Five go to Skye

Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh – 918m
Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh – 973m
Sgurr na Banachdich – 965m
Date: 7th May 2012
Distance: 6 miles
Ascent: 1,150m
Weather: Overcast, cool, dry
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Andy, Robin, John Norton, Steve Forsthye, Edward Rush

Following on from a few days in Kintail we travelled across to Skye for a week of unashamed Munro bagging. Andy is an MIC guide who knows the Cuillin inside out, having climbed over every inch of it for over 30 years and in a moment of weakness, he had agreed to lead a group of us over the Cuillin Munros. It was Steve, Robin and John’s first visit to the Cuillin and on our first day we were joined by Edward who was keen to complete his last three Skye Munros.

We had rented a cottage in Carbost for the week and there was a mounting sense of excitement as we drove into Glen Brittle where Andy stopped on the road a couple of times to point out routes we would be undertaking later in the week.

Raring to go.

Day one started with a gentle warm up alongside the burn into Coire a’ Ghreadaidh, aiming for An Dorus, one of the few easy access points onto the ridge. The slabs and boulderfield below the gap were a good introduction to the adhesive properties of Skye gabbro. The weather was almost perfect with excellent visibility and on arrival at An Dorus we were greeted with panoramic views of the ridge, Loch Coruisk and many of the mainland peaks of the NW highlands.

Loch Coruisk from An Dorus.

We left our rucksacks at the gap and from there it was a very quick climb to the summit of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh.

Looking north from Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh.

After collecting our rucksacks we faced our first challenge of the day, the climb across An Dorus, it is not particularly difficult or exposed but it is one of the many places on the Cuillin where having long legs come in very handy. Unfortunately, it is also one of the many places on the Cuillin where my short legs become a major handicap! Thankfully the gap was negotiated without incident and then the fun started. The traverse of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh, Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh and Sgurr na Banachdich is an ideal introduction to the intricate route finding, exposure and narrowness of the Cuillin ridge.

Anne on Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh.
Andy on Sgurr a’ Greadaidh with Sgurr Dearg beyond.

The walk along the ridge to Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh was an excellent warm up for the difficulties later on in the week and we reached the summit with its stunning views of the southern end of the ridge. The section of ridge between the two tops of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh were the most difficult of the day and there were a couple of places where Edward and I managed to have a bit of a ‘wobble’, not literally, but nerves got the better of us and with Andy’s expert coaching and some not-so-gentle ribbing from the others we managed to negotiate this section without any major traumas.

Scrambling across the Sgurr a’ Greadaidh ridge.

Sgurr na Banachdich still looked a long way off, but the fun and effort were far from over as there was still lots of up and down to go and plenty of occasions where the ‘arse crampon’ was employed as a fifth point of contact.

Robin on Sgurr na Banachdich.
he descent from Normans Peak.

The Cuillin new boys still had one pleasure to look forward to, their first Skye scree descent. We carried on down some reasonably stable slopes towards Coir’ an Eich which lulled them into a false sense of security and then whoosh, it was straight down the eroded scree path to the grassy meadow above the Youth Hostel. Everybody worked on their own preferred technique………….ski-ing, jumping, walking, sliding, but falling over and swearing a lot seemed to be one of the most popular.

Sgurr nan Eag – 924m
Sgurr Dubh Mor – 944m
Sgurr Alasdair – 992m
Date: 9th May 2012
Distance: 9 ½ miles
Ascent: 1,800m
Weather: Dry, warm and sunny
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Andy, Robin, John and Steve

John, Steve and I spent day two of our Skye epic on Blaven in less than pleasant weather. Robin had opted to explore the Trotternish Ridge and Andy spent the day eating cake in the cafes of Portree.

The BBC weathermen indicated that the day was going to start wet and improve quickly into one of sunshine and cloudless blue skies and for once they got it right. We decided to tackle the three southern Munros as these involved a lengthy walk in before we got to the ridge and we hoped that the weather would have improved by then.

It was damp, windy and very cold when we left the campsite in Glen Brittle with the cloud down to about 400m but glimpses of blue sky were appearing out towards Rum and we set off with great optimism. The path into Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda has been heavily repaired over the years and what was once a boggy mess is now a fantastic hard surface to walk on with excellent drainage. Despite the heavy overnight rain crossing the Allt Coire Lagan was straightforward, the sun was out, it was getting warmer and the cloud base was lifting.

We carried on round the base of Sron na Ciche where we got our first glimpses of the amazing slabs which rim the bottom of the corrie and enjoyed plenty of scrambling finding the most entertaining routes up to Loch Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda.

At the mouth of Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda.

There are massive amounts of Peridotite at the southern end of the ridge, an igneous rock that is even tougher, sharper and more abrasive than gabbro and our boots and fingertips definitely noticed the change of rock. During the climb up the headwall of the corrie Robin managed to slip and twist his knee and then hit his head on an overhanging rock so he was not in a very good mood for a while!

Into the corrie.
On to the ridge.

We hit the ridge just before Sgurr nan Eag and the walk out to its summit was the easiest of the day, actually a proper walk rather than anything needing hands, the weather had cleared and we basked in the views over to Soay, Rum, Eigg and Loch Coruisk where Andy pointed out several huge and very recent rock falls in An Garbh Choire.

Looking from Sgurr nan Eag to the southern end of the ridge on Gars-bheinn.

We retraced our steps back along the ridge and surveyed the route ahead, a traverse below Caisteal a’ Garbh-choire and up the shattered slopes of Garbh Coire to the col between Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn and Sgurr Dubh Mor.

The ‘Guides Traverse’ to Sgurr Dubh Mor.

The route looked impossible but with Andy’s route finding skills we managed to wind our way across the ‘guides traverse’. There were several difficult steps for the vertically challenged on the way to Sgurr Dubh Mor which l had conveniently forgotten about since my last visit and these were even more difficult on the way down.

Andy perfects his Man Leg on Sgurr Dubh Mor.

More complex route finding was required over Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn and then down to pick up a route around the headwall of Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda and below the infamous T-D Gap which loomed above us looking dark and imposing. Two climbers were making their way out of the gap towards Sgurr Alasdair and they gave a sense of scale to the depths and narrowness of the gap.

Looking across to Sgurr Alasdair.
Sgurr nan Eag and Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda.
Soay from Sgurr Alasdair.

A short sharp climb up a narrow chimney of shattered gabbro and basalt ledges deposited us just below the summit of Sgurr Alasdair and there we were on the highest Cuillin summit in the warmth of the afternoon sun, with views along the whole length of the ridge.

Andy and Steve below the summit.
From Sgurr Alasdair to An Stac and The Inaccessible Pinnacle.

We sat at the summit for a while trying to put off the inevitable, there was no avoiding it, the descent down the Great Stone Shoot awaited us. Every time l stand at the top and look down into Coire Lagan it amazes me that it is really the way down, l actually thought Andy was joking the first time! It is narrow and very steep, there is very little scree left at the top, in fact, in several places the hillside slides downwards whilst we stood still and this time there were patches of hard snow just to add to the fun.

Into the abyss at the top of the Great Stone Shoot.

It was time for the cabaret to begin, slipping and sliding with the sound of bouncing rocks echoing off the narrow walls, it was hard work but great fun looking up and down watching each other’s acrobatics.

Taking a breather on the descent overlooking Coire Lagan.

Once we reached the corrie floor a quick bottom inspection showed which of us had managed to descend in the upright position and there were a couple of dented egos as the woman had managed to come down unscathed. Andy remarked that I was quite good on scree, ‘for a girl’!

Hard to believe we had just ‘walked’ down there.

The walk out in and out of Coire Lagan is definitely in my top 5. It takes so much longer to walk out of the corrie than you would expect as so much time is spent looking back towards Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and looking up at the screes in the total disbelief that you have just walked down them.

Again, we were on a high as we got back to the cottage with our aching knees eternally grateful that we had the foresight to buy Broadford Co-op’s entire stock of ibuprofen.

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich – 948m
Date: 10th May 2012
Distance: 6 miles
Ascent: 1, 400m
Weather: Not good, but not that bad for Skye
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Andy, Robin, John and Steve

There was a stunned silence in the room. We were watching the weather forecast and since the we left the house that morning the weather had made a massive U-turn with the arrival of a large area of low pressure over Scotland during the afternoon, the very day we had planned to climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. With much deliberation we decided to leave very early, climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle and go on to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich so we would be on our way down before the worst of the bad weather hit us.

It was a very subdued group that arrived at the Glen Brittle Hut at the ungodly hour of 6.45. We started walking into the gloom, it was windy but not too windy, it was cold but not too cold and it was damp, the sort of Skye damp where you get wet but it is not actually raining. We plodded onwards and upwards with everyone trying to remain optimistic and it did appear that this was paying off as the wind didn’t get any stronger and the cloud base was lifting with patches of brighter sky beginning to appear. The cheerful banter of the last few days had disappeared and it was a heads-down grunt up the east ridge of Sgurr Dearg until the Inaccessible Pinnacle suddenly loomed in front of us in the gloom. Pictures don’t really do it justice and John and Robin were actually quite shocked about how it looked in real life compared to the mental images they had formed looking at photos.

We were going for it; helmets and harnesses were on and we walked down the slippery slabs to the foot of the pinnacle. Andy tied Robin and John together with Steve and I bringing up the rear and then he was off.

Match abandoned.

Having been in this situation with Andy a few times before I was conscious that he seemed to be taking an age to get up, I could hear the odd expletive from above and then Andy was back down again. The whole ridge was covered with thick rime ice and was going to be virtually impossible for the less experienced members of the group to climb. Andy went up again and checked the ascent and descent routes and decided it wasn’t going to happen today. The sense of disappointment was diluted by a huge sense of relief as the conditions were very unpleasant and the climb would have been well beyond our capabilities. But it would still be there another day and boy we were glad we waited!!

For me the most difficult and horrible part of the whole Cuillin experience is the walk down from Sgurr Dearg to the top of the An Stac screes. It is very steep and over slippery basalt slabs covered with tiny pieces of rock that make it feel like you are walking over ball bearings, I hadn’t warned the others about it and they enjoyed the whole experience about as much as I did.

We sheltered for lunch in one of the bivvy sites at the col and left our rucksacks for the climb to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. The weather was deteriorating rapidly, the wind was increasing in strength and it was now snowing, at times the snow was blowing horizontally or at times upwards and in places there was thick rime on the rocks.

On the ridge to Sgurr Mhic Chionnich.

Andy decided it would be safer for us and better for his nerves to rope us up once we were on the ridge (phew). In a perverse way it was really enjoyable (for us anyway, I’m sure Andy has had more enjoyable days out) and the sense of achievement we all felt on reaching the summit was immeasurable.

The summit memorial plaque.

The descent back into the wind wasn’t as bad as we expected and we seemed to be back at the rucksacks in no time.

The weather was a lot worse than it looks.

But the excitement didn’t end there. When we got back to the rucksacks a dismayed Steve and John noticed that the lid, side and hip belt pockets on their rucksacks had been opened and the contents either stolen or strewn around. A quick search revealed that our wallets and phones were all untouched but all the chocolate, cereal bars, trail mix and crisps had disappeared. We shared some very unkind thoughts about the other climbers who had passed this way and we blamed them for the theft. It was only later on that we found out that the ravens that frequent the ridge have learnt to ransack rucksacks as they associate them with an easy supply of food!

We were very pleased to have salvaged one Munro from the day and then had another falling over competition on the An Stac screes back to Coire Lagan. This was much easier than the Stone Shoot and once again there was much disappointment that l didn’t fall over.

Bruach na Frithe – 958m
Am Basteir – 934m
Sgurr nan Gillean – 964m
Date: 11th May 2012
Distance: 9 miles
Ascent: 1, 300m
Weather: Sunny spells and breezy
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Andy, Robin, John and Steve

It was the final day of our Skye week and the weather was not being kind to us again. From the cottage in Carbost we could see that snow had fallen on the ridge overnight as the low pressure had passed through. Today was another big day and we were all a bit worried that the snow could curtail our intended route over Bruach na Frithe, Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean.

We were hopeful that the long walk in from Sligachan to the Bealach a’ Mhaim would allow conditions on the ridge to improve before we got there. As we walked along the Allt Dearg Mor the river was rushing down with the waterfalls a mass of frenzied white water from the overnight rain. On the plus side the cloud base was lifting but it revealed that our whole route was looking somewhat wintry.

It was cold as we sheltered at the foot of the NE ridge of Bruach na Frithe for a food stop but there was no putting off the inevitable as we had to climb onto the ridge to see how bad things were and whether our proposed route was actually going to happen.

As we climbed there was a covering of snow over the rocks and in places there were patches of rime and bits of slipperiness but nothing too difficult or unpleasant. We reached the summit in high spirits but with the knowledge that things were going to get far more difficult from now on. A week ago, we were luxuriating in 25o heat and now we were wearing our winter clothes and feeling decidedly chilly.

Bruach na Frithe summit.

We bypassed Sgurr a’ Fionn Choire and continued down the screes below Am Basteir and the Basteir Tooth and then climbed back up to the Bealach a’ Bhasteir for lunch.

Walking below the Tooth.

The day was beginning to warm up and the rime and snow on parts of the ridge was beginning to melt which we were hoping would make the climb to Am Basteir a bit easier. It wasn’t too arduous; we bypassed the bad step on the way up and it was dry and far easier than I remembered on the way down.

Am Basteir summit.
Going back up the ‘bad step’.

Andy always tells people that the Inaccessible Pinnacle isn’t the hardest route they will be undertaking on the ridge and having done it several times before I was well aware that the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean was!

We put helmets and harnesses on again and climbed to the foot of a steep unnamed gully just south of Nicholson’s Chimney. Andy led the way, knocking off lumps of ice as he climbed and then up we went, Robin and I on the first rope followed by John and Steve behind us, shouting route advice when we needed it. The exposed step was fine providing you didn’t look down and I have to admit that despite the icy cold fingers I didn’t find the route any more nerve wracking than on previous ascents. We reached the belay and Andy climbed the second pitch and we followed again, stepping round the pinnacles and hanging over thin air. Once the broad section of the ridge is reached it becomes significantly steeper on the climb to the ‘letterbox’ where we had to slide through on all fours posing for the obligatory photo on the other side.

Andy at the letterbox.

The ridge narrows again just before the summit and thankfully the sun had melted the snow and ice. It was a very happy group that arrived on the tiny summit plateau with the whole of our weeks walking spread out in front of us.

Into the letterbox.

Sadly, Andy pulled me back out of my reflective mood, we weren’t going down the way we had come up, we were going to descend via the ‘tourist route’ which l had never been on before. ‘Tourist route’ my arse! There was a lot of down scrambling, a bit of scree and a massive boulder field thrown in for good measure, in fact all types of Cuillin terrain in one descent. The route down from the summit felt like we were entering another world as all the snow had melted, we were sheltered from the wind and felt warm for the first time all day. Another downside of the tourist route is that it is a bloody long walk back to the car!

Sgurr Dearg (The Inaccessible Pinnacle) – 986m
Date: 4th August 2012
Distance: 6 miles
Ascent: 1, 150m
Weather: Sunny, warm, inversions, Brocken Spectres galore
Two Feet Four Paws: Anne, Andy, Robin, John and Steve

We had some unfinished business on Skye; we had failed to make the summit of the Inaccessible Pinnacle during our May trip as it was covered in rime ice. A synchronization of diaries indicated that we had one day during the summer when we were all going to be free and today was the day.

What a difference! Robin and I drove over from Aviemore under crystal clear blue skies hardly able to believe our luck but on reaching the Cluanie Inn we drove into a bank of cloud which was to stay with us all the way to Glen Brittle. We were feeling rather fed up, surely the Skye jinx couldn’t strike again but as soon as we got into Glen Brittle we drove back into sunshine and blue skies as thankfully the massive cloud bank was held back all day behind Sgurr nan Gillean, the Red Cuillin and Blaven and gave some spectacular cloud effects.

It was hot and sunny as we made our leisurely way up the east ridge of Sgurr Dearg. The walk was the complete opposite of our previous attempt in May, the weather was flawless and our views into Coire Lagan and across to Rum got better as we climbed higher.

Everybody who climbs the Inaccessible Pinnacle is obliged to take a photo of the gorge. It is the law.
Rum, before it was enveloped under a cloud of midges.

We stopped several times for photo breaks or to simply take everything in. As it was a summer Saturday in glorious weather, we fully expected to have to wait in an endless queue at the bottom of the In Pinn but we were pleasantly surprised to be the only people at the summit.

It was all ours.

Again, we donned on helmets and harnesses but this time t-shirts replaced hats and gloves and endless chatter had replaced the anxious silences of our previous attempt.

The Man with the Rope.

Once again, Andy climbed first followed by John and l on the first rope and Robin and Steve on the second. Andy gave us the call and John and I were off, the climb onto the ridge is straightforward with good handholds and large footholds and it becomes more difficult when onto the ridge proper. Luckily the rock was very dry and there was only one place where I wished my legs were six inches longer. Andy was waiting for us at the belay point where John and I tied ourselves on and waited for Robin and Steve to catch up; half way up the Inaccessible Pinnacle is a pretty impressive viewpoint and possibly one of the world’s most unique sunbathing spots. We were a foursome again and stood abandoned and tied to the rock whilst Andy climbed on to the summit. The second pitch is far easier as the rock is just a series of steep steps all the way to the summit where the bolster stone suddenly loomed up in front of us. John and I clipped onto the metal hawser and waited for the others to join us. Nobody was brave enough to actually stand on top of the bolster stone, the true highest point, but we all climbed as high as we dared and touched the top.

For me the highlight of the day is the abseil off the pinnacle, it is something l really enjoy so I volunteered to go first and act as team photographer for the others as they came down. Andy gave me the OK and l stepped over the edge and walked down, nothing stylish but great fun. Robin and John had a minor wobble but still managed to find time to pose for the camera on the way down, Steve managed a wave and Andy bounced down SAS style.

We had lunch at Sgurr Dearg having had one of the most superlative days out in the hills we could remember. Instead of retracing our steps Andy decided to continue over Sgurr na Banachdich and descend via Coir’ an Eich, so we continued north along the ridge bypassing possibly the highest flock of sheep in Scotland who were rather optimistically grazing amongst the gabbro. We stuck to the crest of the ridge admiring the spectacular cloud effects and as we arrived at the summit Andy shouted and pointed excitedly to his right, below us were large Brocken Spectre’s. Cameras were working on overdrive as we all jumped around taking photos as the colours seemed to become stronger and more vivid as we watched. Rather begrudgingly we left the summit and left the ridge behind us as we entered the oven like temperatures of the corrie. It was a relief to get back onto the more open slopes of Glen Brittle where there was some breeze and walk back to the car.

Andy Ravenhill is an MIC guide who owns Alba Mountaineering.



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