Alpkiteer and Micro-Adventure pioneer Alastair Humphreys tells us about his adventure with friend Tem, to Suilven in the northwest of Scotland.
This adventure began with a map. Or perhaps it began with a bike ride – I can’t remember any more. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but good ideas do tend to brew when either a map or a bicycle is involved.
A few years ago I spent a glorious week in Scotland, riding my bike and sleeping in remote mountain bothies. My only sadness was that I did not have more time for I remember slurping noodles one evening, looking up at the extraordinary shark fin skyline of Suilven and longing to camp up on the summit. The mountain rose out of the hummocks and heather and scattered lochans of Assynt into a breathtaking ridge like a magnificent grey castle, capturing both my eye and my imagination. But time was short and I had to leave the peak unclimbed.
Back home, I work in a small wooden shed. On my desk, amongst the clutter of To Do lists and empty tea mugs, is a small, framed relief map of Suilven. I have looked at it fondly every day since that bothy ride.
The third prod towards this adventure came when I was making a film with my friend Tem a couple of years ago. We endured (and enjoyed) perhaps the windiest wilderness camp of our lives, up on the ridge of Quinag in the Highlands. In the distance stood Suilven once again. Tem and I began chatting about the idea of one day catching the overnight sleeper train up from London to climb the mountain and camp on top. I have sat with Tem and beer in all sorts of bars around the world talking about how good that would be.
But oftentimes the trouble with modern life is not a lack of enthusiasm for challenges nor inspiration for exciting ideas. The problem is how busy we all are, and the real difficulty comes in separating the urgent from the important and then making adventure happen. We need to do what we can, with what we have, and do it now.
Suilven, here we come!
The northwest of Scotland is by far my favourite corner of Britain. And Suilven has become a totem to me, a symbol of the wildness I can immerse myself in here in my own country without having to resort to an aeroplane escape.
We chose a long Bank Holiday weekend for the trip which granted us four days of adventure time. Our plan was to use a combination of public transport, folding bike and folding packraft to get us from London to the foot of Suilven. Then we’d climb the peak and — hopefully — camp on the summit at long last.
Tem and I always behave like excited schoolboys when we bundle onto the sleeper train to Scotland. It is the city’s greatest escape ticket to wilderness and adventure. I knew that in the early morning I would see the hills again, and that always makes me happy. I can’t overstate how much I love the sleeper train, with its mysterious bangs and whistles through the night and the morning knock on the door delivering breakfast. I pulled up the window blind to watch hills and forests whizzing past as I enjoyed my cup of tea in bed.
To save time and to take advantage of our folding Bromptons we caught a local bus and train out of Inverness to spare us riding the smelly, scary A9. As is typical once you’ve left London behind, the elderly folk on the bus were eager to chat, intrigued by our bikes and cameras. A retired blacksmith and his wife were on their way to help a widowed friend with some chores on her rural croft. He had never been to London and had no intention of ever doing so.
“Too much of that bustle and hustle,” he explained to me.
When the man heard that Tem and I were making a film he said, “Aye, well done. You lads have found something you enjoy. Your niche. I walked out of one job I hated, just turned around at the gate and left. It’s not worth it. Life’s too short. I went back to the smithy where I used to work and just said, ‘I’m back’.”
The couple got off to change buses on their way to mow their friend’s lawn and on climbed a couple of old ladies who bantered and joked with the bus driver before slowly lowering themselves onto the seat next to mine. One of the ladies, wearing a green cardigan and red lipstick pointed at our bikes with a crutch and smiled ruefully. “That’s one thing I really miss these days, my bike,” she said. “I miss my bike.”
One of the many delights of travelling by train is the slow shift of the landscape and your mood. The change is gradual, so I often don’t quite notice it until suddenly I realise that the noise and smell and subconscious stress of the city has melted away and left me standing on an empty platform at a tiny single-track railway station with sunshine on my face, the delicious smell of spring gorse flowers, and the sounds of birdsong. I did a little jig of joy and the first swallows of the season zoomed overhead.
Tem and I unfolded our bikes, sorted out our gear then pedalled out of the station onto a narrow road heading west towards the mountains. Riding side by side our bikes took up the whole road, but there was no traffic to worry about. We bubbled with enthusiasm about how good it felt to be finally on our way to Suilven.
Through the afternoon the road twisted through fields and forestry land, past farms and across rushing, peat-coloured streams. We zoomed through a lime-green birch wood that had recently burst into spring growth. A post box by the road, miles and miles from the nearest town, had been freshly painted a bright shining crimson. Tem being Tem had a postcard and a stamp in his wallet so we paused while he scribbled a brief note to his Mum.
The road eventually petered out into a gravel farm track and an evening of heavy skies and rain. We waded a river, pitched camp and crossed our fingers inside our sleeping bags that tomorrow would bring back the sunshine.
I emerged from our little red tent into a damp world of cloud and mist. A golden froglet as small as a fingernail hopped over the wet moss and across my sleeping bag. Fortunately, by the time we were back on the road the skies were clearing. And a few miles later, over there in the west, we saw Suilven at last! Its prominent, outrageous outline on the horizon beckoned us towards it.
I particularly enjoy microadventures when they involve travelling by different means. Each has its benefits, and when accumulated they allow you to experience a landscape more deeply through different perspectives. Bromptons and packrafts both appeal to me for their versatility and the invitation to be curious and adventurous.
We inflated our bright red packrafts on the bank of a sparkling burn and lashed the folded bikes on top. I listened to the cries of curlews and the rippling songs of skylarks as we paddled quietly down the winding stream, watched only by a few bemused cows. A small trout rose, rippling the reflections of the hills around us. I appreciated the smooth slowness of paddling after the wind-in-your-hair fun of the bicycle miles.
As I unzipped the tent’s flysheet the next morning I gave heartfelt thanks to whichever mountain god occasionally bestows upon you a sky of flawless blue and a guaranteed day of glorious sunshine. I have spent enough time in Scotland to know how grateful you ought to be for such a rare and precious gift!
One of the multitude of reasons that Suilven has such a fond spot in my heart is because the mountain is a pain in the arse to reach. You have to earn your reward. This has the added bonus of keeping away the crowds. Tem and I stashed our rafts and bikes, for they had done their job now. We wanted to be as light as possible for the long hike and climb ahead of us.
There was no footpath so we followed our nose towards Suilven. Grouse burst from their hideouts in a whirr of astonishment as we yomped through boggy heather. Deer watched us carefully, and a polished zigzag of snake startled us in the grass by our feet. I had never seen an adder before so was thrilled to stumble upon such a beautiful creature, such a wild creature, basking in the warm sunshine.
That same warm sunshine soon prompted me to brave the waters of the loch we filled our bottles from. I sprinted down the sandy beach to force me into courage then plunged howling into the cold water. Then in the afternoon I swam again, in a stream at the base of the mountain. I wanted one more refreshing plunge before the hot climb began. The water was about a metre deep, beautifully still and clear with a whisky tinge of peat. Suilven looked beautiful in its reflection.
The ascent of Suilven was steep, rocky and sweaty, but crammed into a mercifully brief struggle. Cresting the ridge of the mountain we were blasted by strong winds but also gifted a huge new view, northwards across miles and miles of emptiness towards Quinag and the blue hills beyond it. We followed the narrow ridge in single file up towards the summit, so close now, after so long anticipating it. Tem and I were eager to drop our packs and revel in being up here at last. The flanks of Suilven are so sheer that the view is like looking down from an aeroplane, yet with the bonus of it being a view that we had earned. Beneath a bald blue sky we gazed upon miles of shining lochs, folded ridges of silhouetted mountains, and out over the sea towards the setting sun.
My greedy nature was slightly disappointed that there was already a tent pitched on the grassy flat summit of Suilven. In my dreams, I had hoarded this mountain and this moment all to myself. But in truth there was beauty enough for all of us up there, and it reminded me to be grateful for our extraordinary good fortune that this long-dreamed-of adventure had culminated in a precious day of flawless sunshine and beauty.
The wind rose, and our little canvas cocoon — so many miles from the nearest road — was battered and buffeted throughout the night. I set my alarm for first light, almost an hour before sunrise, for I wanted to savour the beginning of a new day up on Suilven. I huddled out of the wind in a comfortable nook of rock and watched the world lighten from dark indigo through paler shades of blue, until the first faint glow of orange light rose behind a mountain to the east. I was filled with a sense of happiness and privilege to be here. I smiled, fired up the stove, and began to make coffee.
Experiencing silence is a luxury of the wilderness and a reward for escaping the noisy maelstrom of modern life. But even sweeter than silence is the sudden roar of a camping stove bursting into life. Because of the wind and the uneven ground I had to hug the stove between my knees, and the venture of making two cups of coffee was far more precarious and convoluted than back home in my kitchen. But this protracted process — shielding the wind, making the drink, carrying the second mug carefully over to the wind-thrashed tent — was all part of what made that morning coffee taste even better than usual. I hunkered back down out of the wind, sipped my hot drink, and watched the red sun slide smoothly up over the horizon. A new day on Suilven had begun.
It had taken me years to get there, but that moment was worth the wait. And it means that from now on, every time I sip coffee in my shed and look at the little map of Suilven on my desk — like I am doing right now — I can appreciate having turned that map into all these memories. And all this simply because I finally grabbed a chance to make adventure happen.