Christine and Dave
It was with more than a little trepidation that we set off for Skye for a 2-week trip in mid-May. Despite May being the driest month of the year on average in North West Scotland (before the summer ‘monsoon’ kicks in and the midges really get going!), on both of the two previous occasions that we undertook the same trip at a similar time of year, it rained. A lot.
We left Bristol after work on Friday, opting for an overnight stop in Stirling rather than face a 12-hour drive through the night. Saturday morning dawned in Stirling – with amazing clear blue skies! Arriving on Skye we couldn’t believe our luck with the weather for the first week – clear, unbroken skies with wall-to-wall sunshine. Having only learned to trad climb since our last visit to the Misty Isle, this was to be our first foray on to the Black Cuillin to climb and undertake some of the more technical scrambles.
Making the most of the stunning weather (T shirts and shorts!) we completed a number of Cuillin “classics” in the first week – starting with Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean, a stunning three-star grade 3 scramble with an exciting abseil from the 3rd pinnacle.
Next up was the Clach Glas-Blaven traverse – probably my favourite outing from the trip. A fabulous, sustained three-star grade 3 scramble with two Mod climbing pitches, one of which was an 80ft chimney with remnants of the recent snow still clinging in sections, and unrivalled views of the main ridge.
The Dubh slabs was next on the agenda – reportedly the longest climb in the UK (1km of 30 degree sticky gabbro slabs, grade 2 scramble). The slabs require some logistical consideration – as the only access to the base of the slabs is either by walking in from Elgol (at least 4 hours one-way) or by boat from Elgol to Coruisk. Either way you need to be able to get back to your car at Elgol at the end of the day, which is a definite factor when planning your day. The other option is to continue over the main ridge and down to Glen Brittle – which requires a second car and an hour-long journey back to Elgol to collect your first car and back again, all at the end of a very long day.
We opted for a boat – and set sail on the Misty Isles boat from Elgol. On the boat we met Craig, who was cycling from the southernmost point of Scotland to the northernmost, and visiting all of the inhabited islands on the way (91 in total). On the day we met him he was taking a boat to Soay, which has a population of 3. With no landing area for the boat he was going to have to row to the beach in a dinghy! At his last update he was in Yell, with 2,040 miles cycled in 48 days and 2 islands to go!
Having reached the summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag, we dropped off into An Garbh-Choire, reputedly the roughest corrie in the Cuillin (which is saying something!) and gingerly picked our way back to Loch Coruisk where we caught the last boat back to Elgol.
Friday saw us undertake a recce on the central section of the main ridge from Bealach Coire na Banachdich to Bealach Harta, taking in the munros of Sgurr na Banachdich, Sgurr a’ Greadaidh, Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh and Bidean Druim nan Rahm. This section of the ridge is the most technical part of the ridge, with complex route finding and sustained scrambling with sections of Diff climbing and two Diff downclimbs, which thankfully can be bypassed on abseil using in-situ tat. For anyone wanting to undertake a ridge traverse, it is definitely worth familiarising yourself with this section in advance
The weather then reverted to type and some cloudier, though mainly dry, days limited high level activities for a few days. A low-level walk from Elgol to Camasunary bay gave stunning views of the Cuillin, but also sadly highlighted the issue of plastic pollution on our beaches.
Our next outing to the ridge was a last minute, afternoon start to climb the TD (Thearlaich-Dubh) gap once cloud cover had started to lift. After a 3 hour walk in from Glen Brittle via Coir a’ Ghrunnda to gain the ridge and a short section of very exposed scrambling, a 9m abseil took us into the gap. The exit from the gap is a 25m pitch of Severe climbing, and the first real technical difficulty on a summer ridge traverse (south to north).
The pitch is, in Gordon Stainforth’s words, “a very steep and polished chimney-groove. It has sufficient holds, except where it most matters, and is the hardest pitch on the entire ridge”. After an unsuccessful (and undignified!) attempt to climb the chimney using “traditional” methods (thrutching/body jamming), the difficulties were finally overcome by some delicate bridging. With the evening sun starting to sink towards the horizon, we opted to continue with a short scramble to the top of Sgurr Alasdair (the highest peak on the Cuillin, but not part of the main ridge) before a rapid descent down the scree of the Great Stone Chute. The long hours of daylight this far north at this time of year definitely worked in our favour, as we arrived back at the car in daylight at 10pm!
A very windy Wednesday saw us acting as mock “clients” for Iain – who is undertaking his MIA assessment in August. With low cloud on the Cuillin, he opted to take us climbing on the single pitch sandstone sea cliffs of Elgol. With the wind blowing an absolute hoolie, we abbed in and started with the stunning corner crack of Jamie Jampot (VS 4c) – eloquently summarised in one UKC logbook entry as a “Great bit of Bob Marley fun”! Fertility Left (HS 4c) followed, with an attempt to contrive it into a multipitch route to allow us to practice ropework confusing the guided party following behind, resulting in a very cramped mid-route belay!
With the holiday drawing to an end, we still had one route left on our pre-trip wish list. Naismith’s Route (Severe), on the awe-inspiring Bhasteir Tooth, is another Cuillin classic and the last major technical difficulty on a summer ridge traverse. With the clag down low, we waited until 2pm to set off from Sligachan, hoping the weather forecast was accurate and the cloud would lift as we ascended.
As we neared Bealach nan Lice, our optimism seemed well-placed as the cloud lifted to give a stunning view of the Tooth and the route. Sadly the reprieve was only temporary and, with low cloud for a number of days leaving the route wet and with stiff winds and freezing temperatures, we reluctantly decided that discretion definitely got the better part of valour and opted instead to turn south on the ridge and traverse Sgurr a Fionn Choire on to Bruach na Frithe before descending back to the car and a well-earned beer. This one will have to wait until next time!