Skye - Cuillin Ridge trip report

24th May 2012
In: Blog
I don't know where the urge to do the traverse of the Cuillin Ridge suddenly came from. Most of the climbing I do these days is half a dozen moves at once, within half an hour of home. Doing a 7 mile long mountain ridge, with 4km of ascent and descent which involves the best part of a thousand miles of driving to get to is not my usual thing. But maybe that's part of the appeal. And maybe Gaston Rebuffat's mountaineering classic Starlight & Storm is part of it too. I recently read this beautifully lyrical account of Rebuffat's experiences in the alps in the 1950s, and somehow the mountains got under my skin again.

We stop at Penrith for provisions and a tank full of diesel. I hand over driving duties to Toby for the next stint and we reflect on the psychological rollercoaster of the preceding few days. The weather forecast for Skye had looked amazing; clear, cold, and settled. We were psyched and the traverse of the ridge surely looked like it would be ours. But as the week wore on the forecast started to look sub-ideal - strong winds, low cloud, even colder with snow. Laurie was wavering with work commitments, and the thought of an expensive 1000mile drive to sit in a pub all weekend didn't appeal. With a heavy collective heart we decided to call it off.

But then Thursday, the day of intended departure brought surprisingly reassuring reports of the situation in Skye and specifically on the ridge itself. Laure was still out with work, but with a little cajoling Toby and I persuaded ourselves it was maybe worth the drive, even for a recce day or two if not an actual attempt. We would only get two full days on the island. A second hand copy of Gordon Stainforth's elusive 1994 book "The Cuillin" was waiting for me as I returned home from work - decision made. Cue frantic packing of gear and a restless nights sleep.

Toby at Coire Ghrunnda in the falling snow. Bivi cave and Sgurr Alasdair visible behind.

Two days later it was around 3 in the afternoon as we reached the start of the ridge, Gars Bheinn, having been on the go for about 4 hours labouring with heavy packs containing food and bivi gear. That morning had brought snow showers and cold temps, and from our tent at the Sligachan we could see the ridge was in and out of cloud and snow. Given our total lack of fitness and familiarity with the ridge a proper attempt looked out of the question. We had decided to head up anyway for an overnight recce of the most technical section, snow permitting, with the possibility of pushing on to the end always open if we found ourselves moving fast. Well we needn't have worried about that! Our heavy bags made progress slow, awkward and draining. Hence upon gaining the ridge proper we'd left our bags at a col above the beautiful Coire Ghrunnda and by Gars Bheinn I was already knackered and that was just the beginning. The snow flurries continued and we made our way back to the bags.

Approaching Gars Bheinn

Now with probably 30+ years of combined climbing experience between us neither Toby or I had ever had our bags gone through or tampered with at any crag anywhere. Not Burbage, not Bell Hagg, not Bas Cuvier, nowhere. Yet here we were 3 hours from the road on a remote mountain ridge and we find the contents of the lid pocket of Toby's bag strewn around on the ground, and my lid pocket open with my car keys hanging out. In bewilderment we mused on the decline of society and the so-called climbing community, such depths it had evidently stooped to that you can't even statsh your bag on a mountain without someone rifling through your kit. Unbelievable. Toby picked up his gear from the floor to check what was missing. Headtorch, mobile phone, £50 in cash - all removed from bag but not taken. Bag of Haribo and some popcorn - taken. My bag had the carkeys hanging out (clipped into the bag) with nothing else gone, there was no food in my lid pocket anyway. What kind of idiot leaves fifty quid, a phone and car keys but just takes the food? We set off along the ridge puzzling at the state of the human race.

The abseil into the TD gap

A while later the real culprit was rumbled. Thinking back to when we reached that col and left the bags we both saw a raven nearby - we can only conclude that the bird waited till we'd moved off then seized its chance and plundered the bags for food. That explained the way the popcorn wrapper we recovered had been opened along the side, and the snow still on the abandoned gear dated the crime to just after we left the bags. Bloody birds! It also explained the thief's failure to grasp the street value of a smartphone and hard cash. It was lucky that I'd clipped my nice shiny car keys into my bag or we could have really been in for an interesting few days.

The draw of the luxurious bivi cave above Coire Ghrunnda proved impossible to resist. Aside from my thermarest finally succumbing to a puncture after 17 years use a comfortable night was had by all and we dined on the finest couscous that Morrisons had to offer. The morning brought more of the same alternating sunny-snowy weather and still very cold. A substantial quantity of ice had appeared in our breakfast water overnight and it had snowed in the small hours, which seemed to vindicate our choice of sheltered bivi spot and 4 season sleepingbags. Having said that we bumped into a couple of mountain-fit Welsh lads on the ridge who, in true hardcase style, had bivied on the top in the cold wind in 2-season bags, were snowed on in the night, and still took it in their stride - they didn't even have the decency to look knackered when in the pub later!

Kings Chimney at the right of shot, with the In Pinn and An Stac visible on the left.

The next section around the Coire Laggan skyline boasts some of the most interesting and technical ground on the entire ridge. The spur above the bivi leading to Sgurr Alasdair has a tricky step to get started but the first real test of the day was Kings Chimney, a tremendous open-book corner Diff on Sgurr Mic Chonnich. Even in big boots and gloves carrying a heavy bag this was still really enjoyable. Chockstone-hauling up the corner itself past an awkward section gives way to an air traverse rightwards to finish, all on excellent rock. Great stuff.

Toby seconding Kings Chimney

After Kings comes An Stac followed by the In Pinn. It would seem to be usual to miss out An Stac via a scree slog up its left side, but although it is a bit loose in places it seems a shame to miss it out as it takes a great direct line and isn't anywhere near as bad as it looks. We then hit the In Pinn and its famous traffic jam. There was a party pitching it very slowly, a rope of 4 guys about to set off and another party of two people after them. To everyone's credit they did offer to let us go first if we were doing the full traverse, which is gratifying to know. Since we weren't it seemed a better idea to go round the back and climb up the shorter but harder side at VDiff so at least we could get up the thing and move on without standing around for an hour freezing. The VDiff route turned out to be a lot wetter (and snowier) than it looked, initial bravado giving way to a rather earnest and run-out lead in big boots, although mercifully short.

Traffic on the Inaccessible Pinnacle

A while later we reached the summit of Sgurr Banachdich, a fairly uninteresting Munro but one that sits roughly half-way on the ridge (in terms of distance if not time) and about the last point where we could make a straightforward descent back to the car at Glenbrittle. So we set off down the long loose scree descent (Note to self: never walk up this way - grim!) with thoughts and tactics for a proper attempt later in the year already being hatched.

Similarly the long drive home the next day consisted of batting ideas back and forth. How to go lighter, whether to take the boat in to Coruisk next time, whether going for a single day push in approach shoes would be best. Needless the say the tactic of carrying all your food and bivi gear along the ridge, particularly for a cold bivi, makes progress untenably slow except for the most fit parties. But we kind of knew that before we set off. But still a good time was had by all, we got some quality ridge-time in, we didn't see a single midge, and the stunning landscape of Skye as always didn't fail to leave its mark. We shall be back.

See more of my photos of the Cuillin here.

Sgurr nan Gillean - the ultimate prize still eludes us.... for now

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