A Ridge Too Far

(by Eileen Murphy, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2004)
An attempt of the Traverse of the Cuillin Ridge of Skye.

Gargantuan, gritty, gabbro weaves its magnetic spell. Peaks and pinnacles, clefts and chasms, exposed edges and jagged teeth. The Black Cuillin of Skye are renowned for the magnetic quality of their volcanic gabbro rock. Powerful enough to distract the compass, this rock has been luring climbers for many generations. Yes, I have to admit I have caught the fever, the most virulent form of Cuillin fever there is and have been incubating it for some time now. I have been scrambling all over these mountains every Mid-Summer for the past 6 years, relishing the exposure on their knife-edged ridges, developing an ease in their company and a familiarity with their moods. I have climbed most of their main summits and completed many of their circuits and rock ridges. But somehow linking all 18 summits in one continuous push has eluded me. When the weather was right, the companions were wrong. When the companions were up to the task, the black cloud hung dense and still. Bailing out had been a wise decision on those occasions. In retrospect, I am happy about those early failures and frustrations. The silver lining – a long and interesting voyage of discovery, a journey that would involve learning to rock climb so that I could return again and again and get to grips with this awesome place.

The Ridge or Great Traverse involves 18 summits, 14 of which are above 3,000ft., 14 km from first to last and 10,000 feet of ascent. That is before you add in the boggy 9km walk from Glenbrittle to Gars Bheinn and the 6km trudge from the final summit of Sgurr nan Gillean to the finish at Sligachan. “What’s the big deal”, you might well ask! What the statistics hide is the fact that it is one long and unrelenting scramble up and down over serrated crests and deep gashes. Rock climbing experience and a high level of fitness and stamina are definite pre-requisites for this “Great British Mountaineering Venture”. Success requires not only luck with the weather but speedy efficiency. It is important to be able to confidently climb and back climb rope-free sections graded moderate and difficult. The purist will want to follow the crest exclusively, staying on the spine at all times, never contouring or dropping low when obstacles are encountered. In fact, one cannot claim to have technically completed the Ridge unless one does exactly that. And the total lunatic will not be content to merely complete the Great Traverse but will want The Greater Traverse, The Double Traverse. Just another 4,000feet of climbing and 4/5 extra hours to complete the entire circuit of Loch Corruisk. “The Lesser Inner Girly Traverse” versus “The Greater Outer Manly Traverse”! Not my description, I’ll hasten to add but one coined by a “Hardie” Scotsman within the IMC who shall remain nameless for his own protection!

It’s Mid Summer 2004 and I am on Skye with a group of 6 sea kayaking/walking/climbing friends. The grey pregnant cloud is still clinging to the corries and wrapping itself around the mountain tops. A stationary “High” centred over Ireland and another over Iceland are responsible for that stubbornly-wedged “Low” which refuses to budge from above the Cuillin Ridge. Combining sea kayaking and climbing seems like a sensible idea in this corner of North West Scotland. No more frustrating wet days playing the waiting game under their shrouded forms. Our plan is to explore the offshore islands and maybe, if conditions allow, Seán Pierce, Róisín McDonnell, Paul Murphy and I will attempt the Ridge Traverse. Having done a few exploratory circuits together on the ridge, Róisín and I know that we are in form for the Traverse. I am feeling fit having spent the past week chasing my youngest son around the pinnacles and sandstone terraces of Torridon. Despite this, I am hard pressed to stay close to Róisín, a hill-running dynamo and well known for taking no prisoners! The gloomy forecast from the campsite shop in Glenbrittle forces our decision and Soay, Rum, Canna and Sanday meet with unanimous approval. The passage from Soay to Rum is a lively one and of course as we move out to sea, the cloud bank hanging for so long over the Ridge starts to stir, rise up and part. Now at 2,000ft, now at 3,000ft., it flows away and disperses to reveal a magnificent vista. It is impossible not to look back at this incredible work of natural sculpture. Those familiar black hulks sprouting abruptly out of a boggy Hebridean seascape never cease to inspire me. Just imagine an Alpine skyline hugging the Connemara coast. Imagine Achill magnified and stretched …

Three clear days at sea exploring the hidden treasures of the Isles, strong Force 5/6/7 north westerlies, committed long open sea crossings, nightly campfires, sea shanty singing, malt tasting, majestic red stags keeping watch on the horizon, remote bothies, barbecued pollack, nesting eider duck and common gulls, great red skuas and the nightly call of the Manx Shearwater. And oh, that lingering Northern Mid Summer light and all under the watchful eye of the Cuillin Ridge. My eyes are constantly drawn to its familiar outline. The fusion of land, sea and sky is impossible to ignore and my imagination runs riot as a result of copious quantities of my favourite Islay single malt. I feel it in my bones – a sense of surging optimism that I must admit is based on a very shaky foundation that the wind seems to be veering to the North East. Anything with an Easterly aspect please! That notoriously fickle weather, which difficult and unpredictable offspring of the marriage between mountain and sea just might come right!

The preparation hadn’t exactly been up to scratch. Another long and exhausting day at sea, a meal washed down by numerous pints and followed by a calorie-laden sticky toffee pudding at the friendly Carbost Inn. As Róisín and Paul bid us farewell, I thought my chances to even attempt the Ridge were gone yet again. Despite the forecast, the locals were predicting stable weather for another day. “You can sense it in the behaviour of the sheep, cattle and birds. You can sniff it in the air” – a local farmer’s intuition is good enough for me. The long-awaited window in the weather seemed to be coming unexpectedly on our last day. “Carpe diem” – a rare weather window like this cannot be allowed to slip away. And so I managed to persuade sea kayaker extraordinaire and self-confessed non-climber, Seán Pierce to take Róisín’s place and partner me despite the fact that he didn’t do “exposure, knife-edge ridges, deep sh..t gaps or early mornings”. Despite his protestations, he wasn’t a total beginner – he had done some climbing 10 years ago and had been involved in a few training days on Great Gully, Glenmalure and Forest Rhapsody in Glendalough in the previous month. However, we did make an agreement and that was that he would go maybe half or two-thirds of the way and I would continue on alone if I still felt up to it. A quick dash back to the campsite at midnight to prepare for a planned 6am start. Proper, prior planning how are you!! No time to debate the perennial questions associated with Ridge Traverses – Do we try to complete it in one continuous push?, Do we carry bivvy gear?, Do we cache water?, How much liquid?, How much food?, How much rock hardware? “ I don’t care about the weight, I’m carrying my big flask. I‘m going nowhere without my cuppa tea”. To add to the chaos, we tried to psyche ourselves up by reading an article written by Dave Walsh about his experiences on the ridge traverse in 1981. Those tortuous, long-winded and rambling sentences were just too much for our tired heads and we abandoned them in favour of some much-needed sleep.

The following morning, the peaks were still clearly etched against the skyline as we threw the necessities into our rucksacks. A huge bowl of easy-to-digest porridge and honey kick-started our day – a boggy trudge from the campsite around to the lower slopes of Gars Bheinn. At 6.40am, we were finally on our way. Very few words were spoken during the opening hours of this long-delayed adventure but somehow I felt that the weather Gods just might be in our favour as we felt the heat of the rising Mid-Summer sun just peeping over the southern spur of Gars Bheinn. Despite the promise of a good day, the grinding slog up the scree slopes of Gars Bheinn felt interminable. We took a few moments on the summit to soak in the formidable view of the entire ridge as it arced north/northeastwards as far as the distinctive point of Squrr nan Gillean. A few unrepeatable expletives from Seán to let me know that he is not entirely happy with the route ahead of us. “Nobody ever said this would be a walk in the park” I responded. “Don’t forget our agreement” he retorts. At this point, I recalled Gordon Stainforth’s wonderful metaphor about the Ridge Traverse. “It’s like playing a long and difficult piece of music. It’s about flow and pace and rhythm, accomplishing all the technical difficulties and obstacles as smoothly as possible. But there will also be the quieter passages, the crucial rests, the stops for water, relishing the silence. Unhurried speed is the key; to be relaxed whilst moving fast, everything done with an easy precision, not a foot out of place, not a single loose hold dislodged”.

Thearlaich Dubh Gap

At 9.30am, we left the summit of Gars Bheinn. What a great sense of relief to be finally walking on the Ridge! How lucky we were to have perfect Summer Solstice weather – blue skies interspersed with a few fluffy cumulus clouds and a warm moderate easterly. The ascent of Sgurr a Choire Bhig and Squrr nan Eag proved to be a gentle and easy introduction to the pleasures of Skye scrambling. On the Bealach a Gharbh Choire, we stopped for our first quick break, a shared cup of tea and some chocolate before harnessing up in anticipation of our first major “technical difficulty”, the Thearlaich Dubh Gap. An unexpected abseil on the north side of An Caisteal was good preparation for the much-anticipated TD abseil. Valuable time was wasted here roping up to climb out of what I thought mistakenly was the TD Gap. There was no doubt when we did finally abseil the 10m into The Gap. We were now committed to a roped 25m climb up and out into daylight. Suddenly, the gritty textured gabbro molten rock was replaced by a well-polished dolerite chimney which must be climbed to get out of this deep chasm. “I can’t believe this is graded a VD”, I yelled this and worse down as I became wedged in the chimney. It certainly felt more than its VD/S grading as given in the Scottish Mountaineering Council Skye Scrambles Guidebook. In future, I suppose I’ll have to do more training on easy routes wearing a heavy rucksack and mountain boots!! In rock shoes and without rucksack, probably an “S” grading, a “VS” with heavy pack and boots. A few very choice “superlatives” echoed down into Coire Ghrunnda as Seán got wedged at the same point in the chimney! As usual, I was carrying too much gear. A 40m rope would have sufficed instead of my 60m 8.1mm rope and apart from a harness with sling, krab and belay plate, 4 slings, 6 krabs, 4 extenders, a set of medium nuts, a couple of large friends would be plenty to carry between two. And as for that large flask? A huge offender in terms of weight. Surely I could survive for a day without that cuppa tea?

We didn’t deviate to take in Sgurr Alasdair but stayed on the crest – an airy scramble over Squrr Thearlaich and down to the Bealach Mhic Choinnich where we passed 3 Scotsmen who had been playing “the waiting game” in the campsite for the past week. At half past midnight, this same jovial group were mighty relieved to be picked up hitch-hiking their way down the Glenbrittle valley having abandoned the Ridge before Bruach na Frithe. Apart from 2 small groups doing circuits, we met only two other men with ridge aspirations on Sgurr nan Eag. They had come up from the Corruisk Memorial Hut, looked fit, young and sounded confident but we never saw them again. The weather had been so unpredictable that very few parties were prepared to wait around for an unexpected mid-week slot. We were moving well, relaxing into a good pace and rhythm as we traversed round Collie’s Ledge and then doubled back scrambling to the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. Onwards across the col above the An Stac screes and towards that well defined dorsal fin look-alike, the Inaccessible Pinnacle. As Seán contoured around, I continued up the “In Pin” – a very enjoyable but exposed moderate climb with lots of good juggy holds and then an abseil down the north side for another cuppa and sandwich on the summit of Sgurr Dearg. “A crucial rest”. It was a wonderful relief to change socks at this stage. It was 3.30pm and we were already on the go for almost 9 hours, with at least another 9 to go. Seán was happy to continue on but we agreed to keep reviewing the situation. The sustained and unrelenting nature of the scrambling demanded continuous focus and concentration as we headed for Sgurr Banachdich. Immediately beyond, the Ridge takes a big swing North Eastwards, the first curve of the horseshoe that enclosed Loch Corruisk. Next, the intimidating jagged point of Sgurr Thormaid and the boomerang shaped challenging Sgurr a Ghreadaidh. Talk started turning towards “suitable exits “. As we descended past “The Wart” down to the exit point of An Doras, Seán urged me to continue on alone. More than happy with his “introductory day” on the ridge, he descended the screes down to Glenbrittle just in time for a welcome dinner at the campsite. Before he lost mobile contact in the valley, a quick text to let me know he had descended the screes and was now on the track.

Onwards to Sgurr a Mhadaidh, downwards to Deep Gash Gully and upwards to the triple combed pinnacles where route-finding proved tricky enough. For the first time, I took out my copy of Gordon Stainforth’s route description. It is not exactly clear whether to drop on the East Corruisk side or the West Glenbrittle side so I decided to stay as high on the crest as I possibly could, climbing and back-climbing, carefully testing the rock with each move whilst at the same time trying to keep up the rhythm and forward momentum. “Unhurried speed”. No time to relax as this section certainly treads a fine line between what could be termed the upper limit of scrambling and out-and-out rock climbing. At the Bealach a Glaice Mhoire, I watched in disbelief as my copy of the route description floated away on an increasing wind into the depths of An Coire Uaigneis. It was the worst possible place this could have happened as I was not familiar with the next section. Róisín and I had backed off the second pinnacle of Bidean the previous week in a deluge and zero visibility. Now that I was alone, I felt I couldn’t take unnecessary risks climbing up and abseiling down airy pinnacles at this hour of the evening. Without a climbing partner, I had no choice but to contour under the pinnacles of Bidean Drum nan Ramh. A few airy steps across deep yawning chasms of nothingness saw me reach An Caisteal and the Bealach Tairnealar where it was comforting to find a litre of my favourite “jungle juice” dropped by my friend Breda as I had almost finished a litre and a half from my platypus. At this deep gash, I was delighted to retrieve a piece of valuable tat I had abandoned in the deluge the previous week to safely aid an abseil. After “a stop for water”, I bounced up Bruach na Frithe, the easiest and most straightforward ground on the ridge. Surprising that I had no hunger pangs as all I had eaten was a bar of chocolate, a sandwich and a few cereal a.m. bars. The unplanned “carbo loading” on sticky toffee pudding the previous night was standing to me now. From then on, my gaze was firmly on the Tooth, Am Baisteir and Sgurr nan Gillean. The wind was increasing and for the first time in the day, cloud was swirling around in the Lota Corrie below. A slight disappointment that I would not climb Naismith’s route and experience the crux on The Tooth or climb the fierce pinnacle, The Baisteir with its axe poised in mid chop as its Gaelic name, The Executioner suggests. Despite that, I was really enjoying the experience, still relishing the atmosphere and the views. Alone and content in the midst of this amazing gabbro architecture. A contour onto the west ridge and one final committing scramble up Nicolson’s chimney before gaining the much-prized summit of Sgurr nan Gillean at 9.40pm.

Sgurr nan Gillean

The wind had died away. “Relishing the silence”, I spent at least 15 minutes enthralled by that jagged arc, that tangled mass of rock that swept all the way back to Gars Bheinn where I had stood almost 12 hours earlier. All alone in this wildly impressive heart of the mountains. A wider sweep of the eye embraced a visual feast of sunlit seas and distant islands. A slowly setting sun over the Minch and Outer Hebrides. Infinity and beyond! Faltering daylight and quickly adjusting eyes saw me down the South East Tourist Route and steep screes. I was treading on air and not rocks. The ego was experiencing a feeling of completion and contentment. However, the alter ego wasn’t so sure about this “completion” business. “Och, keep your feet firmly on the ground lassie. Remember, you contoured under Bidean, the Tooth and the Baisteir.” OK, I’m not a purist, I didn’t follow the crest exclusively, I hadn’t technically completed the Ridge, but I was still happy with the day. I had come further than I had ever imagined when we set out that morning. I didn’t particularly care about my non-purist status; a judgement call based on safety considerations had over-ridden that. I couldn’t help looking across at those three lonely peaks of Garbh Bheinn, Clach Glas and Bla Bheinn. Only an extra 4,000 feet of climbing to complete “The Greater Outer Manly Traverse”. No thanks, another time, another challenge, I’ve a lift to catch at midnight from Slig back to Glenbrittle. Brian Forrest, a non-climbing sea kayaker was the “angel in waiting” to whisk me back to camp. Floating on a Skye high, soaking in a Skye gloaming and dreaming about a Skye pint, I made my way across the final 6km of soggy moorland towards the lights of Sligachan. On the stroke of midnight, 17 hours 20 minutes after leaving Glenbrittle, I reached the Slig Hotel. I was very content with what I had achieved but knew I’d be back to complete the task. A Ridge so close. A Ridge too far!

Roseroot on Sgurr a Ghreadaigh

(This article is a sequel to the article published in IMC Newsletter, Autumn 2002)