Footprints Across Scotland
Why not make a few of your own!
26th & 27th May 2012
A grand cirque of the Glen Oykel horseshoe over the peaks of Ben More Assynt, Conival and Breabag.
An early start had me leaving home at six Saturday morning and the weekends first encounter with wild life was just a few minutes away. At first I thought it was a dog walking in the middle of the road but as I approached I soon realised it was a badger. Instead of leaving the road it started running, well lumbering along in front of the van. I tried to go overtake slowly but it followed me to the other side of the road before thankfully turning into a field. The rest of the long drive was fairly uneventful with just one stop at the excellent transport cafe at Tarvie. A nice mug of tea with a bacon and black pudding roll and I was ready to face the day. After collecting my freshly made sandwiches I was again ready to hit the road. Travelling up through Ullapool I soon reached Ledmore junction before turning down toward Oykel Bridge. I parked in the shade of a tree next to a small shed at the start of the private drive up to Ben More lodge. It was a good hour’s walk along the estate track which allowed some contemplation of the proposed walk ahead. The track rose gently following the edge of a conifer plantation before descending gradually to the shore of Loch Ailsh. The shores surrounding the loch were swathed in pine of many shades of green, the trees banked up onto the far hillside. On the skyline to my left sat the rounded dome of Breabag while further round to the right views were opening up into the heart of Glen Oykel with Ben More and Conival sitting at its head. Loch Ailish contains a fair body of water that I’m sure would provide a rather idyllic sailing location and with the day’s stiff breeze and sunny weather conditions everything seemed just about ideal.
Distant Ben More Assynt across Loch Ailsh
After reaching Ben More lodge the track follows the banks of the Oykel River passing a substantial looking bridge that appears to cross the river with little evidence of an on-going track. My eyes were busy roaming the surrounding hills expectantly when a sharp hiss brought my attention to an adder taking in the sun just a foot step ahead of me. After a little further agitation the snake soon scuttled away into the undergrowth not even pausing to have its picture taken! I forded Allt Sail an Ruathair over a small bridge to reach a junction in the track. Taking the left branch I and headed deeper into the Glen continuing along the banks of the River Oykel. The vast but secluded glen now opened itself up in front of me and I enjoyed the growing feeling of anticipation at the prospect of exploring this wonderfully atmospheric place.
Breabag and the River Oykel
I was entering a grand arena were the extensive river flats pushed out toward the lower slopes of the surrounding hills that almost completely enclose the glen. The west side is walled in by the tumbling grey stone corries of Breabeg, ahead lay the steep ramparts of Conival's Garbh Corrie while to the east there was Ben More’s elongated southern ridge. A narrow pass at Am Bealach near the head of the Glen does however provide a chink in the surrounding wall allowing passage north into Glen Dubh. The path continued vaguely in places as it continued along the east side of the glen passing a couple of small puddles each with its own small contingent of newts. I considered a rising traverse of the hillside but instead stayed on the path until a large erratic boulder with a vegetated top signalled a good place to start up the grassy slopes to Dubh Loch Beag. Part way up I noticed the back of what appeared to be a small dog moving through the grass. A better look at the vibrant red sheen of the "dog's" coat brought home the realisation that it was actually a fox hunting in the tall grasses. I tried closing the distance in order to get a good picture but as it reached a rise in the ground I thought that I might lose the opportunity for a photo, so took my chance at getting a shot On the second click of the shutter he must have heard and turned just as managed fire off a third before he was gone. As the ground levelled I weaved my way through a series of peat hags to reach the shore of Dubh Loch Beag. The loch sits cupped between a fork in the long southern ridge that runs down from Ben More Assynt.
Dudh Loch Beag & Meall an Aonaich
It was very warm and the waters of the loch proved too enticing to pass without a cooling swim. It was very pleasant soaking up the sun as I dried off after my dip and it was with some reluctance that I prepared for the climb upward. A grassy gully at the west side of the loch allowed for a straight forward if steep route onto the spur that continues south from the main ridge. As I emerged from the gully I was rewarded with fine views into Garbh corrie with its sheets of grey scree running down from the ridgeline between Conival and Ben More.
Conival and Ben More Assynt
The ascent over grass continued as I traversed north east onto the main ridge before gaining the top of Carn nan Conbhairean.
Conival and Ben More Assynt from Carn nan Conbhairean
The ridge narrows significantly from here and I approached with the expectation of some hard scrambling. As it turned out there was little difficulty apart from one or two places requiring a short careful descent.
Final pull to Ben More with Conival round to left
The summit of Ben more is crowned by a rocky knoll and a scattering of quartzite boulders; after a quick scramble to the top I turned my attention to Conival. I now followed the broken rocky terrace that forms the ridge line connecting Ben More with Conival.
Coire a Mhadaidh from Ben More
A pale pathway snakes its way gingerly atop the somewhat mobile rocky masonry. After a small dip in the ridge I clambered over boulders to gain some firmer terrain that angled its way toward the summit and after a wee bit more easy scrambling I was there.
Ben More Assynt from near Conival
Looking to the south over the steep craggy cliff face I could see the entire length of Breabag laid before me, resembling a solidified wave of rock with a multitude of rounded protrusions and indentations creating a wide knobbly ridge. After pausing for a cereal bar I now contemplated the descent down into the depths of Garbh corrie; rough scree slopes from further along the Ben More connecting ridge was one option, but the south east spur direct from the summit won the day. The spur proved to be a good choice and although providing a fair amount of exposure gave an entertaining descent with only a few tricky situations. Following the curve of the ridge I soon found a grassy gully to ease my way down beyond the crags on the south face of the hill.
Dubh Loch Mor from Conival
It was now time to decide on a camp spot, I had thought about camping high on Breabag but the grassy area at the head of Dubh Loch Mor looked very enticing and with the thought easy access to water for drinking and washing I quickly came to a decision and continued over to the loch. Tent up it was time for a quick dip in the loch in order to freshen up. The stony shore dropped away reasonably quickly onto a base of soft silt but I soon kicked away, freeing the mud from between my toes and enjoying a short swim. Suitably cleansed I was now ready to settle down for a brew just as the shadows cast by Conival lengthened and began their passage over the tent. After my drink I decided on a quick amble around the Loch and caught a bit more sun on reaching the far bank.
Camp by Dubh Loch Mor
I enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep but was awake at five contemplating an early start but turned over to think some more. By 5.30 though I did make a bit of a move, albeit only as far as boiling some water in preparation for a mug of tea. Tea was followed by porridge and raisins before more tea and a croissant. I eventually emerged from the tent into the early morning light of what promised to be another fine warm and sunny day and started packing. I was soon up and away and it was still only seven o’clock. Climbing out of the depression holding Dubh Loch Mor I worked my way over some broken peaty ground to contour around the craggy lower slopes of Conival. I gained just a bit more height than was required so had to drop down onto a grassy ramp that then lead me easily to Am Bealach.
Breabag from Garbh Choire
I joined the path that heads out of the glen toward Inchnadamph for a just a few short meters. I was not heading out so quickly left the path and pushed myself into action to climb the reasonably steep ground onto the shoulder of Breabag Tarsuinn before gaining the Breabag ridge proper. There is a lot of broken rock up here especially over the higher ground and the mixture of quartzite and conglomerate boulders required some careful foot placement before reaching the top of Breabag Tarsuinn. A little to the south west I could see the normal route of ascent to Breabag running under Beinn nan Cnaimhseag which overlooks the Bone Caves. The Bone Caves provide an added point of interest to the walk and are situated in a limestone valley. The remains of a number of species of animals that used to roam Scotland have been found here, such as lynx, reindeer and polar bear. I crossed over to opposite side of the ridge as I followed the high ground to find two sections of dry stone wall abutting adjacent rock faces while the opening between spilled into the yawning depths of Glas Choire Mor.
Breabag and dry stone walls
Further on another narrow section of wall plugged a narrow entrance to a small gap between two shear rock faces. This feature was repeated a little further on near a broad rocky step where a whole section of ridge seemed to have dropped away by few feet. After continuing along the eastern edge of the ridge for a little while further I dropped into a small rocky amphitheatre containing a number of lochans and pools. It proved to be a nice spot for an early lunch. The tiny streams feeding the lochans were dry so I headed toward another lochan marked on the map on the opposite side of the ridge. I had more luck here and enjoyed a refreshing drink of the cool clear water. Bottles filled, I then ambled up the gentle slopes toward Breabag’s summit. After clambering over some rocks to reach the top of a mound of boulders I realised that the summit was still a little further on behind another rocky knoll. The hills of Coigach were now prominent to the southwest albeit in shimmering form through the heat haze. To the west the rounded nose of Suilven’s east top posed impressively while further round to the north yesterdays hills, Conival and Ben More towered high and mighty.
Conival & Ben More Assynt from Breabag
The southern flanks of Breabag are amassed with more broken quartzite but the rocky surface didn’t pose any problems as I made my way over to Meall Diamhain. From here I descended to the head of Bealach Choinnich before deciding to keep to the higher ground so followed steep grassy slopes onto the mossy pimple that marks the top of Meall a' Bhraghaid. It was very pleasant walking from here as I traced the ridgeline toward Sgonnan Mor. The north-east ridge gave a good line down toward the stream feeding Loch Coire na Meidhe and I soon gained the peat hag ridden ground leading over to Black Rock.
Conival & Ben More Assynt above Glen Oykel
I bypassed the top but followed the prominent east-ridge easily to descend to the point where a bridge is marked on the map but absent on the ground. Fortunately the water was reasonably low and I managed to ford the river over some stepping stones. I prepared myself for the heat of the long walkout along the estate track by firstly wetting my t-shirt. While passing the cottages near the lodge I stopped for a brief chat with folks on the terrace enjoying a snack and a cold beer, I wasn’t jealous at all! I pushed on along the hot track entertained for a while as a small bird persisted in giving chase to a cuckoo. Eventually the road walking was thankfully at an end and I was back at the van. After a cooling wash a change of cloth’s and a bite to eat I was just about ready to hit the road; it would have been nice to have stayed a while longer but unfortunately the weekend was at an end.
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