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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Skye - a tragi-comedy in three glorious parts

27th May 2000 12:13:21

Dramatis Personae: Nick the helpless protagonist; Nigel the hapless sidekick; a SEAT Ibiza; the Munroes of Skye; bucket loads of bad luck and lashings of Scottish weather.

Act One - Exeunt stage left (hopefully)

I had the kind of weekend which makes me believe God exists, he knows where I live and he hates me.

But seriously...

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Take the long weekend in May and fly up from London to Skye to do some climbing in the Cuilins. Good plan. The execution left a little to be desired.

We flew out of Stanstead at 8.30am on Saturday morning... or we were supposed to. Stanstead is an ninety minutes from Stockwell. But if you miss a tube by a minute, wait ten minutes for the next one and then 30 minutes for a train, it turns out to be more like two hours and fifteen minutes.

This meant that we missed the plane by exactly ten minutes.

Act Two - This is your captain speaking...

Resigning ourselves to the inevitable, we went on standby for the next flight and got a message out to the people we were to meet in Glasgow. We hung around the airport for two hours and boarded our new flight at around 11.30am.

Settling back in our seats we ordered a drink and felt chuffed that we were on our way. Oh foolish pride! Oh fatuous hope! Minutes later, an apologetic captain announced a "small technical problem" and a delay of 25 minutes. One of the tyres was a 'bit' flat and they were going to change it. Fair enough, I thought, safety first - 25 minutes isn't so bad.

Twenty-five minutes later the captain was back on the intercom : the maintenance crew had elected to change the other tyre as well which would take another thirty minutes. Then he locked the door to the flight deck.

Act Three - This is your co-pilot speaking...

By now I had recognised the pattern and settled back to sleep. The rest of the mob grew rowdier but I was unsurprised to be awoken by a regretful pilot announcing that we'd lost our air-traffic control slot and would have to wait, you guessed it, thirty minutes.

So, two hours after we boarded the plane we finally taxied to the runway and took off. To the sound of cheering. Not my favourite start to the holiday, being stuck in a metal tube for two hours with lots of sweaty Scotsmen.

Still we were underway and the flight to Glasgow only takes an hour. Best to look on the bright side.

Actually the flight to Glasgow takes an hour, the flight to 'Prestwick' takes slightly less. Wandering about Prestwick looking for the airport I was expecting was slightly baffling until we realised where Ryanair had taken us. Ryanair don't fly to Glasgow. They operate out of the smaller Prestwick airport thirty miles south of the city. Unfortunately we hadn't bothered to check this minor detail when securing our tickets.

So there we were, four hours late, at the wrong airport. Now since everybody else had left for Skye ahead of us, we had to arrange our own transport. The hire companies appeared completely tapped out but we pleaded and scrounged and through a stroke of luck landed a car.

Now came my favourite bit of the whole holiday. The drive up the west coast of Scotland is one of my favourite in the whole world. With warm sunshine on the lochs and relatively quiet roads it is awesomely beautiful.

From Prestwick to Skye is about 200 miles (320km) plus 30 miles of one-track road on the island itself. We started out at around 3pm and rolled into the campsite at Glen Brittle at around 9.30 that night. With half an hour for lunch outside of Glasgow and half an hour messing around in Fort William, it wasn't too bad going.

Act Four - This is God speaking...

It would have been nice though if we had rolled into the campstie at Sligachan however. Yes, our luck continued. Through a series of miscommunications we managed to only get some fragmentary information on where we were to meet up with out friends. Consequently we spent a couple of fruitless hours looking around the Glen Brittle campsite and ended up sleeping in the car.

Next morning, we talked to the campsite manager. When we mentioned that we were supposed to meet our friends 'in the pub', he said "Aha! The nearest pub is about four miles away - but it's right next to... the other campsite." "Aha!" we said, and a few other four letter words. Knowing our friends as we did, we were betting on them choosing a campsite predominantly if not solely upon its proximity to alcohol.

Sure enough we soon were reunited with out friends and went through the story of our tragedy in great detail. Still, we had a day to spare and it lookdel like there was some good climbing around.

But the long weekend wasn't finished with us yet.

Skye is a climber's dream. Not only does it feature the Cuillin Ridge, the longest ridge-walk in Britain, it also hosts a staggering number of all grades of multi pitch climb. There is a veritable forest of climbs to choose from. Any climber could take their pick of routes and keep themselves busy for a week or more.

Any climber that doesn't mind climbing in the pouring rain however.

Act Five - Dogs are drinking in their noses

That's right it rained. It rained so much that the rock looked like a waterfall. It rained and was cold in a way that only Wales and the Scottish islands seem to be able to manage. It was rain of Biblical proportions... well actually, it wasn't, but climbing in the wet is just no fun at all. Since none of us fancied dicing with that particular brand of death we took a fairly desultory look at some of the more sheltered climbs and then went for a drive around the island.

The Cuillin Ridge is the dominant feature of the island. It forms the spine of the southern portion of the island and is composed of two massive and opposing crescents of mountains. The basalt of Skye forms some fantastic structures with spires and pinnacles protruding from the ridgeline add improbable angles.

The walk along the ridge is equally impressive. It takes in a dozen major peaks, involves some scrambling and a few technical climbs and takes about eighteen hours. It's a premier route for walkers and climbers in the UK and maybe the best around.

It turns out that bad weather is no stranger to Skye. One of our party, the venerable Angel Vila had been to Skye a number of time to complete the Ridge but had never quite finished it. As a matter of fact he had attempted it some eleven times and been rained off every single time.

So that day we didn't really manage any climbing, not even a decent mountain to speak of. We did manage some nice pubs though.

The final day turned out to be a bit more promising. The weather kicked off with actual sunshine and the odd patch of blue sky. The Cuillin Ridge hung above the campsite and tempted us mightily. But it was still five hours of driving back to Prestwick and the walk would take four or five at a minimum. It would be a close call, so we played it safe and headed back to Glencoe to do some Munroe bagging.

At Ballachulish around Loch Leven we headed up into the Mamores. Mark, Anna and I elected to do the 3400ft Binnein Mor while Kathleen who had already been up Binnein bagged another lone Munroe nearby.

Act the Last

The day turned out perfectly and although the wind was cold the view from the top was fantastic. From the top you can see the rest of Glencoe including the famous 'Pap'. Named for its rather conical shape it makes me wonder about the physiology or possibly the eyesight of the ancient Scots.

To the south the peaks of Glencoe rose above the surrounding hills in an unbroken chain of snow capped peaks and to the north 'the Ben' reigned supreme, its thirteen hundred metres poking up into the clouds. Behind the other Mamores, silver-grey rainstorms swept up Loch Linnhe towards us. Mercifully we were spared the rain and the storms parted and slipped by us on either side.

Deciding not to tempt fate we started down the back of the mountain onto the saddle with the next peak. From there we zig-zagged our way down the steep back slope of the mountain hoping to catch up with Kathleen.

Here the weather turned nasty. The cloud rolled in and dispensed what would have been in warmer circumstances a fair deluge of rain. Since it was a little colder we received it in the form of pea sized hail stones. It was as if God was unpacking his new VCR. The little white spheres rattled off the hoods of our jackets like an avalanche of popcorn.

We got back to the cars at about 4pm and got the rest of them on their way in time to catch their flight. I spent the last couple of hours killing time in Fort William and then took a leisurely drive back to Prestwick to catch my flight back to London.

The moral of this story ?

You've got to laugh.

For the next long weekend I think I'll plan something a bit less challenging. Hanging out the washing should be about right.