The Cuillin Traverse – to do or not to do?

This is part 1 of a trio of posts describing a scrambling adventure in the Cuillin Hills on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. This first post describes the eventful build up to our trip. Subsequent posts describe the trip itself.

I ended my previous post about last month’s visit to Scotland on a bit of a cliffhanger.

Well, OK. Maybe not a cliffhanger; more of a hill-slider.

While descending the slope to Kinlochleven with a heavy pack on my shoulders, my left knee bent backwards, causing it to lock. I was able to descend the rest of the way on my own, but my pace would have embarrassed a creeping vine.

This was a problem, because we had big plans for the following week.

A full traverse of the Cuillin ridge involves an overnight bivouac
A full traverse of the Cuillin ridge involves an overnight bivouac

We had hired a mountain guide to do the Cuillin traverse, a 12km ridge on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, which takes in 11 Munros and many subsidiary peaks. Much of the ridge is narrow and exposed. Completing it in its entirety involves crossing a bewildering array of rock spires, including the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the only Munro that is a technical rock climb.

The full traverse takes two days and involves an overnight bivouac. The technical nature of the terrain, with almost constant scrambling, means that the Black Cuillin contain the only mountains in Scotland that I wouldn’t contemplate climbing without a guide.

But the terrain isn’t the only difficulty. Skye is notorious for its rainstorms. Its position on the west coast of Scotland makes it one of Britain’s wettest places. When I first went there in 2005, it rained every day for a week, often torrentially, and the Black Cuillin was never out of cloud. Navigation was hazardous, rocks were slippery and I realised that to climb the majority of the peaks I would need a guide.

I returned with Edita in 2018. We wanted to do the traverse then, but we knew that would require two successive days of good weather – a rare occurrence on Skye. Once again it rained pretty much every day and we were in cloud most of the time, but this time we had a guide. The traverse wasn’t an option in those conditions, but we were able to climb 8 of the 11 Munros in a series of day hikes.

Even so, the scrambling had been pretty intense, more akin to climbing for a non-climber. There were many sections where I was glad to have our guide Andy Hogarth leading the rope. I returned home thinking that a Cuillin traverse was probably only a pipe dream.

But then I read an article on the Cicerone website that described a variant of the Cuillin traverse which they called the ‘Cuillin Ridge Light’. This version took in the 11 Cuillin Munros, but bypassed many of the unnecessary pinnacles and more technical sections along the ridge.

In its own words:

It uses cunning and knowledge to take the easiest line, hard climbs are bypassed and the bar of necessary experience and skills is lowered.

The article went on to suggest that by using this particular variation, the full Cuillin traverse had been relatively straightforward for a 70-year-old man. This was my kind of traverse. It even suggested taking a boat from the village of Elgol and spending an extra bivouac on the shores of Loch Coruisk. This enables you to begin the ridge from its most southerly point, far beyond the most southerly Munro on the ridge, Sgurr nan Eag, where most people begin their traverse.

I contacted West Coast Mountaineering, the guiding agency we had used last time, and one of their guides, Dave Fowler, offered his services for our second week in Scotland.

But now I was having serious doubts. I already had an injury in my right leg: achilles tendinitis, a recurring injury that comes and goes, and generally comes back every few years. This injury had put our Scottish backpacking trip to the Mamores and Grey Corries in some doubt. I’d managed to walk through that injury and complete two big days in the hills without making it any worse.

I had been slow, though, and this could be a problem on the traverse. But worse than this was that I now had a new injury to my left knee that I didn’t know anything about.

I didn’t want to tell Edita, but I was pretty sure I had no chance of completing the traverse. Luckily, it was more than likely that I wouldn’t have to. I knew that the chances of having two days of good weather in the Black Cuillin was only a little higher than finding a king-size bed with en suite bathroom somewhere along the ridge.

Skye is notorious for the sort of conditions where even the sheep have to take shelter
Skye is notorious for the sort of conditions where even the sheep have to take shelter

Then an extraordinary thing happened. We checked in to our hotel in Fort William and logged onto the wifi (well, Edita did – I had buggered my phone in a rainstorm on the Grey Corries). We checked the Met Office weather app, expecting the wet weather to continue into next week. It certainly looked horrendous for the next few days. But there was an isolated sunny spell on Wednesday and Thursday that spanned both days.

We had a weather window. I knew that I could keep returning to Skye for years and never have such an opportunity again. We had to grasp it.

But I was crippled in both legs and barely able to hobble to the restaurant in Fort William. Weather window there may be, but it still seemed like an unlikely opportunity in my current state.

That Friday evening I spoke to our guide Dave Fowler to discuss our plans for the following week. He confirmed that we had a window for the traverse on Wednesday and Thursday, and the weather was appalling until Monday. He suggested that we could walk up to the ridge on Tuesday to leave a cache of equipment, water and food for our overnight bivouac and the second day of the traverse. This would enable us to do both days of the traverse carrying nothing more than day packs.

I then told him about my two injuries. I explained that I was up for giving it a try, but I didn’t want to do anything that would make either injury worse. In the case of my right leg, I knew that a full tear of my achilles tendon was the sort of injury that required surgery. As for my left leg, this was a new injury, so it was anybody’s guess. We therefore had to allow for the possibility that I might need to abort the traverse and leave the ridge.

I wasn't sure my left knee would be able to cope with the sort of scrambling that I knew would by required in the Cuillins
I wasn’t sure my left knee would be able to cope with the sort of scrambling that I knew would by required in the Cuillins

Dave was bullish, for reasons that will be explained in due course. He said that the standard traverse is from Sgurr nan Eag, the most southerly Munro to Sgurr nan Gillean, the most northerly one, but any number of variations could be done in between. There are no rules; it’s up to the individual to choose the variation that works best for them. A common one is to skip Sgurr Dubh Mor, the only one of the 11 Munros that isn’t on the ridge, but on a projecting shoulder.

‘I’ve also had clients who’ve skipped the In Pinn because they’ve climbed it before,’ he said.

This made me think. I had got it into my head that at the very least a Cuillin Ridge Light should include all 11 Munros, but beyond that I really didn’t care about climbing every steep face and protruding pinnacle if there’s an easier alternative. But now Dave had suggested we could skip two of the Munros and still call it a traverse. We could even skip the In Pinn, because we had climbed it before.

Dave’s suggestion of leaving a cache along the ridge also prevented the possibility of us getting a boat from Elgol and spending a night on the shores of Loch Coruisk, but this wasn’t an option in any case – COVID-19 restrictions meant that none of the boat trips from Elgol were operating.

The following day both of my legs were stiff as a board. My right ankle was troubling me as much as ever, but my left knee was more of a problem. I couldn’t bend it more than 90°. This was going to be a problem completing many of the awkward scrambling and climbing moves that I knew were coming.

I now had three days to recover. But as I hobbled around Fort William that morning, I wondered if it would be enough. As we were returning to the car there was a ferocious rainstorm. Edita took the keys and legged it back, but there was no way I could run.

Three days later we met Dave in the garden of the Sligachan Hotel, on the northern edge of the Cuillins. It had rained solidly all weekend and through Monday, but we had managed to do some gentle walking around Dunvegan Castle Gardens the previous day. My left knee had improved slightly. I decided I would follow Dave and Edita slowly as they trekked up to An Dorus, the col between the two Munros of Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Sgurr a Ghreadaidh, to leave our cache. I wouldn’t carry anything and I would walk at my own pace to see how I got on.

'There's no such thing as the Cuillin Ridge Light,' Dave said.
‘There’s no such thing as the Cuillin Ridge Light,’ Dave said.

We unpacked our bags on the garden tables for a kit inspection. Dave’s objective was to strip us of anything unnecessary so that we would be carrying as little as possible. We’d gone to the trouble of buying a lightweight MSR stove in Fort William to replace the cumbersome Russian doll’s-nest of a Trangia we’d been carrying in the Mamores. Dave told us to ditch it because he had one.

I was happy with this, but I expressed surprise when he eyed up one of the tiny 100g gas cylinders we’d bought in the absence of standard 230g cylinders.

‘That should be enough for us,’ he said.

‘What, a single 100g cylinder for all three of us?’ I replied. ‘I normally reckon a 230g cylinder will last two people two days. A single small cylinder’s going to be a bit tight.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. We might be touching cloth for our morning brew,’ he said.

I laughed. I’d not heard the expression ‘touching cloth’ in many years, and I’d almost forgotten that it existed.

I turned to Edita. ‘Do you know what he means when he says “touching cloth”?’

Of course, she didn’t. Not many people do. In case you’re wondering, ‘touching cloth’ is that state we’ve all experienced from time to time, when you’re desperate to visit the bathroom for a no. 2, but you’re just managing to prevent it seeping out (there’s nothing like explaining one idiom with another one).

A logical consequence of this is that the phrase ‘touching cloth’ can also be used to mean ‘somewhat frightened’, which is how Dave was using it. It occurred to me that it’s a phrase you might use quite freely on the Cuillin ridge.

Dave backed this up when he said there was no such thing as the ‘Cuillin Ridge Light’. That was just a marketing slogan. There’s nothing light about traversing the Cuillin ridge, however you define it. He then suggested if we wanted to make it even easier, we could skip Sgurr nan Eag altogether and start with Sgurr Alasdair. Sgurr nan Eag is something of an outlier; you have to backtrack quite a long way to get to it. It all depends on what you call the start of the ridge.

I had to admit that with my two injured legs I was willing to consider any point along the ridge as its start. The only Munro I had left to climb was Sgurr nan Gillean, at the very end.

Our Cuillin traverse was shrinking by the hour. We had abandoned the boat trip and the extra bivouac on the shores of Loch Coruisk. We were no longer starting from the far south with an ascent of Gars-bheinn, the most southerly peak on the ridge. We had agreed that Sgurr Dubh Mor was off the ridge and that climbing the In Pinn was unnecessary. Now we were ditching Sgurr nan Eag as well because it involved backtracking.

In any case, I still didn’t know if I’d be fit enough for the shortened version.

View up to the cleft of An Dorus in mist
View up to the cleft of An Dorus in mist

We drove to Glen Brittle, the valley which marks the western boundary of the Black Cuillin, and parked at the youth hostel. We had done this walk up to An Dorus with Andy two years ago, and climbed both Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Sgurr a Ghreadaidh before descending by the same route.

Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Sgurr a Ghreadaidh are the two Munros that guides take their clients up when the weather’s awful. They involve only two very short scrambles to reach their summits, which are not so exposed to high winds. This was exactly the scenario when we’d climbed them with Andy.

This time the weather was much clearer and it was a good opportunity to see what we’d missed last time. We had been in cloud for most of the ascent, and had followed Andy blindly through the fog, relieved of any need to check our surroundings and navigate.

The trail actually follows a stream, the Allt a’ Choire Ghreadaidh, for most of the way up to a moorland plateau. At this point it diverts left into a higher corrie overlooked by the jagged main summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh. The trail was easy to follow and the clear conditions meant that I was able to watch the diminishing figures of Dave and Edita as I made my way up behind them.

I had no difficulty identifying An Dorus: a distinctive cleft in the rock face to the right of Sgurr a Mhadaidh, with a deep gully descending from it. The route beneath An Dorus is a boulder field. I got about halfway up it when I met Dave and Edita coming back down. I was unencumbered and they had been carrying big packs, but I wasn’t that far behind them.

My inability to bend my knee meant that I was much slower on descent, but I was happy with my progress. Descending to Kinlochleven four days earlier, I’d pretty much written the Cuillin traverse off. Even with a miraculous two-day Skye weather window, my two injuries were going to be a problem.

But now here we were – was the Cuillin traverse a possibility after all?

To be continued…

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6 thoughts on “The Cuillin Traverse – to do or not to do?

  • October 21, 2020 at 7:13 pm
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    Oh wow. what timing for this article -as if not for Covid -I would have been attempting more or all of this traverse last week. Full disclosure -I haven’t read your entire article yet -for fear of finding out too much about this -as I really wanted my experience to be a self reliant route finding one. I’m going to have my wife proof read it ..lol

    I tried a portion of it last year on a whim starting from the ferry side at Loch Curoisk -just enough to know this is really all I ever wanted from mountaineering.

    Truly a spectacular treasure on the Isle of Skye.

    Thanks so much Mark.

  • October 21, 2020 at 7:52 pm
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    Ha, I don’t think your wife will be providing any route-finding tips from this post, but perhaps its sequel may be more to your liking 😉

  • October 25, 2020 at 12:23 am
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    Interesting – The Monroe you were considering might skip – the Dubh Mor – in Irish this translates as the big black one! The clue might be in the translation !!!! Good luck with your injuries/recovery! Looking forward to part 2!

  • October 30, 2020 at 4:21 pm
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    Ok, wife read it first and approved it as not giving away too much info as to spoil choices on the traverse -it sounds like the traverse path is so undetermined and complicated that it wouldn’t even be possible to describe enough detail to give away too much anyways. 🙂

    So very interesting, my mind is spinning -I’m concerned about my “no guide needed” assumptions now -also, when I was at Skye last time we had 3 straight days of perfect weather and scrambling up the rock and peat high into the Black Cuillins was pretty easy -so maybe I am totally underestimating this while thing based on our previous lucky window.

    Also, it sounds like the wife would prefer to visit Loch Coruisk and the first munro again and maybe then take the boat back and meet me on the other side of Skye at the B&B 2 days later if the conditions are terrible. She does this kind of thing as a sacrifice to my interests more than a love of suffering herself.

    One thing I love about scrambling on the boulder fields and skree of the Munros of Scotland is there is zero chance of getting bit by a rattlesnake or copperhead on a hand or foothold -Where I live in the US they are hiding everywhere on any ascent involving scrambling and climbing.. In fact, it’s a great question for you -is there any animal or insect of real concern or caution hiking, climbing, scrambling in Scotland? I’ve never sensed any.

    Look forward to part 2 (proof read by the boss first of course)

  • October 31, 2020 at 1:48 pm
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    Heehee, thanks BK. Don’t tell me you’re not familiar with the Highland midge? I will happily swap a seething cloud of these little blighters for all the rattlesnakes in North America 😉

  • October 31, 2020 at 7:49 pm
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    Oh, I have gotten into some midges when I was there 2 times ago in the summer…forgot about those I don’t recall them at all in my Sept/Oct 2019 trip last year -so maybe the are done by that time in the fall. They are terrible and remind me of the sand gnats we have in the southern US below the fall line.

    I posed the idea of her relaxing for 2 days in Skye at a B&B after another glorious Lake Coruisk trip to see me off in to the Cuillins -she looked way too excited for me to feel that good about it. 🙂 Totally on the guide side of the idea now.

    Well see how your part 2 shapes this cliffhanger of a plan for Skye next fall (well hopefully with the world as it is)

    Thanks

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