It seemed like a good idea at the time! The alternative title for this post would have been, ‘A day of two halves’ which describes it very well. We stayed at the Backpackers Hostel at Broadford on Skye and it was a really nice treat and very relaxed and comfortable. Even though we were later than normal to bed we were still up at 5:30 and a bit disappointed to find the kitchen didn’t open till 7:30. We made do with a brew and a cereal bar and a good old chinwag with three guys who were on a guided Cuillin bagging trip. I was particularly impressed by the innovation of the one eating cornflakes with milk from a plastic bag. Who needs a kitchen.
We were away before seven and despite a weather forecast predicting heavy rain later (remember that) it was sunny with a light south westerly to push us on our way. We were soon crossing the famous Skye bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh
and after shopping for the day we took tiny twisting coastal roads towards the village of Plockton. This was touring heaven as even though they were minor roads they had been newly surfaced and even the roller coaster nature of them was a delight. A gradual climb revealed a view of mountains framed by pine trees and backed by yet more spectacular peaks. Stopping for a breather could not have been more rewarding. The following few miles rolled along the shore of the loch alongside the amazing railway line that follows a seemingly impossible route hemmed betweeen mountain and loch.
We brewed up at yet another breath taking vantage point and we were amazed at how the numerous motorists would pull up, jump out of the car, (though one passenger didn’t even bother to do that) snap a quick picture and zoom away again. Maybe they like to enjoy the great spectacle of the Highlands at their leisure and through the playback of their cameras.
The glorious weather was changing and it looked as if the forecast would be right. We had a fallback option to camp at Lochcarron which was only another ten miles away so we pressed on with the prospect of an early pitch and a lazy afternoon. If only we had known.
On arrival we found the campsite closed so it was time for a re-think. We checked the weather and the heavy rain seemed to be holding off until late afternoon according to the latest forecast, so after topping up on water and a quick snack we decided to press on with the option of a wild camp somewhere on route.
Now I had a real yearning to climb the famous mountain pass Bealach Na Ba but I had read enough about it to be wary of it in bad weather. We made a plan to ride as far as the turn off point for the pass and decide there on what to do. It was raining lightly by now but we were warm enough tackling some steep climbs and I think that lulled us into a false sense of security. We both felt good for the challenge and at the point of no return we decided to go for it despite the increasing rainfall and cool breeze.
It’s a six mile climb that starts on easy gradients and we had been told that only the last mile was seriously steep so we didn’t anticipate any real problem even if we had to walk a few sections. It was only half past one and we had all afternoon. What could possibly go wrong. Two and a half hours later we staggered into the Applecross Inn as close to being hypothermic as we have ever been.
The first part of the climb was directly into the chilly wind and Gill very sensibly stopped and put on her rainlegs. I was unaware that she had stopped and when I pulled up to wait for her I couldn’t understand why she was taking so long on the easy slopes. I got seriously cold here and should really have put my own rainlegs on but after Gill finally arrived we pushed on another mile before I saw sense. I fear I had left it too late though. At three miles we were enveloped by cloud and the wind strengthened considerably. Of course the temperature was dropping with the height gain and the wind chill effect was considerable. The gradient was steepening and the effort was masking how cold we were becoming. Gill was struggling now and I chose not to tell her that there was still another two miles to go as she switched between riding and walking. Every so often cars and motorhomes would force us off the road and often it was too steep to get going again easily until the slope eased. We finally reached the hairpin bends that we knew heralded the end of the climb and unashamedly pushed and heaved our bikes up the last half mile. The cloud was now like thick fog and with steamed up glasses it was impossible to gauge where the actual high point was as the road levelled and rose again. What really struck us now, quite literally, was the galeforce side wind that was whipping viciously across the mountain and driving the rain like a pressure washer. We tried a couple of hopeless attempts to ride but it was just too dangerous and for the first time I started to realise the seriousness of our situation.
We walked the most wind swept sections being blown sideways across the road and often not even realising that cars were queueing behind us as the noise of the wind and rain blotted out the sound of their engines. We shouted encouragement to each other but it was a bit pointless as our voices were whisked away by the gusts of wind. Finally we tentatively mounted the bikes as the road descended only to find the brakes were hopeless with so much water on the rims. We both adopted a technique of rolling downhill with one foot unclipped ready to break a fall should the wind knock us over. In this manner we managed to lose about a thousand feet before we could start to ride again. It was a constant mental battle to choose between speed to get down faster and safety should the wind catch us and blow us from the road. I saw a building by the side of the road and stupidly stopped with the thought that we might shelter behind it for a while. Gill wanted to get on with descending and looking back I can see that I was showing the first classic signs of hypothermia. Most people who succumb to this deadly process stop to rest when they really need to press on to shelter. Often electing to stay alone and encouraging others to leave them where they are. I’ve witnessed it twice before in other members of my group but never in myself.
When we reached Applecross village we threw the bikes against the pub wall and dashed inside, desperate for warmth. We were both shivering uncontrolably and only after about half an hour and two hot chocolates did our bodies begin to return to normal. We were finally rational enough to order soup, put on dry clothing and begin to talk to people around us about “coming over the top”.
Today we are holed up in the tent.
It still hasn’t stopped raining in 24 hours but we are warm and dry and happy to have come through what was probably a serious error of judgement. Another one to bore the nursing home staff with one day.
So that was Bealach Na Ba. I’m told there are spectacular views from the top. We didn’t see them.