‘Land of the giants,’ a running friend remarked when I announced I was Knoydart-bound. Knoydart is a wild, west coast peninsula suffused in the mythology of the outdoors: a place of extremes, a place of dreams. The Rough Bounds – as Knoydart is also known – have also been over-described as Scotland’s ‘last wilderness; that interpretation demands a definition of wilderness – and one man’s definition will be very different to another.
My objectives were the trio of Munros of Knoydart: Ladhar Bheinn, the highest, Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn. There is nothing simple about these three; the giants have seen to that. First, I had to hike six midge-bothered miles from the road end at Kinloch Hourn to Barrisdale, then spend a muggy night in the estate bothy before the mountains could be contemplated.
Summit day dawned mercifully bright; I set off expectantly shortly after 7, a pasta breakfast consumed. A writer on Walk Highlands described Coire Dhorrcail as Lord of the Rings-esque. I can’t argue with that. The corrie was big and scary, getting out of it an unrelenting slog. Alone and having told no one of my specific plans, I had never felt so spectacularly isolated. The consequences of a trip or twist here were alarmingly apparent. This is the thrill of being in high and remote places, but – and perhaps it’s cowardly to say – on this occasion I was overawed by the exposure to danger.
Nevertheless, in a shade under two hours since leaving Barrisdale, I was on the top, a blanket of mist to the right, a gloriously clear view to the left. Standing there was like being on the rim of a smoking volcano, such was the proliferation of mist on one side and nothing to the other. How wild is Knoydart? I could have searched the web or sent an email; there was 3G coverage up there.
Ladhar Bheinn would be the physical and emotional high of the day; what ensued was struggle. I struggled up the north flank of Meall Buidhe. Don’t go there. It is steep, wet and grim. I struggled over the terrain between Meall Buidhe and Luinne Bheinn, falling heavily on an already-troubled ankle in the process. I struggled on to Luinne Bheinn, my 66th Munro. The view from here of Barrisdale and an emerald Loch Hourn is one of the most extraordinary I’ve seen from a mountain.
The final descent to Kinloch Hourn should have been a joy, but the sore ankle reduced my progress to a determined limp. After 7 hours and 17 miles I touched the door of the bothy and slumped down inside. Knoydart had redefined my perception of a ‘long mountain day’, and there were still six miles to go.
I feel guilty writing these final words: for while Knoydart is meant to captivate and inspire, I’d had my fill. I wanted to escape. This land had challenged me and – at times – scared me. I shouldered my pack, took a last glance at the mountains and got the hell out of there.