Friday, 24 April 2015

The Cuillin Ridge

QUBMC runs a trad climbing trip every Easter, which I attend somewhat religiously. This year, those of us with ulterior motives managed to divert this trip to the Isle of Skye from its usual venues of the Peak District or North Wales.

It was touch and go for a while, and Skye's notoriously fickle weather seemed to be living up to expectations with about a week to go, giving a forecast of heavy wind and rain, and so the trip achanged to the Lake District. Howver, two days out the forecast changed for the better and with a bit of jiggery pokery, Skye was back on. Yay.

Skye is amazing, but the quality is hard earned! After the ferry journey over from Belfast, the drive up took a full 10 hours (including diverting through Callander due to traffic, stopping due to travel sickness and buying food in Fort William) We were exceptionally fortunate with the weather forecast, and to have this so early in the year (when the midges wouldn't be out yet) was even better.
we stayed for the week at the picturesque Sligachan crossroads, near to (almost) everything you'd ever need - the mountains, the sea and a pub!

The ulterior motive for the trip to Skye was, of course, the Cuillin Ridge. The Cuillin are a compact (read Mournes-sized) range of mountains on the southern end of the island. They are the remains of a 60 million year old caldera, throwing up a circle of pointy Gabbro peaks (including 8 Munros), split down the middle by Glen Sligachan and linked by the finest of mountaineering expeditions in Scotland - the Cuillin Ridge.

This Ridge is a linkup of the Cuillin peaks west of Glen Sligachan. Starting from Gars-bheinn in the south, it connects 17 peaks over 12km, with 3000m of height gain on the ridge itself. It's a proper 'ridgey' ridge - often with severe consequences for any misnavigation or slip. There's near-constant technicaly ground, with climbing up to about Severe (both in ascent and descent), huge amounts of scrambling and a number of abseils. Add to this the 3 hour, 900m height gain approach to get to the ridge and a similar descent and you're talking a serious, huge undertaking.

Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance, of course, so Conor and myself climbed Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean (the last peak on the ridge) on Easter Sunday to get a proper look at the thing. I wore approach shoes; there was still much snow in the bealachs (cols) on the upper section of ridge, which was interesting. Pinnacle ridge was a great route in itself, lots of easy climbing with an abseil thrown in, then a descent on snow down the west flank. The northern end of the main ridge looked a wee bit snowy but not too bad, we figured that by the time we came to try it a few days hence it would be all but cleared.

Conor on Pinnacle Ridge, Sgurr nan Gillean, Easter Sunday

3 days later, following in interesting evening of guiding a slightly delayed climbing party down from Marsco by viewing their headtorches from the campsite until 5 am, a visit to the famous fairy pools and a day of sea cliff climbing, Stuart, Conor and myself headed down Glen Brittle in Stuart's borrowed Mercedes van, planning a very early start on the ridge the next morning. Most people do the ridge in 2 days - this involves carrying lots of a gear and a bivvy on the ridge, which sounds like a tremendous faff, so we elected to do it in a day.

The alarm went off on Wednesday morning at 4am. As always, a grim Alpine start, this one after next to no sleep for some reason. Maybe because of the constant fear that Conor, sleeping on a high shelf, might roll off and crush Stuart and I. Or maybe being fully aware of how little sleep you could get prevents you from getting any.

Obligatory Alpine start photo of Stuart to remember the grimness

By 5 we'd gotten through the customary denial/breakfast/tea ritual and were on our way. The walk-in proceeded rapidly and we didn't even get lost. By 6.30 we were in Coire a Ghrunnda as the mist lifted in the dawn; there was an eery Jurassic Park-atmosphere. By 7 we were on the ridge, although not at the start - we had elected to avoid what the guidebook described as the 'purgatorial' scramble up Gars-bheinn and gone for a shorter approach which involved backtracking a section of ridge to reach the Gars-bheinn summit. At 8 we were standing on top of Gars-bheinn, where we surprised another party also beginning a ridge attempt. They carried bivvy gear, ice axes and wore helmets and mountaineering boots - we were in trainers and didn't even have our rucksacks. Fast and light. They were the only people we saw all day.

like a f***ing fairytale

The first section of the ridge back to the bags went quickly. The southern section is mostly basalt (which was damp and slippy) with no real technical ground until Caisteal a'Garbh-Choire, which we dodged on the right. Here we got our first snowpatch, 'fun' in trainers; Conor didn't like it and I was doing the routefinding I got bombarded with profanities. With Conor that's kind of a sign of affection.

It was misty, but the camera decided to mist up a bit too; apologies for the poor standard. Conor here, coming up to Caisteal a'Garbh-Choire

Thence, the clag descended, and the next portion of the day proceeded in true Scottish fashion. Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn provided enjoyable scrambling and before long we were at the TD gap. We abseiled into the gap, which was soaking and a wind tunnel. I was wearing approach shoes with grippy rubber so the other two looked to me to lead the wet and stiff-looking pitch out of the gap (one of the cruxes of the traverse). I wasn't feeling brave enough - thus, a scree descent down the western side of the gap and a traverse across snow and more scree to what in the mist looked and felt like the west ridge of Sgurr Alasdair (it was). Increasingly character building scrambling (especially at the Bad Step, where Stuart had a life-affirming moment) brought us, eventually, to the summit of Sgurr Alasdair and back to the main ridge. Nerves slightly wrecked, we were now about half an hour behind where we should be but had ample chance to make it up because, you know, fast 'n light.

Next was Sgurr Thearlaich. Up was fine, but the descent to Bealach Mhic Coinnich was tough. We couldn't even see King's Chimney - the route to the summit of Sgurr MhicChoinnich, a 'Diff' and another crux - from the bealach as the clag was so bad, but this was OK as Hart's ledge provided an alternative. This is an improbable natural but man-made looking route round the west side of the mountain that eventually leads back to ridge - it felt like a slight cop out but we later learned that few people do King's Chimney any more as a crucial chockstone is gone and it's now apparently harder than it used to be (The last logged ascent on UKC describes it as 'an awkward thrutch if ever you saw one').

An Stac, I think, it all blurs into one...

Next up was An Stac. This turned out to be a highlight of the day and a real morale-raiser. The longest section of continuous upward scrambling on the ridge, it provided lovely, airy, easy climbing and was just great fun. It was over all too quickly and suddenly we were stood at the base of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the most famous and improbable lump of rock on Skye, and the only Munro that you need to climb to get to the summit of.
The In Pinn ('Mod') was straightforward, and again, lovely. The view (I found out two days later) is lovely, but we saw none of it, visibility was atrocious. Fortunately, the eastern side of the ridge (in the shadow of the wind) was dry.

Stuart on the In Pinn

The In Pinn. Honestly.

Out came the rope for only the second time that day and we abseiled off. Descending Sgurr Dearg was easy enough once we figured out which side of the mountain to go down, and on we marched to Sgurr na Banachdich.

More easy scrambling next, but now, it began to clear! Hallelujah! Just in time to see how much more of the bloody thing we had left to do.
The next, central, section of the ridge was described in the guide as 'mind numbing' which isn't really fair to it, but there's only so much great scrambling the brain can process. While scrambling up was great fun, the legs were starting to fatigue and the descents were taxing both on mind and legs. Although we were frequently met with impossible looking precipitous drops, there was always a way down - it was just a matter of finding it. Like some sort of maze.

The way down, though, was often pretty hairy. You soon get sick of the steep-sided bealachs (cols) as the last bit down into each of these is always the hardest descent. It didn't help that most of these were also full of hard snow, making crossing in trainers difficult and scary.

On Sgurr a Ghreadaigh, it often seemed possible to turn difficulties by following little paths round them - however, these paths almost invariably gave way to snowfields (paths across steep mountains, shelves that they are, are really good at holding snow), and it was generally just easier to go over. Sgurr a Mhadaidh provided magnificent and airy scrambling up to about Diff. By now it was bone dry and sunny, but not too warm. Glorious. 

On Sgurr a Ghreadaigh

We were doing quite well with routefinding. Bidein Druim Na Ramh is described as having some of the most complex routefinding of the ridge but the guidebook description was excellent. One particular highlight was the overhang through which progress was made by a literal staircase of basalt in a chimney. Lovely.

Bruach na Frithe and An Caisteal from Bidein Druim na Ramh

Descending Bidean

After not very long and one unexpected abseil we were over Bidein and had made up (and more) all the time we had lost earlier. The one day traverse was still on - in fact at no point in the day did any of us express any doubt in our ability to finish it - safe in the knowledge that there were plenty of ways down and we weren't in trouble yet. A couple of snowy paths and bealachs looked like potential showstoppers but we managed to get across all of them. After Bidein, the end was in sight. We knew we could do it. Over An Caisteal, and up the easy ridge of Bruach na Frithe, notable mostly for the bealachs that necessitated jumping across. From the summit we could see Sgurr nan Gillean not too far away - an hour, perhaps. Not quite...
Crossing the snow between Bruach na Frithe and Sgurr a'Fionn Choire. Am Bastein and Sgurr nan Gillean in the background
The first section of ridge (from Gars-bheinn to the In Pinn and Sgurr Dearg) from Bruach na Frithe

This last section of ridge was holding a fair bit more snow than any other. There was a long section of snowy arête to Sgurr a'Fionn Choire which we took slowly and carefully. Dodging that particular subsidiary peak, we arrived at the foot of the Basteir Tooth. Having not pitched anything so far today, and being already 14 hours in, we decided not to break our streak and opted to dodge Am Basteir by descending into Fionn Choire and climbing back out the other side.

This proved to be one last(ish) purgatory before we could enjoy success. Fionn Choire was full of hard snow - that is, apart from the scree patches. Slipping, sliding, and somehow kicking steps in trainers, we made slow progress down the flank of Am Basteir. Eventually, we reached a point where we could traverse across and then start to climb out the other side - Conor hit upon the idea of using stones as snow-daggers in lieu of axes. Who needs modern winter climbing technology? Neanderthals can climb steep snow too.
Exhibit A. Conor rock-daggering up the side of Am Basteir

So dodging Am Basteir probably proved slightly more difficult than going over it. The descent and climb back out were certainly bigger, anyway, and keenly felt by tired legs. But no matter, for glory was in sight! Only the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean to go. More airy scrambling and a tricky ascent of a chimney - done totally on autopilot now, SO MUCH SCRAMBLING) and at 20.30 we stood on top of Sgurr nan Gillean. Success. 12.5 hours from Gars-bheinn. But another 6km to go back to the campsite, and the light was fading...

We raced down the East Ridge as darkness fell. The evening was overcast and without a moon it was very dark indeed. We started traversing northwards prematurely and ended up doing some bonus scrambling down through the slabs of Coire Riabhach by head torch - slightly hairy and more than we wanted to be dealing with at this point but before too long we hit a good path and marched back to Sligachan, whose inviting lights kept us pointing in the right direction. By the end, I was so dehydrated I nearly fell off a bridge - but it was done. 17.5 hours in total from Glen Brittle. 30km, 4000m of ascent and descent, countless rockovers, 3 abseils, no pitches, 1 loaf of Soreen, two packets of midget gems, 3 litres of water, 3 energy gels, one pair of 5.10 Guide Tennies...
20:30 atop Sgurr nan Gillean. Success.

I had my first ever Pot Noodle that night and fell asleep quicker than I ever have. I was a broken man the next day - the steps in Portree were almost too much for me. Stuart managed to hitch-hike back to the van in Glen Brittle somehow but was hit badly by the DOMS the next day. Conor, being Conor, seemed his usual (non-morning) chipper self.

Meanwhile, most of the other people on the trip had contrived to pick up a vomiting bug, which seemed like an altogether much more unsatisfactory past-time.

It was extremely fortunate to get the opportunity to traverse the ridge so early in the year, and a privilege, as always, to do it with such veritable lumps of mountain as Stuart and Conor. I didn't know it was possible to keep up such a level of concentration for so long on so little sleep (given that the consequences of a slip would often be dire) but it seems that it is. Another superclassic route done and there really aren't enough superlatives to describe it. I would definitely recommend the one-day push if you're fit enough for it - if not, perhaps doing it over two non-consecutive days would be good too - carrying a bivvy pack would take away from it.

Two days post-ridge I had recovered reasonably well and with a good forecast, Lisa, Steve and myself headed up in to Coire na Banachdich and climbed Window Buttress, followed by the West ridge of Sgurr Dearg, and the In Pinn. This time, the views were, indeed, superb, and it was nice to enjoy them without the pressure of constantly having to keep moving! 

Maverick and Napoleon Dynamite

Steve on Window Buttress. Exposure.

Lisa abseiling the In Pinn

Skye itself is amazing, and there's so much more great scrambling to do. I'll be back.

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