Backpacking in Knoydart that ended in disaster
I was ashamedly a Scotland virgin until a couple of weeks ago. As a hill walker, Scotland has always had that special draw but I never had enough impetus to make the 450 mile journey up from Devon. Earlier in the year, an old work colleague asked if I’d like to climb Ben Nevis with a few mates and a plan was formed. That plan fell through but my mind was still set. I dropped Rowland, who now resides in Aberdeenshire, a message and he was game to spend some time in Knoydart, Britain’s last wilderness.
Weeks of planning, eating (and kit buying) followed until I finally found myself at Exeter airport making the long journey up.
Where is Knoydart and how do you get there?
Knoydart is a peninsular on the west coast of Scotland in the highlands. From Glasgow airport, Rowland picked me up and we drove past Loch Lomond, through Glencoe, up to Fort William and then had another hour along the A830 to Mallaig where we packed up and caught the last ferry to Inverie. The whole journey took me nearly 12 hours from Torquay, it was a long way to go but I wasn’t put off. There further we went, the more wild everything became which was just what we were after.
Waiting for the bad weather to pass
Going to places like this with no agenda is perfect for exploring and making the most of the landscape. I didn’t set any targets or go with anything more than a few vague ideas of photos that I wanted to get. This was because I knew the weather would be unpredictable but also, I didn’t want to rush pass the finer details.
On the first day we just mooched around Inverie and its wonderful campsite on the shore of Loch Nevis heading round to An Cnap, a small copse on a headland at the southern edge of Inverie Bay.
After discovering the night before that The Old Forge was closed on Wednesday and rain tting in, we decided to fill our tummies with mussels, scallops and steak washed down with a few nice IPAs and the most expensive whisky I’ll probably ever buy.
The next morning I rose early with a surprisingly good head, maybe all the fresh air (and rehydration tablets) kept the hangover at bay. Either way, we were set to start the slog up to Mam Barrisdale where we would make our first wild camp.
Wild Camping in Knoydart
The gentle track, that becomes a path, runs along past Loch an Dubh-Lochain all the way to Barrisdale and makes for easy navigation although some of the bridges are looking a bit tired (especially at 852 016).
As we climbed, the weather deteriorated so we settled on a camp under Luinne Bheinn that offered amazing views over Gleann an Dubh-Locahain in the evening.
Climbing Ladhar Bheinn with big backpacks
The next morning we watched a heard of Red Deer grazing and moving up the ridge. Our decision to spend a day in Inverie was paying off as we had glorious weather right from the morning. We knew it was going to be a big day carrying 17kg up the steep scrambles of Ladhar Bheinn and we looked on envious of anyone doing it with day packs on.
For anyone considering doing the same, I would say that the approach from Bealach Coire Dhorrcail requires commitment. The scrambles don’t offer much trouble if you’re packing light but just take it steady and take your time. The route follows a well trodden path up (and down) all the way to the summit but there’s scrambles up until 850m-ish.
The photo above is the last I took on the big camera, for two reasons. Firstly, the weather came in and visibility dropped to about 10m. Secondly, and this is where it all goes pear shaped… I fell.
Disaster on Ladhar Bhienn
We made good steady progress all the way to the final summit and started our descent down the long sloping southern face. Somewhere at the top of Coire nan Laogh I stepped on a mossy rock and felt my boot slide, then I felt the second slide as well. I planted my walking poles in either-side to stop myself but then the down-slope facing pole snapped. With that sudden fall and the fact I had my hand through the strap of the up-slope pole meant that as I fell, I dislocated my shoulder.
I remember tumbling for a while on my head and back, thankfully my big Lowe Alpine Manaslu supported my neck and amazingly, I missed hitting any rocks with my head.
Once I came to rest I called up to Rowland that my shoulder was out (not the first time it’s dislocated) and he came down to me. Shaken but still with all my faculties, I immediately got our grid reference and started to think about how to get out of this situation.
We were on steep ground and were contouring round to the relatively gentle gradient of An Diollaid. I knew the ground below was only getting steeper and rockier so moving with no way of carrying my gear and risking another fall was out of the question. I didn’t fancy tempting fate twice without a helmet.
By some incredible stroke of luck, we had phone signal and were able to make contact with the police and Lochaber MRT who advised that a Bristow helicopter was en-route but we had to get below the cloud line to be able to be seen. With all of my warm layers on and a Kizu wrapped around me as a temporary sling we slid down the slope (on our bums) directly south. About 400m from the valley floor we dropped out of the cloud and heard the unmistakable sound of the helicopter.
The importance of being prepared
I have spent the last week cringing at the cost involved in pulling me off that mountainside. I’m an experienced hill walker and feel foolish that I let myself get in to that situation. Perhaps it was dehydration/low blood sugar that lead to a poor decision, or maybe it was just an accident/one of those things. The important thing that we can take away from it is that we were both totally prepared for that eventuality. If needed, we could have spent the night there easily, although in discomfort. The fact is that if by some chance we had made it back to Inverie without further injury/falls, then we would have had to wait for the morning ferry and a long drive back to Fort William to get my shoulder back in. That feels so selfish to write.
Realistically however, the probability of me falling again and or losing my kit was much higher. That would have been dangerous and I hope that the search and rescue teams agree that they’d rather have pulled me off in that state than a hypothermic/unconscious one.
At the end of the day, all I can do is thank the Lochaber MRT search manager that advised us to drop below the cloud line. Thank the Bristow team that didn’t blink an eyelid nor judge us one bit. And finally thank the amazing team at Belford Hospital who, after 5 attempts of getting my shoulder back in, only for it to pop out gain, had to put me under and fixed me up. Lastly though, I must thank Rowland who never once grumbled and did everything that he could to keep me calm, warm and get me on a flight back to Devon.
Still, one hell of an adventure.