Three days after deciding to go to Scotland, Pete and I were starting the infamous Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, scrambling along slippery rock in the rain towards the bivouac gear which we had left on a col about 15 summits away along the ridge. Were we going to make it there before nightfall?
SPOILER ALERT: We did make it. However, the main reason for the spoiler alert is that the route-finding on the ridge is very complicated and, whilst I wouldn’t want to spoil the adventure of anyone doing the ridge, there were three places where I wish our topo guide had contained the ‘spoilers’ I am going to provide below.
The traverse of the Cuillin Ridge has been described as the finest mountaineering adventure on the British Isles, containing 3,000m of ascent and descent and crossing 11 Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet). The keys to success are: a decent level of fitness; the ability to figure out where to go along the multitude of precipitous and rocky summits; and good weather. The need to wait and see if the weather forecast was good for the two days we had available for the traverse is why we waited until almost the last minute before deciding to commit to the trip.
After landing in Inverness at lunchtime we drove to Glenbrittle on the Isle of Skye which took about 3 hours. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. We then walked up to the ridge from the Fairy Pools, a lovely section of river which is on the must see list for what appeared to be most of the tourists visiting the island.
Our bivouac site was on the col to the right of the pyramid shaped peak in the foreground.
It took a couple of hours to walk up to the ridge where we found a stone shelter on a grass section of the col (bealach) and left a rucksack containing our bivi gear, a gas canister, 6 litres of water and some food. The place was called Bealach na Glaic Moire; don’t ask me how you are meant to say this! My inability to pronounce (or remember) Gaelic names became embarrassing. When asked by people where we were going to bivi I just had to say it was after a section that I referred to as the Three Tops of M (M standing for Mhadaidh).
Our bivi site and rucksack full of gear with the last of the Three Tops of M in the background.
Bivi stash sorted, we drove to the Glenbrittle Campsite which was wonderfully situated by the sea at the end of the road and cooked the first of many meals consisting of instant noodles. There was a light breeze so the midges were not a problem most of the time. For anyone that has not experienced these biting insects, when they are out in force it is hard to believe that something so small can cause so much discomfort.
We woke at 5am the next day to the sound of light drizzle on the tent. Not good. Wasn’t the forecast for sun?
The ridge is hidden in the cloud behind Pete.
We left the campsite at 6.25am and as we made our approach to the southern end of the ridge the rain intensified.
Glenbrittle and the campsite are off the map to the west.
This is probably as good a place as any to digress and discuss our gear situation. Pete had come along somewhat under-equipped in one or two areas. In terms of footwear he was wearing some lightweight trail shoes, which turned out to have less grip on the rock than my approach shoes. Also the strap on his small rucksack was about to break so he had to ditch it and carry an ultra-marathon running sack that had a volume of about 10 litres. Consequently he was wearing his rain jacket around his waist and had the rope over his shoulders. His climbing equipment and helmet were also antique and I was wearing shorts over Ronhills so we did not look particularly well prepared (or fashionable!). When we reached the top of the ridge and the official starting point of the traverse (a peak called Gars-bheinn which we left at 9.20am), we bumped into a guided party and received some disapproving looks from the guide.
That was no matter though as we soon left them behind making good progress along the ridge. The rain stopped too which was a good omen. A lot of the ridge is just scrambling in a very dramatic situation but you have to stay sharp as the consequences of a fall are serious. For most of the morning the rock was wet which made it slippery and meant we had to tread carefully. I had done the initial section of the ridge with Kate in 2011 so I knew where to go which saved us a lot of time. We were using as a guide the Rock Fax Skye Ridge topo guide (Rockfax Skye Ridge) which was generally sufficient apart from in the few places mentioned in the spoilers.
SPOILER: When approaching Sgurr Dubh Mor the topo says “Look for a diagonal scree ramp. Follow this to its end.” You actually have to descend a long way (at least 100m vertical) from the col (Bealach a’ Garbh-choire) by traversing the boulder field down and towards the right. You go around some cliffs and just when you start to wonder if you have gone too far you realise that you are in a hidden gully which heads up and leftwards. It’s a really clever route and indicative of the way that you have to combine the information in the guide with your intuition in order to find the best path.
There are several sections on the ridge where you need to rock climb and the first of these is the T-D Gap which comes soon after Sgurr Dubh Mor.
The T-D Gap is about half-way up the ridge in front of me.
As one’s first sight of climb out of the gap is from directly opposite, which makes everything appear steeper than it actually is, it looks really intimidating.
A view of the climb from the rappel point on the other side of the T-D Gap.
The rock was damp and although the climb is only graded Severe I wasn’t looking forward to it much. However, it succumbed to what a guidebook writer would euphemistically call an ‘athletic’ approach.
Pete climbing up the final section of the pitch out of the gap.
Shortly thereafter we were on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest summit on the ridge at 993m. When I had come to Skye in 2011 to attempt the ridge with my friend Kate, this was the furthest we got to as it started raining and we decided to descend. Ominously, as Pete and I left the summit the rain came again. Thus the slabs on the approach to the next rock-climbing section, the King’s Chimney on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, were wet which required a couple of rappels to negotiate safely.
We could see an obvious chimney leading to the summit of this mountain which looked unappetising, being black with slime and dripping with water. When we got closer we could see there was an in situ rope hanging down it; I assumed this had been left for people doing the ridge in the opposite direction to rappel down. I set off up the chimney and although it felt a lot harder than the Difficult grade I was expecting I thought that was just because it was slippery and I was climbing with a rucksack. I got to the point where I was meant to “undercut right” and found myself on some small, wet fingery holds, looking at big fall onto a poor wire. To make things worse the dangling in situ rope got tangled in my rucksack. It felt desperate. I reached a belay in an alcove above where I found motley collection of rotting slings and rusty karabiners.
The new looking red and white sling is my one!
It was obvious we were off route and I should have just descended the in situ rope, whose existence now made more sense… foolishly, I thought that we could possibly still get to the summit so I brought Pete up and climbed upward again. However, I soon realised that we were only getting into more trouble and decided it was best to retreat.
Pete rappelling down the slimy chimney pitch. The in situ rope did not quite reach the bottom so we used our one.
This mishap cost us just over an hour. As with all these types of mistakes I wonder how I could have been so stupid as to set off up there in the first place. I have looked on-line and can’t find out what it was we climbed; perhaps King’s Sewer would be a good name.
SPOILER: Do not climb the black and dank looking chimney to the right of the col before the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. The King’s Chimney is up and to left of the col and can be reached by a short, leftwards rising scramble.
Once found, the actual King’s Chimney was a nice climb though it felt hard for a Diff. The weather had cleared up again so from the summit we got a view of the rest of the ridge and the location of our bivi.
Our bivi gear was on the lower section of the ridge just left of Pete’s head.
Somehow it was already 4pm and we were not even half way there. We both wondered if we were going to make it and I think that was probably the psychological low-point for me. Luckily the sun come out which dried the rock and helped our morale. We pushed on.
As we were short of time we took the walkers’ route up the “brown ramp” to the Inn Pinn saving some time by not sticking to the ridge proper up An Stac. The Inn Pinn itself is a free-standing ridge of rock where the only way up is to do a rock climb which, whilst not hard (it’s a Moderate), is very exposed. Looking down the ridge at the expanse of mountains and lochs stretching to the horizon I reflected on how lucky we were to be in such an amazing position on a clear day.
From the summit the quickest way down is to rappel. We were climbing on a 30m long 8mm diameter rope which was very light and easy to handle. However, some internet research had indicated you needed at least a 32m rope to do the rappel so we had been planning to sacrifice a long sling to extend the rappel anchor. In the end we never had to test this as two other climbers, Tony and Len, kindly let us rappel down their rope.
Tony starting the rappel off the Inn Pinn.
It was now just after 5pm and we still had to cross three more Munros and then the ‘Three Tops of M’, which according to the topo, have the most difficult route finding on the ridge. Luckily until the Three Tops the ground was fairly easy to cross and we made good progress.
On the summit of Sgurr na Banachdich, the first Munro after the Inn Pinn.
However, I could see Pete was going through a low point as he went a quiet and had a slightly vacant look whenever we stopped. He said afterwards that it was more the mental tiredness of having to be ‘on it’ the whole time rather than physical tiredness.
Crossing snow on the way up Sgurr a’ Mhaidaih, which is just before the ‘Three Tops of Mhaidaih’.
We approached the first of the Three Tops (at around 8am) hoping we could cross them quickly.
Crossing the Three Tops watching the sun going down.
SPOILER: The topo says the following about the first top, “The first top looks horrendous direct but can be passed by a path on the right…”. We could see a very clear path heading down below the cliffs which we assumed led to a hidden gully. However, 10 minutes later we hadn’t come across a gully and we decided that we were in danger of descending too far. We went back up to the col and then found a faint path snaking up and right which got us to the top.
Luckily after this error we managed to get over the other two tops smoothly and at 9.30pm make it to the bealach where our bivi was located.
Approaching the bealach where we left our bivi gear, which we had stashed down the grass slope to the left.
Thankfully we still had almost an hour of daylight left in which to cook and sort ourselves out. Our dinner of quinoa, Korean noodles and tuna was delicious. Unfortunately we had both left our spoons in the campsite (luckily we had remembered the stove!), so we had to eat with a combination of our nut key (a metal piece of climbing equipment) and a pair of chopsticks that I happened to have packed.
We also tried to use some empty plastic packets (one is between my feet) as spoons, but they didn’t work so well.
We both had bivi bags and I had a foam pad and very lightweight sleeping bag and Pete had a short Thermarest and a duvet jacket. This jacket was actually heavier than my sleeping bag but I think I was warmer which is interesting to know. It was a clear night with no rain and not much wind (talk about being lucky with the weather) and the temperature was about 5 degrees. I slept okay. Towards the morning Pete was making so much noise moving around that I thought he was unable to find the entry/exit zip and was trapped in his bivi bag but I think he was just trying to keep warm. However, he said, and I agree, that watching the sun set and biving out under a moonlit sky was one of the highlights of our trip.
We woke at 4.20am and set off at 6.45am, with me carrying the bigger pack that contained the bivi gear and Pete taking my daysack. It was a nice day with less time pressure so the rest of the ridge was enjoyable. The route finding to traverse the three peaks of Bidein Druim nan Rambh was challenging but fun. Along the way there were several rappels which avoided awkward down-climbing but our 30m rope was long enough.
Looking back at Bidein. Sgurr Dubh Mor, near the start of the ridge, is in the distance on the left under the cloud.
By 11.40am we were at the final technical difficulty, the Bhasteir Tooth, a rocky fang sticking out of the side of Am Bhasteir. The climb up this, Naismith’s Route, was a Severe, and climbed an intimidating steep wall.
The Bhasteir Tooth. Naismith’s Route takes the crackline on the right of the above face.
We traversed to a hanging belay and I eyed up the difficult looking crack above. Could it really be only Severe? I think I had some psychological scaring from the King’s Sewer. I looked at my single 8mm rope, which looked more like a washing line, took a deep breath and headed up it. I needn’t have worried as it turned out to have good holds and be a very enjoyable pitch.
Pete approaching the top of Naismith’s Route.
After Am Bhastier we descended to the Bealach Bhasteir where we left our rucksacks and then climbed the final peak on the ridge (Sgurr nan Gillean) which we reached the summit of at 2.10pm.
On Sgurr nan Gillean with Mike and John.
Looking south at the line of peaks that we had traversed was a great feeling. We had been concentrating for so long that we were both mentally tired and we knew that once we descended we could turn-off and relax. We didn’t rush the descent and waited on the tricky bits behind some other parties who had climbed the peak. Back on the bealach we stopped and for the first time sat down and had a picnic… of sorts. This only consisted of our remaining food (a cereal bar each) and a few mouthfuls of water. From there we walked with Mike and John, two climbers we had met on the top of Sgurr nan Gillean, down to the Sligachan Hotel which we reached at 5.30pm.
For both of us the ridge was an amazing experience and adventure. Although Pete had done many hard rock climbs with me (20 odd years ago) he had never done any mountaineering so it was all new to him and doubly memorable. Once we got back to the campsite (by hitching a couple of rides, the first with Mike and John), we cracked open some beer and cooked up our remaining food which included yet more instant noodles… though I was not complaining.
What the view from the Glenbrittle Campsite looks like on a clear evening.
The ridge from Gars-bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillian took us 19 and a half hours. That compares poorly to the “slow walk” time in the Rockfax topo of 16 hours. Even after taking off an hour and half for our two mistakes we were two hours longer than ‘guidebook time’. I don’t think we were moving that slowly – we were certainly much faster than everyone else we saw on the ridge – but it shows that the guidebook time assumes you know exactly where to go and that conditions are dry.
In total we were on the go for about 25 hours. Could we have done the ridge in a day? Not on our first attempt – with hindsight I can’t believe we even entertained that thought – but perhaps one day soon we will be back armed with the route knowledge and ready to go for it.
For the record here is the time that we reached various points:
Glenbrittle Campsite: 6.25
T-D Gap: 12.35 (40 mins to cross the gap)
Sgurr Alasdair: 13.25
King’s Chimney 15.15 (c. 75 mins wasted on the King’s Sewer)
Sgurr Mhic Choinnich 15.55
Inn Pinn 17.20
Sgurr na Banachdich 18.10
Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh 19.10
Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh 19.45
Bealach na Glaic Moire: 21.30
Bivi on Bealach na Glaic Moire: 6.45
Bidein Druim nan Ramh: 8.20
Brauch na Frithe: 11.05
Bhastier Tooth: 12.45 (65 mins to climb the Tooth)
Am Bhasteir: 13.10
Sgurr nan Gillean: 14.10
Bealach Bhastier 15.15
Sligachan Hotel: 17.30