After spending yesterday have a relaxing day doing nothing more strenuous than visiting the Lochinver Larder for lunch (and a fine lunch it was too if being still too full to eat dinner is any indication!), we kitted up to tackle Stac Pollaidh.
Crossing once more into Wester Ross we drove towards Ullapool and then turned off to Achiltibuie to get to our starting point. This is a very popular climb and the dedicated car park was almost full when we reached it just after 11am. Stac Pollaidh reared above the road to the north of Loch Lurgainn, its familiar shape silhouetted against an overcast sky. The name Stac Pollaidh (sometimes anglicised to Polly) means Steep Rock of the Pool, and immediately it is clear how it earned its name.
Undaunted, (well, maybe just a little) we crossed the road and passed through the gate to start the climb. We were circumnavigating the base as it's impossible to reach the summit unless you are an experiences scrambler and my mistake was in thinking that this meant a relatively level walk once the base was reached. Not so!
The path starts at a very steep and awkward stone staircase wide enough for one person at a time, winding through woodland - and forests of midges waiting in ambush. (Note: this is the first time in many trips to Scotland that we have been troubled by midges. We had heard of their annoyance but had never experienced it before. We think maybe it is warmer this year or perhaps we are just visiting areas prone to being plagued by these tiny monsters). The climb had me pausing for frequent short rests to catch my breath but at last we made it through the gauntlet of steep steps and midges to emerge into open moorland.
Our guidebook to the walk described it as being a "good path, very steep but optional climb to the ridge." Well, the path was very easy to see which was a definite bonus but for a good third of the hike it was all up! - relentless and unforgiving on a rocky path that only occasionally levelled out as it wound it's way up and around Stac Pollaidh. Sometimes the path seemed to disappear altogether but it was only concealed to the eye by the surrounding heather and grasses and revealed itself again at each turn.
After my usual heartfelt wish at about the 1km mark that I had never started the climb, we paused for a break and munched on trail bars while appreciating the view. As we sat on some convenient rocks a group of people were coming down; three young men and two children who could have been no more than 3 and 5. Laughing and thoroughly enjoying themselves, the two young boys were helped down the steep steps and they continued on their way. No wonder the Scots are tough if kids cut their teeth on walks up Stac Pollaidh!
Starting off again we rounded the end of the ridge and a new vista opened up to us. The scenery here is truly breathtaking. It was still cloudy but now and then patches of blue opened up and it never once looked like rain. Just past the 1/3 mark we arrived at the steeper-still path up to the ridge but had no intention of following it. We saw two couples coming down but it was one hill too far for us.
We continued around the back of the mountain where the gradient finally eases off to a more level path as it traverses the ridge. Now we could see out to the coast while on our left hand the steep pinnacles of the stack towered above us. We finally reached a fork in the path and here we were unsure which one to take. One descended steeply and the other continued around the ridge; I followed this for a short distance to see where it went and it seemed to cross some decidedly dangerous-looking terrain, so I returned to where Alex had waited.
We were still undecided as if we descended and it was the wrong path we would then have to climb back up - not a pleasant prospect! At that point I saw some people on the lower path who had stopped for lunch which seemed to suggest that this was the correct one and that we had, at last, reached the downward path to home. Another couple who had come down from the ridge above confidently continued down this path so we followed and began the last part of the hike that would take us ever-downward and back to the start.
In Scotland down does not necessarily mean easy. Naturally it is nowhere near as strenuous as hiking with a backpack up steep slopes but it comes with its own set of difficulties and rocky paths and stone steps have to be negotiated carefully. It's hard going on the knees with the contant bracing and Alex used her walking pole on the descent for some added stability. Me? I like to keep my hands free! Moving ever downwards at a rapid rate of descent we could, after a while, see the cars below and it was with tired calf-muscles and aching feet that we welcomed the sight of the gate that would take us to the last flight of stone stairs and, eventually, the bottom.
Passing once again through the midge-infested woods as we carefully descended the steep steps, often wet and muddy in places, it was with some relief - and a great sense of achievement - that our feet at last touched the level ground at the bottom.
Gratefully shedding our backpacks and changing from hiking boots to running shoes, we settled into the car and shared a thermos of hot chocolate. People were still arriving and a group of girls from Germany were just starting from the carpark as we readied to leave. Behind us the clouds were low and brooding and Stac Pollaidh was covered in mist. It seemed we had timed it perfectly.
We pressed on to Achiltibuie as this was one area we had not visited before, and stopped at a beautiful beach where we took a short stroll. We fleetingly saw what we believe was a stoat as it darted among the rocks and mounds of earth at the water's edge. As there were signs of rabbit holes I think it was looking for a meal. We also saw a solitary seal bobbing up out of the water but soon he was gone too. We then turned for home and made the return trip along the single track road back to the Achiltibuie turn off where we joined civilisation and the two-way carriageway leading back to Lochinver.
Satisfied that we had completed another challenging hike we arrived back at Torran Cottage for our last night in Lochinver. Next stop Mellon Charles.