words by Elizabeth Stephenson
Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse
Myself and partner-in-climb, Sam had cautiously pencilled in an attempt at Skye’s Black Cuillin Ridge and decided to play it by ear closer to the time. The ridge had been in the back of my mind for years, always feeling far off and intimidating (I can confirm it’s intimidating up close too) however with psyche from me and infinitely more psyche from Sam we decided to give it a go.
Wednesday morning was a quick dash to a practical on lung pathology (vet student here) and then with a bag on the front and a bag on the back I got on the train to Sheffield, meeting Sam there and driving up to my home in the Lakes for a night. Thursday was the long ol’ slog to Skye, arriving at about 11pm in the evening as Sam had to visit some random quarry for us to climb a HVS each to get his ‘fix’ for the day (to be fair Promontory Direct at Auchinstarry is surprisingly excellent).
I’d like to say we had an early start the next day but truthfully after getting in quite late, sorting all the kit in the morning, standing in the queue to pay for the previous night’s camping for about 45 mins and then returning with extra blueberry muffins for the ridge (essentials only) we finally set off at 10.30am from Glen Brittle. With excellent weather, we contoured off around the base of the Cuillin.
Lulled into a nice bit of steady walking, it was a wallop to the system heading up the scree-covered downwards escalator that led to the start of the ridge. We’d decided to do it in two days to try and ‘take it steady’ and ‘enjoy the experience’ however lugging the packs up that starting section with two full nalgenes each and all our food was a special form of type II (maybe III) fun. Once at the top of Gars-bheinn we snaffled some lunch and got going, thankful to be starting on the ridge proper.
The first section was steady, with incredible views and a healthy dose of overwhelming ‘oh boy look how far we have to go’.
I would try and describe the sections, but a lot has blurred in my sleepy mind as I write a couple days after. Coming around one of the early sections of upwards scrambling, I looked up and caught the flash of a chap falling off out of sight behind a rock whilst scrambling down, his partner calling from above after him. Mind racing, I turned to Sam who pithily pointed out that as he wasn’t making any noise, he was either fine or insert your choice word here. We both quickly headed rounded the corner and to my abject relief found that he’d only slipped a couple of metres onto steady ground when a rock gave way, and he was shaken but intact. Reeling slightly, we offered some words of support and I tried to slot it away. A harsh reminder that mountaineering, in all its beguiling complexity, really does dance a dangerous game. But crack on we did, concentrating on every hand and foot hold and reminding myself that I know how to move over rock and that I can trust in my bodies’ ability. My mum always had two phrases for my sister and I when we were walking in the Lakeland fells as children.
“Make sure every step’s a safe step” and “When in doubt, use your bum”
– the latter proving rather entertaining when my sister wrote it on a design your family crest and motto task in primary school. I had those on repeat in my head, though I would like to get more confident at staying on my feet and less attached to my bum at times – I’m always learning.
Up next, the approach to the TD gap provided a nice bit of airy scrambling.
Sam skilfully took the lead of the gap with an enjoyable second for me if made more complex by the lack of rock shoes and the heavy bag. We headed onto King’s Chimney, another classic climb and then mooted on towards the Inaccessible Pinnacle (In Pinn). It was in this section that doing the ridge started to feel unachievable and I had a brief ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed’ moment (but I didn’t really have the salt to do much crying). However, with encouragement from my ridiculously indefatigable partner we trundled onwards. By this point, time was sneaking up on us with an ever-present tick and significant exhaustion, coupled with losing a bit of head game, meant I decided that we’d take the An Stac bypass to the In Pinn rather than tackling the serious scramble over the top.
Quick progress was made to the base of the climb and Sam headed up as the sunset cocooned the improbably balanced rock. The evening light split the sky open as we revelled in the (unsurprising) lack of queues given it was 10.30pm at night and hastily stuffed layers on as the wind began to wick in earnest at the day’s sweat. Abseiling off the back, we dropped down the other side and gratefully spotted a bivy spot.
Water supplies were running low and we hadn’t quite reached the water source we hoped, but decided we had just enough for the night. (Matters were complicated when I managed to tip over the pan of boiling water I was supposed to be minding and dent our meagre supplies further…) Dinner consisted of one of alpkit’s firepot meals each (I don’t think we had enough water to do them justice but big props to the compostable packaging) followed with a hot chocolate Sam kindly gave me the majority of as I was shivering in earnest. Sleeping stuff was unpacked and psychological adjustments were made to the bivy spot in the form of a few extra stones around the edge.
The night’s sleep got off to an interesting start, my plan to use one of my layers as a pillow fell foul when I discovered I was wearing all of them.
The snack bag stepping up to the mark as the world’s sh*test pillow I’ve ever had. (Cue very squashed food for the second day.) As I shivered in and out of sleep, wondering if I had ever felt so sweaty yet so cold simultaneously before, the sheer beauty of where I was lying wiggled into my tired mind.
I was in such space yet there was utter silence.
I couldn’t believe the mountains made such little noise at night. I almost expected the ridge to be creaking and groaning as she slumbered through the night with us. I’d say morning dawned but that sounds far too romantic when I woke up cold and covered in condensation to be plonked inside Sam’s much warmer sleeping bag and topped up with hot chocolate again. As the sun began to hit our spot, we packed up and set off to find water. I was feeling very sick
at this point, (to the point that I gagged a couple times…) and I often struggle to eat early on in the day. A combination of nerves and being bad at mornings, I think. Whilst I perched at the top of the next gully feeling sorry for myself trying to coax food down, Sam descended part way down to the water source.
With horribly heavy bags once again, day two began in earnest. Fortunately, once I got going, I felt much better and settled for some Laughing Cow cheese triangles. The second day, whilst containing less pitched climbs, has a fair bit more technical scrambling than the first. The knife edge arete along the top of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh proved a particular challenge to my frayed mental reserves and a short rope from Sam here and at a few other points was much appreciated. (For those potentially unaware, short roping is a few metres of rope out where the more confident person can give you a big ‘ol tug if you slip to give the less confident person a bit of support).
With the sun baking us to a pringle again, we navigated through the mod and diff sections efficiently, with Sam scrambling up them and then rock belaying me up. The end was starting to feel ever so slightly tangible however we were running short on time and decided to take the northern bypass due to this – a shame to miss Bidean but pragmatism prevailed on my part here.
After this came a couple of exciting gaps in the ridge. You can go round these but Sam didn’t tell me this until afterwards – deciding they would be more fun for us to jump or cautiously step in my case.
Heading up to Bruach na Frithe we stopped for a quick bit of cous cous and pot noodle (my guilty pleasure) at the top – contemplating the significant distance and then walk out we still had to come… With the evening making itself known, we had a brief grump with each other about whether to go over Am Basteir or to do Naismith’s as we’d hoped to do all the pitched climbs. In the end, we didn’t do either as by this point all I wanted was a nice straightforward path where I didn’t matter if I put a foot in the wrong place…A little frustrating to miss those bits out but I never climb for a box ticking exercise so happily made my peace with this.
Everyone does the Cuillin in their own way and in my opinion I don’t feel there’s a right or wrong way to do it.
Dropping bags on the path below Am Basteir (as we’d be reversing our steps to them) brought welcome relief for the final push – I’d found that the weight of the pack had badly affected my balance and thus confidence for a lot of the ridge. We soloed the first section onto Sgurr nan Gillean and then Sam rock belayed me for the slightly more exposed bit. Once over this, the scramble to the top was steady and popping through the window an entertaining little feature (see my face below). Standing on top of the final summit, I didn’t feel as elated as I expected, perhaps because we still had to get down or maybe emotions were a bit beyond me at that point.
Abseiling down the final chimney, we returned to the bags and tootled off towards Sligachan, supressing the urge to dip in the beautiful deep pools we passed. In a stroke of luck, my parents and dogs were also holidaying on Skye and I’d cajoled them into cooking us dinner and dropping us off back at Glen Brittle. Knowing that finishing the ridge also meant seeing my dogs for the first time in 6 weeks was a source of motivation that can’t be understated! (Seeing my parents was alright too 😉 ).
After the best shower I’ve ever had we collapsed into bed at about half midnight and didn’t stir until the tent became a sauna and I made a speedy exit into the sea the next morning. A few days on and lots of sleep later (including in my lecture on Monday…) and I’m already itching to go back and have another go. The classic refrain of “I’m never doing that again” as I touched the final cairn evaporating quickly in rose-tinted hindsight and thoughts about trying it in a day with a light pack…
I’d want to have more practice at sustained grade three scrambling before another attempt. I’ve done several scrambles before (Aonach Eagach, Pinnacle Ridge etc….) but they pale into insignificance when compared with the sustained nature of the Cuillin that bit by bit ate away at my reserves – it’s rarely talked about in mountaineering I feel, but I certainly find that repeated exposure has this effect on me.
Back to uni life and two weeks of exams that I’m sure the Cuillin will have been excellent revision for, I’ve felt a little deflated. It’s always an odd experience after climbing something you’ve been thinking about for years – I don’t have any other big goals at the moment so if anyone has suggestions to re-focus my psyche please let me know!
My thanks and love must also go to Sam – I’m so grateful for the experiences we get to share together, even if at times I get a little grumpy…
On reflection, the Cuillin is one the most compelling and stunning ridges I’ve ever been on – when Scotland has good weather, and not too many of the biting buggers we shan’t speak of, it can be truly breath-taking. I think a little bit of my mind is still up there on the ridge, waiting for another crack…
Read Elizabeth’s previous adventures: OTTER LIFE