Cuillin Ridge, May 2001 – Still waiting for news of my new nephew and still in need of distractions, so here is an article I wrote for the Durham University Mountaineering Club journal in 2001 following a successful traverse of the Cuillin Ridge with my brother Jim in a year not unlike this year…..
The foot and mouth crisis was in full flow back in May 2001 and all keen climbers had to head north of Glasgow to have some fun. So we went to Skye. Another last minute plan. Originally just Jim and I, then Ben attached himself the night before and Paavo at 4pm on the Friday. Unfortunately Paavo was in Sheffield at the time so we had a fairly disorganised, late start. We’d all had the same idea about gear – it’s summer, no bulky ice gear, so we can take lots of luxuries to fill up the car. Hence the car was fuller than in winter and Ben and Paavo were hidden under karrimats and sleeping bags on the back seat.
At Dalkeith we started to think about what we would climb. Glen Brittle had opened the same day. Ben suggested the Cuillin Ridge. I thought he was mad. Then I thought about it properly. Why not do it over two days? That would remove some of the pain and would mean two mountain bivvies to add to the fun. The weather forecast couldn’t be better and there might even be some snow left over for water. Everyone was keen so we started some complicated logistical planning.
We stopped overnight outside the Kingshouse in Glencoe and then continued to Sligachan on the Saturday via Safeway in Fort William. The first stage of the master plan was to leave the car at the Slig and hitch round to Glen Brittle. A faff of epic proportions ensued. It was at this point we discovered that the only guidebook we had with us was my big hard backed book on Scottish scrambling. Sadly I found my penknife and sliced out the six pages. Optimistically I thought that they could always be stuck back in at the end, knowing full well that after two days of being scrunched in a rucksack they would be in no fit state for anything. (2020 note – I still have those 6 pages, in pristine condition)
Jim & I were ready first and soon got a lift to the first junction. Then another lift to the next junction. Then nothing. Then Paavo and Ben overtook us, came to a screeching stop, reversed at high speed and went roaring off down the road to Glen Brittle waving at us. Still nothing. We eventually got a lift one mile up the road with a farmer wanting to look at his sheep. Then nothing. We sat in the sun, the first warm sun that year it seemed. We could see the Cuillin Ridge now, Waterpipe Gully, Bruach Na Frith. A bit of snow on the ridge, enough to give us water for the traverse. Good. Still nothing. A bee buzzed, the grass blew gently in the wind and the roads were silent. So we picked up our sacks and walked. The tarmac was hard to walk on, our sacks seemed heavy, the sun was too hot, I got a blister and cars passed us half empty. How could I do the Cuillin Ridge when I couldn’t even walk five miles along a road?
A few hours later we arrived at Coire A Ghrunda, hot, tired and annoyed. It started to drizzle a little. Christ, it wasn’t supposed to rain. We had no tents, only identical illuminous yellow bivvy bags. Apart from Paavo who naturally had Rab gear from head to toe (2020 note – Paavo worked for Rab at the time). So we settled down for the night.
Jim & I started at 7am the next day. Ben and Paavo stayed in bed. There was a nice view over the sea to Rum. Then I put my contact lenses in and realised the sea was actually cloud and we had a cloud inversion with the mountains of Rum poking out of the top. Within 15 minutes of starting I had bashed my head on a rock and given myself a sore head which would last most of the trip. Typically I had left my helmet behind to lighten my rucksack (2020 note – !!!???). We dumped our sacks on the col between Sgurr Nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor and walked to Garsbheinn, right on the end of the ridge. This took longer than expected, but as soon as we got to the end the sun came out and Bla Bheinn was in sight, its twin peaks rising above the cloud inversion.
We returned to the sacks and found Ben and Paavo had left theirs in the same place. We wondered whether to add a few rocks to their sacks and later found that they’d had the same thoughts about our sacks. Our sacks certainly felt like they’d had lots of rocks added. Our balance disappeared, our movements became slow and heavy. Once again I had doubts as to whether I would actually complete the ridge.
We soon came to the TD gap, at V Diff the most technical part of the ridge. We abseiled down to the gap and looked in horror at the smooth, vertical wall ahead. The cloud had closed in, the gap was dank, dripping and eerily quiet, white mist blowing around. Jim led the wall in rock boots without his sack. Very nice for him. I seconded it in big boots with my sack on. My lungs felt they were at altitude as I gasped for breath after strenuous moves. Ben and Paavo watched us and then followed. Despite watching our struggles, Paavo tried to lead the wall in big boots with a sack – and got stuck. After floundering around and swinging wildly from side to side, he left his sack tied to some gear and continued. Ben then attached Paavo’s sack to his own harness and with his own sack on his back and a cry of “This is how you do it in Yosemite” (in which case I’ll stay away from Yosemite) he climbed the wall to the astonishment of observers.
By this time Jim and I had made rapid progress. Over Sgurr Thealaich, along Collies Ledge (Kings Chimney looked damp and greasy) and up to the In Pin. We’d even stopped for a quick brew at a snow patch below An Stac. A quick run up the In Pin was followed by an abseil with instructions on how to abseil shouted to us by members of a rambling party sat on the summit of Sgurr Dearg. We tried not to show our irritation.
Then onto Sgurr Banachdich where we watched a mountain rescue take place. A woman had slipped and broken her leg and we arrived at the same time as the helicopter. We watched the helicopter circle, lower a crew member and lift up the stretcher and injured party before flying away. With a sober reminder of what could easily happen, we continued onto Sgurr Mhathaidh. Here we had had enough. After the first top we lost the path and descended too far. We retraced our steps and decided to stop for the night at a stone wall on a small col, right next to a large snow patch.
We enjoyed a meal (which for Jim & I consisted mainly of lots & lots of frankfurter sausages) and then turned to Paavo’s rum. This was vicious stuff, 80% proof, cooking rum which he’d imported from Austria, illegal in the UK. It had been siphoned into an empty lucozade packet and only the hardened whisky drinkers amongst us (i.e. Jim & I) could manage more than a mouthful without choking. Then the conversation turned onto the state of Paavo’s digestive system. Unfortunately for all concerned he’d chosen this particular weekend to end the two weeks of constipation he’d endured since returning from Austria. None of us had thought to bring toilet paper. Ben was suffering from severe discomfort after trying the Paavo-recommended method of moss followed by snow. Jim was not suffering at all. He has an amazing digestive system which can store food for days without discomfort.
The weather had cleared and we had a superb view from the bivvy site – one way to Loch Coruisk, Bla Bheinn, the sea and the south end of the ridge, the other way across Skye to the Western Isles. Eventually we saw the lights of Mallaig and Portree as the sun was replaced by a very full and bright moon. Then we slept.
Next day another early start for Jim and I, another lie in for Ben and Paavo. To my amazement my legs still worked and my shoulders didn’t hurt too much. The ridge was easier with sustained scrambling to Bruach Na Frithe. We decided to avoid the Bhasteir Tooth and instead traversed around the bottom, up and down steepish snow slopes. The atmosphere was very alpine like – blue sky, hot sunshine, white snow, warm rock. Then finally the exposed west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean and the end. Success at last – but the Slig looked an awful long way away. The Slig was an awful long way away – three hours in hot sun with every muscle in my body hurting. A bruised head, sunburnt face and neck, sore shoulders and back from my rucksack, aching thighs, bruised shins and blistered feet. The only part of me that did not hurt was my stomach – and that was rewarded by a good meal at the Slig during our long wait for Ben and Paavo.
As I was coming off the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean I met a man who had climbed up via the tourist path. He looked tired as he said to me – “Is it worth all the effort of getting up here?”. I looked at him and laughed, “You’ve come up the easy way” I said.