Trip Report: Tackling the Northern Highlands

Scottish mountains don’t get any more impressive than Suilven. This past week I was fortunate enough to travel with some friends to the Northern Scottish Highlands. This gave me the perfect opportunity to try and climb up Suilven. We also got a chance to hit up some of the epic mountains on our highlands wish lists. The Northern Highlands are a relatively unknown part of Scotland with lots of epic mountain ranges, awesome scenery and untamed beauty.

Ben Hope / 927 m

We set off from Edinburgh in search of our first Munro; Ben Hope. (A Munro is a mountain over 3000 feet) Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro, which makes it popular for Munro-baggers. It’s a short ascent, but an uphill slog to the summit.

The winding road to Ben Hope

Ben Hope is extremely deceiving. What looks like the summit in this picture is a long way off being the actual summit. After thinking we’d made it to the top multiple times for it just to be a false summit was a little frustrating, but overall it’s an awesome mountain with incredible views of the opposite valley on the way up.

We arrived at the base of mountain fairly late as the sun was setting. The goal was to camp on or close to the summit. Due to our freshness we paced it quickly up the mountain, reaching the peak not too long after sunset. Whilst stood on the summit’s triangulation pillar I was the highest, most northern person in all of Scotland. That was pretty cool.

Slowly getting accustomed to waking up in a tent

We caught up on some much needed sleep on a sheltered part of Ben Hope. Although that still didn’t stop the wind from causing a racket in the night. With visibility being so good we were able to see Foinaven, our next mini Scottish excursion. Despite being a few valleys away, the steep scree slopes stood out from the rest of the surrounding mountains. Seeing the jagged ridge line gave an indication of how difficult that range was going to be.

Our tents on Ben Hope overlooking the North West

On the way back down Ben Hope we began to appreciate the size of the Munro and the distance we had walked the night before. The flowers were beginning to bloom along the route, making it quite pleasant. Unfortunately our knees were starting to feel the descent.

Foinaven / 914 m

Foinaven was described as an underappreciated mountain and possibly one of the best days out you can have in Scotland. We used seasoned mountaineer, Dan Bailey’s directions and maps to get a better indication of what our route was going to look like. This ended up being our bible during this hike, since it saved us on multiple occasions when we started to stray in the wrong direction.

This circular route has to be one of the best that the North can offer. It’s 30km in distance with plenty of ascent. The round route offers a bit of everything in a landscape that is completely untouched. There are some good spots for climbing, dodgy river crossings and hazardous ridges. All in all, a great route!

Finding a route from Polla to Foinaven wasn’t an easy task. Dan Bailey’s route description was our main pointer. Only small sections had a path and we had multiple river crossings on the approach.

We made it up to the start of the Foinaven ridge quite late in the day, so instead of pushing on in the dark like we often end up doing, we decided to save the best of the route for the next day. This was wise since we were pretty exhausted and needed to be rested for the ridge. We camped on the wide saddle which was an expansive patchy bog overlooking immense mountain views.

Suilven / 731 m

Considering how strenuous the last few days had been, Suilven seemed completely off the cards. We didn’t have much time left and the weather was rapidly closing in. In a last ditch effort we hiked out to Suileag Bothy with the original intention to get some sleep and summit early the next day. After some good hot food we all felt quite energised. In a moment of madness we decided to wait an hour or so and summit for sunrise.

As soon as the clock turned 2:30 AM we set off for Suilven. We hiked at an obscenely fast pace up to Suilven. The darkness helped channel our flow and possibly eliminated the chance to consider our sanity. The initial 6km approach went by in an instant and before we knew it we were climbing the gully up the North-East side of the mountain. Visibility was low since the rain clouds were rolling into the valley below, obstructing our view. For brief moments we could see over the clouds, revealing peaks in the distance and glimpses of the sun rising.

Suilven was an awe-inspiring beast of a mountain. The ridge up to the summit is long and narrow as it snakes past huge drops and scattered boulders. We definitely didn’t get the conditions we had hoped for at the summit, but the strong gusts and battering rain made for an awesome setting.

We spent a little time on the ridge hoping for some of the clouds to pass, but that simply wasn’t happening as most of the clouds were being formed off the side of Suilven. The conditions got worse so we made our way back down the gully. The rain battered us making the descent slower than the ascent, being careful of the slippy rocks.

We got back to the bothy at around 5AM, our waterproofs mostly soaked through. Arriving at the dry bothy after being battered by all that the Scottish weather had to offer was very welcoming. A couple of other backpackers were in the bothy, half awake. They were a little shocked that we had just come from Suilven. The words ‘mad’ and ‘bonkers’ were used by one man snuggled in his warm sleeping bag. It’s fair to say that as soon as we got into our own sleeping bags we were out in an instant. This might have been the most beautiful sleep a human has ever had. The occasional walker would come in to dry off, chatting quietly. There was a constant pattering of rain on the roof, making for some lovely ambient sleep sounds.

I was the first to wake. As I sat up I could see there was someone else in the bothy by the window reading a book. – The rain was still tipping it down outside. I said good morning to him, to which he laughed. He said I should probably check what the time is. 6:15 pm!! We had been sleeping for almost twelve hours in that bothy. My other two hiker pals woke up when I said it was 6:15, also in slight shock. The man in the bothy was impressed that we had made it up Suilven considering it had been raining all day. We were a little puffy faced and we slowly made it out of our sleeping bags. As awful as waking up at 6PM is, we were pleased with the decision to climb Suilven at sunrise before the worst of the weather came. No hikers had made it up throughout the day.

After waiting some time in the bothy we concluded the rain wasn’t slowing down. We dashed back to the car, along a path that had been transformed into a raging river. The thought of the dry car with all our food inside was an attractive thought that got us through some otherwise pretty rough miles.

Despite the less than ideal conditions we were over the moon that we had been able to climb up Suilven; a landmark that had been on our radars for so long. It’s definitely a location to come back to, maybe in better conditions or even winter.

On our drive home the sunset treated us with some beautiful tones that painted the landscape with colour

The Suilven goal might be complete, but the rest of the North is not. I’ll definitely be back here. It’s a part of Scotland that still has so much to offer.

Thanks for reading,
Benjamin

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