(by David Walsh, from Irish Mountaineering 1979-82)
May 1981. An account of the traverse of the Black Cuillin Ridge of Skye by an IMC party : Peter Gargan, Kevin Byrne, Peter Norton and David Walsh, with supporting cast Johnny Walsh and Sean Barrett.
Twice before to visit the Isle of Skye, my third time to pack my sac in anger, and finally we actually set out on the track from Glen Brittle campsite to Gars Bheinn mountain under a clear blue sky determined to get this climb done, content if not entirely confident. It takes three and a half hours to get to the southernmost point and start of our intended traverse of the Black Cuillin Ridge, a two-day trip that has dominated our planning of the holiday so far and our thoughts for many a day.
Nothing will induce confidence in Peter, who has tried and failed three times before and in the best of company. In the Western Isles of Scotland spotting the start of two days of good weather is the hardest part of the task in hand. The warden of the campsite says that if you can see the nearby Isle of Soay it is about to rain and if you can’t see it, it is raining. Twice Peter has been at the foot of the very last of the 27 summits ahead, only to founder in bad conditions and it has been a hard decision for him to try again.
My first ever sight of a Golden Eagle hovering and hunting below us set out against a calm blue sea lifted the spirits on the long trudge up the scree slopes of Gars Bheinn. Plunging and soaring the sight relieved the tension always associated with a much planned, much delayed and much wanted climb, which we know will immediately disappear once we get to grips with the difficulties ahead.
Reaching the ridge itself is dramatic. Because of the sharpness, the suddenness with which it is reached is half its virtue. Within the moment of a few paces the view is utterly transformed. The whole Sligachan Valley with Loch Coruisk is spread out directly below with Blaven and the Red Cuillins across and Torridan and the West Highlands beyond.
A quick rest and away we trot. A distinct but unspoken competitive spirit is present in the form of another IMC party started not a couple of hours previously. The going is easy at first but dramatic, a good introduction to things to come. The rock scenery on the Coruisk side is Alpine with sheer walls several hundred feet all along the route. The tendency at first is to religiously follow the exact ridge crest, but we soon learn to anticipate and dodge difficulties on one side or the other.
Progress is rapid until we reach the first major obstacle, the Thearlach Dubh Gap, a small notch in the ridge which requires an abseil in and a climbing pitch out. Worse, the nature of the climbing on the other side requires sac hauling, a procedure of which we promptly make such a mess as to lose lots of precious time. The time we had made up to date is thrown away. We had almost caught the opposition.
Still fresh as daisies we soon reached Sgurr Alasdair and stopped to admire the view. This is the highest point on the Island and we can see the start and finish of our route and our tent in the campsite, all laid out in the technicolour of approaching evening. On we go, round the famous peaks of Coire Lagain, the only unhappy part of the trip. Hordes of people tramping places bearing proud names. Led by a merry mountain leader a gang of school children who didn’t even greet us when passing on the superb Colley’s Ledge, one suspects as much from their obvious terror at their situation as from their National Reservedness. It was enough to enforce several bigoted theories. In defence of these once proud hills, however, I must say that Inaccessible Pinnacle at the very end of the Coire as we travel is the finest piece of moderate rockclimbing I have ever experienced. A narrow ridge with Juggies all the way and exposure on both sides to flutter any heart.
This point had been our goal for the first day, but with a spare hour of daylight we head off northward, motivated by the opposition whom we had again drawn near to. They told us nothing would stop them now, mountains or weather. Won’t it indeed says the wiser Peter to himself. Won’t it indeed. The ridge at this point changes suddenly and enormously in character, at once less famous, less trodden and less difficult for a while. Onward over Sgurr Na Banachdich we force weary bodies past a bivouaced group with more sense. Against rules previously agreed on over creamy pints in comfortable circumstances not now being enjoyed we pushed for every inch of progress before dark, trusting to luck for a good spot to sleep. Luck ran out, it got dark, the mist then the rain came in and we scratched out a small resting spot. I was so exhausted Peter had to finish this task for me, nor could I eat. The consolation was instant sleep, not enjoyed by all the party. The opposition weren’t far away. In keeping with the speed creed of the modern Beep Beep they travelled light. As they shivered through the night without sleeping bags they counted headlights coming home from licensed premises to the campsite. As one car twisted its solitary journey down the lonely and tortuous Glen Brittle road several hours after the pack the cry went up “Johnny has sinned tonight”.
The rain stopped soon enough and we got going about 6.00, an hour or so after dawn. We were too warm to get out of bed sooner. We couldn’t face breakfast. We were most anxious to get past one particular peak up ahead, Bidein Druim Nam Ramh, before we could relax. A triple summit, crazily steep and mixed up, it has been the end of many a good attempt at the ridge. Many ups and downs and Navigation Errors brought us slowly nearer. All of us later found that this section has become a blur of activity in our memory, with details of individual peaks and problems vanished, or merging into one another in confused fashion.
After a few hours hard going we caught sight of the opposition up ahead on Bidein, in the act of abseiling no less. This sight induces furious acceleration and a lifting of the spirits as there is no greater time waster than abseiling. When they abseil again we get so close as to be able to hurl abuse across the gap between the southern and central summits of the peak. Norton is at his best in these circumstances, particularly on hard or steep descents. He took my sac for me on the most difficult places and guided me down, saving time and energy. The rope was not produced where abseils and pitches are normal and in splendid fashion we passed this peak of so much worry. Competition is a wonderful help in the mountains. “It lowers angles, shortens distance and improves weather.” We stop now for breakfast and still Peter refuses to admit growing confidence. Only five summits, six hours to go and nothing more than a thin mist to worry us, other than we have now run out of water and haven’t seen a trickle all morning. Eating the last apple we start again.
An Caisteal and Bruach na Frithe are next. Rarely tramped by horseshoe walkers they are fine hills steep and pointed. The notch between the two is as hard a piece of scrambling as any on the ridge. Gendarmes block the way and concentration saves time. At last on top of the endless scree of Bruach na Frithe we see the final hills dead ahead. Only a small peak Sgurr a’Fionn Choire lies between, but choosing the wrong way up has us climbing instead of scrambling on ground that awakens our sense of exposure to verticality which had gone to sleep. Next the impossible intimidating overhanging Baistear Tooth. As we arrive the opposition has just managed the amazing direct route up — Naismith’s Route — the hardest pitch on the whole ridge. To succeed saves much time and adds grace to the ridge. This is a fine rock route visited even by Crag Rats with a sense of tradition. After an hour of lack of effort (we wandered about at the foot looking upwards totally overawed, worrying about belays, arguing about the exact line, there is no chance in this mood) we gave up and set off down the scree slopes to the ordinary route, itself not short of character. Finding the only weakness in a gigantic vertical cliff bristling with overhangs, the scrambler enjoys an exposed climb on solid rock up an easy gangway to the summit of the Tooth. Peter is in tears as he realises that the accidental descent of this ramp caused the demise of his last effort. If even on the scree below they had found the last summit on the ridge they would have finished, albeit having missed the intervening fine Munro summit of An Baistear though at one point coming within fifteen feet of the summit. The secret of this section of the ridge, often missed, is to realise that proximity, nowhere properly dealt with in guidebooks. A ramp runs out into thin air and above is an impossible short overhang, definitely not appearing in mist as a reasonable release from a difficult route- finding predicament. But nothing is impossible with shoulders as broad as Peter’s to stand on and in less than a minute I am on the summit setting a fixed rope for Peter to follow. The descent of An Baistear requires special care. Inviting ledges lead nowhere and the straight and narrow ridge is best. In the broad gap below we gratefully dump our sacs bringing only rope and camera for the final ascent. Scrambling all the way to the Gendarme called the Constable we rope up because of the exposure and just as well. The juggy that is the key to the swing around the corner of the block is loose and will shortly break off, unaccompanied one hopes. This will then be a very difficult passage indeed. And so, racing up the final slopes, we hit the summit exactly 24 hours after leaving Gars Bheinn in time to see and to shout at the figures of the opposition far below retreating with the pace and urgency of the very thirsty and pub-bound.
The Cuillin ridge of Skye remains acknowledged the first moderate mountaineering undertaking in these islands. A reasonable ambition for any mountaineer, good luck and weather make possible what the finest climbers otherwise find impossible. Fine scenery, continuity of difficulty, acreage of continuous rock and necessity of concentration, on route finding and safety, set mountaincraft in these hills apart. The ridge is an obvious challenge which inevitably occurs to any climber visiting Skye. The anticipation was excelled by the memory. A campsite at the start and a pub at the finish – the finest Alpine routes don’t offer that.