An editorial feature I produced for Emily Rodway, editor of The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine in the UK, describing our experiences on a sea kayaking and hillwalking trip to Ladhar Bheinn, a Munro on the remote Knoydart peninsula in the West Highlands of Scotland.
"My experience of 2 days of kayaking is that it's knackering on its own", my friend Kirsty replied to an email I'd sent her asking if she and her partner Steve were interested in a sea kayaking trip to climb a Munro (a Scottish mountain peak over 914.4m/3,000ft high). "But a hill thrown in? You'll need to get training!".
As a photographer who specialises in outdoor and adventure sports, I know a little bit about a lot of outdoor activities. I do endeavour to pick up hints and tips from athletes during photo shoots but when it comes to sea kayaking, I'm still very much a beginner. Kirsty's words therefore rang loud in my head as I focused on my technique and concentrated on making an energy-efficient paddle stroke as we left behind the tiny settlement of Kinloch Hourn on Scotland's remote west coast and headed out on a two-day sea kayaking adventure to climb the Munro, Ladhar Bheinn.
Ladhar Bheinn, 1020m tall, is one of my favourite Scottish mountains. Partly, this is because it is only accessible by boat or by foot. Getting to the peak involves travelling 9km by boat from Mallaig to Inverie (popularly known as being the home of Scotland's most remote mainland pub) or hiking c.13km of rough terrain from Kinloch Hourn (itself a 35km drive along a single track road).
Most visitors looking to climb Ladhar Bheinn from Kinloch Hourn will hike in. The idea for a sea kayaking approach came to mind two months previously, during a particularly gruelling mountain backpack through deep snow in the Cairngorms National Park. Conversations that usually focused on the joys of light packs in Summer and afternoons spent relaxing outside sun-soaked alpine huts turned to the potential for a waterborne approach to climb some of the hills on Scotland's archipelago-like west coast.
At the time, a discussion on the merits of kayaking into a mountain was just a means of taking my mind off the weight of a winter backpack on my shoulders and freeze-dried food in my belly. Fast forward to May 2016 and we'd made it a reality. Kirsty, Steve and I were joined on our Ladhar Bheinn adventure by Ben Dodman, a professional sea kayaking instructor with Rockhopper Sea Kayaking, a Corpach-based business near Fort William that offers day and overnight trips. Kirsty and Steve had been on trips with Rockhopper before and, when we approached Ben with the idea, he was keen to come along.
"There's no real need for lightweight sea kayaking", Ben had said when I'd asked him if it was worth limiting the camping equipment I'd planned to bring with me. "A kayak carries a lot of gear so you don't have to skimp on the nice-to-have's". Kirsty and Steve - our volunteer cooks for the weekend - demonstrated similar principles in the menu they had prepared. Not the usual backpacking fare but pancakes, honey and banana for breakfast, fresh salad vegetables, tomatoes, wraps, tuna fish and mayonnaise for lunch and pasta, home cooked tomato, vegetable and chilli sauce and freshly-baked muffins for dinner. The latter three to be washed down with fine Italian wine. It had all the makings of a great weekend.
As we paddled Loch Hourn, the water's translation from Gaelic, the Devil's Loch, became apparent. One of the benefits of sea kayaking is it allows you to get close to nature. Kayakers on the west coast of Scotland have reported sightings of otters, seals, basking sharks, all habitual visitors to our islands and, on occasion, orcas. Shooting down the loch, metaphorically speaking, taking advantage of the tide and wind, we saw no sign of life. Nothing in the water nor in flight above the steep slopes either side of the water. We didn't mind though, as dominating the view, partially covered in cloud, was the lower slopes of Ladhar Bheinn.
I'd climbed Ladhar Bheinn twice before. My first time was via likely the most popular route up the mountain, from the small settlement of Inverie. We'd headed first for Mam Barrisdale before breaking off up steep, fern-covered slopes onto the curious feature of Aonach Sgoilte, or split ridge. My second ascent was during a 4-day backpack of all the Munros in Knoydart, when we reached Aonach Sgoilte after first climbing two nearby Corbetts, Beinn na Caillich and Sgurr Coire Choinnichean. Both times were in excellent weather and we could see all around as we continued up the scrambly north-west ridge of Ladhar Bheinn to its summit.
The classic route up Ladhar Bheinn is to follow a horseshoe around Coire Dhorcaill. The headwall of this great mountain corrie is ringed with crags and it is enclosed by two great, narrow, steep-sided ridges, Stob a'Chearcaill and Stob a’Choire Odhair. As we crossed Barrisdale Bay, we could see right into the corrie. The wind caused the chop on the water to increase as we headed into more exposed waters - the bay opens out into the Sound of Sleat offering access to Glenelg, Inverie and more - and care was needed as we negotiated a stiff cross-wind. Barrisdale bay however is not big and we soon reached the shelter of the shore and looked for a place to stay the night.
Outside the comforts of Inverie, there are three overnight options when you climb Ladhar Bheinn. You can wild camp almost anywhere, courtesy of Scotland's refreshing outdoor access code, or stay in one of two private bothies nearby, Barisdale bothy or Druim bothy. Neither bothy is maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association and both charge a fee for staying at their accommodation. Barisdale however has the advantage of not needing pre-booked.
"Keep an eye out for a place to camp", shouted Ben as we kayaked along shoreline. (I'd learnt that normal conversation was quite difficult on a kayak, soft-spoken words far too easily getting whipped away on the wind). We'd agreed as a group that we should take advantage of travelling in sea kayaks and wild camp on the shores beneath Ladhar Bheinn, only taking advantage of the bothy if the weather was really bad, After a short paddle, Ben found a suitable spot in a sheltered bay and we beached the boats safely away from the tide, pitched camp and ate a quick lunch.
Despite the fact we'd started paddling at an early hour, there wasn't much daylight left when we started our ascent of Ladhar Bheinn. From our campsite, there were a few routes we could have taken up the hill but we really wanted to do the classic route, via Coire Dhorrcail. To reach the corrie from our campsite involved a 2.5km traverse along the coastline, which involved some fun, but slippery coasteering and a river crossing. This made for an interesting start for our ascent, but it wasn't long before we'd left the waters behind, gained some height and entered the mouth of the corrie.
"What an awesome location", I shared with Kirsty as we followed Ben and Steve further into the corrie. I had envisaged a natural mountain amphitheatre and the terrain didn't disappoint. As well as its steep outer sides of Stob a'Chearcaill and Stob a’Chiore Odhair, Corrie Dhorrcailhas two mini corries within it, separated by a steep rocky nose. It's quite a special place.
In 1999, Knoydart had a burst of media attention when the local community raised £850,000 to purchase the land from the then estate owners. The east boundary of what became the Knoydart Foundation’s land (www.knoydart-foundation.com) ran along Ladhar Bheinn’s north-west ridge and, three or so hours after we had left the kayaks, we crested the headwall of the corrie and broke out onto this ridge near the summit of Aonach Sgoilte. The Knoydart peninsula is known as the 'rough bounds' for the wild nature of its terrain but we hadn't found the ground so far too bad and had gained height relatively quickly. We had however been sheltered by the corrie headwall from the prevailing wind. As we stood on the ridge looking up towards the summit, we were more exposed and we quickly donned the extra clothing and waterproofs needed to keep warm as the wind whipped ominous-looking clouds across the steel-coloured sky. It was clear we were going to have some squally, windy weather on our way to the summit. To reinforce this fact, when we looked down to Loch Hourn 'white horses' had already started a race across the water all the way back east towards Kinlochourn.
Despite the somewhat bleak weather, we were enjoying ourselves. Ladhar Bheinn's summit flanks are a fantastic viewpoint and, as well as the view to Loch Hourn, we could see south-east to its neighbourly Munros, Luinne Bheinn and Meall Bhuide, and west out over the Corbett of Sgurr Coire Choinnichean towards Mallaig. Ladhar Bheinn's north-west ridge is also great fun. It's quite rocky and there's a handful of scrambling on it, grade 1 at most, but nothing overly technical or exposed. (You can though stand on an obvious prow of rock halfway up that overhangs a drop of several hundred feet. It makes for a great photo opportunity).
I was almost disappointed when we climbed the last of the summit slopes and joined up with the connecting ridge that goes out to Stob a’Chiore Odhair. All that was left was an enjoyably airy walk that took us across Ladhar Bheinn’s final summit ridge and on to its summit cairn. As is all too often the case on Scotland's mountains, we didn't hang around for too long. Rain had been falling for most of the previous hour and thoughts of being back at camp eating dinner had started to cloud my thought process. (This was despite the banana and walnut muffins Kirsty had produced out of her rucksack on the way up. "There's enough for two each if you want them", she triumphantly proclaimed. There was definitely little concept of 'light and fast' on our trip and, I must say, it was all the better for it).
It was after 5.30pm when we started our descent. Despite not having to go back to our starting point at Kinlochourn, we still had a fair way to go to get back to our tents. The decision we'd made was to reverse our steps back along the summit ridge and then complete the horseshoe of Coire Dhorcaill by a descent of the mountain via Stob a’Choire Odhair. One of the benefits of wild camping is you're not restricted to existing routes up or down mountains and, as we descended the ridge, which is enjoyably narrow, we realised it made sense for us to break off towards Bealach a’Choire Odhair. After a few steep descents, we could see our tents below and we headed straight down to the shores of Loch Hourn. All that was left was a final short burst of coasteering before we reached our tents, the stoves were lit and dinner was served as we sat on our kayaks and watched it get dark.
Planning a sea kayaking trip
Whilst our paddle on the way to climb Ladhar Bheinn was greatly assisted by the outgoing tide, our journey the next day back to Kinlochourn was needlessly harder as we paddled through the narrows at Caolos Mor straight into the tide (only because everyone was kind enough to stop in Barrisdale Bay so I could take some photos for this article). Paddling against the flow of the water is hard work and, energy-wise, it meant we all had to work at least 2 times harder than if we were going with the flow. It makes much more sense to plan a sea kayaking trip around the tide. If you don’t know how to do this, go with a professional. Rockhopper Sea Kayaking (www.rockhopperscotland.co.uk) is based in Corpach, near Fort William, and offers half, full and multi-day sea kayaking trips through 'some of the most spectacular coastal, mountain and island scenery in Scotland'. All you need to do is turn up and play.
Basic sea kayaking equipment
Wet or dry suit
Map (For Ladhar Bheinn we used OS Landranger 33, Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel and Loch Hourn)
Nice to have
Dry bags (lots of them)
Hat and gloves
Spare paddle (at least one between a group)
Waterproof camera case
Other kayaking / hillwalking trip ideas
Loch Quoich / Ben Aden
Loch Scavaig / Skye Cuillin
Loch Veyatie / Suilven
Loch Mullardoch / Benula Forest
Loch Monar / Monar Forest
Wordcount: 1831 words (main article), 274 words (sidebar)
Published in: The Great Outdoors, Spring 2017