Howling wind. Blinding hail. Shaking legs. Cowering on the precipitous ridge in the Cuillin Hills, five or so feet away from the peak of Sgur na Banachdaich, I burrowed my legs into the scree and refused to move. Mike and Uncle Andy were perched atop the peak with two other climbers, waiting for me to make the final steps. Welcome to the Cuillin Ridge, indeed!
But First…Crofting and Castle Hopping on Sleat
If you’ve been with us from the beginning of this blog, you may remember a star character – the world’s best tour guide, my Uncle Andy. He and his partner Dorothy have been incredibly generous hosts to us on several occasions in Edinburgh, and this past April, we finally had a chance to visit them at their croft on Skye. Their house and croft are ideally situated on the Isle’s southern peninsula, Sleat, overlooking Loch Eishort and across to the Cuillin Ridge.
We made our way towards Tokavaig, their crofting village, in the middle of the night on Wednesday following our dinner at the Three Chimneys. Mike courageously guided our tiny car down “B Roads” (British for two-way roads on one-way track) in the pitch dark, as I announced Dorothy’s directions at each turn. Funnily enough, her directions were very similar to every other set of British directions we’ve ever gotten for driving in the country side, which always seem to involve driving slowly over cattle grids. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Uncle Andy and Dorothy, as they attempted to serve us a cup of tea before bed despite the hour.
The full night’s rest in a real bed was a welcomed luxury after several days of camping, and we woke up refreshed and ready to see Tokavaig in the daylight. I emerged into their open floor plan living room to find a whole wall made up of a floor to ceiling window, creating a live outdoor painting of the loch and the Cuillins as the full backdrop.
Andy and Dorothy suggested a stroll around the croft after breakfast. It only took about five minutes of walking for Andy to launch into one of his famous history lessons, during which he explained the crofting system to us.
Crofting is essentially a feudal land-management system that emerged in the 1800s. Crofts are parcels of land used for agricultural and livestock farming. Traditionally, the parcels sat on large estates and were rented from the lord of the estate by crofters (farmers). This is still generally the case today. An owner from a croft will own the rights to farm on his land, but the land is still technically owned by some sort of lord or at least certain rights to the land are. Andy and Dorothy own their croft, but not the gun rights on the croft – the gun rights are still maintained by the original estate. In order for Andy and Dorothy to buy the rights to their croft, they had to prove that they were going to do something productive with the land. Many crofters simply raise sheep or cattle on their croft, but Andy and Dorothy have committed to planting thousands of trees and restoring the indigenous population of oak trees over a ten year span.
Tokavaig was one of the most remote parts of Skye that we visited. We were in awe of how much natural beauty still existed there, and how far away we were from real civilization. One afternoon, we were so tired from our long walks around the property that we just sat in the living room sipping tea and watching the sun and rain clouds dance with each other over the Cuillin Ridge.
At the little bay in Tokavaig sits Dunscaith Castle, which despite the fact that it’s mostly in ruins, was more impressive to us than Dunvegan Castle. According to Uncle Andy, so…according to fact, the castle has a magical history. The mythical Scottish warrior woman, Scáthach, is said to have trained the Irish mythological hero, Cuhullin, in combat art at the castle. It has never been properly dated, but it is known to have been used by the dominant clans on Skye in the 14th and 15th centuries for defense. Today it’s mostly in ruins, but Mike was excited to learn that the toilet is technically still in tact (i.e. rock hole opening up to the sea).
Grab a fishing pole!
While on our honeymoon in Vermont several years ago, Mike and I took fly fishing lessons on a serene river near Stowe. We found the experience to be incredibly peaceful and meditative, and we’ve been dying to do some fishing in the UK since we moved here.
The opportunity finally presented itself when we popped in for a visit with our friend James’ dad, who lives on Skye near Andy and Dorothy. James’ dad essentially lives Mike’s dream life – he lives a quiet life on Skye while keeping birds of prey for falconry, tending to his land, and playing with his beautiful dogs. After serving us a cup of tea, Mr. Lindsay insisted that we borrow his fishing pole and climb down to the cliffs in front of his house for some fishing. Mike jumped at the chance, so we found ourselves spending an afternoon to ourselves fishing (unsuccessfully), bathing in the rare sunlight, and watching out for otters and dolphins (unsuccessfully).
Back to the Cuillins
Each day we were with Uncle Andy and Dorothy, we did some sort of very long and enjoyable hike. But it was still bothering me and Mike that we hadn’t summited a Cuillin peak. We mentioned this to Uncle Andy, and he said he’d be keen to climb to a peak with us if we chose one he hadn’t done yet. Dorothy offered up a Cuillin hiking guide, and I thumbed through and chose Sgurr na Banachdich – according to the guide, it would be “one of the easiest Cuillins to climb”.
We set off on Saturday with the promise of a mostly clear day on Skye (we’d come to learn that was a rarity). The nearly 1000m climb begins at a small dirt car park across from the Glen Brittle Youth Hostel, and immediately guides hikers past a beautiful waterfall.
About an hour or so into the hike, the clear path became less clear and eventually bled into the mix of scree and grass that covered the landscape, suggesting that hikers navigate their own way up. Uncle Andy seemed confident in the hiking guide’s instructions to “zigzag up an extremely steep scree slope”, so we slipped and crawled our way up the first mini-peak.
Once we were just below the summit which we could see clearly, several large clouds rolled through and hovered over the peak. We decided to rest and refuel while we waited to see if the peak would clear up.
The clouds didn’t clear, but as we ate our snacks, we watched another hiker climb out of the clouds and down a ways, and then sit abruptly on the scree. Moments later another ascending climber, who had been slightly ahead of us, joined the descending climber at his perch and the two of them sat there mysteriously for nearly twenty minutes. Just before we set off to continue to our climb, those two packed up as well and scurried up into the cloud and disappeared towards the peak again.
We slowly trudged up the increasingly steep slope of loose rubble, following the path of the two climbers ahead of us. As we entered the cloud, howling wind rushed past my ears and fog immediately impeded our visibility. We continued on, following the snow tracks of the climbers. The last 50-or-so meters, hail and snow pelted our eyes and I could no longer see Uncle Andy or Mike ahead of me, so I diligently just put one foot in front of the other in the snow tracks of those who proceeded me.
Finally, through the weather I could make out my climbing companions who seemed to be perched at the peak marking with the two climbers who had been ahead of us. Uncle Andy shouted to me to be careful as I made my way to them, because although I couldn’t see it through the fog, hail, and snow, the ridge precipitously fell on either side of me. I froze at the thought of this, and parked myself on a rock worthy of clinging to, mentally refusing to crawl those last few meters. Mike saw my fearful face and immediately crawled over to me. He offered out his hand for me to hold the rest of the way, along the slippery balance beam of the ridge, and reminded me that if I didn’t touch the marking of the peak I would regret it. I inhaled a deep, icy breath into my lungs, clutched his hand, and we crawled up to the summit.
The other two climbers congratulated me, acknowledging that though they were frequent ascenders of this peak, the conditions made it an unsettling final bit. The one we had seen descend, sit, and then ascend again, was tightly grasping ice picks and crampons. He told us that he was attempting to do a large portion of the ridge in one day, and that he’d descended below the cloud to check the incoming weather and assess whether he could continue along the ridge after this hail cloud passed. I looked out at what I could see of the Cuillin Ridge through the snow, and my stomach flipped at the thought of balancing along the balance beam through the mountains.
We wished him luck, and cautiously turned to make our way down as Uncle Andy sprinted ahead of us with strength and no fear. I expelled a sigh of relief and triumph, knowing that the way down may be more of a challenge for my fear of heights.
We decided to bear to the southeast and descend along the Sgurr nan Gobhar Ridge instead of going southwest and down the way we came. The book had advised that the ridge would be steep on either side, and some light bouldering down would be involved, but it gave no clear advice about whether a true path would ever emerge. Eventually, we came to a point where we’d essentially have to cling to a completely vertical rock face to continue straight along our path. Instead, we opted to pitch down the southeast side of the ridge and ski down roughly 500m of scree. Uncle Andy skirted along ahead as usual, yipping shouts of joy as he went along. Mike did the same, but promised to stay near me as I parked my butt firmly down on the scree and pushed myself forward as if I was sledding on a plastic tray down a mountain side. Twenty minutes of pushing myself on my backside down sharp rocks resulted in a full tear of my rain pants, which amused Uncle Andy and Mike to no end when we reached the bottom. (Later that evening, I discovered that I had not only ripped my rain pants, but bruised my entire butt black and blue. Needless to say, it was slightly painful to sit down for over a week.)
As we skipped our way down the remaining, relatively flat portion of the hike, I looked back up at the mountain behind us and felt a new surge of confidence to continue working on my fear of heights. Although it was an incredibly challenging experience and I felt near to tears at points, it was rewarding and most importantly, memorable. Mike and I will be talking about that hike for years to come, comparing future peaks to the Cuillin Ridge. And Skye, we will certainly be back.