Skye in May
There is no doubt that the Black Cuillin on Skye represent the finest range of mountains in Britain. They are almost entirely rocky with narrow steep-sided ridges, soaring pinnacles and boulder-strewn corries. The range has a remarkably sustained grandeur, ruggedness and complexity. The Black Cuillin are predominantly formed of gabbro, a volcanic rock so hard that it resists becoming vegetated. Glaciation has left behind a vast maze of steep exposed rock, with few walking routes to the summits. The Cuillin have been described as the only truly alpine range in Britain and for many people the quality of mountaineering experience here is on par with almost anything else in the world.
The twelve Munros on Skye are far more challenging than any mountains on mainland Scotland. The most-difficult of all Munros, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, lies on the main ridge and is the only Munro that requires rock-climbing and abseiling skills. Scrambling in the Cuillin requires careful route-finding to avoid straying onto dangerous ground. On the whole gabbro provides excellent friction for scrambling, but there are parts of the Cuilin where the rock is dangerously loose and in places the ridge is cut by basalt dykes which are slippery when wet.
An additional difficulty is that there are some locations on the main ridge and close to it where compass bearings are unreliable due to local magnetic anomalies. Therefore careful map reading is essential. The 10m contour interval and density of rock detail on the Ordnance Survey 1:25 000 scale Explorer render the map virtually useless. Harvey produce a much clearer 1:25 000 scale map with a 15m contour interval and cliffs clearly marked, with a 1:12 500 scale enlargement on the reverse. This is by far the best map of the Cuillin and is used by the Skye mountain rescue team.
Many aspiring Munroists fear the Cuillin and put them off to last. This was only my third Munro-climbing trip, but I was keen to tackle them early on. If I couldn't climb these Munros, there was not much point busting a gut to do all the others! When I first opened the Skye section of the SMC Munros guidebook I'd been completely blown away by the photographs - I had not anticipated that there were mountains of this character in Britain. I'd completed all the grade 1 scrambles in Snowdonia so had some experience on steep rock, but these looked to be on another level entirely.
I decided that hiring a private guide would be a good way of building up confidence in the Cuillin. It would also provide a stronger chance that I would be able to climb all these Munros in a single trip. There are many companies offering individual and group guiding on Skye. Reading through online trip reports, some of these guides came across as being rather unsympathetic to the fears of their clients. After some research I decided to go for Richard "Paddy" McGuire (http://www.blavenguiding.co.uk/) a guide who had consistently glowing reviews. At the time his price for individual private guiding was £80 per day (in 2013 it is now £135 per day).
I decided that 10 days would be a reasonable period of time to climb all the Munros on Skye, allowing for periods of inclement weather. With any luck there would also be opportunities to explore beyond the Munros. I called Paddy, but he said that he'd only be available for the last three days of my holiday. His advice was for me to tackle some of the easier Munros at the beginning, such as Bruach na Frìthe, Sgùrr na Banachdaich and Blà Bheinn. Leaving the hardest 'til last sounded like a risky plan, but he said he was prepared to go up in most weathers and since I wanted Paddy more than any other guide, I made the booking and put a cheque for £240 in the post.
My previous Munro trip in April had been aborted prematurely due to a number of key items of equipment failing, and a rather shambolic plan. This time I had bought new leather 3-season walking boots from Peglers in Arundel, Sussex (http://www.peglers.co.uk/). They are so confident in their boot-fitting abilities that they will buy the boots back from you half-price within six months if you are not happy with them. I also bought a Berghaus climbing rucksack. I prefer climbing packs because they do not have the excessive padding of most rucksacks, which in the British climate acts like a sponge and soaks up moisture. The size is also perfect for holding a tent, sleeping bag and a week's worth of food.
Since I knew that the key to climbing the Cuillin was good route finding, I assembled route descriptions from various walking and scrambling guidebooks into a single anthology. This I made by photocopying the guidebooks, cutting out the route descriptions, gluing them to bits of thin card, then once assembled, photocopying again to make the result double-sided.
I only have a vague recollection of how I made the journey up, but I think it was an internal flight from Southampton to Glasgow, then an airport bus to Glasgow city centre. I then had a mad dash to grab a canister of camping gas from Tisos, before running to Buchanan bus station and catching the Citylink coach with minutes to spare. In Fort William I changed to another Citylink coach that went up Glen Shiel, past Eilean Donan castle to Kyle of Lochalsh and over the new bridge to Skye.
There are two main bases for climbing the Cuillin, Sligachan in the north and Glen Brittle in the west. The bus only stopped in Sligachan, and with the added attraction of a pub (http://www.sligachan.co.uk/sligachan-hotel.php), I decided to stay on the campsite here. The campsite was rather busy, and I tucked my tent away at the back, away from the road, down near the river. From the campsite I could see the classic view of Coire a' Bhàsteir flanked by Sgùrr nan Gillean and Sgùrr a' Bhàsteir with Am Bàsteir at its head. There was still some small patches of snow in the corrie, but the ridges were clear. After months of planning it was great to be in position and ready to finally explore the Cuillin.
Written December 2012
Tuesday 23rd May 2006
In the morning I looked out and my heart sank, there had been an unseasonably late fall of snow in the night and the ridges were plastered in snow. Now it looked like even the easiest of the Skye Munros would be hard or impossible without specialist equipment. I decided to try for Bruach na Frìthe, reputedly one of the easiest Skye Munros. The most straightforward route goes up a gently inclined corrie and only gains the ridge for a short final section to the summit. I could therefore go as far as I thought safe up the corrie and easily retreat at any point.
I set off initially following the path along the Allt Dearg Mor. This path eventually crosses the Bealach a' Mhàim to Glen Brittle, but I was planning to turn off earlier at Coire na Circe. While walking beside the burn I caught up with a chap called Jim Morton. He had booked on a group course with Skye Guides (http://skyeguides.co.uk/), but had decided to take a day off and climb an easier Munro because of the high snowfall.
We were both heading for Bruach na Frìthe and the same route, so decided to team up for the day as neither of us were confident in the Cuillin. Jim had nearly finished all the Munros and was impressed by me just starting out and coming to Skye on my own. We headed up Fionn Choire towards Bealach nan Lice. The snow was not as bad as it looked - it was very slushy and did not present much of a hazard.
Once on the ridge the cloud was swirling around, but there were points where it lifted providing dramatic views over to Sgùrr nan Gillean, Am Bàsteir and Sgùrr a' Fionn Choire. The shapely summit of Bruach na Frìthe has a trig pillar, the only one on the Cuillin main ridge. The only safe retreat from this point was to return by the route of ascent.
We decided to stop in the pub at Sligachan to meet up with the other people from Jim's Munro climbing course. They came in with accounts of fearsome drops and slippery snow slopes, so Jim was rather glad he'd opted for an easier day. The next easiest Munro on my list was Sgùrr na Banachdaich above Glen Brittle. Before I headed off back to my tent, Jim kindly offered to give me a lift to this Munro the following day.
Wednesday 24th May 2006
We drove around to Glen Brittle and Jim dropped me off by the Glen Brittle youth hostel. I set off up the Allt a' Choire Ghreadaidh. A series of waterfalls added interest to this section of the walk. Looking up to the Cuillin, the peaks were capped in cloud, but the lower slopes were cloud-free. Further on the river forked and I turned right onto the Allt Coir' an Eich. I decided to climb up the ridge forming the north wall of Coir' an Eich. The views from An Dialliad to Coire a' Ghreadaidh were awe-inspiring - vast black rocky slopes soaring up into the cloud with flecks of snow higher up.
On gaining the ridge I turned right and climbed boulder-strewn slopes up to the summit of Sgùrr na Banachdaich. I was now in the cloud and took great care to memorise my ascent route so that I could find my way back down again on return. I didn't spend long at the summit and carefully retraced my steps, some of which were marked in the remnants of the snow. Rather than go down the An Dialliad ridge, I descended directly into Coir' an Eich, providing some variety on the descent route.
I followed the Allt a' Choire Ghreadaidh down to the youth hostel, then turned right to walk back along the road for a few miles. My intention was to turn off on the Bealach a' Mhàim path and use this pass to get back to Sligachan on foot. However I had not been walking along the road for long when a car stopped and the driver insisted that he give me a lift. This was an offer I couldn't refuse so I quickly hopped in the back. The couple in the car had been rock climbing today in the Cuillin and were heading back to Sligachan, which was perfect for me. I insisted on buying them a drink in the pub when we got there.
Jim and his group came in later, and again Jim kindly offered me a lift to the Glen Brittle the following day. I was undecided which Munros to tackle next, but Sgùrr nan Gillean and Am Bàsteir above Glen Sligachan would definitely be too hard. On returning to my tent the weather showed clear signs of improving. The clouds had lifted and Glamaig and Beinn Dearg Mhòr were bathed in golden sunlight. The view down Glen Sligachan was beautiful, with the river and bridge in the foreground and the pointed peak of Marsco in the distance .
Thursday 25th May 2006
Jim's group were aiming for Sgùrr Dubh Mòr and Sgùrr nan Eag. These, along with Sgùrr Alasdair were the next easiest on my list. Jim was keen that I didn't tackle the same Munros as his group, since mountain guides are don't like hangers-on getting a free ride. He was also concerned that other paying members in his group might not be happy with a freeloader. However I had already earmarked Sgùrr Alasdair as a peak I wanted to climb later with Paddy, since it can be talked with two further Munros as part of a round of Coire Lagan.
In the end we decided to walk together on the approach path, then once we reached the scrambling higher up I agreed to leave them and find my own way. I double-checked with the guide that he was happy with this arrangement. They knew that I had a guide booked for next week, and were sympathetic to my situation and keenness to make some progress climbing the Skye Munros.
We parked at Culnamean by the beach, then walked along the shore for a short distance besides the campsite before starting a gentle ascent. The path traversed below Coire Lagan, and we got a glimpse upwards to Sgùrr Dearg and Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich, their summits wrapped in cloud. The path then worked around Sròn na Ciche, before turning sharp left to enter lower Coire Ghrunnda. This corrie is a remarkable place, formed of huge boilerplate gabbro slabs with water cascading down them.
We kept well left on a grassy ramp above the slabs, although it is also possible to find a route through the slabs. The headwall of this lower corrie is quite steep and there is a short easy scramble to gain the upper corrie. The upper corrie is breath-taking - Loch Coir' a' Ghrunnda spreads out over the corrie floor, the highest and largest lochan in the Cuillin. A boulder-strewn moonscape circles the lochan and high above rise jagged summits.
At the lochan we divided, with the group heading off right to do Sgùrr nan Eag first, while I headed left towards Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. On the left I had a good view up to Sgùrr Sgumain and Sgùrr Alasdair. The Munro I was heading to first was unfortunately the hardest of the two, so I was rather worried about climbing it alone. Fortunately another lone walker was heading the same way as me, and so I tagged along with him. He had some experience in the Cuillin, but had not climbed Sgùrr Dubh Mòr before.
We picked a way up pathless rocky slopes to gain the ridge, then climbed up to Sgùrr Dubh an Da Bheinn. From here there was a clear view down to Loch Scavaig and Loch Coruisk, the vast remote loch in the heart of the Cuillin.
Sgùrr Dubh Mòr lies off the main ridge on a subsidiary spur, so is often missed out by those doing a main ridge traverse. The route to it involved the most technical scrambling I'd encountered so far in the Cuillin, so I was glad I was not doing it solo.
The descent from Sgùrr Dubh an Da Bheinn to the high bealach between Coire an Lochain and An Garbh-choire was relatively straightforward. The route beyond here looked nigh-on impossible, but my companion cast around and found easier ground on the right-hand (south) side of the ridge. The route stays well below the crest of the ridge, then ascends diagonally left to gain the summit of Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. My companion was a roofer by trade, so was quite comfortable on this knife-edge ridge. I was very uncomfortable, and kept low, edging carefully along and back over the narrow section.
Undoubtedly the finest route up Sgùrr Dubh Mòr is from Loch Coruisk up the Dubhs Ridge. The hardest unavoidable section is getting established on the ridge at the bottom. Above this a sweep of clean easy-angled gabbro slabs leads up to Sgùrr Dubh Beag. These slabs give excellent friction, making this the finest outing of its grade in the country. There is a steep abseil beyond Sgùrr Dubh Beag, but this can be avoided by traversing left before reaching the summit of Sgùrr Dubh Beag. Another challenge in doing this route is actually reaching the start of it - Loch Coruisk is well-defended and can only be reached by long walks in from Glen Brittle or Glen Sligachan, or via a boat trip from Elgol.
We retraced steps back to Sgùrr Dubh an Da Bheinn, where the roofer headed off back to his car. I thanked him profusely for his help, since I definitely wouldn't have had the confidence to climb Sgùrr Dubh Mòr alone. I stopped for a break and enjoyed the views south to Sgùrr nan Eag, Sgùrr a' Chore Bhig and Gars-bheinn. The views north were hazy, but I could see across Druim nan Ramh to Sgùrr nan Gillean.
Jim Morton's group came by having already climbed Sgùrr nan Eag, and were now on the way to Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. Their guide kindly gave me some directions, saying keep right on the descent, then go left around Caisteal a' Garbh-choire and finally keep right to gain Sgùrr nan Eag. On the way there were good views down into An Garbh-choire, reputedly one of the roughest corries in the Cuillin.
This solo ascent well very well and on the way back from the summit, feeling confident I turned off early and scrambled down into Coir' a Ghrunnda. From here I retraced steps back to the car park, re-joining with Jim's group on the way. Jim gave me a lift back to Sligachan - without his help my Munro attempt on Skye would have been scuppered.
Jim mentioned that there were some army guys staying at his bunkhouse in Sligachan, and they had extra rations, so he invited me back in case I needed any extra supplies. The army guys got special leave every year to do an activity of their choice, provided that the activity could be considered beneficial to their training. They had planned to do a full Cuillin ridge traverse, but had been turned back by the Thearlaich-Dubh gap. I took some packets of instant tea & coffee, orange squash granules, packets of biscuits and heavy-duty matches. It was unlikely that I would see Jim again so we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers and said goodbye. The forecast was wet and windy the following day.
Friday 26th May 2006
I awoke to heavy rain and looked out to see the peaks shrouded in cloud. This was no day for the Black Cuillin, so I decided instead to use the opportunity to explore the Red Cuillin (or Red Hills). In contrast to the black gabbro, these peaks are formed of red granite and are much more rounded, decorated by pink scree. Navigation is relatively straightforward, so this route would be safe in poor visibility.
From Sligachan I followed a path over boggy ground to gain the ridge Druim na Ruaige which leads up to a group of peaks collectively known at the Beinn Deargs. The first of these peaks is Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach, then over Beinn Dearg to Bealach Mosgaraidh and finally a steep climb to the highest of the group, Beinn Dearg Mhòr. The rain poured down relentlessly and the wind buffeted me as I plodded along.
The descent from Beinn Dearg Mhòr was initially easy, then lower down required a traverse left over steep ground to avoid rocks and gain Bealach na Sgairde. From here a steep pathless route climbed the huge bulk of Glamaig. This is one of the few mountains in Scotland who's summits are named separately from the mountain itself. The summit I was heading for is the highest point of Glamaig, Sgùrr Mhairi.
In the summer of 1899 General Bruce brought Gurkha Harkbir on leave with him from the Himalaya. Norman Collie took them to Skye, where Harkbir hauled them up many climbs on Sgùrr Alasdair. The estate owner, McLeod of McLeod, heard of an extraordinary run that Gurkha Harkbir had done from the Sligachan to the summit of Glamaig and back in 1¼ hours. He refused to believe it and had a heated argument with some local gillies (who presumably had witnessed the ascent). Bruce offered to resolve the dispute and asked Harkbir to do it again. Harkbir did, and knocked twenty minutes off the alleged 1¼ hours. It is recorded that he did it in bare feet, which seems implausible. Surely a sensible Gurkha who had already explored the local hills would have worn sandals.
The race is now held annually (http://www.carnethy.com/ri_glamaig.htm). In 1995 a Gurkha team took the winning place in the race and were the fastest team and the record is now a staggering 44min 27sec by Finlay Wild in 2012, narrowly beating the previous best of 44min 41sec by Mark Rigby in 1997.
It was still raining and was extraordinarily windy when I was trying to descend the steep loose scree slopes back to Sligachan. There were points where the wind nearly blew me over and I worked my way down the unstable scree. I headed into the pub to dry off and to have some well-deserved hot food. I saw Jonathan from Jim's group afterwards, and he showed me all the photos he'd taken on his digital camera during the trip. He was staying at the Sligachan Hotel rather than at the bunkhouse. Incidentally Jonathan plays Oboe for the Liverpool Philharmonic (http://www.liverpoolphil.com/8653/orchestra-members/jonathan-small-oboe.html).
Saturday 27th May 2006
This is the only Munro in the Cuillin that stands separately from the main ridge. To reach it from Sligachan requires a long walk though Glen Sligachan. To climb Blà Bheinn and get back in a day was out of the question. There is a bothy at Camasunary on the coast where I planned to spend the night before returning to Sligachan the next day. Fortunately the weather improved over the weekend, making this trip very enjoyable.
There was no need to take the tent, so I left it at the campsite, informing the owner that I would be gone for one night. I set off with my sleeping bag and a minimum of food, following the well-used path along Glen Sligachan. With all the recent rain and snow the terrain was very wet underfoot. The rivers were running high and I had to go ½ mile upstream for Allt nam Fraoch-choire before I could wade across.
The southern section of Glen Sligachan is narrower and more spectacular, hemmed in on the east side by the long ridge of Blà Bheinn. The path goes past the small Loch an Althain and then alongside the larger Loch na Creitheach. Before the end of the loch I turned left to follow a path between An t-Sròn and the foot of Blà Bheinn's south ridge.
The south ridge of Blà Bheinn is a grade 1 scramble, and was the longest ridge I'd tacked so far in the Cuillin. The upper mountain was shrouded in cloud, so I didn't have any view over to the dramatic Clach Glas or across the glen to the main Cuillin ridge. The scrambling was straightforward and the only difficulty wass a dodgy down-climb into the notch between the south top and the higher north top. I took this direct and it wasn't as hard as it looked, even when wet.
The scramble out of the notch was much easier on the way back and I gave a hand to some nervous looking walkers. I retraced my steps down the south ridge, then cut cross-country towards Camasunary Bothy. This multi-room bothy is set in a fantastic position just above the beach. Like all coastal bothies the interior is liberally decorated with nautical flotsam and jetsam.
A raucous group of Germans were staying at the bothy and had got very wet walking along Glen Sligachan and fording the Allt nam Fraoch-choire. They'd put on dry socks and were using plastic bags to shield their socks from their wet boots. I stayed in a room with a quieter pair of girls who were reading a book on St. Kilda and story of the evacuation of this remote island.
The Mountain Bothy Association have received notice to the effect that the owner intends to return Camasunary Bothy to a private residence once he retires. This was to be nominally in 2012, but the bothy currently remains open. It is a fine bothy in a magnificent location and anyone considering visiting this bothy should do so while they still have the chance.
Sunday 28th May 2006
Rather than walk back the same way I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the precipitous section of coastal path that circumvents Sgùrr na Stri to reach Loch Coruisk. This loch lies in the great trench of Coir'-uisg, flanked on one side by the Cuillin main ridge and on the other by the subsidiary ridge of Druim nan Ramh. The coastal walk presented a couple of challenges, the first of which was to cross the tidal Abhainn Camas Fhionnairigh. This I did by removing boots and picking a way across on stepping stones.
The next challenge was a short scramble over "the bad step", a steep sloping slab where a slip would result in a dunking in the sea. After this I scrambled down to a beach, then clambered over rocks then across a short neck of land to reach the Scavaig River, one of the shortest rivers in the world. Water pours from the lip of Loch Coruisk, down the river and into the sea at Loch Skavaig. Coir'-uisg is undoubtedly one of the finest corries in all of Scotland.
To gain a better view I decided to climb Druim nan Ramh and head into the heart of the Cuillin. The nose of Druim nan Ramh is steep and rocky, but all difficulties can be avoided on the right-hand side. Once established on the ridge, the walking was fantastic through a maze of rocky outcrops interspersed with tiny lochans. The views of the main ridge were stunning, and I saw a large bird of prey in the distance at one point. This was possibly an eagle, since the Cuillin is reputed to have one of the largest eagle populations in Scotland.
Just before the ridge reared up towards Bidean Druim nan Ramh, I turned right and picked a way down grassy gullies between steep rocky outcrops into Harta Corrie. This was slightly frightening in descent, since I could not see all the way to the bottom. Soon the slopes relented and I crossed heather slopes to reach the infant River Sligachan. For a few miles the route was pathless, but relatively dry.
The halfway point to the path is marked by a giant boulder, known at the Bloody Stone, now bedecked with vegetation and a rowan tree doggedly growing out of the rock. Tradition has it that this was the site of a battle between the MacDonalds and MacLeods. The spoils from the battle were supposedly divided at the Bloody Stone. Legend has it that hundreds were slaughtered and the bodies of the defeated were piled up around the boulder. According to some versions of the story, not all bodies were in one piece!
After a brief boggy section in the floor of Glen Sligachan, I re-joined the main path and walked the remaining few miles back to the campsite. I was glad to see my tent was still there and in one piece. Due to the strong wind I had weighed down the pegs with rocks. Unfortunately some rocks were touching the fabric and had worn small holes in the tent.
Monday 29th May 2006
This was the last day I had before joining Paddy for the last three days. Again the weather forecast was poor, with rain and strong winds. Looking out of my tent, I could see that Marsco in Glen Sligachan was free from cloud. This would be a relatively short and easy walk, so I could conserve energy for the next three days. It was also a route that would be reasonably safe in high winds.
Marsco lies just south of the Beinn Deargs in the Red Hills. The approach was back along the main path through Glen Sligachan for a few miles. I then decided to head cross-country direct for Marsco. This route is not mentioned in any guidebook, and since the slope is concave, the terrain gets progressively steeper the higher you climb. The upper section was uncomfortably steep, but was vegetated, so I always had something to cling to.
Once over the steep section and established on the ridge, I was hit by the full force of the wind roaring down Glen Sligachan. The crest of Marsco is at one point rather narrow, and here the wind was so strong that I had to crawl on my hands and knees along the ridge!
The clouds were high so I had far-reaching views over the Red Cuillin and across to the Black Cuillin. I could see both Loch Ainort in the north and Loch Skavaig in the south. The best view was from Garbh Bheinn to the jagged Clach Glas ridge, a moderate rock climb leading up to Blà Bheinn.
Once below the summit the wind became less strong, and I followed a line of rusty old fence-posts into Coire nan Laoigh. The fence-posts lead to the Màm a' Phobuill, then down into Coire Dubh Measarroch, following the Allt na Measarroch. I then turned right and joined the now familiar glen path back to Sligachan.
After a wet and windy day on the hill it was nice to sit in the warm pub drying out. I gave Paddy a call and explained which Munros I had left to climb. He said I'd done well to climb five on my own. The remaining seven Munros were two above Coire a' Bhàsteir, three on the round of Coire Lagan, and Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh and Sgùrr a' Ghreadaidh in the central Cuillin. We agreed to meet at a certain time by the hotel in the morning.
In the evening I chatted to a young couple called Matt and Zoe, who were staying on the campsite and taking buses to explore the island. They had been out to visit the Old Man of Storr (Bodach an Stòir) and the Quiraing on the Trotternish Peninsula. I told them about bothies and they were enthusiastic about doing multi-day trips without having to carry a tent.
Tuesday 30th May 2006
On the first day with Paddy we headed for Am Bàsteir and Sgùrr nan Gillean. A mountain guide generally takes the shortest most efficient route to summits unless his client specifically requests otherwise in advance. Therefore we followed the Allt Dearg Beag and the obvious path up into Coire a' Bhàsteir, aiming for Bealach Bhàsteir. From this pass, both peaks can be tackled. Coire a' Bhàsteir is a dramatic place, with the towering pinnacle ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean rising up on one side. The lower corrie is softened by a tiny lochan.
Morning mist was still swirling around the peaks as we climbed up the remarkable fin of rock that is Am Bàsteir. The route is a straightforward scramble from Bealach a' Bhàsteir apart from the "bad step". The main problem is down-climbing it on the ascent and not being able to see the foot holds. The descent is harder than the down-climb on Blà Bheinn. Paddy lowered me down on a rope, and there is an excellent belay point. On the return it is straightforward and a rope is barely necessary. When Chris Townsend did it as part of his Munros and Tops walk, he used a sling around the belay point as an extended handhold.
To avoid the bad step there is the "ledge route" on the south side, which looked like it would be straightforward on a good day. The rock climbing is much easier than the bad step, but the route finding is trickier, since there are quite a few ledges to choose from (and the consequences of being on the wrong ledge could be quite serious!). From the top of the bad step the "ledge route" is clearly visible and you can then trace it back to a point on the ridge where it is easy to get down onto the ledges. The "ledge route" could be done unguided, provided that the weather is clear enough for a bit of exploratory route finding.
From the summit of Am Bàsteir I had a hazy view to Sgùrr a' Fionn Choire, flecked by snow, with Bruach na Frìthe barely visible in the distance. The way on was barred by steep cliffs dropping down to the Bhàsteir Tooth, so we retraced steps back to Bealach a' Bhàsteir.
The next section of the route up the west ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean would have been impossible for me without a guide. The most difficult part was getting up from the bealach - first up a steep chimney, then across a narrow ridge that involved edging around a gendarme. This gendarme is the remains of The Policeman, most of which fell off in a recent rockfall, making this route substantially easier. Paddy roped me up for the short section around the Policeman. The upper part of the west ridge is an easy scramble. The other side of Sgùrr nan Gillean via the "tourist route" is still a scramble, but does not present such serious problems.
In the upper section Paddy expressed surprise at seeing verglas on the rock so late in the year. The summit is an airy place, just a small platform of gabbro that Paddy said had been shattered by lightening in the past few years. There was a great view down to Knight's Peak, a Munro Top and the last summit on pinnacle ridge before Sgùrr nan Gillean. The cloud had now lifted and the view across to the great prow of Am Bàsteir and the blocky Sgùrr a' Fionn Choire was stunning.
We retraced steps back to Bealach a' Bhàsteir, the Policeman proving much easier in this direction. I would consider doing it unroped on the ascent on a good day now that I know the way. Paddy having completed his duties was now keen to descend. He had a bad knee and did not want to put any more strain than necessary on it. The weather was splendid, and it was still quite early in the day so I wanted to continue. The continuing route around the rim of the corrie to Sgùrr a' Fionn Choire and Sgùrr a' Bhàsteir was barely a grade 1 scramble, so I assured Paddy that I was happy to do it solo. I agreed to keep the helmet and harness safe until the following day, to save Paddy carrying it down. Paddy gave me some instructions on the route, then headed off down into the corrie.
I traversed beneath the dripping wet rocks of Am Bàsteir, then climbed up to easily gain Bealach nan Lice and up to the summit of Sgùrr a' Fionn Choire. Retracing steps for a short distance I continued around to Sgùrr a' Bhàsteir, where there were stunning views of the pinnacle ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean. To descend I curved right into Coire a' Bhàsteir, then re-joined the ascent path back along the Allt Dearg Beag.
Wednesday 31st May 2006
The weather was fine for the second day, with clear skies so we headed for the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Paddy does not like climbing this in poor weather, since he has to free climb it first before dropping a rope down to his client. Before setting off, Paddy gave me a rope to carry, so that he didn't have to carry so much. We set off from the Glen Brittle Hut and began a brisk walk, initially along the Allt Coire na Banachdich past the dramatic waterfall Eas Mor.
We then turned to ascend the broad west ridge of Sgùrr Dearg. From here I had incredible views across Coire Lagan to Sgùrr Alasdair and Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich. The Great Stone Chute dropped down seemingly sheer slopes from Sgùrr Alasdair and it was hard to believe that this was a feasible walking route. Looking north there was a maze of rocky peaks and it was hard to pick out and name individual summits.
Paddy is a member of the Skye mountain rescue team and carries a radio when he climbs, so that he is always in contact with the rest of his team. While we were out we had a call that a small child had climbed up some rocks in the Quiraing and was unable to climb down. Fortunately someone else took the call, so Paddy was able to continue the walk with me. In addition to being a guide and a member of the mountain rescue team, Paddy also drives a library van!
The Inaccessible Pinnacle or In Pin is a remarkable fin of rock protruding from just below the summit of Sgùrr Dearg. This pinnacle rises up and surpasses the height of Sgùrr Dearg by several metres and consequently represents the highest point of Sgùrr Dearg.
Munro himself never climbed the In Pin, and in his original tables he listed Sgùrr Dearg as a Munro and the In Pin as a subsidiary Top. Munro's reasons for this blatant error have always been subject to some debate. My theory is that Munro considered the In Pin to be an appendage to the mountain, like a feather in a cap.
We started fairly late so there was already a big queue by the time we reached the In Pin. The usual ascent of the In Pin is by its long east ridge, a climb of 50 metres vertically involving two roped 30m pitches.
Although graded Moderate, with good holds, the east ridge is narrow and exceptionally exposed. This route was described by an early climber as "a knife-edged ridge, with an overhanging and infinite drop on one side, and a drop on the other side even steeper and longer".
Paddy instead announced that we were going to climb the west "ridge" and jump the queue. This is the side that people normally abseil down and is graded v diff. To my eyes it looked more like a sheer wall than a ridge. I had psyched myself for an easy but exposed scramble up the east ridge. Paddy's announcement set my mind reeling, but there was barely time for discussion before he was clambering up the sheer rocks of the west ridge. I marvelled at his skill and confidence at doing this climb, while I carefully memorised where he put his hands and feet.
Soon Paddy secured himself to the permanent belay on the summit of the In-Pin and threw a rope down. I clipped on and Paddy shouted down that I would have to move fast since the rock was cold. I began climbing with Paddy tugging strongly on the rope pulling me upwards. He shouted down instructions on which direction to move in and where to reach for handholds. I was very glad of the rope, since the consequences of a fall from here would have been fatal.
The last section was up inclined slabs and I was overjoyed to gain the summit of the hardest Munro. Paddy unclipped me and gave some very stern instructions not to go near the edge. I sat atop the summit rock and Paddy took a picture of me beaming from ear to ear. Paddy set things up for an abseil, then lowered me back down the west ridge. After I unclipped, Paddy abseiled back down to me and we put the ropes away.
The round of Coire Lagan continued along the base of the In Pin, past the queues of people still waiting. I felt slightly disappointed at missing out on the east ridge, but on the other hand was rather pleased at having climbed the In Pin by a harder route. The descent path stuck to the south side of the ridge following the base of An Stac. Here we reached a bealach at the top of the An Stac screes.
The ridge then began to regain height on a grade 2 scramble up to Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich. Beyond this summit the ground drops precipitously to Bealach Mhic Choinnich. The bealach can be reached easily by backtracking from the summit of Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich for a short distance to gain Collie's Ledge. This remarkably easy route takes an exposed traverse high above Coire Lagan. The last section down to the bealach requires a short jump down, but this is not exposed.
Beyond the bealach the ridge rears up again and the onward climb is graded Moderate. Paddy said I could do it unroped. The route from below is not obvious and the ground is quite steep, so would be hard to reverse if you went the wrong way. The only clue to the start of the climb is a stone block which people use as a step up onto the rock, although Paddy said some people remove this because they consider it unsporting.
Soon we gained Sgùrr Thearlaich, who's summit is formed of overlapping tiles of rock, which was a joy to scramble over. The descent from Sgùrr Thearlaich to the head of the stone chute is slightly awkward, and we continued south for short distance before attempting the descent. The crossing of Sgùrr Thearlaich can be avoided entirely with some loss of height from Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich and a traverse across to join the Great Stone Chute path.
The final Munro of the day, and the highest point on Skye, is Sgùrr Alasdair. We enjoyed the views then turned to descend via the Great Stone Chute. At one time this was the best scree run in Scotland, but the passage of hundreds of feet has moved most of the scree to the bottom. The top of the chute is now an unpleasant mix of mud and compacted gravel. By the time we reached the bottom our boots were covered in grey rock dust and it looked like we'd just stepped off a building site.
The route passed the small lochan in upper Coire Lagan, then followed a path along the north side of Loch an Fhir-bhallaich to rejoin the ascent route. I was pleased to have climbed the In Pin and to have completed the round of Coire Lagan, a classic Scottish mountaineering route.
Thursday 1st June 2006
The final day was cold, damp and misty, but luckily we had left the easier two Munros to last. The only scrambling difficulty was getting out of the An Dorus notch to gain Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh and Sgùrr a' Ghreadaidh.
We parked at the Glen Brittle youth hostel and started up the path along the Allt a' Choire Ghreadaidh, which I'd visited on my climb up Sgùrr na Banachdaich. I'd turned right higher up, but this time we continued leftwards up Choire a' Ghreadaidh. Paddy dismantled cairns as he went, saying that they were recent additions which spoilt the feeling of wildness and were little more than graffiti. Choire a' Ghreadaidh is split by a protruding ridge: Sgùrr Eadar da Choire. We took the easier ground on the north side of this ridge, which lead up to An Dorus,
Before An Dorus, Paddy turned off, leading an unconventional route up to Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh. The ridge to the north of here is one of the hardest sections of the main ridge. I'm convinced that there is a route on ledges to the north main ridge that avoids the rock climbs and allows progress to be made to Bealach na Glaic Moire. This is briefly described in Skye Scrambles, but I would like to reconnoitre the route first before committing to a main ridge traverse.
From Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh we descended the standard way to An Dorus which was quite straightforward. The climb up to Sgùrr a' Ghreadaidh was also straightforward with no need for a rope, and I was surprised how easy this had been. Paddy had completed his duties but as a special treat he announced that we would continue along the main ridge, if I was willing. Cloud was still clinging to the ridge, but the grade 2 scrambling provided sustained interest.
We traversed over Sgùrr Thormaid, and also climbed to Sgùrr na Banachdaich, which I'd already visited. We then dropped down Coir' an Eich by a path which I was now familiar. Back at the car Paddy took a photo of me - he said he likes to keep a visual record of his clients in case any want to book with him again and he can politely refuse the awkward ones. Paddy gave me a lift back to Sligachan and I thanked him profusely for his help. I made a £20 donation to the Skye mountain rescue team as a token of my appreciation.
I was thrilled at having completed the Skye Munros in a single trip. My bus was leaving the following morning, so this was just in the nick of time. Everything had worked out perfectly and I was really grateful for the help that people had given me. There is a great feeling of community amongst the climbers active on Skye, with beginners welcomed and included in the social scene at the Sligachan pub.
Looking at my routes on a map, I had covered a remarkable amount of ground, the only notable omission being the central Cuillin between Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh and Bruach na Frìthe. With some more reconnaissance I reckoned it would be possible to find a route all the way along the Cullin main ridge, without having to resort to rock climbing.
It was a relief that I'd now climbed most of the technically difficult Munros. There were still plenty of challenges still waiting on the mainland though, including the Aonach Eagach, the Forcan Ridge, Liathach and An Teallach.