An autumn ridge walk – in praise of the bivi

The notion of sleeping rough in the wild with no tent, for fun, baffles a lot of people when I try to explain it to them. I usually describe my bivi bag as something akin to a body bag. This doesn’t help my argument that it’s something they should try. Next year my bivi bag celebrates its 20th birthday. Unlike the modern bags you can buy today it really is like a body bag; just a large, floppy gore-tex sack with a zip over your face. My bivi bag had a grand start to life; it kept me dry in one of the wettest regions on earth for three months: Patagonia. Remarkably it is still waterproof today.

On the Five Sisters ridge

For its latest outing I wasn’t expecting rain. But in the Highlands, autumn was in the air and the nights were getting cold. The deer sedge had started to brown, from the tip down and from a distance the slopes had turned tawny. I love being in the mountains at this time of year, so much so that a day’s walk is not enough. I had to be out there day and night, up high, alone in the wind, above the corries with the ravens. I set aside three days and two nights and to fill that I needed a ridge long enough that I didn’t reach the end of it too quickly. So, my bivi bag and me headed for the north Glen Shiel ridge, encompassing the Five Sisters of Kintail and the lesser-known brothers further east along the ridge.

Autumn arriving - deer sedge browning

I set off in the late afternoon from the Cluanie Inn, that lonely pub at the east end of Glen Shiel. I was torn between a desire to sit outside with a pint of ale and the need to get to the top before dark. I headed up the steep slopes on the north side of the glen, the wind snapping at the moor grass. It was pretty cold at the summit of Aonach Mheadoin. I got there an hour before sunset; the shadows were lengthening in the glen and the western sky had turned pink. I rolled my bivi bag out on the flat mossy top, just in the lee of the summit cairn. To the north was the pyramidal peak of Ciste Dhubh, neatly scoured on all sides by the ice that, if I had been here 15,000 years ago, would have filled the glens all around.

Dinner time on summit of Aonach Mheadoin

From the comfort of my bivi bag I could cook, eat and fall asleep while watching the sun set over the raggedy line of mountain peaks out west. In a tent, all you hear is fabric flapping, but in a bivi bag you fall asleep to the hiss of wind through the grass and around the rocky summit cairn. My face was cool but the rest of me was snug. I heard ravens in the distance just before I fell asleep.

I woke at dawn. The light, as it often is at sunrise, was beautiful, catching the crests of ridges and casting deep shadows in the corries. I had a long day ahead, walking the roller-coaster ridge all the way to its highest peak, Sgurr Fhuaran, on the Five Sisters ridge. It looked a bloody long way from where I was stood so I packed up quickly and got going.

Devil's bit scabious

There were signs of autumn everywhere. The Devil’s bit scabious added little spots of purple to the landscape. The tiny flowers are arranged in a spherical cluster at the end of a long thin stalk so that they sway wildly above the dying grasses. The plant was once thought to cure scabies, hence ‘scabious’. The rest of the name relates to the stumpy roots; the devil was supposedly angry with the plant for curing folk, so he bit the roots off.

I was followed on my walk by six ravens; probably the ones I had heard the night before. They followed me all day, stopping when I stopped and flying on ahead of me when I walked. This has happened to me before and I can only assume they see me as a prime candidate for tripping off a cliff and becoming carrion.

Raven

On the seventh peak of the day, Sgurr na Ciste Duibh, I had lunch and watched a golden eagle soaring over Ben Attow across the glen. It rose slowly in great circles to a tremendous height until I struggled to see it. It made my eyes hurt trying to make it out so I re-focussed on the ground by my boots. When we are in the mountains we tend to think big and look at the view stretching out in all directions. But it’s good to look at the small stuff too; down at ground level there were more wild flowers to see. In the dark nooks of a rocky bluff I found starry saxifrage, a real beauty of a flower with five delicate white petals. It is a flower of the Arctic or Alpine regions and, in Britain, can only be found on the highest of mountains.

Starry saxifrage

My second night on the ridge was on the highest of the twelve peaks I would climb: Sgurr Fhuran at 1067 metres. The wind had picked up to such a degree that I was starting to feel less smug about the merits of bivvying as a lifestyle choice. It was very cold and the cloud bubbled up in the glen below me, occasionally sweeping over the ridge and engulfing me as I tried to cook dinner on my stove. The weather was changing. After wolfing down some pasta tubes I zipped myself right into my body bag. The wind pummelled against the bag and, okay, it wasn’t as idyllic as the first night.

Second night on the ridge, - Sgurr Fhuaran 1067m

But in the morning I had the most extraordinary walk to the end of the ridge. I still had four summits to cross. One of the advantages of sleeping on mountains is you get to be up there at first light, the best light of the day. I walked along the ridge, on the edge of the corrie backwall thinking this was the best morning stroll I had done in a long time. To the west was Loch Duich and the jaggedy Cuillin ridge on Skye. And ahead of me was my next peak, Sgurr nan Saighead. On its east face are great slabs of rock, upturned by tectonic forces, sweeping down in perfect straight lines from the summit to the glen floor. For me, it was the most beautiful mountain on the ridge.

Sgurr nan Saighead

By the time I had walked over the top of the last mountain of the three days, Sgurr na Moraich, I realised I had seen just two people since I left Cluanie. On the knee-cracking descent to the A87 near Shiel Bridge I met one more couple on their way up. They seemed surprised that I was already on my way down so early in the day. So I told them how I had slept on the summit in a body bag. “Right,” said the guy, looking confused.
I guess it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

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