Eight to 10 weeks and upwards of £50,000. That’s how much time and money you’ll need to climb Everest, where there’s the very real chance of a frozen, airless death. Conversely, the car park below Stac Pollaidh is free and the summit – indeed both summits – can be bagged in under four hours. As far as we know, nobody has ever died of high-altitude pulmonary oedema on the 612m peak. But those statistics could also be its downfall.
Mountaineers and hillwalkers are obsessed with ‘highest’ and ‘biggest’ and ‘hardest’, so a wee lump of Stac Pollaidh’s dimensions is prone to being overlooked in favour of burlier peaks. Certainly, if your sole motivation for climbing hills is to tick off a list, you’ll not find much reward here. It’s 992ft shy of Munro status and only scrapes onto the Grahams list – 9ft shorter and it wouldn’t even make that far from venerated assortment of peaks. And yet, Stac Pollaidh is adored.
“Stac Pollaidh is perfect… it’s just pure fun.” That was Trail editor Simon’s summary. But he’s hopelessly biased towards smaller peaks, being far from lofty himself. What about mountaineering editor Jeremy? He’s well over 6ft – what’s his opinion? “Stac Pollaidh easily out-mountains just about every other mountain on UK soil.” Well that’s fairly categorical. Over to Carey Davies, Hillwalking Development Officer for the British Mountaineering Council. Did he have anything negative to say? “Stac Pollaidh is the stuff of fantasy.” Okay. So it’s all good. But surely it can’t compete with its leviathan cousins around the world. High altitude mountaineer and summiter of peaks over 14 times the height of Stac Pollaidh, Alan Hinkes should know a thing or two about that. Surely it isn’t even on his radar? “As a schoolboy this dramatic peak influenced me when I saw it in my geography textbook… it is an extremely impressive rock exuberance”. That’s that, then. Stac Pollaidh is awesome. Everybody had said so, but it was time to mount a micro expedition to find out why...
“‘BONKERS’ IS AN EXCELLENT DESCRIPTION OF THE LANDSCAPE OF ASSYNT...”
Arriving as first-time visitors in the small car park at the base of the Stac Pollaidh, Tom, Oli and I found our attention immediately drawn to the mountain’s eroded ridge line running across the upper third of our panorama. This wasn’t our first view of the peak though. On the drive in along the single track road, Stac Pollaidh had jutted up like a shark-fin on the northern shore of Loch Lurgainn’s steel grey water. But even that hadn’t been our first glimpse. That had come on the A835 as it carves its way north away from Ullapool. So impressive is this view of the volcano-like trapezoid shape of the mountain, isolated and distinct from its neighbours across a rolling sea of moorland, that we’d pulled into the roadside to better appreciate it. For a small mountain, you can see it from a lot of places, and from some distance…
But enough admiring from afar. It was time to climb. From the southern side of Stac Pollaidh, a footpath leaves the road, winds whimsically up a thickly vegetated slope and passes through a fence into open hillside. The old route used to head up the face straight ahead, but its popularity led to severe erosion. To mitigate damage to the fragile environment, Scottish Natural Heritage constructed a robust stone path, which loops all the way around the back of the mountain. We followed this mostly dry but occasionally sludgy track as it gradually rose and curled around the eastern end of Stac Pollaidh, before leaving the circumnavigating route and following a traversing diagonal line across the northern side of the mountain towards the saddle on its ridge. In the past this northern flank had been another hotbed of erosion, but unlike the churned bog on the opposite side, here it was sandy and loose. The new, well-built path offers two advantages – the ascent is remarkably quick, and because the climb is relatively easy going you get more time to enjoy the view. As we climbed, the scenery became increasingly… what’s the word? “That’s bonkers” Oli exclaimed.
Bonkers is an excellent description of the landscape of Assynt. Big bold mountains like Suilven and Cul Mor rise up like icebergs from an ocean of pool- and river-patterned moorland. While most mountains could be described as big and bold, it’s the isolated staging of the standalone peaks here that add to their impact. It’s a quality that Stac Pollaidh shares, but from the sagging col on the mountain’s ridge it’s easier to observe it in the neighbouring hills. These are ‘inselbergs’ – island mountains created when the ice sheets scraping across the north-west in the last Ice Age smoothed the rounded sides of the peaks, leaving craggy and often elongated summit ridges. To the south, the bulkier mountains of Coigach are impressive in their own way, albeit not as eye-catching as Assynt’s beasts. But our eyes soon left even those distant spectacles and settled on the challenge at hand. Arriving on the col gave us our first proper view of Stac Pollaidh’s crumbling summit ridge, and it was both ruggedly beautiful and fractiously intimidating.
There are three choices from here: turn left and head up to the eastern summit, turn right and take on the crumbling ridge towards the western summit, or turn around and head back down the way you came up. We weren’t going back yet. Tom and Oli had every intention of getting at least one summit under their belts, and I was still holding out for two. The clamber up to the eastern summit is relatively straightforward, well worn by the traffic of passing boots. And the views from the top are – as you’d expect given the scenery already encountered – breathtaking. Cul Beag and Cul Mor almost feel within touching distance. These sibling peaks have never looked better than from this vantage point. In fact, there’s only really one thing wrong with Stac Pollaidh’s eastern summit, and that’s the fact that it’s not Stac Pollaidh’s real summit. That lies a little under half a kilometre to the west, and over 50m higher.
The Torridonian Sandstone left standing by the migrating glaciers is interesting stuff. And not just for the geologically minded. The weird and wonderful shapes carved first by the ice and then from the Atlantic weather are a curious accompaniment along the journey to the western summit. So unique are the forms of these pinnacles (you have to travel over to the bizarre world of the Quiraing on Skye for anything approaching similar strangeness) that many have been recognised with their own names: ‘The Sphinx’, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, ‘Andy Capp’ and ‘Madonna and Child’ are some of the more descriptive titles. However, this weathering is an ongoing progress, and the whole crest of Stac Pollaidh is disintegrating. A casualty already lost to this erosion is ‘The Lobster’s Claw’ – a pincer-shaped twin pillar which collapsed down the southern face years ago.
“So, which way?” Tom’s question was unexpected. The answer should have been obvious. West. Along the ridge. To the summit. But the fragility that’s causing the rock to crumble means that scores of boots have left diverging tracks across the mountain. Some dip to the left, seeming to skirt the crest. Others lead straight on, but divide and divide again, becoming lost amongst the spires. A few more drop away to the right. In the end, and with care, you have to follow your nose. We weaved around the ridge, tackling some of the more climbable obstacles head on, sneaking past others where it seemed safer. The scrambling was simple enough, but every handhold was given an extra tug, every step-up cautious and tested to make sure it was all still firmly attached to the mountain.
Bad step, mauvais par, the crux – call it what you will, but if you want to reach Stac Pollaidh’s true summit, you have to get past it. Or, to be more accurate, over it. What ‘it’ is, is a squat tower that blocks the onward journey so effectively that it could have been placed across the apex of the ridge specifically for that purpose. Although not overly high, reasonably solid, and invitingly climbable, the threat comes from the two gullies that plunge away down either side of the crest. Any slip from the tower would likely see you tumbling down either one of these, a fall that you’d be unlikely to come back from. Because of this the bad step is, at least, a Grade 2 scramble, possibly higher in less than ideal conditions.
We poked about, looking for a way up, making half-hearted attempts to get started. Any climb would have to be reversed on the way back down – this wasn’t a process to be rushed. Then, with deep breath and an air of determination, we made a bid for the top. One climbing, two on guard to shepherd a fall. The second climbing, assisted from above and watched from below. Then the third, encouraged and guided from the top. We ascended just right of centre, finding grip and support all the way, but with the northern gully yawning expectantly beneath our feet. It was all done and dusted remarkably quickly. We paused at the top, mentally noting the easiest way back down for our retreat.
The 612m top of Stac Pollaidh is a place of unique charm and beauty. There’s plenty of space to slump – the ridge becomes less sharp and awkward, and curls slightly to the south, providing an airy but secure plinth from which to enjoy the landscape exploding around it. In a more crowded mountain-scape, Stac Pollaidh would be lost beneath the waves of taller peaks. But here, in the hinterland that blurs the line between Coigach and Assynt, the mountains have space. This arrangement means that not only does a relatively minor peak like Stac Pollaidh have a presence and posture that would elsewhere be impossible, it also ensures that the views from its top are nothing short of staggering.
We stood and surveyed the spectacle – the vast expanse of Inverpolly Forest, the shapeless sprawl of Loch Sionasgaig, the whaleback of Suilven, the crumbling southern flank of Stac Pollaidh itself, the dark crenulations of Ben Mor Coigach, the Summer Isles, the wild peninsula of Rubha Mòr, Enard Bay and the waters of The Minch beyond. Wherever we turned, our eyes landed on something beautiful. It was one of the largest, most unspoiled views I’ve ever witnessed in the UK, and it was on the summit of one of the country’s smallest mountains.
In Into Thin Air , the book documenting his ascent of Everest and the subsequent disaster of 1996, John Krakauer wrote: “The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I’d been on.” With Stac Pollaidh, the opposite is true. It’s a small mountain, but by no means a simple one. It offers texture and challenge, risk and reward. It has personality and charm. If all you do is wander up to the ridge, you won’t feel cheated. Quite simply, there is no other mountain that offers so much splendour for so little effort.
“Stac Pollaidh is perfect, as there are no excuses. No excuse if you’re lazy because you can get up in half an hour, no excuse if you’re hard to impress because the view from the top in any direction is enough to make you weep. And no excuse if you’re a thrill snob, as that cheeky little scramble up to the west summit is enough to make tough guys wet themselves. It’s a climbing frame of a mountain – and because it looks different from every angle, you’ll never get bored.”
Simon Ingram, Trail editor
“Isolated and randomly sited amongst the vast wildness of the Coigach, Stac Pollaidh easily out-mountains just about every other mountain on UK soil. Many are fooled by its modest height showing on the map, but this is purely an abstract notion. What really counts is the way it shifts your soul, and, as with every great mountain, this wondrous peak will jolt it to a new dimension.”
Jeremy Ashcroft, Trail mountaineering editor
“Stac Pollaidh may be low in height, but it makes a big mountain statement: ‘Look at me, I’m here – climb me if you dare’. And don’t be fooled by the easy path from the car park, as what starts as an easy bimble ends in a rocky and very exposed scramble to the summit. Many unwary walkers have faltered at this ‘mauvais pas’. It is a physical geographer’s dream, an old nunatak standing isolated, stark and bold. As a schoolboy this dramatic peak influenced me when I saw it in my geography textbook… it is an extremely impressive rock exuberance.”
Alan Hinkes, record-breaking mountaineer ■