I had last climbed Assynt’s Glas Bheinn as part of an unholy Corbett raid a number of years ago. We had climbed the fine tops of Quineag the day before and decided to bump Glas Bheinn off the next morning before the long drive south. I’ve realised since that’s no way to treat a mountain. Needless to say I can’t recall very much about the ascent other than being slightly annoyed that the summit wasn’t on the mountain’s corrie edge, but, inconveniently, a little beyond the edge on a flat high level plateau.
My next slight skirmish with Glas Bheinn was a couple of years ago when researching the 77 mile Sutherland Trail between Lochinver and Tongue. We had climbed the very fine stalkers’ path that runs from Inchnadamph to the high and stony bealach just east of Glas Bheinn. I had intended nipping up to the 776m summit from the bealach but the weather was deteriorating and we were keen to visit the highest waterfall in Britain, the Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, which lies a short distance below the bealach overlooking Loch Glencoul. Realising that the route from Inchnadamph was a much finer ascent line than the normal route of ascent from Loch na Gainmhich in the north, I promised myself a return visit sometime in the future.
After what felt like weeks of rain high pressure finally settled in and I made plans to visit Assynt again. I slept overnight in my old campervan near Ullapool and on a still and dry morning left Inchnadamph with hopes for clear views from the summit. But this is Scotland’s north-west in December, and whenever high pressure covers the country you can be sure this part of the highlands does its own thing. It was grey and cloudy but I didn’t care too much. After weekend after weekend of soakings I knew that at least I would stay dry today.
In many ways Inchnadamph is one of Scotland’s main geological centres of interest. It was here that John Horne and Ben Peach discovered the Moine Thrust, which explained why some older rocks were found on top of younger rocks, a curiosity that had puzzled geologists for decades. You don’t have to spend very long in Assynt to see that the shape of the land is different to anything else in the UK. The low grey hills are of archaean gneiss, and studded with countless lochs and tarns. This is the oldest of British rocks, smoother and rounded by the centuries and scored and scarred by glaciers – its rounded bosses form the plateau of Assynt.
The stalkers’ path that runs north from Inchnadaph climbs into a huge wild corrie, complete with not one but four corrie lochs and numerous tiny lochans. The grey headwall of this corrie is made up from the long ridge of Beinn-Uidhe and its north-west terminus shares the high bealach with Glas Bheinn. That’s where I was heading.
Low shafts of sunlight were lighting up the quartzite screes of Glas Bheinn’s eastern slopes as I approached, creating a rather surreal atmosphere. Bands of mist were already drifting in the the west and as I climbed the rocky slopes to the summit plateau I have expected to see a Brocken Spectre, when sunlight casts your shadow onto the mist below, creating a halo effect. But it wasn’t to be. Instead I became shrouded in mist as I reached the summit plateau and half thought I might have to get my compass out to find my way to the summit.
Now and again I like to play a little game on the hills, but only when I have a GPS which will give me my exact grid reference if required. I’m pretty convinced that we can develop a directional ‘instinct’ if we use that sense enough – after all our ancestors didn’t use a map or compass to find their way around the hills. So, working out that if I followed the corrie rims (Glas Bheinn is formed by the upthrust of several large corries, two of which face north-east) I knew that the huge summit cairn lay some distance away from the rim, between the two. I found it quite easily by simply following the highest ground, even though the mist was now thick and seemingly impenetrable.
I know this wasn’t the most difficult navigational test in the world, but I think little exercises like this help to hone the instincts and senses that most of us have lost through misuse.
From the summit it didn’t take long to get out of the mist and I followed the hill’s north-west ridge down towards Loch na Gainmhich and the footpath that skirts Glas Bheinn’s western slopes and runs south to Loch Assynt. With the slopes of Quineag rising to the west and the knobbly landscape of Sutherland stretching out to the north I was reminded why I love this region of Scotland so much. I think it’s probably time I walked the Sutherland Trail again.