Easter in Assynt
The SYHA hostel at Achmelvich Beach is one of the most remote in Britain. To get there you have to travel to Assynt in the far north west of Scotland, take the single-track road that winds around the coast to the north of Lochinver, then turn off on to another single track road that ends at Achmelvich. We had exclusive use of the hostel for the Easter weekend. With 14 people attending, the event just about broke even while giving us a bit more space than if we’d filled the hostel to its capacity of 22.
The beach itself, just two minutes’ walk from the hostel, is idyllic with its white sands and view out to Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides. The feeling of solitude is only slightly diminished by the presence of a static caravan site catering mainly for the summer tourist season.
Assynt boasts two Munros (mountains over 3000 feet), but what really distinguishes the area in terms of mountain scenery are its ‘inselbergs’, isolated mountains that rise up dramatically from the surrounding land. We climbed two of these – Quinag (808m) and Suilven (731m) - on successive days.
Once you have made the long journey to Assynt, access to Quinag from the road is relatively easy, but its remoteness and non-Munro status mean that it is not as popular as many other Scottish hills. Indeed, we had the mountain entirely to ourselves that day. This may have been due in part to a poor weather forecast, but the summit was clear when we reached it and it was only later, when we were on the southern ridge, Spidean Coinich, that we were walking in cloud.
Suilven, by contrast with little-known Quinag, is a legend among mountains. It is sometimes known as ‘sugar-loaf’ because of its unusual shape, which is something like a cross between a shark’s fin and a two-humped camel’s back. Its rocky and precipitous slopes allow hill walkers to ascend only by two narrow routes on either side of the middle part of the ridge.
Unlike Quinag, Suilven is far from any road. We had to trek five miles from Inverkirkaig just to reach the base of the mountain. Further south it had been dry for many weeks, so we were surprised to find the ground very boggy, which made the going considerably harder. Furthermore, due to changeable weather we were continually putting on and taking off waterproofs and layers of clothing. These two factors resulted in the walk there and back taking about two hours longer than estimated.
There was no one else approaching Suilven from the south side that day, so it was only on the summit ridge that we met other people – about ten in total. These included a young American with a paraglider, who had just narrowly escaped injury when the air current that had borne him off the ridge suddenly subsided dropping him hundreds of feet. A golden eagle soaring effortlessly above was obviously not going to suffer the same fate.
We reached the summit itself, Caisteal Liath, with a sense of elation and paused a few minutes to take in the view: the other peaks of Assynt and Coigach, the flatter areas in between studded with innumerable lochans and the sea stretching out to Lewis, Harris and the distant archipelago of St Kilda. Reality then set in as we faced the daunting prospect of an uncomfortably steep descent followed by the long trek back to Inverkirkaig.
The tantalisingly circuitous route round the end of Fionn Loch seemed twice as far as on the outward journey. By the time we got back to the cars we had been out for nine hours. The going had been tedious at times, but it had been a memorable day and we had a feeling of satisfaction at having climbed an iconic mountain that others only dream of.
The next morning, sadly, it was time to pack up and go our separate ways. We would have loved to have stayed a day or two longer.
Many thanks to Jorene, the warden at Alchmelvich, who made us feel very welcome and supplied us with duck eggs from her croft. Thanks also to the restaurant in Lochinver for its famous pies which enabled us to conveniently prepare a tasty and satisfying meal in the hostel.
Words: Chris Loy Pictures: Dave Archer
A few of went for an shortish walk out to the point of Stoer on Monday