It’s been a frustrating summer. Since my last hike back in April (which was incidentally the first one this year) I haven’t managed to climb any Munros. Every day-off has been affected by unfavourable weather. So when the forecast this time round was genuinely promising I got really excited. The best day was to be in the Far North and I decided to climb the Munro I’d had my eye on for quite a long time: Ben Hope. It’s the most northerly of them all, and – honestly speaking – the sheer distance to get there I considered the greatest challenge. Driving that far take about 3.5 to 4 hours, with quite  a substantial part along narrow and winding roads. This time I didn’t want the day to be spoiled by rain, so Ben Hope was my destination.

Climbing the hill is described as relatively simple and straightforward. Considering the distance I had to travel I decided to add another hill, nearby Ben Loyal. With the height of 878m it’s not a Munro, but its very distinctive shape had caught my attention when I climbed Ben Klibreck. I planned to climb it after Ben Hope if I felt physically strong enough; in other words Ben Loyal was optional. Armed with maps and routes for both hills I hit the road at 4am, planning to start my first climb before 8am. The main advantage of travelling that early is minimal volume of traffic on the roads; the main disadvantage is a strong possibility of fog. I stopped my car at a viewpoint overlooking the Dornoch Firth to take a photo of the sunrise. The clouds beneath my feet produced a spectacular view. A mile or so down the road (altitude-wise) I had to drive through those clouds, and it was anything but spectacular – it slowed me down a bit. With a few short clear stretches I drove through the fog for most of my journey – its thickness varied only. A couple of miles north off the village of Lairg the double track A836 road seemed to split literally into two single track ones – one turning left, another one continued northwards. I had used the latter a few times to reach Ben Klibreck, so I knew what to expect all the way to about 3 miles south off the village of Altnaharra. Everything beyond that point was completely unknown to me. Despite the fog, and the narrowness of the road I soon drove through the village and reached the junction where I had to turn left into the final, 12-miles long stretch of an unnamed road leading to the starting point of my hike. There was a red road sign sitting in the grass that red: ROAD AHEAD CLOSED. I hoped it had been forgotten and abandoned after some roadworks, and I followed slowly the narrow bendy road wrapped in mist. Less than 3 miles later my hope was dashed when a bigger and solidly put up sign bore identical message. I didn’t want to get stuck in a narrow road where turning back would be impossible. From my preparations I knew I could reach the car park from the other side, but it meant a 26 miles detour, taking up to 45 minutes as the road was narrow, winding and foggy. The delay meant that climbing Ben Loyal, my second hill of the day was out of question now. But when I eventually made the detour, I found the road closed 8 miles from my starting point. After a long journey my destination turned out to be out of reach. Frankly I was gutted!

Suddenly the optional climb of Ben Loyal became my last chance to win the day. I typed new coordinates into my satnav and was led along another narrow and bendy road to a tiny car park by a cattle grid. A few minutes later I walked down a tarmac road that soon turned into a farm track running through the fields and then forking left towards the foot of Ben Loyal. The track was getting boggier and boggier; sometimes I had to find a way round the bog. The air was still, and hotter by minute. Soon I had to put sun cream on my arms and legs, instantly followed by insect repellent – wee beasties officially called midges were ready to add more misery to my already miserable mood. After crossing a stream called Allt Lon Malmsgaig the terrain gradually steepened and the track turned into a narrow path. At one point I had to leave it and climb a pretty steep, pathless north-west slope, dotted with rocky outcrops, small from the distance, but in fact effectively blocking the way upwards. Bog in many places didn’t help either. Eventually I reached the northern rocky top of Ben Loyal, breathless and covered with sweat. There I took a break, but decided to have my packed lunch on the actual top, lying less than a mile southwards. The summit was topped with a massive rocky formation, impossible to tackle without proper skills and equipment. At its foot I had my lunch and then retreated. Going down the steep slope was a bit faster than ascending, but not much. I had to bypass the rocky outcrops and to be careful with putting my feet down; the mud was slippery, and there were many holes under the vegetation. From the moment I returned to the path the rest of my return was rather uneventful with one exception. I met a couple of nice people, of which one turned out to be local. I asked her about the closed road to Ben Hope and I learnt that I should have ignored the signs and go as far the actual road allowed, namely to the first place where the road had been damaged by the storms. If only I’d found that out 7 hours earlier and in a different spot…

In hindsight I know that my plan to climb Ben Hope and Ben Loyal in one day was too ambitious. After a long break I wasn’t physically strong enough – I was actually knackered just after Ben Loyal. Thanks to that overambitious planning suddenly I had a plan B to save the day and to make sense of such a long journey. I think this was my silver lining; and a lesson learnt the hard way for the future – to make alternative plans just in case