Solo on the Isle of Skye: Surviving the Trotternish Ridge
It started all nice… the way all disaster stories do.
When I left the lovely Flodigarry hostel’s campsite in the morning on a gloomy August day I had no way of predicting that the next 48h would be the toughest of my whole stay in Scotland.
My plan was to hike as much as possible of the Skye Trail.
I didn’t have enough time for it because I chose to stay longer in Portree and see the Highland Games. But I hoped to do the whole Trotternish Ridge and then bits and pieces of the southern part of the trail.
The Skye Trail
The Skye Trail is a really challenging path, with no official markers anywhere.
One can do it in about a week, depending on fitness levels and style of hiking. I’ve done the first part – Rubha Hunish to Flodigarry and absolutely loved it!
Now I wanted to do three days hiking from Flodigarry, through Storr to Portree either through the coastal path or farther down along the Trotternish Ridge.
I wanted to decide around Storr how I felt about it all. The first part – Flodigarry to Storr was a given, also because there really is no other way – once you are up there, you walk till you get to the very end ;-)
The second stage of the Skye Trail is about 30 km long and very difficult.
As I was hiking with a heavy backpack I knew there was no chance I would make it in one day. I was planning to wild camp “somewhere up there”.
In fair weather that might be an absolutely marvelous idea, as the views were just stunning... Unfortunately, I was not lucky to have that kind of weather, as you will soon find out…
Alternative way to do the Trotternish Ridge
When I was still staying at the hostel’s campsite, there were two women also preparing to hike this path.
The lovely gentleman at the hostel (can't remember his name, sorry!) advised them to leave their heavy stuff behind, go by bus to the Old Man of Storr and walk back to Flodigarry.
With just some snacks and water to carry they could walk fast and did the hike in one day – I met them later on along the trail. I must say this was a brilliant idea and I highly recommend doing it.
Climbing up the Trotternish Ridge
When I left the campsite the weather wasn’t all that bad – it was cold and gloomy, but I was already used to that.
In the beginning, you follow a trail leading to Loch Langaig, which you soon pass on your way up.
The walk among dramatic ridges of Quirang is purely magical but difficult at moments. You are rewarded with tremendous vistas for all your hardships, though.
The path leads you then along the steep slopes providing more and more of jaw-dropping views.
It finally reaches a parking area by the Staffin – Uig road. The weather was already going down by then – not raining yet but windy and cold.
I bought seriously over-priced sausages and tea from a food truck before I got on the path on the other side of the road.
Trotternish Ridge: Now the fun begins
When one looks at photos of the ridge it looks like gentle hills one after another… what a misleading illusion!
Many of the ascents are very steep and tricky – I was glad (again!) I had my trekking poles as they helped me a lot. At some points the climb was so steep I would be using my hands if I didn’t have the poles!
With the heavy backpack, I was “hugging” the slopes to not fall over. You can imagine that the descent on such steep, grassy and muddy slopes was not a walk in the park, either.
Once again I was glad that in addition to the trekking poles I also had the best possible hiking boots, providing support and holding on even on the steepest muddy mess of a path (or lack of it, most of the time...).
The skies over the Trotternish Ridge have an extra supply of water
Anyway – soon after I started walking toward the Bioda Buidhe summit it started to rain.
Then to pour.
Then the winds got so strong I was struggling to stay vertical. After I got completely soaked it stopped!
I was relieved, hoping it was all that they skies had for me for that day.
Oh, how wrong I was!
I used the misleading dry weather to change socks (rain got inside the boots because my pants were completely soaked) and to eat a snack.
Over the next hour or so my pants almost completely dried. I was optimistic and cheerful. Oh, sweet naivety!
After a while, the rains and winds returned.
The temperature seemed to drop significantly and the drops felt like tiny needles on my cheeks.
In a few minutes, I was soaked again. Based on this experience, when I later was getting ready for hiking in Iceland, I bought rain pants. It's a pity I didn't have them back then ;-)
Walking steep slopes and open ridge with such heavy wind was really tiring. As there was no natural hiding spot, any rocks, trees or caves, I had to trudge on.
When I reached the only structure protruding from the ground: a man-made, meter-high cement marker, I decided to “hide” behind it to have some rest.
The rain was falling horizontally at this point and I was really tired.
I took my backpack off and removed a thick plastic bag I used to protect my pack during a flight. It was just about half a meter wide, but I still put it on my back, hugged my backpack and squatted behind the monument.
I think I actually dozed off for a while. The who experience seemed surreal, as if I were the only person in the world. Me versus the rain. Me versus my own self-pity, weakness, and exhaustion.
BTW: I'm sorry for the misleading photos: I obviously wasn't taking any when it was pouring rain, so one may think it wasn't all that bad! :D It was.
I am glad my camera survived anyway - I used it in light rain multiple times...
Finding a camping spot on the Trotternish Ridge
I hoped the rain would ease, but no way. So after 40 min or so of this hard rest, I moved on.
When it got to 6 pm the rain weakened to just mist with winds still hollowing.
I decided it was the perfect time to find a camping spot before the rains return (no room for optimism anymore). The air had the color of milk which didn’t help much in seeing better spots from a distance.
The ground all over the ridge is extremely boggy and wet. Another misleading illusion from looking at photos! It made walking extremely hard but finding a good spot for a tent even harder.
I spent the next hour walking in circles at every flat spot, hoping to find some slightly sheltered place… or at least not a swampy pool. I even went down off the ridge a bit to see if there were any hidden flat spots... nope.
I have a feeling we are not on Skye anymore...
Finally, I found a place covered with soaked moss, but not pool-deep standing water.
There was also a rocky spot there where someone built a circle with rocks – I’m not sure if it was for camping unless it was a self-standing tent and the people had some mighty thick sleeping mats.
I used the rocks to hold my Vango tent down – I was seriously worried it would fly away. Possibly with me in it. It was a night to test my little tent’s strength. Good experience to practice those "how to pitch your tent in high winds" skills.
You can’t even imagine the relief I felt when I finally lied down in my sleeping bag…
I was dry, safe (I hoped), and really comfortable – as the wet moss made it like sleeping on a water bed.
I didn’t boil water because of the weather, so I only ate some coconut cookies and sweets for the supper. I was a bit worried about being cold - the ground was wet and cold, my sleeping mat was not insulating well and my synthetic sleeping bag proved already not sufficiently warm. I took my space blanket and put my sleeping stuff over it in hope of strengthening the insulating powers of my sleeping system.
I'm not sure it helped much, but my goodness is it noisy! :D
The next morning was foggy, chilly and windy – but no rain.
To my relief, I woke up dry and not in a pool of water. The little budget Vango tent proved it was a good choice!
I boiled myself water for breakfast and coffee – there was only a standing water pool, but I used my filter to clean it. I must say I felt pretty good, thinking the worst was behind me.
The silly optimism
I wasn’t sure where exactly I was but I still thought walking past Storr and down the Trotternish Ridge a possibility.
I packed and moved on along the muddy, treacherous and strenuous path.
After couple hours I was truly exhausted.
I walked just a few miles but felt like it was thrice that.
I had to rest often, especially after the steep climbs. I decided there was no sense moving on along the ridge and that I should walk down by the Old Man of Storr.
The tricky part was to notice the path before the peak and walk left around it to descend to the parking area.
The dangers of navigating in bad weather
The air was white and visibility extremely poor.
The good thing about walking along the ridge is that you don’t really need a path – just walk close to the ridge, making sure you don’t step over it.
But to descent by the Storr, you have to leave the ridge and just see the proper path. I miscalculated the peaks I walked and was sure I had one more to do before hitting Storr.
I was wrong – I already did Hartaval and was supposed to look for a path turning left but missed it.
I was so tired I couldn’t think clearly.
I saw a group of four women walking behind me and didn’t find it strange. Instead of stopping and waiting for them to ask where they came from, I just walked on.
I probably felt bad I was walking so slowly by then that I tried to climb faster the “Hartaval” (and really Storr).
In reality, I was supposed to take the path these women came from – later on I found out they were doing a short circular path around Storr.
The brain had enough
The women were from Austria and pretty experienced hikers. They had maps, compass, and GPS and knew well how to use those – and still got lost.
The visibility was absolutely horrible! Finally, we reached the peak of Storr but there was no way to climb down.
I probably should have walked down the same way I came to find the path I was supposed to take in the first place… but was so tired!
I decided to just stay with those women as they also wanted to get to the parking lot. They were fast walkers, with no heavy backpacks and I had a hard time keeping up with them but was unsure of my own skills at that moment, so stuck with them.
It was pouring heavily and all the “paths” we were taking were horribly muddy and the soil was soft and slipping. We were all covered in mud up to our knees (well, almost).
Freezing mid-August: Summer in Scotland
In the end, we did reach the main path to the Storr which was almost a shock to me!
I saw those poor tourists in fancy loafers or toms and felt really bad for them. I was lucky I climbed to the Storr a couple days before in a beautiful, sunny weather. Now it was a muddy, gloomy and rainy disaster.
I was dreaming only about a bed.
Even though the Portree campsite was the one close by, I wanted to go back to Flodigarry hostel and sleep in a bed.
I was waiting for an hour for the bus, shivering uncontrollably. I was soaked, really cold and generally miserable. I knew people were looking strangely at me but I simply couldn't stop shivering! My teeth were cluttering as if it was middle of winter.
It was only three pm, but I felt like I was climbing for days. When I got to Flodigarry the hostel was still closed (it opens at 5 pm) so I went to the hotel’s pub and sat by hot tea for an hour slowly reclaiming control over my muscles and digits.
I want a bed! I DESERVE a bed!
… and there were no free beds at the hostel.
I really didn’t want to pitch my tent as I felt I deserved a proper bed! In the end, I was lucky: in the back, they had an old camper and it was all mine for the mere (ahem) £30.
I was broke, but this won.
A few hours later I had my clothes washed and dried; I ate warm food and had a hot shower and felt somewhat normal. I was given a space heater to my old camper and I felt like in a world-class SPA on Bali or something.
The winds were not dying out - the whole camper was shaking and I had some panic moments! But it survived and I was all good and rested the next day.
The lovely folks at the hostel are always ready to help and to advise – so thanks to them I knew which parts of the rest of the Skye Trail were the best. Next step: Sligachan to Elgol.
BTW - as bad as it was, I want to (obviously) do it again. But this time: south to north and with a day pack only, in one day.
Have you done it? And? :)
Just FYI - All photos in this post were taken with this little gem.