A short walk in the Isle of Skye
This time we were in the capable hands of Skye Adventure www.skyeadventure.co.uk who had organised everything we needed to make a safe attempt on the ridge, and clearly they must have some influence with the weather too.
Our guides were Matt Barratt and John Smith. Matt was a friendly mountain-man of great presence, if few words, but when Matt spoke you listened. John was a fresh-faced man with the energy of a Labrador pup; a cheeky chappie with tremendous positive energy. Together they were a great team with a great deal of experience in these mountains.
Our first major setback was with our team-leader Peter. Since leaving Bristol he had developed a terrible allergic reaction to someone or something and his physical appearance was changing minute to minute. His lips were swelling to those akin to an Amazonian tribesman, his feet were covered in blotches, his underarms were red, and the crack of his a*se defied description. The poor blighter was in a terrible state and no matter how much Piriton he consumed he continued to look more like ‘Jabba the Hut’ than the Managing Partner of one of the largest legal teams outside London.
Forever the gent, when the morning came of our first climb, Peter appeared in his boxer-shorts in the kitchen to a sharp intake of breath by all at the sight of him and said “Lads, I will not be climbing with you in this state, showing off his armpits should anyone wish to inspect – no-one did. I shall be going to Broadford Hospital as soon as you are gone”.
It wasn’t quite a Captain Oats moment, however it certainly did cast a shadow over our bacon and eggs. All I could think to do was shake Peter’s swollen hand and in a gesture of friendship promise him there and then that I would return next year and climb the ridge once more with him. It was the least I could do to try and make him feel better.
A serious briefing then took place around the breakfast table and we were kitted out with all we would need. Hard hats, climbing harnesses, sleeping bags, bivi-bags, mats and all the other necessary clobber. In addition there was a close inspection of our boots; not exactly like kit parade at the Boy Scouts, but they were thorough, and would take no chances that we would be under-equipped.
Matt took control, and asked what level of climbing expertise we had.
“Just so as John and I know what we are dealing with.”
Big G had climbed 80 Munros, but fessed up to always taking the easy route if there was the option. Chris was ex-services and was pretty hard-core, but probably more Naval Attaché than Special Boat Service – now a Senior Legal Partner with Peter, Chris was up for most things. Tom, was Peter’s son whose idea the trip was, in the form of a challenge to his old-man to climb the Cuillins before he was 60. Tom young lean and lanky had brought Tanja, his fun-loving young Russian girlfriend who it seemed had no idea of the enormity of what she was letting herself in for.
It was apparent that our party had very limited climbing experience, but a good deal of hillwalking miles under our belts, and were dead-keen on the challenge ahead.
Matt said nothing and just rubbed his beard.
Our first day was to be a training day, where the guides could assess us in the mountain environment and we would stash our bivouac gear, water and extra supplies just below the ridge to lighten our load for the traverse.
I think the day was deemed a success, with a full-on introduction to the hostile environment that is The Cuillin. Clearly we were being sussed. John was good at keeping moral high, Matt didn’t say much, but as I said, when he did you listened. “This is now hard-hat terrain – hats on.”
“Keep the chat down now and concentrate on your every step.”
It had been bright and breezy all day long, and I think we passed the test, because when dropped off at our lodgings in Carbost Matt advised us to have a quiet and restful night and that he and John would pick us up at seven-thirty for our attempt on the ridge.
Peter had indeed spent the day in the care of the NHS at Broadford Hospital and was so full of pills and steroids that there was no question of him joining us on the hill the next day. Because of his medication Peter was unanimously nominated our driver to the pub that night.
We were full of beans…. full of chilli-beans, full of beer and full of sympathy for Peter’s ever swelling lips – it was a Saturday night on the Isle of Skye and the Mad Ferret Band were playing loud folk music in the pub. It was great craic – hic!
The following morning, Peter’s absence was to be the only cloud on the horizon, as outside the sun was splitting the skies.
We parked at Glen Brittle carpark and were on the hill by eight. It was the most glorious of days. The Hebrides stretched out before us with the islands of Rum, Eigg, Canna, and Soay crystal-clear on a blue sea. Above the ridge looked like it had sharp black teeth and was gnashing them in anticipation. A couple of red grouse exploded from beneath our feet, and higher up, on the last bit of decent pasture two red deer still clad in their shaggy winter coats stared at us but did not run.
The first rest stop was at Loch Coir a Ghrunnda set in a beautiful corrie at about 2000 feet above sea level and some thousand feet beneath the ridge proper. Here we re-filled our water bottles and refuelled our bodies. The anticipation was palpable. Matt told us to put our hard hats on.
The higher we went the tougher it got with us walking steadily up and over a loose bolder-field where one false step could snap your ankle. The higher we went the bluer the sea became and the sky and views simply got wider.
As we reached the summit ridge we were buzzed by the Stornoway Coast Guard helicopter on a training exercise (we hoped) with the deafening clatter from its rota-blades just upping the adrenalin levels.
Cresting the ridge the whole length of the Cuillins came into view, and what a vista it was. The enormity of the task at hand was now apparent - the twelve kilometres of mountain chain and 13,000 feet of ascent, from one end to the other, socked us right between the eyes. We could see from Adrnamurchan to the south to beyond Torridon in the north. As far inland as Kintail in the hazy east, to the Outer Hebrides in the hazy west.
Goodness it was hot. Goodness it was hard going, Goodness it was going to be exhilarating.
To add to the magic of the moment a regal Golden Eagle gave us a splendid flypast.
Matt said “Let’s put on our harnesses and concentrate.”
After momentary congratulations we retraced our steps, descending back on to the main ridge, our climbing positions reversed with Chris leading the way guided step by step by Matt who was anchored above, and me left dangling somewhere in between.
Our next big challenge lay before us in the shape of Sgurr Alasdair, at 3225 feet the highest peak in the Black Cuillin – named after Alexander Nicolson who first climbed the peak in 1873. I sort of hoped that Mr Nicolson had as fine a day weather-wise as we were having, as I reapplied the ‘Factor 50’ sun bloc.
The summit was a true pinnacle of just a few meters square and was somewhat ‘cosy’ given there were three other lads there having a brew and enjoying the view. So after some civil pleasantries we teetered past them to wait for the rest of our group who were now 10 minutes behind. In fine weather Sgurr Alasdair is a popular peak for Munro-baggers who mostly ascend by way of the Great Stone Chute, a relatively straight-forward day’s scramble. There was a steady stream of walkers at this point including a German scrambler with his large black and tan dog who was panting just about as much as I was.
Rather than veer off the ridge and head down the Great Stone Chute we scaled a huge craggy vertical wall with good gabbro hand-holds where Matt led and belayed Chris and I up behind him in careful stages to the summit which was to be Sgurr Thearlaich. Here there were amazing views down to Loch Coruisk where pleasure boats were depositing picnic parties at the head of the loch after a scenic trip over from Elgol.
Now back on the ridge proper we were hit with a knife-edge scramble, sometimes on all fours, and at other times walking with arms straight out as if like a small boy flying an imaginary plane or walking on a tightrope. The drop on either side was immense – so immense it was best not to look, but to concentrate only on the immediate two feet in front.
It was very slow and careful going. Matt had warned us that the time it takes to cross relatively short distances on the Cuillin was very deceptive, given the exposed terrain and care required to make any progress.
In the middle-distance we got our first glimpse of the Inaccessible Pinnacle rising up on the horizon starting its mind-games and luring us onwards.
Sgurr Mhic Choinnich was the next Munro of the day, named after a local man John Mackenzie who was one of the first true mountain guides in these parts. Matt explained that the Cuillins were the only mountains in Britain which were named after those who made the first ascent.
At one point edging along this stretch and waiting for Matt’s signal to follow, Chris leaned against me as I was slumped against a rock catching my breath and whispered into my ear, perhaps fearful that Matt might hear. “Bloody hell, Graeme…. this is right up there…”
We make brief eye contact and both got a fit of the giggles before a yank comes down the rope and Matt bellows for us to concentrate up this next bit. Laughter over.
The Pinnacle was getting closer, and we could see dots on its summit which were the first successful climbers of the day. But first we had the small matter of the Coireachan Ruabha Crags to cross and then a long slog up a very steep and rocky incline to the base of the Inaccessible Pinnacle itself. We had been scrambling for hours and it was taking its toll on me. We had been re-fuelling as we went along, but there was no rest up and we had to keep climbing up and down along the jagged ridge. Whenever we passed a group of climbers Matt always had a friendly word as to their intentions. There were a couple of mountain guides he recognised and a group of lads from the South Devon Climbing Club who were up to scatter the ashes of one of their own. A young couple appeared to be pretty lost and out of their depth and latched on to us for a while until they got their bearings. The female of the couple made it perfectly clear that she was in command and her partner was announced as a dead loss. During one difficult maneuver my thermos flask went flying out of my rucksack when a side pocket got caught on a sharp rock. It tumbled and crashed down a ravine of several hundred feet.
“That’s why we put everything inside our sacks” Matt growled unsympathetically.
But that was the least of my worries as the ‘In Pinn’ did not seem to be getting any closer, my legs were getting wearier and the rocks were getting hotter.
We scrambled along a tight ledge were Danny Macaskill did his legendary cycling stunts in his short film ‘The Ridge’ now with over 43 million hits on Youtube. I could hardly walk along the small ledge let alone ride a bike on it.
A climbing party called up to Matt to say hello and inform him they were going up to see ‘Big Deirdre’ – a colloquial name for the classic climb Grand Diedre on one of the rock buttresses. At least the thought of ‘Big Deirdre’ made me smile – or the thought of her sister did, but not for long as we kept trudging up a fiendishly steep climb and across a difficult snow field. I was completely running on empty, and as we were not actually roped together at this point I now lagged some way behind Matt and Chris. It was going round and round my head that I must tell Matt I needed to stop, or I could not go on, but I daren’t. It was so bloody hot, my feet ached and sweat dripped down my nose from underneath my hard-hat.
At last we reached the top and gazed in awe at the full majesty of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. It towered above us like some spaceship that had just landed on a Star Wars film set. It was so impressive – Inaccessible. The Pinn had been in my dreams and in my nightmares for almost a year, and now it was in my face.
There was a perfectly adequate summit called Sgurr Derg – the Red Peak, just above the base of the Pinnacle but no, this was not acceptable as a true Munro as it fell just below the magical 3000 foot mark. The only way you could get this baby’s cherry and claim the Munro was to climb to the top of the stack.
We drank litres of what water we had left and ate what chocolate and sweets we could lay our hands on in order to get an instant hit to try and get some energy into our tired limbs while Matt and John climbed the longer way up the back edge of the rock after-which Matt lowered himself on the rope to join us at the bottom.
‘Oh God, I am going to have to do this’ I thought, and in so doing pushed myself forward to go first with a burst of false bravado.
My crotch was clipped to the rope with a large carabiner and the rope yanked tight. Hands were shaking, my mind was weak; legs were like rubber as I looked up to see only overhanging rock.
Bloody hell, where do you start? There seemed to be no hand holds anywhere. My hands fluttered about hopefully looking for any potential grip above my head. Eventually I got some purchase and hoisted myself up a few feet. The next move was going to be even harder and at that point I bottled it.
“No Matt, I can’t do this, please lower me down”.
I felt pathetic having only got six feet off the ground. My legs wobbled like jelly once back on terra-firma and I knew it was the right decision for me at that moment. I did not have enough mental strength in the tank to get it up – so to speak. I was as flaccid as only an over-weight middle-aged man can be. All talk and no trousers – but hey Graeme, don’t be too hard on yourself, it was a big ask, and I had done really well all day.
Matt gave me a genuinely friendly tap on the shoulder and said “No worries mate, the Pinn is going nowhere”.
I retreated to the top of the ridge to watch and encourage Chris who was next up.
After a similarly slow start Chris made good progress and to the delight of the whole party he received much whooping and cheering as he made it to the top to sit beside John and take in the view. Tom was next, and he positively scampered up the sheer rock face and was lowered gently down just as quickly as he went up. Last was Tanja. She was really up for it and after great encouragement and chattering to herself, she too made it to the summit and was lowered down with great grace. John and Chris soon abseiled down and the excitement was over. Never in our wildest dreams could we have hoped to witness the Inaccessible Pinnacle in such balmy conditions.
It was time to pack up and get off the ridge for the night, and we picked our way down a very rough and at times loose rocky slope to the ledge where we had dumped the sleeping bags the afternoon before in Coire na Banachdich.
The sky turned a golden orange as the sun set in the west and by some miracle a dram appeared from a hidden flask from deep in my rucksack and was passed round without much chat. There was not much left to say.
We all were happy to sit and admire God’s work with warm heat still radiating from the rocks while enjoying an inner glow from the whisky. At 10 o’clock a cuckoo called clearly from the top of the ridge – what on earth was it doing up there? – Other than enjoying the view.
As the sun disappeared in a swirl of orange and red gradually the blue sky darkened and it was time to cautiously wriggle into our silk-lined sleeping bags which were themselves inside a waterproof bivi-bag – that was it, a mat and a bivi-bag, what more was required?
I don’t think I dropped off to sleep, I think I simply passed-out.
I woke about midnight quite cold and had to rummage about for a woolly hat, after which I lay back and looked up to the heavens and marvelled at the vast array of stars twinkling alongside a crescent moon. Our insignificance was all too much to take in, so I parked that thought for another day and by all accounts joined in our merry band of snorers.
The mountain was still and silent for most of the night, but every so often I was aware of a great breeze that would ruffle through our camp, to rattle the plates and blow our tin mugs around. It wasn’t a threatening wind, more like the mountain breathing a heavy sigh after a long day, or perhaps it was snoring too?
Chris was lighting the stove by six, to boil some water for a brew – typical bloody lawyer, never sleeps.
We were packed up by 7.15 and walking back up to the ridge by 7.30.
Stiff limbs slowly creaked back into action and by 8.00 we were on a very narrow ridge getting buffeted by a much stronger wind than we had experienced the day before. Again we were quickly roped together, Chris and I were with Matt, and the ‘Young Crew’ were to our rear. Talking of rears, I was beginning to fear for Chris whose abiding memory of the Cuillin traverse I hoped would not be of my backside constantly at nose height above him.
Immediately we were holding on to the rough rocks going up Sgurr na Banahdich – Smallpox Peak. There are various theories where the name comes from, one being that the valley below had been used for quarantine purposes, but the most obvious was from the rock itself which was heavily pitted. The ridge is a geologist’s paradise with all the peaks a mix of very rough black igneous gabbro which was very grippy and had the effect of an industrial sander on your finger-tips. Basalt when wet was slippy so you had to be careful. On our first Munro of the day Banahdich’s summit was certainly much pitted as if the mountain had a bad case of acne.
The next top was a tight scramble along to Sgurr Thormaid – Norman’s Peak, names after a Victorian pioneer Norman Collie who achieved great climbing feats around the world from the Himalayas to the Lofoten Isles. This hard man accomplished much in his life only to die from pneumonia after falling in the water on a fishing expedition on Storr Loch to the north of Portree. He is buried just out of sight of his peak at Sligachan. Chris and I were climbing well, resigned to our plight, but John, Tanja and Tom were nowhere to be seen. We kept going comfortable that they were in safe hands.
The next twin summits of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh – the peak of the thrashing (or whipping) and Sgurr a Mhadaidh – Peak of the fox, were sensationally exposed and the climb linking them is listed as the most demanding arête in the British Isles. We were crawling on hands and knees again through gritted teeth. We heard John shout on us to wait up, but Matt yelled back that we were going on to beyond An Dorus (the door) to get out of the wind and to re-fuel. We would wait there for them to get their news. Sadly it was not good news. Tom’s skiing knee injury had flared up and he was limping badly and Tanja was in a bad way with the extreme exposure of the ridge.
Matt and John had a quiet confab and agreed that it was best that they withdrew from the mountain, as the next section offered just continuing challenging conditions. Matt asked if we wanted to go on, to which Chris and I agreed – at least a bit further. I think we realised that it was now unlikely we would have the time to go right to the end of the ridge and come off at Sligachan but we were up for the next black canine teeth that lay ahead. We bade our comrades goodbye with a request to ensure the beers were in the fridge when we got back.
Ahead of Chris and I lay the triple peaks that makes up the Druim nan Ramh Ridge, a collection of nice and pointy tops one of which being a Corbett – a Scottish peak between 2500 and 3000 feet. The climbing would be difficult – official grading (yes, we got that!) and some consider it the most complex section of the whole Cuillin. Matt loved it. He would skip ahead, then disappear up a sheer cliff to belay us to the top of one peak after another. Up and down we went, hauling ourselves up, balancing on pillars, getting buffeted by strong gusts of wind, and briefly stopping to gaze down the huge cliffs to a sparkling Loch Coruisk far below on one side and the magnificent sweeping ridge on Sgurr Thuilm, a splendid out-rider on the other. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. After last of the peaks we stopped in the sun and ate the last of our now rather squashed sandwiches. It was about three o’clock and we could see we were not making much of an impression on the last section on the ridge through to Sgurr nan Gillean the last mountain on the ridge.
Matt rose and said “Lads, you can unclip your harnesses, we are going down.”
Once again Matt’s knowledge of the conditions and the condition of his charges was perfectly read.
After the euphoria of realising it was over – I had survived the Cuillin ridge; I realised it wasn’t over. We were still in the middle of nowhere, 3000 feet up a mountain. We still had a long way to go; a long walk out.
At last we made it to flatter ground and walked across springy boggy ground that followed one of tributaries of Alt Coir a Mhadaidh the little river that comes out of the heart of the Cuillins. It has become a bit of an internet sensation this wee river as is better known as the ‘Fairy Pools’. These crystal clear pools, sometimes with an azure tint have become famous the world over for wild swimming and as we approached we could see a throng of tourists who had parked in Glen Brittle and walked up the good path to view the chain of pools. Some folks indeed were considering a dip. Very tempting I am sure they are, particularly on such a hot day, but the pools do still come with the traditional Scottish temperature variance of Cold, B*stard Cold, or Freezing. In order to cool down from the heat that radiating from the surrounding mountain rock I filled a Highland Spring bottle (rather appropriately) and poured the whole lot over my head to which I am sure I hissed with relief that our Cuillin adventure was over.
Back at our lodgings, it was pleasing to see that Peter had responded to his medication, however when he reminded me of my friendly promise to go back next summer and do it all again I told him in no uncertain terms that he could ‘b*gger off’ and that all bets were off!
But like childbirth, perhaps the Cuillin Traverse is a pain quickly forgotten?