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Sgurr Coire na Choinnichean, above the forests of Inverie, Knoydart, Scotland

Sgurr Coire na Choinnichean, above the forests of Inverie, Knoydart, Scotland

Well, the night before this glorious day, the water pipes froze in the ground here, it was THAT cold.  But in the end, despite it being the second week of December and the rest of the UK wallowing in the wettest year on record, I walked in t-shirt sleeves under blue skies and above expansive views across the sea to Skye.  In fact, it was so picture-perfect, that I can’t help but include lots of photos in this blog, to give you a sense of why this place is so special.

Though the sunlight hours are very short up here in the Western Highlands (around 5 hours in all), I decided to have a crack at a hill walk up Sgurr Coire na Choinnichean (it rhymes with ‘heineken’ apparently: ‘sgurr korry na konniken‘). It is the big hulking hill that rises above the tiny town of Inverie (reached by boat from Mallaig), but is often overlooked for it’s more glamorous neighbouring munros, which were topped with snow. However, it has some hidden surprises – and it also gets the sun for most of the day, which is incentive enough in winter!  A beautiful start steeply up through the mossy forests above Inverie, over the deer fence by way of a vertiginous stile, then a pathless clog up and up, and up some more through heather, mud and icy bog, with Inverie becoming progressively smaller below.

Looking across to Eigg and Rhum from above Inverie (c) JP Mundy 2012

Looking across to Eigg and Rhum from above Inverie.

The sky was brilliant blue and the iced up heather spectacular, as you can see:

Jet stream above the slopes of Coire na Choinneachean, Knoydart (c) JP Mundy 2012

Jet stream above the slopes of Coire na Choinneachean, Knoydart

Icicles on winter heather, Knoydart, Scotland (c) JP Mundy 2012

Icicles on winter heather, Knoydart, Scotland

After a lot of puffing up the boggy hillside, you lose sight of Inverie below and make your way around the rim of the impressive hidden gully/gorge of Allt Slochd a’Mogha (seriously, don’t ask me how to pronounce that one!).

Allt Slochd a'Mogha Gorge, Knoydart, Scotland (c) JP Mundy 2012

Allt Slochd a’Mogha Gorge, Knoydart, Scotland

Looking down the Allt Slochd a'Mogha gorge to Long Beach, Knoydart (c) JP Mundy 2012

Looking down the Allt Slochd a’Mogha gorge to Long Beach, Knoydart (c) JP Mundy 2012

At the head of the gorge, you reach a totally unexpected high level pasture-land/bog, which gives you 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and lochs, including the magnificent Laddher Bhein, Bhein na Caillich and across to the Cuillins on Skye.

Benn na Caillich, from the plateau on Sgurr Coire na Coinnichean (c) JP Mundy 2012

Benn na Caillich, from the plateau on Sgurr Coire na Coinnichean

The final pull up the two summits of Coire na Choinnichean was not for me this day, sadly, as with the sun going down by 3pm and the rocks and ridges hanging onto their ice, I had to turn around and save it for another day.  SO tough with it close enough to grasp….

The tantalising but icy summit of Sgurr Coire na Choinnichean, with the snow-covered summit of Laddher Bhein peeking above the horizon (c) JP Mundy 2012

The tantalising but icy summit of Sgurr Coire na Choinnichean, with the snow-covered summit of my favourite munro, Laddher Bhein, peeking above the horizon

Totally wild. Utterly spectacular. Very, very hard to leave.

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Afternoon view from Knoydart across Sandaig and Morar to the distant Cuillan Ridgeline on the Isle of Skye.

Who’d have thought you’d come to Scotland in winter to walk in your t-shirt and get sunburnt?  True!  It was 1C yesterday but it was blue, blue, blue and not a breath of air.  Mind you, sunrise wasn’t until 9am and I skated along the icy path from Inverie up over the hill towards Airor then bashed across the moors and hillochs further west past Glaschoille Loch for a view across to the impressive Cuillin skyline on the Isle of Skye in the distance.  It’s really quite hard to get a sense of scale of the mountains in Scotland – they are so large, but when you are out in the wild, there is nothing to compare them to to give you a sense of scale.  What looks like a half hour walk turns out to be 2 hours, and the going is harder as, for the most part, there are no paths: you pick your way amongst the bogs and burns and tussock grass.

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View east across to Inverie from above Glaschoille. Sgurr Corrie Choinichean is the big mountain above the white washed buildings of Inverie. The snow-capped munro, Laddher Bhein (“lar-ven”) is to its left.

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Concentric frozen puddles.

I did discover there are distinct advantages to it being so cold that all the water has iced over: when yomping across a bog (there are lots of peat bogs around here), as long as you are relatively fleet of foot, the crunchy ice layer gives you just enough support to race across instead of sinking in the mire to your knees, as is my usual habit!

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OK, so it’s about time I let you into a little secret. As much as I love walking in Australia, in all its shapes and forms, there is a special place in my walking heart for the west coast and highlands of Scotland.  I lived in London for almost 10 years, and being from country-Oz, pined for a bit of remoteness from time to time.  That took me on the amazing Caledonian sleeper train to Fort William, and beyond, to the very special Knoydart Peninsula, north of Mallaig and opposite the Isle of Skye.  It is only accessible via a very long walk in, or by boat, and the first time, almost 20 years ago, we walked in with all our kit and spent an amazing few weeks here climbing some VERY big mountains, including the magnificent Laddher Bhein (pronounced ‘lar-ven’).  Since then, I’ve made it back every few years, and even managed to get hitched on a hilltop here at one stage!

This week, I am back for some winter walking, and loving it just as much as ever.  Yesterday, while walking up to Loch Dubhain, the gales were howling, the sleet rattling on my jacket and the noise of the water crashing down the burns off the hillside was deafening. Even the deer were looking a bit startled to see a wild walker.  But there was a glimpse of sun and I was rewarded with this beautiful rainbow. Fantastic.

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