I stood up, wiped the mud from my face, grinned and remounted my bike. The ferocious Scottish single-track trail I was tackling was making a mockery of the mountain bike riding skills I had learnt in southern England.
I had just been tossed over my handlebars and straight into a bog. I wanted to blame the bicycle for this ignominious ejection, but I was using a decent cross-country mountain bike, so the fault really lay with my lack of technique.
There are a few people (a rare few) for whom the UK’s curvaceous but diminutive geography is a genuine impediment to their physical endeavours. I’m not one of those people. In recent years, I have taken a masochistic delight in seeking out opportunities to demonstrate that the wild places in ‘quaint little Britain’ are more than capable of chewing me up and spitting me out.
My adventure focus has changed radically in the past few years. From seeking my fix of wilderness in remote places such as Alaska and Greenland, my attention has switched to finding wild places in Britain. My motivation for adventure remains the same: to challenge myself mentally and physically; to explore new places; and to have fun. I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover that it’s entirely possible for me to do this in Britain. I have dubbed these escapades – small and local, but with a big heart – ‘microadventures’.
Something I always try to do is hang out with people more talented or accomplished than myself. This approach has enabled me to do many more difficult things than I would have managed alone and has taught me so much. My partner for this microadventure certainly fell into this category. Alex Glasgow is a mountain-biking champion and a veritable mountain goat. I was going to have my work cut out trying to keep up with him.
Our Skye ‘triathlon’ had the pleasing succinctness of all the most satisfying challenges. It was an arbitrary microadventure that would take in some of the island’s most beautiful landscapes, we would be travelling by three very different means, and – to add a piquancy of self-imposed urgency to proceedings – we would try to finish the lot inside 24 hours. There wasn’t a Brownlee brother in sight.
We began at the pub. Not just any pub, but the Sligachan Hotel, which has icon status in the history of British mountaineering. Nestled at the foot of the infamous Cuillin Ridge, Sligachan has been a popular hub for climbers for more than a century. The pub made an enticing beacon to push towards when things got tough during our circular journey over the next 24 hours.
HIGH OCTANE EXPERIENCE
After a juicy steak lunch, we made final preparations to our kit then pedalled up Glen Sligachan. I’ve spent my adult life addicted to exploring the world. After climbing in the Andes, canoeing down the Yukon River, and cycling the Karakoram Highway, I assumed that a Scottish isle was going to be an anticlimax.
Apart from helming a racing yacht hammering down an Atlantic wave – beam reach, full moon, borderline gale – I can’t think of anything in the adventure world that has given me the same intoxicating cocktail of speed, flow and terror as hammering down a single-track mountain-bike trail.
This was a beautiful place to ride. Alex tutted and laughed at my poor riding technique. I enjoyed watching him flow smoothly across the rocky terrain on his full-suspension mountain bike.
Choosing an appropriate mountain bike is difficult. There’s no question that you get what you pay for: a £3,000 beauty will cope with the terrain better and last far longer than a £300 bike. But someone who’s fit and practices regularly (Alex) will beat an out-of-shape wimp (me) regardless of what bike he’s riding. Hence, you need to be realistic about what you actually need your bike for, and then spend as much as you can afford within that specification tier.
We used flat pedals on our bikes rather than clip-in cleats so that we could wear the same shoes for all three phases of our triathlon. I chose fell-running shoes as they’re lightweight and quick-drying, with a moderately stiff sole and an excellent grip.
Multi-discipline adventures always involve a compromise of equipment, so I try to choose items that are multi-purpose. I always ask myself, ‘Do I really need this product, or is it just nice to have?’ and ‘Can this item fulfil more than one function?’
In between my stumbles and falls, I relished the beautiful, remote riding. Barren peaks rose from the green glen into a warm blue sky. We passed a loch that looked perfect for a swim, but we had miles to go before nightfall so we pressed on instead, hurtling along an exhilarating descent, down to the beach and a sweeping bay.
HUFFING AND PUFFING
There we traded bikes for boats. It’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful sea paddle in Britain than the one across the bay towards the Cuillin mountains.
Alex used a sea kayak and I used a packraft. This is a perfect demonstration of the issues involved in making compromise kit decisions. A packraft is brilliantly versatile; I’ve taken mine down rapids, across lakes and across London on the Underground. A sea kayak is good for one thing only – kayaking on the sea – but it’s very good for that.
And so I huffed and puffed and coerced my blunt little boat through the waves while Alex paddled gently alongside, keeping up a jaunty (and hence slightly annoying) commentary about the jellyfish and seals, the gorgeous mountains we were paddling towards, and how much he was looking forward to his tea.
As the sun set, we pitched our small tent at the mouth of a secluded loch, tucked into a brooding cleft at the base of the mountains. The Cuillins are the ancient eroded remains of a vast volcanic lip and they curved above us now, jagged and menacing like rotten black teeth. I live in one of the least-wild, least-lovely corners of Britain, so each time I escape to somewhere like Skye, it takes a conscious effort to remind myself that, yes, this is actually still ‘my’ country, that I am still ‘at home’.
We ate quickly, then slept, for the alarm clock was set for 3am. 3am! That alone explains why I would never make the grade as a proper alpinist.
Grumpy and groggy, we began the ascent to the Cuillin ridge. All the while, we asked ourselves what on Earth we were doing this for. The answer was revealed in breathtaking style.
We crested the ridge just as the sun rose. The view of the ocean and the islands far below us was worth the early alarm call.
The summit of Gars-bheinn served as the starting point of our mountain challenge. We began moving along the ridge at a good speed and in high spirits.
This route proved to be one of the most beautiful and tough landscapes I’ve travelled. We spent most of our time picking our way along the arête. The sharp gabbro was cruel on both my skin and my clothing. I was glad to have chosen a sturdy pair of trousers.
There’s no running water on the narrow ridge, so you have to estimate how much water to carry. I carried a water bladder in my pack as I find that a dangling hose reminds me to sip regularly.
Navigation on the ridge is fiendishly tricky, even on a clear summer’s day. A map isn’t much use because navigation is on the most micro of scales – one giant cluster of rock looks much like another. We mostly resorted to a policy of trial and error.
At one point, Alex was in front of me. He leaped across a gap then turned to me. ‘I recommend you don’t look here – just jump.’
I jumped. Then I looked down. A very long way down –further than I ever imagined the mountains of Britain could threaten you with. The technical term for this yawning empty space is ‘exposure’. I don’t like exposure one bit, but I found it fascinating to face it.
The short sections of rock climbing were sufficiently taxing to keep the adrenaline pumping. We wore lightweight climbing harnesses and helmets that were comfortable enough to leave on as we jogged and scrambled along the exposed ridge between pitches.
Although the day was warm, we were exposed to the wind, and we were glad to have our loose down jackets, which we could don when we were waiting or belaying. Abseiling down the spectacular Inaccessible Pinnacle remains one of the more memorable highlights of all my British microadventures.
Just how gruelling the Cuillins can be was illustrated for me shortly afterwards. I injured my knee and was forced to limp – defeated and annoyed – down from the ridge. Alex’s good-humoured mocking of me, the ‘professional adventurer’, being foiled by a ‘little hill in Scotland’ rang in my ears for a long time afterwards.
Yet although I was disappointed to have failed just two thirds of the way along the ridge, this microadventure was a superb illustration of the fact that you can find tough things to test yourself with close to home. Our Skye triathlon cemented for me the realisation that I live in a wonderfully diverse, beautiful and wild country with unlimited scope for exciting and challenging microadventures.
Alastair is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. His adventures have ranged from cycling around the world to cycling around the Isle of Wight. His latest book, Microadventures, is published by Harper Collins. www.alastairhumphreys.com
Despite being a microadventure and taking only 24 hours, Alastair’s Skye triathalon required a range of specialised equipment that would enable him to cycle, climb and kayak his way around the island. Among his most valued pieces of kit were an Osprey rucksack, a Mountain Equipment down vest and an Arc’teryx climbing harness
1. Mountain bike
Trek X-Caliber 8
The X-Caliber 8 is a reasonably light, responsive ‘hardtail’ (it has no rear suspension) bike. The 29-inch wheels improve momentum and cornering, and help the rider cope with tricky terrain. Ideal for the committed amateur
Osprey Talon 33
A well-ventilated, snug-fitting and lightweight pack with a quick-access hydration sleeve that’s handy for storing drinking water. The adjustable torso length allows you to fine-tune the fit
3. Sea kayak
P&H Cetus HV
A fast expedition boat capable of carrying a heavy load. The handy fourth hatch is easy to open while paddling, making it ideal for storing cameras, snacks and water. The wide hull gives excellent stability. The latest version has extra knee room for taller people
4. Down vest
Mountain Equipment Arete
The most versatile and most-used piece of outdoor clothing I own. The Arete is lightweight, comfortable and very warm, with 95 grams of down filling. The zipped pockets are usefully large. A dedicated women’s version is also available
5. Trail shoes
Inov-8 Roclite 315
A durable and versatile off-road trail-running shoe that worked well during my Skye microadventure on the bike, in the packraft and along the ridge. The Roclite 315’s synthetic upper and mesh lining dried very quickly. The outsole provided excellent grip on the technical parts of the climb
6. Climbing harness
Lightweight and functional, the R-300 features unidirectional mesh that provides bridging support in one direction and flexibility in the other. Conical leg loops provide added comfort
A flexible, compact tripod that can cope with rough terrain. The aluminium construction can support a DSLR or a video camera. Add Joby’s Ballhead X to give the Focus a quick-release plate, as well as precise pan and tilt controls
Rab Sawtooth pants
Loose and comfortable when cycling, quick drying in the boat, and durable on the mountains, these softshell trousers offer great climate control and have a UPF rating of 30+. Crampon patches show they’re designed for serious use
9. Waterproof jacket
Mountain Equipment Firefox jacket
A lightweight shell made from Gore-Tex fabric that’s specifically designed for fast-moving activities. The fully adjustable hood fits snugly over a helmet. The mesh-backed pockets and underarm pit zips allow you to ventilate effectively while on the move
10. Energy food
Trek Banana Bread Flapjack
A tasty, gluten-free flapjack with ten grams of protein per bar. It’s made by a British company that’s focused on creating genuinely healthy food. Available in six flavours – including coconut, berry and raisin – if you’re not a fan of bananas
This story was published in the July 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine