long since I’ve spent some quality time in the hills, this is what I’m trained for (or should be trained for.. I’ve not been running as regularly as I should have in recent months).
Crossing the Abhainn Loch an Nid was luckily a doddle as water levels were relatively low, but now the steep slopes of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh were towering high in front of me, with no signs of a path to be seen. After a quick first lunch, putting some much needed Compeed plasters on my heels, filling up the water pouches and carefully studying the map for obvious cliffs I should be avoiding I gathered some courage for the steep relentless ascent. Steep boggy and grassy ascents like these are never completely enjoyable, as grip can be a bit of an issue especially when a little bit out of balance wearing a heavy pack, but at least height is gained very rapidly. Most pain was quickly forgotten when the north-eastern tip of the ridge of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh was reached. The views over An Teallach (where I summit-camped last year), the Fannichs and Fisherfield Forest would be breath-taking even if not already out of breath! And surely this is the hardest bit done now right, the rest will be plain sailing, it must be! Only a short walk remained to the first summit! One out of six summits done now! High five with myself was in order! A much needed second lunch and some moments to pull myself together while admiring the vast landscape unfolding below.
Beinn Dearg Mor with Loch na Sealga on the right from the summit of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh
The vast wilderness of Fisherfield Forest. Beinn Dearg Mor, Loch na Sealga and An Teallach from the summit of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh
A nice ridgewalk followed leading to the foot of Sgurr Ban. The second summit of the day proved to be quite a challenge, while not extremely steep, it was one big boulder field, many of which were large or unstable, and again no sign of a path of any forms. I guess that that’s not unexpected, it’s not called the Great Wilderness for no reason after all! Everything comes to an end eventually, and so did this ascent. Summit number two, and Munro number one done. Just three more ascents that day. I was still oozing with energy. I didn’t hang around too long on the summit, determined to reach my destination for that day before sunset. Looking down over the bealach at Cab Coire nan Clach between Sgurr Ban and Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, the next ascent looked extremely steep and covered in scree, but an obvious path could be seen, which would hopefully make the climb feel like a walk in the park. And indeed, while relentless, it was also the most pleasant ascent so far and the summit was reached swiftly.
Beinn Dearg Mor from Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Fisherfield Forest.
Meall Garbh and the Tennis Court, Fisherfield six
After a short break to refuel and take some snapshots I was ready to continue with the mission and met the only other people I would see that trip. The lovely couple had been doing the walk in opposite direction and for them too I was the first person they’d seen that day! And that while the weather could have hardly been better, I’m sure many more accessible hills would have been heaving with people.
After a boulder-covered descent and the bypass path along Meall Garbh it was soon time to ascend the grassy slopes of Beinn Tarsuinn, the fourth summit of that day. There were few body parts which weren’t aching at this stage, but it was a simple matter of just putting my head down and march. On the bright side, my pack must have been almost feather light at this stage, as I had drunk almost three liters of water and ate a decent amount of food! The views from the summit were probably the best so far. The eastern ridge of the Fisherfield Six were rising steeply above Gleann na Muice, and An Teallach provided a dramatic backdrop in the distance.
Looking down Gleann na Muice from Beinn Tarsuinn. Beinn Dearg Mor and An Teallach can be seen in the distance.
Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh , Sgurr Ban and (parts of ) Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, which I’d just summited can be seen on the right from Beinn Tarsuinn. An Teallach provides a dramatic backdrop to this wild rugged landscape.
There wasn’t too much time left to faff about though (even though my feet were screaming for the boots to be taken off) as the clock was ticking. Sunset was approaching quickly and a lot of height needed to be gained during the the walk up A’ Mhaighdean, so I’d better get going! At first a lovely walk followed over the interestingly shaped grassy platform nicknamed “Tennis court ” and later by-passing a series of pinnacles before descending towards the boggy bealach. The boggy terrain made for tough going, but I found a burn where I could fill the water pouches which were running dry, so complaining from me.
The final ascent of the day was long (more than 400m of height gain, not a problem for fresh legs but at this stage it felt more like 4000m), and a false summit halfway the climb would have made for an anti-climax if I didn’t know A’ Mhaighdean was trying to trick me. The light was brilliant now, and I prayed it would stay like that for just a little bit longer. However, Sod’s law came into play, and the light fizzled out just as I, a broken man, reached the summit with more than half an hour to go before sunset. And as this is the way things can and will go, I put on some layers, and embraced dusk coming early. After a bit of scouting I did find some interesting vantage points, but my feet were unwilling to carry me very far.
High above Fionn Loch: The view from A’ Mhaighdean just after sunset
Looking out over Fionn Loch from A’ Mhaighdean at dusk
The dark waters of Gorm Loch Mor below A’ Mhaighdean. Slioch can be seen behind Lochan Fada on the left
Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn during the blue hour after sunset
There was no shortage of near-flat grassy bits on the A’ Mhaighdean plateau and my tent was quickly set up. I was ready to kip before 10PM. Despite being more physically knackered than I’d been in ages, I spent most of the night listening to the wind howl outside. Typical. But when the alarm went off at 4AM I was awake instantaneously. We landscape photographers can get by with little sleep you know 🙂 I had a peek outside, and dawn had started. It was cloudy, but it looked like there was a bit of colour on the horizon. After a hurried breakfast and taking down everything I set foot to the northern tip of the A’ Mhaighdean summit plateau. There were some great views over Fuar Loch Mor, Ruadh Stac Mor, Beinn dearg Mor and An Teallach in the background. There wasn’t a real sunrise to write home about, but I quite liked the blue light as a result of an overcast twilight.
Looking out over Fuar Loch Mor with the craggy ridges of Beinn Dearg Mor and An Teallach in the distance
Beinn Dearg Mor and An Teallach at dawn
Layered distant mountain massifs in the Fisherfield Forest and beyond.
High above Fuar Loch Mor at dawn, Fisherfield Six
The descent towards Poll Eadar dha Stac was initially very steep (but grassy) and then the terrain got rockier, and Ruadh Stac Mor was quickly reached. After an initial scree bit, an easy scrambe, and some more scree through a narrow chute, the rest of the ascend went over boulder fields. This time however, there was a faint path, marked by cairns, which made it much easier on the knees and feet than the ascent of Sgurr Ban. Clouds were rolling in and out, sometimes totally obscuring all views, all adding to that atmospheric setting which makes the Scottish hills such a special place to be.
Beinn Dearg Bheag from Ruadh Stac Mor, Fisherfield Forest
The steep and appearingly unconquerable slopes of An Teallach
Looking back over Beinn Alligin, Torridon
Now it was just a matter of descending towards Lochan a’Bhragdad, following a burn in NW direction towards a valley until a good stalkers path is met. This path had to be followed until a cottage is reached at Larachantivore. From there a straight line should be picked towards the Shenavall bothy, which requires a river crossing, 1 kilometer of the worst bog known to mankind, another river crossing and then still some more bog. A decent (but initially eroded and boggy) path leading to Corrie Hallie is picked up just behind the bothy. Though easy in comparison with what had been done beforehand, I was really paying the price for my efforts and the walk seemed steeper and far longer than I remembered from the day before. Especially the last bit of the walk was very pretty, as it went through some lovely birch woods with great bracken undergrowth, but I lacked the energy and willpower to take photographic advantage of this. I only managed to make it back to the car by the skin of my teeth, and with great relief I took my walking boots off and got changed into a clean outfit.
I think that I had underestimated the toughness required for this walk, despite having read countless route descriptions and walk reports (click here for a detailed route description and map on Walkhighlands). But then again, at roughly 44km in total, it was more than twice as long as the longest overnight walk I had done in recent years, so it’s not surprising that I felt this knackered. All in all it was a great little adventure through some of the most unspoilt landscapes in Scotland, and I’m grateful for having experienced it firsthand. But perhaps I should stick to slightly less challenging walks for the next couple of backpacking trips?