“So, Paul, is there any good hiking in Scotland?”
Gary here. Thanks for stopping by!
That was the innocent question from my brother-in-law, Don, that started it all. The three of us—myself, Don, and my friend Paul—were sitting around a campfire at Benson Lake, deep in the Yosemite backcountry. It was a slog to get there, hiking two days from Tuolumne Meadows over a pass and down through Virginia and Matterhorn canyons (and that far to get back out to Twin Lakes after). We had started these summer hikes a year before, finding the three of us favored a similar, robust hiking speed. That brought us together into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and my beloved Yosemite.
The answer was yes. Paul had a degree from Edinburgh University, and had hiked the Highlands often. Don’s question launched the international phase of the annual “Guys’ Hiking Trip,” a fine tradition taking us on the cheap (really cheap) to over a dozen countries. We eventually grew to five guys, from different professional backgrounds, who all loved the mountains and the outdoors, who came together for maybe a week+ each summer to hike and to share a glass. One excuse for the guys-only trips was that we chose places with such underdeveloped facilities that none of our wives cared to go to them.
This year, covid-19 has put a kibosh on our planned trip to Canada. It’s a good time to take an armchair trip back to Scotland, with a good single malt in hand.
So we headed for Scotland. Hikers in the UK often focus on the “Munros,” defined as all the peaks over 3,000 feet tall. Those seem puny by our California standards. (For example, Tuolumne Meadows stands at over 10,000 feet elevation.) But the Scottish mountains are well-known for gnarly weather. Sir Edmund Hillary trained on them to prepare for the first ascent of Everest. (Snowdon in Wales was one of those, and we trekked to Wales after Scotland to knock that one off too.)
The Scottish Mountaineering Club lists 282 Munros. Many British hiking fanatics have climbed them all. We decided to try a few, and to quench our thirst after hiking down with some of the local spring water (distilled, of course).
We had to take on the tallest of the Munros, which is Ben Nevis, topping out at 4,411 feet. It is just a walk up a rocky trail. The weather on top is frequently poor. Our trek to the top was not unusual, and we met a small storm with snow beating down as we summited. I can remember the warm British beer that waited at the bottom.
Another memorable mountain ridge was Aonach Eagach. It is the narrowest ridge on the British mainland, with the only ways out on either end, and sheer drops in between. You need to power on, or else. Paul had remembered it as not-so-difficult, the faulty memory of youth, we agreed afterward. Halfway along the knife-edge ridge a nasty bit of weather caught us without ropes, ice axes, and crampons. When we crawled over the last tough rocky crossing and could clamber down off the ridge, the pints waiting at the small pub were very welcome.
Next, we headed for the best hiking in Scotland—the Black Cuillin range on the Isle of Skye in the north. You can reach the island by driving on A87 across the single connecting Skye Bridge, to find the village of Kyleakin along the strait of Kyle Akin, with a charm for backpackers.
Trekking across the Scottish Highlands, with the heather moors in bloom, is truly an experience. One description:
The mountains rise dramatically from the sea creating formidable, enclosed sea lochs, with the absence of foothills enhancing their vast scale. Many iconic views of Scotland are centred here, whether Sgurr nan Gillean soaring above Sligachan, Loch Scavaig and the Cuillin ridge from Elgol, or Bla Bheinn above Torrin.
— Scottish Natural Heritage
I was ready for more than just a hike over the Scottish Highlands, however. So I hired a local expert climber to be my guide, and headed up two technical peaks.
The most challenging was Sgurr nan Gillean (pronounce it: Skoor nan Geel-yan), sometimes called the “peak of the young men.” I’ve shared a couple of photos as I reached the top, with the fog surrounding us. As you approach the summit, with helmet protecting against rockfall and on belay, you appreciate the vertical rock. That seems to be a reason for the nickname (as it is, er, erect).
That’s how we started a tradition, of a guys’ hiking trip every year to a different country. With a bit of planning, we found surprising bargain countries with bucolic mountains, friendly people, and hearty local food and beer. And we have had many good times around an evening fire.
That’s my quick armchair trip hiking in Scotland. Now tell me, what sorts of traditions have you created, to make memories with the folks you enjoy hanging out with?
Be well, and stay calm.
We all have many journeys. Gary’s began in a small Midwest town, where he could play unfettered in the woods, finding an early love for nature and learning self-reliance. The space program and the night skies hooked him on astronomy. After finishing college, the wide world beckoned, and his fascination with science drew him to California to participate in the booming tech industry. Now he still stares upward, wondering what it all is about.