Return to the Skye Cullins
Kindly sponsored by Klaas van der Veen
The Skiff racing was over; we had danced the last dance and finished the last dram, the celebrations were over and it was time to return to my expedition. The sad thought that Tess would leave to continue our travels seemed to haunt both Tess and I. Holding my hand and embracing in one last hug she stifled the words “I don’t want to go!” I too didn’t want her to leave, for the first time of the trip I feared I would suffer from loneliness in her absence. With a last wave goodbye she faded into the distance, crammed into the back of a car filled with rucksacks she was on her way to Edinburgh.
Returning back into the house to see her still steaming and untouched cup of tea on the table the realization dawned behind a stifled tear….I was on my own once more….Well, perhaps not quite. I had another week away from the boat in the company of good friends. Kate (mum) had kindly offered to drive to Skye to enjoy a week of exploring, it would allow me to join university friends Lynn, Billy and the Hamletts (Tim & Laura) to climb the Cullin ridge. It would also prove a good way to get over a cold I had developed over the skiff week.
* * *
The next morning Kate and I wound our way from Ullapool to Skye along thin country roads under a blistering sun in a sweltering land rover. There was a bizarre feeling of backtracking which seemed almost as overwhelming as the heat. The summer had now arrived in full force and promised ideal conditions for the exposed scrambles of the Cullin ridge. If anything there was a risk it would be too hot!
Several hours later we arrived into Glen Brittle which seemed an entirely different world to the rainy, dark and dramatic mountain landscape I had last experienced there just a few weeks earlier. The rescue scenario seemed a lot longer than just a few weeks ago.
Standing perched in the sun on the bonnet of her small silver car the smiling face of a familiar friend appeared in front of Glen Brittle Youth Hostel- Lynn.
Waving with frantic enthusiasm Lynn who famous for ALWAYS wearing a hat was today sporting a bright white Tilly hat and suspiciously wet clothes, she had just returned from a refreshing dip in the river. With a huge hug and a cup of tea later we were almost ready to head to the hills. Our plan was to wait until 3pm, that way we would miss the heat of the day and more importantly Tim, Laura and Billy would join us.
I was ecstatic but nervous! After years of waiting I would finally get the chance to tackle the Cullins, with the superb climbing skills of Tim and Laura who acted as guides for the Inaccessible pinnacle what could possibly go wrong.
Joining Lynn to leap into the crystal clear pools beneath glittering waterfalls time seemed to simply swim by. The water was cold at first but after the initial snatch of breath it was delightfully refreshing and warm enough to stay some time diving swimming and splashing about. Before long the others arrived.
Tim and Laura packed ropes with characteristic enthusiasm and bounce, Billy scampered around with Lynn and I preparing to hike. It felt brilliantly like just another day out with the Stirling University Mountaineering Club, it still hadn’t yet dawned I had now finished university.
SCURR NAN BANACHDICH & THE INACCESSIBLE PINNACLE 9.3km +/- 1141m
Recommended Naithsmiths 3h 41m, Actual 7h 35m
Beers hidden in the stream for our triumphant return we hiked together up toward the ridge, our plan was to hike over Sgurr na Banachdich to reach the Inaccessible Pinnacle or better known the “In-Pin.” Stopping just before the steep ascent we studied the map to look for the easiest route up.
Rather than follow the scree slope track which scarred up the face of the rocky mountainside we made the group decision to bear west and follow a tall triangle of grassy ground to reach a lower ridge line, one on the ridge the two summits would be a simple scramble for the rest of the afternoon and a climb to the summit of the In-Pin.
Dipping my hat in the gurgling remains of a parched stream to try and keep cool I slowly plodded upward to catch up with the others. Billy (actually named Andrew) lived up to the origins of his nickname (Billy Goat) and seemingly effortlessly dashed upward with Tim and Laura, I was relieved to be joined with Lynn who like I had slowed in the heat.
Wheezing, sputtering and gasping for water I stumbled up the steep grass and onto loose scree. Tim who was mostly ahead of the pace ensured regular stops in the shade to cool down and catch up. Within the hour we emerged onto the ridge.
Delighted to have the faintest puff of wind to cool us off we traced up the beautiful rocky spine. Behind us Glen Brittle glistened invitingly under an already golden evening sun, climbing late in the day certainly provided a beautiful vista to enjoy.
Ambling up to the summit
As we ascended to the summit of Sgurr na Banachdich (or as Laura had renamed Scurr na Banana) the terrain became looser and rockier, over the day the dark volcanic Gabro had soaked the heat of the sun which now radiated upward into our sweating faces. Step by step we approached the first summit. All that remained was one last scree field, I was looking forward to the view into the depths of the Cullins from the top. On the far horizon a small boulder crested the horizon, unassuming and apparently just like any other erratic the rock was in fact the summit of the In-pin peeking out from behind the ridge line.
Onto the Scree
A short and sweaty climb later we emerged onto the summit. Creeping toward the edge I looked down a vertigo inducing drop into Loch Coruisk far below. Pinnacles and ridge lines sharp as a razor and black as ash dominated the skyline in a huge rugged edged bowl. Tall enough to have escaped glacial erosion during the last Ice age the former nunatuks now remained as rough shards and technical scrambles for the world to enjoy. A scramblers paradise I was exited to continue to ascent the only munro accessible by an actual climb.
Eager to make best use of the remaining light we did not wait long on the summit, Billy shimmied across a knife edged ridge ahead as the Hamletts lead the way. Scrambling slowly with a healthy respect for the tremendous drop beneath my feet I wondered how I would cope with the certain vertigo induced by the In-Pin itself.
As we drew closer to the second summit the terrain became progressively more craggy, a perfect warm up for the fun later in the day. Hot and grippy the volcanic Gabro rock was like sandpaper under hand and foot, perfect to remain stuck on the face but slowly removing skin and rubber as we went.
The scrambles begin
Taking refuge from the sun in the delightfully cold shade of a gully we were almost there, just one last small scree slope remained between us and the pin! Under the heat every step seemed to flush warmth through every pore in my body, like the wicked witch of the wizard of Oz my body screamed “I’mmm Melllltiiiiinnnngg!”
Rounding the ridge line it appeared. A giant finger of rock jutting from the mountainside, a monolithic column to the stars above. At the top of the pinnacle a large boulder teetered seemingly impossibly to its summit, it was all that remained of a once higher peak which had been blown to smithereens by lightening.
We were not alone, like ants upon the ridge another group of climbers ascended on the edge of the world, two others were waiting in line for the next ascent.
Tim and Laura seemed unfazed, his fourth time to summit Tim was in familiar ground. Rather than ascend on the conventional route straight up the exposed narrow ridge Laura would instead lead climb straight up the southern face, once on the top Tim would follow. Lynn, Billy and I would then be belayed to the summit under their safe hands.
Watching the middle aged group abseiling from the top back to the comfort of less exposed ground I was surprised, I wasn’t nearly as apprehensive as I had anticipated…in fact I was really looking forward to getting up. If anything to escape the midges.
Climbing fast and skilfully Laura quickly scaled the face. “Climb when Ready” she shouted down to Tim who quickly followed up to the top. I was confident that my ascent wouldn’t be nearly so smooth. Once on the top Tim disappeared behind the ridge to set up a “Via Ferrata style rope to secure the last scramble to the top. At the bottom of the face I threaded the rope through my harness and into a figure 8 knot. With climbing shoes squeezed onto my feet I looked up, it seemed a long way up. Only a moderate grade climb it was well within my ability, “Ok!, Lets go.”
Gripping the rock tight in my hand I slowly rose from the ground, from above the rope drew tight as Laura belayed. I knew the height would make me nervous so focused my attention into a bubble. There was just I and the rock, scanning for each hold testing and climbing I slowly ascended the face. About half way up the climb I looked down, my heart raced and stomach lurched….”yep thats a long way!” I thought with a jolt, “Why do I climb with vertigo?”
Swallowing any nerves I continued upward, the climbing itself was not unduly difficult although slightly painful as I had worn holes in the tips of bothy my climbing shoes. The answer to why I climb was quickly answered.. Reaching a smiling and happy Laura I hauled myself up onto the very narrow ridge and clipped into the belay point. Looking out I was perched on the edge of the world, before me the sun lit mountains, loch and sea into a heavenly golden glow…a perfect reward to compliment the challenge.
Tim arrived with a confident hop along the edge of the arete. Beckoning me onward I clipped into the rope now spanning the remainder of the crag and slowly eased myself along the rock. Straggling the face to either side of me a tremendous drop plummeted into cool shadow below, white knuckled and pumped with adrenaline I gradually scuttled closer to the top.
As the crest of the pinnacle arrived the ridge grew wider, here I felt comfortable to unclip from the rope and sit beneath the “finger” on the summit to wait for the others to join. Looking out the sun was setting quickly over Talisker bay, round and glowing as a giant orb it cast long shadows over the face.
Alone at the edge of the needle I waited in the tranquil silence of the evening for the others to join, Tim and Laura hidden beneath the rock helped with their ascent.
Lynn appeared with a cheer and a beaming smile and shortly after Billy fearlessly skipped across from behind the ridge. Laura and Tim quickly appeared behind, at last we were all together as friends on the tip of Scotland’s most technical Munro.
Lynn produced a clipboard with her nickname scrawled on a piece of paper. With a surname of “Munro” Lynn was often referred to as “Lynn-Pin” after this very summit.
Lynn on the Pin
The light was fading fast, we only had a few hours more before the night swallowed the mountainside. There was just one thing left to do…..climb the finger.
Laura demonstrated how it was done, clipping onto the rope and with graceful scrambling quickly summited onto the top. With arms outstretched she saluted the sun and returned to the belay point.
Billy was next to volunteer and with Tim on belay he scrambled gingerly onto the tall narrow boulder. The exposure on the top was immense, with a “WHOOOOP!” Billy released his hands from their tight grip on the rock and stood up triumphantly. He was the king of the castle, the Cullins his domain.
As Billy unclipped it was my turn. Once again threading the rope through my harness into a figure of 8 I gripped the rock with a tense grasp. “Climb when ready” Tim announced and off I went. With a high leg and white knuckles I scrambled onto the top. It wasn’t far but the drop between I and Tim already felt a long way, certainly enough to raise my heart rate once more.
Teetering on the table top summit I gingerly stretched my legs and stood up. Every fibre of my body screamed to lay down and sprawl out like a spider on the rock but fighting the urge I rose upright and felt stable once more. Looking down a fantastic surge of exposure driven adrenaline coursed through my veins….it was absolutely as I imagined it and it felt amazing!
All around the last rays of the sun cast incredible shadowed relief onto the mountains. Ahead the entire Cullin ridge snaked out before me toward the far horizon, Blaven glowed red in the distance and the islands of Soay, Rhum and Eigg crested a sea of liquid gold. It was the perfect mountain experience, THIS was why we go!
With a cautious down climb I returned to the sae platform, giving Tim an elated high five of appreciation I swapped the rope with Lynn. Carefully and confidently she scrambled onto the summit. Unlike Billy or I she simply stood up, seemingly entirely fearlessly she had finally conquered her mountain!
As Lynn down climbed Laura abseiled back to the bags. Clipping into the rope which was threaded through a shiny and reassuringly sturdy looking anchor chain I leant back and started to descend.
Leaning back the fun bit had arrived, with an initial lurch of adrenaline as I leant over the edge on the rope I sunk into comfort. The abseil was fantastic fun, slowly hopping and descending down the shorter western face of the pinnacle I chased the last light of the falling sun. With a sigh of relief my feet touched land, thanks to the help of many I had finally climbed the In-Pin.
One by one Billy, Lynn and Tim followed down the rope. The sun had set and under the purple glow of the twilight sky we packed and quickly turned to descend. We would be hiking out in the dark after all, the beers in the stream abandoned for another day.
Returning along the ridge under head torch we skipped down into the darkness, with a small portable speaker “Runrig” blared Scottish melodies out of Tim’s backpack and into the darkness. Sun burnt, tired and dehydrated we all longed to reach the stream far below.
Skipping onto the track from the scree we didn’t arrive back to the road until past midnight, a long day but well worth the late start.
* * *
With a honk of the horn as they passed the tent Tim and Laura departed back to Stirling. Ever grateful for their superb guiding the night before Lynn, Billy and I gave one last hug goodbye. Lynn and Billy would remain to join me for another two days in the hills, still missing Tess I was delighted to still have good company.
We decided to mix up the order a little and attempt Bruach na Frithe and Am Bastir while the weather was still good. Although initially intending to include Scurr nan Gilliean we later decided to avoid the difficult scramble up the western chimneys. In similar style to the day before we made the decision to enjoy the morning by swimming in and out of the Fairy pools to cool off and them summit the mountains in the cooler afternoon air.
BRUACH NA FRITHE & AM BASTIR 11.2km +/- 1105m
Recommended Naisthmiths 3h 57m, Actual 6h 45m
Starting among throngs of tourists Lynn, Billy and I wandered along the well maintained track to the famous Fairy pools. Crystal clear inviting and blue they were too tempting not to swim in. I finally had the chance to tick off something I had wanted to do for a long time, find the natural arch and swim under it.
It wasn’t difficult to locate, a few 100m along the river a bar of rock bridged a pool, this had to be it! Deciding to make our entrance a little more “Intrepid” we slung a rope around a tree and abseiled over a waterfall. With the rope sliding through my fingers I lowered myself into the fall, with a roar and rush of spray I was taken aback by the cool shower. Emerging chilled and soaked from the rushing curtain I signalled for the others to follow “Come on in….its great!”
Lynn and Billy followed and the three of us continued toward the arch. Deep blue pools bubbled like jacuzzis, sculpted by the gradual erosion of the river they were perfectly rounded potholes. With a final leap and a whoop we leapt from a high ledge and into the largest pool to the archway below.
Lynn went first, with a huge gasp for air she disappeared into the depths below. It wasn’t far to swim only a few meters across and a meter down. Unable to see past the rocky bridge Lynn’s exited whoop of delight as she emerged on the other side signalled it was all ok.
Billy and I who were wallowing in the water soon followed suit into the cold abyss. With a large breath I dived, the world went silent and in the calm “green room” under the river I swam down. Under the arch I opened my eyes, it was perfectly clear…ahead the light danced on a shingle bottom, swimming gently and relaxed as if in a pool I glided across to the far side and surfaced with a gasp! “Wooo! That was fun!”
Deciding to beat the heat by swimming fully clothed the ascent toward the ridge of Bruach na Frithe was wonderfully cool. Crunching through parched sphagnum bog we were soon ascending the grassy ridge line toward the summit. It took barely 30 minutes to be completely dry once more. Deciding not to risk becoming de-hydrated like the day before we each carried between 4 and 6L of water each. Every stop I guzzled a third of a litre just to maintain hydration.
Ascending upward the ridge was wide open grassland, scorched yellow by the uninhibited sun. Panting in the heat our pace was slow but steady on the way up, the thought of a cool breeze helped to spur progress toward the summit.
Slowly and surely the parch green grass turned to slate grey, we had ascended into the crags and scree leading up the ridge to the summit. With delightful views from every angle it was hard to choose where to look most, I focused on the summit ahead which silhouetted against the blinding sun already seemed tantalisingly close. Billy scrambled ahead with characteristic energy and bounce, with mountain goat like agility he clambered along the most direct route he could find across the ridge, Lynn strode ahead with determined purpose and I staggered onward trying not to collapse in the heat.
It was our second day on the mighty Cullins, my fingers were already starting to feel raw from gripping the rough rock at each scrambled step, I wondered if they would last the week or would they be reduced to sanded down stumps.
Parched and panting we clambered over the final ledge and emerged triumphant onto a small peak, nearby a perfectly cylindrical trig point stood prominent against the black rock. Stopping for lunch I enjoyed the spectacular razor sharp ridge which wound its way brittle and broken to the sea, it was like the spine of a mighty sleeping dragon and seemed to defy the otherwise rounded landscape below. Munching on a pack of oat cakes smeared in tomato puree I guzzled water by the litre.
Lynn, Billy and I were in no rush to move from the summit, looking east we could see the imposing face of Am Bastir and Scurr nan Gillean ahead. There was no way we were going to attempt the “Grade 3” scramble up a tall and narrow chimney to the summit of Gillean, instead we decided to go for Am Bastir and return to sea level.
Looking on to Am Bastir
From the summit of Bruach na Frithe it was a short scramble toward the summit of Scurr a fionn choire, a small sub peak on the ridge we decided to summit just for fun. Scrambling and climbing to the summit rewarded us with tremendous views across the infamous Am Basteir Tooth, a large overhanding point of rock which juts from the summit seemingly defying gravity. It certainly was a relief to think we could climb Am Basteir without scaling the tooth itself, a task which certainly would require ropes.
Clambering down I was unsteady from the small peak we decided to traverse the tooth to the south of the ridge line. We did not know it but this would turn out to be a much harder option than if we had traversed to the north. Descending downward on steep loose scree the scent of rock dust filled the air, above towering cliffs filled with fissures, gargoyled rock and intricate stacks of boulders seemed to loom ominously over us. Where cliff meet scree huge caves low and deep gave welcome cool rest bite from the sun.
The further we descended the less ascendable the face of Am Basteir seemed, it was steep and very exposed. Seemingly fearlessly Billy scouted out routes ahead, still feeling unsteady from the cold medicine I had taken over lunch the thought of a climb seemed un-nerving. Following the guide of our little white bible “SMC guide to Skye Scrambles” we aimed toward a steep gryke in the cliffs ahead. Leading to a coll it would be a steep 50m scramble to the top.
With relief as we grew closer the face seemed less intimidating, once on the rock itself my hands gripped tight and white knuckled to boulders easily found secure placements. Testing each rock for stability the three of us travelled close together to avoid any rock fall injuries and within no time had scrambled the surprisingly secure feeling face. At last we were on the Bealach a Bhasteir and just a short ridge line away from our second peak.
Dropping our bags in the shade we felt lighter, more stable and free. Without the pack throwing any balance off centre the scramble along the ridge was enjoyable and relatively easy. Narrow and delightfully exposed on each side the ascent was challenging enough to require concentration but not scary, the only real challenge lay at “The difficult step.”
During a past storm the ridge had fallen in a rock slide, what was left was a short steep down climb cutting across the face. It was by-passable according to the SMC guide however we decided to have a go of it. With the help of the same group of climbers who had preceded us on the in-pin the night before we clambered down one by one. The friendly group helped to secure our foot holds and left a small sling to cling on to if needed, neither Lynn, Billy or I used the sling but their guidance on the way down was highly appreciated.
Rushed with adrenaline after the few minutes of careful foot placement and tightly gripped holds there was no longer any obstacle in our way, we were almost there. Under the golden light we wandered casually but carefully onto the summit. Just as we had the night before we were rewarded with tremendous views bathed in the vibrant and delicate hues of the evening light, long shadows cast wild ragged lines across the towering cliffs below, we could see almost all of Skye from our afternoon perch. The air was cooler and crisp, perfect for lazing on the summit to enjoy our days achievement.
With a group photos and teetering peer over the edge into 1000ft of hazy air and shadow we were ready to return to camp. Looking north our route below wound white and worn by the many boots of hikers past lead downward to the distant Sligachan pub. Despite the 6L of water I was rather looking forward to a cold crisp pint.
A short scramble back to the bags later we descended into the cool shade of the gully below, passing onto scree Lynn and I slowly descended. Still jumping with energy Billy decided to run onto the far ridge to descend in the sunshine, we would meet at the base to walk out to Sligachan together.
Watching Billy running down the scree below us Lynn and I slowly wound or way down the mountainside. With the clack of poles of rock and creaking of knees we grew closer to the bar step by step. The setting sun was casting beautiful delicate hues over the nearby Red Cullin and lit the trail golden like the “Yellow brick road” home.
Peering down a deep gorge which cut deep into the corrie behind us. With glee Billy cast a stone from the edge of the face into the void as it fell silence seemed to amplify from the abyss only to be shattered with the explosive cacophony of the impact, thousands of shards of shattered stone clattered below. Smiling and laughing we left the irresistible urge to cast bigger and bigger rocks and start walking across the peat bog ahead. After all throwing rocks wasn’t exactly environmentally friendly, even ones as small as a tennis ball.
Relieved to be on flat ground the trail slowly undulated across the peat, all the nerves and adrenaline from the exposure of narrow ridges and abyss seemed to fade into the tranquil pools glistening silent in the heather, pools which borrowing the colours from an evening sky reflected only rugged golden peaks and dark shadow of the distant peaks. We did not miss a step or pause for long lest the midges discovered our presence, in the calm they were surely lying in wait.
Arriving back at the Sliachan pub we were greeted with a smiling Kate, beckoning us into the pub we were treated to a fantastic dinner and huge pot of tea. It was an unexpected but very welcome luxury. Filled and rested we hopped into the car and returned to Glen Brittle camp site, tomorrow we would pick another hill to climb, I was exited already.
* * *
By the time I escaped the tent in the morning there was already a tea brewing in the shade below the land-rover, Lynn and Billy relaxed in pop out deck chairs with a large bowl of breakfast in their hands. For the third day running the sun shone brightly, thankfully a slight breeze blew the promise of cooler hiking across the bustling camp.
SCURR MIC CONNICH (& SCURR NAN BANACHDICH) 11.9km +/- 1279m
Recommended Naithsmiths: 4h 30m, Actual Time: 6h 20m
Full on tea and with packs slung over our shoulders we left the busy commotion of Glen Brittle camp and wandered upward along the narrow gravel trail toward Corrie Lagan. It was the same trail I had stumbled down with the MR rescue team earlier in the month, in the sun and heat it seemed a distant and surreal memory to think of the cold bleakness of the rescue.
Lynn and I walked ahead enjoying some time together to chat and enjoy the view toward the beautiful peaks above. We were travelling into a mighty bowl, surrounded on all sides by towering cliffs the mountain tops seemed to loom over us overhanging and imposing. Billy who had briefly dashed to the shop at Glen Brittle returned at a jog, he now donned a green “French Legionnaires” cap to shade out the sunshine.
We had only one peak to summit as I had already climbed the munros either side, looking up however Scurr Mic Connich gave the first glimpses of impossibly steep scrambling. I watched nervously as a line of white helmets of a guided group bobbed and teetered across what seemed to be the cliff itself. “It always looks worst from below” I told myself although still feeling the pangs of pre-exposed scramble anxiety.
From scree and loose stone the trail rose onto the rounded grippy slabs of Gabro. Ground into smooth curves and waves by ancient glaciers the stone pavement curled gently into a large perfectly mirror still lochan. Tired and sweating already we dropped packs and lay out star shaped on the warm rock.
Above only the faint rush of a slight breeze over the rocky walls broke the tranquility, it strangely seemed to exaggerate the silence in the giant amphitheatre. We were in no rush to ascent the An Stac screes.
Tearing myself away from urge to relax into the warmth of the corrie and simply sleep beside the loch I joined the others to climb onto the An Stac scree slopes. 200m of steep loose rock the ascent was punishingly slow. Two steps forward one step back seemed to be the only way forward, travelling in close formation to avoid knocking rocks onto each other we slowly but surely grew closer to the ridge.
30 minutes later I stumbled sweating and wheezing onto the ridge, we were rewarded with a cool breeze gently rolling across the top of the ridge. For the third day running I was staring wide eyed and amazed across the rugged spine of the Cullin Mountains, from a new angle the Am Bastir tooth seemed to dominate the sky line. Dropping our packs we moved upward toward the summit.
Without our bags we could scramble a little easier, as we approached the first exposed crag leading toward the peak I was consumed with both excitement and nervous anticipation. Mic Connich was one of the most exposed un-roped sections of the Cullin Ridge that I would be scrambling, I was very relieved to be in the comforting company of Lynn and Billy. With friends at my side I was far less nervous that I would have been alone.
Billy fearlessly hopped along the most exposed boulders he could find while Lynn and I picked our way along the dusty ‘trail’ of the conventional route. The sense of vertigo was spectacular and the grippy gabro gave perfect confidence in each hold, looking down beneath my feet the mountain seemed to simply plummet to the corrie floor far below. My heart was racing but I was having a blast!
With relief the tricky looking step which I had nervously watched other climbers shimmy along from the corrie below turned out to be very easy and far less precipitous than had appeared. With a quick and careful shuffle of feet the three of us were stood atop the table top summit.
Enjoying the view we weren’t alone for long; Wheezing and puffing behind a cigarette a gruff looking mountain guide appeared with his clearly nervous client, “There y’go Lad” he beckoned upward toward us and pointed to where his grateful customer could reach the top. Doer and obviously familiar to the point of tedium with the route the guide didn’t bother with the summit but sat below on a ledge to wipe away sweat with an old scarf and light another cigarette.
Turning his attention on the three of us who were eagerly performing a jump on the summit he muttered “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that” obviously unamused before blurting out “Were those your bags on the coll below?”
A little confused as to why he was asking we replied “yes they were,” with a loud splutter of tar and amusement he laughed.
“You’ll be lucky if theres much left in them by now” he said with a strange air of satisfaction. Surely no one would have stolen our gear up here? Our questions were answered before we asked; “The Ravens” he continued, “They have learnt to undo zips to steal food!”….ah
Suddenly it seemed clearer, indeed our packs were entirely exposed and beside a large cliff it wouldn’t be hard for ravens to accidentally cast the contents of a pocket into the abyss, apparently a problem in Corrie Lagan, we had indeed noticed Ravens circling on our ascent. It seemed that was our que to return back down before the found them.
Perhaps spurred on with the thought that an army of birds would be stealing my head-torch and food or perhaps because I know knew what to expect of the ridge but the descent seemed far less intimidating than on the way up. After being told off by the stern guide for “Stupid scrambling” who was watching a perfectly confident Billy climb onto a rock just for fun, we descended with speed.
To our delight the bags were untouched by the ravens, they were however baked by the sun. Sipping a now hot bottle of water and squeezing gooey chocolate bar from a misshapen wrapper we discussed our options for the day. Lynn HAD to return the way we had come so that she could drive home in reasonable time, Billy and I however had no constraints and decided to return to the ridge and back along the two peaks we had passed on the first day. Our intention was to go as far as Scurr nan Banachdich and possibly onto Sgurr a Ghreadaidh depending what the ridge seemed like.
With a last hug goodbye we parted ways, Lynn clattered down the loose scree into the distance below.
And then there were two.
From the coll Billy and I wound down toward the top of the scree slope, looking up to the In-Pinn a clear route wound its way up to the summit of Scurr Dearg. We passed under the In-Pinn once more, looking upward to the summit the memory of standing on the summit was still fresh, it had been a brilliant evening out! From here we knew exactly where we were going, after all just two days ago we had walked this ridge already. We decided to take a slightly more scrambly route on our way to the summit of Scurr nan Banachdich.
Yet again we stood on the summit in the evening light in front of a world class vista. Nestling into the cool refuge of a patch of shade we discussed options. The ridge to the next summit was a “Grade 3” according to the guide book, looking across it looked difficult. It was late and we decided to descend.
Sliding down the scree from the ridge Billy and I emerged dusty and hot onto a small trail, parched white soil cracked underfoot as we descended in the evening light. As we continued downward at a gentle stroll an inviting gurgle of water bubbled up from a steep ravine beside our path. Bounding from the trail into tall grass we clambered to the base of a large waterfall. Clinging onto sprigs of heather for support we lowered ourselves onto a small rocky beach and gave into the temptation of the cool crystal water.
Basking in the water like a hippopotamus I floundered in the shallows letting the cold sooth my tired legs, the water was so clear that both Billy and I could swim with eyes open and explore the depths at the bottom of the falls.
Finally tearing ourselves away from the water we ambled relaxed and rested back to the road, a short walk later we arrived into Glen Brittle campsite, just in time to meet Kate with a gigantic bowl of chilli cooking on the stove.
SGURR A GHREADAIDH & SGURR A’ MHADAIDH 9.06km +/- 1026m
Naismith: 3h 30m, Actual 4h 5m
For the first time during the week the morning sky contained a cloud. A humid muggy air swallowed the valley and promised the first signs that rain may soon return to the peaks. Eating breakfast on the top of the land-rover trying to pursue even the faintest breath of wind to drive off the midges I looked over the map. I had just three peaks left to summit.
I decided to summit Scurr a Greadaidh and Scurr a’ Mhadiadh which would leave Scurr nan Gillean for the last day. It would be the first day that I would summit alone, Billy who was packing the tent away below me was preparing to hitch-hike back to Stirling. It was two peaks I had been looking forward to, they were two of the “easiest” summits along the ridge with no exceptionally tricky scrambles or exposure to worry about. I had also climbed Scurr a Greadaidh several years before in the winter season with friend Remi.
* * *
With Billy hitching on the road and Kate wandering away to Talisker bay I stumbled up the now quite familiar trail from Glen Brittle Youth Hostel into Coire a’ Ghreadaidh. Passing the pool which Billy and I had swum in the night before and along a series of waterfalls I soon left the trail and entered steep scree slopes.
Going at my own pace alone in the hills I scrambled and clattered across the large loose boulders. For the first time I was hiking early in the morning, the air was cool enough to allow hiking through the heat of the day and with thunderstorms forecast in the evening I was keen to hit the peaks before they arrived.
Following the same route Remi and I had climbed over the winter I ignored the guide book and aimed for a small spur on the western ridge of Scurr a’ Ghreadaidh. With a clatter of rocks I soon escaped the scree slope and onto the bouldery scramble to the summit.
Following along a small narrow channel I climbed up a trick 10m section of steep rock, trying hard to concentrate on my hands and feet and not look down to the huge drop below I slowly and very carefully continued upward. 10m later I emerged onto a less steep face of loose scree and bouldery slabs. Just 150m above I could see the summit cairn.
A short ascent later I emerged onto the ridge, looking south a large bank of cloud was starting to form in the distance over the Isle of Eigg. Rain was surely on the way. With this in mind I took a only quick break on the top before continuing on to the next summit, I hoped I might beat the storm.
I decided not to return the way I had ascended, instead I would continue east and descend onto the scree through the infamous Eag Dubh gap. The guide book described the route down as grade 2/3, a relatively easy scramble to the pass.
Clambering past a large rocky feature known as “The Wart” I slid on my bottom over a short slabby section before gripping tightly to a rocky ledge. With a hop and a leap I emerged onto a shallow rocky alcove. As if out of no-where the ridge to my north suddenly parted as if I was moses and it were the sea. A giant crack which dissected the mountainside the Eag Dubh gap descended into shade. It seemed eerily ominous, rumbling with a whistle of wind which cut through the divide it felt as if it was the path to no return. Checking the map I climbed down between the walls.
Inside the gap towering walls seemed to swallow all sense of the mountain into the cold, damp crevasse. The whistle of wind silenced in the walls only the clatter of rocks dislodged by misplaced footsteps echoed around the cliffs. With a satisfying chink a small pebble ricocheted between the walls beneath me and out of sight far below, with arms outstretched to touch both walls at once I carefully descended.
The gap seemed to just keep going, I found myself wandering “What if the storm breaks?” surely a torrent of water would cascade through this perfect channel and take me with it! Shrugging off the thought into my over active imagination I was relieved to feel the air was growing warmer and walls getting lighter…I was nearly out on the other side of the mountain.
As quickly as I had been swallowed into the foreboding and incredible feature I appeared back into the light warm mountainside, I had arrived into the northern Coire once more.
Leaving the pass behind me I traversed quickly across 250m of scree toward the face of Scurr a’ Mhadiadh. Picking up the pace I quickly climbed along the wide loose face of the mountainside, the clouds above were starting to grow darker. . . the storm was on the way.
As the second summit approached the scree gave way to narrow trails, well formed and without any sense of exposure I quickly jogged along the slope. Small wisps of cloud started to drift over the peaks to the east. I was delighted I had chosen to summit the two peaks anti-clockwise as the peak of Scurr a’ Ghreadaidh disappeared into cloud.
Scurr a’ Mhadaidh’s summit had two peaks of almost equal altitude, separated by a short knife edged spine of rock they were barely 15m apart. Dropping my pack I shimmied across the ledge to summit both. Half way along the spine I sat with legs either side, to my north the mountain dropped into the steep scree several hundred meters below, to the south a small rocky slab sheered away to vertical cliffs which towered over Loch Courisk far below. It was a great place to sit and take in the tremendous view with a touch of vertigo. Considering remaining to eat a bite of lunch the air suddenly erupted with a deafening rumble…thunder!
Crawling along the top
Just a few kilometers away the sky had sunk into a deep ominous navy blue, colossal clouds rose high above the peaks swallowing almost all the light out of the horizon, another flash lit up the horizon, there was silence….1….2…3…4….booOOOoooM! The mountainside rocked with thunder once more. It was time to go!
Before leaving the summit I quickly threw on my jacket, despite the humid head I figured it would be needed very soon, with a compass in hand I started to descend as fast as I could.
I had made it 200m down from the summit, out of the worst of the navigation all I needed to do was keep going down. Below was nothing but a large scree slope leading to the river. Suddenly and almost instantly Coire a’ Ghreadaidh became enveloped in mist. It happened so fast I stopped to watch with awe, a small ball of thick cloud simply materialised before me, like a wall it swallowed up the ground ahead moving toward me incredibly fast.
In as little as 30 seconds the previously perfect visibility across the entire coire became swallowed in cloud, I could see barely a few hundred meters. Along with the view the cloud seemed to suck all sound and light away from the rock, it was suddenly ominously dark and very silent all around me.
As if mid-day had become twilight instantaneously I slowly made my way downward. As quickly as the cloud had arrived a tremendous rain shower suddenly broke. The rain was thick and heavy, as if I was standing in a power shower within seconds everything was soaked, the dry rocky slabs around me suddenly streaked with roaring white streams of run-off, silence became a roar of rain on rock broken with stomach rumbling booms of thunder from above…I was very glad to be off the summits.
The cloud was lessening, visibility became better and despite the drenching I was rather enjoying the surprisingly warm rain. As if I had left Scotland and arrived in Asian monsoon season I relished the cool refreshment after the stifling humidity.
10 minutes after the rain had begun it stopped as suddenly as it had arrived, the cloud parted and a new view arrived. Coire a’ Ghreadaidh was no longer the parched valley I had seen just 20 minutes before, enveloped in veils of cloud which clung to the basin below me the scene seemed infinitely more luscious and green. In the distance the sky now brooding and blue continued its curtain of rain northward and away from the mountains. A wonderful earthy Petrichor scent rose up from the ground around me which still gurgling with run-off streams seemed to soak up the storm with ease.
The peaks above now enveloped in mist would remain hidden for the remainder of the day, it seemed I had made their summits just in time. Throwing my jacket back into my bag I wandered with a new energy down toward the road below.
I stopped only to continue tradition and have a swim in a pool once more…it seemed a post climb swim had started to become the theme of the week so far and I wasn’t ready to give up. With the inflated streams boosted with run-off which had cascaded over warm rock the rivers seemed even warmer than usual. I spent over 40 minutes bathing in the pools beside Glen Brittle Youth Hostel before meeting Kate. “Another two down!, one more to go!” I smiled, I imagine it was some relief to my poor mother who had been constantly worrying about the scrambling antics most of the week.
* * *
SCURR NAN GILLEAN 11.8km +/-1004m
Naithsmiths: 4h 1m, Actual 4h 30m
Starting from Sligachan camp I left Kate to relax in her deck chair by the tent with a book. She was aiming to climb some of the Red Cullins as I ascended my final Skye Cullin. I was exited but overwhelmed with a deep unsettled nervousness. As I started walking across the open peat bog toward the base of the mountain I tried hard to shake the feeling.
I knew that Scurr nan Gillean was one of the more exposed sections of the ridge line and I was doing it alone. The summit was hidden in cloud and would require some tricky navigation if it didn’t clear. Thankfully it seemed to be slowly rising. In the mean time however I had plenty of open moor to enjoy crossing.
Passing over a small bridge made with a singular plank I was well on the way upward toward the summit. The crystal pools seemed less inviting in the now cooler air but I vowed I would regardless enjoy a dip on the way back down.
The trail wound between heather, grass and hundreds of yellow Bog Asphodel flowers which splashed a dash of colour into the landscape all around. Ahead the moor gave way to rock and scree once more, the ascent had begun.
* * *
Navigating past a small coire I emerged onto the final boulder field before the final scramble to the summit. All but the last 50m of the mountain was now free of cloud. To my amazement about 700m up the face I discovered a small pine tree growing amongst the rocks, a throwback reminder to countless hours spent counting pine trees in the Cairngorms; My university dissertation assignment.
Emerging onto the ridge with legs covered in rock dust from the scree I sat on a small ledge to enjoy yet another view onto the ridge. I dropped my pack, (I wouldn’t need it after all) and ascended toward the top. Taking a moment to collect myself I left my bag nestled in the rocks (hidden from Ravens) and started to hike up the ridge.
As I approached the nervousness seemed to fade away, no longer dwelling on the thought of falling I was consumed with the task in hand. Focused on securing the best hand and food holds I could find I slowly climbed upward.
At first the ridge wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had imagined, small rocky steps lead upward section by section “This is fine!” I though happily. Then the first tricky step arrived… 10-15m of steep rock which sloped over a tremendous drop far to the valley below. The holds were good but one slip here would surely be the end.
In my own “Bubble” of concentration it was just I and the rock between my head and my feet, tuning out everything else I focused only on the next hold. Glancing downward as I clambered white knuckled onto the ridge, there was little rest, looking over my vantage point I was on the edge of the sword, jagged and narrow I teetered high over the ground.
Dont look down
Now on the ridge itself I slowly and carefully balanced along the narrow ledge toward the cairn ahead. After a few tricky and exposed clambers around boulders which required hanging over the drop itself in tricky angles I was soon on the last stretch to the summit. With a calculated leap I jumped up onto my feet over the last part of the scramble and arrived panting and elated on the top.
“Half way!” I thought delighted!
The cloud was enveloping the summit providing only the briefest of views over the Cullins to the west. Buzzed on adrenaline I felt triumphant to have finally climbed all of the Cullins, all that was left was to safely make it back down.
The down climb was just as exposed and thrilling as the ascent, strangely in the same way I had experienced on Mic Connich I was no longer nervous on the down climb, instead I carefully but swiftly clambered back to the bag.
With one last hop I landed on the wide slabs that lead back down to the scree slopes. Back below the cloud I could finally enjoy a view, I was relieved to think that from this point it was all well secured and no longer would I have to deal with exposure. All that was left was a long walk home.
Back at the bag I celebrated with a quick bite of chocolate, elated and with a new spring in my step I slid down the scree slope and back into the moors leading to the Sligachan pub. To some annoyance the cloud departed from the summit just as I reached the bottom, “Typical.”
At least the sun suddenly arrived, once more it was a glorious day in Skye. As I arrived at the little plank bridge I decided to keep my promise to myself and leap into one of the perfect crystal pools. It was bizarre to think that every day that week I had been swimming in rivers and not once had they been uncomfortably cold.
It had been a surprisingly quick day out, I arrived just after lunch time and was well ahead of Kate who presumably remained somewhere in the Red Cullins. There was only one thing left to do as I waited….buy a crisp cool beer from the pub and relax in the grass beside the river, a fantastic way to end a great week with good friends.
Looking up at the ridge line now conquered I watched as ominous dark clouds re-emerged over their summits, spread out like a starfish and basking in the sun they were no longer a cause for concern. It was a wonderful feeling to know they were complete at last.
Kate returned beaming and ecstatic after a great day out on her own mountain adventure, we packed the car one last time and left the mountains to return to Ullapool….we were just in time, in the hills it was raining once more!