Pete Scullion takes a trip up north. And north again.
Words & Photography Pete Scullion
As Ali and Mark batter across the bedrock away from the summit cairn with the golden morning sun on their backs, the fast, straight, easy-going nature of the trail lulls them into a false sense of security. Despite having been awake for the best part of a day at this point, they’re not holding back on the easier upper slopes of Scotland’s most northerly Munro before things get a little more hectic much further down this lonely peak.
Here, as Sutherland sinks into the North Atlantic, there is a splendid isolation that simply can’t be found anywhere else in the UK. The sheer, rugged terrain of the north-west coast is long behind us, but there’s no sign of the broad plateaus of the Cairngorms here either. Ben Hope stands alone as a fine teardrop with its head facing north, the long ridged tail due south.
Chasing midnight gold.
Midnight sun is something only seen in the northern wastes of Scandinavia, Russia and that empty bit of Canada. Can the same be done on within the UK’s shores? ‘Mr Alba Mountain Bike’ trials whizz Ali Clarkson, Mark Clark and I head to Scotland’s most northerly Munro to seek out our own land of the midnight sun.
Driving seven hours north of Glasgow is no mean feat, and assumes a clean run to a part of Scotland where A-roads are singletrack with passing places.
Our triumvirate rumbles north, passing Kessock Bridge, the much famed and almost blown up statue of the first Duke of Sutherland, and to Lairg, and all the while the roads get thinner, the villages get smaller and the phone signal gets ever weaker. What is apparent as we make our way ever further north is that the sun doesn’t seem to be moving, just hanging in the sky as we head towards the Atlantic coast. After a long drag down the road from Altnaharra, our final hint of civilisation, we get to the roadside layby marked with a ‘Path to Ben Hope’ sign.
It’s marching on for 10pm by the time dinner is cooked and cups of tea are being assembled, the sun not making any effort to start its journey toward the horizon. A stiff breeze keeps midgies at bay and the sun still makes its presence felt, even this late in the day. After stuffing riding packs with the necessary clobber to spend the smaller hours atop one of Scotland’s 3,000ft-plus lumps of rock, both Mark and I muse over Ali’s choice of fanny pack. Hardly the pack to haul kit for a night, but we’ve plenty of kit and the jokes are short-lived.
Straight out of the car park, the sun, now starting to dip, covers everything it touches in a warm golden hue. It’s half an hour before we’re moving, and it certainly doesn’t feel as late as it is. We’re soon huffing and puffing, trying to find traction on the slick, sheer rock to stay above the daylight. The steepness means that we’re making height quickly and it’s not long before Loch Hope and the North Atlantic show themselves.
It’s here we lose the sun for the first time. We spend too long gazing at the emptiness of the sea surrounding us, mere miles from the hill. The curvature of the earth is easily visible from our vantage point, such is the expanse of sea ahead. We’re soon back riding, marching breathlessly up steep slopes to make the main ridge where the real views kick in. It’s hard not to linger, but we know fine well the summit vista will take our breath away.
Onto the ridge proper and the sun finally parts company with us, sinking into the sea for a few hours; the sky a wonderful glowing orange that we soon find never fades. Even with the sun gone we’re not reaching for our lights, but it does answer the question about whether you can get midnight sun in the UK. The answer, quite unequivocally, is no.
We’re not turning back though and on the ridge proper, false summits keep coming – the final one is the real killer. Well beyond eleven o’clock we’re stumped by probably the worst false summit I have ever encountered. It’s gone midnight and nowhere near dark. The breeze keeps the flies away and it’s warm enough as we turn our attention to bedding down for a brief stint while the sun won’t be visible.
Heading to bed is delayed by a sky that simply doesn’t want to darken. An orange glow sticks to the northern horizon like glue, refusing to budge. The day isn’t letting go of its grasp quite so easily. The view to the south is commanded by a full moon that gives the day an even stronger hold on the proceedings. Only the larger stars and Venus are visible in the pale sky as the day slips into an inky blue nautical twilight before giving way to civil twilight after an hour or two and signifying the beginning of the sun’s return.
The sky is only one part of the wonder. The silence is truly deafening up this high. We saw nobody on the way up, so the hill is all ours. We’ve not seen a deer or an eagle, only heard the shrill peeps of ground-nesting birds as we made our way through the heather on the lower slopes. High on the summit plateau, we really are all alone. Neither the isolation nor the vast expanse of the North Atlantic are done justice by maps or photos – both need to be experienced to be believed.
With the sun gone and a fading day that never really drops below half-light, the lights of trawlers and buildings off Orkney add a twinkly golden distraction to the north-eastern horizon. With the light fading and a waning interest in the view, we set out to find a spot to set up our bivvies for a brief kip before the sun climbs over the horizon again.
Alone with the witches.
The witching hour is all we have to sleep before the sun rises again. While we were getting comfortable a strong, cold wind picked up, testing the quality of our gear and our chosen spots. Ali doesn’t really sleep despite getting the best of the spots and spends the night trying not to slide down the hill. I toss and turn, fighting the wind whistling through the summit cairn, and Mark…? Well, as soon as Mark is horizontal, he’s dead to the world. Truly a man who can sleep wherever he is put. Gentle nudges to wake the man as the sky starts to lighten do nothing and we can’t see breathing through the thick bivvy bag. Thankfully, with a few words of encouragement, we wake the beast, happy he hadn’t slipped away in the night.
As we shake away the bleary vision of a few snatched hours, we stand to attention and enjoy the warm glow radiating outward as the sun starts to rise. The chill in the air is stronger now that we’re up, away from the cosiness of our sleeping bags, and we’re ruing the decision to leave behind the coffee-making apparatus.
Just after 4am the sun pokes its head above the horizon and the first rays of dawn give us an even better view of this colossal sea. Looking north and west gives nothing but a clear view to an arced horizon. No landmass to get in the way, just endless water for countless miles.
It isn’t long before we’re warmed in the strong golden glow of the first rays of dawn. We allow the sun to gain some height before heading down off the hill, knowing we’ll not see it again once the path drops into the shadows of the westerly side of the mountain.
Turning our backs on the rising sun we try to wake ourselves up as rocks come thick and fast, both loose and bedrock snatching at wheels as opening forays are made into the descent. Over the first crest, the hill steepens and the wide path gives plenty of scope for line choice as we hammer down the ridge at warp speed. Ahead we see the moon dip over beyond the Corbetts to the south-west and the sun turns the mountains a bright orangey-red colour as it gains height.
All our attention is on the trail ahead though as the predictable bedrock turns into loose, steep turns which demand all our attention to navigate. The cat and mouse game of the high-speed upper slopes fizzles out and we’re just trying to keep the wheels turning over this loose boulder field.
From car-sized boulders to axle-deep ruts.
From here the ante ups even further as the rocks become car-sized and some do-or-die manoeuvres are needed to get over or around them. With that section out of the way with varying degrees of success, we meet the easiest part of the whole ride. A fast blast across some hammered grass offers plenty of grip and smooth going. Relaxing here doesn’t last and we’re soon thrown back into the madness as we launch across a small stream and get back into axle-deep ruts.
By now the sun takes on the form it’ll hold for another fourteen hours. The magic has faded from its rays leaving a white light that seems entirely at odds with last night’s sunset and this morning’s sunrise. Attention soon turns to coffee and sleep, not in that order though and the camper van is visible in fits and starts when the shape of the hill allows.
Chat soon fizzles out and it’s just a mission to get back to the camper and stop moving. The lack of sleep and long day have clearly started to take their toll, but the hardest part of the hill is yet to come. Off the ridge and down the steeper face back to the camper, we’re met by another speedy, steep, grassy gallop into what will no doubt be the polar opposite of what went before. The false summits of the ascent are replaced by a false sense of security on the descent. Fast, easy runs throw us into steep, rocky gullies, or more twisting, axle-deep ruts. It’s obvious that this hill hasn’t seen many wheels, just plenty of feet and an awful lot of water and snow at different times of the year.
By now, keeping together seems less important and Ali leads the charge – his combination of trials and trail skills seem to get him down pretty much everything that’s in front of him. We’re left to navigate the hill as best we can. With our brains slowed by lack of sleep and struggling to process the trail ahead with any real prowess, we bumble our way down as Ali’s yellow jacket vanishes further and further into the distance.
Heating the bones.
With the height lost, warmth soon returns to the wind and we’re happy to pull over and de-layer as sweat stings the eyes. We’re rapidly approaching the most technical part of the ride, and wishing it was the other way around; arms, legs and heads throbbing and wobbly by this point, it’s just a matter of self-preservation.
Rolling through the silvery grass back to the camper, it’s hard to process the last few hours. We weren’t on the hill for more than six of them, but caught both a sunset and a sunrise, bagged a new Munro, plus a view that words might well not be able to do justice to. Far from anywhere, Ben Hope gives a unique vantage point across an awful lot of Scotland to the south, and an ocean to the north, the expanse of which probably only a few truly appreciate.
Seeing the sky fail to go dark is something I would implore people to seek out. It certainly wasn’t easy, and there were three haggard humans sat in a whiffy camper van for a long old drive back south to where the stream of people and villages along the A9 stand in complete contrast to what we’d experienced only a few hours earlier.
The summit run off Ben Hope is a magical experience that tests every skill you have in your bag. By the time you’re on the lower slopes below the river crossing, you’ll have emptied that bag and be searching for skills you might not know you have.
While you might not be able to seek the everlasting sun on the UK’s mainland, I wouldn’t say this is in any way a disappointment. The isolation in this part of the world, maybe most importantly from phone signal, is the best way to disconnect from everything. We spent those six hours chatting away the day/night (delete as appropriate) until it was time to find a spot out of the wind and stop fighting heavy eyelids. Even off the hill, phone signal doesn’t come quickly. Embrace it. Ride your bike, talk to other humans, and wonder at a view I still feel embarrassingly incapable of doing justice to.
A collection of some of the images that we didn’t have room for in print.