Why Rush: A backpack round Fisherfield

Home for the next few days was the Fisherfield Forest, a great wilderness in the far corner of the highlands between Loch Maree and Little Loch Broom, void of roads and signs of modern civilisation for miles in every direction. The summits of the Fannichs lay close by to the east, the sharpened tops of Torridon to the south. We planned on taking our time walking the Fisherfield 6, a tough round of remote munros surrounding Gleann na Muice (the valley of  the pigs) with a lot of ascending and a couple of river crossings. Whilst the round can be completed in a day we preferred the idea of taking our time and including some high wild camps and spending as long as possible up there, why rush?

Map day 1

On a bank holiday weekend with a promising forecast Shenevall was likely to be heaving, so we spent the first night camped on a grassy bank at the edge of the alder woods.  A 10 hour drive to the north west of Scotland and a few hours carrying heavy packs made the prospect of an evening in a cramped bothy with a few others not so appealing, not least as much as a secluded grassy pitch on a still Spring evening in the shadow of mountains alongside a gently flowing river. There was a derelict cottage a few hundred yards away, surrounded by deer, a plunge pool and waterfall. A perfectly situated fallen tree that doubled up as a comfy bench, out of sight a woodpecker tapped away as the light began to drift.

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As we set up camp I remember saying something about the virtues of gas stoves as mine promptly failed in spectacular fashion, when the stove was threaded onto a full canister it sprayed freezing and highly flammable liquid all over my hands. Several more attempts and an appropriate amount of swearing gave the same result. It was buggered, this could have meant a few days living off uncooked noodles with tofu and cold coffee. Thankfully, my benevolent companion agreed to ration out his meths and share his trangia  for the following few days, this meant pooling our food and sacrificing a few hot drinks.

The morning brought sunshine; light, warmth and birdsong.

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The dawn chorus had me shuffling out of the tent at sunrise, the one working stove soon giving the comforting sight of steam rising from a pot of water.  I took a slow walk around the woods with a coffee and found an island over the stream thick with high flowering gorse and interwoven with deer tracks, a wild place within a wild place.

Peaty banks bore giant twisted hunks of ancient bogwood bleached white, a reminder that this place was once a forest.

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Boots were removed at Strath na Sealga for the first crossing, the water was only knee deep and not flowing too fast. The round started with a steep grassy ascent of Beinn a Chlaideimh, a straight 800m climb with heavy packs and a little rocky scrambling. Laying among the heather I found a recently shed antler with three sharp points, another wall decoration for my new house.

The skies became overcast casting gloomy views over to Loch Na Sealga, Beinn Dearg Mor and the An Teallach massif, an intimidating mass of sharpened summits that dominated the horizon for the next few days. SONY DSC SONY DSC

Thick patches of icy snow still clung to the northern sides of the summits, life was made easier by following a long gone walkers frozen footprints, though at times we still both sank into melting drifts up to our knees, a sheer drop into the glen lay  just a few metres to our right.

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Near the summit a pair of ptarmigan scurried about, a  male now mostly black with flecks of winter white and a speckled female seemingly apathetic about our presence, content to carry on about their business as two hairy backpackers mooched their way along the ridge.

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A descent to Loch a Bhrisidh brought out the sunshine, a perfect place to stop for one of many communal lunches based around instant packets of noodles and tofu from Nottingham’s finest oriental supermarket. A friendly couple descending passed us by descending Sgurr Ban  asked whether the bothy looked busy. We told them we’d seen a few bikes outside and a group of young Italians heading that way the night before which prompted the couple to choose to wild camp high up by the loch, though they had no tent or bivi bag, the young lad also mentioned that he’d forgotten to bring any gas for his stove. His girlfriend looked a bit fed up. I got to play good samaritan and gave them my redundant gas, they were really grateful as they were about to commence a meal which was essentially uncooked cous cous soaked in cold stream water. Two days later I met some guys in a bothy who said they’d met the same couple and that they’d been so hungry and knackered from their night out they’d tumbled into the shelter and promptly poured instant mash potato into their water bottles and necked it cold. Ace!

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The walk up to Sgurr Ban was a rough bouldery climb made of precarious rounded bleached white boulders that looked decent to tread on but often wobbled and fell to the side, patches of  snow spread over equally loose ground. The summit was a bare lunar plateau with breathtaking views of our remote surroundings from the summit cairn, all that was visible in every direction were snow capped mountain ranges.

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Maintaining our ethos of embracing the journey and not the destination we decided to make an early camp and save the highest munro Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair for the morning. The bealach was sloped and rocky, further down from the pass a generous spring flowed by soft grass that made an ideal place to pitch with open views over to the Sgurr Breac and A’Chailleach in the Fannichs some ten miles away, not a single road or building lay between.

We each grabbed a beer, freshly chilled from the spring before heading back up to the pass to check out the sunset. The night was chilly and clear and would have been perfect for star gazing, but I was out for the count again.

Single parenting seems to have permanently set my body clock to wake up at 6am, no bad thing when you wake up early to a world that looks like this…

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I’d been asked to give the other tent a shake as a wake up call at sunrise, but didn’t get much of a response, more of a grunt. So with time on my hands I made an early ascent of the next munro on the round to the early morning views over to Torridon. The summit was windless and starting to feel warm already.

This was how things were looking on Easter Sunday at 7am from 1018m.

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An hour of so later it was too warm to sit in a tent, we lounged around the spring surrounded by reasons to wild camp and stay outdoors for days at a time. After a quick wash in the very cold spring waters we picked up the track for the second day.

day 2

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Beinn Tarsuinn sits at the heart of the route, its ridge surrounded by some of the remotest munros of all and in the fine weather with the sun behind us we had exceptionally clear views down through Gleann na Muice encircled by steep rocky slopes and Loch na Sealga looking small in the distance.

Had it been any hotter we would have put on string vests, tied knotted hankies on our heads and got deckchairs out.

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A family with two children aged 4 and 6 were making their way up to the ridge, the kids bounded up to the cairn smiling and barely breaking a sweat whilst their parents followed with packs. They’d spent the night camping on the shores of Lochan Fada and planned to spend the day on the hills before camping again. It sure beats an indoor soft play centre.

Along the ridge Lochan Fada shone deep and blue in the midday sun under the bulky mass of Slioch, a faint fingerprint of a moon still just visible against the blue.

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The pattern of ascend, descend, ascend, descend was broken when we dropped down to the grassy flats between Beinn Tarsuinn and A’Mhaighdean for a mile or so, in wetter weather we would have been sloshing through thick bogs and deep puddles.

The broad grassy slopes of A’Mhaighdean felt endless in the afternoon sun, whenever we stopped we headed for the nearest large boulders to find shade and escape the glare.

The relatively gentle incline to the top was abruptly met by sheer drops. Fionn Loch snaked out towards into the horizon, a hazy light resting where the sea and sky met.

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At the summit we met Mark,  a tall, affable and somewhat excitable munro bagger who looked a bit like a viking, he was out bagging munros in shorts and a t-shirt. Before he dashed off I mentioned that I didn’t plan on leaving without heading up to An Teallach, Mark responded with a foreboding ‘rather you than me!’ before dashing off to bag another 100 munros before sundown.

A vague zigzag path snaked up the south face of Ruadh Stac Mor, the final munro of the round before setting up camp on a rocky buttress over looking Lochan a Bhraghad. The torridonian sandstone of An Teallach glowing orange in the evening light.SONY DSC

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The evening light lasted long after the sun disappeared, the day left us crawling into sleeping bags with sun burn, aching legs and tired smiles. I could see the jagged ridge of An Teallach through the tent door, half wondering whether I’d manage to get up there in the next day.

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I had the excellent company of my very good friend Ian Nesbitt during this trip, as well as providing the emergency use of camping stoves and bringing eclectic mix tapes for 10 journeys to the far north of scotland he is also an obscenely talented artist and film maker, please go and find out more at www.iannesbitt.co.uk

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Why Rush: A backpack round Fisherfield

  1. It’s simply top 3 destination stuff for the UK in terms of backpacking. That, Torridon and Cairngorms are for me the best. You make me want to go back and do more there.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s always a good sign when within a few minutes of leaving a place you’re thinking of heading back. I’d like to return to do a longer winter backpack and explore the area between Fionn Loch and Loch na Sealga and the Beinn Dearg corbetts.

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