“TAKE CARE. You are entering remote, sparsely-populated, potentially dangerous mountain country.”
I gaze at the green warning sign thoughtfully as rain slants down from the invisible heights of Spidean Mialach. A path twists up the mountain from the narrow road in Glen Garry, up into the sodden heather and the impenetrable mist. That’s my path – an ancient right of way and now part of the Cape Wrath Trail – taking me off into some “remote, sparsely-populated, potentially dangerous mountain country”.
The sign continues: “Please ensure that you are adequately experienced and equipped to complete your journey without assistance.”
I’m not feeling good. I had a long, hard day yesterday and my legs are stiff and I’m cold and wet. I’ve just walked six miles along the road from the narrows of Loch Garry, where I spent the night, and now here’s my path snaking off up the fellside, where a thin wind blasts the heather and clouds lie low and heavy. There is no other option.
The climb over the ridge is bleak and unpleasant, but the path is well-trodden and easy to follow. On the summit the mist rolls back to reveal the the wilds of Glen Loyne far below. This is real wilderness – just bogland, mountains, water and the occasional Scots pine. I trudge down the hillside into this great empty glen with nothing before me but wild country, the wind, and banks of tattered cloud that wrap themselves around mountains and fill the sky.
About a mile west of Loch Loyne I ford a river. The water is quite low and I am able to hop from boulder to boulder, keeping my feet dry. Then, in the shelter of a low hill, I cook some pasta and boil a pan of tea.
I have a choice before me: pushing on to Cambas bothy in Fionngleann (a long hard slog); camping near the Cluanie Inn on the A87 (a bit of a cop-out); or spending the night on the southern end of the Cluanie ridge, which is just above me.
The green sign comes to mind, the warning sign beside the road in Glen Garry. And the thought of spending a night in the “remote, sparsely-populated, potentially dangerous mountain country” seems suddenly appealing.
In fact, it could be considered almost compulsory. That’s what this expedition is about, I tell myself – wilderness walking, being self-reliant, experiencing the raw Highland environment. I follow a track along Glen Loyne then climb the Cluanie ridge, and in late afternoon find a suitable place to pitch the tent as the mist closes in.
I spend an extremely cold and uncomfortable night beneath the summit of Craig a’ Mhaim at an altitude of 1,300ft. It’s so cold I pull on as many clothes as I can, and at one point (3am) drag my waterproofs from the rucksack to spread over my sleeping bag in a futile attempt to retain some body heat.
I am beginning to regret my decision. I could have been curled up beside a bothy fire, or camped at the Cluanie Inn, at a much lower altitude and warmed by whisky. But I’m trapped in an ancient and totally ineffective sleeping bag, thoroughly miserable and with ice forming on the inside of the tent.
After what seems an eternity, the sun comes up. I crawl from my bag, pull on the waterproofs, and stumble out into the freezing air to stand blinking in the dawn. The mist has lifted and I am surrounded by wilderness – snow-capped mountains rising majestically beneath clear blue skies, and in a stillness so absolute, all I can hear is the sound of my breath.
This is the perfect dawn in the perfect wilderness. This is “remote, sparsely-populated, potentially dangerous mountain country” at its finest – mountains beyond mountains, lochs beyond lochs; a completely silent land that falls away at my feet and stretches in golden and purple folds to a distant horizon of watery blues and greys. And I am here in its midst, alone and insignificant as a bright sun rises above rocky ridges in the east. I stand here with numb fingers and toes and an aching back, and the sun warms my face.
And in this enchanting wilderness, I feel I have been born again – and the world is new and unsullied and exhilarating.