Hiking in Skye

There are two secrets to happy hiking in Scotland: waterproof clothing and lots of time.

Show up in the Highlands with a plan to reach such-and-such peak on such-and-such day, and Scotland will laugh in your face and spit rain at you. Better to draw a big circle around a set of calendar days and hope that one of them will turn out to  be alright. Though I’ve been surrounded by so many weather-obsessed Scots, I’ve been unable to tell one misty morning apart from another, so that every rainy day feels the same.

However, in Skye, the weather changes on a dime, so that if you are lucky (and I was lucky), the skies will clear and the mountains will call and a rush of hikers and climbers will come running up into the hills. The fact is, visitors can climb (hike, trek, scramble, and rock climb) year round on the Isle of Skye. Though traversing the Black Cuillin Ridge is best in dry, sunny weather, the Cuillin on Skye offer some of the most exciting winter climbing in Europe.

Bringing lots of layers (base, middle, and waterproof shell) is imperative, whether you’re going on a stroll in the glen or tackling a serious peak. This past January, I hiked Ben Nevis in a kilt, but still carried a pack with proper winter gear, in case the winds picked up.

This September, I was very fortunate with the weather and after postponing just one day, the skies cleared and I made an ascent on Blà Bheinn, or Blaven (928 m; 3,045 ft) in an afternoon. The air was clear, the clouds harmless and the entire world turned an intense blue. These are the days when Skye is heaven on earth, when the mountains glow an almost cartoon green, rainbows pop up at every turn, and the ravens hop about the mountain peaks as if they own the entire island.

Once you’ve got your weather and your kit down, I’d also suggest a guide (e.g. Skye Guides) to show you the ropes (sometimes literally) on mountains that are quite fun, but not as “easy” as they may look from below. I felt a lot safer with my guide Mike, who explained every rock to me and then showed me how to climb with the geology. “That’s gabbro,” he explained, and told me the great volcanic history of Skye’s mountains. “It’s terrific rock for holding on to, with lots of grip,” he showed me, “But it will also take all the skin off your hands,”—which is why you should try to climb with your feet.

“Most climbers get injured in the Cuillin by pulling on gabbro, which dislodges and then falls on them,” Mike instructed, then showed me how to push myself upwards rather than pull. He’s been climbing these mountains for more than twenty years and, having written the book, is considered the expert for the area.

Though I am vastly afraid of heights, Mike took me up to my comfort level, and then pushed me a little more, by roping me up and having me climb hand over foot up “the nose” of Blaven, with a wee thousand-foot drop over my right shoulder. “Try something new every day,” he counseled, “That’s what I do.” And I did try something new: I climbed a beautiful mountain on a beautiful day, and then pushed myself behind the highest point by climbing like I’ve never climbed before.

So I guess that’s the third secret to happy hiking—after time and clothing—to push yourself just a wee bit more, and do something new.