Wednesday, 22 June 2016


I've been dreaming about the Cuillin Ridge for years. I've been on it twice in summer and once in winter, never getting close to achieving a full traverse. The ridge is 12km long, and crosses 11 major peaks, dozens of minor tops and pinnacles. A traverse requires something like 13,000 feet of ascent and descent. And the Black Cuillin lie far to the north-west on the beautiful but volatile Isle of Skye. Bad weather can appear out of nowhere, heavy mist cloaking the mountains and turning them into a maze of slippery rock, false trails, dead ends. These peaks are truly alpine in stature and difficulty, all jagged spires and knife edge ridges. The Black Cuillin are, beyond doubt, the finest and most challenging mountains in the country.

But for all this the goal is simple - traverse the ridge from end to end in one continuous push.

The mighty Cuillin Ridge

I'm racing up the country, car loaded with gear and supplies, prepared to stay on Skye as long as it takes to get the traverse done. I cross the bridge to the island and am greeted by walls of cloud, the dark outlines of mountains barely visible. Rain spits upon the windscreen. I arrive in Glen Brittle and bed down for the night. Next morning the rain has stopped so I imediately start hiking towards the start of the ridge - not to climb it though, not yet. My plan is to recce the approach to the first summit in case I have to do it at night. I memorise forks in the path, landmarks that point the way. I must also get mountain fit before I can hope to achieve a full traverse.

Alpenglow on Sgurr nan Gillean, the north peak of the ridge, from the layby I slept in

The more gentle Red Cuillin, which I hiked in to build fitness

The next day brings back the rain, so I hike up a mountain called Beinn Mor Dearg in the neighbouring Red Cuillin, traversing two other peaks to get there, deliberately pushing myself hard up steep paths.

Bla-Bheinn and Clach Glas

Tuesday brings fine weather but I know I am not ready yet. So instead I do another famous ridge traverse of Skye, Bla-Bheinn via Clach Glas. After a steep approach slog up the first peak I enjoy sustained scrambling on wonderfully rough gneiss, occasional harder sections that I climb fast and confidently without a rope. I hate being weighed down the mountains. It takes me about 4 hours car to car, a sign my fitness level is not too bad. The weather is perfect, and from the summit I have a perfect view of the Cuillin Ridge, lying monstrous before me. My god, it's fucking huge. I can't wait to try it.

Clach Glas, Matterhorn of the UK, with Bla-Bheinn looming beyond

Looking up the crux chimney pitch (still piss though!)

Summit of Bla-Bheinn

I'm basically waiting for a weather window now. The next two days it's pissing it down, I read books, drink tea, constantly hounding my parents to text me weather forecasts. On Skye they can generally predict what tomorrow will be like - after that forget it. It seems that a weak front of high pressure is moving in, just enough for me to complete the traverse with a bit of luck. After that it's a grim picture; more low pressure, a whole week of rain. I really can't be arsed with sitting around a whole week, I'll be bored shitless. I've got to make the most of this window.

My initial plan is to start stupid early Saturday morning and smash the ridge out in a day. Hopefully before the forecasted rain arrives in the evening. But I wake up Friday morning to clearing skies, the peaks already starting to break through the clouds. Fucking hell, has the weather window rolled in early? I make a snap decision to start the ridge right now, today. Take bivy gear and get as far as I can this afternoon, leaving me with less to do Saturday in case it craps out early.

Got to be as light as possible. I take - super light down sleeping bag, in waterproof outer bag. This weighs maybe half a kilo. Roll mat. Micro fleece. Hard shell. Helmet. 2 litres of water in my bag. Plus 2 litres to carry in my hand for approach. A malt loaf. Couple of chocolate bars. Map and compass.

I decide not to take a rope. My goal is to traverse the ridge end to end, I will avoid the optional harder bits and trust that I will be able to down climb any required abseils. If I get stuck with no way up or down I'm fucked.

On the summit of Gars-Beinn, first peak of the ridge, long way to go...

Nowhere to go the other way

Ready to begin!

I leave my car in Glen Brittle and start hiking up at midday. Soon the path disappears, and I've no choice but to forge on directly up the grass and scree of the south-west face of Gars-Beinn. It's bloody hard work. I drink most of my spare water. Finally I'm on the top and can get going. The first section is easy scrambling, and I move very quickly to the TD gap, the first real obstacle. There's a hard down climb (my scribbled notes tell me everyone abseils this), then a crux pitch up a wide crack on the other side. I arrive at the top to find abseil slings and a gently overhanging wall. There's no way I'm going down without a rope.

Looking back towards the first part of the ridge

Traversing the corrie to avoid TD gap

I improvise an awkward way off the ridge and skirt around a corrie, climb a chimney, then follow the exposed west ridge of Sgurr Alasdair to the summit. This is the highest peak of the Black Cuillin. The gap was the one section I was really concerned about, and now it's behind me. I've only been going a few hours and I'm feeling strong and confident.

On top of Sgurr Alasdair

Looking back to the high point of the Cuillin

Next I negotiate Sgurr mich Chionnich, again managing to avoid a difficult section by taking a traverse line just below the crest. Now it's a tiring but easy slog up to the top of Sgurr Dearg and the base of the Innaccessible Pinnacle. This improbable blade of rock is the true summit of the peak, and therefore the hardest major mountain in Scotland. I climbed it with my Dad back in 2011, so although it would be nice I decide to leave it this time round. I can't abseil off the top and don't want to waste time and energy on a hard, exposed down climb from the pinnacle. So I carry on, already entering the middle section of the ridge. Evening is drawing in, the weather is still hot and sunny but a cold wind blows across the crest from the east. Still time to go further today.

The Innaccessible Pinnacle

The next section of the ridge

The southern end behind me now

On I go, the ridge is easier now but I find myself tiring. I did wonder what my endurance would be like with so few mountain days in the last few months. The next summit is mostly just hiking, then more scrambling over a series of sub-peaks before I reach Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh. I seem to have come to a dividing point in the weather. I stand bathed in glorious sunshine, but a few meters onwards, blankets of cloud roll over the ridge, the whole north end is completely hidden. I decide to bivy here, where I can lay in the sun, rather than carry on another hour or so and get cold all evening.

I bivied a few feet below the summit of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh

There's a low wall of blocks already built by previous climbers, I make it a bit higher to keep the wind out, then settle down for the night.

5 star mountain accomodation

View from my bivy, the clouds never came any further across

The nights are short here in summer, so I spend a pleasant few hours dozing and gnawing malt loaf while the sun sets. After that it gets cold, and I sleep fitfully, listening to the wind whistling over me. By 3am it's already getting light again, but I decide it's still too cold to start climbing. I lie patiently 'til half four then struggle out of my sleeping bag and get ready to leave.

Beautiful morning cloud inversion

Pointless bivy selfie

Early morning mist on the Cuillin Ridge

The next bit is quite tough in the misty conditions. I should wait longer for the sun to burn it away, but I'm paranoid that the weather window may close earlier than forecasted, leaving me no choice but to retreat. I know I won't get a better chance than this to achieve the traverse so I move on cautiously, checking my map and waiting for the occasional breaks in the fog to show the way forward. There's a section of complex route finding and harder climbing around three pinnacles, then I reach a broad, grassy bealach where some sheep are grazing.

The ominous tops of Bidean Druim nan Ramh

'Basalt staircases' rising above me

The next section, traversing the tops of Bidean, contained some of the most intricate route finding of the whole ridge. I read my notes carefully, and slowly find my way over the first two tops, climbing a series of basalt staircases and chimneys, before reaching the main summit of the peak. I know there is a section awaiting me that most people abseil, and I'm anxious to get this done as soon as possible.

Trying to hide my nerves on top of Bidean

Amazing light phenomenon, I think it's called a Broken Spectre

Horrible wall of overhanging death, note the abseil tat at the top!

I reach the dreaded down climb, and my worst fears are confirmed - it looks fucking awful. There is a nice cluster of abseil tat to lower yourself down in moments, but of course not for Billy no rope here. So I have no choice but to begin a very tenuous shuffle down sloping edges, hands pinching at the cold rock, feet clumsy in big mountain boots. I'm shitting myself the whole way. Trying not to look at the drop below me. A desperate move across a bulge to reach another slab, and finally I'm down, hands shaking, heart racing. But now I feel like there's nothing that can stop me reaching the end.

Looking towards the final section where the ridge kinks back right

The Bastier Tooth rises out of the mist

I carry on to the next summit, third last on the ridge. It's mostly easy scrambling with another tricky down climb that I would rather be abseiling. It's not as bad as the Bidean one though, and I'm soon looking at the final section of the ridge, the peaks Am Bastier and Sgurr nan Gillean. By this point I'm absolutely shattered, my legs are burning with every step. The end is near but I know it will take everything I have to get there. I reach the base of the Bastier Tooth, a steep fang, and just when I think I'm nearly there I can't find a way up the bloody thing.

My notes tell me to scramble down the right hand side and locate an easy ramp to the top. The only ramp I can find is anything but easy, I'm doing hard moves on small footholds, passing clusters of tat where people have lowered off from here. I reach a ledge, arms trembling, but cannot see any easy way to the top. If I commit and get stuck I will have to either wait for more climbers to find me, or try to call a helicopter. It's not worth it. I downclimb, very carefully, and skirt around the base of the peak. Finally some easy scrambling leads me back to crest, to the bealach between Am Bastier and Sgurr nan Gillean. 

Looking back to Am Bastier

I debate going back on myself to tag the summit of Am Bastier but I'm knackered and I just cannot be arsed with it. Sticking to my ultimate goal of the traverse, not individual summits. The final ridge is before me. I'm going to do it. I'm actually going to fucking do it. The weather has cleared at last and it's a glorious day, blue skies and sun, I feel very lucky to be in this position. I climb on.

The west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, final leg of the traverse

The ridge is pretty mellow scrambling, one section of climbing up a wide chimney. Once I'm up this it's a straight run to the top, only a sudden lightning bolt can stop me now. I crawl through a gap between two large blocks, emerge blinking into light, the summit cairn is right in front of me. Gasping for breath I take the final few steps to the peak. Mountains all around me, the ocean beyond. I look back across 12km of ridge to where I started yesterday afternoon, and can hardly believe that I've done it.

Exhausted but very happy on the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean

The valley I descended into, Sligachan visible at the head of the loch

I stagger back down the south-east ridge and finally arrive at the Sligachan Hotel, where I get happily drunk on beer and fine whisky. Fucking good times.

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