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Suilven Adventure

May 2021

Sutherland, Scotland

4th time lucky?

In the late 1980s I came across a picture of Suilven on a playing card, and thought I’d love to visit that one day.

In the early 2000s, Rhona and I had 3 attempts, but due to weather, foot issues, and eye sight problems, we hadn’t made it yet.  Then in early 2021, my mum told me about a film called “Edie”, in which Sheila Hancock plays the part of an elderly widow who wants to climb Suilven.  My mum knew that I had a thing for Suilven, and this is what kick-started our 4th attempt.

Knowing that I couldn’t walk in, (due to nerve damage in my left foot), and I couldn’t bike in, (I’d tried that and fallen off more times than I can count), I had to find another way.  I told my story to my friend and adventure partner/guide Patrick Winterton, and he said “leave it with me”.  A few days later he had a plan.

The original plan was to paddle 8km in close to the foot of Suilven leaving a short, (2km), walk to the foot of the hill, before climbing to the top, and then reversing the route for our exit.  I reckoned with a slow steady pace, and a handful of painkillers, this could be achievable.  Then Patrick said, “I have an even better idea”.  The 1 day adventure had just been increased by 24 hours and about 40km!

As well as the challenge being increased, so was the team.  Joining us on this one would be my wonderful wife Rhona, and Patrick’s 8 year old daughter Faraid, who was to be the star of the whole adventure!

Day 1 started with Rhona and I jumping on our bikes at Inverkirkaig and cycling east, for 37km, to Elphin.  Patrick drove the van and took photos along the way.  At the 10k point, Faraid joined us on her bike and occasionally took over guiding duties from Rho.  The 3 of us cycled along the road past Stac Pollaidh, and up a lot of long hills, telling jokes and singing songs.  These hill climbs, with the sun beating down on us, weren’t easy, but there was not a word of complaint from Faraid.

3 hours after we set off, we arrived at Elphin.  After a spot of lunch, we changed into our paddling gear, before loading ourselves up with several bags each of camping and walking kit, and then portaging it 1km down to the loch where Patrick had already inflated the SUP.  All we had to do now was blow up the 4-man inflatable canoe.

With the heavy kit strapped to the SUP, we all piled into the canoe and paddled 8k down Loch Veyatie, towing the kit-SUP behind us.  Along the way we took in Suilven from many different angles.  At the end of the loch, we entered the river, which was very shallow in places, and meant us having to walk the crafts through these sections.

At around tea-time, we arrived at our campsite, where we had an awesome view of Suilven on the other side of the river.

Day 2 started with a quick breakfast before paddling 50m across the river to our start point.  From here, we took a slow 2km walk to the foot of Suilven.  Not being able to see much made this walk mentally very hard.  But it wasn’t just hard for me.  Watching where you are going, and also guiding a blind guy behind you is also very tough.  Fortunately for me, I had 3 guides who all took turns guiding me across this rough terrain, warning me of holes and burns to cross, and guiding me up and over rocks.

After an hour of this, we were at the foot of Suilven, where things became much steeper.  Again, my guides all took turns, telling me where to step, when to hold on to rocks, and when to watch out for slippery scree sections. 

In my mind, because I couldn’t see where I was going, or see my surroundings, I felt like I was climbing an almost vertical cliff, with every step feeling like if I got it wrong, I would plummet off the mountainside, but in reality, to anyone who can see, this wasn’t much steeper than an average set of stairs in a house, (if a bit less smooth, even, or carpeted).  It’s funny what the “blind thing” can do.

About an hour later we were at the saddle on Suilven.  This was my first chance to look around and take in the view.  OK, so I didn’t really see the view, but I knew it was there, and it felt great.

As we walked along the saddle, we came across a short wall which straddled the narrow path with a wee gap in it.  The wall only ran for a few metres either side, before the hill was almost vertical.  At the time we didn’t know what it was for, but since getting home, I found out that it was one of the “famine walls” of the 1840s.  (If you want to find out more, Google “famine walls and destitution roads of the 1840s”.)

From here we made our way up to the summit where we took a few pics and had some lunch.  It may not be the highest mountain in Scotland, (only 731m), but it is pretty spectacular!

We knew that the descent was going to be the hardest bit for me.  On the way up, the ground was never far from my face, so with guidance, I could see some things.  On the way down, the ground would always be at least my body’s length away, which was well beyond my visual limits.  Patrick took the lead for this bit, and I spent the next 20 minutes either with my hand on Patrick’s backpack, or my bum on the ground. 

Then I had a brainwave.  What if I turned around to face the hillside, and then crawled down the hill backwards? Leaning into the hillside on all-fours I started to pick up the pace, and at some points I was going down the hill faster than the other 3!  The expected 2 hours and 500m descent was over in less than 20 minutes!

Another hour and the 2k walk back to the boat was done.  Then the 50m paddle back across the river, and it was time to dismantle our camp and load the kit back onto the SUP, and off down the river we went.

Although it was only a 3k paddle, the wind did have some fun with us in our inflatable canoe.  At one point, the wind and the wee waves managed to flip the SUP over, but fortunately, the kit had been attached well, and we lost nothing.

Once the paddle was over, it was now time to deflate the crafts, and then portage all of the kit 2k along a rough path.  (A lot tougher than it sounds.)

At the end of the portage, we then re-inflated the canoe, and dragged it down the hillside onto the river.  Here Patrick had hoped to paddle the kit downstream, but as the river level was very low, he spent most of the time walking the kit downstream, between the rocks.  Meanwhile, Faraid, Rhona and I walked the last 4k back to Inverkirkaig.  Mission complete.

Although I had waited over 30 years to climb Suilven, it had been well worth the wait.  Thanks to Patrick, Rhona and Faraid for making this all possible.  As I said earlier, the visual thing can be quite tough for me, but the guiding isn’t exactly a stroll in the park either.  Thanks team! 

Suilven was pretty special, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Faraid.  There were many challenges along the way, but she never once complained.  I would say that she’s an adventurer in the making, but to be honest, she’s already there!!


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