Home » Hiking » 2014 Scotland Trip » NW walk Day 9 (Thursday) – Foinaven (24.5 km)

NW walk Day 9 (Thursday) – Foinaven (24.5 km)

Yesterday was a relaxing day off, but also a little sad with some planning for my imminent departure from Durness. This included booking accommodation in Edinburgh and Glasgow and checking train and bus timetables. I walked the dogs – both of them to the beach, then River out to Aodann Mhor (a point on the eastern side of Faraid Head). I was going to walk River first, but Kyle looked so upset when I was leaving that I capitulated and took him out first! I also managed to try re-waterproofing my shoes, do my washing and hang out with Scott for a while.

Thursday was my last big hill walk. There was only one hill from my original walk plan that I still hadn’t done: Arkle. My plan had been to go to the summit on Arkle, backtrack a little then head over one end of Foinaven (not the summit) then drop down into the valley to continue my walk. However, I had since discovered that you can walk along the entire ridge of Foinaven, going up at the northern end and coming back down the southern flank of Arkle (or vice versa). Foinaven is bigger and more impressive (Arkle is like its little brother) but is not mentioned in the walking books as much as it is also harder to get to, and a trickier walk. Since these were not a problem for me, I was quite happy to sacrifice Arkle to walk the Foinaven ridge instead. Plus, I thought I might have time to get out to the summit of Arkle on the way home as well.

Scott’s cousin’s husband (who dropped me off in Blairmore on Monday) had climbed Foinaven from a start point just north of Rhiconich so I’d organised for him to drop me off in the correct place (it is about 1km north of Rhiconich on the A838, next to some buildings where the river from Loch an Eas Ghairbh crosses the road). Apparently this is where many locals start the walk – the other common start place is at the Gualin (“goo-lin”?), with a long walk in up the Dionard (“dyoo-nard”?). That last sentence is partly to give you a feel for what is was like for me when I started talking to people about where I should walk in the area!

Looking back from the waterfall at my start point.

Looking back from the waterfall at my start point.

It was a stunning morning when I set out – clear and dead calm, with all the lochs completely glassy and reflecting the hills around them. It had been like this quite a few times when I’d been driving around but I was always unable to take photos as I was in the car. Finally today I was out walking through it! I made up for all the other days by taking heaps of photos and they are almost all stunning! Unfortunately I was heading east, with the sun just coming over the horizon so it was still a little difficult to take photos!

Foinaven, reflected in Loch na Claise Carnaich

Foinaven, reflected in Loch na Claise Carnaich

I headed east from the road, along the stream and up the waterfall to Loch an Eas Ghairbh then continued east to go across the north end of Loch na Claise Carnaich (below Lochan Cul na Creige). My navigation was not great, drifting too far south and having to walk up and around the end of the loch – possibly because the sun was a little south in the sky and was dragging me across a bit? It was not that easy to navigate with the lumpy ground being too high to see over, but too low to register on the map (so you couldn’t navigate from it).

It was a little bit boggy here, especially around the lochs and streams, and there were a few midges (being so calm and warm) but it was not too bad.

Then it was up the long spur to Ceann Garbh, the northern peak of Foinaven. It was not too steep or difficult walking but was still super hard work! I had to stop and rest a few times, using the excuse of turning around to admire the view! I had some good views from here of where my original route would’ve taken me. It looked like it would’ve been an OK route.

One of my rest stops (looking west at Loch na Claise Carnaich)

One of my rest stops (looking west at Loch na Claise Carnaich)

There are some underground streams here – it looks like solid ground but you can hear the water running underneath, and obviously you can sometimes fall in as I had been warned to be careful of them. I think it must be where the ground is actually rocky scree underneath (with big gaps in it) but enough dirt and plant has accumulated on the top that it looks like normal ground.

A portal to an underground stream (this was actually on the way down)

A portal to an underground stream (this was actually on the way down)

And of course I saw deer (they are everywhere . . . but I still hadn’t got over taking photos of them!)

Deer on the north west slopes of Foinaven

Deer on the north west slopes of Foinaven

I got to the top just north of Ceann Garbh and made a stupid map reading mistake, thinking instead that I was south of it. I went north and climbed up a pile of rocks on the end of the ridge. It was worth it anyway, but was a silly mistake as the directions and distances were all wrong compared to the map.

My little pile of rocks.

My little pile of rocks (looking north east)

I walked back south to Ceann Garbh (realising where I was), then it was a bit of a long walk (~1km) to the highest peak, Ganu Mor. This was a good peak with great views, although it was very hazy. The walk here had been nothing special though.

The real Ceann Garbh, on the right. The short flat section further back is Ganu Mor

The real Ceann Garbh, on the right. The short flat section further back in the middle is Ganu Mor

Now it was onto a proper ridge walk! This was pretty narrow, with lots of boulders, but generally not too difficult. This took me up to the peak at the start of the A’ Choir Ghorm ridge which sticks out to the north east of the main ridge. I tried to walk out along this ridge (I like to go all the way to every end of wherever I am). I got a little way along and the path almost completely petered out. The ridge got very narrow and precarious, with just loose, sliding scree off the edge. You couldn’t really walk on top of the ridge anymore (it really was a ‘knife edge ridge’, without even the usual foot or so of flat ground on top), and instead were scrambling and sliding a couple of feet down one side. After a few hundred metres (which took about 10 minutes!) I realised that there was no way I could walk out and back on this ridge at a safe speed and still get down to Achfary in time for my lift home. There was also an outcrop section ahead that looked quite difficult. There was a reasonably high likelihood of slipping and falling, probably without major injury, but possibly enough injury (or just general bruising, grazing and pain) to make it impossible to walk out. Again (like when I bailed out near Stac Pollaidh), I wasn’t willing to be “that person” who had to call out a helicopter to rescue me!

Slightly disappointed, I turned around and headed back. The return walk was difficult enough that I was completely happy with my decision by the time I got back to the peak! I still want to get back out and do this full ridge at some point in the future though!

This was an interesting section as the ridge is actually not that high up. The ‘ground level’ here is quite high, and the scree has filled in the valleys a lot so while it is high where I came up and off to the west, looking to the east it’s not that far down.

The ridge I couldn't walk out along. See how shallow the valley is.

The ridge I couldn’t walk out along. See how shallow the valley is.

The next section of ridge was not as bad as the one I missed but still borderline climbing rather than walking! The path was not clear either and, much like the previous ridge, I wasn’t sure (from looking at it) if it was actually possible to get all the way along. However, I’d been told I could (and I had to get through to get picked up!) so I had to find a way through somehow! So, I scrambled and climbed and backtracked (when I found myself on top of a cliffs, with no way forward) . . . . . .

The section of ridge I did walk along!

The section of ridge I did walk along!

Looking back (north) at a part I've just traversed. There was lots of backtracking coming of the high part as I kept trying to stay on top of the ridge, where the cliffs are, while the "path" is actually a few metres below the top of the western (left in this photo) side.

Looking back (north) at a part I’ve just traversed. There was lots of backtracking coming off the high part as I kept trying to stay on top of the ridge, where the cliffs are, while the “path” is actually a few metres below the top on the western (left in this photo) side.

It really was a stunning ridge line. This is an amazing mountain.

I was climbing (hands and toes, up an almost vertical pile of rocks) . . . . then suddenly I was on top and there was a massive, gently sloping plateau spread out in front of me!

Somehow I went up here: the last climb on the ridge before . . .

Somehow I went up here: the last climb on the ridge before . . .

The huge flat plateau that greeted me over the top.

The huge flat plateau that greeted me over the top.

I walked south a little bit further to see where I’d been planning to descend on my original route. Nope, wouldn’t have been able to descend off there!! It was very steep and loose, blocky scree. Then I went back up and across east to the last high point (An t-Sail Mhor) to complete the ridge walk then south, down the main spur to where Foinaven joins Arkle.

The main spur looked a little boggy so I ended up following the quartzite outcrops down along the edge of the corrie (west side of the spur). I was walking on the side of smooth slabs of steeply tilted (~30o+?) quartzite! Luckily it wasn’t wet or they would’ve been really slippery. I think I found some glacial scouring here too, where the glaciers grind gouges into the rock as they’re slowly sliding down the hill.

I walked on the smooth sections of these tilted quartzite slabs (the photo is level - I'd found the level indicator in my camera by this point!)

I walked on the smooth sections of these tilted quartzite slabs (the photo is level – I’d found the level indicator in my camera by this point!)

The outcrops I was following down. Arkle in the background.

The outcrops I was following down. Arkle in the background.

I ended up coming off the spur right at the head of the valley (south west of Loch an Easain Uaine), instead of much further south east like I’d planned. I’m glad I did though as it suddenly opened up into a stunning section of burns, lochs and outcrops (burns are small streams)

The beautiful saddle filled with lochs and streams (and bogs).

The beautiful saddle filled with lochs and streams (and bogs).

I had a good wander around, including going to look over the edge to the north west. This section would definitely have been descendable, and would’ve led straight onto my planned route so hopefully I would’ve been smart enough to use this as an alternative if I’d still been doing my original walk. I also got a bit complacent at this point and stepped straight into a bog with one foot!

Looking off the saddle at Loch an Esain Uaine

Looking north off the saddle at Loch an Esain Uaine. Arkle on the left, Foinaven on the right.

I followed the edge of the valley and the quartzite outcrops up onto the flanks of Arkle and up to the first ‘mound’ on Arkle (Meall Aonghais), and walked a little north to look over the An Garbh-Coire from the col (if that’s the proper use of that word!). I had already decided that I didn’t have time to go all the way to the summit of Arkle so was taking my time here, then started my descent.

Looking down An Carbh Coire from the col. A beautiful view of Foinaven showing the gneiss/quartzite contact.

Looking down An Carbh Coire from the col. A beautiful view of Foinaven showing the gneiss-quartzite contact.

I saw a couple of other people here – we actually crossed over paths as they started on the western side of the spur and went over to the east to descend there . . . the opposite to what I was doing!

The descent was pretty tough on my knees and ankles. It was really rocky, although not too bad. The previous 5 hours of walking across this stuff had taken its toll though! It was not too boggy either – this whole area had been pretty dry.

My guide books only have instructions for going up Arkle from here, which are “walk up the road until you see (something) and then turn and head up the ridge”. Going the opposite way I didn’t really know what I should’ve been aiming for but I think I ended up hitting the road pretty close to where I should’ve turned off it (going the other way). I was pretty happy with that!

From here it was a very pleasant road walk back to Achfary. There is a short section of forest with two “erratics” (giant boulders left randomly behind by glaciers) on either side of the path on the way in (there is a good campsite here, clearly used before but otherwise ‘wild’).

Erratics

Erratics

The rest is mainly through open countryside past old buildings and existing houses.

An old building (called "Lone"), with Arkle in the background (again, note the gneiss/quartzite contact) and some pretty cloud formations.

An old building (called “Lone”), with Arkle in the background (again, note the gneiss-quartzite contact) and some pretty cloud formations.

I saw some cut peat, stacked up and drying, some shooting targets (deer shaped) and a guy walking towards Arkle with a proper full hiking pack (he looked like he was long distance hiking). As it was late in the day, I assumed he was going to camp soon (probably near the erratics) then tackle the hill tomorrow.

I got back to Achfary just in time for my lift home with Scott’s cousin, much more enthusiastic and energetic than I had been after my last walk here (Ben Stack). I got to see an amazing aurora photo that the estate foreman had just had framed, then it was back home to Durness and to the Smoo for dinner. While there I got to chat to one of the locals I’d got to know, who had finally managed to identify the deer ked for me (see my post from Ullapool), sharing our enthusiasm for Foinaven and some of the other hills in the area!

Today had been quite warm, still and a little humid. I made sure I put my suncream on! On top of Foinaven though the wind picked right up and it was actually quite cold. I almost had to put my jacket on! I took my proper Osprey hiking pack with me today, rather than the backpack that I had used for other daywalks. It was still packed pretty light (no tents, sleeping gear, spare clothes) but it cinched down really well and was comfortable and stable with no squeaking, rattling, shifting despite being almost empty. I was very happy with it.

Foinaven is an amazing hill and ridge walk and this was a fantastic walk to end on. I love “through” walks, rather than “there and back” so being able to start at the north of Foinaven and get picked up at Achfary was great. I also love ridge walks in general – one slog to get up high then a long time of wandering around on top! It is also a very tricky walk, keeping things interesting, and the views are good all the way along. Foinaven is almost entirely quartzite (the northern peak is gneiss) so it’s not easy walking but this is what gives it such character. I’m very glad I chose to walk across Foinaven rather than just doing Arkle to complete my original list of hills . . . . but I will have to come back and walk Arkle in the future!

FoinavenRoute FoinavenElevation

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6 Comments

  1. Bridget says:

    Gorgeous! I can’t believe you walked along that knife edge! It looked as bad as the one you didn’t walk!

    • Helen says:

      If I hadn’t been told there was a “path”, and if I hadn’t needed to get to the other side to get home, I may not have tried it either!!

  2. annathrax says:

    This is your best yet! Love the photos, that ridge is crazy!! Such beautiful countryside!

  3. Jackie says:

    Great photos!

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