A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Foinaven & Arkle Traverse

Distance: 18.5 miles (29.5km) Ascent/Descent: 1650m/1510m
Start/Finish: Loch Stack Lodge to Gualin House Terrain: 30% Good track, 60% Wild, rough, 10% scree/rock
Transport: Car + bikes to get back to car!
Route: Route Map | Garmin Course [coming soon]

Hidden in the far North West of Scotland are these gems of mountains, modest in height but bold in every other sense. As if the mountains themselves aren't enough, the corries and glens around them are stunningly wild, and a network of trails penetrate the region offering lots of possibilities. The route described here is a summit traverse, but there is so much here that warrants another visit or two, and that's taking into account its isolated location! From the rocky summit ridges, the views over the rugged surroundings are very special, and on the right day stretch over the Minch to the Isle of Lewis. The traverse of these "Corbetts" is a fine, serious day's expedition on the mountains, but requires leaving bicycles at one end to get back to the car at the start (or if you're lucky like me, a helpful support-driver, just be prepared to buy them plenty pints and a dinner in return!) If using bikes I reckon leaving them at the NW end (Gualain House) as its mostly a downhill ride back to Loch Stack Lodge. And no, unlike most of my other entries, this isn't all runnable!

I wouldn't have attempted this on a poor weather day. Firstly it would be shame to miss out on the reason I was doing it - the views - but additionally I was out on my own (I didn't meet anyone else on Foinaven) and I'd read it could be quite easy for things to go wrong on a bad day. Looking back, I'm especially thinking about part of the ridge of Foinaven, which takes a bit of care when descending and I can imagine I'd have felt a little less "happy" had the rock been wet, the wind blowing hard, and the cloud obscuring an otherwise obvious route down.
From Loch Stack a really good (and cyclable) stalkers path takes one right into the middle of the Foinaven-Arkle country. As I jogged up this, Arkle was there somewhat intimidatingly ahead. The track swings around its Western flank and climbs gently to a high-point, with Foinaven coming into view. That's when I struck SE on ever-steepening ground that looked rougher and boggier than it was. The hillside ahead looked impossibly steep, but it must have been an illusion because the large scree boulders were mostly stable and walkable (no I'm not running at this point!).
I was soon on the summit and took a moment to admire the view over to Foinaven, and of Arkles' other summit, before starting to run along a nice narrow ridge that reminded me a bit of the Carn Mor Dearg Arete as it arced around. Once on the lower summit I started heading SE again, picking the easiest route I could find through the boulders, and around to Lochan na Fabileige, which is perched on a ridge and looks like it might spill into the glen below on a really windy day!
From there it was a rough descent ENE into a peat hags (I probably could have taken a better line sticking to the rocky slabs just to my SE) beyond which I picked up another brilliant landy track. I ran up this and onto the featureless grassy shoulder of Foinaven at Bealach Horn. The views back to Arkle were great, with its folds of bare rock. I returned to a walk now, drawn naturally to the crest of the SSW ridge so I was looking across Coir' a' Chruitier to my eventual onward route over Foinaven - but first I had to circle around the Coire.
Once this was done, and on the 808m peak, the true character of Foinaven was presented, and it started with a steep rocky descent that thankfully looked trickier than it was. Further down was the true test of the day - again everything's fine on a nice day and you take your time. The situation at this point is fantastic, with Foinaven's ridge rising impressively infront and behind, the view of Arkle across the loch directly below, and in the other direction, another ridge of this complex mountain, A' Cheir Ghorm (supposed to be a great ascent route too!) with its wall of orange scree running inwards to join the ridge ahead.
Continuing along the ridge, bypassing the impressive tower of rock, the route is more straightforward and views of the ocean open up again.

I visited both summits of Ganu Mor then my chosen route ignores the final peak to go exploring one of the many corries - Coire Duail. Before descending NE I managed to make radio contact (walkie-talkies!) with my dad who had just parked up at Gaulin House and was going to start making his way up the new landy road into the valley below. It's always a relief to make that first contact!

Traces of path can be seen on the scree ridge heading down, and once onto the wild craggy ground above the E wall of the Coire, there are the odd traces of boggy path again where deer and walkers have been funneled between the outcrops. I picked up the course of the burn that marks an easy way down N into the Coire and its Lochan, taking a last glance at A Cheir Ghorm behind me, and noting the vivid contrast between where I was now and where I'd been.
I put myself on the N side of the burn as soon as feasible and cut the corner slightly lower down to reach the Allt Coire Duail. It wasn't obvious where to cross the fast-flowing water but as I headed a little downstream there was an obvious safe place to jump the big rocks and so I attained a bit of a path on the N bank. When this petered out I just cut across country NNE out of the jaws of the Corrie and picked up the landy track which was followed for 4 miles up to the road, during which I met 2 of the only 4 walkers I'd encountered today. Having lost a bit of fitness lately I didn't have the endurance to run this, so it was a power-walk, but I was so happy with my day I didn't mind it. We got back to Durness campsite which had been home for the last couple of days and was home for the next couple of days. A fantastic area to spend a long weekend camping and exploring.

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