open country

The true summit of Sgorr na diollaid
The true summit of Sgorr na diollaid

The day before it was sublime; everything was captured in a moment of time that lasted all day – the waters were still and the world reflected perfectly in the deep blue. Quickening breath and limbs working on the hummocky mountain side had stopped. We were walking on the tame street with sightseers wearing sunglasses. We were eating in a busy café where families sat at large tables and foreign couples sat outside in the sun.

I sat on a window seat on top of a flat cushion covered in a tweedy fabric – the sun was on my back. I was with my parents but felt like an observer – not part. I thought of the town’s name – Ullapool – almost onomatopoeic on this day. She was like an ethereal settlement hidden in the Highlands – the pier is silhouetted against the sun and pools of reflected light melt on to water.

It seemed dark by the River Connich when a landrover and a pick-up pulled up beside us. Two groups were going out deer stalking – would our walk up Sgorr na Diollaid (nicknamed Sgurr na Dolly by my father) be thwarted? After a short discussion that I did not hear, the verdict was that we were given passage, as long as we went straight up and straight down; easier said than done.

We were heading for the most prominent knoll north of where we parked. Rising steeply in front of us in a deep-burnt amber were the lion’s head-type tops of Mam Charaidh and Carn Doire Leithe. The former hill means breast of the grave plots, mam referring to a breast shape and charaidh meaning graves. The latter was more difficult to find a meaning for, but may mean cairn by the side (leithe) of the oaks (doire).

These two topographical features were like the gateposts to the mountain; a mountain that seemed to have disappeared. All the while stags roared on the other side of the glen. The first part of the ascent was up broken, narrow and dark peat paths. On the east side of Mam Charaidh a surprisingly tall rock face loomed and a small army of boulders came towards us.

Looking back down to the glen’s floor, we noted there was still a harsh frost over the grasses, trees and tracks – a temperature inversion. Of course the body temperature rises as well as you climb and climb.

Once we had passed this wall we were cast on to a boggy moor; a landscape which belied the hill we were approaching. Just above the 650m contour, Dad, John and I entered Sgorr na Diollaid’s boulder field. The rocks were huge and peppered with snow, the landscapes between them in the distance gloomy and wintry, yet beautiful in their own glowering way.

This route was complicated and as we moved the crags seemed to get closer together. We wound our way through the obstacles. When the gradient lessened we saw the strange castellated summit of our mountain.

The summit comprises a strap of high rock with two towers. This place is awe inspiring, Tolkien in stature and myth-invoking geology.

The need to reach the top became more urgent as my blood pumped harder with exertion and my eyes drove my desire.

The true summit is on the easterly tower. I dropped my rucksack at the bottom and excitedly scrambled up to the tiny top, furnished with the most pitiful cairn I have seen; there was no room for anything else on this knife edge. I was concerned to realise that my dad’s friend was nervous of the scramble, so we both talked him through the steps up. Eventually the three of us were perched on rock edges.

Leaving this fortified summit, we headed west. I left Dad and John at the bealach as I continued round the hummocky ridge to a Corbett top – a small cairn, snow, an elegant view of the summit I had just left and snow-topped mountains in the west fading into the grey, cold sky.

Then he ran past me. On my descent, a huge stag galloped in front of my path. He came from the east and he was so close I could see the hair on his mane move.