I was in an expectant mood as I drove north. A large area of high pressure was due to cover the UK and bring fine, dry and settled conditions. Just perfect, I thought, for a wild summit camp, ticking off three Corbetts followed by an afternoon’s cycling. Even if the scattered clouds didn’t give a clear sunset there was still the prospect a starry night sky and cloudless views the next morning.
However, rounding the corner near Ardvreck Castle I realised not everything was going to go to plan. For while every other summit had been cloud free, my first view of Quinag was of the great hulk of a mountain draped in low cloud. As I parked up the rain started and I spotted miserable walkers in full waterproof gear returning to their cars.
Ever the optimist, I trusted the forecast; every mountain and general weather forecast had promised clear skies after the possibility of scattered showers. And sure enough, by the time I’d crossed the heather moorland on a well-constructed path, the showers had indeed passed and the clouds parted.
I eventually found a space to pitch my tent on the flattish bealach just west of Sail Garbh, at about 700m. In gaelic the name is translated as the “rough heel”. Not a particularly appealing name but very apt: I struggled to find a patch of tent-sized, vaguely soft, green ground on this stony perch.
But just as soon as my tent was up the wind started to blow, the clouds descended and the rain came on again. It was clear that, rather than giving a still, clear night with great views, I’d be holed up in my tent having an early night.
It was a fitful sleep. I woke up at 3am disturbed by the tent wall in my face and a loud flapping sound. I found and replaced three tent pegs temporarily displaced by the gusty wind, then poked my head out of the tent door at 6am just before sunrise. It was overcast. OK, I thought, time to go back to sleep …
While it was still cloudy and windy by the time I finally emerged at 8am it wasn’t raining. My original plan was to walk out to the two northerly peaks of the Y-shaped mountain before returning to pack up my tent. But since I wasn’t at all confident that my tent wouldn’t blow away without me in it (!) I instead packed everything up into my rucsac and just took a camera with me to climb Sail Garbh (808m) and Sail Ghorm (745m).
The views were impressive. The landscape of Assynt really is quite distinct from other parts of Scotland, built on a foundation of Lewissian gneiss which, at 3 billion years old, makes them the oldest rocks in Europe. The mountains are of Torridonian sandstone and have steep, seemingly impenetrable sides, rising up sharply above the peaty, loch-splattered landscape . There’s something very raw and ‘elemental’ about this landscape. Over the next two days I had rough plans to climb other peaks in Assynt mixed with some cycling.
I met up another chap and we walked out to Sail Ghorm, taking snaps along the way. There were great views out along the rocky coast, with the Outer Hebrides just visible in the distance. I retrieved my pack and hauled myself up the steep ground to Spidean Coinich, crossing its lower top first of all. By mid-morning the wind was starting to let up and patches of clear sky began to appear. The forecasters clearly hadn’t anticipated a weather front crossing the NW Highlands and so, about 12 hours later than advertised, the ridge of high pressure was now starting to take charge.
By the time I descended the long, stony SE-facing shoulder of Spidean Coinich patches of blue sky appeared and it was now a very different day. I had lunch and a short rest in the van before getting on my bike to explore Assynt at a slightly faster pace. The plan was to complete a 37-mile circuit of the headland via Lochinver, Clachtoll, Drumbeg and back to the car park near Quinag.
It was a fast, exhilarating descent south to Loch Assynt and a great ride along Loch Assynt, with gorgeous views. I dropped down the steep hill to Lochinver for an ice cream in the sunshine before heading north along the B869 towards Clachtoll and Stoer. But by the time I was cycling north I began to feel my tired legs. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have to cycle another 25 miles on a tough, undulating road, conscious that I still needed to find a campsite that night? So I changed plans, turned back just about at the Achmelvich turn-off and cycled back the way I came along the shores of Loch Assynt. Except this time, the fast descent from the car park was a long, slow slog uphill.
Plans change. Forecasts change. The lesson? Stay flexible.