Welcome to my blog. I'm an outdoor writer and photographer with a passion for wilderness and mountains. Use the links above to find out more about me and my books and walks. Click on a blog heading to see any comments or to add your own. -Chris Townsend

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Vote for Suilven

Suilven from the North-West

Suilven, one of the iconic hills of the Scottish Highlands, has been nominated by Berghaus to win £18,000 for path repair in the European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA) Alpine Category. The Assynt Foundation and the John Muir Trust are running a joint campaign to win this money as the paths on this magnificent mountain are in dire need of repair. You can vote for Suilven here. Voting closes on October 19th.

In support of this campaign I'm reposting this piece from four years ago about a backpacking trip on Suilven with some extra photographs.


“There are more reasons for hills
Than being steep and reaching only high”.

Norman MacCaig       High Up On Suilven

Rising steeply from an undulating land of bog and loch Suilven is one of the great mountains of the Scottish Highlands, a massive and distinctive wedge of dark Torridonian sandstone standing alone on a plinth of pale striped metamorphic Lewisian gneiss. Suilven looks ancient, a gnarled and battered giant, and it is. At around 3,000,000 years of age Lewisian gneiss is one of the oldest rocks in the world. At just 1,000,000 years old the Torridonian sandstone is young by comparison but still much older than many rocks. From the sides this slice of layered stone is an undulating 2.5km ridge with an off-centre low point, a bulging summit at the west end, the highest point, and a split summit at the east end. Viewed from the east Suilven rises as a finely tapered pyramid, the easternmost top, Meall Bheag, being lower than the next one, Meall Mheadhonach, so they appear as one summit. From the west steep terraced cliffs rise to the bulky, rounded summit of Caisteal Liath – the Grey Castle. From everywhere Suilven looks striking and imposing, a grand mountain in a grand setting. The name comes from the Norse for “pillar” and probably refers to its appearance from the sea and its use as a landmark by the Vikings as they sailed their longboats along the west coast of Scotland. A mighty mountain indeed yet it’s only 731 metres high, not even reaching Corbett let alone Munro status. So much for categorising mountains by height then for Suilven is finer and more distinctive than many that rise hundreds of metres higher.  

Suilven lies in solitary splendour in the district of Assynt in a huge roadless area between the coast and the road north from Ullapool. All approaches are lengthy. It is usually climbed from the path running west from the scattered village of Elphin to the little fishing port of Lochinver, a good through-route. This path passes below the north face of Suilven from where a rougher trail leads up to the low point on the ridge called the Bealach Mor, a geological fault line. However a more interesting route that explores some of the wonderful country surrounding the hill crosses Suilven from south to north. This can be walked in one long day but I think it’s more satisfying to take two days and spend a night in the wild loneliness of this vast landscape and really absorb and sink into the atmosphere. Waking in such a place greatly enhances the feel of being part of it, of belonging, and deepens the feelings of joy and satisfaction of walking in the wilds.

With this in mind two of us managed to tear ourselves away from the attractions of the Achins tearoom and bookshop at Inverkirkaig Bridge, a remote place for such facilities, and set off one late spring afternoon along a path through lovely deciduous woodland, a rich mix of alder, rowan and birch with a few pines, beside the River Kirkaig. This path rises to moorland above the ravine down which the river flows and leads to the Falls of Kirkaig, a ferociously powerful cataract that plunges 18 metres in a single drop between sheer cliffs into a black rippling pool. Trees frame the falls and the cliffs and the situation is one of natural perfection, beautiful and severe at the same time.

Suilven brooding over our camp

As we left the falls and climbed onto open, boggy, heather moorland rain began to fall with clouds hiding the hills we knew rose splendidly all around. The area around Suilven is a typical Lewisian gneiss landscape of pools, bogs and low hummocky, rocky knolls, a terrain known as “knoc and lochan”. The ragged twisting path led across the wet ground to long Fionn Loch where we found a lovely camp site on the north shore near the burn running down from Coire Mor. The swirling low clouds and grey sky added to the feeling of wildness and remoteness. Nothing was visible but cloud and water, bog and rock, heather and grass – the last green with the spring. A breeze off the loch kept the midges away and I lay in the tent with the doors wide open staring out at the wetness. Slowly the world became distinct and I started to notice movement other than that of cloud and water and hear sounds other than the patter of rain and gentle hiss of wind. On a spit of gravel jutting out into the water at the mouth of the burn two little birds ran like clockwork across the shore. I scanned them with my binoculars. Ringed plover, birds of the water’s edge. Far out on the loch a dark silhouette rode the wind-rippled water. The streamlined shape and long pointed bill showed it was a diver, a symbol of the wild, though whether red or black-throated I could not tell. A cuckoo called from afar and grouse cackled somewhere. Just water and wind, rain and moor, birds and rocks. It was enough. I dozed off content with the world.
Later my sleep was disturbed by the wild shriek of a diver and the drumming of a snipe and then at dawn the more insistent repetitive call of a cuckoo. More noisy cries had me looking out of the tent to see a line of long-necked ducks flying fast overhead, calling all the time. As I watched the clouds slowly began to dissolve and I thanked the birds for waking me as across the loch strange shapes began to materialise in the fading mists, the splendid peaks of Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh. To the east Suilven rose up, dark and foreboding. Slowly the world brightened as the early sun rose through the swirling clouds. By 8 a.m. the sky was clear and the sun already hot with a temperature of 17°C.

Approaching the south side of Suilven

Not much further along the shores of Fionn Loch we turned towards the mountain, following a rough eroded path across hummocky moorland to the steep southern flanks of Suilven. The path headed straight up these slopes then cut across the face to the Bealach Mor, a rough, steep climb. The views were spacious and exhilarating. Out of the undulating, shining, sparkling, watery landscape rose a series of distinctively shaped hills – Cul Mor, Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh now sharp and clear to the south, Canisp just to the north with Quinag in the distance. Much farther away other peaks came into view, most clearly the ragged edge of An Teallach to the south and the twisting ridges of Arkle and Foinaven far to the north. Eastwards a long dark line marked Conival and Ben More Assynt.

Meall Mheadhonach & Canisp

Turning west we followed the ridge, with some easy scrambling, up to Caisteal Liath, Suilven’s highest summit. From this spacious high vantage point there were superb views out across the moorland to the blue island-dotted sea stretching out to the distant hazy Western Isles and back east to the soaring eastern spire of Suilven, Meall Mheadhonach, an exposed scramble. And everywhere lochs and lochs and lochs, water filling every dip and hollow, each one ground out by the glaciers that carved this landscape, including Suilven, itself sculpted by the ice grinding past as it flowed from east to west. 

Caisteal Liath

There is no walkers’ way off Caisteal Liath, which is ringed with crags on three sides, except via the Bealach Mor so to this we returned, crossing again the curious not to say crazy wall that runs over Suilven not far above the low point. Who built it and why? No one seems to know. From the bealach we descended the wide eroded gully of scree, heather and rock (which is rather loose and nasty at the top) that runs north down to Loch na Gainimh. This is the most popular ascent route, as the worn nature of the path shows. On the descent the whaleback of Canisp to the east and distant Quinag to the north dominated the view.  The summits of these peaks are paler and greyer than the slopes below, caps of Cambrian Quartzite lying over the dark Torridonian sandstone.

Once out of the gully the terrain eased off and the walking became easier as we passed some lochs before reaching the Elphin to Lochinver path where we turned westwards and headed for the coast beside the Abhainn Bad na h-Achlaise and a series of lovely lochs, pausing frequently to turn and contemplate the ever-changing, slowly dwindling views of Suilven to the south and east. The moorland faded too as we passed Glencanisp Lodge and walked through some pleasant quiet woods to reach a road for the last two kilometres into Lochinver and a celebratory meal of the famous pies of Lochinver Larder.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Great Outdoors November issue is out now: Skye storms & mid layers

Keeping warm in one of the midlayers tested in this issue during the wet and windy trip to Skye described in my backpacking column

For the November issue of The Great Outdoors I wrote about my September stormy trip to the Isle of Skye and tested ten midlayer tops, some of them quite innovative. Also in the gear pages and also quite apposite given the time of year Judy Armstrong tests six pairs of soft shell trousers. There's a review of Asolo's Magix approach shoes by Paul Beasley too.

The overall theme of this issue is pub walks with trips and suggestions from Hanna Lindon in the Lake District, Will Renwick in Pembrokeshire, Bavid Lintern in the Black Mount, and Daniel Neilson in the Dark Peak.

Also in this issue Jessica Traditi reports on the effects of April's devastating earthquake on tourism in Nepal; Chiz Dakin goes on an exciting expedition on the Patagonian ice cap; Jon Sparks looks at the relationship between walkers and mountain bikers; Carey Davies is alone in the Pyrenees; Roger Smith rounds up recent environmental stories; and Jim Perrin recommends Thomas Firbank's I Bought A Mountain.

The Hill Skills pages are devoted to scrambling with advice from Ian Sherrington of Glenmore Lodge and other mountaineering instructors.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Cairngorms October Magic

View down the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui

October is often a fine month in the Cairngorms and so it has proved so far this year. Last week on a fine evening I climbed up to the Cairngorm Plateau and headed for the Feith Buidhe, a high level stream that crashes down the steep headwall of the Loch Avon basin in a series of falls and slides. On the edge of the basin I cast around for a camp site amongst the jumble of granite slabs and boulders. Below big snow patches, the last remnants from the previous winter, stretched across the rocks. Eventually I found a flattish patch of ground with enough soil to hold pegs and pitched my tent as the sky grew dark.

Moonrise over Loch Avon

A bright waning moon rose above the long pale line of Loch Avon. Stars glittered. A wind swept across the slopes, rustling the grasses. I sat outside watching the sky and the dark. Stags roared from far below. 

Camp above Loch Avon
I was woken by the rising sun shining straight into the tent. The was chilly but soon the air was hot anywhere shaded from it. Reluctant to leave this spectacular spot I wandered round the camp inspecting the snowfields, relishing the rough, sparkling granite slabs, and watching the Feith Buidhe begin its long fall. 

Beinn A'Ghlo from Ben Macdui
Eventually I packed up and headed away, uphill to Ben Macdui. The air was sharp and clear here in the Northern Cairngorms but farther afield was hazy and there was thin mist in the glens and round the mountains. Out west there was much cloud with just the summit of Ben Nevis rising above it far in the distance. To the south the hills were silhouettes under the bright sun.

Across the Lairig Ghru to Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach
I wandered back across the Plateau, revelling in the sunshine – something lacking for much of the summer – and the wonderful views. As I began my descent I looked west across pale ridges. It had been a magnificent welcome to autumn.

Looking west from the Fiacaill a' Choire Chais

Monday, 5 October 2015

Wild Camp and Hill Walk on Quinag

Sail Gharbh & a distant Spidean Coinich from Sail Ghorm

Following my retreat from the midges after my visit to Ben More Coigach (see this post) I drove to Quinag, another huge massif and one of the great mountains of the Northwest Highlands. Quinag is a steep Y-shaped mountain with three long rocky ridges, each with a summit that qualifies as a Corbett (Scottish hill between 2,500 and 3000 feet/762 and 914 metres with a drop of at least 500 feet/152.4 metres between it and the next hill). With a huge long rock wall to the west, two big corries on the east side, and many minor tops (some of them quite dramatic) Quinag is complex. The traverse of the summits is an exceptional hill walk for both the interesting and entertaining rocky terrain and the superb views of mountains, lochs and sea. Quinag is looked after by the John Muir Trust.

Looking South-east to Ben More Assynt & Loch Assynt
After stopping at the Elphin Tea Rooms for soup and a roll and coffee I started late up the path to Lochan Bealach Cornaidh, a gentle route that leads gradually through boggy terrain into the heart of Quinag. The lochan  lies in a wonderful situation between two of the Corbetts – Spidean Coinich and Sail Garbh, the highest summit – with spacious views east to another Corbett, Glas Bheinn. I pitched my shelter above the lochan but spent little time looking at the views due to the midges.

Sail Gorm & Sail Gharbh from Spidean Coinich
Dawn came with a pink sky and a welcome breeze – no midges! I spent the day on Quinag, climbing all three Corbetts. The light was sharp and visibility superb. This landscape is truly spectacular, a tremendous mix of rock and water, mountain and loch. Steep slopes and narrow rocky ridges make for interesting walking. The rough narrow paths thread complex ways through rock bands and round rock towers. Hand are useful in places, (especially if your legs are quite short like mine!), but there’s nothing that could be called scrambling. 

Lochan Bealach Cornaidh - my shelter is the pale spot just right of centre near the bottom of the picture
Early in the day the sun was hot and the air still with only an occasional touch of a breeze. Sticky with sunscreen and sweat I laboured up the great rock block of Spidean Coinich, the southernmost Corbett. Back at the Bealach a’ Cornaidh – there’s no way to climb all three Corbetts without backtracking several times – I climbed the unnamed 745 metre top to the north that is actually the key summit as the three Corbetts lie to the north, south and east. As I continued on to the northernmost Corbett, Sail Ghorm, the wind began to strengthen rapidly. On the summit I donned a windshirt as I turned and headed back to the 745 metre top and then out east to Sail Garbh, blown about by the wind. 

View over Loch Assynt to Suilven
Back at the col with the 745 metre top I took the path that cuts across the slope towards the Bealach a’ Cornaidh, soon dropping out of the buffeting wind. The sun was hot again and I stopped by a stream for a drink and to sit in the sunshine before returning to my tent, which I could see below, already in the shade. High above a golden eagle circled and I watched it for a while before it drifted away and vanished into the distance. 

After sunset, Lochan Bealach Cornaidh
Down at camp I could hear stags roaring not far away. Across the lochan I picked out a herd of fifteen or so hinds with a big stag close by and a smaller one trailing them some distance behind. Both stags roared but I didn’t see them venture towards each other.

Moonrise, Lochan Bealach Cornaidh
Wandering down to the sandy shore of the lochan, pockmarked with the hoof prints of deer, I watched the soft, subtle, pink dusk light reflected in the water. After a while a waning moon rose into the eastern sky, shining through bands of thin cloud. Stars appeared and the hills faded to silhouettes. There was an intense feeling of peace and quiet. I sat and watched the wild, content.

Quinag camp