The Fisherfield Five
While situated in a superb wild landscape, the Fisherfield mountains in NW Scotland are a serious undertaking. In fact, I’d wager that many climbing Scotland’s munros would view the round of the five peaks as one of the most testing of expeditions. From my experience last weekend I can now say that without a doubt this was my toughest weekend’s walking in 15 years.
I had three times postponed a planned trip to the Fisherfield Five (it used to be ‘Six’ before the demotion of Beinn a’ Chlaidheimh in 2012), given heavy rain and the likelihood that the two river crossings entering via Shenavall Bothy would be impassable. Not only are these hills rugged (the Fisherfield forest is acknowledged to be a true wilderness in a Scottish context) but they are incredibly remote – in fact, the remotest kilometre grid square in mainland Britain is located on the northern slopes of Ruadh Stac Mor, six miles from the nearest road. While anticipating all of this of course, what I hadn’t bargained for was the distinctly inclement weather …
There are essentially four routes into the hills: from Corrie Hallie (via the bothy at Shenavall) in the NE; from Poolewe past the Fionn Loch in the NW, from Incheril over the Heights of Kinlochewe in the SW; and from the A832 (the wonderfully-named Destitution Road) past Loch a’ Bhraoin from the East. I had ‘saved’ this group of hills for some years in order to take a through-route across this remote wilderness, taking a bus to Corrie Hallie then walking through and over the mountains back to Poolewe. However, given the poor weather forecast I instead opted to take shorter route from the Destitution Road in the East (disappointing, but a safe and practical decision).
Given work commitments I left Aberdeen at 6.30pm and finally parked up in a quiet layby on the A832 just before 11pm – still in daylight given this was the longest day of the year (21st June). I had great views of the fading light over An Teallach to the north and the Fannaichs to the south.
Next morning I set off along the track on the northern side of Loch a’ Bhraoin that eventually leads to lonely Loch an Nid. Full marks to the Inverbroom Estate for their warm welcome to walkers on their land, the improvements they’re making to the tracks and the information boards. It’s a model of how Scotland’s land access arrangements should be working. The sun was making a valiant effort to break through the clouds and after about two hours the track veered north with Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair (the highest summit at 1019m) and its neighbouring Sgurr Ban directly ahead.
At this point I left the track and headed up to the bealach between the two peaks. Sgurr Ban is a particularly rocky dome and has large expanses of exposed sandstone slabs on its eastern flanks. When I say large, I mean large … I ate my lunch at the top of the smallest one (see below) which is around 200 x 100 metres, and this is about a quarter of the size of the largest section of slabby rock. As I reached the bealach the clouds began to close in and light rain fell which gradually became more persistent.
I left my rucsac at the bealach and quickly bagged Sgurr Ban before retrieving my bag and following the path snaking up the steep slopes of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair. By this point I was in full waterproofs with winter gloves. As forecast, the wind had picked up and blew in heavy showers. The summit was was the only place I managed to find a mobile phone signal over the whole weekend. Just short of the cairn I met three other walkers who were doing the Fisherfield round anticlockwise from Shenavall, the only people I saw all weekend.
I had planned to wild camp beside the lochan in the corrie NE of Beinn Tarsuinn, the third munro of the day, but given the showers had temporarily subsided I decided to press on and cover more distance to reduce the length of the walk the next day. So instead, I pitched on a grassy area in the wide bealach between Beinn Tarsuinn and A’ Mhaighdean beside a small stream, just as the rain came on again.
I awoke first at 11pm. The rain had stopped and it was still and peaceful. I then woke up at 3.30am to the wind and rain battering against the side of the tent. I slept intermittently after that but by 7am the wind was absolutely ferocious. I have never been in a tent in such wild winds; the noise was something else with the wind bending the pole so much that the outer fly kept touching the inner tent. Fortunately all but two pegs held and my little tent didn’t go airborne.
I was fully expecting the wind to pick up and there to be heavy showers … but not until early afternoon, by which time I aimed to be homeward bound. This was most definitely not in the plan. I had two choices: retreat and leave the remaining two munros for another weekend, or continue as planned and brave the elements.
After careful consideration I opted to continue.
This was a tricky decision. On the one hand, I was physically fit, experienced and well equipped for navigating in poor weather, and I’d calculated that I could climb both peaks and return to my tent within two hours. On the other, the weather was truly awful and the thought of heading home was very appealing. However, leaving the hills would have meant coming back in a fortnight’s time to ‘bag’ them before my last munro on 13th July (family and friends have already made plans to travel for my last munro weekend party), giving up yet another weekend and putting another 450 miles on the clock. Two years ago I’d encountered similar weather in Knoydart and had retreated to leave Ladhar Bheinn for another day while passing others carrying on and battling against the elements. So this time I weighed up the choices and consequences, and decided to go for it.
The day hadn’t started well, however. Not only did I miss a cup of coffee in the morning (there was no question of being able to light a stove and keep it upright in these winds) but I realised that I couldn’t guarantee that my tent would still be there when I returned to the bealach (!), so I had to pack up and take it with me. The small streams on the hillsides by this point had turned into ribbons of white water. The rain blew in sheets across the bealach.
I followed the faint path much of the way up the grassy slopes of A’ Mhaighdean and climbed steadily up to the domed summit. (This was somewhat galling given that my preferred though-route from Corrie Hallie to Poolewe would have had me wild camp on the summit, one of the finest wild camping pitches in Scotland … allegedly … on a clear day …). I reached what I thought was the summit cairn then proceeded to take a north easterly direction towards the ridge leading down to the col separating A’ Mhaigdean from Ruadh Stac Mor. However, the ground didn’t fit the map. Out came the GPS and after some retracing of steps I found a second summit cairn that was located where it was supposed to be.
I managed to find a very intermittent path down the steep NE ridge of A’ Mhaighdean. I was anxious not to take a wrong turn that could spell danger so this was a slow descent. The fact that visibility was down to 25 metres or so didn’t help but at least the winds were less strong than back at the bealach. The col beside the Fuar Loch Mor is a jumble of large boulders (plus, on this occasion, bloated and fast-flowing streams) but somehow I found the faint path leading up the steep rocky face of Ruadh Stac Mor, retracing my steps directly back to the col.
I headed back to the bealach where I’d camped, stopping frequently to navigate and taking care to avoid the raging torrents. Eventually I followed a deer track down the steepest section, which got me back in double-quick time. (Aren’t deer smart, I thought. They take the most direct line that avoids having to regain any height and therefore excessive effort.)
So I was now back at the familiar bealach where I’d camped (Pollan na Muice) and I knew my route back to the van. However, instead of this taking me around two hours it had taken over four, given the need to check and double-check my navigation every so often. However, better safe than sorry. By this point, I was soaked to the skin and knew that I had to keep moving to retain heat (it was the gusty wind that was the real danger since my wet clothes did provide an insulation barrier).
I skirted the southern slopes of Beinn Tarsuinn in a southeast then easterly direction until after about 5km I finally descended down into Bealach na Croise. This is where the streams issuing from the high corries of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and its subsidiary peak, Sgurr Dubh, are funnelled down towards Loch an Nid. Unsurprisingly, since these streams are large enough to be marked on the map, given 12 hours of steady rain they had by this point become raging torrents. I managed to find ‘safe’ places to wade across four such streams using my walking poles to balance. Once I reached the track leading past Loch a’ Bhraoin it was just a small matter of a final 8km walk, detouring just to the left of the track to jump each of the dozen or so streams flowing into the Loch which flooded across the path.
By a clear mile, today had been the toughest of over 120 days walking Scotland’s munros. It had tested me to the absolute limit – almost 11 hours walking in atrocious wind and constant rain. I had navigated successfully, carefully weighed up my choices and calculated the risks. Yet I was tired and drenched and it took me an hour to regain my normal body temperature and stop shivering once I changed into dry clothes – not an experience I wish to repeat.
I think the main lesson I take from this weekend is to continue to have meticulous preparation for every scenario (weather, route-finding, camping options, escape routes). I knew prolonged showers and gusty winds were forecast but hadn’t banked on them coming 10 hours earlier than the mountain weather forecast predicted. I’m still mulling over the decision I took to continue on to my final two munros. If I hadn’t already had a final munro weekend planned in 3 weeks’ time I would undoubtedly have had more flexibility to leave them for another weekend. I was fully aware of the choices and consequences and took a calculated decision but this goes to show that the hills can very quickly present dangerous situations – even in the middle of so-called summer.