This is part 3 of a quartet of posts describing a scrambling adventure in the Cuillin Hills on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. After an eventful build up and a bittersweet first day, this post continues with the next hair-raising instalment.
At the end of my last post, I mentioned how an enjoyable day of scrambling on the southern peaks of the Cuillin ridge was marred when I buggered my leg for a second time returning along the easy section to the car park at Glen Brittle. It was an injury that needed three days of recovery time earlier in the trip. I no longer had three days to amble around resting. It looked like the rest of my holiday was in tatters.
It’s been two weeks since I published that post, and I expect you’ve been hanging on with bated breath, enduring sleepless nights waiting to find out what happened next, rather like the US election results. Sorry about that.
We still had two days remaining in our itinerary and things left to do. For one thing, half our equipment was still hiding under a rock at An Dorus, a narrow cleft on the ridge where we had left an overnight cache.
More pertinently, there were still some Munros that we hadn’t climbed. This was my third visit to Skye, and I was yet to climb Sgurr nan Gillean, the northernmost Munro. Edita still had to climb all the northern three.
Retrieving our gear from An Dorus wasn’t a big deal. It was a short rush up the hill from the youth hostel at Glen Brittle. It could be done easily in crappy weather. A round of the three northern peaks of Bruach na Frithe, Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean, however, would require a big day out best left for fair weather (insofar as such a thing exists on Skye).
Thursday was set to be one of those fair weather days, but I had no idea if my injured knee was going to hold up. I really needed an easy day just to test it out. It seemed more sensible to do the easy walk on Thursday; but this also meant that we could be wasting the good weather.
When our guide Dave Fowler sent a text message on Wednesday evening to agree our plans, I was still in two minds, and so was the other me.
‘Bag pick up or northern three?’ the message read.
‘I’m torn. Heart says northern three but head says bag pick up,’ I responded.
That left the decision in Dave’s hands. His response arrived immediately.
‘Bag pick up, and see how you get on.’
In fact, he had a cunning plan.
The usual trip up to An Dorus involves two short diversions up Sgurr a Mhadaidh (to the north) and Sgurr a Ghreadaidh (to the south), the two Munros either side of the col. This is what we did on our last visit to the Cuillins. From An Dorus both these peaks are quick and easy with only short sections of exposed scrambling.
Dave’s idea was to go up Sgurr na Banachdich, the Munro south of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh, then traverse over Sgurr a Ghreadaidh to An Dorus. This plan would not only take in two Munros, but two Munro Tops (peaks over 3,000ft that are not classed as Munros) and fill in another section of ridge that we hadn’t done.
This sounded intriguing. The downside was that once on the ridge between the two Munros there was no way out. On the plus side, the walk up to Sgurr na Banachdich is technically easy, and would give me an opportunity to test my injury before going on.
In fact, Sgurr na Banachdich is the easiest of all the 11 Munros on the Cuillin ridge. Its name actually translates as Milkmaid’s Peak, presumably because it’s even possible for a lady in wellingtons to lead a cow up there and give its udders a good squeeze at the top.
By contrast, Sgurr a Ghreadaidh (pronounced ‘Greta’) means Peak of the Thrashing or Whipping. We were about to find out why.
It was supposed to be a lovely sunny day. In fact, it was a little overcast when we set out from the youth hostel, following the same good path alongside the Allt Coire Ghreadaidh that we’d taken up to An Dorus to dump our stuff a couple of days earlier.
We had barely been walking for 20 minutes when who should we meet coming our way but Caspar and Ross, our friends from the previous day (see the previous post). The Cuillin Traverse had claimed another casualty.
Ross had done much better than we had, especially given that he’d been carrying a pack the size of the In Pinn. He’d made it to the bivouac site beyond An Dorus and spent the night there, but that was quite enough. Another day of the same would have been ridge porn – a veritable binge of knife-edge scrambling that was far too much pleasure for a single trip.
Nevertheless, one day of it followed by an overnight bivouac on the ridge would have been quite an experience. We congratulated Ross for getting as far as he had, then we passed on. We still had more enjoyment to come.
At the point where the trail reaches a moorland plateau, it diverts left, crosses the river and climbs into a higher corrie. This trail passes north of Sgurr na Banachdich’s northwest ridge, a peak labelled An Diallaid on the OS map. South of An Diallaid is a much smaller, higher hidden corrie called Coir’ an Eich. This corrie is the gateway to the easy route up Sgurr na Banachdich. A very faint trail led up a boggy hillside. We followed Dave up this trail into the corrie and up a scree slope the other side.
He spent almost the whole of this part of the ascent expounding his theories about global economics. This was an unusual choice of subject for a mountain guide, and one I can’t remember coming across before in all my years of guided mountaineering. However, it served its purpose of liquefying my neurones into a substance resembling mushy peas, so that my brain was unable to focus its attention on the knife-edge precipice that I knew was coming our way.
By the time we reached the northwest ridge somewhere above An Diallaid, the trail had disappeared into mist. Dave turned up this subsidiary spur of Sgurr na Banachdich, we zigzagged a little then found ourselves walking up bare, gravelly slopes that were neither scree nor boulder field.
It really was the easiest walking you can imagine. We reached the main Cuillin ridge more or less at the 965m summit. Sgurr na Banachdich’s summit cairn is so innocuous that it’s almost as if nobody has ever been bothered to build a proper one. The hardest part of this climb would have been finding the highest of the various piles of stones in misty conditions. We hadn’t even needed to do that because Dave knew.
It wasn’t yet midday and it had taken us less than three hours to get here. The gentle gradient hadn’t really tested my knee at all, so it didn’t occur to me to turn around and head back. Five minutes after arriving on the summit of our first Munro, we were heading north along the main Cuillin ridge to our next summit Sgurr Thormaid.
A steep descent down scree brought us to Bealach Thormaid. So far, we’d needed neither rope nor helmet, but here the scrambling started up a rocky buttress. It was the sort of terrain that rock climbers would call a walk, but hillwalkers would certainly call a rock climb (I know I did). I was happy for the security of a belay in a couple of sections, but in the mist it didn’t feel exposed.
We were soon on the summit of Sgurr Thormaid (926m), a Munro Top whose name translates as ‘Norman’s Peak’. I don’t know how Gaelic works, but I presume ‘Thormaid’ is what comes out when you pronounce ‘Norman’ in a thick Scottish accent, in much the same way that ‘Marco’ is the sound produced when you try to say ‘Mark’ in Italian. What I can tell you is the Norman of the title is the same Norman Collie after whom Collie’s Ledge is named.
Norman’s Peak was little more than a grassy part of the ridge, just wide enough to allow you to relax your sphincters before moving on to the next section. In fact we did get some respite as we angled right and found ourselves on an easy path that traversed beneath black cliffs. Dave explained that these cliffs belonged to three fearsome pinnacles known as the Three Teeth. I was happy that we weren’t sinking our own teeth into them.
We soon reached the most sumptuous section of the entire ridge north of Sgurr nan Eag: a col ten metres wide and covered with that rare thing, grass. This soft, lush substance seemed as out-of-place in the Black Cuillin as a velvet sofa in a bothy. There was also the equivalent of the Cuillin Traverse’s bridal suite: a circular ring of stones just big enough for a tent, carpeted inside with soft earth.
I gazed at it longingly, for up ahead, Sgurr a Ghreadaidh loomed. Between us and it was nothing but sharpened gabbro of the sort that would slice through trouser fabric with little more than a gentle caress. We started scrambling up it. I looked even more longingly when I noticed a narrow pathway drop away to our left. This path appeared to skirt comfortably beneath the ridge.
‘Why don’t we go that way?’ I shouted up to Dave at the top of the rope.
‘That’s the boring way. We need a bit more excitement.’
Clearly we were using different dictionaries. Excitement for me conjured up enthusiasm and eagerness. But for Dave, there could be no excitement unless you were touching cloth (see my earlier post for a definition of this useful phrase).
My heart sank as I looked along the ridge. It curled above us for hundreds of metres (the ridge, not my heart), a blade of rock, narrow as a shark’s fin for its entire length. A few hundred metres can sometimes be crossed in just a few minutes, but I realised we could be on this thing for many hours.
Dave had used another vivid phrase earlier in the day that now seemed appropriate. We’d been talking about the Cuillin Traverse’s high drop-out rate. Dave said that people often quit not through exhaustion or inability, but exposure fatigue. No, they weren’t climbing naked. It’s because the exposure is so sustained, with very few wide, easy sections that people find it mentally exhausting.
It was certainly testing my brain too, but we managed it little by little. One blessing was the mist that masked the drop on either side. Frequently Dave had to stop and belay us across some of the more exposed sections. But when we reached the 969m south summit of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh, I was relieved to know that I wouldn’t be troubling my launderette too unduly.
This was another Munro Top that hardly anyone climbs, and I was soon to find out why. A few metres beyond it was a sloping slab of rock with a crest so narrow that the only way I could get across was by straddling it like a sheep, I mean a horse and shuffling across on the tenderest two parts of my anatomy.
There was some light relief a few metres after when another guide with two clients met us coming the other way. He was an older man with glasses and an expression that I can only describe as an amused frown. He stopped next to Dave and made a motion with his forearm. He was indicating that a section of the ridge between Sgurr a Ghreadaidh’s two summits had recently fallen away. Then he grinned at us and shrugged his shoulders. His mannerisms reminded me of someone.
I caught up with Dave at his next belay stance.
‘You didn’t tell me Harry Hill was a mountain guide,’ I said.
Dave stopped uncoiling the rope and looked up.
‘That’s Mike from Skye Guides who I met up with last night. You think he looks like Harry Hill? That’s fucking hilarious. I can’t wait to tell him.’
When we reached the rockfall, we could see there had been not one, but two separate incidents. A narrow wall of rock stood before us. Climbing up and walking along it would have been the direct route to Sgurr a Ghreadaidh’s main summit, which lay just a few short metres away now.
There was a good reason not to take this direct route. It appeared to comprise a jumble of individual blocks piled together like a dry stone wall. Climbing on top looked like a sure way of making the whole thing collapse. And this had apparently happened without human intervention.
On its right-hand side, the wall was a lighter colour, which Dave said happened a few years ago, when a large section of the ridge broke off and tumbled down towards Loch Coruisk. Meanwhile a couple of large boulders had also fallen off the left side of the wall. These were what Mike had been talking to Dave about, and these had collapsed only a few days ago.
We skirted to the left of them, then scrambled up vertically to our right to emerge on the 973m main summit of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh.
By now the mist had cleared completely and we found ourselves under clear blue skies. To our right we were looking straight down the valley towards Loch Coruisk, which pointed towards Sgurr a Ghreadaidh like a needle on a compass.
To the north, Dave pointed out the four (yes, four) summits of Sgurr a Mhadaidh, all but the first one jagged and severe. Between these and Bruach na Frithe was a long section of broken ridge, blocked by four more unpleasant rock obstacles: the three summits of Bidean Druim nan Ramh and An Caisteal.
This is the forgotten section of the Cuillin ridge that not many people know about because it’s bereft of Munros. There are no Munros between the southern (main) summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Bruach na Frithe. But of the seven jagged summits in between, only the three summits of Bidean nan Ramh can be bypassed underneath. Had we opted to do the full traverse as we’d intended, we would have needed to pass them all.
But thankfully for us, the difficult scrambling was mostly over. The descent to An Dorus crossed some hairy slabs, sloping down towards a sickening drop on the right-hand side. As we tiptoed across, Dave waltzed above us, keeping the rope very tight should either of us slip. There wouldn’t have been much he could do if we had, other than try and jerk us back onto our feet again.
There was a short down-climb to An Dorus which I remembered from last time. The angle was slightly convex, and I had to feel my way down backwards, tentatively probing with my feet for toeholds that I couldn’t see. Fortunately, on the most nerve-jangling part there turned out to be a ‘thank god’ ledge big enough for a whole foot, and I made it down without mishap.
We scrambled down a narrow groove between two clashing rock faces to reach the top of the boulder field where Dave and Edita had left our cache two days earlier. Happily it was all still there and we loaded up.
From there the descent was easy. The day had turned out perfectly now, as it was originally forecast to do, and we lingered often to look back and view the peaks you can rarely see, from Sgurr a Mhadaidh to Sgurr na Banachdich where we started.
There were times when my knee had troubled me, but my mind had been elsewhere as we scrambled along the ridge. Now, on the long descent back to the youth hostel the injury was much more obvious. I could only hobble along while Dave ran ahead.
It had been a good day, and we had filled in another section of the Cuillin ridge that Munro baggers rarely see.
But tomorrow was our last day on Skye, and there was still one Munro I hadn’t climbed, the one that many people say is the finest of them all: Sgurr nan Gillean. What did the weather gods have in store?
To be continued… and you can see all my photos from the trip here.