The group of middle aged hillwalkers arrived in the car park with the footsore and haunted look of soldiers fresh from a battle. "Brutal," said one about their nine-hour ascent of Slioch. It was raining stair rods and I had just arrived at Kinlochewe. My two-night solo camping trip in Fisherfield was starting badly.
I had nurtured a dream for years. Buy a solo tent, drive to Kinlochewe, walk up Loch Mareeside, camp on the summit of Meall Meinidh, bag Corbetts, climb A'Mhaigdean, return via Lochan Fada. It would take three days, I would camp high, feel the winds of freedom, the sunrise and sunset photos would be spectacular. It would be the ultimate short backpacking trip.
The fantasy - A'Mhaigdean from Beinn a Chaisgein Mor:
But there would be no sunset photos today. Half an hour into the walk I sheltered under an oak and considered my options. The summit of Meall Meinidh was out of the question. It was more important that I got the tent up before everything was inundated. I found a flattish, exposed spot (always find the most exposed spot possible when summer camping in the Highlands - the wind is your friend against the midges) and cut the evening's walk short. I had got the tent up in time. It was cosy inside. Except for the fact my feet would be wet for the next two days, I was as comfortable as could be.
I rose late next morning to sunshine that quickly turned dull, struck camp, and battled the path to Letterewe in sodden shoes. Kinlochewe to Poolewe looks magical on the map. But it is the kind of walk you only want to do once. The walk-ins of the Cairngorms are long, but are on easy trails where 6km/hr is possible. The Fisherfield walk-ins are slightly longer, but are rough going and I could only do half the speed. Oh for the well-made, dry paths of Italy! Yet despite this grumble I got what I came for - a sense of wildness. In the Cinque Terre, we saw thousands of people each day, hundreds on the trails alone. Over three days walking in Fisherfield, apart from the Slioch baggers at the car park I saw five other people. The third person I saw was camping by himself on Dubh Loch. "Busy, isn't it," he said. He wasn't being ironic.
It was noon by the time I reached the Bealach Meinidh. I had originally intended to camp here last night so would have to alter my plans for the rest of the trip - but in what way? It would become clearer later. In the meantime I had a Corbett to bag.
Beinn Lair view:
Beinn Lair is flat on top but is guarded to the south by Loch Maree, to the east by Slioch, and to the north by one of the longest continuous cliff-faces in Britain. Its inaccessibility makes it a great prize for the bagger. I put my map and camera in my pocket, dropped the rucksack, and headed up its slopes. The mist descended. Was this to be my last view today?
Summit of Beinn Lair:
But the weather was just toying with me. The cloud lifted. The sun came out. I met a couple on top. I could tell they weren't local because I was in a t-shirt and they were wearing down jackets. They were surprised to see someone else here. They were German, had come in from Poolewe and were camping at Fionn Loch. It was magnificent up here and I revelled in the easy-walking tundra of the summit plateau, a horizon ringed 360 degrees by steep, characterful hills. It is for situations like this that we go up hills, the drudgery of the walk-in forgotten.
Beinn Lair's magnificent north face:
Back at the rucksack I luncheoned ravenously on ham sandwiches and malt loaf and considered my options. Beinn Lair is remote, but there is a hill even more awkward to reach than Beinn Lair, one with better views, and I had it in my sights. But that's a story for another day...
Read Part 2.