It started with a warning: “Weaklings and novices must expect to perish.” Guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright didn’t mince his words when describing the glacially scoured tract of land known as Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north-west Highlands, between the tiny townships of Kinlochewe to the south and Dundonnell to the north.
It has earned the reputation of Scotland’s “great wilderness” and offers a cluster of vertiginous mountains, veined with a multitude of rivers; it is also home to a population of deer that easily outnumbers people.
And according to Ordnance Survey, it’s home to the furthest point from a road on mainland Britain, on the mountain of Ruadh Stac Mor. It’s the “middle of nowhere”! While some might see all this, and Wainwright’s words, as a reason to stay away, I saw it as the laying down of a rather tantalising gauntlet. That’s why, after a serious dump of snow up in Wester Ross, I was on the sleeper train with my friend and regular expedition teammate, Dwayne Fields, for a three-day, two-night camp in this most remote of places.
Thinking about this pre-pandemic trip now, in lockdown, makes me itch to get out to the wilds again, to be somewhere far away. Once we’d arrived in Edinburgh from London, we still had a five-hour drive to the start of our walk, at Poolewe. On a winter’s afternoon, it was getting dark when we left the car and the temperature was below freezing.
The wind transformed Dwayne’s words into a series of muffled grunts as we emerged from a small thicket of trees on to the shore of Loch Kernsary. Here the trail, which had been a wider path, became a precarious slither along the steepening banks. Walking required all my concentration, so instead of trying to decipher his words, I nodded and put my head down again, bracing myself against the gusts. For more than an hour we plodded on.
We entered a forest and took a break. Under the shelter of the canopy we warmed our beans and veggie sausages on the stove, while the icicles that had accumulated on our eyelashes began to melt in the steam that rose from the pot.
Even in summer Fisherfield is a daunting prospect. As it is not walked by many, the paths can be hard to find, and an online search demonstrates how many hikers lose their way and require help. Being able to navigate with a map and compass is vital. But winter did give us something of an advantage: the many river crossings that can make it so tricky were now frozen, making the long stretch from this copse into the peaks more straightforward – if a little slippy.
We left the trees, our head-torches on, with sleet falling thick and fast. I’d love to describe the route in vivid detail but as the one at the front, breaking trail, all I saw was seemingly endless banks of white.
We had hoped to reach the middle of nowhere that evening, but conditions made progress slow and it was near midnight when we crossed the causeway – a thin strip of snow-encased concrete that spanned Fionn Loch, still several kilometres from our goal. This marked the start of the old Carnmore Estate: once the remote home for a gamekeeper and his family, it’s now available for rent (when possible again) to those wanting a more civilised week in the wilderness in summer (though there’s still no electricity or central heating). The price? Nearly £3,000 a week – well beyond our budget.
It was firmly locked up for winter, so we took refuge instead in the onsite barn. Despite Wainwright’s warning, it sported a welcoming sign that offered hikers and climbers the use of the outbuilding – proving that the wilderness brings out the best in everyone. Inside, we lit candles, pleased to escape the wind and heavy snowfall, and quickly collapsed into our sleeping bags.
In the morning I woke to hear the door close. Dwayne had gone to the loch to collect water for our porridge. I looked out from my sleeping bag to see my breath manifest in a cloud of condensation.
Dwayne returned clutching a collection of snapped off icicles that had formed above the door. With thick snow still falling we decided to leave all our camping kit in the bothy and head to our target, fast.
We climbed up alongside the Allt Bruthach an Easain, a wide burn that spools down the mountains to fill the twin lochs beneath Carnmore, and trudged alongside several near-invisible waterways covered in snow. The middle of nowhere is, even in summer, fairly nondescript: a piece of rocky hillside on the slopes of Ruadh Stac Mor at grid reference NH02020 77000. In winter, however, it is even more of a blank. The higher we climbed, the less we could see, and by the time we reached the magic number – confirmed by our GPS; we were in a full white-out.
We didn’t hang about once we’d snapped the obligatory photo – we headed down speedily, grabbed a hot drink and food at the bothy, then repacked to cover as much ground as we could on the way out.
“The middle of nowhere really did turn out to be … nowhere,” said Dwayne, as once more we crossed the causeway. I had to agree: perhaps it had been a fool’s errand to see what lay there. But then something wonderful happened. The wind that had been our enemy suddenly swept away the clouds and allowed us to witness this hinterland in its full winter coat – it looked like a charcoal sketch taken from the pages of one of Wainwright’s books. After an hour, in the dim light of dusk, a herd of deer crossed the trail in front of us, stopping to regard us with the same wonder with which we stared at them. Then, before we reached the woods, where we were to set up our tent, we looked up to see the clear night sky, a firmament pinpricked with the glow of stars.
And all at once the appeal of the middle of nowhere made sense. It wasn’t about ticking off a manmade location, and it wasn’t about defying Wainwright’s warning… it was about the journey it took to get there, one that made us greedy for more exploration in the depths of Fisherfield.
“Once committed there is no escape,” Wainwright wrote of this wilderness, and in a way – perhaps not in the one he intended – he was right.
• Phoebe Smith and Dwayne Fields have formed the #WeTwo Foundation, fundraising through adventure to take underprivileged young people to Antarctica in 2021
This trip is suitable only for experienced winter hikers who know how to navigate with a map and compass – otherwise, a guide is recommended, such as Stuart Johnston at climbmts.co.uk