A HAIL storm rolls along the flank of Beinn Uidhe – a white curtain sweeping down the glen, engulfing everything in its path. Soon, within a matter of minutes, I’ll be alone in a completely white world – in the middle of a wilderness and with no path to follow.
In the heart of the Conival and Ben More Assynt hinterland there are no paths, and I have reached a place where I must choose a new direction. Do I flounder north across two miles of bogland to hit the track to Glencoul bothy, then onto Glendhu bothy and spend the night in relative comfort? Or do I struggle north-west along the flank of Beinn Uidhe, hope I find the Kylesku path and pitch my tent on the coast? Both options are about to be wiped off the face of the earth by the advancing hail.
By the way, it was bloody freezing last night. Just thought I’d mention it. The wind has swung around and is much colder. I told myself this might herald better weather. Hah.
I camped on the banks of Loch Carn nan Conbhairean beneath Ben More Assynt, then this morning regained the narrow track that forms this section of the Cape Wrath Trail – until it disappeared completely at Loch Bealach a’ Mhadaidh, a hauntingly beautiful loch beneath the northern ridges of Conival. That was half an hour ago.
Now here I am in a trackless waste. The landscape is a confusing mess of glacial moraines and bogland beneath bare grey cliffs, and I have just been forced to drop several hundred feet to the shores of Gorm Loch More to find a way forward. As the hail sweeps towards me I get the feeling things are about to go wrong.
I make a decision. I’m going for the Kylesku option. At least I’ll have a path to follow. If I can find it.
Suddenly, several things happen at once. As I am taking a compass bearing the advancing hail engulfs all the prominent landmarks. Then I spot three figures struggling across a boggy plateau a hundred yards ahead of me, lugging great packs. They are the first people I’ve seen since leaving Oykel Bridge yesterday morning. Then they, too, are engulfed by the hail – and a few seconds later so am I.
I am in a scary white world. A vicious wind tears at my clothes and hail clatters on my hood and shoulders with a ferocity that is quite unsettling. The hail is dense and soon begins to settle on the ground. Any trace of a path will be obliterated, and I feel a sense of urgency bordering on panic. I lumber forward, quickening my step, bending into the wind as the hail blasts against me and the turf turns from buff to grey to white.
I spot two shapes a few yards ahead and soon catch them up – a couple in their mid to late sixties. The woman is struggling beneath the weight of her pack, the man helping her as best he can while the hail hammers down in our faces. The third person comes back to join us. He is their son and he has a black Labrador that barks and snarls.
We find shelter behind some rocks and exchange a few brief words. Like me, the threesome are searching for the Kylesku path. They tell me that last night they camped by a stream, just a mile or two further on from my campsite at Loch Carn nan Conbhairean. Then, after a bite to eat, we walk on into the storm, four dark shapes and a dog in a world of raging whiteness – and after a short while we find our path.
I wish them luck then trudge on into the gloom. The hail has passed but it is raining heavily. I have trouble keeping to the path, which is vague at the best of times and disappears intermittently. Occasionally, I glance back and glimpse the threesome far in the distance against a backdrop of dark mountains and leaden sky.
In late afternoon, after a nightmare traverse past several lochans and over two undefined ridges wreathed in mist, the clouds suddenly roll back. I am high on a mountainside bathed in golden sunshine, an open vista stretching before me to the blue Atlantic. Clouds of vapour rise from rocks and turf as the sun warms the air. I drop down to the A894 and a three-mile trudge into Kylesku.
That night I camp on the shores of Loch Glendhu, in the heather above the high-tide mark. The views of Quinag’s twin summits are dramatic in the evening sun as I cook my pasta and warm a pan of tea. I wonder what became of the elderly couple and their son. I last caught sight of them in the maze of rocky spurs and elevated bogs that cloak the northern slopes of the Conival ridge – just before the clouds rolled back.
Days later, while talking to a fellow walker over a pint in Durness, I learn they abandoned the Cape Wrath Trail at Kylesku. The storm and the mountains had knocked the stuffing out of the older couple. Exhausted, they wandered into the seafront hotel and asked for a room – but were turned away because they had a dog. They spent the night in their tent at the side of the harbour.
I have nothing but admiration for people like that; people who, no matter how daunting the challenge and severe the circumstances, will set their minds and have a go.
That’s what life is all about – trying, struggling, striving, getting off your backside and defying the odds; having a gamble, rolling the old dice; grabbing life by the trousers and giving it a damn good kicking.
You have to try – because if you don’t, nobody’s going to do it for you. And you have to keep on trying. Even if you fail, as we all do at times, at least you can say you had a bloody good go.