Back in March, I received the Neil Mackenzie Adventure Grant as provided by the Neil Mackenzie Trust and Varsity Outdoor Club. I took off to Scotland immediately to catch the tail end of Scottish winter climbing season. I want to thank the selection committee and everyone who made this possible for me, in particular Neil’s folks, whose dedication to the cause is heartwarming. This is one of my many adventures.
Throwing a thumb up at the side of a road with no traffic in a complete downpour did not bode well. If only renting a car in the UK wasn’t such a royal pain… Having ditched some of my possessions at the Broadford hostel, I naively carried much of my climbing kit hoping to encounter many of Neil’s climbing buddies at the work party. Surely there would be many of them there, so I wanted to get there that night to scheme and drink whisky!
With perseverance, or rather no particular action on my part, I finally got picked up by a local household appliance refurbisher, who agreed to drive me all the way to the trailhead. In fact, he recommended a scenic “shortcut” to get to Camasunary bay. A cliff-top seaside trail did sound more appealing than a 4×4 track, but in retrospect not in a raging Skye storm.
I set out and biffed it a half-dozen times in the first hundred meters. The mud was of the highest quality and at a delightful gradient. The whole hillside had seemingly standing water on it, despite it being, well, a hill side. I briefly even considered donning my crampons. But plodded on regardless.
Human psychology is a funny thing. Walk along the very cliff edge, and you are terrified and ultra-careful. Walk 30 meters away from the same edge and you don’t have a care in the world. But if those 30 m are steep slick mud, or a say a sheet of Teflon, the separation is illusionary, as you have no chance of stopping yourself. But somehow danger of sliding off the cliff top, versus falling off it immediately doesn’t register or affect you in the same way.
Much danger averted (or ignored), the trail descended off the cliffs into a glen. On an average day, there would be but a trickle of water to rock-hop across, but on that day there was a raging river. After an hour of tramping up and down the bog bank, my feet got wet enough that it seemed reasonable to ford it. And it was going well up until the last step before the other side, where the water suddenly went from knee to waist deep. Plop!
Now fully saturated rather than simply drenched, I carried on over more cliffs to Camasunary bay. Unfortunately, my first impression of it was that it is incredibly littered. Junk from fishing buoys, to oil drums, to plastic crates, seems to wash ashore particularly in this bay due to some tidal phenomena, and is then whipped up all over the place by the infamous winds. A sad sight. Thanks Britain.
But regardless, I made it and was excited to meet the folk! Only the folk weren’t there. The only friend to turn up for the final work party and opening weekend… was me. And I only traveled half-way around the world to get there. There were three other lovely volunteers from the Mountain Bothies Association, but they had no association to Neil and barely knew of the tragedy. To them and the MBA, the bothy would remain Camasunary.
To their due, they’d been on site for over a week and would stay as long as it took to finish the project. They also fed and lodged me in the estate owner’s private residence for my entire stay. Though unheated – my everything remained wet for that same duration.
The next day started with some work on the new bothy. Built as an exercise by the army, donated to the MBA, and sponsored by the Neil Mackenzie Trust, the building was ready to go and only needed some finishing touches. I varnished the sleeping platforms and painted the foyer. I appreciated the plaque in Neil’s memory and signed a long page in the visitors’ book.
The afternoon was spent roofing the old bothy. If you ask me, a pointless task seeing as the estate owner will be overhauling the entire thing to make a lodge, but wanted it returned in the same condition he donated it. Working with the Brits is pleasant as there is no shortage of tea breaks. True the old adage that everything burns, we burned heaps of trash.
As the day wore on, it nagged me that I wasn’t utilizing the brief brilliant break of good weather – a rarity for the Isle of Skye. By 16:45, I could take it no more and decided I would go for a jaunt up the nearest mountain – Bla Bheinn. From sea level to the top of a munro would be only a little less than 1000 meters of elevation. No problem!
But by the time I’d talked my way out of working and made it back to the residence, it was 17:15. Only to find the doors locked. I needed to change and grab some water and a headlamp. With total darkness setting on by 20:30, a light wasn’t something I could forgo. But too much time would be wasted to run back to the old bothy, get the keys, return and faff, and run the keys back, such that it would become pointless to even start the trail. A predicament indeed.
Well, what am I but an audacious delusion optimist? And what better way is there to commemorate this place than by doing something really, really daft? So I took off running up the hill. With nothing but my camera, and luckily my altimeter watch. Wearing oversized wellies. On bare feet.
I imagined I could gain about 700 vertical meters per hour, and should thus be at the summit by 19:00 at the latest. To be conservative (right…), I set an evaluation-of-progress time for 18:30, and an ultimate turn-around time of 18:45. That would give me 1.5 hours to come down, which is the same as allotted for the ascent. At worst, I would use the lights in the house and the digital compass as my beacons.
For the first bit, it proved difficult to run through the bog, with it slurping up the wellies all the time, but once on the ridge, I lit a fire under my ass. Moderate scrambling is no match for my prowess and determination. Never mind the ominous clouds rolling in from the sea…
Not slowing down for even one minute, by 18:25 I’d reached the summit!.. Except not. I’d reached the south summit, of which existence I was blissfully unaware of. By Artem’s law of tallness, you are higher than another peak only if you can see beyond it to the other side. Well I couldn’t. And separating me and that next point was a narrow exposed ridge, now covered in snow-slush. Apparently, gumboots do not insulate or provide any traction. With an abundance of time, I would have fucked about and forced my way there, but having pressed up right against my time limits, I had to call it there. As I found out later, the north and true summit is at 928 m, whereas I stood at a measly 926 m.
At least that gave me a moment to catch my breath and take a few snaps of the sun setting over the majestic Cuilin Ridge. I will be back for you one day! It is true that Bla Bheinn is the fairest of the munros on Skye as the views are unrivaled!
Cue some BMC old-fogies to turn out will full mountaineering kit. To say the least, they were not impressed with this wellie-wearing-punter asking them for photographs. Reluctantly, and with quite the stink eye, they took one picture and hurried off, as if not wanting to get involved in my rescue. Had to do the rest of the work myself.
Another note on human psychology – they see me in my attire and assume I am some sort of chuffer. My true experience and preparedness does not matter and they only see me as trouble. Was I Finlay Wild, they would be congratulating me on my speedy ascent and having a hearty laugh of my footwear.
By 18:45 I was jogging back down. Against my reader’s expectations, that was entirely uneventful and I made it back to the residence by 20:20 in time for soup and scotch. My ass remained unbitten this time around.
The next morning returned the foul weather, roofing, and tea-time. But by the afternoon it was time to leave as I’d be able to catch a ride to Inverness with one of the volunteers. One more pull of scotch at the new bothy, and we on our way out the track, which only takes about an hour.
I urge you all to visit Bell’s Bothy- it is a magical and emotional place. “His friends and family hope that this place of shelter will be filled with good stories, laughter, and a few drams, all of which he would have shared aplenty. Enter as strangers, leave as friends.”