Published 8th April 2019, 10:28

    TWO days, three modest hills, a total walking distance of 73 kilometres. Disproportionate doesn't even begin to describe it.

    Summits that would be regarded as mere swellings in the greater scheme become a different enterprise when it's three hours in before you start any ascent. I reckoned I could have managed around a dozen Munros for that same investment.

    Ben Armine and Creag Mhor sit deep in the heartland of the Flow Country, neighbouring bumps in a sea of emptiness. I knew they would entail a long, demanding trek.

    The newly renovated hostel in Helmsdale is an ideal base for the hills of eastern Sutherland and Caithness. En route, I had diverted to Black Bridge for a bit of tidying. 

    Meall a' Chaorainn is an insignificant looking lump at the far end of Loch Vaich I was forced to ignore on a recent winter trip. I had intended taking in this hill after a weary and time-consuming plod out to Beinn Tharsuinn, but time and light were fading fast so I left it as the easier option for another day.

    The good news was the total climb was only 260 metres over a 500m distance. The bad news was a 13.5km walk on a stony track with built-in ascent of 210m to get to this point. That's 28km for a 30-minute ascent. 

    The slopes are ferociously steep, but side-footed step-ups on a succession of lines like grassy window ledges make for fast progress. I emerged on a small plateau of ice and snow, white-capped giants all around and the view back down the glen expansive.

    The angle of the slope made the initial descent seem formidable, the floor of the glen unseen from above. Under snow cover, a bum slide could see you at the bottom in minutes. The soles of my feet were burning at day's end. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best preparation for a 45km yomp.

    I made the lazy drive north by the River Helmsdale in burgeoning light. The wind had picked up forcibly and was whipping across the immense flatness with intent. The prospect of rain and heavy ground meant my hopes of wearing lighter boots were fanciful; reluctantly I pulled on my heavy winter pair.

    The track was sandy and mercifully softer on the feet. It twisted past a series of lochs, every corner revealing an unrelenting march to a distant horizon which never seemed to get any closer. Ben Griam Mor was a constant companion, its bold pyramid popping up in every vista.

    I reached the estate bothy at Gearnsary – now used mainly as a feed store but still handy for emergencies – then got my head down again for the road trip. My concentration in aiming for the mountain on the skyline paid an unexpected dividend when I stumbled across the cairn for my hill path. The cloud-smothered giant far ahead was Ben Klibreck. The sudden realisation that wasn't my goal put a fresh spring in my step.

    The grassy track that cuts back across the flank of Ben Armine rises steadily before breaking out into more open ground again in the gap with Creag Mhor, with a branch heading up into the divide.

    The ascent of Creag Mhor was all about avoiding the worst of the peat bogs. Sometimes it was easier to walk through them than try to find a way round. The wind made the final push a trial of strength, and I was struggling to stay on my feet.

    There was a brief respite on the journey back through the col, but I was ambushed again on the rise to the invisible summit of Ben Armine. Pictures were impossible; I was concentrating on not being blown over a cliff.

    The return trip should have been faster with the wind pushing me out, but it never felt that way. Instead, my pace slowed, the weariness of the long-distance walker. My feet certainly knew they had been in a war; pressure sores and blistering on the soles, cuts and chaffing on toes and ankles.

    The track seemed twice as long on the way out, but it remained hypnotically beautiful all the way, water-dappled terrain under big skies, cloud layers rolling on to infinity.

    Many would choose to bike in to these hills, but as an irregular cyclist I reckon it would be just as much hard work. Besides, I like walking in these landscapes. I have walked into the Fisherfield and Alder mountains many times and never once regretted it.

    The scale even seems to have caused confusion with the roads department. One sign in Kinbrace reads: Helmsdale 18 miles, the one in Helmsdale claims it's 17 to Kinbrace. Easy enough to lose a mile in these empty lands.