Strathcarron in Western Scotland is one of those Highland railway stops where you can literally leave the train platform and hike up into the mountains. Surrounded by a tiny hamlet with just a few homes, the only real business nearby is a pub and B&B called the Strathcarron Hotel, which has good food and comfortable rooms.
Stratchcarron seemed like the logical place to stop for the night on my journey to Torridon after flying from Boston->Dublin->Glasgow and taking the train from Glasgow->Inverness->Strathcarron during the previous 18 hours. I needed a few beers and some sleep before I could pick up and walk the final leg to Torridon.
The brainchild for this hairbrained way of commuting to Torridon was my friend Alan Sloman, who’d taken a similar route on his LEJOG (Lands End to John O’Groats) hike in 2007. The alternative would have been to hire a taxi in Inverness for the 80 mile drive to Torridon. Walking the 12 miles from Stratchcarron seemed like a better option and a good way to transition from faster forms of travel to the hiking kind.
When I left the Strathcarron Hotel the following morning, the forecast predicted afternoon rain. I hoped I’d reach Torridon before then. I had one planned detour along the way, a munro named Maol Chean-dearg that I hoped to climb enroute. Ranked, #247 of the 282 munros, Maol Chean-dearg is a steep sided mountain with a loch below its north face named Lochan Eion.
I left the Strathcarron Hotel and crossed the River Carron bridge headed for the hills and a track that started at Couglas, following a riverside path that had obviously been outfitted with fisherman in mind, with deep wading pools and eddies along its banks. I crossed a big field of sheep with new lambs and followed the path to a style over a high deer fence. This didn’t look like where I’d wanted to be (a bit too far west) and there was forrest on the other side of the style, but I reckoned I could climb through it and uphill (northeast) until I came upon the track I really wanted to be on.
While this did ultimately work out, I had some embarrassing encounters with a certain deer fence along the way, at points crawling under it and then over it, with at least two extra stream crossings! Luckily no one was around to see these antics except the deer and the gillie, who were no doubt rolling around on the ground and slapping each others’ backs with laughter!
A wee break to compose myself was in order, so I stopped at the Coire Fionnaraich Bothie and then continued on toward Maol Chean-dearg which loomed to my left. I branched off the track I was on toward it and met up with a man out walking his border collie. He’d attempted a nearby Corbett but had retreated because he wasn’t willing to “crawl to the summit in the wind.” That sounded ominious but we had a nice chat and I petted his dog who looked rather bored with us both.
The wind had indeed picked up and was now blowing gale force, a term that is used in the UK to describe wind speeds but with which I wasn’t totally familiar at the time. But gale force winds sounded serious enough to proceed with some caution, so I carried on up the path, prepared to turn around if necesary or walk around the mountain if that seemed prudent.
On the way up, I met another hiker who was taking a break and had also retreated from the wind. She was joined shortly by a third who had also backed off climbing Maol Chean-dearg for the same reason. He told me how to find the herd path to the summit and about a trail around the base of the peak if I decided to skip the climb and loop around its west face.
That sounded like a good option if needed and I continued uphill where it was getting increasingly and unpleasantly windy. I was also carrying a rather large target for the wind, a Gossamer Gear Mariposa backpack loaded with 9 days of food to see me through the next few days in Torridon and on the first 5-6 days of my Challenge hike until Aviemore.
By the time I reached the summit herd path, I’d figured out what gale force winds were. I reckon they were at least in the 50-60 mph range because I was getting pushed around pretty hard. Climbing to the top was best left for another calmer day, so I walked on and looped around to western side of the mountain, thinking “this will put me in the lee of the peak and out of the wind.”
Nice try. In fact, the wind felt even stronger as I searched for cover next to a rocky outcrop where I could slip a wind shirt on. That’s when it started to rain. “This will make a good story even better,” I thought.
The new mountain in front of me (the Torridon Hills are packed with them) and its two small lochs were even more magnificent that Maol Chean-dearg, with a rugged traingular shape that reared upward toward the sky like some crazed lizard. Amazed, I could see the wind raking across the waters of the lochs, blasting wave after wave of spray across their surface. It was time to go, so I hiked down into the gorge between the two mountains, coming eventually to the path along the base of Maol Chean-dearg.
But dropping down didn’t diminish the wind at all which was still gusting hard and had seemingly shifted from the east to the south. Dropping still lower, I passed by several more lochs at the base of An Ruadh-stac passing including the largest named Loch Corie an Ruadh-stac.
But by now the hood of my wind shirt was flapping against my head furiously nearly deafening me with the noise. The rain started to come in harder so I pulled on my rain shell and cinched the hood around my head. That stopped the dang noise once and for all.
Once I looped around the northern end of Maol Chean-dearg, the wind died down and I was able to relax a bit. I could start to make out the crags of great Liathach in the distance and knew that I was still on course to reach the youth hostel located beneath its lofty peaks. The remainder of my hike was relatively uneventual with two well bridged stream crossings and a short road walk to my lodging for the night.
While I wished the wind had been a bit calmer, I felt that walking from Strathcarron to Torridon had been the right choice for me and a useful way to acclimate myself to the Torridon Hills. I had fine weather the next day climbing one of Liathach’s munros and hope to come back to Torridon and revisit Maol Chean-dearg and An Ruadh-stac in calmer weather.
Many thanks to Alan for the germ of the idea!