Start point: around 7km along the single track road to Achiltibuie (off the A835 Ullapool road), where there is a signposted car park.
Time: about an hour to the ridge at a decent pace; or 3 hours total for the whole circuit including the ridge detour.
Star Rating – this is a 5 star plus walk!
I’ve hiked up all the most notable Assynt/Coigach peaks in a Gothic, other-worldy landscape that looks like a land out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. But this little 600m (2,000 feet) tower of moorland and rocky spires had never appealed. That despite the fact it is one of the most iconic mountains in Scotland with a BIG reputation for outstanding views.
The problem was, it was ultra narrow and getting to the actual summit involves tricky scrambling – there have been fatalities on this hill, including – alarmingly – from the access path itself. So, I’d always left it well alone.
Then I read of a new path that has been constructed, offering a more gentle route up onto the ridge and suitable for most walkers. I was also surprised at the idea of a ‘ridge’ existing , having thought for years that all that awaited at the top of the path was a series of vertigo inducing rock towers, the haunt of the brave.
So on a blustery early May day of scudding hail showers but a fair bit of sunshine and with one day only in this most wonderful of mountain areas – an attempt on Stac Pollaidh it had to be.
The route has a good get out clause too, for anyone who doesn’t fancy the little detour to the ridge as the new path has been built as a high level, simple route which gives a fabulous traverse of the mountain offering views just about as good as from the summit. Perfect! No feeling of failure if I didn’t make the whole thing.
It took us an age to actually drive from Ullapool to the car park beside beautiful Loch Lurgainn as the sun was out and the mountains were just stunning.These are not our highest mountains by a long way yet they are amongst the most memorable, great Inselbergs rising solo out of the rocky undulating moorland and set off by so many lochs and lochans, they really are uncountable.
The landscape in spring is still a bit washed out colour wise, with summer greens not here yet and the wonderful ambers and tawnies of autumn//winter now gone.Browns and grey/pinks dominate but still look stunning against the deep blues of the lochs and the sea.
The car park wasn’t busy at the back of 12noon but this was still off season plus not long after lockdown ended , so everywhere felt quiet. We delayed until lunchtime to fit in with a good weather window and (amazingly) the forecast was correct for once and the incessant rain of morning had now cleared.
Got the boots on and the lunch packed into the rucksacks and set off through a gate with Stac Pollaidh looming above, like a prickly porcupine.Oh heck I thought, groaning, it looks a stiff pull up!
As happens these days, a sort of exhaustion filled my mind at the thought of what lay ahead but I knew this HAD to be ignored and instead, one foot put firmly in front of the other. Get on with it!! It will be worth it!! That really is my mantra nowadays when I set off on a climb – in my early sixties, a tendency towards laziness is now becoming all too common.
In fact. the path was excellent and took us up the hillside at a reasonable angle. I could see the old path – or what was left of it – near the top, under the crags and it looked a thigh burner. But the big sandstone steps which made up the new path offered a kinder route.
Already the view back to Ben Mor Coigach above Loch Lurgainn was glorious. The path took us round the big eastern shoulder of the mountain with increasingly good views to Cul Beag and Cul Mor. Wow, this was getting good!
Another few steps up and suddenly Suilven was in view – known as the Sugar Loaf mountain when seen from some angles. From here, to me, it looks like some ancient dinosaur resting on the moorland.
The light was changing constantly, great showers of hail sweeping across the summits of the mountains but – miraculously- missing us.It was mesmerising to watch the colour changing every few minutes as shadows fell across the landscape before it was lit up again by the sun.We’d only been walking for about 50 mins so the effort had overall been fairly minimal.Plus, my legs had warmed up and I was feeling fairly fit now.
The hill steepened for the final 10 min ascent up the stone staircase.
Some of the blokes who build these paths must be 6 foot + giants because my wee legs had to stretch some to move from one step to the next at times! But it all felt very safe, no exposure to drops or anything so I was quite happy and now knew I’d make the ridge ok.
Then there we were….the path flattened out and we were on the rocky little ridge, great towers of sandstone to our left and right.I felt overjoyed and also overwhelmed by the views north and south.Assynt and Coigach at their very best, a watery rocky landscape which looked so ancient – timeless , really. In fact some of the world’s oldest rock is here – Lewisian Gneiss, a pink/grey bedrock which adds to the wonderful colour of the Far North West.This area once was joined to Greenland, Norway and NW Canada rather than the rest of the UK, hence it looks so different.
I admit I was slightly (understatement) shocked at how narrow and small the ridge was that Chris was now wandering about on, trying to get a good spot to sit out of the wind.Yikes – from where I was standing you looked almost straight down the other side to the car park! Felt the usual butterflies and slightly wobbly legs but found a big flat rock to plonk myself down on, refusing to wander over to an edge which Chris felt was a little more sheltered. (Chris always seems drawn to these b****y edges!)
Munched on gammon and gruyere cheese sandwiches but I wasn’t really enjoying them. The narrowness and precipitousness of where we sat began to get to me a bit and after 10 mins, I suggested we go down.
Packed up the food and followed Chris down another more eroded path which I wasn’t very happy about, especially since I couldn’t see where it went or what it looked like beyond a crag.So we headed back across the steep slope, me not that comfortable on the gravelly path but in 5 mins we were back on the excellent stone staircase, which took us nice and safely down the very steep incline.
Soon we were on the main circuit path again and after a 5 min walk along it, we found some nice big flat slabs to sit on and enjoy a more leisurely, relaxed lunch.
What a spot for a picnic! Suilven was looking magnificent with Quinag behind.To the west lay the myriad inlets and bays of the coast around Lochinver, the North Atlantic a deep blue.
Memories of holidays with the boys when they were young flooded back – it always happens when I am up here. We used to spend 2 weeks in July at a chalet or cottage in Inverkirkaig, a tiny hamlet of a few houses round a pebbly shore.It was a brilliant, relaxing place to be based with a nice quiet little single track road which the boys could cycle on. A short walk out by the point, took us to a fishing place too. Happy times!
We spent a good 20 mins just watching the ever changing light and enjoying this wonderful spot but the wind was coming from the Arctic (it was VERY cold for May.The higher hills had a warning of -15C wind chill) and we soon began to feel quite cold. Time to get moving again, the path keeping us high on the mountain, before turning round its western shoulder and beginning the descent back to the car.
Great showers passed over us but luckily kept going, drawn instead to Ben Mor Coigach which was soon wrapped in a veil of hail and mist.
It did make for a spectacular sight; in fact this kind of weather I actually prefer in some ways to a brilliant blue sky day; it really does create a great atmosphere around the mountains, suggesting their character more truly.
About 3 hours after setting off from the car, we were back, the landscape lit now by warm sunshine.
What a fantastic shortish walk it had been, one I would definitely do again in autumn perhaps or when the hills have taken on their summer mantle of emerald green. Stac Pollaidh – we will be back (if, my mother in law’s favourite saying, we are spared!)