YOU can’t escape the feeling you’ve taken a step back millions of years when you climb Ben More Assynt and Conival.
These two rough, rocky Munros are the highest points in Sutherland – and it’s not just walkers and climbers who get their rocks off on these magnificent mountains. Geologists from all over the world flock here to study this ancient landscape.
Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in Europe, can be found at a higher level here than anywhere else in the country. Cambrian limestone is in evidence on the lower western slopes.
Starting at the car park at Inchnadamph, you are soon enveloped in history and legend with the walk up by the River Traligill, the ravine of the trolls. It’s worth making a slight detour over a bridge to the right which leads to a series of cave entrances. They give access to an extensive network of underground passages which can be explored but much care is needed.
A sea of purple heather is left behind as the path then climbs to the left over grass and then becomes rockier until it reaches a seemingly impregnable wall. This is a bit of an imposter and is easily turned before the path fights its way through quartzite scree to reach the summit ridge of Conival. Ben More Assynt is less than a mile away but the terrain is rough and craggy, more akin to walking through piles of rubble.
The first time I climbed these hills, it was the middle of the night and I was accompanied every step of the way with the tinkling and crunching of broken rock. By the time I was on the first summit, dawn was breaking but despite being able to see for miles the overwhelming colour was grey. The sky was grey, the rock was grey and even the little lochans glistening in the early light were grey.
My next ascent of these hills was in the middle of the day but grey was still the dominant colour. One of our group even added some pterodactyls into his pictures from the day and they didn’t look out of place. This time out, I took a different route, skirting round the side of Conival and through the high pass, then heading down to the lonely waters of Dubh Loch Mor.
From here it was a steep, slippery push up the mixed grass and crags of Carn nan Conbhairean with plenty of diversions to keep it interesting. It wouldn’t be a lot of fun in descent, particularly when wet. Eventually you make it on to the ridge and head north to Ben More Assynt’s south top and the narrow connecting ridge with the main summit.
About halfway along the route appears barred by a massive rock. On the right, there are sheer-sided plates of rock dropping a long way. On the left, a series of rocky ledges with a big drop below. With a great deal of caution and avoiding looking down this was the better bet and I inched my way round this obstacle.
Five minutes later I was on the quartzite cap of Ben More staring into the grey, to the north and east a spattering of little lochs. Half an hour later and you are on Conival with its superb summit views up to Quinag and Loch Assynt. Even in the grey there’s always something marvellous to see.
(First published Daily Record, September 5, 2013)