Leaving the main road after Invergarry the rain seemed to increase in ferocity as we wound our way down the 22 miles of single track which ended in the small hamlet of Kinloch Hourn. The windscreen wipers intermittently revealed the last dregs of civilisation slipping out of view; we drove deep into the heart of the glen.
It had been raining for most of the day now and this coupled with the snowmelt of warmer temperatures was causing the line between road and river to blur continuously, torrents overtook tarmac. It had been a long time since I had seen this much water pouring off the hillside and our emersion into this water world was complete where we finally parked, as the road ends and Loch Hourn begins.
Steve and I had made a last minute decision to seek a bit of adventure before I returned to work and he had to get his head down to some revision for imminent exams. With the forecast looking so bleak it was hard to imagine getting much done but the holidays were nearly at an end and we both wanted to burn ourselves out before the return. Looking for something big to do we both realised that neither of us had been into Knoydart, mainland Britain’s great wilderness. There are few ways to penetrate this vast area, roads only reach its very edge and the sea defending three of its sides, by boat or on foot are the only ways to unlock its secrets. This would be the ideal stage upon which to set an epic escapade!
We knew we were going to get the question was just how wet. Having psyched ourselves up we left the car and quickly put our waterproofs on managing to only get slightly damp in the process. So the march began, it was 10km to the bothy at Barrisdale where we planned to stay the night before attempting the three Munros the next day, this should take us 2hrs 30mins; or so we thought! Silence descended along with the darkness but the rain didn’t let up in intensity by now the water was seeping through the two pairs of waterproof trousers I was wearing and my boots were beginning to fill up. The path wound round the edge of the shore moving away from the lapping waves only to climb over impassable sections of cliff and ford the rivers. Given the state of the rivers on the drive in we knew that where the path crossed the now raging streams we may have some difficulty but little prepared us for what we found at the first crossing point. The river was only 5m wide but was moving so fast that there was only white water visible. Moving down to the shore we found a slightly better place to cross and waded thigh deep to the other side with relative safety. The question of how wet we would get was answered; soaked!!
Staggering on the wind had now picked up and this only confounded problems as we were met with our final hurdle just 2km from the comfort of the bothy. There seemed no obvious place to cross this one. A bridge marked on the map must have been washed away and it looked as though you would be immediately swept away as soon as you stepped into the water. I was feeling particularly fool hardy and indestructible for some reason and seeing only 7m between us and the bothy I decided to go for it at the narrowest section. This was a massive mistake as I was soon up to my waist and my legs were taken from under me. Just getting back to shore by the skin of my teeth I avoided the watery grave that awaited me as I was swept into the loch wearing full waterproofs and carrying a 13kg bag, what an idiot!! Taking stock of the situation Steve reminded me of one of the many reasons I go into the hills with him. Taking the logical approach he got the map out and we soon realised we would have to climb up the river bank to where we could cross safely at its source. This involved 500m of height gain and a detour of 4km. The rain and wind did not allow us any respite and after an hour and a half we reached the great bog where the river split into many streams allowing us to pass more safely. Right on cue Steve’s head torch began to flicker and die; just what we needed! Luckily mine was quite powerful and we pushed onwards above the snow line to a col where we could just make out our final destination. Slipping and sliding back down the 500m to sea level we arrived at the bothy, 5hrs after leaving the car. The lack of a fire meant that it would be an almost impossible task to dry our clothes but we hung them up and got some food on. The luxury of having shelter from the rain was incredible and we sat steaming in our wet clothes, eating and sipping whisky before bed.
Waking at 6am from my waterlogged nightmares I could hear the wind howling outside still. Tea seemed to be the best option and we sat in our bags brewing up. Moral was at an all-time low, the last thing we wanted to do was get into wet clothes and face the maelstrom again. One hour turned into two as we sat at stalemate with the wind, finally as it grew light and we could drink no more tea the weather eased. A frantic rush of activity followed as we shoved wet clothes on, Steve chanting “Hardcore do you want more?” to get himself in the right frame of mind to force on his dripping trousers!
Morale took a u-turn as we left the bothy in high spirits and soon were half way up the first summit of Luinne Bheinn. The weather seemed stable and we powered up to about 800m before a sudden rise in the wind speed forced a crawl to the summit. Being unable to dry out our boots made for very cold feet above the snow line, stopping for more than 10 minutes meant my feet started to freeze so perpetual motion was necessary. Meall Buidhe fell quickly but the wind tried its best to beat us back. By this point our late start meant it was three o’clock and we were stood at the col staring up at our final hurdle Ladhar Bheinn, the decision was made almost immediately to go for it; we hadn’t walked all this way to not get the three done! Estimating 2hrs 30 to the summit we set off at a ferocious pace soon to realise that our legs were tiring. A steep climb to the ridge brought us into view of the impressive corrie as dusk fell. Pushing on up the ridge the snow became thicker and progress ever slower and more laboured, thighs were starting to fade as we realised that the 300m of ascent was going to take a lot longer than expected. Our head torch beams probed the darkness looking for the relief of the summit which was seeming impossibly far away, starting to stagger and stumble I was getting to the point of exhaustion. Luckily I could see Steve was feeling the same so no pride was lost in stopping for a much needed glucose injection and rehydration station. The cloud was down as we dragged ourselves up the last 100m climbing to the summit arriving at 6pm to see the lights of Armadale which seemed a world away from our isolated island of snow in a sea of darkness.
Now for the descent! The map showed a narrow ridge which would afford us a safe passage down to the corrie. However the way down was unclear and cliffs surrounded us as we inched down the bullet hard 50° neve. Usually this kind of slope would not be too big a problem but I had decided to bring along a pair of slip on crampons with no front points, more suited to granny’s grocery trip on an iced pavement. Inching down Steve did his best to kick me steps but it all felt very unstable and the safety of the ridge was not forthcoming. Quick decision making was needed and we chose to descend the ridge we had come up to avoid me falling 400m to the corrie floor cursing my choice of crampons the whole way down! Retracing our steps was a good call as we were soon down in the corrie with not too much extra effort. Driving some more food into our stomachs we marched the 5km to the bothy on the last of our reserves. We were walking out that night no matter what so as we cooked we packed our bags for the return journey and Steve tended to huge blisters round both of his ankles. It was 11km out to the car if the streams allowed us passage. Feeling a bit more alive we started the walk with Steve hobbling like he had a red hot poker up his ass and was walking on hot coals! The pain was clearly horrific but being the hard man that he is no complaint was made and he set an intense pace for the car. As we approached the river which had caused us so much problem on our way in we discovered a small stream running under a bridge, obviously totally covered by the raging torrent on our way in. Ignoring the slap in the face that this caused we finally arrived back at the car 16hrs after leaving the bothy with Steve’s feet in tatters and our legs feeling the burn, but we had escaped the forgotten peninsula with the three jewels in its crown. Driving through the night our beds were reached at 5am after a 34hr epic car to car covering 46km and over 4000m of climbing.