This is the first in a series of posts covering our recent visit to the Isle of Skye and the Northwest Highlands of Scotland. The story continues in the second post, The Dubh Slabs.
It was time for another reconnaissance of the Black Cuillin. We arrived at the youth hostel in Glen Brittle still harbouring an outside chance of doing a full traverse later in the week.
We’ve been toying with the idea of doing the grand traverse of the Cuillin ridge for about five years now, but things have never quite fallen into place. Towering above the southern shoreline of the Hebridean island of Skye like a set of dragon’s teeth, the Black Cuillin has the reputation of being Scotland’s most challenging mountain range. The remains of an ancient volcano, its peaks are steep and exposed, and joined together in a curling 12km ridge of serrated pinnacles, including no fewer than 11 Munros. A complete traverse of this ridge is – to most ordinary people at any rate – a formidable mountaineering challenge involving an overnight bivouac somewhere among those rocky spires.
A few weeks earlier I’d contacted West Coast Mountain Guides, the agency who have provided us with guides for our last two visits to the Cuillin. The company is now owned by Dave Fowler, who guided us on our last visit in 2020. He was (and still is, I’m sure) a voluble and entertaining character who I’m pretty sure was born with a third lung that enables him talk and climb at the same time. He regaled us with many stories, the most memorable of which involved a serious accident he’d had while jumping off a mountain in a wingsuit. He claimed to be still recovering from the injuries though it wasn’t obvious from his pace.
I’m not sure I would hire Dave for flying lessons, but as a mountain guide he was safe as houses and we would happily have climbed with him again. Unfortunately, we’d contacted them at short notice and he was already booked, but his company provided us with a new guide called Karl, who they said would contact me a few days before our trip.
I’m always curious to know a little more about my guides before I meet them. Karl who, I thought to myself? This time, I didn’t even know his surname.
‘Would that be Karl Pilkington, by any chance?’ I emailed.
The answer came back. ‘No, it’s Karl Smith. He’s a great guide.’
I googled karl smith mountain guide, but the only relevant Karl Smith I could find had written the Cicerone guidebook to Trekking in the Atlas Mountains in 1995.
‘It can’t be him,’ I thought to myself. ‘He must be well over 70 by now. Besides, this is hardly trekking.’
By the time I spoke to Karl, we were on our way up to Scotland, and he was already in Glen Brittle guiding other clients. He spoke with a thick Lancashire accent and seemed a little more laid-back than Dave. During my first conversation with Dave I’d told him that I was carrying a knee injury from an incident with a rucksack, and he convinced me to start our traverse at Sgurr Alasdair. This meant bypassing Sgurr nan Eag, Sgurr Dubh Mor, the In Pinn and the first quarter of the ridge. We met for a kit inspection on our first morning in the garden of the Sligachan Hotel, and he divided our equipment into three piles: stuff to take with us, stuff to cache, and stuff to leave behind. Then he took us up to An Dorus to leave a cache of equipment under a rock high up on the traverse.
There was none of that with Karl. I’ve also learned a lot more about the ridge now, and I’m starting to form a plan of my own about how I’d like to do it.
There are many flavours of Cuillin traverse, and there are no set rules except that you need to go all the way from Sgurr nan Eag, the first Munro, to the last one Sgurr nan Gillean. Some people insist that you have to climb all the Munros and go up and over every rock pinnacle along its length, while others are content to bypass the harder obstacles. Some complete it in two days roped to a guide, while more competent climbers do it unroped in a day (the current record stands at 2 hours 59 minutes and 22 seconds, by the aptly named Finlay Wild).
Most people complete the traverse south to north, but some do it backwards (by which I mean north to south, rather than by moonwalking). There is also the question of where the traverse starts and finishes. Traditionally it’s Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr nan Gillean, but the ridge is actually quite a bit longer than that. I’ve ticked off all the Munros already and, being a non-climber, I’ve already decided that I’m content to use every bypass available. But I do want to start at the most southerly peak, Gars-bheinn, and traverse over the top of Sgurr nan Gillean, descending via its southeast ridge. Having read Simon Ingram’s book, however, I’m now wondering whether a traverse shouldn’t continue to the very last peak Sgurr na h-Uamha.
I explained to Karl that we didn’t want to do any of the more technical sections, but we did want to start with Gars-bheinn. The usual means of accessing this peak is to take the 9am boat from the village of Elgol, in the southern tip of Skye’s Strathaird peninsula, to the shores of Loch Coruisk on the eastern side of the ridge.
‘Oh, that’s a very interesting route,’ he said. ‘Shall I book the ferry then?’
We’d hired Karl for four days, Monday to Thursday. He explained that according to the weather forecast, Monday and Tuesday were looking like the best two days for the traverse.
‘But we also want to cache water and equipment somewhere up on the ridge, so that we don’t need to carry as much,’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ he replied.
I wasn’t keen to launch straight into the traverse without some acclimatisation. If we were going to leave a cache then we would also need to leave one day free to carry up our stuff. We agreed to spend Monday scrambling and keep our fingers crossed for a suitable weather window on Wednesday and Thursday.
In our previous trips to the Cuillin in 2018 and 2020, we’d been familiarising ourselves with the ridge and filling in sections bit by bit. Knowing that I can bypass the two graded rock climbs of the T-D Gap and Basteir Tooth, I was confident of completing most of the ridge, but there remained one long section between the summits of Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Bruach na Frithe that we’d not touched at all. This is the least trodden section because there are no Munros, but it contains a lot of grade 3 scrambling and an unavoidable obstacle in the form of the four summits of Sgurr a Mhadaidh. In fact, these four summits comprised the main remaining tricky section that we hadn’t done. I was keen to complete them before committing to a full traverse.
The main summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh (pronounced ‘Skurr a Varter’ or ‘Score a Farty’ to coarser Englishmen) is one of the more accessible Munros on the ridge. It’s gained via a boulder hop up to An Dorus and an easy scramble to the left for the last few metres. Munro baggers usually tick it off in combination with Sgurr a Ghreadaidh on the right side of An Dorus: one left, one right, bang bang. We’d done just this with our guide Andy in 2018 on the wettest day of a week that Atlantic salmon loved.
We met Karl outside the youth hostel at 8.30. He was tall and wiry and I estimated him to be in his sixties, just about old enough to have written a guidebook in 1995, but not by much. He was waiting inside to escape the hordes of midges in the woody area around the hostel.
Karl proved to be a more taciturn character than Dave (though in fairness so is Eamonn Holmes). We chatted as we ascended the path to An Dorus, our 4th time up this trail. He explained that he was semi-retired. He was a former lecturer in adventure tourism who also ran a climbing wall. He’d sold the wall last year, and guiding is now his only job.
He asked if we were Munro baggers. I said we were, but that we’d climbed the Skye ones already and it wasn’t our purpose this time. We discussed options for the traverse. He seemed cagey about leaving a cache of stuff up on the ridge. There was the question of where to leave it. Karl thought that An Dorus might be too far if we were getting the boat from Elgol and starting from Loch Coruisk. I suggested Bealach Coire na Banachdich, but he said the path was rough and there was a risk of rock fall. He also thought we would be putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to go a long distance. His preference was for us to backpack instead.
We had been on this trail so many times it was becoming routine, like a hike above base camp that you do again and again. There was a good trail up moorland until we reached the flatter basin of Coire a Ghreadaidh. Here the main peak of Sgurr a Mhadaidh became visible. Less imposing than its neighbour Sgurr a Ghreadaidh, it rose in three flat tiers with the narrow crack of An Dorus in between. From this angle, there is no evidence that it has three more tricky summits. They all lie hidden behind it where the summit ridge turns a right angle and continues east. A wisp of cloud lay over it today and the prospect looked gloomy.
We crossed the corrie and began to ascend the tumbling mass of boulders that spills down from An Dorus for 200m. We’d seen no one since leaving the youth hostel, but here we met a guide with two women clients in the way down. The guide was walking a little ahead and we spoke to the clients as we passed. They told us they had completed a half traverse and bivouacked overnight, but they’d decided that a second day would be too much. They said they were carrying too much stuff and seemed to blame the guide for it. But they were Munroists rather than ridgers and were happy with their bag.
‘We can do the last three another day,’ one of them said.
The boulder field narrowed to a gap in the rock little wider than a toilet seat: An Dorus, traditionally considered to be the halfway point of the traverse.
We had already put our helmets on at the bottom of the boulder field, and now it was time to rope up. As we donned our harnesses we could see many people coming up the slope below us, including a big group of eleven people.
The best Cuillin guides know every hand- and foothold of every rock on the traverse as intimately as they know their own private parts. The hardest move on the brief scramble up to the main summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh is the very first one out of An Dorus, which involves stretching your right leg out onto a finger-width ledge over a chasm.
We knew Karl wasn’t a native of Skye and guided here only a couple of months a year. He’d never done the section over Gars-bheinn. I wondered how he would compare with other guides, but I needn’t have worried. He immediately inspired confidence, provided a running commentary of his every movement as he made his way up this first obstacle.
Edita had been suffering from sciatica after pinching a nerve a couple of weeks earlier. It was the first time her right leg has been tested since her injury. The leg was weak and she struggled with this first stretching movement until she found the confidence to trust the strength in her leg. If I had been wondering about Karl, he had doubtless wondered about the competence of his clients. If this hesitancy at the first hurdle tried his patience, he didn’t show it, calmly talking Edita up the hurdle step by step.
She had also forgotten that we’d been there five years earlier.
‘Have we climbed this Munro before?’ she said.
‘Yes, we climbed it with Andy. Don’t you remember?’
It wasn’t long before she recognised it. Its location just beyond the halfway point means that Sgurr a Mhadaidh is the Cuillin ridge’s 5-star hotel. Dozen of tiny platforms bedeck its side, where hikers have cleared a flat area to lie down. I reckon 20 or 30 people could sleep here at a stretch.
If Edita had forgotten that we’d been here at all, I had forgotten how much scrambling there was, almost all the way up from An Dorus to the summit, around 100m of ascent. But it’s so easy, like climbing a ladder, that it must have vanished from my mind.
Barely 25 minutes after leaving An Dorus I was sitting on a slanting rock tufted with grass on the summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh. Luckily for Munro baggers, the first of the four tops, confusingly known as the fourth top, is the Munro. Once beyond it, we were on our own and it got more difficult.
We walked along the jagged crest towards the end of the ridge. A few metres short of the end, we dropped below the right of the crest and tiptoed across a sloping slab. At the end, our way was barred by a box-shaped rock tower a few metres high. Karl took us round it by climbing on an angle up its left hand side. It was very exposed, and I wouldn’t have fancied it with a larger pack, but the holds were good. We tiptoed round its corner and found ourselves looking down another ridge. About 50m below us the First, Second and Third Tops rose up in a line. None of them looked appetising to a hiker like me.
Edita complimented Karl on his calmness. ‘You make it seem easier,’ she said.
‘Well, there is no point in scaring the clients,’ he replied.
The Third Top contained the hardest move of the day, a 5m wall rising above its base, almost vertical, with tiny hand- and footholds.
‘If you can get up this, the rest will be fine,’ Karl said.
The holds were so small that you have to complete it in one go; there is no place to hang around. But we’d been watching where Karl put his hands and feet, and we both made it up without much difficulty. The rest of the Third Top was an easy scramble. We descended the other side to the base of the Second Top.
‘This one’s a bit harder,’ Karl said.
‘But I thought you said we’d done the hardest bit.’
‘You’ve done the hardest move, but this is a more sustained rock climb.’
And so it proved. The Second Top was a 20m rock tower. Karl went up first and shouted when he reached the top. Edita followed and I went last. The holds were good, but I got in a spot of bother near the top when I chose the wrong ones. I found myself too close to the rock and couldn’t swing my legs beneath me. Then I got my sling caught around a rock spike and it jerked me back. But I was soon up and the summit was spacious enough to relax and take a break from the exposure.
There was a narrow drop to the base of the First and final top. The final ascent passed in a blur. There was some easy climbing, but nothing as memorable as the previous two tops. Beyond its summit, Karl took us off to the right down a slope of loose scree.
‘If you keep on down the ridge then you’ll go over a cliff,’ he said.
There wasn’t much of a path, and we’d folded our sticks up to carry in our packs while we scrambled. We gingerly followed Karl down, taking comfort in the view, which was spectacular. To our right, we could see straight down the Coruisk Valley to Loch Coruisk and the sea beyond. The black spur of Druim nan Ramh angled up from its base to join the main ridge at Bidean Druim nan Ramh, a dark grey crenellated tower on the ridge ahead of us. ‘Bidean’ as it’s known to climbers, is at least as intricate and technical as the four summits of Sgurr a Mhadaidh, but it can be bypassed completely on its left-hand side. Perhaps we will climb it someday, but it’s not a feature we need to incorporate into a traverse.
We’d done what we needed to do and I now knew that a full traverse is within our capabilities. There is no longer any unavoidable obstacle we haven’t crossed.
We reached the grassy col beneath the First Top of Sgurr a Mhadaidh at 1pm and had lunch looking down towards Loch Coruisk. Karl told us that he hardly ever gets to stop for lunch and relax like this. He said that he mainly guides the traverse and the ‘Munro course’ (all 11 Munros in a series of day scrambles). On these trips they are always rushing around.
It was only 1pm, but to climb Bidean as well would make for a very long day. We descended into Coire a Mhadaidh, on the left side of the northern spur of Sgurr an Fheadain. It was a steep rubbly slope, and I would have considered it horrendous had I been descending on my own. But there was a trail marked on the OS map, and Karl seemed to consider it one as well. For him it was a piece of piss and he was completely unfazed. He kept saying ‘look, there’s a path here’ (there wasn’t).
‘I guess what you climbers call a path is different to the rest of us,’ I said.
‘I’ve been down far worse than this.’
Eventually we made it down to firmer ground and picked up the path down to the Fairy Pools, where we joined the masses. Looking at it now, it’s impossible to believe this tourist attraction didn’t even exist when I first came here in 2005. Of course, the natural rock pools in the wide expanse of Coire na Creiche always existed, but there was almost no one going to visit them. Now there is a huge car park and gravelled trails crossing this natural basin beneath the Cuillin ridge. Hundreds of people wandered up and down with tripods and selfie sticks. We had arrived in another world.
I made the assumption that anything with this many tourists must be underwhelming and I scurried past. But Edita called me back.
‘Look, they’re really nice!’
And they were. There were dozens of natural rock pools, each with their own little waterfall spilling into pine green waters. But my eyes were drawn to the four tops of Sgurr a Mhadaidh standing regal overhead. I was impressed that we’d been over all of them earlier in the day.
Karl took our photo as we posed before the pools and the mountain.
‘Have you been with Karakoram Expeditions?’ he said.
Then it dawned on me that I was wearing a black baseball cap that had been given to me when I signed up to a trip with the UK adventure travel company KE Adventure a few years earlier.
I spied an opening.
‘Oh, just a couple of trips to Guatemala and, I think, Morocco.’
‘Where did you go in Morocco?’
‘You know Morocco, do you?
‘Oh, I’ve been there a few times. A few years ago now, though.’
‘You’re not, by any chance, the same Karl Smith who wrote the Cicerone guide to Trekking in the Atlas Mountains?’
Karl looked away nonchalantly and examined his fingernails.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ he said. ‘Have you read it?’
I had to confess that I hadn’t. My only Cicerone guidebook to the Moroccan High Atlas was written in 2011 by Des Clark. In 1995 I barely knew where the Atlas Mountains were.
But suddenly the softly spoken Karl had become a lot more interesting. We walked back along the road to the youth hostel where we’d parked our car. Karl wasn’t only a guidebook writer, but he’d led many treks in Morocco, Turkey and Greece, places I haven’t explored. I had a lot of questions.
To be continued.
You can see all photos from this trip in my Loch Coruisk and Black Cuillin Flickr album.
Trip data: Sgurr a Mhadaidh Main Summit (918m), Third Top (890m), Second Top (?m), First Top (896m)
Total distance: 14.36km. Total ascent/descent: 1,072m.
View route map and download GPX