There aren’t any words to describe the beauty of the NW Highlands. Really there aren’t so I’m wasting my time trying… It’s an amazing landscape, the result of serious ice damage during the last ice age. A land of essentially flat rough heather and crags, lochans and absolutely awe-inspiring mountains that rise up from sea-level. The oldest rocks in Europe are found here. Go up and pick up a rock from the ground and there’s a good chance it will be 1000000000 years older than a rock from elsewhere on the continent. (That’s a billion for those who count slow!)
I nearly didn’t make it. My car was sick at Blackpool but the application of a moderate amount of cash for 4 discs and front and rear pads (more than John YSS spends on a car though) rendered it healthy. All I needed was to book somewhere to stay. I didn’t expect it to be busy although it was Easter but there were few vacancies where I wanted to stay. In the end I got a splendid deal in the small fishing village of Kinlochbervie. A bit further North than I intended so this changed the planned activations.
I’ve wanted to do Ben Hope for a long time. Northern most Munro and a stunning great lump that stands out of the flat ground. That was a definite target. Others were some of the Quinag (koo-nyack) summits, there are 3, Breabeg, Ben More Assynt etc. I looked at the huge number of unactivated hills like Cul More, Cul Beg, Ben More Coigach and thought, I’m not driving all that way to do a 4 point hill. Like many, I’m used to do 4 point hills (700-900m) in this area where you commonly start at 250m ASL so they climb isn’t too much. Of course in IO78 square just about every climb starts at sea level. So those 800m summits involve 800m of ascent. That puts a whole new complexion on things. After much consideration the targets became Ben Stack and Ben Hope. Ben Hope was the real target and I was prepared to swap the activations about so I stood the best chance of a cloud free summit on Ben Hope. In the end I needn’t have worried. The cloud base was around 1300m on both Saturday and Sunday.
My trip up was uneventful. If you obey the speed limits and drive considerately the 285 miles to Kinlochbervie takes about 7.5hrs. There’s only motorway to Perth, from there the A9 is 70% single carriageway where overtaking is not only tricky but foolhardy. The WX was not bright as predicted but grey and by the Slochd summit it was raining very hard. Still the WX did brighten up as I dropped into Inverness and as I continued to Ullapool the sun came out. Things were looking up.
The route up the A835 from the A9 to Ullapool is a wide single carriageway and it’s easy to maintain 60mph. Nice gentle bends and hardly any traffic. Ben Wyvis was imposing and not long after passing the man-made Loch Glascarnoch the first visual masterpiece appeared. An Tellach was still well snow covered. Wow! It looks good in the distance. Thus the driving pattern for the days to come was set, drive a bit, stop, photo, drive a bit, stop, photo. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I filled up in Ullapool, the last source of “cheap” petrol before IO78 square. It was only 104.9p/litre 13.9p/litre more than home! I did a quick calculation and the sedate drive and non-binding brakes meant my fuel consumption was 17.3% better than the trip to Blackpool, just as well at those prices.
The road from Ullapool is a lot smaller, but still complete in that is has two lanes and white line up the middle. Again it’s easy to maintain 50mph as the bends sweep nicely. No need to hurry at all. The last stage to Kinlochbervie takes about 90mins to cover 55miles. But I had to stop for photos of Quinag, Kylescu Bridge (a curved bridge), Ben Stack etc. The cloud base was about 600m which meant the tops were lost in the cloud. Hopefully I’d get better photos on the way home. I finally arrived at the hotel around 5pm. I did intend to set off and play radio from the beaches but I was waylaid by an open bar. Later, after a shower and a meal I was too tired for anything so no radio. One last result… free Wifi in the hotel. BONA!
After a healthy breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, mushrooms and tomatoes and a gallon of tea I picked up my packed lunch and tried to leave the hotel. It was hard work pushing the door against the wind! Never mind it 50% white cloud, 50% blue sky. Very windy but mild. The drive to Ben Stack takes about 20minutes. I parked by Lochstack Lodge, there’s space for 6 cars plus a few more nearby. Another car was there unloading walkers, two very pleasant ladies who were doing Foinaven. As I got the fishing rod out one said “I hope you get your 4 contacts.” By heck, SOTA is becoming well known!
The route is simple, follow the stalkers path to Lochan na Seilge and then up. There’s a fence and cairn where you leave the path and head up the hill. There’s an obvious track through the heather. A bit wet in places but very easy if a bit steep. Of course steep gets redefined later on. This is very typical of Borders hills that I am used to, so I simply trampled on until you crest a craggy bit. That’s where the wind hit. Oh boy, it was blowing some. By now I could see the sea. It was the same colour as in Caribbean holiday brochures but not as warm. Now it gets “proper steep”.
I could see the path as a black mark up the hill, the only problem being the steepness. Despite my best efforts within a short time I had lost the path. So I just followed the line of least resistance and kept going up. This skewed me round to the South side and ever steepening slopes. I should have back tracked then but decided to go straight up. It was an easy scramble in that my footing was sure but I need both hands all the time. After a heart rate boosting 10 minutes I crossed the path on a flatter bit. From here on the path stopped being a 60deg climb and became just a steep path. I didn’t really like how exposed the path was, on the edge with no room for stumbling. So I decided I’d better not stumble. I took some photos looking down onto Lochstack Lodge from here. You can see how steep and exposed it is. Hmmm! (http://www.moosedata.com/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=5609)
After a breather as a shower went past I continued. The path meandered but wasn’t difficult, a good pull up but not technical. Then I knew I must be about to come out onto the flatish plateau I’d seen in photos.
Gordon Bennett! There was the plateau but to reach it you had to cross the ridge. Two boots wide just with a 15-20m drop one side and almost vertical drop of 150m or more on the other. The wind was gusting to a good 50mph towards the big drop. If you want to get to the flat bit you cross the ridge. I don’t think I breathed for the minute it took me to shuffle along on all four. As soon as I could I slid down to the flat bit to let my heart rate slow. It must be have 180bpm or more.
The setup was simple. Onto 60m at about the right time as the alert. Within 15 minutes I had 5 in the log and the hill qualified. My heart rate was down to 150bpm. 60m was hard work, deep QSB and propagation was not good. I was 400km north of normal so onto 40m. This worked quite well as I worked 10 G stations 25minutes. Some were loud but most where just the easy side of difficult. I had some sandwiches and crisps and decided that if I could hear GB3WES quite loud but people couldn’t hear me perhaps a bit of CW would work wonders.
In the with Palm Paddle and CQ SOTA. After a few calls up popped Brian G4ZRP on voice. An nice easy SSB QSO followed. He said I was sending at just the right speed for him. Here lies a problem, as I’m getting brave enough to try my CW on the air I want the keyer in the 817 to be set to say 14 or 16wpm as the characters sound right. But then I send far too fast. So it’s set to 11wpm which sounds rubbish but at least I send about the speed I can read. After a few more CQs I got a reply. It took a few AGN? and there was Jack GM4COX/P. I got my report (539) but missed Jack’s location.
Double Gordon Bennett! Not only had I survived the ridge traverse but I’d worked a random CW QSO with my Morse. I spent a while taking photos and simply being lost in the view. There’s a solar powered repeater up here used by the estate workers. Of course there is a trig point. But it’s an old style Hotine pyramid. Here I am at the top of the world nearly and I still haven’t found a Vanessa trig point! Funny, there’s no flush bracket on this one. Nor does it look like there ever was.
More photos and I considered how to get off the hill. The other way off is less steep but leeds to a big bog and requires a 3.5mile walk back to the car up the road. Then 2 walkers appeared. We had a chat and I explained why I had a fishing rod with me. They came up through the bog but were going down the ridge. So I went with them. Well they could report where my body landed to the police! One of them was easily in his 70s. He ran down that slope. If ever someone needed a good kicking it was his. I lumbered down both terrified by the view down the slope and held back by my lardy belly and the heavy pack. Still what took 45minutes to come up took less than 15 to descend. Back at the col they went down the front of the hill. I’m sure I read not to do that as you end up behind the deer fence. I retraced my steps and was soon back at the car.
The mixture of adrenelin and endorphins was one mighty high. This is alledgely a 2/10 for exposure. Well I don’t want to do a 3/10 even with ropes. No sir! It’s Norfolk and Lincolnshire for me now. OK perhaps not! I sat in the car with end stop mobile coverage in a deep glen. One side was Foinaven and Arkle, Ben Stack the other and at the far end Meallan Laith Choire Mhic Dhughaill NS-037. I couldn’t see the mast. But the phone worked!
I packed up and went back to the hotel. They must have thought I had brought a branch of Dixons with me as it was recharging time. SLAB charger and SLAB, NiCd charger for the camera and GPS, netbook and charger. Shower for me. Again after a quick meal I was going to find a beach and play PSK31 with a saltwater groundplane but a quick meal became a slow meal and some beer. Followed by bed at 10.30 as I was exhausted.
Total walked: 7.6km, total ascent: 690m, scaryness factor: very
Some pictures on Flickr. The full unexpurgated sets can be found at:
General IO78 square photos:
These are unedited without captions. I’ll pick some choice photos for Flickr later. If you want to know about any photo just ask me.