Standing here, I was looking over at Suilven in the distance. The distinctive mountain had eluded me so far but I really wanted to make an effort to get up it. It’s probably the remotest mountain in Assynt and looks impossible to climb from most angles. 6 miles one way and you’ve got to be sure you want to go, especially if the aim is to come back with a photo. I vividly remember standing there wondering if I could hack going up the same day, after a 3 mile walk back to the car over that treacherous ground. The last weather forecast suggested it would be forcing us to at least try.
We packed up and made our way down, a lot easier going down than it was up and we were soon back at the car, enjoying breakfast in the baking sun by the roadside. At that point I didn’t think it could get much better. We discussed the plans and James was a little reserved for Suilven. Sgorr Tuath had been more than I had suggested it would be and he had his doubts about making it. We agreed to drive to Lochinver though, get some signal and see how we felt.
Luckily with the longer days, we arrived at Lochniver with a little time to spare. We checked the forecast and it was set to stay fine for the rest of the day but the morning after it wasn’t looking promising, cloudy was order of the day. However, the days after that looked to proper turn for the worst and there would probably be no further chances. We discussed our options and agreed to camp up Suilven on that day.
We drove up to the parking in Glencansip and looked at Suilven. The mountains profile completely changed and looked so far away. We got our kit ready, clearing out any gear we didn’t need to lighten the cloud and set off. The first 4.5 miles of the walk was over a great path, clearly made for the local farmers with their quad bikes etc and we soon got along this stretch. The weather was lovely, maybe too hot at times maybe but refreshing at the same time. We had a few breaks along the way and I revelled in how lovely and remote it was. It’s so great to be able to visit places like this.
We turned off at the cairn to start heading up Suilven and the going was going to start getting hard. It was a case of route finding again and trying to avoid mud and bog. Fortunately, a lot of the mud had dried up but we still had our work cut out for us. We got over the first small hill and arrived at the lochs below Suilven. From here, it still looked completely impossible to ascend the mountain. It’s sheer profile looked like it wouldn’t let up and as I pointed out the route, James exclaimed I was mad and there must be an easier way. I assured him I wasn’t and there wasn’t.
Also unfortunately, James had struggled after turning off the main path with a knee injury from a few weeks before causing him hassle. He reluctantly said he was going to stay down at the lochs and I headed onwards by myself. With a bit of trepidation I made my way around the lochs to the foot of the ascent. I wasn’t sure what lay ahead, I felt bad for leaving but I had a goal I had come all this way for and so on I went. Once I got to the start of the ascent, it didn’t look as impossible as it had previously and I was confident I could tackle it. It turned out to be fairly simple, even though looking back down you do often wonder how easy it will be to get down with a heavy pack and before I knew it I was at the beallach (col) and on much better ground. Turning my head to the right, in the direction of the summit I could see a drystone wall which had been built from one side of the mountain to the other. Nuts!
I went up to the summit, dropped my bag and went looking for compositions. It was a fairly nice sunset and I grabbed some shots as I mentioned before, the next morning wasn’t set to be great. I set up my pitch a little below the summit next to a pool of water as well as a bit of shelter. There wasn’t a breath of wind and I had no way of telling which way to pitch the tent. That shelter would only protect me from a certain direction.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it I pitched completely the wrong way and the wind picked up later in the night, keeping me awake most of the night. Before trying to get to sleep though, I spoke to my girlfriend on the phone who said the forecast had improved slightly filling me with a little hope. There was also an Aurora alert and I took some shots of the tent with a faint glow of the Aurora in the distance. The best of it blocked by a bank of cloud. Turns out, had I stayed up a little longer I may have been lucky enough to get a really good display of it. Nevermind.
As I mentioned, I tried to get my head down after eating tea but the flapping of the tent would keep me awake most of the night. Normally, I probably would have reluctantly changed my pitch but like an idiot, I had forgot my head-torch which was still in the car. I already had made the decision to risk the night on the mountain rather than trying to descend to safety in the dark. I wasn’t too concerned because of the calm conditions.
The next morning, not quite sure if I had actually slept or not I poked my head out of the tent and I have never got up so quickly. The last thing I expected to see with the forecast and the wind was a cloud inversion but yet there it was, clouds swirling around below me. I couldn’t believe my luck. No amount of predictions and forecasts could have called this and I was out taking photos before you could know it.
One of the best things about this inversion was the cloud was whipping up over the top of the opposing summit of Suilven, Meall Meadhonach. For me this was perfect, having Suilven poking out of the cloud would have been great but not as unique as this, in my opinion. I took a few shots at the tent but quickly started to go back to the summit. I took this first shot before the sun came up, you can just see the tent below. You really don’t get much better places to pitch do you?
I spent ages taking many many shots. The wind was blowing directly at me and while not strong, caused havoc, whipping the clouds and dew straight into me. I quickly became drenched but more importantly, so did my camera and lens. It was a constant battle of clean, shoot, clean. Not that I minded too much, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I tried various compositions, with different lenses as the cloud changed form. Eventually the sun would rise over the mountain of Cansip and illuminated the cloud topping Meall Meadhonach and for me, just made the moment perfect. I shot this with a telephoto and prayed to god that the image was sharp. While the wind wasn’t strong, I was very paranoid of image shake with having such a big lens on. Thankfully I needn’t have worried.
I had a very hard time choosing that last image as you can imagine but it was probably my favourite image from the trip. With ever changing cloud form, each image seemed to have its own qualities. I chose it because I quite liked how you could see the rugged slopes of Suilven, yet enough cloud in the frame. The next image though was a close second favourite and one I’ll probably share in a couple of months on social media, so you’re seeing it here first.
This time the cloud is properly engulfing the mountain and all it’s surroundings, leaving a bit more mystery and also quite dreamy with how soft the cloud makes the image feel.
I felt like I could keep taking images but after being almost positive I got what I wanted I decided to just take 5-minutes and sit down, leave the camera and watch what I was experiencing. We often get so caught up behind the camera, we may only look through a viewfinder and not our own eyes. Sometimes, you can just head down with little memory of what you have saw and it was important to me that I was going to remember this moment and soak it up.
After I had, I was then rewarded with a fog bow and brocken spectre over the summit of Suilven. As if I hadn’t seen enough already! With the rising sun and temperature, the cloud started to rise and I could see it was time to head back to tent, where I cooked my breakfast before packing up.
I had the descent to deal with which was actually fine and then I had to wake James up and tell him what he had missed. He had moved his tent at sunrise as he too hadn’t slept for the wind and could see me on the summit, cursing me. We made our way back to the track in the cloud but as soon as we got to the track we were out of it and in the warm sunshine. Another lovely day.
We got back to Lochinver, watching the cloud hug Suilven all the way. We got lunch and then headed to Achiltbuie for a shower in the community hall (well needed!) before heading down to Achnahaird Beach to take the drone out. I had a vision of getting the white sands, dunes and clear blue sea in from an aerial shot but with strong winds, I didn’t actually fancy doing anything too fancy. Still, I quite liked the resulting image.
We then went to Ullapool for a well deserved pub treat, actual proper food before heading back to the beach to pitch for the night. Looking at the forecast we agreed that it was probably best to leave a couple of days early, having accomplished what I had intended to do within 6 days within 4 instead. Sure enough, the next morning it was cloudy in Assynt although the morning was bright and sunny in Achiltbuie where we enjoyed a breakfast before setting off. We were right to set off with low cloud and rain for the next couple of days.
So, that’s it. A whirlwind few days in Assynt where I got conditions many landscape photographer’s would only dream of and it was all by chance. I am very thankful I talked myself into doing Suilven the day I did rather than putting it off otherwise this would be a completely different blog. Remember, while it was hard work, it was never an hardship and I’m looking forward to the next adventure!