God is in the mountains, I mused to myself as I drove North on the A82, past Loch Lomond, in the early afternoon at the start of June 2023. It is very easy to believe that statement as you take in the spectacular beauty of this part of the world. The mountains rise as great green masses beside the brilliantly blue loch. If there were hills in Eden then Ben Lomond and Ben Vorlich were clearly transposed from there to Scotland. The only evidence that this isn’t some sort of Earthly paradise is the A82 itself. The thought came somewhat unbidden, but I think I can trace its source. As I headed North I found Psalm 121 bouncing around in the recesses of my consciousness: “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence commeth my help”. I know why this is on my mind, and it connects various strands of this story.
I was driving North towards the Isle of Skye. I had told my colleagues, friends, and family that I was going on holiday. That was a lie, though it had not always been. What I had planned a year earlier as a holiday had become a pilgrimage, and a search for something, though I wasn’t sure what.
My first encounter with The Island came twelve years earlier when I was a different person. It was the summer after my first year at University. My Dad had come across to drive me home, rather circuitously, via Skye. It was also the first time Dad had been there. I’m not really sure that I knew what to expect, but I’m confident that it wasn’t what I found. All I really knew was that this island was incredibly photogenic, and incredibly wet. I packed the SLR camera I’d been given for my eighteenth birthday, and bought some new waterproofs. What we found in Skye was a place which was almost completely alien. It was not only stunningly beautiful, but it rapidly became clear to both of us that we had underestimated just how long it would take to explore this island, and that we had scratched only the surface. I took many, many photographs. I did not use the waterproofs; it was dry and hot the entire time we were there.
My second taste of Skye came a couple of summers later as I set out on a rather ambitious walking holiday with some friends from my degree course. We approached from a new angle, taking the train from Glasgow Queen Street on the West Highland Line to Mallaig, and then taking the ferry across. All approaches to Skye provide a dramatic and exciting journey. For each it feels like there should be a swell of the brass section in the John Williams soundtrack as you gain your first view of the place. But this is the one engraved in my memory. That trip brought a lot of new experiences, and a lot of lessons. I wild-camped for the first time, and slept in a tent for the first time. Unfortunately it was on ground next to a phone-box not far from the road. I learned that I had no concept of how fast people can walk with fully-packed rucksacks. Yet on this trip Skye left something with me, not quite a yearning, but a niggling feeling that I had to return. We had walked from Elgol, a village towards the South of the Island, through Glen Sligachan. This Glen snakes through the most dramatic geology on Skye, between the Red Hills and the Black Cuillin. Looking up at the crags and the sharp pinnacles almost a kilometre in the air above me I was content at the time to stick to the Glen. Albeit if I was also going to grumble about how unpleasant carrying a much-too-heavy bag was as the temperature seemed to be climbing unstoppably up. I learned that Skye was the hottest, driest place on Earth, and that there is no more welcome sight than the Sligachan Hotel.
Whatever Skye had implanted in my mind would remain largely dormant for a while, until years later I found myself cycling down from Uig in the North of the island to Armadale, in order to get the train back to Glasgow. I’d cycled south to north through the Hebrides, from Arran to Harris, and this time Skye was really just a convenient way of getting home. The trip had been tough, and came at the end of the first year of my PhD. I’d spent the whole trip strangely anxious, and in retrospect I was suffering quietly through a mental health crisis. This time Skye was wet. It reflected my mood as I cycled miserably down a busy road, overtaken by what felt like hundreds of tour coaches. I had a feeling of joy when I rounded the last bend on the road south from Portree and spotted the while buildings of the Sligachan Hotel, and pitched my tent at the campsite. I wandered about, finally able to enjoy the atmosphere of Skye under a veil of cloud. Faintly, vaguely visible, are the crags and the sharp pinnacles of the Cuillin. I spot a board with an engraved outline of the horizon which labels the various hills visible from Sligachan, with some words in Gàidhlig inscribed underneath:
Mo shuile togam suas a chum nam beann, o’n tig mo neart.
Psalm 121. I am almost home, I do not feel anxious. Perhaps it is from the mountains themselves that my help comes? I cycle onwards to the ferry the next day. It is as hot as hell; I motivate myself to go on by writing out a list of each village on the road which acts as a waypoint. I arrive in Mallaig on the edge of heatstroke.
In the years that follow I find myself again using Skye mainly as a convenient means of getting to the Outer Hebrides, but somewhere along the line I ceased to be content with the glens, and started bagging Munros. Soon I realised that I would need to return to those high crags and pinnacles.
Which brings me to 2023, the summer when I had finally made plans to return to Skye, and climb. I had spent the last year making preparations, one way or another for this holiday. I’d spent the winter reading-up on these hills in a way I’d never bothered with before. I’d started going to a climbing gym again for the first time post-pandemic. It should have been clearer to me that what I was planning was not a holiday even then. I had started to realise I was not going walking when I felt the need to buy a helmet.
I crossed the Skye Bridge, and I soon found myself driving towards an enormous mountain, and found myself disoriented. As I got closer I realised it was Glamaig, the grandest of the Red Hills, but that the harshness of the light both stripped it of its distinctive colour, and confused my sense of scale. As I drove closer to Sligachan, which it overlooks, I was treated to the spectacle of watching the cloud flow over it and down its steep sides. Skye had once again surprised me. Yet I was not here for Glamaig. A short time later the real reason I was here came into view. The Black Cuillin. By this stage I had studied maps of the ridge, read-up on all the ascent routes, and the peaks, and yet was still taken aback by what was in store as Sgùrr nan Gillean and Am Basteir sliced upwards from the horizon. By the time I reached Glenbrittle, where I was staying, I had driven around two sides of the range, and started to get a taste for what was in store over the next week or so.
The next morning I woke to the view of the mountains taking up an entire horizon, and the sinister quality of the place struck me. These were not the lovely green mountains of Loch Lomond and the A82. These were great claws rising from the bowels of the Earth, puncturing Skye, and grasping at the heavens. These did not seem like somewhere to provoke the thought that God is in the Mountains. My faith in my theory was shaken.
It has very much been a year designed to shake faith. I started planning this trip to Skye last summer. Since then my father was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour, spent three months in hospital, and died. Just a few days before we had buried his ashes under a hawthorn tree in a local churchyard in County Down. Throughout his illness I had been vaguely making plans for this trip, knowing all along that it was almost certain to happen after he passed. It was an odd comfort to have something tangible for the future, and yet planning it felt at times disrespectful. The Cuillin had become totemic, and I had arrived, broken and feeling lost.
The psalm at Dad’s funeral had been Psalm 121. It had been on my thoughts ever since.
I am hardly unique in regarding the Cuillin with some degree of awe or fixation. They hold a very special place for the Munro bagger, as Skye has twelve Munros (there are 282 in total), and eleven of those lie along the 12-km long Cuillin ridge. At face value you couldn’t hope for a more convenient outing. Until you see the warnings from various guidebooks. One I recall advises that the bagger “would be wise to tackle the Cuillin sooner rather than later”. One of those eleven peaks is undoubtedly the most challenging of all the Munros to reach. Sgùrr Dearg’s summit is known as the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and the clue is rather in the name. It is the only Munro summit which requires technical climbing skill with rope to reach. This was the crux not only of this trip, but also of the entire years-long enterprise of climbing the Munros. Along with the friends I’d met-up with on Skye we’d taken what felt like an extraordinary measure of hiring a mountain guide.
Day 1 – Into the mountain
I started the climb to my first Cuillin Munro a little after 9; it was already warm, but there was a light breeze at first as I stood in the Glen. I was joined by Andrew and Shona, as I would be for the rest of the week, and we had decided on what was alleged to be one of the easiest Cuillin peaks to reach for our first. We were a little apprehensive; of the three of us I was the only one with any real scrambling experience, some from Skye, and some from the Aonach Eagach. Anything else had really only been for making a couple of moderately tricky moves on some of the rockier west coast hills. I’d spent most of the last year concentrating on the Cairngorms, and so, with the exception of a couple of summit tors, my hands hadn’t needed to make contact with the mountain in a while.
The path to Sgùrr na Banachdaich starts right opposite the Youth Hostel where we were staying, making this quite possibly the most convenient of all route starts I’ve ever had. The route started out across the moorland which surrounds the Cuillins in a sort of skirt; the rich volcanic soil supporting a large array of plants. The ground would no doubt have been rather boggy if it had rained in the last fortnight too, but we found it hard and dusty. Over time the path became rockier and rougher, but as we left the broad glen behind us we also left the breeze, and the heat added to the difficulty of the climb.
I would later discover that this route did not follow the general pattern of most other approaches to the Skye cuillins from sea-level. Perhaps I had noticed this on the maps beforehand when I’d been examining them, but it hadn’t registered. In general approaches feel like they follow two or three stages. We had completed the first of these as we finished the “walk-in”, as I was thinking of it, gaining relatively little height as we crossed the (non)-bog. Then most routes reach a corrie; a glacially-cut shelf which digs into the side of the ridge. The approach we had taken to Banachdaich did in fact reach such a corrie, but it was not of such an impressive genre we’d meet later in the week. During the approach we could see into the more impressive Coire a’ Ghreadaidh, above which was the notch of An Dorus, which we’d need to negotiate at some point later in the trip. But for now we steered around and climbed into Coir an’ Eich (the horse’s coire), which is narrower, and dominated by a sloping appendix of the main ridge on the left, An Diallaid (The Saddle), and a spur of the ridge which leads out to Sgùrr an Gobhar (The goat’s peak). This climb would combine what I would come to think of as the second and third stages in the climb; we climbed steeply up and onto An Diallaid (the second stage in my mind), but from here we had much more straight-forward access to the peak on the ridge itself (the third stage).
This would, as it turned out, be our busiest Munro summit of the entire trip, and as we climbed onto An Diallaid we overtook several large groups of walkers, out enjoying the good weather, and, like ourselves, complaining about the heat. Somehow as we climbed closer to the ridge the atmosphere of the Cuillin added to the special effects. The cool damp air from the sea was forced up the side of the mountains in the coire beside us, forming whispy clouds which would almost but not quite cling to the ridge, and looked almost exactly like steam rising out of the corrie. I have a tendency to put on a bit of pace as the climb becomes really steep, and this walk would not prove an exception; I was nearing the summit a few minutes ahead of Andrew and Shona, and was reassured by a pair walking down that not only was I close to the top, but that there was an inversion when I got there.
Somehow I took this talk of an inversion to mean that there would be pleasantly cool air at the summit. I was soon disabused of this notion, and discovered that they had meant that I’d be looking down into an inversion in Glen Sligachan when I reached the ridge. However, despite this lack of relief, reaching the Cuillin ridge for the first time felt special. These were mountains I had peered up at many times from sea level, and now I was standing on the rooftop of Skye. Looking towards the summit a few metres away, I could turn to my right and see the precipitous drop into Coire na Banachdich to my right, and the even steeper drop into the Cuillin Centre to my left. I perched here for a while to allow the others to catch-up, and to allow a large group to enjoy the cairn. They seemed to have arrived up with a couple of guides, and were perhaps a large family, even with a young child in tow.
After a while they turned back down the ascent path, and I summited my first Cuillin. I then immediately started trying to work out which of the lumps further along the ridge was the Central Top.
For the innocent and uninitiated, the list of Munros, that is, hills over 3000-feet tall, are supplemented by a list of Munro Tops which are also hills over 3000-feet high. What’s the difference? Well, often it seems (and is) quite arbitrary, but basically Tops are secondary summits which are high enough to be Munros, but not far enough away from a taller Munro to be their own mountain. At some point I decided to start bagging these as I went along as well. Banachdaich has two such tops, but one would be a gentler introduction to scrambling on the ridge, according to the guide book.
The scrambling was initially a bit of a shock to the system, but it soon felt good, and we made good and quick progress along a stretch of the ridge past the Central Top, discovering just how difficult it is to relate the features on the rock in front of you to what’s on even a 1:12,500 scale map. Only Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe was anywhere near as dynamic as this in my experience. At the Central Top we had contemplated returning to the main summit, and back via the ascent route, but instead we decided to continue along the ridge towards Sgùrr Dearg, intending to drop down into Coire Banachdaich to make our return to Glenbrittle. We lost the descent path quite early on however, and ended up needing to tackle a couple of very awkward downclimbs which were perhaps not terribly conducive to building confidence for the remainder of the week.
The rest of the return was, however, uneventful, and we made it back to the hostel in the middle of the afternoon, pleased that we seemed to be able to do these nice short routes fairly quickly...
Day 2 – Through the Door
“The sight through the window of the hostel is not of Scotland. The Scottish Highlands are green, great lumps with projecting crags and the odd sheep. This cannot be Scotland; it can barely be the Earth”, I wrote in my hill journal on the second day of the trip. We were tired after the previous day, but set out on the same path as before heading across the grassy expanse which is laid out before the mountains, but this time taking a fork in the path to the left, and climbing towards a rather menacing looking notch in the ridge, An Dorus, which I’d spotted yesterday.
Today we were confronting the first route which had us a little worried. The plan was to climb two Munros in this outing; to the North, Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh, and to the South, Sgùrr a’ Ghreadaidh. Getting to either would require climbing up to An Dorus, and then up one of its sides. The route South was the biggest concern, as it requires an especially awkward and exposed bit of scrambling. The northern route can in fact be bypassed, though we had agreed to go and look at the climb first and decide if we’d use the by-pass or not.
Getting to it in order to examine it was a non-trivial task however. Where the day before we’d had a straight-forward, albeit steep climb up from the corrie, we were now presented with what would be the first of many scree slopes on this trip. Progress up this was slow, and behind a pair of walkers who were displacing quite a lot of rock as they moved. I was glad of the helmet which just a few days ago I had worried was over-cautious. When we eventually reached An Dorus we found ourselves in a small group of other people either ascending or descending one of its sides. We had the advantage of watching a group negotiating the tricky climb up the South side as we waited on a group coming down the North side.
We had a plan on how to tackle the scrambling based on previous experience, which involved me going first, and describing the location of hand- and footholds to the others once I could see them. This worked better than I had expected, and we negotiated the climb onto the ridge next to our first Munro quite easily. The summit of my second Skye Munro was only a short distance along the ridge, but at this stage the job was only half done, and the second half looked like it would be the trickier. We returned to An Dorus, and made our way back down into it.
It turned out that the climb to the South was not that bad; it required a couple of rather big steps, but with the rock bone dry and very grippy, this didn’t really pose much of a problem. Soon we were back on the ridge, and passed Eag Dubh; a narrow but precipitous cleft in the ridge which appears at first glance to drop straight back into the corrie. Various guidebooks suggest this as a plausible descent route. We were unconvinced, and decided it looked rather too much like a place an army of the dead might be summoned from to take the risk. Passing around this, we were able to make our way around the substantial lump of rock which slices through the ridge (appropriately called the Wart), and made our way to the summit.
Even by Skye standards the summit is narrow. The cuillin is cut by a series of cone sheets; layers of rock which slope towards the centre of the ancient magma chamber which formed these mountains. The summit of Sgùrr a’ Ghreadaidh is actually on one of these sheets, which slopes towards the centre of the Cuillin, somewhere to the East. It was a rather uncomfortable place to stop for sandwiches. I left Andrew and Shona on this perch in order to head out to the South Top, along a very narrow and exposed stretch of the ridge. The scrambling proved to be very enjoyable, but required considerable concentration. Negotiating it required being out of sight of the other two most of the time, which I suspect was rather worrisome.
Our return proved very unproblematic, even the rather awkward downclimb into An Dorus. We were a quarter of the way through the Skye Munros already, and starting to get to know the place a bit.
One thing which was starting to become evident when in the Cuillin was that any instincts I had about the amount of time I’d need to complete any given walk was completely flawed. Spending long summer trips in the Cairngorms had ruined this in the other direction; I had become accustomed to expecting to cover twenty or twenty-five kilometres for one or two Munros, but here I could very easily spend the whole day covering six or seven kilometres, albeit for the same number of boxes checked-off at the end of the day.
Day 3 – A Bad Step
The hot weather finally seemed to be easing as we drove around to the northern end of the ridge on our third day on the Island, though in retrospect I wonder whether it wasn’t really that the entire environment on the far side of those mountains had been entirely different this week. The plan for today was to tackle another awkward hill, Am Basteir, and its neighbour, Bruach na Frithe, which has a reputation for being the easiest of the Skye Munros to reach the summit of. The cloud was clinging high up on the ridge, which was a little worrisome given that this was unlikely to be an easy day out.
The walk from where we’d parked by the road, just north of the Sligachan Hotel, following the path towards both Am Basteir and Sgùrr nan Gillean, its even-more formidable neighbour, was long, and only climbed a couple of hundred metres, in the standard Cuillin fashion, but eventually we did reach the foot of Basteir Gorge where the climb-proper would begin steeply up, once again towards the ridge. Here we met a Golden Retriever on their way down with their owner. I’m not sure if this put my mind at reast about the difficulty of what was to come, but if a dog could manage it, surely we’d be fine? There was plenty of scrambling and debate over optimal route choice as we climbed up through the gully, but eventually we found ourselves at the bottom of yet another scree slope falling down from the Bealach am Basteir.
Climbing the scree was not fast, but when we were around a hundred metres below the ridge we finally caught sight of it through its veil of cloud; what had appeared to be covering the ridge was in fact hovering a few metres in front of it, and we could see blue sky from the other side. When we reached the bealach we were treated to an excellent view over Glen Sligachan and Loch Coruisk, and across to the looming bulk of nan Gillean which was enrobed in thin cloud. We could catch the odd brightly-clad climber making their way down the very vertical face. This summit was, for today, out of bounds for us, as crossing between the two requires either a roped climb or an abseil, depending on the direction.
While we weren’t heading out with rope today, we still had a considerable challenge ahead of us; getting onto the great fin of rock beside us, and negotiating (or bypassing) the bad step along the ridgeline between our present location and the summit. We had already decided on the bypass route, but knew that the challenge would be finding it! In a stroke of luck we caught up to a group who were with a guide around the point where we needed to drop back off the ridge and pick up the line of the by-pass, and he was very kindly able to point it out to us, though in retrospect, I think with the good visibility we had run into we would probably have managed this ourselves, albeit with more fumbling around. The ground was quite loose along this stretch, though nowhere near as precarious as things we’d done in the previous couple of days!
The final clamber up to the summit cairn gave us no real difficulties, but was a compact space, so we didn’t linger long, seeing a bit of a queue building up behind us at the step, and deciding that we should move before they started queuing for the summit! So it was that we made our rapid visit to one of the more foreboding Scottish peaks (though I do wonder if this reputation is partly caused by the English mistranslation of its name, which is often said to mean The Executioner; in truth we don’t know what it means). We stopped back at the bealach, where we ate lunch before continuing.
Our route from here was not one for the purist, though took us on an exploration of the mountain which would perhaps fit better with the philosophies of Nan Shepherd, wandering down the scree to the base of the great mass of rock which composed the summit, and walked around. It was a slightly odd experience to look straight up and know that the cairn was almost directly above us. Our route also took us around the base of the Basteir Tooth, another mass of rock which sticks out at a wicked angle from the ridge, and can only be accessed with ropes. It’s a Munro Top, but one not accessible by the common walker. We ascended, again on scree, to the Bealach na Liche, where the breeze which had been with us for the rest of the day was suddenly sheltered by the surrounding towers of rock, and we were set-upon by midges. This was, however, a very fine viewpoint for Am Basteir and its cruel dentistry.
While The Tooth was beyond our reach, we had ascended right beside another lump on the ridge, Sgùrr a’ Fhionn Choire, which was a top, and looked like a nice, straight-forward scramble. Shona decided against heading up this, but having decided that I’d thoroughly rediscovered my love of scrambling I was keen to not miss my last chance today. Andrew also made his way up this one, and we were up and back down in no more than fifteen minutes.
From here there was a discernible path across to Bruach na Frithe, something of a luxury around here! The walk across was quite straightforward, and we were soon on the only Cuillin peak decorated with a trig point.
The walk back out to the car was straightforward, though with plenty more scree, and long.
Day 4 – Outlying
After three days each with an ascent of the main ridge, today was to prove both a change of venue and of intensity. We started the day by driving all the way around the Cuillin, passing through Sligachan and then Broadford, before following the road towards Elgin, and parking by Loch Slapin. I knew this part of Skye quite well; I’d first been here in 2011 with Dad, I’d walked over this part of the island in 2013, and a few years ago I’d attempted to climb this mountain: Bla Bheinn. So it was that I arrived at the car park feeling like I had unfinished business here.
The path from the car park has been extensively and recently repaired, which gave me a little comfort, given that my previous attempt to climb Bla Bheinn had been foiled because we had followed the wrong fork in the path! I suspect that we’d been hoping to avoid climbing up scree, but found ourselves on part of the ridge which we couldn’t easily continue around to the summit. The much-improved path however managed to hold my attention well enough to avoid a repeat of this mistake, and we continued up to the corrie which lies beneath the impressive twin summits of the mountain.
From here the mountain was a great purplish mass of rock extending around almost half of the horizon, and looking very much the part as a stereotypical, fantasy literature-style mountain. We passed by an enormous boulder, an erratic left behind when the glacier which had carved this landscape melted. We soon lost the good path, and found ourselves once again negotiating a scree slope; it would not really be a Skye mountain outing without loose rock underfoot at some point. We reached a ridge at around 600m which jutted out from the dark mass of the South Top, and had to pick our way through more scree, albeit now with views of the sea and Sleat until we came to a large cairn on the Munro Top.
We then had to cross the ground between us and the Munro summit itself. This was a little scrambly as we worked our way over to the deep gully in the bealach, but from there everything was quite straight-forward, and we arrived at the trig pillar, just as a dog was being photographed on it! This was probably the busiest summit we’ve been on on this trip, and we were congratulated on reaching the summit by a group of young people at the cairn. It was their second-ever Munro, so I didn’t quite have the heart to tell him this was our easy hill day of the trip.
The descent was initially loose, but straightforward, and we made good progress back down to the corrie and then the car, finishing a day which felt like a much more conventional Munro outing than we’d had all week.
Day 5 – Interlude
On the fifth day of the Skye trip we took a rest day; the next day was the centrepiece for the entire trip. I headed up to Trotternish for the day and climbed the two Grahams on the Trotternish Ridge, but they deserve their own write-up, without being mixed into the Cuillin.
Day 6 – Inaccessible
There are some days which feel like they’re the keystones of an entire plan, and this one was certainly one of those. Certainly this was the most carefully-planned day of this trip, but it was probably the most logistically complicated of my entire Munro round, and certainly the one which I’d fretted about, and trained for most. Indeed, years ago I had started learning how to climb for this day. It was the only time I anticipated hiring a guide to go up a Munro. Magnus had driven up the day before and was going to join us too.
Years of planning almost came undone the evening before, however, when we’d arrived back at the hostel and found that Shona’s boots were missing. We searched the hostel and the cars, to no avail. So it was that we met our guide at 9am; Shona wearing Andrew’s spare pair of boots and multiple socks.
We each took some kit from Sam, our guide. I was carrying the rope. We then watched him decant a bottle of wine into a plastic bottle (he did later clarify that he was carrying extra supplies up to the ridge to support a group attempting a traverse with him the next day, and that the wine was for their summit camp), before setting up the path, passing Eas Mòr, an impressive waterfall which we’d passed on our way down from Banachdaich a few days earlier. We moved up the hill fast, following the usual programme of moorland, loose, steep path, and then scramble as we approached the ridge. Sam had warned us that we wouldn’t see the In Pinn until we were almost under it, though we had in fact seen it from several angles, and had some notion of what we were looking out for! We passed another group, with just two walkers with their guide, but I was surprised that the hillside wasn’t busier. I’d heard plenty of tales of the queues to summit this one, and we’d actually seen it to be quite busy a few days earlier.
We did eventually catch sight of the In Pinn itself, a blade of basalt which rises from the summit of Sgùrr Dearg, and looks suitably hostile, and, well, inaccessible. The group we had passed earlier arrived at the top of the mountain around the same time as us, and headed for the Pinn first; we were a large group and would take a while. But there were no other groups around, and once they’d summited the Pinnacle and moved onwards we had the place to ourselves. Sam would take us up in pairs, and we decided Magnus and I would go first, and then Andrew and Shona would take the second ascent.
We were given a quick briefing about keeping the rope taught between us, and were tied-in. As Sam started to climb, and set the protection, I got my first stab of mild concern. Somehow I had been completely calm up to this point, but the significance had caught up to me. This was the first time I had ever climbed outside, and I knew the drop on the far side was... immense. My concern would soon pass, however as I put hand on rock, and realised the climb wasn’t too bad at all. I got a notion for the exposure a couple of times when I needed to pause and allow Magnus to collect bits of climbing gear as we climbed, including at a point towards the end of the first pitch where I was perched at a very narrow point on the rock and could see to both sides without turning my head. We reached the end of the first pitch surprisingly quickly, meeting Sam again, who left us at a large ledge while he climbed the second pitch to the top. While the first pitch had had some tricky and awkward points, including the crux move, the second pitch have fewer problems, though there were some points without very good holds. We again made our way up quite quickly, reaching the summit.
We had a few moments to enjoy this most peculiar of summits while Sam started setting up the abseil to get us back off, but we soon needed to gather under the bolster stone, a lump which protrudes from the edge of the pinnacle, which had a chain wrapped around its base. Sam tied us in for the abseil, and asked us when we’d last abseiled. I chose this time to reveal that I had never in fact abseiled before. Sam seemed fairly unperturbed by this, and talked me through what I needed to do. Fortunately I managed this without any problems, though Magnus would follow and do it much more smoothly and quickly than I did a few moments later! It was now over to Andrew and Shona, who seemed to have much the same experience as myself and Magnus.
Fulfilled, it was now time to look at options for the rest of the day, and getting back to the glen. We eventually settled on heading around to Sgùrr na Banachdaich again, which Magnus hadn’t climbed before, and then descend via Sgùrr nan Gobhar, which lies at the end of one of the ridges which juts out perpendicular to the main one, and drops gently down towards Glen Brittle. The whole journey along this involved scrambling, though this was always quite straight-forward scrambling, and would have probably been a more suitable introductory exercise on our first day than what we actually did!
When we reached the end of the ridge we were confronted with scree. Lots of scree, but also runnable scree, and so it was that we had our first enjoyable experience of moving over scree, as we were able to glide quickly down, bringing us to within half an hour’s walk of the road.
In a sense this was the high-point of the Munros. Nowhere else requires rope to climb. And yet I’ve come away feeling like I’d happily do it again. Plenty more big challenges remain too; Knoydart and Fisherfield especially.
We returned to the hostel to find that Shona’s boots had returned! It turned out that they’d been picked up by the walking partner of someone who had been airlifted off the hill; they’d bundled all of their injured friend’s things together when they got a taxi from the hostel back to where they had been staying, but lifted two pairs of boots by mistake!
Day 7 – The Gang Goes South
The run of excellent, warm, clear, and dry weather continued, and a return to the ridge was of course on the cards for today. With less good weather in the forecast ahead it made sense to do the least accessible of the remaining hills. That meant heading to the two in the South which had a fairly long walk in. We’d also kept these two for when Declan, another addition to the party, was around, since Sgùrr Dubh Mòr was one of the last Cuillins he still had to climb. After the excitement of the previous day we had a slightly later start.
The walk is described in the guidebook, rather unromantically, as starting “behind the toilet block”, which is accurate, but did somewhat reduce the gravitas of outset of the walk! The walk-in component for these hills was the longest we’d have on the trip, as we’d need to walk around two corries over; the first corrie after the campsite is Coire Làgan, above which is Sgùrr Alasdair, but we’d need to get to Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda. The path was good though, and we had views across the sea towards Rùm and Eigg past Soay. After around five kilometres on this trail we reached the start of the rockier climb up to the corrie.
The day was hot, and the climb was hard-going. The path petered-out a few times, and gave some awkwardness with route finding over the slabby rock, but we were soon climbing the last scrambly part of the ascent into the very high corrie floor. In the last few metres of the climb we passed a pair of Glaswegian women headed for Sgùrr Dubh Mòr who asked whether me and Declan were guides. We continued along, following a very obvious path, reaching what seemed like an unreasonable scramble before retreating and following a series of cairns. We bumped into the women again, who had disabused themselves of any notion that we might be competent, and explained to us what the cairns were for!
Despite our apparent inexperience with the cairns we ultimately found our way into the basin. The view here was something I had not expected, and was unlike anything else on Skye. A wall of rock almost 200m high--the ridge--rings the corrie on three sides. On the left Sgùrr Alasdair rises to the highest point on the island; to the right is Sgùrr nan Eag. In the centre of the basin is a lochan with its own islands. Under the baking sun it felt like this could be a scene from The Lion King. Except that the lake had seagulls rather than flamingos. We stopped in this lunar-savannah setting for lunch, facing An Caisteal a’ Gharbh Coire, a great lump of rock which rises out of the ridge which we’d need to work our way around later.
We made our way around the lochan and onto the ridge after quite a bit more scrambly ascent. From here the ridge broadened into something that felt more like a conventional Munro ascent for a while, albeit a rocky and scrambly one. We reached the summit, and then had the challenge of returning by the scrambly route we had come to the ridge, and then working our way along to the next Munro. This meant going around the side of An Caisteal, and then climbing the Munro Top, the inventively named Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn (the black peak of two mountains), which sits almost as high as the actual Munro, Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. Climbing it meant a very steep scramble up, and an even steeper climb back down.
Sgùrr Dubh Mòr lies on a spur of ridge which protrudes from the main ridge, and is often omitted from traverses of the ridge as a result. Once we’d traversed from the main ridge to the bottom of the summit tower we had a rather challenging time of the route-finding up to the summit. This was the most vertical of the summits we’d had to deal with so far (with the arguable exception of the In Pinn) and we found ourselves working up a series of slabs and ledges to climb to the top. All of this made progress rather slow, but we did eventually reach what the topo book described as the summit “plateau”. It was undoubtedly one of the airier summits we’d dealt with so far.
The return to the ridge was easier, and we passed the pair of women from earlier as they were on the final part of the climb up to the summit. We skirted around the edge of Dà Bheinn, avoiding the need to reclimb it the whole way, and made our way back down to the lochan, and started the long walk back to the campsite, getting back ten hours after we’d left. The longest outing of the trip by some margin.
Day 8 – Intermission
The forecast was for thunderstorms, and even first thing in the morning the weather on the ridge looked rather menacing. We decided to take it easy, spend some time closer to sea level, and have a fairly well-earned rest day.
Day 9 – On the Roof
The weather forecast was improved, and so were my energy levels, so I headed out to the final stretch of the Munros on this side of the ridge, including the highest point on the island. The ascent path started from the Memorial hut in Glen Brittle, and even at 9am the heat made the ascent unpleasant. I was solo today; Declan and Magnus had gone back south, and Andrew and Shona wanted an extra day to recover. However, I was leaving the island tomorrow, and was still three peaks short of my goal of finishing the Skye Munros this year.
I was climbing into Coire Làgan, which was a stark contrast to its neighbour to the south. While it also has a lochan, it had no seagulls. Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda was a brownish-greenish colour from the peridotite which makes up much of its rock environment. The rock here was the grey-black of gabbro. The view is dominated by Sgùrr Alasdair, with its familiar cleft summit, but from this side the almost incomprehensible scree slope of the Great Stone Shoot falls all the way from the summit into the corrie. Immediately ahead is the fist-shaped summit of Sgùrr MhicCoinnich.
Scree. Every day we had faced some scree. The southern pair had had very little, but not none. But today would be peak scree. To my eye at least, Coire Làgan is defined by scree. The Great Stone Shoot empties into it, but the An Stàc screes make up most of the remaining interface between corrie and ridge. Today I would need to tackle both. Because I’d promised to keep the scrambling to a relative minimum while I was alone I would need to tackle both screes both ways, as the only way to reasonably link my two hills near the ridge today required some especially tricky route finding, and a rather exposed scramble (the famous Harts/Collies Ledge).
Climbing the An Stàc screes first proved to be less awful than I had imagined, and much of the time I was able to stick to the edge of the slope where there were (slightly) more stable boulders to climb over. Every so often though these would just peter out, and scree had to be crossed, and climbed. Still, I reached the ridge faster than I had expected, and encountered a pair of walkers who were part-way through a traverse, and had slept up on the ridge the previous night. As I started along the rather scrambly section of ridge leading to the summit of Sgùrr MhicChoinnich I passed John, the guide who had been taking folk up the Inn Pinn immediately before us a few days earlier, climbing down what I would later appreciate is one of the trickier sections on this part of the ridge with his ward for the day. The scramble along this part of the ridge was probably the trickiest I’d done so far, perhaps only surpassed by Sgùrr Dubh Mòr, and the exposure certainly looked worse, with the orientation of the rock sloping down perilously into Coruisk. It didn’t take long, perhaps because there was little incentive to perch and consider the airiness of my footing, to reach the tiny summit, which is just-about large enough to support a cairn, which has a memorial plaque which has been smashed by lightning.
It was tempting at this point to call it a day, head back along the ridge, and hike back out. It was certainly a little frustrating to see the next summit so close, and yet so inaccessible. However, the desire to leave myself that little bit closer to being finished the Skye Munros was too tempting. As I walked back along the ridge, in order to return down the screes I’d struggled up earlier (in order to get to more scree) I passed Sam, our guide from the Inn Pinn. I chatted briefly to him, and asked about how his guided traverse had gone (already knowing that the group had appeared in the hostel a day early), and then continued along the ridge towards the top of the scree slope.
I spotted some people making very heavy weather of the climb, and decided to slow down in the hopes that they’d reach the top before I got there; they were climbing the centre of the slope, which would have made descending rather risky. They arrived shortly after I reached the top of the scree run, and rather concerningly asked me if there was a path to the summit of MhicChonnich. I tried to explain that it involved scrambling, and what I meant by scrambling, but they seemed sufficiently ill-prepared that I was rather worried for their safety; I’d later see them returning down the scree, I suspect without having summited. I then descended fast back down the scree, and was in the coire, and stopped for lunch.
The greater challenge for the day appeared to be the great Stone Shoot, but Sam had given useful advice when we were looking across to it from the Inn Pinn, and I was able to find a fairly solid, if scrambly route up the side of the first part of it, and followed what he had described as the “guides’ route” for as much of the climb as I could. The shoot bends slightly at the top of this (disguising its full enormity, and to some extent, horror, when standing at the bottom), and here the slope changed from scree to loose, eroded dirt, and the going became slow and tedious as I zig-zagged up the last hundred metres or so towards the tiny bealach between Sgùrr Alasdair and its neighbouring peak, Sgùrr Thealaich.
From this vantage, looking up, I almost expected to see a great burning eye in the style of The Lord of the Rings. I spotted a group on their way down, and soon realised it was Sam and his party. He gave me a rather puzzled look, I shrugged and said that I like scree now. He looked rightly sceptical. After reaching the little bealach the final climb up to the summit required a little more easy scrambling, and I was soon on the (tiny) roof of Skye. I sat there a while, looking out across the surrounding peaks, spotting people scrambling up and down. I might not have quite managed to finish all of the Skye Munros on this trip, but I’d got pretty close. I’ll be back for nan Gillean soon.
I returned to the shoot, leaving the Ridge behind me, and picked my way down to the scree. I ran the whole thing, albeit sometimes in spurts, partly limited by the presence of banks of rock, and partly by a group ahead of me without helmets (and, I’d discover when I eventually overtook them, wearing road trainers and without any normal hill kit). All too soon I made it back to the corrie, to the surprise of someone who had been watching me, asked me how I’d descended as quickly as I had, and refusing to believe I’d done it without rope. It’s amazing what you can learn in a week. Even if it is to learn to ski.
I started back on the descent path from the corrie to the glen.
I left Skye the next day, and climbed some hills on the way south. But I’m not sure anything will ever parallel my first experience of the Cuillin. It’s taken me seven weeks to get around to finishing this blog post, and it’s rained almost continuously since I left the Island. I went to Skye thinking that after a very difficult spring it would bring some form of healing. That’s not what it did; for weeks afterwards I struggled to concentrate on anything which wasn’t related to mountains. I was not healed by Skye, but perhaps it did remind me that new things, and genuinely new experiences were still possible. But I felt like I left a changed person. Perhaps this is the thing I came here in search of.Share Share Share