The Scottish Highlands are one of my favourite locations to visit. It’s a great outdoors environment, with soooo much to offer. It’s a surprise to me that it is not accessed more often, the Lakes been so heavily used with the trails increasingly becoming a pavement. That said, it’s a long way away for most and in the midge season, (let alone the ticks), it can be a hard place to camp.
There’s also the weather. Sitting smack bang in the middle of the path of the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic currents hitting its western shores, it can have a LOT of weather. Which again can test the most hardened camper’s resolve!
I tend to go outside the midge season, October to the beginning of May. However, this tends to increase the variation and amount of weather.
All of the above is a great test of field craft and kit. (which is why I love it so much, or at least the reason beyond the terrain and potential views)!
Potential views are the key words here, and this again involves the weather. If you watch any of my trip video’s you’ll see I get some amazing days, full of sun and clear(ish) skies, but also wind, rain and the occasional snow flurry! (See my Cairngorm video for details).
Well, this March’s trip to the North Western Highlands proved to contain a lot of weather. In fact more weather than I am used to. We headed to Morvic to the Kintail 5 Sisters. An epic ridge walk promising some challenging terrain and stunning views. We also intended to camp high on the hill and take in what ever extra’s we could.
The forecast was not good. Rain and heavy wind. It was the only time I have ever seen the Mountain Weather service give an unknown amount on the three days. It was a complex front and it was going to throw a lot of wind and rain our way.
We started in dry and fairly low winds, but as soon as we got on the ridge the wind and rain came in and would stay for the rest of the day. It became a real test of kit and resolve. I was so glad of my Paramo, the full battle dress, (with my trusty Fjallraven gaiters). I still ended up damp, but in those conditions, it proved its worth.
It ended up been an epic 12-hour walk. We were carrying 18kg packs, with ice axes in case we needed to cut steps. Luckily my trusty Scarpa SL boots kicked the necessary steps and my Leki poles gave me the stability on the limited snow surfaces we encountered. My Deuter rucksack also proved its worth a ACT Lite 50 Plus 10. I have shot a review on the bag and it has been a trusted pack for many years now. It’s the back system that counts, the ability to put the weight into the legs and off the shoulders and back. Coupled with the Leki’s I had the best load carrying kit I am aware of. (not forgetting the Scarpas).
We reached our camp with little daylight remaining and we quickly realised it was not safe to stay there, the wind was gusting so strong and was forecast to increase over night and into the next day. We made the decision to enter a steep sided valley and night nav into more sheltered terrain.
I had a Terra Nova Laser Competition one man tent to try, (only having ever put it up once indoors). Well, it got a test that night! We managed to find a relatively flat area to pitch our tents, in what we hoped would be away for any flooding as the rain volume was increasing. The Terra Nova went up well, with a little help from Craig while I got the pegs in as the wind was gusting hard. The night proved to be very wet and windy. I was awoken a few times in the night by the outer pushing onto my head in a heavy gust, but the Laser Compatition One took it and was unharmed!
By the time we pitched up, it was 12 hours from starting, which is a long time with packs! I was mega hungry and another new piece of kit came out, a MSR stove namely the Windburner stove. This new to me stove is marketed as hyper efficient on gas and almost totally wind proof. Well that was the MSR story, and it proved to be correct! The other thing is, it boiled the water in super quick time, faster than any stove I have used, (in those windy conditions). And boy, it was good to get the hot food in me and a drink of tea, heaven! The wind burner made quick work in the morning of tea and porridge, again very welcome.
As a side note, I would not advise taking new kit, untried into that kind of environment. However, I have used MSR kit for years and really trust the brand. I tested the stove before coming and it worked well in my back garden. Mountain Safety Research really did stand up to its name! As for the Terra Nova, I took a risk, but it worked well and I had Craig to bunk with if all went wrong!
In the morning, the rivers were well up. About 3 feet from my tent a stream had sprung up. Had I pitched it slightly different, my morning would have been very wet! (as oppose to soggy). I donned my slightly damp Paramo, which soon warmed up, and we took down our camp. The weather was very poor and there was no chance of us managing any more tops. We retreated down the valley, and even at that height, the wind was blowing water back up streams and the rain hit your face like a slap from a thousand bees! It was the right call. As we approached the car, we did get a small weather break, which was useful.
The Kintail Five Sisters had proved to be one of the hardest walks I have done. It was a real test of field craft and kit. The conditions were very challenging, but I’ve got to admit, that’s what I love. Craig and me will talk about it for years to come. All my previous experience came in very handy on the trip. My Gucci gear; Paramo Jacket, MSR Stove, Terra Nova Tent and Leki poles, proved not to be fashion names but true mountain gear, up to the test of the Highlands in March.
We looked ahead to the rest of the trip. We had more hill days ahead and more tests. The weather would not let up. But that’s another story….