Knoydart, or the greater Rough Bounds (or Na Garbh Chriochan), is often referred to as 'Scotland's last true wilderness’ and has long been somewhere I have wanted to make the pilgrimage. So finally I find myself waiting on the quay at Mallaig with an old friend, Dave, to catch the traditional wooden ferry along Loch Nevis to the remote peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Sadly we are not alone – my vision of the two of us joining a few locals on the crossing is scotched by dozens of backpack-bearing hikers queuing along the pontoon. Many are waiting to start the TGO Challenge, a 200-mile trek across Scotland with several possible starting points and no set route. All of our bags are heaped under a tarp at the front of the boat as we set off into the dark choppy waters beyond the harbour. It is a driech old day and Skye is not even visible a few miles across the water. All that looms around us are the rugged crags of Morar and soon the dark shore of Knoydart, shrouded in forest before disappearing in thick cloud.
We dock at Inverie, the peninsula's only village, but mid-morning it is a quiet line of white cottages along the only road. As we follow the road through the lush trees and colourful spring flowers along the shore, I am disappointed that we have to dive out of the way of a handful of cars – this is not my idea of a wilderness. We briefly hit the front of the line of walkers heading out into the hills, but are soon swallowed up as the weight of our overstuffed rucksacks becomes apparent. Even with the wind behind us, the climb through Mam Barisdale is a long slog as the rain drives in from the south-west. We shelter behind a rock for a quick lunch as others do nearby, then duck through the 450m pass in howling wind, before descending towards the lush green valley of Barisdale on the opposite shore. Cloud clings to the hills and water emerges from the mist in great white cascades that hurtle down every rocky flank and amalgamate in the valley bottom into one broiling froth of spume.Mercifully there is a bridge over the river to the bothy at Barisdale, but we are greeted by a cluster of steaming bodies inside the door. Wet waterproofs and backpacks lie everywhere and the whole place feels full. Though we have packed a tent, we were relying on a bed here for the next couple of nights. As I search the two small bunkrooms, bodies in sleeping bags fill most bunks, even though it is only 3pm. ‘That one’s free, and another through there’, a bearded young man informs me. Then another bed becomes free as someone packs up there kit, so we quickly claim the two bunks in one room, laying our mats and sleeping bags down to mark our territory. I change into warm clothes and lie down for an impromptu nap, though our 9-mile walk barely seems to justify it.
When I awaken, the two lads on the bunks opposite are sitting up in their sleeping bags and eating eagerly from beakers. It looks like unappealing white goop and I ask what’s on the menu. One has granola with powdered milk, the other cold rehydrated mash with crushed Doritos. Like many filling the bothy, they are on the Cape Wrath Trail, a 250-mile route from Fort William to Cape Wrath across some of the wildest terrain in Scotland. Unlike the others, they are going ultralight and are not carrying a stove, so all their food is cold and designed to maximise calorific intake. Powdered milk may be horrible, but it is stuffed with calories. I almost feel guilty as I unpack our food and start cooking pasta with vegan meatballs and broccoli from our garden. Everyone else’s meals come in a bag, so they are astounded by real green food, but it is no surprise our bags ended up weighing so much.
Bothies rarely disappoint when it comes to their sociability and Barisdale is no exception – people from all over the country and other parts of Europe (though few Scots on this occasion) are thrown together with nothing but each other’s company to keep entertained. Talk inevitably starts off focused on kit, routes and mountains, but broadens out into all manner of philosophical discussions. A Dutch septuagenarian and his young companion are apparently referred to as Steptoe & Son on the TGO Challenge, while an ex-army Londoner has struck north on the Cape Wrath Trail after seeing only a few videos on YouTube. Our plans seem decidedly unambitious in comparison, but everyone is impressed that Dave is the only Munro completist among the group and that he has done the Cuillin traverse. At dusk the rain clears and there is a rush outside to glimpse blue sky and look at the cone of one of Ladhar Bheinn’s peaks towering above. We retire to bed last, but it is still only 10pm and there is a faint light lingering outside. We do not sleep though for, almost as soon as our heads hit the mound of uncomfortable clothes that stands in as a pillow, does one of the two ultralighters begin to snore. And not just any snore, but the loudest and most persistent snore I’ve ever heard. It echoes around the tiny room as the rest of shift helplessly on our thin mats and try to nod off. I try to sink into the sound and treat it like a rolling wave on a shore, but it doesn’t work and my sleep is fitful at best. They leave at 5am, escaping Dave’s wrath as we finally get a couple of hours of peace.
As forecast, Saturday is cloudy but dry with cloud hanging around the peaks all day. Dave has barely slept and opts to rest up at the bothy, and I am last to leave for the day at 9.15, making for the ramparts of Ladhar Bheinn in the knowledge that no-one else is doing Knoydart’s highest mountain that day. It is a liberating feeling to know that you are alone with the mountain, but also minds me to take extra care as no-one is going to help me if I get into any trouble. The mountain rises straight from the shore of Loch Hourn and a pleasant path climbs into the Coire Dhorrcaill by some old summer shielings. The rivers are still high and I struggle to cross the burn, so I lose the faint path and make my way straight up the grassy side of the ridge. It is deceptively steep and long, and my legs feel heavy from the previous day carrying a heavy pack, so by the top of the 450m scramble I am exhausted and collapse on the wet ground (all the ground in Scotland is wet). Dave’s flapjack (or some of the two tonnes of it he has made) fuels me to the top, along the fine ridge of Stob a’Choire Odhair with cliffs dropping either side into the great misty void.
The top of Ladhar Bheinn is surprisingly grassy, but there is no shelter from the strong wind and rain blows in just as I reach the summit cairn, so I head straight back off the top. The ridge between here and Bealach Coire Dhorrcaill is more rugged, dropping off a series of rocky shelves and scrambling over crags while sheer cliffs tumble down into the quarry on its north side. The rock is dark mica-schist, volcanic rock that has been contorted into striking waves. In places it is awkward to descend over when wet and I make slow progress through the mist, certain I must already have reached the col. Eventually wind whistles through the bealach and I climb onto the ridge of Stob a Chearcaill. It is a fine crest that ends suddenly at the cone of rock we had gazed up at last night from the bothy, but there is no way off its face, so I backtrack and scramble down very steep slopes to rejoin what is left of the path along the ridge. It makes its way down one last shelf of rock and then bounds across the wet grassy slopes below the cloud. I lose the path again, squelching my way towards the Mam Barisdale path and shortcutting down the slope towards Barisdale. Alone in the clouds, the mountain has seemed truly remote and I do not see another soul until I near the bothy. While I’m warm, I jump in the chilly burn for a wash, then arrive at the bothy as sun emerges for the first time. Dave and I sit outside soaking it up and acting as a welcome committee for all those who appear out of the hills in the next few hours. They come from all directions, but today they all pitch up on the lovely grass campsite alongside and only one other walker beds down in the bothy. The sun is out and the mood is gay until the first midges of the year start to appear and we head inside for some whisky and a game of cards – a new version of Black Jack that I christen Ladhar Bheinn.