THE SILENT CORNER
'Enjoyment is retrospective' that was to be our rallying call for the next three days. Does that mean our winter expeditions are a drudge? Absolutely not but prolonged winter exertion can be a real test of your stamina and overall fitness. Winter walking accelerates the process of exhaustion a lot quicker than doing the same route in summer conditions however it has to be said that the rewards are commensurate.
Why 'The Silent Corner' ? Well to help put things in perspective the County of Sutherland where we are visiting, is similar in size to England's second biggest County, Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire is considered to be a very rural county with a population of 1,042,000. Sutherland has a resident population of just 13,000! To the east of the A836 is the region commonly known as the Flow Country, seldom do visitors reach these parts, it makes the features of this area seem like rejected competitors to those further west but in my opinion the simplicity and freedom of the Flow Country gives it an elevated pride of place.
Our adventure starts at the Crask Inn. Where is the Crask? Tough one to call really because there is nothing there, neither is it specifically near anything. In Gaelic Crask means 'passing place' referring to a network of ancient droving tracks. Today the Inn and Bunkhouse are located on the single track A836 equidistant between Lairg and the tiny Hamlet of Altnahara. The Inn is the Family home. We arrived shortly before dusk, just in time to reccy the start of the track for the following day's expedition. As I ambled round it occurred to me that the location of this Inn is without equal. Overhead the wind contoured the featureless hills and water skirted moorland reminding me of the Poet who wrote ''there is beauty in bleakness there is beauty in bland''.
|Dog, Mike and James heading for the Bunkhouse|
I read on Trip Adviser that while Mike, the Landlord was showing a young couple around the rooms at the Inn, they literally ran away! That's a shame because here we are at the mercy of the 21st century with all its creature comforts and runaway technology but could we be missing something? Well here at the Crask we experienced no creature comforts but we did experience genuine rustic hospitality. We had no Television but we did have plenty of books and a remarkable arcadian presence. We didn't have the Internet but we did have a conviviality that binds one person to another. Even the Dogs were friendly!
You couldn't help but be drawn to the Bunkhouse in spite of the fact that heating wasn't in abundance and the electric was erratic, it had a tinge of honesty that I found bewildering in today's 'street wise' world. While we were unpacking, Mike took the initiative to invite us to join the 'family' for tea. On reflection this was one of life's special moments. We had Beetroot and Onion soup for starter and Toad in the Hole or a Dutch traditional dish for main, the food was open hearted country fayre but that wasn't what made it memorable, what did make it special was the fact that seven esoteric individuals had been hand picked from different walks of life and united within an Ivory Tower of our own making. Mike and Kai were our hosts, John had been a good family friend for many years, Alisdair was a Chemist, Janeeka is a retired Midwife, James aka 'The Hess' and myself I'm sure need no introduction.
|The Bunk of death!|
|A tinge of honesty in today's street wise world|
|Relying on my outdoor experiences and the shadows on the bottles I estimate this photo was taken at about 6:30pm.|
|The Ivory Tower left to right, James, Alisdair, Janeeka, Mike, John and Kai.|
The Crask to Loch Choire Bothy and Ben Klibreck
Until you start gaining height at the Bealach Easach, about three miles in, the track from the A836 to Loch Choire is one of the most frustratingly, annoying stretches of bog known to Mankind. For us this was exacerbated by the necessity to use head torches. I figured it was better to start early with the head torches and fresh legs rather than trying to negotiate the dancing curved arc of a beam when you're tired at the end of a day's walking.
When dawn finally arrived there was no shortage of colour, a pink haze cloaked the stratosphere, Loch a Bealach and it's big brother Loch Choire were so vivifying they looked like they had been newly painted. As the searchlight of the sun drammed it's way through the coverlets of mist, Loch Choire exchanged it's cloak of pink for one of lilac. From this Bealach of just two hundred metres the whole vista opened up, the two Lochs head to tail curving along the valley floor in serene elegance. A deep silent frost hugged the shaded floor of the Glen. Loch and mountain in a panoply of colour.
|When dawn finally arrived. . . a pink haze cloaked the stratosphere.|
|Our shoebox premises, can you see it?|
|Rickety bridge and praise be micro spikes|
|...and this one creaked in the middle!|
As the thermometer made a satisfying plunge towards zero I realised we were being treated to a classic day of winter walking in the Motherland. The silver sun illuminated the surrounding hills like vellum as they stood in waiting around a mirror of water four miles in length. Far in the distance we could just make out something like the shape of a shoe box on the eastern side of the Loch, this was to be our humble home for the next two days, Loch Choire Bothy. On exploring the environs further and taking into account two very rickety bridges, this Bothy is a testament to the simplicity and freedom of wild places.
It was very satisfying to charter our own path up the amorphous mass of Meall an Eoinn, the first of Ben Klibrecks two tiers. Although the contour lines could hardly be more bunched together, James seemed to glide up the hill effortlessly, I was puffing and blowing and couldn't quite get in a proper rhythm. At the plateau at 774m the angular bulk of Ben Klibreck suddenly burst onto centre stage providing instant stimulus to weary legs, it made a powerful impact being a brilliant white shield against a metallic blue sky. By now we had reversed roles, I had found my mountain legs and James was feeling how I was feeling on the way up, light headed and thoroughly worn out.
|rising above Loch Choire|
|a hidden corrie|
|Notice the wandering halo, quite a phenomenon.|
The final pull up Klibrecks rocky summit crest was well won, a fitting end to a hard slog. We met an affable couple at the summit, Charley and Sakamoto from Inverness, they couldn't believe we had travelled all the way from Lincoln, a distance of 520 miles! The summit panorama was an expanse of Loch and savage moorland punctuated by the island mountains of Ben Loyal, Ben Hee and the distant Ben Hope. All single malts. We didn't linger at the summit as long as we should have done in such circumstances, just kicked the cairn and left like robbers leaving the scene of a crime.
THE EMPTY STAGE
Ben Armine Stables and return to the Crask
To return to a Bothy after a glorious day on Scottish hills gives you that imitable sense of freedom especially when you know you've got unfinished business in the area. James got a good fire going, it was a shame not much of the heat lingered the minute that the fire went out! I chopped up the wood, the benefits of this were twofold, we obviously needed the wood and I had the opportunity to generate some internal heat for my cold body. I'm not saying that Loch Choire Bothy was cold but when I was committed to go outside to the loo at about 3:00 a.m I braced myself to get blasted by the cold but on opening the Bothy door I was astonished that there was no discernible drop in temperature!
|inside Loch Choire Bothy|
On a personal note the exclusive moment in a Bothy trip is when you open the door in the morning, perhaps brew in hand and take in the view. I did just that. Oblivious to the cold I just sat down with a cup of spiced tea and cast my eyes over a mirrored Loch of breathtaking magnificence. With snow dusted mountains, sylvan woods and azure sky reflected in the mirror image of the Loch it was a scene of heart stirring beauty. I recall having Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony on my mind at the time, it's nice to be able to twin your enthusiasms.
|The Author pondering over his next blog with a cup of Palanquin Spiced Tea|
a speck against a sea of green
the speck is unable to enlarge
but the grand Loch
exceeds in magnanimity
elongating in serene elegance
the sea of green flexes it's muscles
standing proud against the submarine blue
ripples of indigo diffuse a brushmark of cloud
thwarted by a sentinel of green pines
i could stay in the hut
make myself at home
belay into a dark highland night
an Owl's hoot pierces the darkness
a wildcat forages in the undergrowth
nobody see's him let alone hears him
a transient dawn, morning half awake
the blue Loch enhances the speck
against a sea of sea of white
the sun carves out a golden bowl
the speck is in the corrie
the sun carves out a golden bowl
nothing can escape its mellowing sheen
the sun carves out a golden bowl
the speck is moving up the hill
the sun carves out a golden bowl
as the speck glides effortlessly
to the summit of the speckled mountain.
The walk round the corner to Ben Armine Stables could never be have been sold as a flat walk, we hit contours of 500m! Once up on the high plateau I thought of the expression 'empty stage' . The whole area is a scene not of just resplendent wilderness but sublime desolation! The only vestige of human habitation was one solitary building at the confluence of two nameless burns, like a whistle from a steam train in the night, here stood the often copied never equalled Ben Armine Stables.
|dawn colours. En route to Ben Armine Stables|
Thank goodness, due to logistics, we decided not to spend the night here. The chances of getting a good fire going in the depths of winter on soggy peat was virtually nil! However that was not the main reason we decided not to stay here. This dwelling was originally stables in the old droving days before the advent of Land Rovers. As you can see each stable has now been converted into a sleeping compartment. I was worried that I might get an attack of Lycanthropy that is thinking that I was a Horse! The slightest little thing can bring it on and this was too much of a risk, I'm not sure how James or Mountain Rescue would have handled it. An ad-hoc conference was convened and we decided it was high risk so we agreed to walk back to the Crask. On a more serious note as you look round the building you will observe various incumbents names etched into the framework like prisoners of war. This is certainly a remote and forlorn place, I think apart from Maol Bhuide you would do well to find anywhere as isolated as this in Britain but would I want to stay there? Nay!
|A bit of Horse play!|
The trek back to the A836 turned out to be a real test of our mettle although it started off so sedate. The route back to Loch Choire was downhill on several inches of powdery snow that had been dropped off overnight, honestly at times I rested my eyes and just kept on ploughing down towards the track. James walked across the moor to the first bridge but I wanted just one more look at the stunningly beautiful Loch Choire in full raiment. I took a couple of photos and just paused for a few moments on it's little beach as coquettish little waves teased the shoreline. Life was good.
|Life was good!|
James actually wanted to spend another night at the Bothy, I couldn't sanction this myself not because of cold and deprivation but because it would throw our plans for the next two days into disarray, however this was nearly a very good call. It soon became apparent that we were both dragging along complaining bodies, to be fair though as we foot slogged our way back up to the Bealach I mustered some cheerful inner strength to ignore my body's grievances by taking in the wonderment of the perfect winter's day that sparkled all around us but while it is good to subjugate your own aches and pains, what couldn't be swept under the carpet was the fact that our momentum was falling behind the unforgiving rigidity of 'the watch' ! With the curfew of darkness falling at around 4:30pm, time was no longer on our side!
On the three and a half mile stretch back to the road, boot suctioning bog was becoming ubiquitous as the sun gradually slipped out of sight. Faint Argo tracks soon petered out leaving us in more trackless bog. Our eyes scanned everywhere searching for the original track, it looked like we were going to be in for a real protracted slog when James noticed a palleted bridge just in the nick of time, we were back on course and a good job too, what little bit of ambient light there was had now surrendered to the will of the night, it was head torch territory once again. We were not home and dry yet though we were both physically and emotionally tired as we bludgeoned forth in our own private battle to get to the finishing line. Regretfully some of my jokes were uncalled for, on passing a discarded tractor tyre I remarked that I was '' tyred out'' it was met with little response from my walking partner.
By now the night had cast it's silky dark cloak over the weary moorland the withered moon hung soft and low against the starless verge of the night. Although we had the security of the track we were both concerned that no road was forthcoming, could we possibly be on the wrong track? As I entertained this disconcerting thought something totally unanticipated happened, a car drove past! The car headlights illuminated the fence that couldn't have been more than fifty feet away. Our brutal persistence in the face of adversity had paid off. James celebrated by getting his leg stuck in a bog! I volunteered to remove the leg with the one proviso that he would laugh at my jokes in the future, he acquiHessed!
Back on the road three lively dogs joined us in our merriment while a voice from behind enquired ''is that Mark and James? '' This was of course Mike the Landlord of the Crask, quite a portent really being greeted by three dogs and another human when you consider the nearest other habitation is ten miles in either direction! Just an aside on Mike, he does what we train to do a few times a year every day, namely chasing around after sheep, up and down hills and in and out of hidden corries and then when he's finished that he retires for the evening to work in the pub! We ended back in the Crask to offer our felicitations but for some reason nobody would look me in the eye, in fact they appeared to turn away in disgust! Why are people acting like this I pondered. Had I failed to observe some local form of etiquette ? Was my southern accent causing offence? Had I perhaps said something offensive without realising it? Or had I just left my head torch on and every time I looked at someone I was blinding them! Yes I do have the ability to manifest a 'talented thickness' on occasion, not to worry.
It transpires that many so called 'big names' have visited the Crask. Kai commented on this in all innocence that due to not having Television or Internet they don't know who anybody is or what they look like, she went on to say further that nobody should be raised on a pedestal higher than another, we concurred totally and the Scottish hills are a leveller in many respects. The Mountain Bothies Association hold their A.G.M here, once a year I think they do it, I don't think they could have chosen a better place. Deep respect.
Ben Loyal - A Fitting Coda to a Symphonic Sprawl
There we were knocking on the door of the Tongue Youth Hostel it was minus six and there was ice everywhere. There was a light on but no one was home. Not a problem on the front door were three numbers you could call if the Hostel was locked but you've guessed it all three numbers were dead! We enquired in the local pub which was like walking into a film set, ''ok action, stop talking now, stare at the visitors, hold everything in suspended animation, yes even you about to throw that dart. . . gradually resume hubbub of chatter.'' After all was said and done though a portly gent gave us another number and we were back at Tongue Youth Hostel. This Hostel is really a Hotel, all that is missing is the bar!
That final morning I arose early, billowed clouds loomed low, producing that lurid glow that never promises anything good, by daybreak things hadn't improved, the weather seemed to be experiencing some emotional instability continually arguing with itself, one minute rain then hail then snow, wind gusting in all directions. The prospects of a day on Ben Loyal were hanging by a thread. We decided that we would at least drive down to the starting point at Ribigil and give the weather enough time to define it's intent.
Much to James' dismay the toddler in the Supermarket settled down, the clouds departed and mitchell blue skies panned all around! we were back in business. The Ben looked an imposing sight with three warrior peaks protruding from a garland of mist. Ben Loyal reminds me of Suilven in many respects, both iconic, a long approach walk and constantly in front of you is an impregnable tower that to me looks as about as accessible as a computer magazine! The approach walk was pretty mundane until we reached the Allt nan Marisgaig due to all the snowmelt this wee burn was bounding away like an out of control conveyor belt! Thankfully a short distance downstream nature had bridged the stream with a collapsed Rowan tree, now we were free to bound up the steep shoulder to the summit ridge of the hill or as the flattering epithet calls it, the Queen of the Scottish Mountains!
|In a garland of mist.|
|...about as accessible as a computer magazine!|
The pull to the ridge was made arduous by the feathery snow, towards the top it was thigh deep in places . I only bagged one of the summit torrs, An Casteal, which might seem a bit strange but I was resolute that we weren't going to be doing any more head torch walking, the other two peaks I gladly left for another day, preferably a summer one.
The view from An Casteal (the Castle) Ben Loyal's highest top is a glimmering turquoise seascape, the tumultuous coastline biting well inland at Bettyhill only to jut further out at Strathy Point. Scattered Townships and isolated crofting communities scintillate happily in the icy blue light. In all directions carpets of green and brown sooner or later give way to Bastions of white that by their single minded stance say you're stretching out your pastel colours no further. In the foreground is the Kyle of Tongue with it's impressive embankment, this made me laugh, on a family holiday about twenty years ago I was that tired towing the caravan I announced I was going to pull over at the next lay by and sleep. In the morning we awoke in the middle of the causeway!
|Scattered crofting communities and pastel colours.|
It was a perfect winter's day on Ben Loyal yet we didn't see another soul, in fact during the whole of the three day expedition we only saw one other couple! What other country in Europe could you walk for three days amidst gorgeous mountain scenery and not see anybody? Truly an empty stage in a silent corner of the Motherland.
This was one of the rare occasions when everything went according to plan so there was no Whipping Boy Material, sorry to disappoint. The only problem we did have was with a little bit of navigating, we found it difficult to walk in a straight line on a perfect day, in fact we ended up trekking up a hill! But that can happen to anybody can't it? You can't award us both with the dreaded award can you? Ow hick, don't tell Tom!
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