A mere 12km of walking on the hilltops of little old Britain. It doesn't sound like much.
It looked impressive though—my first sight of the Cuillin Ridge from many miles away, across the sea, looking over the water towards those far blue mountains.
I was heading to Skye on a whim to climb dangerous mountains with a man I’d never met, who had read my books then emailed me after we both entered a stupid winter mountain bike race. (He won the race. I just about survived it.) Alex’s idea appealed immediately: to mountain bike cross country to the sea, paddle over the sea to the mountains, and then attempt the formidable Cuillin Ridge. A triathlon of microadventures through some of the finest landscapes in Britain? I’m on my way, I replied.
So we began from “S”* (“Good pub there” is the guaranteed comment from those who know it), pedalling happily into the glen, excited to be on the move, delighted by the weather which appeared to be holding and which was crucial to our success.
The path was narrow singletrack, strewn with rocks and ditches. I quickly realised that the hills of Surrey are inadequate preparation for the skill levels needed for mountain biking through the Scottish highlands.
However, in between my stumbles, foot-downs, and a comic straight-over-the-handlebars-into-a-bog it was beautiful, remote riding. On all sides barren peaks rose from the green glen into a warm blue sky. And silence. We passed a loch, perfect for a swim, but we had miles to go before nightfall so we pressed on, hurtling along an exhilarating sweeping descent down to the blue sea and a sweeping bay. Its isolation was accentuated by a single house, built bang in the middle of the curving bay far from electricity or running water.
We rode onwards, up a bugger of a hill and blasted wooping down the other side, down to a tight little bay and the beginning of the second phase of our Highland triathlon microadventure.
We needed now to paddle out into the sea, across the bay to the base of the impressive mountain range before us. Whilst I inflated my beloved packraft Alex chatted with his friend Colin who’d met us here armed with a couple of sea-kayaks.
The day was hot and the paddle was a joy. It was a windy day with the white clouds flying. And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Waves cooled my face and soaked my clothes as my blunt packraft battered the swell. I struggled to make headway against the headwind (the curse not only of cyclists but also, I have learned, the packrafter too). Packrafts are the jacks of all trades but the masters of none (I feel an affinity!) and as I watched the two sea kayaks pull easily away from me I knew that I was in for a long drag if we were to reach the other side before nightfall.
But it is a special thing, being in a boat. Your view is a privileged one, inaccessible to all those mere mortals left behind on the shore. Jellyfish pulsed and drifted, pretty pink and white, through the clear blue brine. The shore gradually receded behind us with each pull on the paddle. Blisters bubbled on my hands as the mountains ahead of us loomed a little larger with each small stroke. We were paddling westward into the dazzling evening sun. Liquid stars fell from our paddles and burst over the bows of my boat. At last, tired, wet, but happy we reached the lee of the mountains, sheltered from the headwind and I could lie back in my packraft and relax.
We were in the mouth of a secluded loch, tucked tight into a brooding cleft at the base of the mountains that thrust steeply straight up from the shore. The Cuillins are the ancient eroded remains of a vast volcano lip and they curved spectacularly high above us jagged and menacing like rotted black stumps of teeth.
It is hard to imagine a more beautiful sea paddle in Britain, and I grinned in smug delight once again at my decision to dedicate a year to searching for wildness and adventure here in my own country. Alex was thrilled as well. Although he knew Skye well and was a regular climber and mountain biker here, he had never experienced a paddle such as this. Even in your backyard there are new adventures, new sights, new perspectives: you just have to make the small effort to go and discover them.
Alex pointed behind me and I turned to look. A dozen seals were peering curiously at us from damp dark eyes.
Two snorted and dived. The rest watched us quizzically as we paddled smoothly towards the shore past a couple of seal pups still in their juvenile white fur. Two terns, the whitest, sleekest of sea birds, shrieked low overhead, concerned for the young in their nests. We though were concerned only for food, for we had been long on the move and were ready for dinner. We pulled our boats up onto the shore beside a small river.
As Alex boiled a big pan of pasta I followed the course of the river — surely one of Britain’s shortest — from the sea up through just a couple of hundred gentle metres to its beginning at Loch C. I had wanted to visit this spot for years. I learned about it in the book Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. He writes…
“We reached the entrance to C at dusk. Cliffs on one side, and a cut wall of rock, waterfall-seamed, on the other. As we passed between the cliffs I felt a strong sense of having crossed a portal, or stepped over a threshold.”
We slept on the shore and then — too soon — we woke up again. 3am. Time to begin the third phase of our adventure: to tackle the famous Cuillin Ridge back to the pub at S. We hoped to reach it in time for last orders. Only 12km stood between us and beer and yet we had allowed 20 hours to get there. That should give an indication of the difficulties that stood in our way.
We left Colin sleeping (he would paddle home towing the spare kayak when he woke) and began climbing through the darkness. By sunrise we were atop our first Munro (any Scottish mountain with a height over 3,000ft (914.4m)) enjoying a staggeringly beautiful view of mountains, sea and islands.
This summit (Gars-bheinn) serves as the start point of the ridge challenge and we began at a good speed and in high spirits. The weather was beautiful, we’d made a really early start: everything was looking good. We made good speed for a couple of hours hiking, jumping and scrambling our way along the ridge.
On both sides was sky, a lot of sky, and a long, long way to fall on both sides. The views were as beautiful as from an aeroplane. But we could spare only a few glances for full attention was needed to concentrate on our footing and route finding at all times. It may seem strange that route finding is difficult high on an exposed ridge, but it’s a jumbled rocky chaos up there and progress was hellish hard. At one point Alex leaped across a gap then turned to watch me.
“I recommend you don’t look here — just jump.”
Then I looked down.
A long way down.
My admiration for people who run the length of the ridge in just 3.5 hours turned to amazement as we reached the first climbing section. These mountain madmen scamper up and down cliffs which, to my wimpish eye, looked frankly terrifying. I was happy indeed to be roped up as we wriggled our way up very difficult (VD) and mildly severe (MS) rock faces and abseiled down the other side. These climbing sections, we felt, were the only likely things to stop us finishing our challenge so we were chuffed to be ticking them off.
I am no climber and I do not intend to become one. I enjoyed the puzzle and the challenge of solving the riddle of hand and feet holds to heave yourself up a vertical face. But I did so with very little enthusiasm for looking down between my feet to enjoy the views. The technical term for this yawning empty space is ‘Exposure’.
I do not like Exposure one bit! But I found it fascinating to face it. I was tied securely to a rope. I was safe. But I did not feel safe. And that alone meant that this was a perfect microadventure: I was out of my comfort zone, I was pushing myself hard mentally and physically. I was learning about myself and peeling back my boundaries.
The most spectacular spot on the ridge is the marvellously named ‘Inaccessible Pinnacle’, and is described in Wild Places like this:
“A shark’s fin of black rock that jags hundreds of feet out of the ridge which had long been, to my mind, one of the wildest points in the world…”
I felt a quick buzz of fear, remembering the description of the Pinnacle by one of its first ascensionists: ‘a knife-edge ridge with an overhanging and infinite drop on one side, and a drop on the other side even steeper and longer.’
The Inaccesible Pinancle was the symbolic high point of the challenge. The view from the top was extraordinary, even if I was clinging to the rock with a vice-like grip. Unfortunately from here on things went downhill. My knee reacted badly to the terrain and, after eight hours up on the ridge I was moving like an old man. There was no way I would make it the whole way so we were forced to drop down from the ridge and concede defeat.
I was not happy to have failed, especially through something as random and uncontrollable as an injury. The triathlon microadventure challenge had been such a good one. I was disappointed to have let Alex down.
But I was also quite impressed to have failed. Britain is not a particularly wild place. You don’t tend to get beaten by the landscapes here. So I was impressed to have been humbled by these ancient, awesome mountains. I had underestimated them (the only other British challenge that I have underestimated is the Bob Graham Round). It eased one of my slight worries during this year of microadventure that, through trying to encourage others to challenge themselves, I was not particularly challenging myself.
Mountains do not care how you fare on their slopes and summits. They were around for millions of years before your petty quest began, and they’ll still be standing beautiful yet uncaring when our grandchildren’s grandchildren feel the same restless urges to test themselves.
Sure, you go and pit your wits, your skills, your guts, your luck against them. You might win, you might lose. But they don’t care either way. Maybe that’s part of their appeal. It’s certainly a good metaphor for doing big stuff in life.
Do it for the doing, not for the praise of others. And don’t be put off trying big stuff by the fear of failure.
The mountains don’t think any less of me because I failed. And they are far more impressive than the office jobs-worth whiner who loves to sneer at you if you fail something. So I failed this microadventure. But I did far more than if I had not even begun. And I now have an excuse, should one be needed, to return to the wild places of Skye for some unfinished business.
Alastair Humphreys is a British adventurer, author and blogger. He spent over 4 years cycling round the world, a journey of 46,000 miles through 60 countries and 5 continents. Alastair has written six books. He was named as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the year for 2012.