Other accounts and travel writings

Glen Sligachan - Scotland, Isles, Skye, United Kingdom

To the End of the World

The following is Michael Harrison’s piece on walking here, which was an entry we much enjoyed for our 2011 Travel Writing Competition. Thank you, Michael, for bringing this walk to our attention!

To the End of the World

The door of the Sligachan Hotel was closed as we drove into the car park. Would we have done what we did if the opening hours were different? Probably not.

It was early April and we had travelled all the way north to the Isle of Skye to do some walking and we were young (and foolish?) enough at that time to do things I would think twice about doing now.

Don't get me wrong. We might have been foolish but not stupid. The weather forecast was not good and the planned high-level walk had been abandoned. You couldn't even see the hills the cloud was that low and going to the top didn't make any sense. These were the Cuillins, not mountains to treat with disdain.

So we decided on a low level valley walk with no real navigation problems, it was just there and back. And to some extent that was the problem.

We had all the gear (not as sophisticated and efficient as now – this was some years back) but adequate for the conditions we could expect. And in readiness for the situation to get worse, rather than better, we were in full wet weather gear from the very start.

A good job too. Whilst still in sight of the pub it started to rain. Not a heavy downpour just that persistent rain that soaks to the skin.

This route, heading more or less south towards the Atlantic, would bring us to Loch Coruisk and a place known as World's End – that should have been a clue. The views were supposed to be impressive and we all had the hope that the weather would clear and our efforts would be rewarded by blue sky and sunshine. Oh, the optimism of youth.

The route would have been wet underfoot at the best of times but the rain of previous days meant that we were really walking along a stream with dry bits here and there.

Is it just me or does anyone else consider it strange how walkers try and keep their feet dry and in the process make complicated manoeuvres that wouldn't look out of place in a performance of contemporary dance? Jumping from clumps of grass to rocks that look firm, over stretching yourself just to avoid stepping in the water and in the process risking going down and getting more than the feet wet.

Then there comes a life changing moment. You misjudge and you are up to your ankles in cold, muddy water. However fast you get out of it it's too late. The boot is (or seems to be) full of water and all the cursing in the world won't change that. There's nothing to do but to grin and bear it. To change into dry socks doesn't make sense as the day has just started and the next step could produce the same result.

This is followed by a change in the way of thinking. There's no need for all the pirouettes, the fancy footwork. You can just plough through the water as if you were Gene Kelly in love. Then the water starts to warm up slightly as you benefit from the same effect as being in a wet suit.

That day the rain continued, perhaps even getting heavier. In this battle of wills nature was giving no quarter.

Then I started to say to myself, as I bowed my head to the strengthening wind that has decided to join the rain, 'Every step I take will have to be retraced to get back to the car and, more importantly, the pub with its log fire.' Out loud I said nothing. I didn't want to seem weak in front of my companions – what's now known as peer pressure. Little did I know then that similar thoughts were going through their minds. We were reasonably fit and walked for pleasure but what pleasure was there in this excursion? So what if it rains every day, we're in Skye, what do you expect? At least we made the effort to get here. There's always next year, perhaps we would have better luck if we returned. But on the walk that all remained unsaid.

After a bit of a final climb we reach the highest point and look down on the loch and the Atlantic. There was no blue sky, no sea green water, no inviting sandy beach. Everything was grey. So grey it was impossible to see where the land, the water and the sky met. This really was the end of the world.

In better weather we might have gone down to explore the shoreline but none of us had much enthusiasm to tarry long, not even to eat – that could be done on the hoof.

We turned back with renewed vigour. Now every step takes us closer to our goal and that new optimism is reflected in the way we walk. But nature was not going to let us get away with it that easy.

The wind, that was in our faces as we walked to the coast, had changed direction and was in our faces as we headed back inland. The rain eased but there was a reason for that. The hills on our left had a dusting of white, that whiteness getting closer as we quickened our paces. The snow hit us but not as heavy as feared, more a flurry than a storm, but we didn't know how it might develop.

We sped up. We had been walking for a few hours but were not that tired. Though only a vague shadow the Sligachan came into sight. It was still a long way away but we all knew that the end of the ordeal was in sight.

Once in the car park we almost broke into a run, the kitty master in the lead knowing that the order was four pints of heavy (in those days there was normally only one bitter available in most pubs).

The wet clothes were discarded, small puddles developing where they lay. That wasn't a problem; the pub was accustomed to such customers. The fire was welcoming, the beer flowed free. All was well with the world.

Did it put me off walking? As I said earlier I was then young and foolish so it didn't. In fact I have since walked some of the world's iconic routes and worked for many years as a mountain guide.

But I did change my approach after that day. I don't really like walking in the rain and if at all possible I try and walk in the sunshine, it's more pleasant that way and you can actually see something. Also I now, almost always (snow can be painful), hike in walking sandals. If it rains I get wet feet from the start and don't make a fool of myself with such bizarre antics.

By Michael Harrison ()

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