Carly Peterson and I, Kelsey Miller, were on the verge of completing our undergraduate degrees when we decided to plan a trip to celebrate our efforts over the last five years. We were hungry for escape from the confines of the education system; we craved a new setting and new challenges. Naturally, we looked to the mountains – but not just any. We had heard tales from friends overseas of bushwacking paradises (i.e. no bushwacking) and vast green valleys that were open to roam freely. They described images of lush rolling hills, weathered sea stacks, endless rivers and wild marshy grasses which rooted themselves deeply in our imagination. These features belonged to none other than the Scottish Highlands; their mountains were calling, and we had to answer. Thus, with the help of the Neil Mackenzie Trust, the support of the V.O.C., and kind friends who offered their maps and knowledge of the area, we set off to explore Scotland on June 24th, 2017.
Our goal was simple, but our bucket-list long. We wished to explore the Highlands and the Isle of Skye on our own four feet, to scramble and climb stacks of beautiful basalt at every opportunity. Little did we realize how challenging this would be given our determination to resist motorized transport, the weight on our backs and the wet, wet weather. Our journey began with a day-long layover in Halifax, fittingly the capital city of New Scotland. We spent the day finalizing itineraries and dreaming of ridge-walking, while sunburning and beer tasting to the bellowing bagpipes in the park. Halifax is quite pretty – I would recommend visiting this little seaside city. It took us nearly five hours to reach Halifax from Vancouver, but only four to reach Glasgow from Halifax. It was hard to believe that another country on the other side of the ocean was closer than the other side of Canada; our country is massive.
Getting our bearings in Glencoe We arrived in Glencoe by bus from Glasgow on a pleasant afternoon, famished and delirious from the lack of food and sleep over the last two and a half days. The excitement and disbelief at our situation kept us on our feet as we hiked down next to the River Coe to find our hostel for the first night. Pasturing horses and large muscular cows greeted us along the way, unaware of how enchanting the scene appeared to us foreigners. Glencoe is a small village host to an endless amount of Bed & Breakfast style cottages and basic amenities. The youth hostel is on the outskirts, nearly 3 km outside of town from the local pub and convenience store. We later discovered there existed a real grocery store in the next town over, Ballachulish, some 5 km away, but not until we had spent nearly 35 quid on simple food. With plans to explore heavily over the next few days, but no sign of white gas for our stoves, we planned equally heavy meals of meat, cheese, heavy cream and fruit-bread loaves.
Though we believed ourselves smart to get cellular data plans to check the weather, research climbing routes, and keep in touch with Angus and Margaret, we seriously underestimated how poor the signal would be throughout Scotland. Thus, we learned to come up with plans A through Z for each day based on the weather we woke to. Our first venture was decidedly The Pap of Glencoe, a Graham of only 750m on the western end of the Aonach Eagach ridge, looking over the River Coe as it enters Loch Leven. The Pap is a steep, but gentle, day-hike through marshy wild grass and creeks lined with purple flowered foxglove. It served to warm up our legs after time served crammed in transportation and to give us a sense of the terrain without the burden of our packs. The air was damp yet crisp, and the wind more whip-like as we became more exposed on the Graham. We were glad to have waited on traversing the Aonach Eagach ridge, our original plan, as it remained enshrouded in wet clouds the whole day long from our view. An easy scramble to the top rewarded us with a 360 degree dream-scape: Loch Leven to the North, Glencoe to the West, the village of Kinlochleven to the East, the Aonach Eagach enchainment to the South East and lush green glens inbetwixt. These mountains were so accessible and inviting due to their lack of trees. We descended back into town in time to grab a pint a the local pub and groceries for the hostel. Sleep, food and dry clothes were going to be essential in the coming weeks.
Aonach Eagach Ridge The following morning, we prepared with excitement for one of the most highly anticipated objectives of our trip, the Aonach Eagach ridge traverse. We were fortunate to be offered a lift to the east end of the ridge, so we could finish within walking distance to the hostel. We made quick work of the 800 metre ascent to the ridge proper, dogged the whole time by howling wind and descending fog. The shocking force of the wind, blowing unrestricted up from the valley floor, made us hesitate on the summit of Meall Dearg before proceeding to the exposed ridge ahead. Before we could do more than don our helmets and every warm layer in our packs, the wind ceased, leaving us in a cloud of hanging mist hiding the sheer 800m drop to the highway. As we moved, the mist dissipated, revealing ridge upon ridge of the velvety green mountains we’d admired the day before.
The scrambling along Aonach Eagach’s many steep outcroppings proved to be superb, and our way was indicated by faint scratches on the rock made by crampons worn by those tackling the ridge as a winter objective. As we happily and easily negotiated the more delightful (difficult) sections of the ridge, we understood that the dire warnings of exposure and difficulty were generally directed to hikers, not climbers like ourselves. Judging our progress against several guided parties behind us, we were making good time, so we paused to enjoy tomatoes and leftover breakfast sausages in the sunshine. Gradually, the ridge relaxed into a steep track of compact soil and broken stone leading to the final peak, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. We finished the last of our cheese behind a semi-circle of piled stones before regaining our trail from the previous day back to the river.
The Journey to Fort William That night, we were informed by fellow travellers at the hostel that the weather would turn harsh over the next three days – the days we had set aside to climb the Three Sisters near Rannoch Moor. Given we still had no fuel to cook food or purify water, we decided to use the time to hike to our next destination instead: The Ben Nevis at Fort William. Pouring over maps, we settled on hiking the last stretch of the West Highland Way beginning in Kinlochloven. The next morning we left the hostel to hitch a ride to Kinlochleven to give ourselves enough time to complete the stretch in a day. After an hour of hopeless thumbs outstretched from our already drenched clothes, we were shocked to be picked up by a couple in a shiny black Mercedes. The woman shared passionate stories of her years of climbing in Yosemite in the early 90’s and how sport climbing was ‘taking over the world’. We visited the ice climbing gym in Kinlochleven for maps of Skye and beta on the Cuillins before setting out on the trail.
This final leg of the West Highland Way climbs up through the woods above Kinlochleven before following the route of the old Military Road through an empty glen flanked by grand Corbetts. The path was relatively flat and easy going, but the water and wind had no troubling throwing us around with an extra +30 kg on our backs. For 25 km we trotted on past sheep and rivers, though few hikers. This gave Kelsey plenty of time to calculate the exact weight of each pack and sing childhood songs like a broken record. Eventually we came to sitka plantations in the process of deforestation, stepping cautiously through trunks and branches lathered in mud. Signs indicated helicopters had been in the day before, prohibiting hikers from passing for hours – we had been lucky. We were grateful to reach a logging road, leaving the steep slippery plantations detours, which gradually descended into the stunning Glen Nevis. The grand Ben Nevis loomed ahead, largely enshrouded in mist.
Fort William to Camasunary: City slickin’, Sligachan and the Skye Trail The town of Fort William was a welcome sight, as we persevered a long heavy day. We had hauled fresh food meant for three days including tomatoes, 12 hard-boiled eggs, and oranges, and our feet and ankles felt it. Knowing we had another three weeks of adventure to go, we decided to take our first rest and resupply day instead of cramming in a route(s) up the Ben. In Fort William we stumbled onto a church converted climbing gym, The Three Wise Monkeys, and the steam powered Hogwarts Express train. Local pubs served excellent grog and company – bartenders and patrons alike were eager to joke and share stories. We left town the next day with vintage postcards, woolly coos, a Skye scrambles guidebook and – finally – white gas. We bussed to Sligachan on the Isle of Skye and proceeded to hike the ~12 km south to Bell’s Bothy via the Skye Trail. There was no time to lose, as we were scheduled to meet the Mackenzie’s at Camasunary on Canada Day.
The Skye Trail was breathtaking. Rain scattered sun-rays illuminated every shade of green carpeting the hillsides. The wild grasses of the marsh swayed and swooned to the rhythm of the wind. The rare red deer and numerous sheep did not seem to mind our presence or the elements. The weight of our packs threatened to send us tumbling into each of the countless rivers and streams we crossed. With each lake and bend in the path, my eyes searched the horizon for the sea, for Bell’s Bothy. The sun was behind the Black Cuillins by the time we saw it; a large red and white flag flapping in the wind nestled against a stone bothy. As we approached Bell’s Bothy, Margaret, Angus and Neil’s friend Richard were descending the hill with broad smiles to greet us. They had planted the Canadian flag and organized a BBQ for that evening to celebrate Canada Day and our arrival, though all the supplies had mysteriously disappeared while they were out! We later discovered a well-meaning hiker thought the bag of supplies was garbage that someone had left, so they hiked it out. We agreed to celebrate the following night instead. We slept on benches next to the full bunks in the bothy, while the Mackenzie’s headed back to the “car park” to sleep in the trailer that night.
The Beauty of Bell’s Bothy and Camasunary Bell’s Bothy at Camasunary instantly felt like home – cozy and inviting. Much like the VOC huts, there would always be room for one more. Large windows faced out to sea in both the sleeping bunks and kitchen areas. A Scottish proverb read over the door, “It seemed like a good idea when we were at the pub!” along with other ‘words of wisdom’ written on the walls. A nomadic hiker and photographer, Kevin the Flying Scotsman, quickly befriended Carly and I; he had many questions pertaining to our adventures in Canada and Scotland thus far. He, too, had many stories to share from the past 20 years he’s spent wandering the highlands, thanks to the bothies dotting the land.
Our first morning at Bell’s Bothy we woke to heavy rain and wind which, by this time, Carly and I were quite used to. Our daily routine consisted of pouring over maps while sharing a single mug of coffee I was always eager to refill; neither of us regretted the weight imposed by Carly’s Bialetti. We set out to explore Corbetts to the west, wet or not, near Sgurr na Stri and Loch Coruisk. We followed the fast flowing Scavaig river from its mouth to find the best place to cross, which took some convincing for me to cross. The marsh continued all the way up the Corbett – Goretex was no match against the boggy grass and soil groping at our boots. We got within 10 m of the summit before the thrashing rain and black moss-covered rocks turned us around. Had we summited, a dangerous slippery down climb would have ensued. We returned to the smell of barbequed burgers in the bothy courtesy of Angus and Margaret, celebrating the halfway point of our journey. A Scottish tour guide, Matt, requested an interview with Carly and I for his podcast regarding the adventure grant. I was relieved that Carly took on most of the questions as I felt quite nervous, fiddling and trying to ignore the blinking recorder, but I was glad to do it for the Mackenzie’s. We later joined a group of English lads in cards over candle light, birthday cake and song. Before retiring, we all agreed to spend some time cleaning the beach the next morning to contribute to the Mackenzie’s Annual Beach Clean before adventuring.
We woke early that morning to cloudless skies and blinding sunshine. We could spend five minutes picking up trash before taking a step. Bag after bag we filled, working together with the English lads and Kevin until mid-morning when a bold 4×4 graciously offered to haul it to the car park. Carly and I were eager to climb in this gorgeous weather, setting our sights on Bla Bheinn and pleasant looking routes on its eastern buttress. We stuffed down a quick lunch, racked up and packed only the essentials: first aid supplies, water and Snickers bars. We picked our way through the boggy plains, finding a small beaten path leading up the southern buttress of Bla Bheinn. We scrambled up and bouldered around each outcrop encountered on the dry, packless ascent, delighted at its grippy texture and crack systems, stopping often to soak in the views and our fortune. Camasunary felt like an impossible dream: sheltered by the Cuillins, nestled between a marshy plain and and soft beaches, fed by rich lochs and rivers, and kissed repeatedly by a calm ocean. In our search for the elusive eastern crags, we were halted by dangerously steep scree slopes. We searched for ways around, but came up empty handed. We settled for sharing Snickers chocolate on the summit, admiring the length of the various peaks and pinnacles dotting the Cuillins; it would have been a perfect day to traverse them. Instead of feeling disappointment, we embraced the cumulative exhaustion in our bodies and the magic of the land as we descended the mountain. Back at the bothy, I found a nook in the low sea cliffs where I bathed in the sunny ocean and washed my clothes for the next days, soaking in the day. We were treated to a glorious sunset over the Cuillins sitting around a fire, grateful for the smoke to keep away the midges; we were already dreaming of return.
The sun returned to illuminate Camasunary the next morning, beckoning us from bed. Stewing oats, currents and butter with a side of coffee woke our stomachs from their nightly fast. We ate on the beach, lapping up the rays with no need for words. Our wet and weathered impression of Skye was transformed into a picture of paradise, though we knew it was time to leave. Kevin snapped a few final photos for us and soon after we said goodbye. We packed slowly, soaking in the last perfect moments in peaceful solitude – everyone else had left. A quick listen to Florence and the Machine gave us the push we needed to hike out to the car park where Margaret and Angus had stayed. The Search for the Secret Bothy: Hitching Skye from South to North After the effort of getting ourselves to Skye, and the unprecedented sunshine, we forgot our plans to return to climb Ben Nevis. Kevin raved about the beauty of the Quiraing walk, a dramatic landslipped area near the sea, and the area around the Old Man of Storr. Now settled on the idea of staying on Skye until we were due in Edinburgh, we planned to travel up-island to visit these sites. We also couldn’t deny the lure of a photo Kevin showed us of a seaside sunset, so we prepared to leave the now-familiar Camasunary bothy in search of the “secret lookout bothy” up north. By the light of birthday candles evenings before, Kevin showed us which wiggle of land on the northernmost tip of Skye we were to find the bothy, instructing us to look for a red telephone box on the side of the road connecting the small towns of Staffin and Uig, with a sign marked “Shulista.” With no additional information, Kelsey and I said goodbye to Camasunary and set off to hitchhike from the closest road.
After our good luck hitchhiking around Fort William, we were not surprised to be picked up within fifteen minutes by two young women out for a drive from their hostel. They drove us past thousands of sheep back to Sligachan, and dropped us off at the hotel where we’d started our journey on Skye. From there, an Englishman visiting a friend on the island gave us a ride to the grocery store in Portree, the “urban” centre on Skye. With packs bursting with fresh food, and gratified by our good luck so far, we walked to the road leading north out of Portree, and started hailing passing cars once more. Our next lift was from a woman who’d moved to Staffin with her family from London to slow down and live by the ocean. The next wait on the side of the road was the longest yet. With suppertime approaching and only 12 km left to go, we wondered if our luck had run out. I – Carly – even started a song and dance routine, “Cute and harmless, harmless and cute!” to reassure passing drivers, and finally, a Russian couple on holiday picked us up. They humoured us as we explained where we were trying to go, and helped us look for the elusive red phone box. At last, there it was, sign and all!
Our timing couldn’t have been better. A warm evening glow bathed the dirt track and purple heather, contrasting this flatter, drier landscape with the one we had left 100 km to the south. Near the end of the trail, we crested a small hill and found the Rubha Hunish Lookout bothy, windows twinkling in the sun, waiting for us on the cliffside. As it turned out, this bothy was far from secret, with its three bunks over-filled, so we joined the other tents further down the plateau. The light lingered until nearly midnight, when we finally turned in after wandering the cliffside, journaling, and sharing stories with the other bothy inhabitants.
Our travels to this point had reinforced the assumption that one could find fresh running water anywhere in Scotland. We rationed what was left, eating thick porridge for breakfast and saving only sips for exploring the small peninsula under the cliff. The cathedral of rock and winding sea cliffs we found convinced us to remain at Rubha Hunish for another day, and forgo hitchhiking south to the Quiraing. Reluctantly, and with the first inkling of a sunburn, we hiked back to the road in search of water. Finding none, we started walking toward the nearest houses down the road. Instead of directing us to a source, the proprietor of a collection of guest houses and sheep farm offered to fill our bottles herself. We discovered later, upon meeting a former president of the Mountain Bothy Association back at Rubha Hunish, that we could have visited his art gallery down the road and filled our bottles there (as was suggested in the guest book). Large hairy cows and many sheep greeted us on our walk back to the bothy, followed by a local herder and his seven border collies.
With fresh water in hand, we were free to climb and explore the sea cliffs below the bothy. After careful inspection of the large castle-like formation under the bothy, we decided that we weren’t comfortable with the rock quality at the top of the cliff, so after a dip in the cold water, chose to climb some of the lower cliffs at the water’s edge. For the rest of the day, we danced across grippy black rock, sharing perches with tolerant seabirds, awed by the spectacular setting and weather. As we were settling in with dinner that evening, a Swedish woman crashed through the door, crying, into her friends arms. Noticing we were alarmed, they excitedly informed us that she had just gotten engaged. We shared dinner with the happy couple and friends that evening, and were graced with one more ocean sunset.
The beginning of the end: Portree, Inverness and Edinburgh Leaving The Lookout, we were reminded of the artist’s cafe, Single Track, recommended to us by the kind proprietor who filled our nalgenes the day before. We decided to hike the few miles there for coffee, cake, and hopefully a ride to Portree. We lingered over our espresso and rich chocolate cake, looking out to the windy sea and admiring the watercolour paintings inside. Shouldering our packs again, we were quickly offered a ride all the way to the Portree campground by a Bavarian woman on holiday with her dog in an enormous caravan. She was quite unconcerned by the narrow, winding, single-direction roads, and it was with some relief that we finally reached the campground. Our neighbour in the campsite was a French university student, waiting on a friend to meet him on Skye the following day. He noticed our climbing gear as we turfed out our packs onto the lawn looking for tent pieces, and he told us about growing up climbing near Chamonix. We spent the rest of the evening exploring Portree and its various pubs together. In the morning, we said goodbye to him and Skye, and boarded a bus to Inverness. Incidentally, we discovered that all of the Scotland Youth Hostelling Association hostels have the same wifi password, so we were able to contact Angus and Margaret before departing by loitering in the courtyard of the hostel in town.
We were greeted by charming Inverness after a rainy bus ride along Loch Ness. Angus and Margaret were waiting for us at the Fig and Thistle Bistro, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch and finally had a taste of haggis! After saying goodbye for now, we boarded a bus to Edinburgh, on the way to the end of our trip. Kelsey had three days to explore to city, but my flight departed the following afternoon, so we celebrated with a trip to the laundromat and dinner at an Italian restaurant, where we reflected on our trip. I went on to the Italian Dolomites to continue climbing, while Kelsey headed down to the Pyrenees.
It turns out uncertainty – the primary prerequisite for adventure – is the only certain thing we can expect in life; the hills, in a foreign country no less, made for an excellent place to practice accepting that fact. Once in the hills, one must abandon the burdensome nag of worry, which often accompanies uncertainty, in order to embody the spirit of adventure. Together we practiced this in Scotland, spending approximately 12 days on terrain we had never experienced in a country we had never set foot in, detouring drastically from our original objectives due to unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances. Weather changed by the hour, rock was chossy and hard to read, and our bodies exhausted slowly but surely, hauling nearly 30 kg with each step. We learned that when time is limited, the hardest thing to do is slow down. Taking care of yourself and your travel partner should take precedence over completing a tick-list. Sometimes it’s better to become intimately familiar with the day-to-day stirrings of only a few special places, than to get a fleeting impression of many.
By Carly Peterson and Kelsey Miller Neil Mackenzie Adventure Grant, 2017