Skye in August

In May 2006 I'd visited Skye and climbed all twelve Munros on the island, seven of them with a guide. I'd been so impressed with the unique character of the Cuillin that I was keen to go again. Now that I was familiar with the routes, I was confident that some of them could be done unguided. I was also interested in the possibility of finding a non-rock climbing route along the Cuillin main ridge and wanted to do some reconnaissance for this future trip.

A New Zealander friend from work, Greg Byrom, was interested and we agreed to go there late 2006 for a week over the August Bank Holiday. My general plan was to sample the best of the Cuillin and demonstrate that Scotland's mountains are as good as anything New Zealand has to offer! We would use Sligachan as our initial base, then from here take tents and go backpacking for several days. Greg studied the map and decided the most interesting approach would be from Loch Coruisk. I was quite unfamiliar with routes onto the ridge from this side, so made sure I had copies of the relevant sections of Skye Scrambles.

What with the August Bank Holiday and the short notice, we had some difficulty in arranging public transport. The only feasible option was a torturously long all-day train journey from Southampton via London through Inverness and up to Kyle of Lochalsh. From here we could take a taxi to Sligachan. We set off very early in the morning from Southampton Central on Saturday 26th August and finally arrived at the campsite after nightfall, putting our tents up in the dark.

Written January 2013

Camping beside Loch Coruisk
Camping beside Loch Coruisk

Sunday 27th August 2006

The morning was wet and windy as we struck camp and set off down Glen Sligachan with our fully-laden rucksacks. After a short ascent we reached the pass to Coruisk via Sgùrr Hain, and a diversion to visit Sgùrr na Stri. The cloud had lifted and there were fleeting views of the fairy-tale pinnacle ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean, over the glen to Marsco, and down to Loch Coruisk. We were even treated to a rainbow appearing briefly when the sun shone through a chink in the clouds.

We then dropped down to Coruisk, waded the Scavaig River, then walked along the shore of Loch Coruisk to camp at its north end. The midges at dusk were the worst I've ever seen them. Greg was keen to get a fire going from the driftwood on the shore of the loch. I told him that he'd get eaten alive by the midges, but he insisted that the wood-smoke would keep them at bay. Unfortunately he couldn't get the fire going quick enough - thousands of midges attacked him when he briefly ventured outside, and he hurried back inside the tent, face covered in midge bites.

Pinnacle Ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean
Pinnacle Ridge of Sgùrr nan Gillean

Monday 28th August 2006

We awoke to bright sunshine reflecting off Loch Coruisk. The weather had dried out, and the cloud had lifted, although it was still clinging to the higher Cuillin.

Our plan was to venture up onto the main ridge from this side, finding a way through the steep exposed glaciated slabs that limit the routes available to the walker on this side of the ridge. Coir' an Lochain with its little loch looked like an ideal place to set up a high camp, but it sits in a well-defended hanging corrie, so cannot be approached directly. The alternative is to approach via Coir' a Chaoruinn, then traverse across to Coir' an Lochain.

To find this exacting route, all we had was a vague description in Skye Scrambles: "follow a fairly obvious slanting grassy shelf which crosses the ridge at the 500m level". In fact it was not obvious at all and we wasted time and energy nearly getting crag-fast and then dropping lower to follow the wrong grassy shelf! Eventually we found the way, which involved ascending Coir' a Chaoruinn higher than expected, then following a weakness in the rocks to get through to Coir' an Lochain. It was definitely worth it - the little lake surrounded by soaring black rocks was stunning. There were little patches of grass around the lake, making this an ideal campsite.

We put up our tents, dumped most of our kit, then went off to climb Sgùrr Dubh an Da Bheinn and Sgùrr Dubh Mòr via Bealach Coir an Lochain. The cloud limited views, but the challenge of finding a way through the rock sustained interest throughout the day. Unfortunately with the time we lost route-finding in the morning, there was not time to visit Sgùrr nan Eag. We returned by the same route to our tents by the little lake.

Me in Coir' an Lochain
Me in Coir' an Lochain

Tuesday 29th August 2006

We left the tents again and scrambled up to Bealach Mhic Choinnich between Sgùrr Thearlaich and Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich. We climbed up onto Collie's (or Hart's) Ledge and used this remarkable route to gain the summit of Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich. It was wet and windy, so the slippery basalt ledge had to be treated with care.

We returned by the same route to the bealach, then attempted to climb Sgùrr Thearlaich. There were some steep possibilities, but without a rope I was quite reluctant to climb up. I had been this way with my guide Paddy in May, but I couldn't remember the precise route, and didn't want to ascend something that would be difficult to down-climb.

Instead we scrambled down into upper Coire Lagan from the bealach, then joined the Great Stone Chute about half way up, continuing easily up the chute to Sgùrr Alasdair. It was quite satisfying to have brought Greg to the highest point on Skye via an unconventional route.

The cloud was still swirling about, but we could just about see down to Loch Coir' a Ghrunnda. We returned via the same way to Bealach Mhic Choinnich from where we had a clear view down to Loch Coire Lagan. It was still early in the day, so we had a short diversion to climb Sgùrr Coir' an Lochain, before returning early to the tents.

At dusk the ever-present cloud took on a pinkish tinge as we looked over Druim nan Ramh to Masco.

À Cheval on Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich
À Cheval on Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich

Wednesday 30th August 2006

We packed up tents and set off to follow the main ridge northwards. Neither of us was keen to go along Collie's Ledge again, so as an alternative we used the "East Face Rake". This route is, according to Skye Scrambles, a "surprisingly easy way up Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich". it was indeed surprisingly easy, but descending Sgùrr Mhic Choinnich to Bealach Coire Lagan with heavy packs was surprisingly difficult! The packs had to be lowered down in a couple of places!

We continued on to Sgùrr Dearg, where we bumped into Mike Lates guiding some people up the In Pin. Mike remembered me from May. From Sgùrr Dearg the next stretch of the ridge to Sgùrr na Banachdaich was new to me, and was quite enjoyable, even with heavy packs. The final descent into Coruisk from Bealach Thormaid was spectacular, down a gigantic unstable scree slope surrounded by rock walls. Greg was confident on this terrain, but I was extremely hesitant. Towards the bottom we had to divert left to avoid getting involved in a rockslide over a small cliff. We camped on the meadow at the head of Coruisk, which was fortunately midge-free that evening, due to a strong breeze.

On the ridge to Sgùrr na Banachdaich
On the ridge to Sgùrr na Banachdaich

Thursday 31st August 2006

It rained heavily during the night and by morning Coruisk was really wild - animated by raging white torrents on all sides! We opted for an "easy" day by walking along the North side of Loch Coruisk, ascending Druim nan Ramh, walking along the ridge and dropping down to Harta Coire. The descent into Harta Coire is pathless and requires careful route-finding through rock outcrops. I knew the way having done it previously during my two-day circular walk to visit Blà Bheinn.

We were originally planning to camp in Harta Coire, then climb up into Lota Corrie and explore the northern Cuillin from the south the following day. However the weather was so atrocious, that we decided to follow the river back to Sligachan and camp there. Greg's waterproof cycling top was not really up to the heavy rain, and he was glad to get to the pub and dry off. A decent hot meal and some real ale was very welcome.

Friday 1st September 2006

The forecast said "windy and cloudy in the morning, clearing by mid afternoon". So we started by climbing the "easier" peaks of the northern Cuillin: Sgùrr a' Bhàsteir, Bruach na Frìthe and Sgùrr a Fionn Choire. We followed the Allt Dearg Beag up, which was in spate after yesterday's heavy rain.

The forecast proved right when the skies began to clear as we were heading for Bealach a' Bhàsteir. We very nearly climbed Sgùrr nan Gillean, but it was still quite windy, the rock was wet and there were enough patches of mist still swirling about for me to be hesitant about route-finding (I would have been happier with a rope). The west ridge is a moderate rock climb, which I'd done with Paddy in May, but I could not be sure of the exact way Paddy had taken me.

Instead we had a bash at Am Bàsteir, ascending the ridge up to the "bad step". The onwards route didn't look very enticing without a rope (Paddy had lowered me down this step on a rope). From the bad step the alternative "ledge route" is clearly visible and you can easily trace it back to a lower point on the ridge where it is easy to get down onto the ledges. We dropped down a broad slanting scree-covered slab on the Lota Coire side. From a small platform we were able to scramble back rightwards to cross the gully running down from the "bad step". It was then straightforward to reach to the summit. We retraced our steps, then descended into Coire a' Bhàsteir. I varied the return route by crossing to the right of the Bhàsteir Gorge and following the base of Pinnacle Ridge to link up with the Sgùrr nan Gillean "tourist path".

As we got lower down, the clouds magically lifted, the sun came out and we had splendid views across Glen Sligachan to Blà Bheinn and the Clach Glas ridge, with the bulk of Marsco in the foreground. Typical that the weather improved just as we were leaving! It was great to get back to the pub and have a celebratory pint and meal. We arranged a taxi for early morning the following day (2nd of September), returning via the same route through Kyle of Lochalsh.

All in all it was quite a successful trip - six of the twelve Skye Munros revisited and some new sections of the main ridge explored. Greg is now convinced that there are "real" mountains in Britain! Eventually I'd like to do a full ridge traverse, but there are still a couple of sections which need reconnaissance.

There is a grade 3 chimney to ascend Sgùrr Alasdair, which it the only feasible route to avoid the Thearlaich-Dubh gap. The picture in Skye Scrambles apparently makes it look worse than it actually is. Jim Morton (who I'd met on Skye in May) told me that he did it roped, but didn't feel as if he really needed a rope. The chimney is not too high and the climb is enclosed so there is no great exposure. He said that it's pretty steep after the chimney, but it wouldn't be a problem as long as it's dry.

The main bit I'm unsure about is the section between Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh and Bruach na Frìthe. Apparently there is some unavoidable Moderate rock climbing just beyond Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh, but on studying Skye Scrambles, it appears that there are some ledges on the west side that avoid rock climbing. Lastly there is still the problem of how to get up onto Sgùrr nan Gillean, where I'd struggled to remember the way Paddy took me. I will need one more reconnaissance trip before being confident about doing the full ridge traverse.

Sgùrr nan Gillean & Am Bàsteir
Sgùrr nan Gillean & Am Bàsteir
Marsco, Clach Glas & Blà Bheinn
Marsco, Clach Glas & Blà Bheinn