Skye and the Cuillin Ridge

Originally published 10/5/2011

I pull the draw cord of my bivi-bag tighter snuggling deep into my warm sleeping bag leaving only a small hole for my breath to escape out of or for rain to come in to. Next to me Steve’s tent snaps and bucks in the wind; one moment crushed, then twisted and stretched as the gusts swirll round the coire. The wind had appeared with nightfall, and we found what shelter we could  pitched in the lee of a small escarpment. The stars had blazed overhead until cloud carried in on the wind drove them from view bringing with it the rain, fortunately only a few spots.

We had left Glenbrittle late that evening having carb-loaded for the day to come, finally after  years of dreaming looking at pictures getting a chance to experience the Cuillin. John an I were going to have a go at a section of the ridge, Steve, Neil, and Michelle were going to drop off the far side of the coll and descend down to Loch Coruisk before walking out through the wild wilderness between the main ridge and  Bla’ Bheinn.



It’s quite an easy walk up for the first hour and a bit, a good path climbs steadily then traverses round towards the sea. You then turn into Coir’ a Ghrunnda;… stop, gawk, check you’ve not accidently been teleported to the Alps, and get very excited. It’s like walking into Mordor, mountains and desipte there diminutive size they are mountains soar up left and right, ahead great waves of rock block the route up the corie looking like a rock glasier tumbling down from the peaks.

The coire is filled with vast boiler plate slabs of volcanic gabbro riven with sills and dykes telling the tale of these mountains fiery past, this history suits the feel of the mountains; wrought in a furnace there is a sharp aggressive quality too them. The slabs are steep but the friction is amazing and only a few moves need recourse to use our hands. As we climb we weave left and right seeking the easiest way through the massive rock architecture. I’ve never been anywhere like this in the British mountains, it’s a spectacular place worth the drive already, awesome, spectacular, but not beautiful there is to much menace in the peaks that tower over you.

After a difficult night being battered by the wind dawn treats us to a clear blue sky as a strong sun fills the coire with light turning the lochan in its base to a deep blue green. The peaks of the ridge tower left, right and ahead on the headwall. Steep loose scree, cliffs and fields of jagged boulders testify to the fact that were somewhere committing where not much life chooses to make it’s home.  Climbing up towards the ridge we weave through the obstacles, looking back the sea is a dark blue; the islands of Soay, Rum, and Eigg easily visible but already hiding in a strong heat haze.

Then we reach the ridge and I wish I had not been so generous with my superlative because I’ve the left myself with nowhere to go, the coire was spectacular but this is better! The ridge is rocky and narrow falling off steeply, mostly precipitously on both sides. Looking east the wild hinterland of the Black Cuillin stretches out steep craggy falling away towards Loch Coruisk hidden somewhere far below before rising again to Bla Bheinn the solitary munro of the Black Cuillin estranged from her eleven sisters on the main ridge.




We harness up and both opt to put on helmets. Not sure of what to expect we’ve brought a full set of nuts, a couple of hexes, ditto friends, and plenty of slings plus one 50m rope. In fact this is over egging the pudding a bit the friends and hexes will probably stay at home next time. We want to solo most of the ridge but will look to pitch the Inn Pin, Kings Chimney and the crux of the entire ridge the TD gap, lurking somewhere not too far ahead.

Pretty soon were confronted with an illustration of just how serious and committing the ridge is; the route comes to the foot of a towering impasse of rock blocking the way, the only line of weakness a traverse out left then up some fractured slabs. The route is terrifically exposed as the ground drops away and within two to three moves your above a drop of 30m to the rocks below. Discretion is the better part of valor we decide to get the rope out and pitch this section the with the added security of a couple of runners. 


Me looking out along the rest of the ridge from the top of Sgurr Alasdair  Copyright J. Sergeant

The climbing is barley moderate in standard but far from it in situation and exhilaration, we’ve only gone a few hundred meters but this is obviously another level from any other ridge in the UK. At the top John and I look at each other smiling, if its all like this its going to be fun; hard work but fun.  Rope off, and on we go, then within about a hundred meters we realise that last section was a mere aperitif for what’s to come. As I go to scramble over some rocks suddenly the ridge falls vertically away cut clean in two by a deep gash about ten meters deep and five wide; the TD Gap!

Into the maw. There are some good solid threads fitted with a mallion to abseil off and plenty of room at the base of the gap for a couple of parties in reasonable comfort. More importantly the climb up the other side looked nails, some deep off-width horror, a crack that looks polished to hell. “That can’t be right it’s only supposed to be graded severe” a check of the route description confirms the bad news it’s the line alright. “Maybe it’s easier that it looks”,  but I have the feeling we are about to get sandbagged*.

Committed. Abbing in to the TD Gap. Copyright J. Sergeant

John offers to lead I don’t demur secretly pleased. The off width is obviously the crux, and the sharp breathing and worried sounds that filter down to the belay are not encouraging we are in brown trouser territory here.  Then he’s through and above the difficulties sounding very relieved.  Really good lead, John’s encouragement me “I’ve climbed easier E2’s” and it’s a nightmare with a bag”. Oh joy. 

I get involved with the easier lower section and manage to wriggle and work my way up the off-width with considerable loss of body fluid. With both hands in a good horizontal brake and on good holds I resort to standard climbing technique No. 1, turn on the power…. unfortunately nothing happens! Welcome to the world of alpine climbing, just because you can do 12 pull ups in the gym does not mean you will be able to do one when wearing a heavy pack and boots having got in a bit of a sweaty mess half way up a route. What happened next was not pretty although the language was particularly colourfull, I got my leg stuck in the crack causing me to almost invert, cursed, pulled on gear, cursed, pushed, pulled, twisted, cursed some more, before collapsing in a heap on the rope exhausted.

Having thoroughly disgraced my self by dogging** a severe, I realise I may actually have to try and use a bit of technique, and by hook and by crook with a bit of bridging and some crazy egyptian*** move I manage to struggle to the top of by far the most awkward severe (now thought by most to be HS) I have ever climbed. Don’t underestimate it! (Apparently some parties opt to sack hall on this pitch, this can lead to interesting situations if  your unlucky enough to get your rucksack wedged in the crack.).

Sgurr Dearg and the Inn Pin from the top of the Great Stone Chute

Sgurr Dearg, An Stac, and the Inaccessible Pinnacle from Sgurr Alasdair

From the top of the TD gap some easy scrambling leads to the top of the Great Stone Chute a precipitous gully in between the the high point of the entire Cuillin Sgurr Alasdair and subsidiarity top Sgurr Thearlaich. The chute, a ball busting climb up scree and boulders is the only way onto Sgurr Alasdair which does not involve at lease a couple of climbing moves, they make you work for your summits out here. The twin peaks either side of the chute brilliantly frame the Sgurr Dearg and the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the distance. It looks miles away!

Dropping off Sgurr Thearlaich the route weaves up and down switching from side to side of the  ridge and includes a bit of very spicy down climbing over some eye-watering drops. There is even a short section for broad easy almost normal ridge before the terrain reverts to type for the big pull up An Stac the bastion of rock which dominates the southern face of Sgurr Dearg like some enormous citadel which appearers to go on forever. We don’t storm the battlements directly thinking it looks impossible only to see a party behind us shoot over it with ease.

 Looking back to Sgurr Alasdair (right), Sgurr Thearlaich (left) and the Great Stone Chute.

The Inaccessible Pinnacle, the only Munro that requires rock climbing skills

The Inn Pin is an amazing feature, a thin blade of rock soaring out of the mountain at the top of An Stac, bizarre and spectacular in a landscape of bizarre and spectacular rock architecture. It’s the last and greatest of the geological oddities that make Syke so special. It out-tops Sgurr Dearg from which it thrusts like some deranged spiky quiff by only a few meters and in doing so sets itself apart as the only Munro needing rock climbing skills. Its also massive, much bigger than I had expected from the many photos I’ve seen. Arrogant assumptions that climbers should be able to solo up and abseil off in minutes because technically its about as easy as climbing gets are instantly discounted when you see it. This demands more respect.

For reasons of poor planning and a complete failure to catch any fish the day before we have no food for tonight and thus need to be down in the campsite shop by closing time at six. To do this we had agreed to miss the Inaccessible Pinnacle and head immediately down the west ridge of Sgurr Dearg. Now though stood at the base of the Pin I’m torn; to come this far and not climb it seems a terrible waste of effort. The thought of no food tonight is however more traumatic, and looking at the time and the fact we have two parties in line ahead of us I fall on the sword of reason and we reluctantly crack on.

Decent down the west ridge is scrambley at first then more rounded and open but covered in loose scree which is a nightmare to decent. Constantly shifting beneath our feet we end up riding a wave of rock down the hillside and are both dumped on our arse more than once.  We make the campsite just before the shop closes and put the beers on ice. What a day!

So the Cuillin Ridge? Do it, it’s superb; go direct and even in short sections it’s a brilliantly committing, varied, challenging and physically demanding route. I can’t wait to go back and have a bash at trying for the whole thing in one push. To complete the entire 12km of the ridge including 4000m of ascent and decent you need to be fit, you also need to be comfortable soloing grades 1 to 3 scrambling both up and down over massively exposed terrain. Go and have a ball.

A word of praise for the Glenbrittle campsite. It’s in an amazing location below the Cuillin and just of the beach. The facilities are basic but good with warm showers included in a very reasonable 6.40pppn if your camping. But one word of warning, bring a strong tent the wind gets up a bit.

Non climber dictionary of strange terms: 

 * Sandbag: A climb that is undergraded.

** Dogging: Failing to climb a route cleanly, ie. falling/resting on the rope, pulling on the rope, and or gear etc (bad form).

*** A move where you sort of twist and drop a knee to get a high foot placement behind you. Named as you end up looking like an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic.