Sgurr Na Stri Wild Camping
Last week saw me up on the Isle Of Skye for a week staying in Kilbride near Torrin. One of my objectives was to complete a wild camp or two depending on the conditions. One of my main locations I had my sites set on was a little hill called Sgurr Na Stri which lies in the heart of the Cuillins and is just shy of 500m high, which in Scottish terms is very small.
However, the reason I wanted to go here is I was well informed that this is meant to be one of the best, if not the best view in Britain from this little but lofty summit. It looks down to Loch Coruisk and Loch Scavaig and to the whole Cuillin range. I had to find out for myself!
Most people will be familiar with Sgurr Na Stri, if they’ve ever been to Elgol or seen a shot from Elgol itself, it’s the steep hill on the right of the Cuillin with a gully that slices up the middle.
I had tried to walk here in October 2011 from Sligachan but bad weather (rain all the way) saw us turn back about 5 miles in, its a long slog to see nothing and perhaps the long slog is perhaps why most will ignore this little hill as well and opt for something bigger and closer.
So before this trip I did a little more research and in truth could only find one example of the hill being wild camped on and the guy was a photographer too who captured some great image but in the summer months. I knew there would be a little snow for my shots which would always be an added bonus. I checked The Photographers Ephermeris and could see that sunrise would be the best time to get my shot and luckily no big hills (Bla Bheinn) would get in the way of the suns ascent.
Next was to research a route, I could have taken the easy and well trodden route from Sligachan but a full 8 miles to the summit is a long way with wild camping gear on, especially over the boggy terrain it can sometimes pass so I managed to find a route from Kilmarie which passed via Camasunary and up the hill cutting the route in half, fortunately a friend had also walked this route so I knew it was at least possible.
However, that said it was also a route you couldn’t find much info on and after Camasunary bothy there would be no visible paths on the map…I just hoped it would be a little more clear on the ground. The route would cut in total around 8 miles off the walk, would the risk be worth it?
We set off on our first full day on Skye while the weather was good, it was a crisp day, with a lot of blue skies and the odd cloud floating about and the forecast for the next day just as good. We felt really in luck, especially given the rest of the UK was under about a foot of snow and grey clouds. Our start time was around 1pm with a sunset at around 18:30 giving us plenty of time to get there.
The path from Kilmarie to Camasunary is a nice little track that a 4×4 or quad bike could use to get down to the beach and house/bothy so it was steady going. It rises a little at first and then drops steeply down to the beach taking you back to sea level to allow you to see the task ahead, Sgurr Na Stri.
Camasunary is a very nice little area, it’s a little grassy cove (sort of) with a little beach on the shores of Loch Scavaig, a sea loch (it may as well be the sea!). There’s actually a house there, that looks to run on gas and someone lives there….while logistics must be a pain I can see the appeal. About 300m from the house is Camasunary Bothy. The bothys future looks to be in jeopardy as the owner of the land apparently wishes to take it back when he retires and use it as a holiday home (I guess who can fault him?). I kept the bothy in mind in case things turned sour but we hoped even if we had to retreat we could camp on the grass outside. We passed someone who looked set up to spend the night in the bothy.
Next was the risk with this route, crossing the river to start the ascent and there was no bridge. I wasn’t sure what to expect really but was prepared to have to take off the boots and roll up the trousers to cross a very cold river and perhaps be a little less happy at camp! Luckily, the water level was low and the tide was out so we managed to cross the river safely (well I did, Joe put a foot in!) and look to start our ascent.
What became quickly obvious was there wasn’t a clear defined path, so in my style we decided to head straight up as possible following the contours and usually following deer tracks. It was steep and tough going and about half way we took a little break at a couple of small pools with a fantastic view to Bla Bheinn and checked our bearings on the map. We were quite a way off the actual ascent route described so it was time to head further east to try and get on track.
Eventually we came to two gullies, the very two you can see clearly from Elgol that look very formidable. Looking at the map the contours looked too steep and further round seemed safer, however having a quick walk around showed that it was inaccessible and the gully would be the only way up. We decided to take the most easterly one.
In fairness, it looked doable but steep so we made our way up slowly. I think with normal kit it would be a diddle but it made for slow going and the higher we got the steeper it looked back and seemingly impossible to descend with that kind of weight constantly trying to pull you downhill. At times it was a case of grabbing well rooted heather to ensure a safe route up. Oh at this point how I hoped that there wasn’t to be a rock climb of some kind at the top of the gully! We also passed remnants of a F111 fighter plane on the way up which had crashed into the hill in 1982.
It did teach me though, perhaps at times it’s definitely worth either walking a well trodden route in future or even doing a reccy of the route first. At this point I didn’t even know what the ground would be like on top for a wild camp, all I knew was it had to be possible somewhere as I had seen someone do it before.
We reached the top of the gully, which actually separates the two summits of Sgurr Na Stri with the east one being the objective as it had the views. We came to a little grassy area with a huge boulder spanning the width of the gully which perfectly protected us from the wind (it had been quite windy in places on the way up, so pitching may have been difficult). We dropped our bags here, felt like we were walking on the moon and headed up to the summit which was 5 minutes away.
One thing to bear in mind, while this hill is actually smaller than Mam Tor in the Peak District the ascent is as much as most Lakes mountains having to go from sea level and it’s tough terrain. If you do ever go, be prepared for that.
Upon reaching the summit I was ecstatic, I had finally made it tired but I was here and I could rest now. I walked to the crest for the grand view and I literally stood amazed. The view was literally breath taking, I immediately knew it was worth it…even if I didn’t take any pictures I had experienced the area on a really good day. The whole expanse of the Cuillin ridge lay in front of me and while I couldn’t name all the summits, I could pick out the more familiar ones including the in-pin.
I spent a little while taking it all in, looking at the views of the Cuillin, Marsco and the red hills, the Storr in the far distance, Blaven, back to Elgol and out to sea over to the Isle Of Rhum. What a panoramic!
As there was a little wind and very few soft spots on the summit we decided it would be best to set up camp where we had dropped our bags, it was about 4pm so it had taken us about 3 hours to get up and would give us a hour to get set up before attempting a sunset. Space was tight and took a little jigging, but here’s a picture taken on my phone of our two tents looking back down the gully out to Elgol and the sea. Not a bad view for the night!
This was actually the first time I had chance to try out my new tent, which was a Wild Country Zephyros 2 which has good reviews and is based on the infamous Terra Nova Laser Competition 2. However, after a little brain scratching I was a little disappointed to find that on one end where there is a pole one of the ends had either not been sewn to the inner tent or wasn’t stitched correctly and had ripped out, making the pitch a bodged job and quite unstable at that end. I’ve contacted Terra Nova and hopefully they can fix this for me.
Once we were pitched we made our way back to the summit, just a short 5 minutes away armed with our cameras but feeling a lot lighter. Sunset wasn’t a priority, but I still wanted to capture some images none the less. I was quite taken by the light on the summit and over towards Bla Bheinn and Marsco so I made this panoramic which I was pleased with (click to view larger):
I made a few other images, I processed this next one really just to show the view back over to sea and Elgol:
The sun set just behind the Cuillins to the left, so no red glow for us tonight but we were happy anyway and made our way back to the tents. Despite the warm look of the images, it was still hovering around 0c up here and set to turn colder in the night. A good job we had the correct equipment to see us through the night then. We got a little food and went to sleep early and set the alarm for 10pm to have a bash at star trails if it was clear.
10pm came and sure enough the sky was clear and what instantly amazed me was because the moon was up and almost full how much I could actually see including distant islands as clear as day. It was cold now but we headed up to the summit again and once again couldn’t believe the view, especially at night with each Cuillin in as much detail as daylight. One downside to this though was you couldn’t see as many stars as you usually see which was a shame.
This star trail shoot which would have really been nice to nail ended up being the start of a learning curve for the week of shooting star trails under a full moon. I hadn’t seen any form of night shots done up here before so I had to give it a go. I’ve done star trails before and always use relatively same settings of widest focal length, f2.8, 30 secs exposure and ISO 800…this seems to roughly be the same across all photographers and guides i’ve ever read. I shot a few scenes and what shocked us was how much more you could see when the image was taken, The hills took on a colour similar to the day and the sky looked almost blue.
We took our shots, using the tried and tested method which eventually would ultimately turn out to be wrong. A tip for anyone shooting under a full moon, shoot at a aperture relatively narrow i.e between f6.7 & f/8 to give a darker more realistic sky and also it is especially useful in scenes like this where you would prefer the mountains to be mainly sharp.
In the end I luckily did take an exposure at the end of the two hours at f/11 so I’ve blended the foreground with the sky to get a sharp picture and pulled down the exposure in the sky. I’m not 100% happy with the result, mainly because you can see the cloud in the middle that’s gone a bit funny. A strange one that actually as the cloud would appear for about 5 mins, disappear and come back a little later which makes it impossible to clone out. I’m not sure whether I should call this one a keeper or not?
Anyway, after 2 hours of not feeling our feet and doing star jumps to keep warm we retreated back to our tents once more for some sleep before sunrise. I’d have happily left my camera shooting all night doing the star trails but it got a little windy every now and again and wouldn’t have wanted to go back to a broken camera!
Dawn came and while I felt we wouldn’t need to be up the specifically for the time the sun was meant to rise I thought it was a good idea to get there 30 minutes before in case any clouds lit up pink/purple etc. They didn’t, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. I waited around patiently and managed to finally come up with the image below as the sun started to hit the top of the Cuillin. This is the view I was ranting on about, the one that made it all worth it, and while I hope I’m able to convey the place I seriously can’t do it justice or give you the sense of scale it deserves:
I then took a panoramic a little later as the light got a bit more intense and warmer:
I was also captivated by Sgurr Nan Gillean in the distance, the fierce looking peak catching the first rays of sun so I zoomed in to capture it:
And that was really the sunrise, it was fantastic and the only thing that saddens me a little is I’m probably never going to see a better view in Britain again. I felt privileged to have had the weather and light and it’s so lovely to visit such a remote peak that not many take the chance to visit and capture it in all its glory. I truly hope the pictures make you want to visit yourself!
We packed up and headed back down the hill, I knew we were meant to come off the east side (thank god, the gully would have almost been impossible, even Joe who is usually pretty fearless at walking downhill didn’t fancy it). We managed to pick a faint descent route and headed down, coming across a herd of about 10 deer at one point and slowly headed back down to the river again.
Luckily the river wasn’t high again and we managed to get across safely back to the bothy, turns out the guy we had seen the day before had stopped the night….I knew who had the better views!
However by this point we felt knackered and could see our sting in the tail, what would usually be a small bump turned out to be an arduous slog up hill, about breaking us and when we finally arrived back at the car at 11am we couldn’t have been happier!
Anyway, I really hope you’ve enjoyed the pictures and the read. I can’t wait to do another wild camp now, I’ve inspired myself especially seeing how well received the pictures have been so far on the social networks and I’m glad I’ve managed to get at least one shot from Skye not using your standard tripod holes. I’m slowly trawling through my images from the week, it’s taking some time especially as I have a few star trail images too (took around 80gb of photos in total) and it was a really good week and had some sublime light at points. So keep a look out for more images and blogs coming soon!