Assynt – Grey Skies and a Sunrise

In Trip Reports On Monday, February 18, 2013

I’m a great advocate of wild camping for the purposes of landscape photography. The possibilities it opens up to be in the right place at the right time are second to none. However, it does require a level of commitment to the end goal. When the weather is bad it can be a somewhat depressing experience.

From my blog in the past people might well get the impression that I’m some sort of tough guy who just gets on with things. Those who know me well recognise that I suffer just as much from bad weather blues as anybody else. In fact, come day 2 of our Scotland trip I would gladly have been back in Bristol watching the England vs. Ireland rugby game, but I’ve learnt in the past that it pays to keep going. Fortunately for me, Guy Richardson, my companion on the trip, had also learnt the same thing.

We made the trip with the intention to walk the Fisherfield 6 over 4 days. The hike is one of the most remote in Scotland and it was my dream to do it in winter because of the potential difficulty. We set off under a mixed forecast with cloud/drizzle forecast on Saturday, broken cloud on Sunday and Monday and sunshine on Tuesday.

Day 0. Friday

Guy drove me up from Bristol leaving at 12.30pm and arriving at around 11pm at Corrie Hallie to start our Fisherfield 6 hike. We started walking in the drizzle quickly overheating in our waterproofs before crossing an ankle deep ice cold stream barefoot. This was a bit of a wakeup call for me; the following day we were planning to cross the much more substantial Strath na Sealga and I could immediately see a problem with not having any river crossing footwear. Along the route eyes would suddenly appear in the gloom, although they were just deer it gave a slightly spooky edge to the walk!

By 1am we were getting sleepy and, a long way from our planned campsite, we set up camp on flat ground and passed out almost instantly.

Day 1. Saturday

We slept well through the night but awoke to a damp tent. Condensation had formed under our inflatable matts, something that happened every night of the trip. A quick check of the weather forecast had us concerned about our planned trek. Not only was it now forecast to be cloudy all day, every day of our trip, the forecasted winds had the potential to make our ridge walk pretty dangerous with winds of 40mph gusting 60mph. With the exposed route, low temperatures and a lack of serious winter mountain experience, we decided it was ill advised to tackle such a remote route.

Packing up the tent after deciding to change plans and head to Assynt

Instead we returned to the car (I immediately felt a weight lift off my shoulders) with plans to drive a little further north to Assynt, an area I knew much better. Amusingly not 20m from where we had crossed the river barefoot the night before was a wooden bridge that we had completely missed in the dark!

The bridge we waded past in the dark. The wider section of the stream that we crossed is just out of shot

Back at the car we made the decision to drive towards Cul Mor. The walk up to the top is straightforward enough and although shrouded in cloud at the time, the forecast now looked promising, predicting a clear day on Sunday. We were at our planned camp spot at about 650m by mid afternoon and, after a bit of snow clearing, set up the tent in cloud with no idea of the view that surrounded us.

Powdered custard from Tesco with cake is sensational camping food!

We waited in our sleeping bags with the vague hope of a break in the cloud, but it never came. We went to bed with high hopes for the following morning. Getting up to go to the toilet in the middle of the night was the low point of a disappointing day!

Day 2. Sunday

We awoke to more cloud and disappointment, it looked much the same as the evening before but with a slightly strengthening wind. With all the weather services forecasting at least broken cloud (and the Met Office forecasting clear skies) we decided to stay in the tent a little longer.

By this point the tent was starting to look tasty!

Come 1pm the cloud still hadn’t lifted and the wind had picked up blowing spindrift into our tent and our boots (lesson learned to wrap boots in future). Checking the forecast again showed overcast conditions and the decision was made to pack up and head down the hill having spent almost 24hours in the tent without seeing anything!

Snow in boots – not a welcome sight

Packing up was a bit of an adventure, the wind and spindrift made things much more difficult. When the conditions are bad it’s a good idea to pack up as much as possible inside the tent and only remove the flysheet at the last minute, but that is a time consuming process!

As we raced quickly off Cul Mor the strong wind was lashing snow into our eyes, so I went down the hill squinting all the way. It was great to be back at the car and just in time to listen to a rugby match on the radio.

Since the cloud had shown signs of breaking up we drove over to Loch Bad A’ Ghaill to photography Stac Pollaidh. The wind was whipping up small waves on the waters surface and with the sky finally breaking there was plenty of potential to make our first images of the trip.

I never do coastal photography so dealing with spray was a somewhat novel and largely unsuccessful experience!

Nice light, dynamic clouds and mountain scenery. Just what the doctor ordered.

By the time the sun had set the cold wind had taken its toll and we decided to have a night in a B&B in Ullapool. Its pretty rare that I get through a winter trip without heading to a B&B or hostel for one night and it was very welcome. Drying off our kit, having a hot shower and watching Top Gear, cheered us up no end. Looking yet again at the forecast it seemed Monday would be another grey day, but Tuesday looked very promising indeed.

Day 3. Monday

We had a great cooked breakfast at the B&B and made plans to head off to Lochan Tuath in the morning before heading up Stac Pollaidh later to wait for the weather promised for Tuesday. Later we thought better of our initial plan and decided instead to head straight up Stac Pollaidh so that we were well rested and ready for a big final day.

We stopped briefly on the way to Stac Pollaidh to photography the peaks.

The campsite on Stac Pollaidh (taken the following morning)

With the tent set up we made the final 200m to the top of Stac Pollaidh to investigate different compositions. There was no light to speak of, but it was nice to have a decent amount of time to explore the unique rock formations on the summit.

An idea of the scale of the landscape…

We went to sleep fairly early but got up through the night to look at the sky. We soon had a hazy but starry night which then gradually got hazier and finally clouded over completely with Cirrus.

Day 4. Tuesday

By 6am, 2 hours before sunrise I was feeling completely disheartened. Whilst Guy was spouting his usual “we’re here so we might as well go to the top” I really was feeling the effects of constant disappointment. I’d actually had the chance to photography Stac Pollaidh in nice conditions twice before so I’m afraid to say that heading up in the dark and cold held little thrill.

With just 40 minutes before sunrise a barely perceptible pink glow appeared on the horizon. Although I knew that didn’t guarantee a good sunrise it certainly gave us a good chance. I got ready in no time and headed towards the summit to return to the composition I had scoped out the evening before.

The sunrise was one of the best I have ever seen and welcome reward for the days before. Never have I felt that I deserved great light like I did that morning. I tried a few compositions but avoided moving around too much in case I missed the peak of the light.

The spectacular light we experienced felt hard earned!

The massive view from the summit of Stac Pollaidh in all its glory

Just when we thought the show was over the sun burst out from behind the cloud lending a subtle golden light to the scene.

The end of the show

A more subtle image looking south towards Ben Mor Coigach

Although I can look back at the images of that morning and can say wholeheartedly that they justified the trip, at the time I still felt like we needed a bit more luck.

We didn’t hesitate to pack up and head back down the mountain. The goal was to return to the scene of our previous defeat at Cul Mor which had left us both pretty frustrated. It would be good to tackle it again in much more favourable weather.

A parting shot from Stac Pollaidh before heading down to the car

Once we were parked at the start of the walk we emptied our packs to the bare essentials and headed off at a good pace. Before we knew it we were at our camp spot from a few days before, this time looking much snowier. We had some fun jumping into snow drifts before we donned our crampons and headed up to the peak. The frozen snow under foot was firm and it was really enjoyable walking up with excellent grip, albeit we used our ice axes as an additional safety measure. The sun was behind cloud for almost the entire walk and there was an apparent haze in the air, but we enjoyed it hugely.

Guy looking like a real mountaineer!

On the summit of Cul Mor after a great hike up. Suilven in the background

The summit was a winter wonderland. Snow formations covered every and there were some fascinating rock formations to give form to the mass of white. I focused my efforts on photographing Suilven in the distance keen to avoid the haze issues associate with shooting into the sun. It photographed 10 or more variations of essentially the same scene as the light changed coming away with a number of classic compositions and a few which were less orthodox.

Snow covered rock formations and Suilven

Some more rock formations on the summit of Cul Mor

Looking into the hazy sunset

Guy making the most of the last of the ligh

With sunset fast approaching, but with little prospect of better light we headed down the mountain happy with the days work and the fantastic hike up Cul Mor. It was a great way to end a pretty tough trip!



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