Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Cuillin Traverse Part 2

We arrived at Glen Brittle around 7:30pm. The weather was perfect, the skies completely clear. Just a few patches of mist clung to the highest summits of the Cuillin Ridge. Abandoning our initial plan to camp by the car park, we packed lightweight with the minimum of gear and headed straight up. Our aim was to be on the first peak, Gars Bheinn, by nightfall. It was going to be close.

There was no path, just a steep slope of grass and scree. Nearly 900m of height gain. We followed a vague gully most of the way, until the ground became rockier just before the top. Here we climbed a series of steeper slabs and ribs to avoid dangerous loose terrain. Darkness chased us all the way up. After a series of false summits we finally reached the crest of the ridge at 10pm, and immediately began hunting for a bivy spot. Dad found a small niche between two huge blocks, cramped and uncomfortable, but sheltered from the wind. We got into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep.

It started raining.
We had no tent, no way of escaping the downpour. Fully committed to a bivy, we had no choice but to grit our teeth and suffer it out till dawn. The wind howled around the mountain. In minutes all our gear was soaked. Water found its way through my breathing hole and onto my face. Hours dragged by, unbearably slowly, each more miserable than the last.

Eventually it got light. We hoped for better weather but it was just the same, wet and cold, zero visibility. Not a chance of doing the traverse in these conditions. Our thoughts turned to escape. Neither of us wanted to go back the way we’d come, not with the grass slick with rain, so we decided to push on across the ridge and find another bail out point. It was freezing cold, we couldn’t see 50 feet ahead. The scrambling was never particularly hard, just unnerving over slippery rock. I knew from last year’s attempt there was a corrie on the western side of the ridge we could retreat down as long as we could find it. So we kept climbing. We traversed 3 more summits, navigating with map, compass and GPS. Eventually we reached a col I remembered from last time, and I knew the corrie was just there on the left. A short downclimb through a chimney was the only obstacle. Once in the corrie it was just a case of ignoring the pain and trudging down a streaming path off the mountain. We were down by midday.
We wanted to hang around and try again after a day’s rest, but the updated weather forecast put an end to that. More rain, more cloud, more of the same shit we’d fought through to retreat. Defeated, we drove back south, and hiked up Ben Lomond in a brief window of clear skies as a consolation prize before the long journey home.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Cuillin Traverse Part 1

Next week Dad and I will once again be heading up to the Isle of Skye to attempt the traverse of the Black Cuillin ridge. Our first go, last August, failed for a number of reasons. Somewhat naively, we didn't gather an awful lot of information about the intricacies of the route, and therefore lost a lot of time trying to figure out where we were supposed to go. We started late in the day, and ended up bivying in a bad position tactically. Day 2 was better, and we managed to negotiate one of the hardest sections of the ridge, and scale the notorious 'Innaccessible Pinnacle', Scotland's toughest 3000 foot peak. But by then it was too late, the weather broke, and we were just too tired to press on in the pouring rain. Although the scrambling is easy enough, the exposure remains constant, and an exhausted mind can often lead to careless mistakes. One slip and you're a goner.

So we escaped off the ridge (which was harrowing enough in its own right) with a promise to try again next year. And here we are. Our goal is much clearer this time. Last year we didn't really have a plan concerning sub-peaks, optional climbs, etc. For example, we skipped the TD Gap pitch, but subsequently lost time doing King's Chimney. So what exactly were we going for? A full traverse with all the trimmings, or just getting from one end to the other? How about the summits, do we only bag the Monroes, or does it only count if we climb every last bump of the ridge?

These were questions we did not consider last year. Big mistake. So this time round we will embark with a very clear goal in mind, and a plan to achieve it. Simply put, the target is the traverse. Up one end, all the way across, down the other. We will climb the Monroes, and ignore any sub-peaks that do not have to be climbed to make progress. The same goes for the graded climbs. Any that can be avoided will be. The less we pitch the quicker we will be. I intend to short rope pretty much the entire thing. If we can get from Gars Bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean in one push I will consider it a success, and the traverse done, regardless of what we did or did not do inbetween.

Obviously Skye weather is hugely fickle, and we may very well encounter bad conditions up there. If so, we must decide whether to still attempt the full traverse or just go for day hikes in the Cuillin. A bivy will be pretty horrific in the rain, but at the same time I'm not confident enough in our ability to do the whole lot in a single day to not take bivy kit with me. It's an age old mountaineers conundrum; to bivy or not to bivy? Take the gear with you and you'll almost certainly end up using it due to lugging the extra weight around. But to get caught out without it...

Hopefully, whatever happens, we should have an adventurous few days in some of Britain's most beautiful hills. The Cuillin Traverse is alpine in scale, pretty much the biggest traditional mountaineering challenge in the country, and completing it with Dad would mean the world to me.

Fingers crossed then. Here's some pictures from last years attempt.

The Cuillin ridge from the car park, just before we set out.

Me on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest point of the ridge, at dusk.

Our bivy...

...and the view looking out.

Day 2, and the weather turns.

On top of the Inn Pinn between showers.

Dad abbing off.

Undoubtedly not the right way down!