Hiking the Scottish Highlands Reviews
Into the Clouds Apr 03, 2008
INTO THE CLOUDS:
Hiking the Highlands of North-West Scotland
BY CHRIS NORDEN
“So many things I could have done
But clouds got in my way”
—Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”
Our tour guide was the first to voice what all the rest of us were thinking.
“QUITE UNPLEASANT!” he yelled out. Though just a few feet away from us, his voice was being blown away from him so hard that we could barely hear him.
“TREACHEROUS,” intoned the retired London HR consultant.
“Yes. Could be LETHAL!” acknowledged the holographic ink chemist from just outside of Manchester.
Frigid, wet 50-mph sustained winds were shoving rain through every seam and micropore of our waterproofs, filling our backpacks with water, and turning our hiking boots into squelching, sodden bricks. The guide had circled up our group of eight hillwalkers at the rocky 4012’ summit of Carn Mor Dearg, high in the storm-shrouded Scottish Highlands, to assess our situation. The weather conditions had grown so increasingly vile, they now threatened to consume us.
“ALL RIGHT, AN ATTEMPT HERE AT DEMOCRACY, PEOPLE!” the ever-cheerful, stalwart guide called out to us through the stinging, vicious wet.
“We can continue on along this ridge toward Ben Nevis,” he cried, pointing ten feet to his left into fog-shrouded nothingness, “or we can cut our losses and return the way we came.”
Ben Nevis, Gaelic for “venomous mountain” and Britain’s highest peak at 4406’, had been the goal of the day’s expedition, but neither it nor the way to it were in any way visible in the frigid, hard-blowing mist. Today’s hike, my first ever in Scotland, was Day One of a week-long “strenuous grade walking holiday,” the goal of which was to hike the most spectacular ridges of Scotland’s North-West Highlands without venturing into rock climbing territory. Already, 80 mph wind gusts had begun slamming into us, forcing us to hit the ground until each blast subsided.
We were essentially in the midst of a cold hurricane.
The HR consultant, who had been this way before, chimed in with what we could expect were we to continue. Though Ben Nevis’ summit was just a few miles ahead, he said, a vote to continue on would require us to ascend even further into conditions he grimly termed, “considerably nasty.” In seeming punctuation to his assessment, our sodden, aching bodies were treated to another surprise gust which blew us off our feet.
Regaining our footing, the guide called out for votes. The six Brits expressed theirs, one by one. The chemist then turned to me and politely quipped through driving rain, “Now let’s hear from our friends from the Colonies!”
In a low crouch and feeling just a tad overwhelmed at this point, I wordlessly deferred my turn to the only other American in the group, a rugby-playing Washington D.C. appellate lawyer who, although an athletic and strapping fellow, was now hunched over to my right in a near-ball. His argument was succinct, spoken through a slack and shivering jaw:
“Get down … fastest way down … take off wet clothes … warm pub!”
* * *
As a vacation destination, the Scottish Highlands is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who fear cold and wet. Its mercurial weather is legendary, and in the summertime, its drying bogs give rise to clouds of the feared Highland Midges, small biting gnats who travel in merciless packs and make American No-See-Ums seem like Care Bears.
But for travelers with an eye for romance, beauty and a sense of adventure, the Scottish Highlands can reward with memories that cannot be collected anywhere else. For when Highland clouds clear away (and they do, eventually), they reveal a landscape that is quite possibly the most hauntingly beautiful of any upon the face of this earth.
Wild, windswept white-sand beaches with cold, Caribbean-turquoise waters enchant visitors just miles from primeval stone landscapes of quartzite and sandstone, crashing waterfalls, and silent glens. Whitewashed fishing villages and crumbling castle ruins line deep Highland lochs. Scenic single-track roads urge exploration of endlessly rising and falling coastlines. Downy beds and warm pubs draw you in in the evenings with their fresh salmon from cold Scottish rivers and ales and lagers from Scotland’s finest breweries.
It is a landscape that just cries out to be explored on foot. But because a warm sunny day in Scotland can turn to driving rain or snow in a matter of minutes, it is wise if you are planning on doing any big hillwalking to have a guide with you who is expertly acquainted with local terrain and hazards so you don’t have to be.
Which brings us back to our little group …
* * *
“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s clouds illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”
—Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”
Our guide shut off his favorite Joni Mitchell tape as he pulled our North-West Frontiers Walking Holidays transit van up to the base of the mountain du jour. Squinting through the drizzle at the cloud-shrouded heights of the legendary Liathach (Gaelic for “The Gray One”), he stated his assessment of the conditions:
“Grim. But not abysmal.”
It was Day Five of our trip, and by this point, that had become a “good report.” The only sun we had seen in all this time was a brief flash of it for a few minutes across a distant hillside.
The British members of the group – all experienced Scottish hillwalkers – said they had never before experienced in the Highlands anything like the intensely wet, prolongedly sodden conditions we had borne the past five days. The Highlands weather is noted for changeability, not for consistency.
But all was not lost – at least on my end. An injury I’d sustained early in the trip eventually required medical treatment, causing me to need to visit the hospital in Ullapool, Scotland on my last full day while the rest of the group went off to conquer one final summit. I was released from the hospital early in the afternoon to find that it had stopped raining.
And the sun was shining. AND the owner of North-West Frontiers had pulled his car up to me on the street and was offering me a free 2-hour driving tour around the area!
Over the next two hours, with sky, wind, clouds and light alive and ever-changing over the Highland landscape, I experienced the Scotland of dreams. HERE were the castle ruins and the fishing villages that I had read so much about. In front of me, flocks of Highland sheep were blocking the road, delighting me with their bleating. And over there were the turquoise bays and sugarloaf mountains looking just like the hulls of massive upside-down ships! After returning to Ullapool, the evening’s sunset indulged in every mood of the spectrum while blowing wind cool and fresh against my cheek.
Somehow, being slammed into the side of Carn Mor Dearg by 80 mph wind gusts six days ago just didn’t really seem to matter all that much now. I had persisted through a week of strenuous Scottish hillwalking, and Scotland had rewarded me with images that will stay with me for the rest of my life … and lure me to return.
I recall one great moment when at the conclusion of our day on Liathach, as our guide was climbing into the van, he turned back to me for a moment, smiled mischievously, and said:
“Hillwalking. It’s like having fun. Only different!”
Now, that’s what I call an understatement.
* * *
IF YOU GO
North-West Frontiers Ltd., based in Ullapool, is the leading organizer of walking holidays and hiking vacations in Scotland’s North-West Highlands. In addition to their “strenuous grade” trips, they also offer a full variety of “moderate” and “intermediate grade” packages to the most scenic spots in the area. Offerings include special interest trips focusing on photography and natural history. Trips run with a minimum of four, maximum of eight walkers and include an expert guide; accommodations and breakfasts in comfortable hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs; and transport during your holiday (which will very likely be not quite so sodden as mine).The easygoing “moderate grade” trips also include all your dinners. www.nwfrontiers.com, (+44 1854 612628).
Continental Airlines (800-231-0856) operates connecting flights from Charleston via Newark to Scotland’s major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and can arrange your connecting flight onward (with British Airways operated by Loganair) to Inverness, the Highlands’ major transportation hub. North-West Frontiers will pick you up at the airport. Or if you’re planning on exploring the Highlands on your own, you can rent a car through Hertz and Avis out of Inverness Airport.
WHERE TO STAY
If you opt for a self-made Highlands vacation instead of one of North-West Frontiers’ packages, try basing yourself out of one of these lodgings:
Riverside Hotel is modestly priced and just around the corner from the memorable views toward the Summer Isles across Lochbroom. Full Scottish breakfasts are included with your room. Riverside welcomes hillwalkers and is an easy four block stroll to Ullapool’s harbor. $35-$48. www.riversideullapool.com, (+44) 1854 612 239.
Glenfield Inn. More upscale, but further up the hill from the center of Ullapool, Glenfield’s guests have free access during their stay to the excellent Loch Broom Leisure Centre (health club), where the sauna would be particularly comforting after a long day on the Scottish Hills. $106-$183. www.british-trust-hotels.com, (+44) 1854 612 314.
Inver Lodge Hotel. Up the coast from Ullapool, in the quiet fishing village of Lochinver and close to stunning white-sand Achmelvich Bay, this new hotel offers modern luxuries and spectacular views toward the Western Isles. $154-$240. www.inverlodge.com, Toll-free from the U.S.: 1-800-860-5760.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chris Norden’s photographs of Scotland (and the Swiss Alps) are available as fine art prints and cards through http://www.chrisnorden.com/photography.html.
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