Updated: May 13, 2020
I have been aware of Suilven for some time, but I didn’t lay eyes on it until this year. I was headed over to Ullapool from Inverness with my friend Andy, and suddenly…there it was. The King of Assynt. I was in awe, and said excitedly, “Thats Suilven!!” As we got closer, and our perspective of the mountain shifted, we commented, “How on earth can you climb that thing!?” But I knew you could, and I knew I wanted to - one day. As Suilven faded into the rearview mirror, so did my thoughts of hiking it…for the time being. They were revived once again when I watched Edie, the film about an elderly woman who seizes the day to realise her lifelong dream of climbing Suilven. Once again, the thoughts of hiking it faded back into my mind…for the time being.
Fast forward to a conversation with my dear friend Bob, who was keen for a trip in his camper van and asked if there was anywhere I wanted to go. He had a spare tent that I could use, which I had already used when I overnighted on Bennachie (which you can read about here!) We had discussed getting me up north so I could hike the Sutherland munros (Ben hope and Ben Kilbreck), so we set about planning on that when suddenly it hit me - SUILVEN!! Bob keyed right in on my excitement of the prospect of conquering Suilven, and so, we made it happen!
Bob and I camped at Achmelvich. He was snug in his camper van and I tested out the tent again. I took a wander around Achmelvich’s turquoise inlets and the white sand beach. The terrain is rocky, rugged, and inhospitable, yet simultaneously welcoming and cheery as tiny wildflowers peak up through the rocks. I made a plan of when he should expect to see me back at the lodge the next morning. I had zero cell reception out there, and while I knew it was quite possible I would regain it on the mountain, I of course wasn't going to depend on that.
When I go on new hikes I screenshot the Walk Highlands route descriptions by stage. These screenshots make up part of my toolkit for a hike, as they contain tips that have come in handy when a trail isn’t as obvious as I would like. Other items in my toolkit include a paper OS map, compass, and digital OS map subscription. You may think the digital is not needed since I have the paper, but I like having both as the digital allows you to see in real time where you are on the map physically. This can come in handy if there is something in particular you are looking for that is tricky to find, overgrown etc - you can know if you are right on top of it quickly. I’ve had my share of purists comment disapprovingly about using a digital map, but my philosophy is that its good to have a diversity of tools in your toolkit, to use in whichever way you like.
The route I chose starts out behind the Glencanisp lodge, a former luxury hunting lodge now owned by the community. It is signposted at a few key places. (Please consult the Walk Highlands Route Description for more details, as its different for folks who have to park a vehicle. Bob dropped me off at the lodge but you can't park there.) There is an honesty shed at the lodge where you can purchase snacks and I think a few basic supplies as well. Once I passed the first sign, “Suilven this way,” it was pretty straightforward from there. Suilven loomed ominously in the distance, silently warning me of what was coming. The track gradually became rougher, mostly suited for atv type vehicles. It brought me through a couple of large gates, (which I made sure to close behind me) and undulated out into the Assynt wilds with reckless abandon.
I found the minor rise and fall of the path quite pleasant for the first few miles. (My tired body would find these “minor” ups and downs to be less minor on the return trek…) The clouds were dramatic in every direction, just kissing the tops of Canisp and Suilven. A cuckoo seemed to be following me as his call was nearby all afternoon. I'd catch glimpses of him on a tree branch from time to time (trees were few and far between here so he was easy to spot).
The walk was soul cleansing. Being out in the open, and seeing how far the wilds stretched in every direction, felt so freeing. From time to time I would just stop and take it in, basking in the isolation. The constant looming presence of Suilven reminded me what I was there for - there was no forgetting that the King was waiting. "I'm coming for you.” I had said in the van with Bob that morning. And with every footstep, I was closer to having to back up my threats with action.
Geologically speaking, Suilven is a glacial island or "nunatak." This is an Inuit word for rocky peaks and ridges that rise up above glaciers and icefields. During the glaciation process, the surrounding landscape is ground down and as the glacier recedes, the rock emerges having withstood (and been shaped by) the glacier. Enter two other terms, "inselberg" and "monadnock", which also describe this type of feature. I'm not sure how they all differ, perhaps it has to do with the stages of such formations. But if you are from New England (US) like me, you might recognise the term monadnock as there is a mountain in New Hampshire by that name, which is an Abenaki (Native American) term for "smooth or isolated mountain."
The Assynt landscape is dominated by a number of these giants. Wikipedia explains the region: "The Moine Thrust Belt or Moine Thrust Zone is a linear tectonic feature in the Scottish Highlands which runs from Loch Eriboll on the north coast 190 kilometres (120 mi) south-west to the Sleat peninsula on the Isle of Skye. The thrust belt consists of a series of thrust faults that branch off the Moine Thrust itself. Topographically, the belt marks a change from rugged, terraced mountains with steep sides sculptured from weathered igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in the west to an extensive landscape of rolling hills over a metamorphic rock base to the east. Mountains within the belt display complexly folded and faulted layers and the width of the main part of the zone varies up to 10 kilometres (6.2 mi), although it is significantly wider on Skye."
Anyway, back to the adventure. I had entertained the notion of spending the night in the Suileag Bothy but its location just didn’t work with my plan. It was only a couple of miles into the walk, so it didn’t make sense to stop there for the night and do the entire rest of the hike the next day. I was chomping at the bit and didn’t want to waste all that motivation. Especially since I really enjoy summit camps! So I kept on, past the path to the bothy.
The Walk Highlands screenshots came in handy about 4 miles in. I started to feel like I should be turning off the trail to directly face Suilven soon. I checked my screenshots and found confirmation that a few hundred meters past a bridge, I should be looking for a path to the right - a well trodden path, but quite a change from the stalking trail I had been on. Sure enough, I found it, and things started to feel even more real. I was now directly facing the beast, but still had some ways to go before the ascent. Before I headed up the new path I paused to take in the quiet beauty and took a video of the cuckoo’s call. The path climbed up and then levelled out again. It meandered along some lochs, which provided stunning views back to Canisp. I made a mental note that Canisp would be a straight shot over in the morning, if my legs were up for it. (As it turned out, even if my legs were up for it, the weather would not be.)
I noticed a marked change in the faces of the people I encountered the further I progressed. The exchanges changed from "Nice day for it!" to "Are you just heading up now?" Almost everyone was nice. I met an elderly gentlemen who shouted “You're amazing!" and "you should join the Royal Marines, you know they let women do that now!" I laughed and said “Ah, but do they let Americans join?" We had a laugh and went on our ways. Another couple asked if I had enough water and offered me some of theirs. The husband met me first, and established that I was camping. As his wife neared he called up to her “Camping!" by which she was visibly relieved. "I was hoping you would say that!" She was worried about how late it was getting if I wasn't camping. I did have plenty of water and they continued on, well wishes trailing behind them. The last group I met was a group of three gentlemen who had hiked up the other side and had considered camping on top. But they were not sure about the weather so they were going to set up down below. They wished me luck and continued the gruelling assault on their knees as they headed down.
It is important to remember that when people ask seemingly assumptive questions on the trail that the hiking community values looking out for one another. They know what is at stake, and the common oversights that people make. It is better for someone to speak up and risk offending a prepared hiker. Because the alternative is to not say anything and risk hearing about a dead, unprepared hiker in the news the next day. It really is that simple. So every time someone asked if I had enough water, or assumed I didn't have extra layers in my pack, I just reminded myself that they were playing it safe, and that the optimistic way to view it was that people cared. In a world of ever increasing isolation, where people seem indifferent to one another, it was refreshing to see that people are still looking out for strangers.
Once I arrived at the base of Suilven, my legs were in for a beating. And my lungs. And my mental fortitude. This is "dig deep" territory. I've since learned that it hasn't been all that long that the path has been improved with rocky steps and erosion control measures. The maintenance is done by the John Muir Trust and the Assynt Foundation. I have long legs and appreciated the steps but I know that some shorter folks find it is more challenging with the steps. People are divided about these sorts of trail modifications but the truth is, the old days are behind us and we are in an era when more and more people are out on the trail. I believe that the ensuing wear on the paths makes it necessary to shore up the trails. Especially on a mountain as steep as Suilven. And they have done a fantastic job of making the path look as natural as possible - it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
I become a different person on a mountain. There is a resolve and fortitude I have yet to harness in any other area of my life as deeply as I do when I've set my sights on a summit. Don't get me wrong, I love walks that don't involve summits, I am not dismissive of forest walks etc. But when I have set out to climb a mountain, to touch the cairn, to commune with that special place where sky meets rocky peak, to look at the world below... when I am on that mission, I do not quit. I huff, I puff, I burn, I ache, I curse myself for aforementioned fortitude, I swear off hiking, I dramatically drape myself over my hiking poles as I hoist myself up another rock. I say really mean things to false summits. But I always persevere.
Perseverance is key on Suilven. At just under 2400 feet it isn't particularly high as mountains go, but it is a sudden, significant elevation gain. The term "gradual" has no meaning here. I don't know how long it took me to get up the actual mountain, as I didn't need to watch the clock too much on this overnight excursion. I just got into my zone and put one foot in front of the other. The ground quickly began to fall away from me, and I was thankful that I have a head for heights. I could literally just lean into the side of the mountain when I needed a break. There is a point where the path crests and suddenly I saw open air. My eyes had been accustomed to being close to the rocks and my body had been in leaning mode for quite a while. So suddenly being upright and exposed on 2 sides was an unexpected adjustment. I remember passing a rock that looked like a throne and thought, that is where King Suilven oversees his kingdom. My mind drifted to centuries and millennia past and how easy it is to see why these places were seen as sacred, or cursed, or alive.
After adjusting to being on the ridge, I had two choices - Meall Meadhonach, the pointy peak to the left, or the bealach (the pass between the two summits) and the true summit of Caisteal Liath to the right. At this point, I knew I needed the time to scout my tent location, so I headed for the summit.
Along the way I encountered a very unexpected sight. There is a dry stone wall running up over the mountain! The general consensus online seems to be that it is classified among the Destitution Road type projects. These were “work for food” schemes, with no purpose besides providing work. This took the place of direct charity, either because the landowners wouldn’t offer charity or because the workers would not take it. Even if the project had no purpose, it was at least work to earn money as opposed to a handout. If that is the case here, it is likely to have happened during the potato famine in the 1840s. This same famine devastated Ireland and the next year had spread to the Scottish Highlands. This was of course already an incredibly difficult time for Highland people as many had been forced off their land during the Highland Clearances. I can’t imagine building that wall, but I felt momentarily connected with the builders, knowing that their eyes fell on the same wild, rugged landscapes as mine did.
The scramble up the dome of Caisteal Liath was a bit of a challenge, especially with my pack on. If this had just been a day hike I would have left it on the bealach but I couldn’t know for sure if I wanted to set up camp on the true summit until I got there. A couple of times I did remove my pack and hoist it up ahead of me.
When I finally made it to the top, I was able to truly take in the 360 degree view. I felt utterly speechless. I couldn’t believe I had made it, and felt so honoured to be taking in this experience. Caisteal Liath means "grey castle," which is a fitting name for such a commanding location.
The view back to Meall Meadhonach was otherworldly. It rises up like a giant fin, as if belonging to some ancient beast slumbering beneath the earth. The terrain below was full of water, each lochan, each bog, each burn reflecting the blue and white skies back up at me. This watery landscape was a kaleidoscope of color and intrigue. I just stood there for awhile entranced, my senses taking turns surrendering.
The wind was picking up and the clouds moving in, so my attention turned to getting the tent set up as I knew I wouldn’t be doing it on the summit. There was a small mound before crossing the path to ascend the summit, and this seemed a good spot to me. So I made my way back down, and quickly set up the tent. There are only a few choices up there, but I did linger for a bit trying to decide between camping further back along the bealach or that little mound. The mound won and I pitched in a nice flat spot. But before settling in for the night, there was one thing left to do - I had envisioned a shot of the tent from higher up, which meant I needed to go back up towards the summit again. This time I was packless and practically floating.
Unfortunately a cloud had started to envelope the fin of the slumbering beast so the shot was not quite as I had hoped. But I reminded myself how picky and silly I was being. “That is my tent clearly situated in an unbelievable location, and I’m fixating on the clouds being a bit too low?? Stop being greedy!” So I grabbed the shot, and enjoyed the weightless feeling as I headed back. Shortly after arriving back at the tent, the clouds settled in even lower. As the rain came down outside, I ate some dinner and laid down for sleep.
Not much sleep was in store for me that night however. The constant winds repeatedly drove the outer rain fly into the sides of the tent, and I ended up with a wet tent bottom and eventually a dripping top. I had brought spare plastic bags and was able to keep my shoes and socks dry. I knew I wasn’t going to blow away and I was plenty warm, but the noises of the tent were just not conducive to sleeping. I was up pretty early. As soon as it was light enough to see, I was up. It must have been around 4:30. The weather was clearly set in so there was no point in hanging around for the sunrise!
As I braced myself for exiting the tent and facing the deluge, I was surprised to find that it wasn't raining quite as hard as it sounded - the wind had been driving the rain into the sides of the tent, making it sound like a monsoon. It was actually a pretty light rain. Taking the tent down in the wind was a bit of a challenge, but it wasn't too bad. I used my pack as a weight to tuck things under as I unpegged them, while simultaneously shoving things into the tent sack as fast as I possibly could. Order be damned, I just needed to get things into the pack without losing them. I was so thankful I had opted to pitch the tent here and not on the summit - because facing the tiny little path (which fell off to nothingness on each side) in any amount of wind would have been intimidating. And that’s why I didn’t take that risk when I set up camp.
I did still have a tiny path bordered by nothingness to cross before I could start my descent, but I braced myself, kept a low centre of gravity and hurried across between gusts. It must must have looked quite amusing. Luckily there were no spectators aside from the mountain itself, which had no need to mock me. It knew all along who had the power and the upper hand in this situation, and it was never me. I cast a sad glance towards Meall Meadhonach, disappointed that I didn’t make both peaks on this venture. But that’s ok, I will return for it and traverse the full 1.5 mile ridge of Suilven in one go!
I handled the descent with great caution. The path improvements helped a lot but it is still a steep mountainside path that had seen a lot of rain overnight. Hiking poles are SO helpful in these situations. They make the task gentler on my knees. They help me ease my way down when a step is a bit too long for my stride and I don't really want to jump with my full force. They act as an extra appendage and are a vital tool for me.
When I reached the first lochan at the base of Suilven, I spied a tent and three waterlogged souls packing up outside - these were the last men I had seen the night before. "How was your night?" they asked. I said it was a bit wet and windy, and it turns out they didn't fare much better - their tent had flooded during the night so they were pretty soggy as well. I said farewell and had to take a second to see where the path went. I said "hmm where to go from here?" because the path was blending in with the boggy plain ahead of me. But one of the guys must have thought I was just planning to wing it because he responded, "take the path." I made a mental note to be more careful about thinking out loud, as I made myself sound clueless. In reality I was just muttering to myself as I spied out the path.
Not surprisingly, I didn't meet anyone else on the trail. There wasn't much for rain between the summit and the little lochans at the base, but it settled in again soon enough. It was here I discovered that after a certain point, you stop caring about being wet. My gear became completely soaked through, and at some point I realised my jacket wasn't doing a thing so I took my hood off. It wasn't windy and there was no chill in the air, so being drenched was an unexpectedly soothing experience. I felt really connected to the scene around me. The rain fell from the sky, trailed down my skin, and dripped from my fingertips, hair, nose, ears...dripped down to the earth and into the soil. I was just part of the cycle of everything that was happening. There were long straight stretches of the path where I actually closed my eyes as I walked, to really tune into this feeling of oneness with the earth. I didn't expect to feel bliss in such a scenario, and yet I did. (Of course it would have been much less enjoyable to be soaked if it had been cold and windy.)
I used my iPhone 8 for all the photos you are viewing, but it was tucked safely away in waterproof bags. Even if I wanted to take a quick photo, the touch screen would have been useless with my wet fingers! (The photo above look more ominous than it really was. The mountain was backlit so when I took down the highlights in Lightroom, the clouds look much angrier than they actually were...)
The 6 miles back out were a long slog, but I fell into a rhythm and made good time because I didn't stop much. I settled into a pace where my legs, feet and lungs had reached a compromise that all were happy with. (Well, "happy" might be a stretch...) At one point, I caught a glimpse of the three soggy hikers way off in the distance, and that spurred me on a bit more. Keeping a steady pace would leave that long gap between us, and allow me to revel in the delightful loneliness of this trail for a bit longer. It was just me, the low clouds, and the path, at one and uninterrupted. The mighty Suilven had disappeared into his cloudy lair. I could picture him sitting on that big throne, watching in amusement as I made my squishy retreat.
I met Bob back by the lodge where he had dropped me off. I arrived a bit before him so I found a friendly looking tree to lean on. Bob has had a lifetime of adventure and is gifted writer with his own blog (www.amateuremigrant.com), so in his own words, "As I drove up to the lodge at the end of the road I saw a shadowy figure standing alongside a tall birch, motionless, like a calf in a storm, conserving heat. Nevertheless, the huge beaming smile of my indomitable friend showed her happiness with a goal achieved. A drippy nose and bedraggled hair made her even more endearing!"
We don't have a photo of the bedraggled wanderer but here's one of Bob waving goodbye from the same spot when he dropped me off:
Its times like this where I really appreciate what my body is capable of. When I'm on the trail I really focus on small pieces at a time - I can get to that rock without stopping, or I'll keep up this pace for just 5 more minutes. On this hike in particular, biting off those small pieces almost always guaranteed that I kept going well after the cut off point that I had marked in my mind. We are capable of SO much more than we give ourselves credit for. Nowhere is this more evident to me than when I'm on a mountain. It seems the higher I go, the more grounded I become, and when I'm back down, I'm ready to face so much more. Hiking is integral to my mental health. I highly recommend it!
A word of caution: You must always make an informed decision. I felt it was safe or I would not have done it. I made an informed decision based on the forecast and being on site. The simple fact is that you cannot climb a mountain without risk. All we can do is assess the situation, listen to forecasts, and be prepared. But we can never have full guarantee that nothing unexpected will happen. I was prepared to sleep at the base if I felt conditions were too dangerous, but I never felt they were. I always encourage people to make decisions for themselves, not just blindly do something without preparation because they read about it. And always tell someone your plan. I often adventure alone, and its not common for me to be dropped off and waited for. Its easy to just eagerly run into an adventure, but its important to take the time to inform someone. Be prepared, be cautious, be adaptable. And when things don't go exactly according to plan, do your best and remember - no good story starts with the words "everything went according to plan."
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