I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Scotland’s North-West this summer, hiking the Sutherland Trail and working on the television programme about it. Despite climbing many of the hills in the region there was one cracking mountain that somehow we had missed out, so we back in the gloom of early winter to climb it.
We had approached the watery wilderness of the Reay Forest from Lairg, then along the empty miles beside Loch Shin where man-made islands are used as nesting platforms by black-throated divers. Water run-off from the surroundings hills, due to overgrazing and forestry, has increased considerably in recent years and the traditional nesting islands were often flooded. The artificial islands rise and fall with the water level. Breeding levels have been successful and the bird’s melancholy call seems to embody the spirit of these northern parts. The great highland writer Seton Gordon once described the wild and compelling cry as one that might come from “one of the uruisgean or gruagachan which in tradition and folk-lore people those sea-girt isles.” It’s an eerie sound in the half-light of a late summer evening, especially if you’re camped by some remote hill-loch.
Ben Stack wasn’t actually on our hit-list of hills during the summer but since we were passing it en route to Laxford Bridge and Durness we reckoned it would make a good leg stretch – and it had been some years since I’d climbed it. At 721 metres it falls short of Corbett height but I had nevertheless admired it often enough, a rocky, conical and isolated peak that rises from the shores of Loch Stack in two steep bands of cliff-line. Its blunt, western nose is steep too, but beyond its roof-like summit ridge its south-eastern slopes fall away in a gentle and rounded ridge, the Leathan na Stioma. Footpaths curve their way round the west and south of the hill and the A838 hugs the shoreline of Loch Stack below its western cliffs offering alternative circular routes.
We decided to tackle the steep west-facing nose first, before ambling down the Leathan na Stioma ridge with the wind at our back, returning to the car along the quiet road. Having just returned from the Western Isles we’d endured more than our fill of boggy footpaths.
A well maintained stalker’s path zig-zags its way from the road up to Loch na Seilge and from there it was simply a matter of getting the head down and plodding upwards through the rocky outcrops to the summit ridge. Mist spoiled the chance of far-flung views but created a micro-world for us to climb through, a dark world of exaggerated form where distance, height and steepness always felt out of context, and no more so than on the knife-edge summit ridge.
In good visibility this would be no more than a pleasant amble, but in the wind and thick mist it felt exposed and dangerous. A sudden thinning of the mist put things in better perspective and made us feel a little silly – the tightrope ridge was no more than a narrow rib with flat turf below. The summit cairn, 721metres, was directly in front of us and a hundred metres beyond lay the trig point and what looked like a television mast!
The descent was kinder to us in terms of views – out along Loch More and Loch Shin and the wonderfully named Meallan Liath Coire Mhic Dhughaill and northwards to Arkle, Meall Horn and Fionaven.
Map: OS Sheet 9
Distance: About 6 miles
Approx Time: 3-5 hours
Start/Finish: The A838 road near the turn-off to Lochstack Lodge (GR265438)
Route: Leave the road and follow a stalker’s path to Loch na Seilge. Beyond the loch leave the path and follow a line of fence posts up steep grass and heather slopes to a broad terrace from where the west ridge of Ben Stack becomes steeper in a series of rocky outcrops and grassy terraces. Make your way up through the ribs and crags on ever-steeper ground being careful to avoid the much craggier N slopes of the hill. Once the summit ridge is reached follow it for a short distance to the cairn. The trig point lies further along, on another rib. From here climb a small knoll then begin to descend the hill’s broad and grassy SE ridge. If you are returning to the starting point by the road don’t descend N too quickly as steep cliffs fall directly to the roadside but instead take a SE then an E line until you are close to the road at the SE end of Loch Stack. Alternatively you could descend SE then S to the woods above Achfary then follow the stalker’s path NW then N back to Loch na Seilge.