Fiona Reynolds takes time out during a trip to Scotland to climb one of its most beautiful little peaks: Ben Stack.
Scotland: I can’t get enough of it. It’s been two years since I was last here — Loch Lomond and the Trossachs — but I have a few days’ work in the far north-west, near the little fishing port of Scourie on the west coast of Sutherland, and I’m determined to get in a walk.
Memories of family holidays in Skye, with forays into the Cuillin and up the Quiraing, camping at Sandwood Bay and climbing Suilven and Stac Pollaidh, flood back.
The first thing I remember, as we drive north from Inverness, is how vast the scale of everything is. The convenient circular walk or nip up a small peak — my usual habit in the soft lowlands, or even national parks, of England and Wales — isn’t possible here.
As we drive north from Ullapool, glorious mountains rear skywards, lifting my spirits and whetting my appetite to explore; the great lumps of granite and scree appear almost unscaleable. We pass the bulks of Cul Mor and Suilven before Quinag looms, its three peaks both compelling and forbidding.
We descend into Kylesku, across the ‘new’ curved bridge — before it was built, the queues for the tiny ferry were miles long — before arriving at Scourie.
We haven’t much time, but I’m desperate to gain some height and breathe the heady, peat-scented Highland air. There’s one perfect candidate: the triangular-shaped Ben Stack, a few miles inland, rising seemingly vertically out of the valley that carries the rippling River Laxford.
I’m attracted to Ben Stack partly because it reminds me of Cnicht in Snowdonia, a perfect conical mountain and the first peak I ever climbed. This has a similar feel: a gently sloping base capped by a steep cone-shaped top.
‘It’s a small peak by Scottish standards — not even a Munro — but we feel, literally, on top of the world’
There’s an obvious and welcoming track from the A838, which we take, climbing west out of the valley before swinging south below the base of our mountain. A spur leads off, now rising steeply, as we make our way towards the first shoulder.
Pulling up the slope, we’re shocked by how dry it is: the little lochs have exposed, dry banks and the normally sodden peat is suspiciously easy to walk on. Still, the path is studded with beautiful wildflowers: bluebells, violets, milkwort and masses of common spotted orchids.
As we reach the first shoulder, the peak rises temptingly before us: not far now, we think. This proves a mistake. As I look at my phone, I realise we’re less than 980ft up the 2,600ft climb. Of course, we did start near sea level!
It’s a tough, but infinitely rewarding climb. We’re gaining height fast now and, at every step, the view opens up, especially to the west, where the sea lochs, studded with inlets and islands, stretch as if to the end of the world.
Suddenly, there’s a whirr of wings and a ptarmigan lands close to us. We watch, fascinated, as it crouches by a grey stone, almost invisible with its perfect camouflage. That excuse for a rest over, we continue, feeling the pressure in our lungs as we climb. And then we’re there, and we breach the top of the cone to reveal a long, narrow ridge running parallel with the valley far below.
The views are exhilarating and our sense of achievement profound. It’s a small peak by Scottish standards — not even a Munro — but we feel, literally, on top of the world. We gaze north to Arkle and Foinaven and south back to Quinag. Ben Stack is small, but perfect, our climb worth every step. The Highlands are beckoning again.
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