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The Assynt Traverse

© John Fleetwood

With its eccentric island-like mountains and far-flung feel, Assynt is a destination unlike any other. At 50 miles, and with 21,000 feet of ascent, the traverse over all the area's major peaks would be three or four hard days for most walkers. John Fleetwood chose to run it, solo, in 27 hours. Why? Well the pictures speak for themselves...

This article first featured on John's blog

The wilds of Assynt hold a special place in many mountain lovers' hearts, and I am one of them. Though it boasts only two solitary Munros, the lack of lofty mountains is more than compensated by a complex landscape of rocky knolls, a myriad of lochans, rivers and pools and shapely peaks that rise above, with the western sea shimmering on those precious days of sun. So when Tony Wimbush reported his inaugural Assynt Traverse in 2010, a seed was sown, and opportunity, resolve and a weather window finally came together eight years later in May 2018.

Stac Pollaidh just after sunrise  © John Fleetwood
Stac Pollaidh just after sunrise
© John Fleetwood

Whilst not the longest mountain run, at under 50 miles, the Assynt Traverse packs a punch that belies bare statistics. For the most part it is trackless and rhythmless – a heady cocktail of sandstone towers, ankle twisting tussocks, angular stones, committing river crossings and heather bashing – but lest this description deter you, it is also a mountain connoisseur's delight of sharp ridges, geologic history and lonely places.

So after eight years, a forecast of sun and a cooling breeze drew me to this far north western quarter of Britain. The long drive north was rewarded with a spectacular sunset over Loch Lurgainn, boding well for the day ahead. I didn't have to wait long to begin with twittering birdsong at 3am, my alarm for a day immersed in nature.

Nor was I first on the hill despite a 4:17 am departure. A group of unlikely looking lads were ahead having spent the short night in song beside the loch. They didn't look too lively at this early hour and I soon passed them as they breakfasted on chocolate bars and Irn Bru. Early morning mist swirled around the eroded towers of  Stac Pollaidh as the rocks took on a pink glow and I scrambled up to the spectacular summit ridge. A 20 year gap since my last visit lent an air of adventure to the day, the mist intermittently enveloping the buttresses, then parting to reveal tottering towers rising above a big landscape. The true summit came all too quickly, so I kept to the scrambling route on the return journey to extend the fun.

For the most part it is trackless and rhythmless – a heady cocktail of sandstone towers, ankle twisting tussocks, angular stones, committing river crossings and heather bashing

The excellent laid path is an anachronism on this roughest of routes and the true character of the traverse soon asserts itself, with a tussocky descent along the broad ridge to  Cul Beag that looms ahead in an all too obvious wall of steep grass. The grassy gully opens up on to an equally steep slope of grass and scree that acts as a wake-up call for the day. The sun bathed the slope in rich early-morning light but any heat was tempered by a rising breeze. On the summit, the breeze became a strong wind that belied the sunny aspect. To the North, a sea of cloud enveloped the valleys, with only the tops peeping out of its thick embrace. In the relative shelter of the immediate summit, I watched as the billowing cloud banks rolled over the hills ahead, mesmerising in their slow, rhythmic motion.

All too soon the wind drove me from my reverie to the unwelcome gloom of the valley below. A jolting descent of tussocky, heathery slopes led indefinitely into the shadows and the relative calm of the lowlands. This is untracked land, devoid of sheep with no trods calving a way through the undergrowth, so it requires a certain degree of detachment and determination to progress. I was, however, mentally prepared for this and found satisfaction in navigating my way through unknown territory in a mysterious mist, from which a loch emerged replete with a sandy shore that is pleasing to the eye. With underfoot conditions very dry, the first river crossing proved insignificant and I emerged still dry shod.

Early morning atmospherics  © John Fleetwood
Early morning atmospherics
© John Fleetwood

The slope above is typical Assynt country – crags interspersed with grass, heather, boulders and scree. The wind rose in strength, the mist got thicker and the day took on a very different feel. I managed to find a mainly grassy way up to the lochan above which my friend Tomas had told me was a beautiful wild spot. On this day it was certainly wild, but it was difficult to see the beauty with cloud down to the lochan edge and a gale force wind whipping up the water. Now clothed in hat, cagoule and gloves I thrashed my way through the thick heather on the right bank, a poor choice in retrospect. The gale eased somewhat at the far side but my slanting upward traverse was somewhat tortuous in thick heather interspersed with boulders. I slithered up a steep grassy slope to avoid the crags looming out of the mist and entered a more amenable grassy bowl. Persistence paid off as I emerged from the pea soup to be greeted by brilliant sunshine once more. The wind still blew but life was once more good. That is, it would have been except for a troublesome knee. I had knocked it on Stac Pollaidh and fallen on the descent of Cul Beag, thinking little of it, but there was no doubting the insistent ache. Still, nothing to do except carry on and pray it would ease with time.

The view from the summit of  Cul Mor certainly distracted me from worrying about my knee. A thick blanket of rolling clouds filled the valley, with the magnificent wedge of Suilven rising above the gently billowing carpet of white. The ever-present wind prevented a prolonged stay, bringing attention back on the knee. The gusty wind played with me as I sought to protect my knee, making a mockery of my attempts to skip from rock to rock. I was in for a long day.

From the northwest ridge, the map seemed to indicate that the easiest route down was from the small col before another rise, but I was uncertain whether I needed to go up a little first. The way down looked do-able and I was keen to escape the wind, so down it was. The way was steep and scrabbly but no more than that. My knee throbbed so 'running' was reduced to a more careful motion, mindful of the maxim of 'less haste, more speed'. It was soon evident that I had descended the steep face to the left (looking up) of the easy descent, but no matter. I was down, in the warm sunshine and mercifully out of the gale.

Loch a Mhadail and the sandbar  © John Fleetwood
Loch a Mhadail and the sandbar
© John Fleetwood

The next section is a rough, unfrequented quarter that eventually leads to Suilven. I was not looking forward to what I had interpreted from the map as undulating, unforgiving land, but the reality proved different. I had done no training for this excursion, no great preparation and no extended thinking, but the one thing I had done was to take a good look at the map and prepare mentally. I think that this is the most important aspect of any long, testing challenge – to visualise the terrain, work out where you might struggle and set your expectations accordingly. On this occasion, I was pleasantly surprised. The ground was more amenable than I had anticipated, the day was fine and I was in good spirits despite the errant knee. Tomas had told me that I could cross a sandbar between Lochs Mhadail and Veyatie which beckoned invitingly, so I duly set my sights on the pleasing sandy curve marking the bay of Loch a Mhadail. I rather startled a lone camper at the bay, who was clearly not looking forward to kayaking against the wind. Like me he was surprised at the strength of the 'breeze' that was more of a gale blowing down Loch Veyatie. Waves crashed into the shore to complete a gloriously wild scene where dappled sunlight set off the brooding clouds to the East, white horses galloping down the loch to the ramparts of Suilven.

The crossing of the sandbar was soon followed by a stop to remove sand from my shoes, then a delightful hugging of the heather clad loch shore, at times sloshing through the loch itself. With low water, I crossed the barrier of the Uidhe Fhearna at an early stage, with the water no more than knee deep. In such benign conditions, the wade across the river offers a pleasant refreshing sensation, but the map doesn't lie and I can imagine this broad channel presenting an insuperable barrier in spate. With the sun shining, a following wind and something of a track to follow, things were in my favour. The steep scrabble up the eroded front of Suilven led to another world of paths, people and the spectacular summit spine. The morning mist had all but vanished, blown away by a rumbustious, gusting gale. Sudden surges of air rocked the bulbous head of Caisteal Liath, belying the glare of the sun and making for a staggering sort of progress.

On the mighty Suilven  © John Fleetwood
On the mighty Suilven
© John Fleetwood

Nonetheless, there was no way I was missing out on the traverse to Meall Meadhonach to savour the roof top experience of one of Britain's finest mountains which stands alone above a sea of lochans, ancient rocky knolls and a glinting sea.

Night comes on the steep descent to the road, but time has ceased to mean much. Luckily a late May night in the Highlands is short, and with the dawn comes hope

I was therefore reluctant to descend, but descend I must, passing the shirtless, sweating bodies toiling up the steep North Eastern flank in the shelter of the mountain. Down past the white line of path repair bags, down past twinkling lochans, down to the unfamiliar tread of a smooth constructed path. Then as soon as the people appeared, they vanished, and I was left alone munching my lunch beside a chuckling burn. After passing two backpackers, it was once more me, the wind and the open mountain.  Canisp is a good, if unspectacular hill that rises to a shapely cone above the stones and heather. A party of people filled the stone shelter at the summit which elicited a droll comment that 'the hotel was full'. Not that I was stopping: a quick look around then on down as efficiently as my creaking knee would allow, on down the grey expanse of stones dotting the landscape like chainmail and over the moor to my precious food cache left the night before.

I had hidden it beneath clumps of moss, but I had no need to uncover the buried bag which lay forlornly in the river. Clearly, it had toppled from the little alcove in which I had placed it and now sat firmly on the river bed. Investigation soon revealed that the wraps remained mercifully free of water inside the plastic box and the water had kept the contents nice and cool. I duly gorged on tinned apricots, wraps and bars before joining the tourist trail up to the Bone Caves. I shuffled as best I could, feeling a little nauseous and weak. I laboured on the ascent of  Breabag, taking every opportunity to fill up on water and drifting into a lethargic plod until the wind whipped me into a slightly faster motion.

Sunset on Ben More Assynt  © John Fleetwood
Sunset on Ben More Assynt
© John Fleetwood

Breabag looks unprepossessing on a map – a whaleback ridge – but in reality, it is a sea of stones, flanked by forbidding cliffs to the East and drawing the eye to the dominating ridges of  Ben More Assynt. In the early evening light, it was a delight as the harsh tones of the day started to soften and the subtleties of a masterpiece are revealed. A crossing of deer lent scale and life to the landscape, whilst frogs seemed to jump out of every pool. There is a special quality of a fine evening that lingers in the memory even after the dark hours of the following night. I savoured the intricacies of the wild corrie that lies beneath  Conival before resorting to poles to propel me up the steep, broken ground to the ridge.

A strong wind re-asserted itself on the final crest to Ben More and my poles repeatedly stuck in the cracks between the angular rocks but I had no choice with a knee that didn't like the buffeting wind or the jarring blocks. This tempered my previous feeling of unity with the landscape and the nausea returned. A familiar inflection point had been reached, at which enjoyment passes to grinding perseverance. There may still be moments of bliss, but as the body degenerates, omnipresent fatigue exacts its toll. I hobbled off Conival and passed a lone tent rattling in the wind, its owner making a dash for the summit before nightfall. A grassy reprieve eased the pressure on my knee, and with it, the downward trajectory of my state of being was temporarily reversed. The endless screes took on a delicate pink hue that moved to a darker red before lapsing into the greyness of twilight. Yet as I entered the sea of stones once more, a crimson sky lit up the horizon over the beckoning sea. A near full moon rose postponing the darkness, but this just seemed to prolong the sense of never-ending stumble over the stony sea. With a tired body and a tired mind, the stones frustrate - irregular, ankle threatening, sore to the feet, pole catching. The only way out of the frustration is to distance yourself from it; to be lifted out of a grinding Groundhog Day. Slowly, oh so slowly, the seemingly easy contours of the map made way for the final ascent of  Glas Bheinn which I reached just before the final death throes of the day.

Quinag from Glas Bheinn  © John Fleetwood
Quinag from Glas Bheinn
© John Fleetwood

Night comes on the steep descent to the road, but time has ceased to mean much. A 24 hour completion was looking highly unlikely, so getting to the end had become the only object. Hard experience had taught me that this was almost inevitably going to be a grinding battle against sleep, my own body and gravity. I was not disappointed in this.

A brief reprieve whilst chewing on supplies at a desolate roadside, quickly dribbled away. I was left drained and fighting a lack of motivation, energy and an overwhelming desire to drop down and drift into the land of Nod. This I did several times over the next few hours. It never really got totally dark, the silhouetted ridges of Quinag clear under a bright moon that cast silver over the sea. It could have been a night to savour, dozing in an enchanted world, but it wasn't. The wind had continued to pick up speed, rising to a battering gale. There was little escape. I'd had nothing warm to eat or drink and the rushing air cut through my lightweight clothing, leaving me chilled and weak. This was a friendless place - a place to escape and leave for another day - and just when you want to move quickly, you can't, and the slow torture ekes out the discomfort.

Sunrise on Quinag  © John Fleetwood
Sunrise on Quinag
© John Fleetwood

Without the light of day, there is little to distract attention and upward progress seems almost imperceptible. On this occasion I tried to provide distraction in the form of podcasts on my phone, but against the noise of the wind it had limited success. The only saving grace is that a late May night in the Highlands is short, and with the dawn comes hope. A deep, deep blue emerges from the blackness and the first glimmers of light promise of the day to come. Only on this day, the gusts grew in strength, throwing my weakened body to and fro. I had to keep to the leeward side of the last summit to keep upright, before finally being able to escape to the promised land of the lowlands.

The final descent is suitably gnarly – a fitting end to this rugged route. Only my poles stopped me from falling my way down the mountain, but I ceased to care – each step brought me closer to the end, closer to escaping the agony. I still managed to admire the imposing Barrel Buttress of Quinag and the beauty of the reedy lochan at its foot. Then before I knew it, I was over the final shoulder, down the road and at the car park that marks the end of this journey. 27 hours after starting I had finished. I could stop, close my eyes and drift off. A beautiful day was beginning and I could savour this place at leisure – except that I couldn't. The night had taken its toll and all I wanted to do was to go home, sleep in my own bed and recover. So that is what I did. After hitching back to the car, I drove home and reflected that this would be my final 24 hour + challenge. The flow that had been ebbing away for some time had gone. It is time for a new sort of personal challenge.

The Barrel Buttress of Quinag  © John Fleetwood
The Barrel Buttress of Quinag
© John Fleetwood

Traverse undertaken on 27-28 May 2018, solo unsupported. For more details see http://www.gofar.org.uk/transassyntrun.html

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