This is part 4 of a quartet of posts describing a scrambling adventure in the Cuillin Hills on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. After an eventful build up, a bittersweet first day and a scary second one, this post provides the final sphincter-clenching instalment.
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ Edita said as we sat in the hotel restaurant later that evening.
No, she wasn’t tucking into a plate of prize-winning haggis (although that might have elicited the same response). She was looking at the Met Office mountain forecast on her phone, and the entry for Sgurr nan Gillean summit was displaying a line of bright yellow circles.
‘Oh my god, it’s going to be sunny all day on Sgurr nan Gillean tomorrow.’
Had we completed the Cuillin Traverse on Wednesday and Thursday, as we’d intended, then our Friday would have consisted of little more than a trudge up to the ridge to retrieve our cache – or more likely, an exhausted lie-in while our guide Dave Fowler, whom we’d hired for the week, trudged up to the ridge to retrieve our cache for us.
Instead, here we were, facing a full day out in the Black Cuillin under sunny skies. Yes, that’s right. Beautiful sunshine in the Black Cuillin of Skye. I can’t believe I’m saying that. After two satisfying days on the ridge and another one to come, things were turning out well.
Our plan for Friday was the ‘Northern Three’ Munros of Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe. Isolated from the main part of the ridge, if the Black Cuillin were looked upon as a shepherd’s crook, these three peaks would be the handle, the part where the ridge curled around to the east and looked back to the main part across the valley north of Loch Coruisk.
These were the only three Cuillin Munros that we hadn’t climbed on our last visit to Skye. It was going to be a long day to do all of them, especially with my two injured legs. I’d climbed Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe on my first visit, and was confident we could do them unguided, so our priority was going to be Sgurr nan Gillean, the only one that neither of us had climbed.
‘Dave, tomorrow we do Sgurr nan Gillean by the easy route, OK?’ I said as we stood on top of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh the previous day, having scrambled along a knife-edge section from Sgurr na Banachdich that had tested my continence.
He grinned back at me but said nothing. Had I known him better, I would have known perfectly well what that grin meant: that there was no such thing as an easy route on Sgurr nan Gillean, so we might as well do the hard one.
The sun was already warming the earth when we met at 8.30 in Sligachan. Cars were squeezed into every lay-by and we struggled to find somewhere to park. Days like this don’t happen often on Skye, and it was going to be a busy day on the hills.
Several groups had left already. This meant there were likely to be bottlenecks on the narrower sections. Had we left earlier, there would have been pressure to stay ahead of them. But with my injured knee, there was no point hurrying.
From Sligachan, most of the Black Cuillin peaks are hidden. The view is of three distant peaks rising across a sea of heather. The two either side – Sgurr nan Gillean and Sgurr a Bhasteir – are steep pyramids. The one in the middle – Am Basteir – is sharp and jagged like the blade of an axe.
Am Basteir’s name translates as ‘The Executioner’, and you don’t need to be a creative genius to understand why. I climbed this peak with my old mate Tony 15 years ago. Neither of us were climbers and we carried no technical equipment with us. Some kind of protection would have been useful when we reached a gap in the summit ridge known as the ‘Bad Step’.
Neither of us fancied down-climbing this 3m cliff, and we found a bypass underneath that was described in our guidebook. It involved some steep scrambling down to a ledge to bring us out beneath the step. On the way back, we were hit by a heavy rainstorm and overshot the route back up. We retraced our steps and got down safely, but there were some hairy moments in the freezing rain, and Tony decided to rename the mountain ‘I’m a Bastard’.
Now I was back with a guide, so the Bad Step should prove a piece of piss, but I was concerned about Sgurr nan Gillean, which I knew to be a much more technical peak.
Since we were now behind the other groups, we walked in leisurely fashion across the 3 miles of heather into Coire a Bhasteir, the corrie beneath Am Basteir from which all three summits are accessible. It’s a good trail which rises gradually. A few smooth slabs guard the entrance to the corrie, but there is an easy route through them.
By the time we reached the corrie, we had climbed 600m without really feeling it. From here, the nature of today’s mountains was much clearer. Sgurr nan Gillean is in fact not one, but five jagged pinnacles of increasing height, stretching in a line from east to west. The climb across all of them is known as the ‘Pinnacle Ridge’ and some people even go this way. More sensible people aim for just the right-hand one, which is the highest. The most sensible ones take the route up from the back, which involves the easiest scrambling. Those like us, who are at the mercy of their guide, take the route up from the right, which starts at the col between Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir.
We looked up to this col and could see about 30 people zigzagging up the scree slope beneath Am Basteir which led to it. The axe blade of Am Basteir had a clear notch in it – the Bad Step. Beneath it were rough cliffs.
We walked slowly up the scree slope to the col, where we caught up with an all-male hiking group who had stopped for lunch. They were looking towards Sgurr nan Gillean, where several climbers appeared to be jammed in a pair of cracks on the route. We knew this route from our last visit, when our guide Andy Hogarth had led us up one of the harder cracks, a route known as Nicolson’s Chimney, named after the same Alexander Nicolson who wrote the poem The British Ass (and also happened to make the first ascents of both Sgurr nan Gillean and Sgurr Alasdair).
Nicolson first climbed his chimney in 1865. Edita and I climbed it 153 years later. Only at the top did Andy tell us it was classed as a Diff, and therefore harder than the Inaccessible Pinnacle. It was also too windy to continue to the summit, so we turned around and came back down again. Dave said that a parallel gully was a little easier than Nicolson’s Chimney, so I guess Andy was giving us a dress rehearsal for the In Pinn, which we climbed a few days later.
The bottleneck in these two cracks led Dave to suggest that we climb Am Basteir first. By the time we returned to the col, we hoped the bottleneck may have cleared. By doing it this way round, we would be ruling out Bruach na Frithe, which is accessed via Am Basteir, but I knew it to be one of the Black Cuillin’s two easy peaks that we can climb unguided.
From the col we had a superb view across to the main part of the Cuillin Ridge. Innocuous Sgurr Mhic Coinnich looked nothing more than a subsidiary ridge of Sgurr Alasdair. While the shark’s fin of the Inaccessible Pinnacle cut sharply above its parent peak of Sgurr Dearg. The long ridge of Sgurr na Banachdich also looked invisible, while from this angle Sgurr a Ghreadaidh appeared clearly as twin, dome-like summits.
Sadly, the men’s hiking club had also opted to climb Am Basteir first and they’d sneaked ahead of us. By the time we’d roped up and followed them up the slabs, they were already lowering each other down the Bad Step.
‘Can you remember how to do the bypass underneath?’ Dave asked as we approached.
‘It was 15 years ago,’ I replied. ‘None of this looks familiar.’
Then something else occurred to me.
‘Anyway, you’re the guide. Surely you know the way?’
‘I’ve never done the bypass before,’ Dave replied. ‘I always go over the Bad Step.’
We found the route quite easily. A couple of short scrambles took us down to a ledge which we followed up to the base of the Bad Step. One of the hikers decided to follow us, overtaking his nine companions who were still fiddling with a rope as we passed beneath them. From there, it was a few steep metres of walking up to the summit of Am Basteir, which we reached at 12.15.
It was an airy perch. The gentler summit of Bruach na Frithe rose a short distance away. It wasn’t obvious how to reach it. There was a steep drop immediately beneath us, then another rock tower, Sgurr a Fionn Choire, lying in between. The rest of the Cuillin Ridge was far off, rising jagged and distant behind a subsidiary spur. The spaces in between looked complex; it didn’t feel like we were standing on the northern end of the same ridge.
I didn’t give it too much thought though. My attention was focused back in the direction we had come from. Sgurr nan Gillean was by far the most imposing peak in the whole panorama. From the summit of Am Basteir, it was a mound of rough grey rock rising above the col. We were looking directly up its west ridge, our intended route of ascent.
From where we stood, it looked like the route could go either way: there might be a possible line you could simply walk up. On the other hand, you could find your way guarded by an impossible barrier. I already knew that the truth lay somewhere in between. It was certainly a climb, up one of three parallel chimneys. Without a guide we would be stuffed, but with Dave’s help the impossible barrier was merely quite difficult – or so I hoped. I wasn’t really looking forward to it, but I knew it would be a satisfying climb.
This time we returned via the Bad Step. Dave sat on a rock at the top and belayed us up. This was an unfortunate position; I hoicked myself over the final tug of rock and found my face landing on his lap.
‘Sorry about that, Dave. I know we’re supposed to be social distancing,’ I said as I hastily rolled off.
By the time we’d crossed the col and skirted a buttress to reach the three chimneys, there was still a guided group descending the left-hand chimney. They were making a bit of a meal of down-climbing it. One guide stood at the bottom, urging the clients down one by one, while another stood at the top, barking instructions.
The middle chimney was Nicolson’s Chimney, a route Dave described as ‘shit’. He tied us onto the rope and raced up the right hand chimney, which was about 10m high, uncoiling the rope as he climbed. He disappeared over a crest and a short while later I heard his voice again.
‘OK, Mark. It’s safe to climb.’
I went up first and soon reached the top. Although all of these chimneys looked the same to me and I couldn’t be sure which one we’d climbed last time, this one was definitely less of a struggle. Edita followed behind.
We could see Dave sitting the other side of a hair’s breadth section of ridge that was blocked by a large rectangular boulder. This boulder is still known as the ‘Gendarme’ (which, in mountaineering parlance, is a narrow finger of rock barring your way like a policeman). In fact, it is the remains of a gendarme which collapsed in the 1980s. Whatever; I’d have preferred it if it wasn’t there at all.
‘How the hell am I supposed to get past that thing,’ I shouted at Dave.
‘Come over the top.’
‘Or you can go round to your left. It might be easier.’
I certainly wasn’t going to go over the top, so I inched my way around while a stream of profanities dribbled liberally from my mouth. I made it to the other side, and found myself up against another smooth slab of rock that appeared to be bereft of anywhere to put my feet.
‘How the hell do I get up this thing?’
My questions were becoming repetitive. Dave was now a little closer, but paying very little attention to my predicament as he chatted to the other guides who were still helping their own clients down.
‘Just come up it,’ he replied.
Guides have many different styles. Dave’s appeared to be to wait patiently while his clients figured things out for themselves. I still couldn’t find any footholds, so I had to haul myself up trusting to friction alone. I was panting like a dog by the time I reached Dave, and my heart was beating wildly.
‘Bloody hell, I was touching cloth on that bit,’ I said.
‘That’s the hard bit done now,’ he replied.
I watched Edita come across with much less fanfare. Behind her the summit of Am Basteir looked like a frightening fin of tilting rock that might fall over at any moment. Appearances are deceptive. It looked like a fearsome rock climb, but we had more or less walked up it.
By the time Edita joined us above the chimneys, the last member of the other group had gone. I looked down the chimney behind them and scratched my head.
‘Why were they trying to down-climb it?’ I said. ‘Surely it’s easier just to abseil down?’
‘God knows,’ Dave replied. ‘There are right ways and wrong ways to do it, and that definitely wasn’t the right way. The easiest way is to abseil down the pillar, not down-climb the chimney.’
‘That’s fine then. I can abseil, no problem.’
We zigzagged steeply up the remainder of the west ridge. There was one horribly exposed pillar of crappy rock that resembled concrete. I would not enjoy coming back down it, but otherwise it was a straightforward walk until the final few metres.
There was a funny section just below the summit, where we had to crawl through a hole beneath a giant boulder that was wedged in a crack above our heads.
I thought we were going to have the summit to ourselves, but when we arrived on top at 2pm, a father and son were sitting there eating sandwiches on a compact grassy platform that was surprisingly flat. They had come up the normal route and were probably just as surprised to see us pop over the brow.
It was my 116th Munro and quite possibly the finest view I’d experienced from any of them. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and I could hardly believe it.
To the west, the grey, crinkled outline of the rest of the Cuillin Ridge was possibly the least pleasing aspect (though climbers might disagree). To the south, Bla Bheinn, Skye’s other Munro, rose majestically above Glen Sligachan. To the north, the Red Cuillin mountains formed a colourful middle ground above a carpet of green heather. Behind them a blue background of lochs and islands stretched to the far horizon.
The view east to the Scottish mainland was no less impressive. There were mountains as far as the eye could see, hundreds of them.
‘Can you name all these peaks, Dave?’ I said as we sat and ate our lunch.
He shrugged. ‘Yeah, right. Well, that one’s Ben Nevis,’ he said, pointing to a peak to the south-east that was obviously higher than everything else. Its outline was unmistakeable, steep on its eastern side and more gentle to the west.
It was a memorable moment. Our descent was memorable for different reasons. Dave found a less exposed route that avoided the concrete pillar. We abseiled carefully down a pillar alongside the chimney that had troubled the other group. It took us a fraction of the time it had taken them.
At the bottom I was more relaxed, but I knew we still had a long way to go. Dave took us back to the col, then down the scree slope into Coire a Bhasteir, then across the smooth slabs that brought us to the gentle heather slopes. From here it was easy, but with my injured knee, these easy downhill sections were taking me an age.
‘I’ll go on ahead now,’ said Dave, ‘but I’ll wait for you at Sligachan.’
It was probably going to take me another couple of hours, and I knew Dave had a long drive back to his home in Central Scotland.
‘No need to wait, Dave,’ I replied. ‘We’re not going to get lost now, or fall off anything. We’re not stupid enough to go swimming in any of the pools, so we’re not going to drown.’
He laughed, then raced away. But for me and Edita, there was another strange incident to come. I was parched with thirst, so I filled up our now-empty water bottles from a clear mountain stream and popped in a couple of chlorine tablets.
As I ambled slowly down the trail, I kept an eye on my watch to monitor the half hour that I knew it took for the chlorine to dissolve and make the water safe to drink. At the end of the half hour, I spied a convenient rock where I imagined we could sit down in comfort while I slaked my thirst.
But when we got there, we found that the rock was overlooking a rock pool where two young women had stopped for a swim.
‘We can’t stop here,’ I said. ‘They will think we’re spying on them.’
‘Oh my god, are they naked?’ Edita said.
‘They can’t be,’ I replied. ‘They’re right beside the main trail.’
But Edita was right. I stole a quick glance, and sure enough, they were completely naked and taking photographs of each other.
‘Now I know why you’re walking so slowly,’ Edita said.
What to do? Under normal circumstances you would say ‘hello’, but this didn’t seem appropriate.
I hobbled past as quickly as my crippled legs could take me, pretending not to have noticed. To be honest, I was a bit annoyed. I was gasping with thirst and carrying two injuries, one of which had caused me considerable discomfort over the last few days. I had been denied my water break by this unexpected incident, and now my wife had accused me of faking the injury so that I could perve at a pair of water nymphs.
But I couldn’t really complain at how the day had panned out, or the rest of our week. We hadn’t completed the Cuillin Traverse, but we’d experienced clear blue skies that I didn’t believe existed on the wild and windswept Isle of Skye.
Back at the roadside, Dave’s white van was still parked. We wandered round the back and found him hunched inside, tapping away on his laptop.
‘You descended too quickly,’ I said. ‘Did you see the naked women?’
The look on his face was the icing on the cake of a grand day out.