I first saw Ben Hope, the most northerly of Scotland’s 282 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft in height) while cycling the North Coast 500 in 2017, a journey I described in Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo. It was a Munro, which meant that one day I would have to climb it. I took the opportunity to study it.
That morning, Edita and I had set off from Durness, the gateway to Cape Wrath on the far north-west coastline of Britain, and pedalled along a stretch of coastline with rugged cliffs and sandy bays. After four miles, the road took a giant loop inland to skirt around a sea loch, Loch Eriboll. From the western shore we could see Ben Hope rising across the water. Desolate and isolated like a volcano, I remembered thinking that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Ecuador’s Central Highlands, where we were due to go after completing our bike ride in Scotland.
The name Ben Hope comes from the Norse word ‘hob’, meaning ‘bay’. Its translation is therefore ‘hill of the bay’ which could refer to either of the sea lochs, Loch Eriboll and Kyle of Tongue that surge inland from the Atlantic on Ben Hope’s northern side and would have made ideal harbours for any Viking invaders.
Finishing his continuous round of the Munros on the summit of Ben Hope in 1974, the writer Hamish Brown hunkered down beside its cairn in a rainstorm and uncorked a bottle of champagne. He’d started his walk 4 months earlier in a heatwave so extreme that at one point he had walked for several miles in just his walking boots and underpants. He described the mountain as looking like a dead sheep when he set out from its base that morning, with ‘bare ribs sticking out through a tatty fleece of cloud’, but despite the miserable setting on the summit to end his historic hike, he conceded that it was a ‘great wee hill’.
One of my earliest impressions of this peak was of the Welsh comedian Griff Rhys Jones, climbing it in a blizzard with outdoor writer Cameron McNeish in the BBC documentary series Mountain.
There is a well-known story of the Reverend Archibald Robertson, the first man to complete the Munros in 1901. His final Munro was Meall Dearg on the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe, which he climbed with his wife Kate and good friend Sandy Moncrieff. As every sensible mountaineer should, they also carried a bottle of champagne up with them to toast their success on the summit. With this important ritual completed, Robertson shyly admitted in his diary that ‘Sandy made me first kiss the cairn and then my wife’.
As they arrived on the summit of Ben Hope in the BBC documentary, Cameron recounted the story to Griff, and invited him to kiss the summit cairn, which in this case was an Ordnance Survey pillar composed of concrete and metal.
‘What happens if you kiss in these conditions is that you end up with your tongue stuck,’ Griff said as the snow swirled around them.
‘You don’t have to use your tongue,’ Cameron politely explained.
It may have seemed an epic ascent to Griff, but when Sir Hugh Munro himself climbed the peak in 1898, he reached the summit from Kinloch on its east side in just 2 hours and 40 minutes. He said that he didn’t know ‘any mountain of the height (3,040ft) which can be climbed with less exertion’.
There is an even easier route up from the west which is now the standard way. Ben Hope points like an arrow towards the north Atlantic coast with the summit at its tip. The north and west sides are protected by steep cliffs and the eastern edge of the arrowhead is also much too steep to be climbed sensibly, but to the south the slopes fall away less dramatically. The western edge of the mountain could almost be described as a steep escarpment slanting down towards the valley of Strath More.
The standard route from Alltnacaillich on the road through Strath More climbs steeply up to the escarpment through a break in the cliffs, and from there it’s little more than a yomp up the escarpment edge as it slopes like a ramp up to the summit. The Walkhighlands website and guidebook describe it as a 4-6 hour round trip, but fitter hillwalkers could doubtless complete it even more quickly.
Our decision to climb Ben Hope came abruptly on Christmas Eve during our long drive up from the Cotswolds to the far north-west of Scotland. Edita checked the mountain weather forecast on her phone to find out the best days of the week for mountain hiking and promptly announced that the following day would be best of all, with clear skies and bright sunshine.
A 12-hour drive normally warrants a lie-in and a day of relaxation the following day, but neither of us could resist the temptation of Christmas Day on top of Britain’s most northerly mountain, so Ben Hope it was.
Clear skies and bright sunshine there might be, but what Edita hadn’t mentioned were the 35-40mph winds that had been forecast. We were in for a shock when we got out of the car in the parking space at Alltnacaillich in Strath More. I was thrown back over the car bonnet almost immediately, like a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard. I threw some grass into the air to check the wind direction before seeing to the usual urgent need after a long drive. But the wind was swirling all over the place; it was an impossible task and a few drops even ended up in my face. Some people might consider urinating in one’s own eye to be an impressive party trick, but it’s a bad portent before setting off up a mountain. If it was this windy down below, what on earth was it going to be like on the summit?
We never got to find out. The frosty ground underfoot enabled us to make good time as we followed a stream up towards the escarpment edge. A boggy section halfway up had been transformed into a kind of highland ice rink, with puddles of water frozen fast, but there were enough grassy tufts to find a way through without resorting to Torvill-and-Dean style pirouettes (which would have looked particularly ungainly in walking boots and billowing duvet jackets).
The wind was constant, and we fought against it without realising that the escarpment was protecting us from the worst of it. As we emerged gradually onto the top it started to crank itself up notch by notch, tempting us onwards. By the time we became aware that we were being tossed around like beans in a pair of maracas, we were more than halfway up and there was nowhere to shelter.
The sky was now cloudless and the hills and valleys of Sutherland were opening out behind us. Low sun beamed up the length of Strath More, transforming its river into a silver ribbon. I snapped a couple of quick photographs, conscious that the pictures might suggest a glorious day for a mountain hike. My grimace the other side of the lens would reveal a different story though.
Occasionally a powerful gust from behind gave me a gentle nudge up the hill, but more often than not the wind was in our faces. I had to lean into it to make any headway. The trail had now become an eroded mass of a dozen criss-crossing paths spanning 20 or 30 metres in width. It was full of jagged boulders, and there now seemed to be a serious risk that the wind might lift one of us up and toss us across the ground like a smoker casually flicking away a cigarette butt. It would not be a soft landing.
Twice we stopped to discuss if it was sensible to continue. The second time I took out my GPS to check the altitude. We were now at 600m, about two thirds of the way up, which meant the ordeal had at least another hour to run before we reached the summit. Turning around was definitely the most inviting option, but it would have felt like a lame attempt, so we continued onwards.
At around 700m we reached the snowline. It suddenly felt much colder, and I realised that my fingers, which were clad in only thin liner gloves, were now frozen raw. I hastily put on Gore-Tex over-mitts and we staggered onwards, but my fingers were now in agony. It felt like the wind had stripped them to the bone and the skeletal joints were scraping together.
By now the trail was following the escarpment edge, so we came further inland to avoid being blown off. The snow became thicker as we approached a brow which we would doubtless crest to reveal another brow behind it. It occurred to me that Britain’s most northerly Munro would be likely to have a unique view that deserved to be savoured in comfort, when standing up straight had more than 50/50 odds and my fingers didn’t feel like they were being caressed roughly with a cheese grater.
Barely had I completed this thought than I found myself facing the other way and walking back down the hill.
‘Where are you going?’ Edita said as I legged it past her.
‘This is ridiculous. I don’t give a toss about the summit,’ I replied, which didn’t precisely answer her question, but I felt that it was good enough.
Soon she was racing ahead of me as we lost height. I staggered behind her with my pack lopsided and my hood billowing like a sail. There was nowhere to shelter from the wind for quite some time, but eventually we reached a large cairn where I was able to lie down and get some respite. Edita produced a flask of hot tea and a sandwich, but my hands were still too cold to remove my mitts. Mitts aren’t well designed for operating a sandwich, so Edita, who didn’t seem to be feeling the cold at all, ended up feeding me like a baby.
My humiliation was complete. Ben Hope 1, Mark 0. We were back at the car only three hours after leaving it. One of Scotland’s easier Munros had well and truly stuffed me like a Christmas turkey. Still at least we now had time to roast one of our own and enjoy the rest of Christmas Day.
Our opportunity to return to the scene of our defeat came unexpectedly soon, only three days later. The following day was even windier, so we kept low with a visit to Sandwood Bay, but the one after was marginally better and we managed to climb Arkle, a nearby Corbett. As we were returning from the summit of Arkle on a gloomy, overcast afternoon, the clouds lifted over distant Ben Hope and we were rewarded with a spectacular sunlit view of its fearsome west face, lined with buttresses and gullies – dare I say it – like a dead sheep, kissed by the sun’s rays.
Back at our cottage later that afternoon, enjoying white wine and blue Stilton as we watched the sunset across the loch, Edita noticed that the weather forecast had suddenly improved. It looked like it was going to be a good day on Ben Hope, with blue skies, clear views and, more importantly, a gentle breeze barely strong enough to tickle a goose’s forelock.
Edita was super keen to have another tilt at Ben Hope, and I liked the idea of confronting its ghosts so soon. It would immediately banish any regrets I might have had about aborting our attempt.
This time we were at the parking space in Strath More, ready to start our ascent, at 9.30. This may seem like a lazy start, but – believe it or not – on a December day in the far north of Scotland, 9.30 is just a few minutes after dawn.
It was windless, in stark contrast to Christmas Day, but there was a little more frost on the ground. Not taking any chances, I was dressed just as warmly in North Face down jacket. This time I was also wearing big fat gloves that would have made a biker’s eyes bulge with envy.
But the absence of wind had turned the trail up to the escarpment into a different world. Within a few minutes of starting the ascent I was dripping with sweat. I took my hat off, and then my buff. I put my gloves in my pocket and walked with my coat unzipped. Still I was sweltering, but I resisted the temptation to take my trousers off like Hamish Brown would doubtless have done in these circumstances.
The sky was as clear as it had been on Christmas Day. As we ascended higher, Arkle, our peak of the previous day, emerged to the west, looking like a flat tabletop with a V-shaped notch cut out of it.
Edita waltzed up the rock strewn pathway. I plodded behind, but we were soon back at our high point. The snow line had risen 50m in three days. I checked my altimeter and discovered that we had climbed to 800m. Three days earlier we had been walking on snow for some time by this point, but today the snow was only just starting. Strands of ice painted the rocks, and we kept to the right where it was grassier and less hazardous.
There was another steeper section, but then we reached a broad, icy plateau. We could see the summit trig point at the far end. It would have been a bleak crossing in 40mph winds; not something I could possibly have enjoyed except in hindsight. I was so happy to be here this time when conditions were perfect.
The view from the top of Ben Hope is certainly unique among Britain’s mountains, with the Atlantic Ocean less than 2km to the north. We could see the causeway across the Kyle of Tongue that I vividly remembered cycling across with a flat tyre and giant panniers during our North Coast 500 bike ride in 2017. Beyond it were the Orkney Islands across the Pentland Firth. The broad, multi-summited ridge of Foinaven dominated the view to the west, but the view to the east was the most intriguing. We were looking down on the five summits of Ben Loyal across two picturesque lakes. A huge isolated mountain to the south-east could only be Ben Klibreck, the next most northerly Munro. Between these two Munros was a vast expanse of open moorland that must be one of the emptiest places in Britain.
We stopped for lunch looking out across this grand vista and cracked open summit beers. As we sat there, soaking it all in, another hiker arrived and came over to talk to us.
‘This must be the best day of the year up here,’ he said.
I told him about our aborted Christmas Day.
‘Oh, by the way. I’d like to apologise,’ he said. ‘I’m about to set up a radio station on the summit.’
‘Are you doing a broadcast?’
‘Oh, I’ve just got some people to talk to,’ he replied, giving nothing away.
His two companions arrived a few minutes later. I was half expecting some celebrity to appear, but if they were famous then I didn’t recognise them. The first chap was certainly making a lot of noise with his assorted roger delta tangos, but we didn’t mind. He would have needed to start singing Proclaimers numbers to ruin the moment.
I’ve abandoned many summits in my time, though rarely one as easy as this. There are sometimes moments of regret, but I never regret going back for a second time. Ben Hope is a mountain to be enjoyed with a good sandwich, a flask of tea, and – if you’re like me or Hamish – a summit tipple. Above all, however, you need to give yourself time to sit up there and enjoy it without having to hurry to descend.
Ben Hope 1, Mark 1. It was an honourable draw. We shook hands and headed back down. We were back at the car 4 hours and 15 minutes after starting out.
Looking for entertaining travel books about the Scottish Highlands? The middle third of my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo covers my lung-bursting bike ride around Scotland’s North Coast 500, as a curtain raiser to a unique adventure to reach the furthest point from the centre of the earth.