At 721 metres above sea level, Ben Stack (‘steep hill’), in Sutherland, doesn’t even reach Corbett height let alone Munro status; the wee hill is a Graham. However, what this hill lacks in height she makes up for in sheer beauty and dignity. Ben Stack is in fact Scotland’s most northerly Graham; she is also a little classic.
There are grander hills that look down on her: Arkle, Foinaven, Meall Horn and Macdougal, to name but a few; yet none of these has a loch at there feet,moreover a loch named after her, as does Ben Stack, in Loch Stack.
On many visits to this area, on catching sight of this little gem, I’ve had the urge to stop the car and climb her again; in fact on more than one occasion I’ve been unable to resist the temptation. And so it was this time; as I drove the rainy last few miles north, along Loch More, my heart beat quickened as I saw her once again.
Dominating the way ahead, despite the sheeting rain, Ben Stack made an almost perfect pyramid. The hill’s eastern slopes rise in rocky tiers seemingly straight out of the waters of Loch Stack itself, whilst its western flank climbs more grassilly from Strath Stack. I drove along the lochside as far as an old roadside shed near the northwestern end of the mountain.
A few paces beyond the shed a track begins its inexorable climb southwestwards, into the wet wastes of nowhere. I followed this wet way as far as the lonely Loch na Seilge, where a little cairn gave notice of a boggy little path onto the north face of the mountain. Now, in spite of the persistent drizzle, the fun could begin.
In fact the rain was coming and going in obstinate waves, sometimes a mere smir, the next minute a heavier, drenching curtain. Since I didn’t expect to be on the hill for too long I’d left my back pack in the car and carried only a drink and a bar of chocolate in my waterproof pockets. All I had to worry about was keeping reasonably dry. Even so it wasn’t long before my coat was thoroughly rain soaked on the outside and soaked with condensation on the inside.
At first the going was gentle and only the squelching of the path, today running like a burn, made things slippery underfoot.
After half an hours of squelchy going I arrived at a level section, then a peaty dipthe lull before the storm. Across said peaty dip the Ben Stakc’s North Ridge reared up in bouldery, often craggy, earnest. Judging by the well trodden path laid out before me, this harder way up must be quite popular. (The usual route to the summit is via the far gentler South Ridge).
Steeply I climbed now, through and around small crags and over rain slimey boulders until my way appeared completely barred by a short perpendicular rock wall. I searched for the holds I knew must be there, and found them. The rock was as greasy as oiled glass but the holds were ample and reassuring, formy hands at least, if not so for my boots. It was a case of grabbing hold of a flake here and jambing the other hand in a crack there and hauling up.
I didn’t look back often, there was very little point. With the rain still draping a curtain over any views behind me it was head down and enjoy the atmosphere of the dank and damp rock scenery immediately around me.
I could sense the top approaching as the air around me lightened and the wind began to freshen. Winding up and around a few more crags I suddenly found myself on an arete as rocy and sharp as one could wish for. I’d arrived on the eastern lip of a shallow dip, like an elongated volcano’s crater. To my left the mountain disappeared into a maelstrom of swiling cloud, all the way down to Loch Stack. To my right there was friendlier ground.
There are two cairns, a couple of stone’s throw apart, plus an incongruous transmitter ariel complete with powering solar panels. The northern cairn marks the summit. The rocky scape, swathed as it was in ever shifting mist, was an eerie place. I set a compass bearing south and headed into the gloom.
Dropping down first of all on steep, clipped wet grass, I found the going even more slippery than the rock of my ascent; more than once I had to arrest a rapid downhill skiteit was fun.
On my journey to the mountain’s foot I’d noticed numerous frothy white torrents pouring down the hillsides, including Ben Stack’s. The soil in these hills is thin and saturated at the best of times, resting as it does on impervious bedrockancient quartz and gneiss in this areaand the rain has nowhere to go other than down the nearest slope. As I levelled out onto he gentle southeastern slope I witnessed at first hand the vast process at work.
The ground that I walked on was saturated to the point where my boots sank ,often ankle deep, into nothing but water. Everywhere water was running, forming temporary streamlets that made a noisy dash towards the cliffs below.
It takes comparatively little rain to produce these often awesome effects and yet tomorrow I would pass this way again and see nothing of the white ribbons that had streaked these hills. Keeping to my bearing, and noting the occasional splash of colour from bedraggled butterworts and tormentil, I at last dropped below the cloud level.
Still way below, the little hamlet of Achfarray told me that I’d hit the correct line and that now I could devite towards the lochside road and onto even wetter ground. I recalled a previous ascent of Ben Stack, that time via the route I was now descending. Not far from the road the ground was so soft that it resembled a trampoline; I remembered jumping up and down and landing on the springiest ground I’d ever experienced. The odd thing was that the ground was bone dry! I also recalled the tremendous views from Ben Stak’s summit.
Today I’d had to imagine the majesty of Arle and Meall Horn with Foinaven peeking from behind them. It was only in my imagination that I saw the long fat finger of Loch More pointing south and homewards. Quinaeg, Suilven,Ben More assynt and their worthy cronies would have to await a sunnier day.
The same too for the wondrous wetlands that, in the west, heralds the Atlantic. Once down I still had a two mile plod along the tarmac road before I could dondry clothes for the remainder of my journey to Durness. Yet even that road walk, which was almost traffic free, graced as it was by oddments of the local waterfowl out on the loch, was delightful.