Over the sea to Skye

Graham Hoyland sets sail for the rugged Scottish isle, braving whirlpools and treacherous tides

As soon as the great explorer Bill Tilman could no longer climb to high altitudes, he took up sailing. Being Tilman,his first big voyage was to Patagonia, and his objectives were always remote mountains or glaciers only accessible by sea.

As soon as the great explorer Bill Tilman could no longer climb to high altitudes, he took up sailing. Being Tilman,his first big voyage was to Patagonia, and his objectives were always remote mountains or glaciers only accessible by sea.

During a recent expedition to Mount Everest, I found that I couldn't climb much higher than 23,000ft, so, in the spirit of Tilman, I organised a yachting trip to Scotland, the objective being to land a climbing party on the Cuillin ridge of Skye, and to pick them up on the far side of the island.

I've always thought the Western Isles of Scotland the most beautiful islands in the world, and one of the best ways to see them is by boat. And despite the fact that I had climbed all sections of the ridge in the past, I wanted to see if we could do the whole route in one day.

The first thing we had to do was to persuade someone to hire us a yacht so that we could endanger it among whirlpools, sunken rocks and lurking lobster pots. Portway Yacht Charters was, surprisingly, eager to do this.

A bare-boat charter means that you hire the yacht without a crew, providing your own competent captain with qualifications; otherwise Portway can provide a skipper for £500 per week. I needed someone experienced to sail the boat around Skye and to pick us up off the Cuillin ridge after our climb and at very short notice, I found Skipper Phil.

For some reason the combination of sailing and climbing doesn't seem to have caught on yet, but the sort of people who practice the two sports are similar. Both enjoy the outdoors, are willing to let their lives depend on their gear - and like tying knots. If you look at a climber's Ordnance Survey map, the land is filled with detail, but the sea is a blank. And if you look at a sailor's chart, the sea is marked with depths and sunken rocks, but the land barely rates a mention: all you will see is mountain tops and "conspicuous chimneys" - things you can see from the sea. I still haven't found a map that shows everything you need in order to sail to a mountainous island and climb it.

We set off from near Oban with an assorted crew, few of whom knew each other. Some were completely new to sailing or climbing, some had done one or the other. I had sailed with Jules to Antarctica in a 60ft yacht years before, and the experience had scarred us both sufficiently to delay sailing together again until last year, when we sailed along Turkey's Lycian coast. Jules had vomited copiously all the way to the magnetic South Pole and back in 1996, so this time Tom, the trip's ship's doctor, applied patches of scopolamine (usually used to treat psychosis), fed him with heroic doses of psychotropic drugs, and stuck magnets on his acupressure points on wrist and shins. Jules felt fine for the whole voyage, but I noticed that the yacht would lurch violently whenever he stood next to the compass for the autopilot.

I had dreamed of sailing across the sea to Skye during the endless nights on Everest. Approaching from Rum from the south, you first see the great Cuillin ridge rising 3,000ft out of the sea. Then you realise that there is a great cleft cut down to sea-level, with room for a yacht to creep in among the mountains. That night we found an anchorage right under the first peak on the ridge, risking the whirling catabatic winds that Tilman always warned about. Jules, Phil and I puttered ashore in the inflatable dinghy to dump rucksacks and reconnoitre the next morning's climb. Five seals swam alongside to watch. We explored up a river sluicing down great slabs of granite, and gazed at the large loch half-enclosed by the encircling Cuillin mountains: Loch Coruisk.

At 2.30 the next morning, I was standing on the stern of the boat watching the dawn come up. At this latitude in mid-summer, the sun virtually rises in the north, and by 3am there was enough light to start climbing. Dr Tom, young cousin William and I landed and picked up our rucksacks, which were cached under a rock, and headed up the gruelling 3,000ft mountain of Gars Bheinn. The sun rose beside us and picked out every detail of the steepening rocks above. After some difficult route-finding, we found ourselves on the first summit of the ridge. The view was stupendous. We could see the tiny yacht, with its sleeping crew, below us, then the island of Soay, and then the hills of Rum. To the north, the view was more daunting. The Cuillin ridge route consists of short sections of gravelly path followed by scrambles over granite and basalt peaks, sometimes turning into vertical sections that demand a rope.

Everything went well until we encountered a stomach-turning drop. Backtracking wasted time until we reached the Thearlaich Dubh Gap, a huge slash in the ridge. Here you have to do a short abseil and then an 80ft climb on greasy basaltic rock. The team weren't keen, so we dropped down along the side of the ridge to by-pass the Gap and then climbed up the other side to get to Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak on Skye.

Here we encountered a problem. It's called the Bad Step and it is another interruption in the ridge. We had to surmount a blank wall of granite about 10ft high that, at sea-level, any of us could have scrambled up easily. But it's funny how swirling mists and a 3,000ft drop drain the courage. Only young William had the bottle to get up it. He disappeared into the mist with the rope and belayed, calling us to come up. Dr Tom was next, standing on my shoulders to reach the wall. He is tall and solid, and I had two large footprints bruised on to my shoulders for days afterwards. A forensic pathologist would have been deeply puzzled. At the top, the summit of Sgurr Alasdair leaned heavily into the mist like a crumbling Tower of Pisa. Beyond was the incredible shark's fin of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the next bit of interest on the ridge and the only Munro (any Scottish peak over 3,000ft) that requires rock-climbing to ascend. Although technically easy, it is incredibly exposed and we were running out of morale. I decided to bail out. We had traversed half the ridge and reached the highest summit so, although disappointing, it wasn't a complete failure. We descended the Great Stone Shoot - which is exactly that - and soon found ourselves in warm sun down in the glen.

That was the end of the hard work for the climbers. The yacht cruised slowly up Loch Sligachan and picked us up that evening, having motored all day against contrary winds to meet us.

While gales blew in England, our blessed week of sunny weather continued. We sailed south to Staffa and rowed into Fingal's Cave, which is like a flooded cathedral pillared with hexagonal columns. I could imagine the explorer Sir Joseph Banks's excitement and incredulity when he found it in 1772, but I bet the Vikings knew it, too.

Then south again to Iona, where my father and his father had helped to rebuild the cathedral in the 1930s. Although this remote island feels like the edge of the world, it became the centre of Christianity in Britain when St Columba stepped ashore here a thousand years ago.

There was one last treat. As a child, I had been fascinated by stories of the Corryvreckan whirlpool. The tide rushing between the islands of Scarba and Jura swirls into a hole 700ft deep and then hits a sunken needle of rock just off Scarba's shore. This causes terrific upsurges resulting in a standing wave up to 15ft high. A huge swirling whirlpool slowly forms, which would certainly drag our boat down to the bottom. George Orwell used to walk along the cliffs and look down on this when he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura.

All this drama happens when the tide is running, but when the tide is slack it is safe to pass through. Skipper Phil, who is careful but also prepared to take up a challenge, decided that this would be a useful short-cut. He timed it perfectly. Steering the yacht through the gap, I could feel the weakened and frustrated tidal surges plucking at the rudder, as we burst through the gap between the islands.

Perhaps I would have felt disappointed if the Cuillin ridge had fallen too easily. Maybe it is more satisfying to reach out for something just beyond your grasp.

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