Eagle Rock and Ben More Assynt

The south ridge of Ben More Assynt has been on my mind for a while, ever since I laid eyes on it a few years back from the summit. It's a fine line. Today is perhaps not the ideal day for it, it's fairly windy and likely to rain for a bit, but at least for now the cloud base is, just, above the Conival summit. I dither whether to take the waterproof jacket, it will definitely rain, but it's not looking very threatening just now, and it's not so cold. In the end common sense prevails and I add it to the bag, then set off from Inchnadamph up along Traligill river.

The rain starts within a couple of minutes, and by the time I reach the footbridge below the caves it is sustained enough for the jacket to come out of the bag. In a moment of fortuitous foresight I also take the camera out of its shower resistant shoulder pouch and put it in a stuff sack, before I carry on, past the caves, following Allt a'Bhealaich.

This is a familiar ground I keep returning to, fascinated by the stream which on the plateau above Cnoc nan Uamh runs mostly underground, yet leaving a clearly defined riverbed on the surface; a good running surface. Not far after the Cnoc there is a rather large sinkhole, new since the last time I was here. It's perhaps five meters in diameter, and about as deep, the grass around its edges beginning to subside further. I wonder where it leads, how big the underground space might be, would love to have seen it forming.

Another strange thing, strewn along the grassy river bed are large balls of peat, about the size of a medicine ball, and really quite round. I don't remember seeing these before either, and wonder how they formed and where they came from, presumably they were shaped, and brought down, by a torrent of water from higher up; the dry riverbed is a witness to significant amounts of water at least occasionally running through here on the surface.

As Allt a' Bhealaich turns south east into the steepsided reentrant below Bealach Trallgil, I start climbing up the eastern slopes of Conival to pick up the faint path that passes through the bealach, watching the cloud oozing out of it. The wind has picked up considerably as it channels through the narrow gap between Conival and Braebag, it doesn't bode well for the high ground above.

The bealach provides an entry into a large round natural cauldron, River Oykel the only break in its walls. On a good clear day its circumnavigation would provide a fine outing. Today it's filled with dense cloud, there is no chance of even catching sight of the dramatic cliffs of Breabag, though I can see briefly that the Conival summit is above the clouds, and I wonder if perhaps I might be lucky enough to climb above them later.

The rain hasn't let off, and as I descend toward Dubh Loch Mor I chastise myself (not for the first time) for not reproofing my jacket. But there is no time to dwell on such trivialities as being wet. The southwest bank of the loch is made of curious dunes, high and rounded just like sand dunes, but covered in short grass. I have seen nothing like this before in Scotland's hills. I have an inkling; this entire cauldron shows classic signs of glaciation and I expect under the thin layer of peat and vegetation of these dunes is the moraine the retreating glacier left behind.

I reset my altimeter, there is some navigation to be done to reach the bealach north of Eagle Rock, and I am about to enter the cloud. As I climb, the visibility quickly drops to about fifteen yards. Suddenly I catch the sight of a white rump, then another. Thinking these are sheep I carry on ... about ten yards up wind from me is a herd of a dozen or so deer, all facing away from me. I am spotted after a few seconds and we all stand very still looking at each other for what seems like ages. I have the distinct sense I am being studied as a strange curiosity, if not being outright mocked for being out in this weather.

I break the stalemate carrying on up the hill to the 600m line, then start contouring. The weather is truly miserable now, the wind picked up some more and I wish I brought the Buffalo gloves, they are made for days like these. The compass and map come out so I can track my progress on the traverse until the slope aspect reaches the 140 degrees I am looking for. I consider giving Eagle Rock the miss today, but decide to man up.

Perhaps it's the name, but I am rather surprised, dare I say, disappointed, by the tame character of this hill. It can be fairly accurately described as a rounded heap of coarse aggregate, with little soil and some vegetation filling up the cracks, I suspect it's a bigger brother of the smaller dunes below, a large moraine deposit from a long time ago. It is quite unpleasant to run on in the fell shoes, there is no give in it, and on every step multiple sharp edges are making themselves felt through the soles.

I reach the trig point, take a back bearing (if anything, the visibility is even worse) and start heading down. Suddenly a female ptarmigan shoots out from a field of slightly bigger stones just to the side of me, and starts running tight circles around me, on no more than a three feet radius. The photographer in me has a brief urge to get the camera out, but it seems unfair. I admire her pluckiness, no regard for her own safety, she repeatedly tries to side step me and launch herself at me from behind, and I expect had I let her, I'd have been in for some proper pecking. But she will not take me head on, for which I am grateful as we dance together.

I have no idea in which way to retreat, for I haven't caught the sight of her young; I assume they are somewhere to my right where she came from, so head away from there. She continues to circle around frantically for some twenty yards or so, and I begin to wonder whether I might in fact be heading toward her hatchlings. Then her tactic changes. She runs for about five yards ahead of me in the direction I am moving in, then crouches down watching until I get within three feet or so, then runs on another five yards, and so on. We travel this way some three hundred yards, then she flies off some ten yards to the side; for the first time she stands upright, tall and proud, wings slightly stretched, watching me to carry on down the hill, her job is done. A small flock of golden plovers applaud, her textbook performance deserves nothing less.

This brief encounter made me forget all about the miserable weather and my cold hands, a moment like this well outweighs hours of discomfort, and is perhaps even unachievable without them. The rain has finally eased off, but it's clear now the whole ridge will be in this thick cloud.

The line is fine indeed, narrow, for prolonged sections a knife edge. Surprisingly, above 750m or so the wind is relatively light, nothing like in the cauldron below, which is just as well. On a different day this would be an exhilarating outing. But I am taken aback by how slippery the wet gneiss is, even in the normally so grippy fell shoes. Along the ridge are a number of tricky points; they are not scrambles in the full sense of the word, just short awkward steps and traverses that in the dry would present little difficulty, but are very exposed. Slipping on any of these is not just a question of getting hurt, a fall either side of the ridge would be measured in hundreds rather than tens of meters. I have done a fair amount of 'real' climbing in the past, but I am struggling to recall the last time I have felt this much out of my comfort zone. There are no escape routes and after negotiating a couple of particularly awkward bits, I realise I am fully committed to having to reach Ben More.

I am glad when the loose quartzite eventually signals I am nearly there. Normally quite lethal in the wet, today it feels positively grippy compared to the gneiss back there. I still can't get my head around it. As I start descending the summit, a person, in what from distance looks like a bright orange onesie, emerges from the fog. I expect we are both surprised to meet anyone else on the hill. We exchange a few sentence, I mention how slippery the ridge is, thinking today I'd definitely not want to be on it in heavy boots.

I jog over Conival without stopping, down the usual tourist route. I was planning to head to Loch nan Cuaran, and descend from there, but am out of time, Linda will already be waiting for me at Inchnadamph. As I drop to 650m or so I finally emerge from the cloud into the sunlit glen below, shortly reaching the beautiful path in Gleann Dubh; I will it to go on longer. The rain is forgotten, my clothes rapidly drying off, this is as perfect as life gets.

I stop briefly at River Traligill, I am about to reenter that other, 'normal', world and my legs are covered in peat up to my thighs -- best not to frighten the tourists having a picnic in the carpark.

PS: I think it's high time we got rid of the term 'game birds', it befits neither us nor them.

26km / 1,700m ascent / 5h