High on the Cuillin Ridge

High on the Cuillin Ridge

The makeshift awning covering our bivouac site on the side of Gars-Bheinn flapped quietly as we twisted our bodies and sleeping bags this way and that over the stony ground where we had decided to spend a few hours before dawn and the beginning of our Cuillin Ridge adventure. We’d found this spot not so much for comfort but to give us a good start for our ridge assault, sited as it was, just below the first peak.

Having laid down at midnight and fitfully dozed in the dim half-light of the Scottish night that occurs at this time of year, roundabout Easter time, it was now 3:30, time to begin the long but exciting scrambling along the 11 kilometres of the ridge. The iconic ridge of the Black Cuillin is the UK’s most challenging mountain range, being over 3,000 feet high in places. The ridge contains 11 Munros and 16 other summits, the highest being Sgurr Alasdair at 3,255 feet. Traversing the ridge involves serious route finding, difficult scrambling and some technical climbing.

Alex, Whig, Terry and I, all from the Stafford Mountain Club, had chosen Easter time, 1966, to venture to the Cuillin as the nights are shorter at that latitude and allow a full-day's climbing at a relatively reasonable pace. Leaving Stafford in the early hours of the morning in an old Morris Traveller, we powered up the M6 with excitement. The first section of the M6 motorway had opened in 1958 but had not yet been completed through the Lake District, so we travelled the old road through Shap, enjoying the magnificent Cumbrian scenery on the way. The miles sped past as the traffic in those halcyon days was only a fraction of today’s congestion and nothing like the 12 hours I spent in 2008 travelling to the lakes from Wokingham!

A long trip of this nature can be boring, but we were on our way to the Promised Land of Skye. We eagerly counted off the miles as we passed through Fort William, Spean Bridge, then left at Invergarry onto the A87 and down the impressive valley under the watch of the five mountain peaks which stand on the left of the road. These impressive sentinels, called the Five Sisters of Kintail, marked the final leg of our journey before we were to reach the ferry at Glenelg which would take us over to Skye. Checking the ferry sailings, we anxiously watched the last miles disappear. Happily, we made it to the mooring and were able to catch the ferry before she ceased for the day. Visitors now have a much easier route over the Skye Bridge, completed in 1995.

The mountains of Scotland watch heavily over the landscape. Their majestic forms are softer than those of the alps, but nevertheless they brood darkly over the land with their ancient history of the Clans, tales of treachery and the centuries-old fight for survival that the Scots have endured. It was with this feeling of awe that we came to the Sligachan Inn and turned left to navigate the narrow road to the Glen Brittle Campsite which would be our home for a week.

The Cuillin impressed us deeply as we followed her steep slopes this way and that along the route. Every now and then our more experienced members would shout out the names of the peaks we'd be scrambling over, looming above the sheep-covered pastures that they guarded. “There’s Sgurr an Gillean”, Alex cried. “Bruach Na-Frithe and Coire A-Mhadaidh”, Whig whispered in awe, as we began to fall under the spell of these ancient ones whose names sent shudders down our spines, knowing the mysteries that these sentinels hid buried in their long gone past.

Arriving at the Glen Brittle campsite, we fell stiffly out of our mobile prison to gasp in the cold nectar of the mountain air, feeling like Livingston discovering this lonely spot but surprised to see a larger number of people than expected. Despite the weather, still cold at this time of year under the scudding Western Highland clouds, we were amazed to see some stalwarts swimming in the icy cold waters of Loch Brittle. The weather may have been cold then, but we were soon greeted by fellow climbers and hikers who told us how magnificent the climbing and scrambling was. Even better, they predicted that the forthcoming week that we had chosen to explore the Cuillin and traverse the ridge, would be free of rain and possibly there would be record high temperatures.

After erecting our tents and bolting down some hot and hastily-made packaged soup, we delightedly boulder-hopped and scrambled up the path leading to the nearby Corie Lagan where so many gain access to the ridge for day walks and climbs. Deep in the Corie, we got a magnificent view of the Cuillin’s highest peak, Sgurr Alasdair, and the famous Stone Shoot in the gap between Alasdair and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. The stone shoot is 2000 feet long from top to bottom and can be run down as the scree slides down with you, taking only two or so minutes to complete the total descent.

Our enthusiasm drove us to climb up onto the ridge and along to the summit of Sgurr Alasdair and from there to the top of the stone shoot. This was the ultimate natural fairground ride. Dust rose and the scree sounded like an express train traveling with us, as we bounded down the slope. Moving in a river of rock, we passed giant boulders on either side and thrilled to the cold mountain air forcing oxygen into our nostrils and mouths. As we careered down the lower slopes of the scree, there were large rocks in the way that required navigating around and ten- or twenty-foot drops lying in wait. If the wrong turn was taken, serious injuries were almost guaranteed. This added to the excitement and we entered a state of flow where time slows down, the senses become magnified and reactions rifle-shot sharp. We finally came to a shuddering halt as the scree ran out, feeling a sense of supreme skill and confidence that tasted of lightning and thunder. The two-minute scree run felt like we had moved into another dimension and it took a few minutes to regain normality.

The rock from which the Black Cuillin is formed consists of two types: the main one being gabbro, a very rough igneous rock which provides a superb grip for mountaineers, and basalt, which can be very slippery when wet. On returning to our tents, we realised that the skin of our fingers had been sandpapered away just from handling the gabbro’s sandpaper quality, good for climbing, but not for holding hot mugs of tea! Because of the excellent quality of the gabbro, climbers had been coming to the Cuillin since the mid-nineteen hundreds to enjoy the thrilling climbs with amazing hand holds and purchase for the feet, making it possible for the average climber to climb at a much higher standard than normal.                        

For the next two days we tackled various climbs, explored other Coires, and crested the ridge again past Sgurr Mihc Coinnich. We tested our climbing skills by tackling the Inaccessible Pinnacle, named the “In Pin” for short, which is a rock promontory- like lone tooth on the ridge, whose top can only be gained by climbing. Alex and I tackled a long chimney next to the impressive Cioch. This ended in a torrential downpour as we climbed the final pitches. Frozen to the bone, covered in dirt and shivering uncontrollably, we ran as fast as we could back down the mountain to get warm. All the while we were imagining the restorative effects of a hot shower that was surely waiting for us. Dumping our climbing gear at the entrance to our tent, we checked where the showers were and stripped off whilst running the water in advance. Only then did we find that our longed-for shower was going to be a cold one! However, in our state of almost hypothermia, the cold water felt surprisingly warm when compared to the icy rain that we had battled before, and so, unbelievably, we felt better. Whatever our physical condition had been, the euphoria that came from having achieved a great climb in hard conditions left us feeling victorious and satiated.

Eventually the great day arrived. We had meticulously planned what to take for the one and a half days that we would need to traverse the ridge, electing to start at the southern end on Gars-Bheinn where we would bivouac. The next day we would traverse the ridge and finish at the Northern end on Sgurr an Gillean. From there, in the fading light, we would walk along Glen Sligachan to the pub to celebrate our success with a pint of the best ale. The thought of that beer, cold and refreshing to our parched throats, was so clear in our imagination that we salivated in expectation even then, as we prepared.

That afternoon and early evening we had slogged our way around the base of the lower slopes of the ridge, over the moorland with its bogs, boulders and burns and ascended the scree slopes leading up to the top of Gars-Bheinn. Climbing up deep scree to begin was not a pleasant experience: for every three steps up, we slid back one as the loose pile of stones dragged us back down again. But now, after our brief nap, we were looking forward to a full day’s magic of bounding from boulder to rock along the spectacular Cullin Ridge, fabled for its lofty spires in this misty island on the West Coast of Scotland.

As we began our climb, the realisation that the adventure I had been dreaming of for over a year was at last coming true, reminded me of how it had all started.

The year before, in 1965, I had joined the Stafford Mountaineering club because, at the age of 19, I’d moved to Stafford to study for a degree at the College there. I had begun climbing regularly with its members on small crags around Stafford, and sometimes travelled to Wales or the Pennines which were relatively close. The members of the club had some dedicated climbers. Some had recently returned from climbing in the Peruvian Andes and others claimed personal acquaintance with Joe Brown and Don Whillans of the Rock and Ice club. (For those of you unfamiliar with the early days of climbing, these names were legendary in the nineteen-fifties.) My Outward-Bound experience and the passion I’d found in climbing was fanned by the stories told in the Club’s local when I would listen, spell- bound, to exaggerated stories of peril on the rocks in impossible weather. Danger  –and spending far too much time in pubs – totally suited my student life style.

So, for six months of the year, from March until August, I had been living in the Halls of Residence at the College of Technology in Beaconsfield, and sometimes – when tired of the repetitive conversations in the Swan Inn – I would go to the Stafford library, find a warm seat there and browse the travel section. The Mountaineering section was limited but, hiding in the inviting coloured spines of the large books, I spotted an old, rather dogeared plain-spined book entitled: The Magic of Skye by W.A. Poucher, one of the original mountaineering writers of the early 1930s.

It was Fate that I eased the book out of its sanctuary there in the pin-drop quiet of the library, and as I opened it, a slight chill ran through my body. It was as if an unknown disembodied presence had just crept up behind me. That Fate had ensured my preordained future soon became evident.

The book, with illustrations in bygone sepia tones, fell open at page 128, which showed the Cioch on the flanks of Sron Na Ciche, one of many peaks with their haunting names that lie on the Cullin Ridge. Perched as if in thin air above the corrie below, three climbers sat at the tip of this pyramid-featured rock, thrilling me with its invitation to join them in their lofty world. I felt I was not only standing there with them, but I could step off the rock and fly like an eagle, spread my wings and glide over the slopes of the mountain, over the glistening rivulets that flowed down her slopes, free of all earthly connection and immune to gravity.

The desire that gripped me then I can still feel now. It was almost mystical, washing my soul with an urgent need to stand there, where they were, poised above the abyss where only the courageous and foolhardy venture.  

As these books were in the reference section, they could only be read in the library, and so at weekends I would visit, retrieve the The Magic of Skye and lose myself in the Cuillin. As you can imagine, it was not long before I determined I had to visit and conquer the ridge. Within a month, I had persuaded my friends in the Mountain Club that they needed to tackle the ridge too, and that was why we were there now, moving somewhat stiffly up the flanks of Gars-Bheinn.  

Even now some fifty years later, I can vividly recall the joy I felt to be on my treasured adventure, and the dedication in Poucher’s book comes to mind: “To the Good Companions”. We certainly were feeling that as we moved up onto the ridge.

As predicted by our friends, the weather was turning out to be perfect for climbing, the sun rising above the horizon as we moved onto the summit of Gars-Bheinn.   Although it was still semi-dark, with the sun's rays just reaching out to the Mountain Gods around us, we could see the sky was without a single cloud, so unusual for Scotland and the Western Isles. With the promise of this miracle – because it can only be described as such, given the reputation of Scottish weather – our mood reached another notch higher, though that was barely even possible. The Apu of the Cuillin had heard my plea, accepted my obeisance to their majesties and were rewarding me with their blessing.  

From Gars-Bheinn, even in the stark shadows of dawn, the views were magnificent. Below to our right as we faced forward, the waters of Loch Scavaig lay opaquely dark, mirroring the sky above,  whilst on the left, set in an almost glassy sea, the isles of Eigg, Rum and Canna were begging to catch the light. We spoke little, as we floated along the spiny arete as if we had seven-league mountain boots on our feet. Despite the precipitous slopes dropping away on either side, we almost ran along the ridge, freed at last in the sky around us.

The ridge is so vast and complex that a detailed account of the route would be futile to describe without a comprehensive map. Because the individual peaks are chaotically placed and zig-zag along the route, with ridges falling away to gaps between them called Colls, an experienced mountaineer's eye and sixth sense is needed. Often there is no distinct path to follow, so the climbers must be constantly alert. Taking a wrong turn will result in having to retrace the route and begin that section again. But that day our instincts were as sure as if we were connected to a satellite navigation system, which of course hadn’t been invented at that time!

Our first traverse took us along the ridge to the peak of Sgurr nan Eag, with Coire A-Ghrunnda contained between it and Sgurr Alasdair. It’s an almost circular lochan, enclosed in the horseshoe of the peaks, and looked as if the gods had built a swimming pool for themselves, hidden away from the eyes of the human folk inhabiting the safety of the lowlands. Thor would have loved it.      

By now the sun was beginning to rise above the horizon, casting long shadows along the ridge that made it difficult to see where the best traverse route was. Maybe more by luck than judgement, we arrived at the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap, a 10-metre sheer drop followed by a 25-metre climb. Prepared for this with suitable climbing gear, Whig abseiled down first, and we followed quickly to keep warm. This was the easy bit. Next, we had to climb the slippery face that lay before us which, because of many previous ascents, had become smooth and difficult for our boots to get a purchase on. This was unlike the normal gabbro with its rough and easy-to-grip surface. With a top rope for safety, and pulling another behind for the last man, I creaked and scrabbled my way up, arriving breathless but content on the top.

There are many ways to avoid the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap by dropping down and circumnavigating this feature, but we wanted to “do” the ridge properly. That meant climbing every single peak, without traversing around them. The average hiker can avoid this Gap by traversing around the lower slopes if they are content to scramble only, but we were committed to holding ourselves to the highest standard.

As we moved on towards Sgurr Alasdair, it was turning out to be an idyllic day. This was unlike the normal expectations and generally challenging weather that can be met on any adventure in the Scottish Highlands. Climbing at any time of the year can suddenly become a battle for life and death with the vagaries of the weather. Snow can fall, mist can envelope all known landmarks and disguise precipitous drops over which someone carelessly walking can fall. To appreciate the regal mountains, due homage must always be paid to their moods. Top-quality equipment, tried, tested and familiar in use, must be carried to ensure the scales are weighted in your favour in the game of survival in these mystical but dangerous lands.

But it seemed Lady Luck had decided that on that day we would have perfect weather, in recompense for our fortitude on all those other days of crouching in rain-drenched tents amidst the thrashing grass blown by howling winds.

We continued advancing quickly along the route. Each of us laughing now with the joys of nature, our companionship and the sheer joy of feeling our bodies performing as well-oiled machines obedient to our commands. We reached the twin peaks of Sgurr Sgumain and Alasdair, passed over the top of the Stone Shoot and climbed Mhic-Coinnich and then on to the ridge leading up to Sgurr Dearg, climbing again the now familiar In Pin on the way. Thus, we had completed an impressive part of the ridge by about 11 a.m., partly because of our previous familiarisation with that part of the route and the good weather. So we took a well-earned break and with the bliss of resting our somewhat tired bones, looked ahead at the continuous jagged ridge stretching away into the distance and our ultimate goal away on the horizon.

As my thoughts drifted almost in trance, I remembered some of the phrases that had so captured me when reading The Magic of Skye: “Everywhere is desolation with vast slopes of scree, caused by ages of rock disintegration, fanning out into the bottom of the corries”. It was as if these words echoed from the lochs below, and the mountains and peaks stood affirming their hoary age and majesty by their silent presence.  

As I lay there on my bed of stone in the solitude and silence that was a part of the very rock itself, time disappeared. I was back in the age of the dinosaurs; this prehistoric land was the beginning of life. No vegetation grew here, only the material that would eventually form the soil after long ages of destruction and weathering. I was a god, creating a world over vast epochs of time, watching my handiwork coming to fruition. Waking with a start, I realised I had drifted off to sleep, and, looking at my “Good Companions”, saw they too had succumbed to the immense peace that had lulled us into unconsciousness. Had we stumbled upon the entrance to the fairy kingdom, hidden up here away from the world? Perhaps, when we descended at the end of the Cuillin, we would find that a century had past whilst we had spent our time up in the clouds.  

We continued on our way. We talked little as we climbed and scrambled along the ridge. The pure delight of intuitive orienteering, the elegance of the features of the ridge that continued to mischievously to twist and turn, delighted the eye, foot and hand as it demanded our bodies comply with its creative movements. Overhead the Sun moved with us, reminding us of the need to continue moving. We went up, along and down, smoothly locating hand holds and steps where necessary. We were in flow with no mistakes made in our understanding of the directions we needed to take. This despite the peaks teasing us to turn in the wrong direction when we moved down to a coll and out of sight of the next corner.

I was again reminded of a quote from Poucher: “The traverse of this ridge is famous throughout the mountaineering world and calls for greater experience, concentration and strength, coupled with a sureness of foot and eye, than any other of the well-known ridges in the country. The map distance from Glen Brittle to Sligachan by way of Gars-Bheinn and Sgurr nan Gillean, is about fifteen miles and involves some 10,000 feet of ascent and descent.” And we were only less than half way! Poucher said in the first edition published in 1949, that those who complete the ridge in one day are relatively few, and that still applied when we were there.

Poucher’s description of the Cuillin’s demands were all too evident as we raised our eyes at each vantage point. From Sgurr Dearg, the route takes in Banachdich, then Sgurr Thormaid, A’Ghreadaidh,  and Sgurr A’Mhadiah. As we snaked our way along the central section of the ridge, we were afforded vast, far-reaching views over the mainland of Scotland, and in the other direction over the land of Skye, lying bathed in the healing rays of the Sun blazing down in the pure blue air. At one point, to the South, the vast Loch Coruisk stretched out to the Black Cuillin’s sister range, the Red Cuillin, lying beside the sea loch Scavaig. We were pilots, each in our own mythic aircraft, flying this way and that, with our mountaineering instincts to guide us and our souls soaring among the world of the Gods.

We met no one as we travelled. On rare occasions a question concerning the route would be whispered, a brief discussion on the direction to be taken agreed upon, and on again we travelled. Muscles tensed and modified their tension continuously to ensure the dynamic balance needed to avoid slipping or falling over the changing terrain. It was scrambling as I’d never before experienced. In my previous exploration of the mountains, I’d enjoyed several hours of scrambling over relatively obvious routes, with perhaps the most challenging being the Anoach Egach Ridge at Glen Coe, but never before or since for such a sustained time. It was deliciously tiring. In the cool air up on the ridge we experienced little perspiration, only a feeling of oiled lubrication that enabled the body to perform at maximum efficiency.

The route continued to demand focus and expert interpretation. Bidein Drum Nan Ramh, An Casteal, Bhairnich, Bruach Na Frithe were names that faded into the meditation of movement that became hypnotic. Still, Sgurr Nan Gillean hung tantalisingly in the distance.

The sun was dropping towards the skyline as we reached Am Basteir, the last challenge before victory. But by this time, fatigue was demanding ever larger inputs of energy, as every ounce of reserve had been sucked out of our bodies by the demands we had made on our muscles. All of the “Good Companions” shared our glucose tablets which gave instant power to the aching limbs and we seemingly floated up the face of Am Basteir and onto Gillean.

Dropping off the final peak of Sgurr Na H Uamaha, and down into Harta Corrie which led on into the final stretch of Glen Sligachan, each moved at his own pace, safe in the knowledge that the critical dangers of the day were over. I brought up the rear but lagged behind a little since my boots were designed for climbing rather than scrambling and the stiff soles had caused some serious blistering.

Although we had descended into the glens, there was still a considerable distance to go and the light was fading fast. Gradually the shadows lengthened, strange shapes began to appear, and whilst this was not frightening, the route down Sligachan became more and more convoluted, I lost track of the others and I realised I was lost. After all the serious route-finding on the ridge, this was the most ridiculous time to lose the route and I laughed at the way life has of humbling us, fortunately at that time without danger.

After considering the alternatives, I decided to bivouac near a chuckling brook that would be perfect for a brew first thing in the morning. The bank of the river was grassed and dry and with a slight rise behind, providing a perfect place to anchor the top of my bivouac sheet and a luxurious soft base. I quickly laid my sleeping bag down, ate what little there was left of my food and dropped into the deepest sleep I have ever had the delight to experience.

Of course, the other “Good Companions” celebrating victory in the Sligachan Inn were somewhat worried about my absence, but common sense prevents a search at night in the mountains when more danger is likely to be caused to the rescuers than the person in possible need of assistance. They also knew I was an experienced mountaineer and hoped that a twisted ankle or some similar mild injury might have befallen me and they would easily be able to find me the next day.

And so it was, as I was gradually woken by the increasing light, I heard faint calls echoing down the Glen Sligachan. They’d walked right past me, so well hidden had my bivouac been, but I climbed out of my sleeping bag, stood up on the bank, waved and called out in return.

What relief they must have felt as the “Good Companions” were reunited. A review of our actions and errors in our final stretch had us agreeing it had not been the best hiking practice, but all being well we drove back to Glen Brittle reunited, and with a sense of an adventure that would live in our memories as one of the best ever.