For any keen hillwalker Friday in Aberdeen was not a day to be looking out of the window. Passing thunderstorms, and the occasional shower of monsoon-like proportions turned the city into a grey, swirling, sodden mess. The Met Office reported conditions were not much better on the West Coast, and I didn’t even dare click on the scary-looking link marked “Latest Weather Warnings”. Still, Scotland is nothing if not surprising and by 10pm when I had crossed Aberdeen to the Atholl Hotel on King's Gate, the evening had become placid; clear, deep blue skies thanks to the rapidly vanishing clouds and a hint of summer in the air. The people milling around the Atholl supported this with short-sleeved shirts and linen dresses indicating a certain amount of optimism.
Thirteen of us had, by almost 11pm, gathered in the lounge of the Atholl and were discussing the various merits of tackling Slioch or Ben Lair, or wondering whether Liz was going to sneak off and do her last Munro solo. Various beverages were consumed ranging from a dram of whisky through to fresh orange juice for those nursing something of a hangover from the previous night. Things were well co-ordinated and with a time limit on the coach to think of we rolled out of Aberdeen at only a minute or two past eleven. There was some concern that we might have left a no-show behind but otherwise all were present and accounted for.
For some I’m sure the next thing they saw was the Tesco Extra in Inverness at 1:30am. Here everything from ice cream to croissants were bought for breakfast and people made use of the facilities. For others the journey was long and sleepless with even Gordon’s finest luxury coach not catering for long legs. Still, no harm done as it was a beautiful summer night to be awake through, with incredible views out across the landscape which became increasingly more isolated as we travelled further west. Dave commented on the beauty of the cloud formations seen over the Moray Firth and beyond, particularly as an eerie moon rose.
By 2:45am we had tumbled down the hill into the tiny village of Kinlochewe. The bus negotiated the single track lane down to the car park and we were there. Getting ready was achieved slowly, not helped by the tiredness and the distinct chill in the air. The abandoned white vans were given a wide birth but other cars in the car park showed a few hardy souls were presumably camping out on the hills.
It was certainly a lovely night for it, crisp and clear with a Moon only a couple of days after full. We saw it peeking above the Torridon Hills with the planet Mercury (mistakenly identified as Jupiter on the night - sorry Liz!) shining brightly to its right.
The lingering twilight slowly turned into the oncoming dawn as the jagged form of Slioch appeared around a corner of the hills. We meandered our way across the flats close to the River Kinlochewe, occasionally having to jump a stream to make progress, before gaining higher ground as Loch Maree came into view.
First breakfast was taken after two long hours of walking at a beautiful spot overlooking the Loch. The morning sunshine was by now illuminating the Torridon Hills across the water. The view, made better by the serenity one can only find at 5am in the middle of nowhere, was thoroughly enjoyed as we sipped hot drinks and munched the odd banana.
The path up until now had been fairly well defined, albeit boggy in places. Now however, it took us on an interesting route through head-high ferns and then down a slippery track through woodland to the beach close to Letterewe. Navigation was difficult at best with one path disappearing into the undergrowth only to be replaced by another one appearing to one side or the other. We paused on the beach to look up the impressive valley towards Ruadh-stac Mor, Sail Mhor and the other Torridon Hills. Then it was another wander through the forest before we came out against a small cottage and the first sign of habitation on this side of the Loch.
As we walked through the lush pastureland around Letterewe the sun finally climbed above the broad shoulders of Slioch and we felt the genuine warmth of the day. Here after four hours of walking, and following second breakfast (where we were kindly joined by the midgies), we left the shores of Loch Maree and enjoyed our only real climb of the day.
Heading up towards the Strathan Bhuide we had some glorious views back across the Torridon Hills. They were laid out under glorious blue skies pocketed by streaks of fluffy white clouds. Climbing besides the Allt Folais we were joined briefly by a couple of walkers who emerged from their tent and were slightly taken aback by the sudden traffic jam that had appeared on their doorstep.
Our third stop of the day came at the high point, the summit of the pass through the hills towards Fionn Loch. Here we had our last look over to Torridon and with the sun beating down were vigorously applying suncream, even at 8:30am!
Pressing on we started the descent with the beautiful Fionn Loch seen enticingly between folds in the valley floor. Our attention was also caught by the four horses that we found grazing on grass lower down. One in particular took a shine to our passing and at one point looked like it would be accompanying Gordon N all the way to Poolewe. The path was well made but took us through a dramatic gap between the surrounding hills. Before us was a wide flat area pocketed with Lochs and Lochans marking the start of the Great Wilderness away towards the Fisherfield Forest.
The track skirted below Beinn Airigh Charr and brought us along the shores of the calm Loch an Doire Crionaich. On the way we passed a solitary tent pitched below the path that leads to the shores of Fionn Loch. They had the Fisherfield Hills to themselves with the whole jagged horizon visible under dramatic skies. Our fourth breakfast was held here by the mirror-like waters of the Loch where a deceased fish was considered as an addition to the barbeque.
We meanwhile were leaving these dramatic scenes behind and heading out towards the coast at Poolewe. The final few miles took us along the shores of Loch Kernsary which afforded amazing views far into Torridon. On display was a panorama of distinctive peaks, mountains and hills. The clouds by now had gathered and with the end of the long road in sight it was a quicker pace that took us towards the sea.
Finally we came down off the hills and into Poolewe itself. Loch Ewe was sombre under the clouds and at first everyone was too weary to think about the barbeque. Eventually it was started but it was only with the cunning additions of driftwood and toilet paper that it heated up enough to flame grill our burgers. In the meantime we sampled the delights of buns filled with salad and relish, some very juicy strawberries and the delicious kebabs.
It was hard to tell who fell asleep first on the coach, but after a brief comfort stop at the facilities in Poolewe we were heading back east. With only a stop for ice cream at Tesco in Elgin we were soon pulling up back outside the Atholl in Aberdeen. It had been almost 20 hours since we left but everyone had agreed it had been a thoroughly excellent way to welcome in the summer. Perhaps someone should also inform the weather gods of this.
Thanks to Liz for her immense organisational skills and to, well, everyone for being the leader and backmarker at some point or other during hike.