Packrafting, walking and summit camping on Suilven, Assynt
I made the most of a summer solstice weekend of good weather with a four-day trip to the Assynt area near Ullapool, Sutherland. I walked a Corbett on the Friday, camped on Suilven Saturday to Sunday and biked and hiked the Munro, Seana Bhraigh on the Monday.
Packraft, hike and summit camp on Suilven
Whether you have visited the Assynt area of north-west Scotland, or not (but, if not, you really should go!), the chances are you will know what Suilven looks like. Perhaps you have seen the recent movie, Edie, starring Sheila Hancock in which the main character climbs Suilven in her 80s.
Suilven is one of the most distinctive mountains in Scotland. It rises almost vertically from a wilderness landscape of moorland, lochans (and bogs) amid Inverpolly National Nature Reserve.
The hump-backed mountain ridge is around 2km long with several high points and bealachs. The highest point is 731m.
Some 17 or 18 years ago, I almost reached the summit. I was an inexperienced mountain walker back then and the conditions were wild and windy. I was with a group (a press trip I think) and despite clinging to the hand of the guide, I wasn’t brave enough to walk a narrow ridge path to the base of the final lump of Suilven.
I had never forgotten this.
I told my friend Rob that I was still worried about this narrow ridge – and I warned him I might not get to the top on my second attempt. Rob looked a little alarmed because he knows the Munros I have summitted and some of them have been very gnarly indeed.
More of this story later*.
Packraft on Loch Veyatie
Suilven is remote. A Walk Highlands route from Lochinver in the west is 12.5 miles. With so much water lying around the mountain, Rob and I concluded that a packraft would be a good mode of transport.
A packraft – hired from the UK’s only hire supplier Back Country in Aviemore – seemed liked a good way to go. Packrafts weigh around 2kg to 3kg. They pack down to the size of about a 25l rucksack. They can be transported on your back and they are accompanied by lightweight paddles. We took a buoyancy aid, too.
When you reach an area of water, you inflate the single-person raft with a bag. It looks like an open ended dry bag and the way it works is that you collect air in the bag and then roll over the top to capture the air. This air is exhaled/pushed through a valve and into the raft walls. It is actually very effective.
Why employ this system? Because a pump would weigh a lot more than an inflator bag.
Setting off from Elphin, just north of Ullapool, Rob and I walked to the eastern shore end of Loch Veyatie. We unpacked the rafts, inflated them and then tried to work out where to stow our overnight walking and camping kit in the small crafts.
Top tip 1: Take a dry bag for all your kit. The paddler and your kit do get wet in a packraft so it’s a good idea to have a big dry bag to stow it all.
Top tip 2: Wear full waterproofs – jacket and trousers – and take cycling gloves, or similar, to prevent blisters.
Top tip 3: Ask the owner of Back Country, Andy, for advice on the best places to packraft because you may find you have picked a distance that is too far for a beginner.
Top tip 4: Check which way the wind is going.
A long (and tiring) packraft of Loch Veyatie
The forecast did not appear to suggest a strong headwind, but packrafts are not sleek crafts and paddling into a headwind can be hard work. Even a wind of a few miles an hour can make the task very tiring.
This we discovered as we made slow progress along the loch.
In retrospect a paddle-hike-paddle-hike from south of Lochinver might have been a better choice for the journey to Suilven because it would have been with a tailwind.
As Andy, the owner of Back Country, said when I dropped the packrafts back with him: “You need to read the weather as well as the terrain to get the best from a packraft. You want easy paddling conditions and that might mean making a change of plan to access an area with a tailwind.
“Packrafting is more about a journey, including paddling, walking and camping, and reaching seemingly inaccessible places, rather than being a straightforward A to B mode of transport.”
Anyway, back to our packraft of Loch Veyatie.
Although it wasn’t easy and the 8km took twice as long as expected (four hours) there were a number of highlights:
- The sense that we were one of few people – maybe the only ones – to access a hike of Suilven by packraft on Loch Veyatie.
- The wonder of being in a small packraft, on our own, and surrounded by a large expanse of water.
- How small I felt in the grand landscape.
- The peace and quiet of the loch and the paddling.
- The way we slowly approached the great mound of mountain, Suilven, and how large it seemed for almost all of the paddle.
- The chance to stop for a rest and a bite to eat at secluded beaches that few people will ever have been to.
- The true sense of adventure.
- The calorie burning and strength building of paddling.
- The novelty of a packraft and hike.
From packraft to walking
Finally arriving at the most north-westerly point of the loch, we paddled to the shore and parked the rafts on dry land.
Having paddled so far, we had only a couple of kilometres of walking to reach the base of Suilven and a very steep climb of the southern side. Most walkers will approach from the north side where there is a less foreboding climb, however, while our side did prove to be very steep in places it was manageable.
Carrying all our kit for an overnight camp slowed us down a bit but it was good to be using our legs again, rather than our arms. I had been keen to use my experience from the recent Scottish Mountain Marathon to ensure I carried only the items I needed and not too many extras.
In my pack:
Tent: One-person Mountain Hardware tent weighing less than 1kg
Sleeping mattress: Thermarest inflatable sleeping mat
Sleeping bag: Thermarest Questar HD bag (I decided to have a bit of extra warmth rather than the super lightweight OMM sleeping bag I used for the mountain marathon. It is a heavier at just over 1kg and bulkier bag but warmer). See my review of the Questar sleeping bag.
Warm jacket: OMM lightweight insulated jacket
Waterproofs: OMM waterproof jacket and trousers
Spares: Extra pair of socks and t-shirt
Toiletries: A few basic items (no hairbrush but moisteriser, toothbrush and toothpaste, wet wipes)
Food: Summit to Eat evening meal of chicken, veg and rise, plus chocolate pudding and scrambled egg and cheese for breakfast; coffee sachet; snacks for the packrafting and walking sections.
Plastic cup and spork
(Rob carried a cooking stove)
Other essentials: Map, compass, head torch.
I forgot my portable mobile phone charger, which was annoying because my phone ran out of charge after one day.
We loaded up with water at the base of the mountain. We took a few litres between us for drinking and making meals.
Reaching Suilven ridge
The weather was fairly calm and quite sunny as we reached the summit ridge. While it looks like a pointy, narrow ridge from lower down the slope, it is in fact quite a wide.
Turning left at the top of our steep southerly path, we headed along the ridge and passed over an incredible drystone dyke (wall). It snakes up the sides of Suilven at a ridiculous gradient. (I looked it up later and discovered that it’s thought the dyke was built in exchange for famine relief during the Highland potato famines.)
But, wow, how did they build this wall in such a remote place and on such a steep mountain?
After the dyke, the path starts to climb to the summit proper. It zig-zags back and forth and there are a few places where you need to do a little scrambling but it’s nothing onerous.
We came to a level section that felt wonderfully calm. It was shielded from the westerly wind and we decided that if the summit was too breezy we would return here to camp.
Rob and I climbed again before a another lower section and *then that narrow ridge path I had been fearing. It is about five metres long and, yes, the drop on either side is steep, almost vertical, but it didn’t seem so bad. Certainly, it was not a section that would stop me reaching the summit.
I was both perplexed and up-lifted. Had this been the section of narrow path that had stopped me from reaching the summit last time? It had been much windier back then so I can see why I had been nervous.
But many years later, having walked numerous mountains in Scotland and Europe, I discovered that my ability and confidence is a lot better. I am still nervous of ridges, drop-offs and steep climbs but this section on Suilven was well within my comfort zone now.
To prove this, I walked it several times and did a 360-degree turn in the middle, too! I don’t want you to underestimate the narrow section of ridge but it’s not all that bad.
We climbed again and then gained the summit at just over 730m. This qualifies Suilven as a Graham. And, wow, again! The views all around, over Assynt and out to the sea and islands, including the Summer Isles and the Outer Hebrides, was magnificent.
Setting up camp & a sunset
We did try to pitch our tents on the summit but the wind was quite strong. Instead, we retraced our steps to the level section lower down and erected the tents in far calmer conditions.
The view back back along the ridge to the east of the seep, craggy hump called Meall Meadhonach was superb. It’s possible to scramble up this part of Suilven ridge, too, although we chose to relax, eat a meal and then take a dram back up to the summit proper for the slow sunset.
Someone has created the perfect ground-level bench from big rocks and we sat, nursing our whisky, to enjoy the fabulous evening view. I felt like one of the luckiest people in the world at that moment.
The return on foot
I mentioned that the paddle had been long and, for me, painful. My left wrist had been irritated by the hard work and the headwind and it was swollen. I seemed to have niggled the tendons and it was no better by the morning.
We also realised that the wind had switched direction entirely. So, instead of a hoped-for tailwind for the return paddle along the loch, we faced another headwind. And, the wind was stronger.
We made the decision to carry the rafts back to the start at Elphin. Thankfully, these were packrafts and they were meant to be carried.
Retrieving the rafts from the side of the loch, we took our time to securely strap the deflated rafts, paddles and buoyancy aids to our packs, already filled with camping kit. I think we were both hoping we would find some kind of path back along the side of the loch but I also believe we both knew this was unlikely.
Few people will access Suilven from Elphin and rarely on foot.
We ended up hiking over very tough, pathless terrain carrying our now heavy packs and under a hot sun.
The landscape seemed relentlessly up and down and every time we thought we might have discovered a path through the heather and grassy tussocks, it petered out to nothing. We tried going over the hills, around the hills and along the loch shore, but wherever we chose to walk it was hard going.
It took us three long and sweaty hours to make it back to Elphin. I was exhausted but still living off the thrill and delight of having camped on one of Scotland’s most iconic mountains on a Summer Solstice weekend.
A few thoughts:
I am not sure if I would recommend the packraft route that we took unless you had a glorious tailwind. Instead, if you fancy that access route to Suilven, maybe take a Canadian canoe or kayaks. Better still, plan the packraft trip according to the wind direction.
There are plenty of waterways that give access by boat around Suilven and you will be able to find one to give a tailwind paddle.
Think about returning by a different route if the wind favours that.
It is a great adventure to combine travel by water with walking, especially in remote areas of Scotland.
Ask Andy at Back Country for his suggestions or join him for a packrafting adventure. See Back Country.