The Five Sisters of Kintail

January 19, 2023 Issue No. 47

5/20 2:44:40 UTC

On a gear-testing trek in the Scottish Highlands, Early Majority designer Hanna ter Meulen convenes a group of pioneering outdoor athletes, and proceeds to flip ancient folklore on its head.

Having cycled solo around the globe in 2018 – becoming the first woman to do so, at the age of 20 – Vedangi Kulkarni is an experienced outdoorswoman. And, being based in Scotland, she wasn’t entirely unprepared for the midges. 

“They bite,” she says laughing, “and they’re really annoying even if they don’t bite. Unless you’re wearing a proper hat, they just crawl on your face.” Estimates of the number of midges in Scotland vary, but usually come in somewhere around 180 trillion. 

Vedangi Kulkarni, leaning out

On a recent fall weekend, the midges were one of the less-favorable conditions faced by a group of four adventurers who’d set out to test nearly every piece of currently available Early Majority gear. The group included Kulkarni, along with Kirsty Pallas, a freelance mountaineering and climbing instructor and winter mountain leader, and Hannah Bailey, a photographer, journalist and producer who specializes in shooting women in adventure sports and the outdoors.

Kirsty Pallas

Early Majority designer Hanna ter Meulen (“Midges don’t bite me,” she says, a bit guiltily) completed the quartet.

“For our autumn-winter lookbook, we really wanted to show the gear as it was intended to be used”, ter Meulen explains. Having worked with Bailey on a previous shoot in the streets of Paris, ter Meulen hit her up for casting and location suggestions. “And Hannah recruited these two insanely awesome women,” Kulkarni and Pallas. 

But Bailey’s location suggestion – a range known as the Five Sisters of Kintail – came with a caveat. As ter Meulen recalls with a laugh: “She said, ‘I’m not sure this story rhymes with the brand philosophy.”

Bailey proceeded to relate the folklore for which the range is named. It involves two Irish warlords who wash up on the lands of a Scottish clan leader and fall in love with the Scot’s two youngest daughters.

But, the legend says, the old Scotsman had seven daughters in all, and, according to custom, he couldn’t let the youngest go without first marrying off their five elder sisters.  

As ter Meulen recounts: “The Irish warlords said, ‘No problem, we’ve got five brothers back at home! Let us go and get them.’ They took the two youngest and of course, never returned. And the remaining sisters turned to stone and became a mountain range.”

Despite Bailey’s disclaimer, ter Meulen detected a radical undercurrent in the arguably sexist origin story. In the context of a time when a woman’s value was inextricably linked to her marriageability, the five sisters of Kintail had rejected that dismal fate, made an unconventional choice, and become a formidable, unalterable part of the landscape.

“These were independent women,” she says, laughing. “They were leaning out.”

Some 425 million years ago, give or take, England gently collided with Scotland, one in a series of tectonic plate events that forged a rocky landmass where, once, the ancient Iapetus Ocean had been. 

A period of relative stability (from a tectonic point of view) followed, during which cycles of glaciation and deglaciation, erosion, and weathering added breathtaking finishing touches to vast unspoiled acres of dramatic rock formations.

The resulting terrain is what makes Scotland a destination for lovers of the outdoors. It’s famously a place of jagged peaks and Munros (a peak whose summit is over 3,000 feet) among rolling lowland hills, interspersed with lochs, rivers and the occasional breathtaking waterfall.

Located on the western seaboard of the northwest Highlands of Scotland, the Five Sisters are a particularly striking range of peaks in a sparsely populated and unspoiled national preserve, and a popular destination for hikers and hillwalkers.

With a moderate climate, but rapidly changing weather (“four seasons in a day” being a frequent forecast), the region also happens to be near-ideal for testing gear.  

“We kind of hoped that, even though it was summer, Scotland would have a bit of weather, in the sense that it generally does,” ter Meulen says. 

Bailey recalls: “We did a typical Scottish adventure, where we hit the road in my van and Kirsty’s van, and we set up in Glen Shiel, so the Glen was where we were based and we were right by Loch Quinney [KH confirm spelling!!!] and by a little inn where we could go and enjoy a whiskey or a dram afterward. It was the perfect overnighter. We had the whole day on the hill, and then we had a van night, and woke up in the morning to shoot again, hoping that it might be raining, but it wasn’t again.”

For the entirety of their trek, the four were blessed with clear skies and sunshine, meaning that waterproof layers were tested chiefly for their packability and lightweight versatility under gorgeous skies. 

“The main thing about the Five Sisters hike is that it can be as challenging as you want to make it,” Bailey says. “With three Munros and multiple ridges, we only accessed the first summit, so we made it much simpler, and it’s a really clear path. It’s a safe one too. [Still] I would say it’s quite a tough uphill, especially carrying a lot of gear.”

Kulkarni agrees: “I think when you’re at your comfortable pace of walking, any hike is doable, but the first 75 meters when we had to get to that ridgeline, pretty much from sea level, that can be challenging because it’s pretty much just, like, straight up zig-zags.”

The four made a plan, and set moderate expectations, as Bailey explains: “We also didn’t have the expectation that we were trying to summit. Our aim was to get to a level for photographs, not just for the view. It was a nice supportive group. We were cautious to check in with each other.”

Challenging courses become more accessible when you adjust your pace, says Kulkarni: “When you set into your comfortable pace it’s fine, even if you’re not used to doing things like that, or you class yourself as not hill-fit. When you set yourself a pace that works for you, take regular breaks, any hike, regardless of the grade or distance, can be suitable for you.”

Bailey: “We’ve got the Loch Ness Monster to attract people to Scotland and then we’ve got the midges to drive them away. And then we’re just left in a lovely balance and equilibrium. “

Despite the gorgeous weather, the gear-testing  aspect of the mission yielded some solid intel. Says ter Meulen: “It was great for me to get their feedback. Both of them are experienced wear testers, so they know how to give feedback.” Kulkarni says she has a long habit of evaluating every garment or piece of gear she holds in her hands, partly because as someone who often ventures out solo, she needs unquestionably functional and reliable gear. 

“We really need clothing that can be multi-functional,” Kulkarni says. “Anything that I own, I don’t want it to do just one function. I think that goes really well with my personality. I hate to be defined by just the one thing that I do, because I never want to be like that! I want to do a lot of things... I try and invest in things that are going to give me value in multiple ways rather than just the one.” 

The adventurers endorsed the unisex and non-gendered look and functionality of the gear they tested: “I think unisex is key, because it also breaks down any stigma for nonconforming or nonbinary [athletes],” Bailey said. “There are so many stereotypes to break down in these spaces, right?”

Kulkarni says she questions the messaging that warns women and girls away from solo adventuring. “It’s always, like, ‘If you’re going outside in the night on your bike, maybe take a buddy! You’ll be more comfortable!” 

She counters with the more affirming message: “Actually equip yourself with what you need to know. You know everything that you need to know if you know how to fix your bike, if you know how to protect yourself. If your friends know that too, then yes, you’re stronger together, but I’ve also known of people having bad experiences when two of them are out on a ride.”... In other words, plan for all eventualities.

When it comes to the risks that accompany solo adventurers, specifically those who are female-presenting, Kulkarni addresses them with a confidence that approaches nonchalance.

“I do a lot of solo riding,” she says, “and I love riding in the night, in spite of having been attacked and beaten up, and held at knife point and stuff. It took a while after that to recover, but night cycling is still a big part of my life.”

The cultural pressure to abandon this attitude can be intense, Kulkarni says: “I grew up in India, where girls and night really don’t go together. You won’t see a girl walking alone, let alone a girl walking alone in the night. And there is a lot of stigma around that.” 

What she’s defining, in her work and life, is the opposing, and strangely radical, notion that the particular risks women face in the outdoors can be assessed and weighed in a rational balance, like any other danger. Rather than stay inside out of an exaggerated concern for safety, like any seasoned adventurer, Kulkarni prefers simply to choose gear that mitigates those known risks.

Unisex styles are key in this context as well: “From day one of me doing solo riding alone in the night, I’ve always chosen stuff that is straight cut,” Kulkarni says. “I don’t care what I’m wearing, I want it to be straight cut, I want It to have a hood. I’ll admit it: I’ve been in spaces where I’ve pretended to be a guy. … These things can really affect your confidence in the outdoors.”

Bailey seconds this: “I’ve had the same experience of dressing up as a guy. When snowboarding in the early naughties, I would wear only guys’ clothes, and I used to tuck my hair away so I would look just like one of the guys riding down.”

Even in structured situations, such as snowboarding on commercial slopes, gender-neutral gear provides a gut-level feeling of security. Bailey explains:

“I think that when I joined these subculture sports, such as snowboarding, I didn’t want it to be anything,” she explains, referring to the issue of gender. “It really made me feel safe just dressing in big baggy clothes... Then the judgment isn’t, ‘oh, you’re good for a girl.’”

Bailey: “I think, then, when we’re paying so much for something, shouldn’t it be made to fit us? Because I feel like with a lot of outdoor clothing brands “the ladies line” never fits really anybody, and like what is a lady meant to have an hourglass figure and wear that particular color? For so many years it was like that.”