An unsupported bikepacking expedition into the heart of Skye’s stunning wilderness inspires an introspective journey searching for the foundation of personal fulfillment.

22nd February 2017 | Words by Jack MacGowan

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I’m not sure exactly how many people told me bikepacking Skye in December was madness, but I can tell you it was in double figures. I was warned temperatures would be in the minuses, that brutal wind & rain would make riding torturous and singletrack would be ankle deep in muddy sludge. The concerns of friends, family and fellow riders were for the most part well founded.

Bikepacking, Isle of Skye

Feelings of doubt and anxiety are completely obliterated by an assertive, resilient and pragmatic survival instinct.

There can be no denying that Skye in the winter can be an unforgiving environment, but of course it is in overcoming such challenges we feel most alive. It’s in the wilderness, when everything’s going wrong, that a more primitive, hardened version of yourself rises from the depths. Feelings of doubt and anxiety are completely obliterated by an assertive, resilient and pragmatic survival instinct. It’s in these moments that you discover who you really are, that the only restrictions in life are the ones you set yourself.

Bikepacking, Isle of Skye

It doesn’t matter where you are on the Isle there’s always a scenic route that’ll take you deeper into the Scottish wilderness.

Skye is one of the most beautiful places I have ever ridden. It’s truly remarkable that a landscape characterised by huge mountains, valleys, coral beaches, formidable jagged coastlines and Golden Eagles is part of the United Kingdom. This is an island that caters for all outdoor enthusiasts and for bikepackers like myself it’s paradise. It doesn’t matter where you are on the Isle there’s always a scenic route that’ll take you deeper into the Scottish wilderness. Skye will test even the most advanced MTB riders and if you’re tackling some of the more technical singletrack, particularly in the Cuillin Mountains, then you’re going to want to make your bikepacking set-up as light as possible.

The practise of ‘hike-a-bike’ will undoubtedly become a daily endeavour and during the winter months some of the steeper mountainous trails will become dangerous. That said, I would not deter anyone from taking these routes, just be aware that singletrack will be slippery. After all, a few hours of physical and mental punishment in exchange for a mountain top view that’ll last a lifetime?! If that’s not a fair trade then I don’t know what is.

Bikepacking, Isle of Skye

The name of my website, Bicycle Touring Apocalypse.com, pays homage to my lack of planning and organisation when it comes to expeditions. I’m not someone who obsesses over the details and instead relishes not knowing what’s round the next corner. Skye was no exception. I simply bought some maps, chose a random location to begin the ride, drove eighteen hours north and drafted a route the night before. This can be a somewhat disastrous approach, but has also been responsible for some of my most memorable experiences.

Bikepacking, Isle of Skye

I largely followed Skye’s dramatic coastline, only cutting through the mountainous mainland when trails permitted. In my opinion the greatest challenge facing human powered endeavours on Skye in December is the lack of daylight. If there’s one aspect of the ride I didn’t enjoy it was being confined to my tent for such long periods of time. Hence, for anyone considering the ride I’d recommend the lighter months, simply to make the most of this bikepacking Valhalla.

The relentless day-to-day responsibilities prevent us from having time to think about the important things.

I may have preferred a companion on this ride, but the isolation and thinking time on Skye had its benefits. In a world full of technology and social media it’s easier than ever to keep in contact with almost everyone you’ve ever met, but sometimes it’s important to completely disconnect from these networks and reconnect with you. The relentless day-to-day responsibilities prevent us from having time to think about the important things. The wilderness quite simply allows you to be a human ‘being’, rather than a human ‘doing’. In other words, it’s an opportunity to just be in the moment, without a hundred other things to think about.

Bikepacking, Isle of Skye

A great deal of stress and anxiety is caused by thinking too much about the future, instead of living for the present.

All of a sudden your only concerns are the next destination, food, water, warmth and shelter. I believe a great deal of stress and anxiety is caused by thinking too much about the future, instead of living for the present. Life is a concept that intrigues me more than most people my age. I do not fear getting older, but I do want to make the very most of my time on this planet. The further I travel down a nomadic path, the more I can’t help thinking we’ve got it all wrong. A high standard of living is not simply ascertained in the pursuit of riches, but in the lifestyle choices we make. What does this have to do with bikepacking the Isle of Skye? Well, for me, quite a lot.

Bikepacking, Isle of Skye

If I could hone in on one moment that triggered my unquenchable thirst for greater meaning in life it was sitting on a mountain ridge in the Schwarzwald aside my Surly ECR. The Black Forest reached as far as the eye could see, only broken intermittently by rivers, small trails and impressive rock formations. In that brief moment, looking out over such an expanse of natural beauty, I felt an overwhelming sense of contentedness. It was the realisation that all I really needed to be truly happy could be carried on a bicycle. This event would set forth a trajectory that I have been following ever since. I sold the vast majority of my possessions, moved out of my apartment and into a VW campervan. I spent the following year establishing a framework that provided financial stability, creative freedom and allowed me to take full control of my life.

So there you have it, probably the most introspective bikepacking article I’ve ever put together. I can only apologise to those of you hoping for comprehensive route information. However, it’s not through words that you’ll come to know what it’s like to bikepack Skye. That is a knowledge you earn after summiting the Old Man of Storr in the pouring rain. Or when you feel the sense of satisfaction as you sit on a rock looking out over the wilderness you conquered, whilst devouring the two meal packs you rightfully earned. It is something you understand when you listen to the sound of the wind howling through the prehistoric rock formations that tower above you. Or when you feel the goosebumps that form on your bare arms as perspiration turns cold. It is perhaps these moments when we are reminded what it is we live for.

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Jack is an expedition photographer & writer who specialises in remote bikepacking exploration.

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Images: Feature: Helen Hotson/Adobe; All others: Jack MacGowan

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