Written by Charlie Beard, reblogged from Pinnacle Exposures
Chris Stafford and Charlie Beard, 10th (and inadvertently 11th) September 2012,
The finest mountaineering journey that the UK has to offer. Many aspire to it, yet it repels 90% of those who try it on their first attempt. My interest in the Cuillin ridge was first sparked about two years ago whilst driving a hired van back from the UBES AGM in the Lake District. Rob W-M told tales of rock which was grippy when water flowed over it, and a long, long route with improbable elevation gain, which followed a snaking, sawtooth ridge. Chris Stafford, also in the van, though fast asleep, was to become my accomplice on this very route.
This spring, the Cuillin came up in conversation at the pub. Chris and I enjoyed gruelling days in the mountains, and had seen each other in action during a wet and extremely windy trip to Fort William the previous winter. The summer passed without mention of our fleeting ale house plans until I was in Oxfordshire catching up with an old friend Jonny Hawkins. Skye would be a good destination for a 10 day getaway. We had nothing else planned, so why not? Within 30 hours, Jonny, Chris and I were on a MegaBus headed for Edinburgh. Here we would meet Katherine Ross to begin the slow journey westward, stopping at a variety of climbing destinations along the way, all of which had better weather forecasts that Skye. We prepared ourselves for the challenge to come, soaking up local culture at a ceilidh in Torridon.
Once on Skye, otherwise known as the Isle of Mist (read rain and poor vis), we enjoyed a morning of steep climbing on Jurassic sandstone sea cliffs. In the early afternoon, the rain closed in and we fled to the Sligachan Hotel bar, boasting some 350 whiskeys. Maps and books were strewn across the table as our laughs chorused with the beating of heavy raindrops on the bonnets of patrons cars. Who were we kidding? The best forecast was for the following day, and called for a 30% probability of cloud free munros, with 2 to 3 hours of sustained heavy showers. A Cuillin Ridge booklet written by a local guide warned that a wet traverse could be a dangerous and harrowing experience. As fog washed by the windows we joked about our ridiculous plan, but both felt a trip to Skye without an attempt at the ridge would be sorely disappointing. In Western Scotland a period of more than 12 hours with no rain is rare, so the ridge route must be passable in the wet. We left the bar and Katherine drove us toward the Glenbrittle campsite through some of the thickest fog any of us had ever seen. Pitching up, we packed our bags for the gruelling epic the guidebook had promised us, jokingly setting our alarm for 3:30 am.
The alarm rang, and we dragged ourselves out of the tent into the damp night. Just as we were ready for the off, the heavens opened. Sleeping bags came back out, and the alarm was reset for 6 am. A wet approach was not an attractive proposition.
A couple of hours later we couldn’t quite believe our eyes when the serrated silhouette of the ridge stood over the valley. Within 15 minutes, Chris and I were jogging out of Glenbrittle, stuffing pain au chocolat into our faces. We made swift progress on the flat path until our pace was slowed by the easy-angled slabs of Coire a’ Ghrunnda. We scrambled up to the loch and filled our water bottles prior to tackling the final scree slope. Once on the ridge, we dropped our bags and ran through golden sunrise glow to Gars Bheinn; the southern end of the Black Cuillin.
Stage One – Gars Bheinn to the TD Gap
We soaked up pristine morning vistas of the hazy Atlantic as we hastily departed Gars Bheinn at 9:17am. The clock was now ticking. Running over the first munro of the ridge, Sgurr nan Eag, we took precious little time to enjoy the views afforded by the excellent visibility that we would later value.
Chris on Gars Bheinn, the start of the Cuillin Ridge Traverse
Arriving at our bag drop at Bealach a’ Garbh-choire, we were amazed at our pace: we’d shattered a guidebook time of 90 minutes, completing the first section of ridge in just over 40. Rewarding ourselves with Charlies’ homemade flapjack, we pressed onward, now fully laden. Our pace slowed as we met the first hard scrambling up the subsidiary peak An Garbh Caisteal, followed respectively by the first abseil. We crossed the summit of Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn without difficulty, omitting the nearby munro of Sgurr Dubh Mor. Our aim was to follow the ridgeline quickly without deviating to summits on other spurs; this also meant we would be missing out the highest peak on Skye; Sgurr Alasdair.
Charlie returns to the bag stash above Corrie a’ Ghrunnda
Soon afterwards we arrived at the TD gap. This infamous notch, the crux of the ridge traverse, dripped as a timely bout of heavy rain swept across us. It looked tricky; a steep, old-school offwidth boot crack. Charlie lead off, tackling the greasy chimney with a ‘fighting approach’ whilst I shivered on the belay as gusts of wind blew swathes of rain through the gap. As he committed to the crux, unnoticed by him his highest runner popped out, leaving ground fall potential. Thankfully he made the move, and was at the top soon afterwards. Taking my turn, I quickly discovered that slippery offwidth climbing is not my style, let alone in the wet. Managing to avoid popping off, I was grateful to leave the windswept gap behind. Hats off to Charlie for taking such a horrible lead.
Charlie fights his way up the TD Gap
Stage Two – The TD Gap to the Inaccessible Pinnacle
Clipped to the belay above the TD gap was crag swag jackpot; four nuts and a nut key complete with a snapgate carabiner. Picking up this unlikely booty on the off chance that it might be needed, we set a stiff pace up Sgurr Thearlaich in miserable conditions. We passed over the top and quickly descended the north ridge, pitching the difficult final section. As the mass of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich materialised through the fog, we spotted the imposing corner of Kings Chimney, complete with a slabby finish streaming with water. We agreed to follow Collies Ledge to the summit, a much quicker route. Avoiding technical difficulties wasn’t ideal, but moving fast was more important.
Incessant rain pelted us as we approached An Stac. We skirted the lower tier to avoid loose rock, bumping into Katherine and Jonny whilst traversing the scree below, stopping briefly to chat and take on water. We then regained the ridge, moving together up the steep, solid rock of the upper tier. As we descended, the Inaccessible Pinnacle loomed through the mist, like a mythical sea creature. An excellent moderate up the east ridge lead us to an impossibly balanced summit block, which Chris surmounted with a grin. Leaving this highest point of the traverse, an abseil off a fixed chain led to easy ground below. We stuffed the rope back into Chris’ bag on Sgurr Dearg, whilst demolishing further flapjack to fuel our fires.
Moving together up the East Ridge of the Inaccessible Pinnacle (Moderate)
Chris on the Summit of Inaccessible Pinnacle
The Inaccessible Pinnacle, complete with perched summit block was our highest elevation on the ridge traverse at 986 m
Stage Three – Sgurr Dearg to the Basteir Tooth
Somewhere during the next long section of grade 2 scrambling the sky cleared, revealing a stunning view stretching to the coast. Chris seems to have eradicated the memory of three nosebleeds during this time, which slowed our rapid pace in the fading light. We had both developed hacking coughs, which we joked might be altitude sickness, but were probably a result of inhalation of wind-born midge clouds. Or exertion, you choose.
Moving fast on easy ground under clear skies
Chris enjoys a break in the clouds
A Brocken Spectre
Night hit at precisely the wrong time. We spent forty minutes on the abseil off Bidean Druim nan Ramh, a task which should have taken no more than ten minutes. Visibility was poor, and Chris abseiled off the wrong side of the pinnacle. He called for me to join him on an intermediate ledge, from which he traversed leftward around an arete to a gulley. Chris was just out of sight when I heard the crash of falling rocks. Crap. It turned out that a trio of football sized boulders weren’t quite as solid as they first appeared, and one had become lodged against Chris, mutilating his waterproof trousers. Crikey. Close shave.
Chris trundled the final boulder and got back on the ropes, swinging around the corner a second time. With a little trouble I grabbed the ropes and joined him on the correct ledge. We were, understandably, a little miffed that the ropes had become stuck during our traversing abseils. Just as Chris was about to prussik back up to remove tangles, we managed to shift the ropes a bit. Tugging with all our might, we eventually escaped the abseil somewhat unscathed.
Charlie, miserable and tired on yet another summit. Navigating the ridge in the dark proved to be very mentally tiring.
Unsurprisingly our pace halved in the darkness, but spirits remained high as another shower hit. The following section of ridge provided sustained navigational interest, with numerous offshoots, sharp corners, and impassable overhangs. As I crawled up a narrow slot inset to a vertical face, the Bastier Tooth loomed ahead; a huge, overhanging rock tower that blocked the ridge completely. Under a kilometre from the end of the traverse, the tooth is usually passed by an optional second crux, Naismith’s Route, but at midnight in the wind and rain, 35 meters of technical climbing was an unattractive proposition. Neither of us had truly believed we would get this far, and had not researched Collie’s Route, a scramble alternative suggested by our guidebook. We explored both edges of the overhang for an easy way through, and at 1am decided that enough was enough, as tiredness overtook our spirits. We could not finish the ridge in the dark, so set up a suffer bivi, Chris’ first tent-free camping experience. Flaking the rope gave us something akin to a rollmat, which we combined with backpacks. A £3 orange plastic survival bag afforded us some shelter. It’s a testament to how tired we were that we managed a little sleep despite the brisk winds and drizzle.
Stage Four – The Basteir Tooth to Sgurr nan Gillean
As you might imagine, an unplanned bivi was never going to be the most comfortable way to spend the night. The harsh reality was six hours of NSPS (that’s non-sexual power spooning – new lingo for me too) trying to retain warmth inside a chest-high survival bag whilst our faces were sporadically pelted by the forecast hail. Surprisingly we managed about 3 hours shut-eye, and come dawn were somewhat refreshed despite our broken sleep. We exited the plastic coffin and began our second ridge day, warming our violently shivering bodies with a combination of running circuits and star jumps. Feeling almost human again, we were moving through a fine mist within 20 minutes of waking. Not the most pleasant way to sleep, but certainly a lightweight, faff-free alternative camping setup.
Cutting across scree slopes to the south of the Basteir Tooth we found the start of Collies route, a three meter wide dyke providing a steady, albeit wet, route upward. We must have wandered onto a higher ledge system, as after a few tricky pitches of loose rock we found ourselves on the summit of Am Basteir. This was hands down the most exposed part of the entire traverse, quite a challenge at such a late stage of the ridge. Peering down, we decided to leave the tooth as we had already ticked the munro. As such it was the only true ridge summit that we failed to visit on the traverse.
Ledgy climbing on Collie’s Route up the Bastier Tooth
Leaving Am Basteir was decidedly easier than getting onto it, and soon afterwards we found ourselves at Bealach a’ Basteir contemplating the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, the final peak of the Black Cuillin. We moved together along a well-defined, aesthetic line, weaving between pinnacles in the buffeting wind. At the grade of moderate, this finale was a very convivial piece of climbing; a justifiable victory lap after the toils we had endured. Rounding a corner, the summit came into view through a hole between bridged pinnacles, and we trudged up the final slope with elation. At 10:49am were standing atop of Gillean. Success was ours!
The end in sight! Sgurr nan Gillean through a natural window
Summit! Chris and Charlie finish with a total moving time of 19 hr 32 min
Although clouds masked our summit view, the remainder of the flapjack was reward enough as we enthusiastically recounted events of the previous two days. After a photograph, we began our escape, descending wet slabs of the tourist route, a grade 3 scramble and the easiest way to the road. We left the ridge, cutting sharply across broken ground to gain a well-worn footpath. As the path flattened, our pace quickened to a run in anticipation of our first hot meal in a couple of days. Arriving at the Sligachan Hotel, these dreams were realised when two full-on speciality pies arrived at our table, confirmed by a waitress as the most calorific dish on the menu. Removing our boots was, however, an experience that would rather not be remembered, both for others sakes as well as our own!
The tourist route on Sgurr nan Gillean, our escape from the Cuillin Ridge
Capturing various stages of our dilapidation.
The Cuillin in numbers
Distance: 16.05 miles
Elevation gain: 3909 metres
23 peaks, including 9 munros and 14 subsidiary tops
Overall time: 31hr 08min (Glenbrittle – Sligachan)
Peak to peak time: 19hr 32 min (excluding 6hr bivi)
Kit that met its fate: 2 x pairs of gloves, 1 x waterproof trousers, 1 x pair of boots
Flapjacks per mile: ~2 (yep that’s a lot of flapjack)