The Cuillin Ridge Traverse, one and a third times

Completing the Welsh 3000s did something to my brain. It made it think ‘Well, if you can do that, you can probably do much harder challenges!’

Which of course meant a search for the next big challenge.

Joe and I particularly like one day challenges, Joe already had a long-held ambition to traverse the Cuillin Ridge and I thought the In-Pinn looked cool. So a plan was naturally born, and one year almost to the day after we’d done the Welsh 3000s we found ourselves on the way to Skye.

As we’re both working towards our MLs we also wanted to squeeze as much Scottish mountaineering into a week as possible, so our rough plan was to drive up to Skye overnight on Friday, climb the ridge Sunday, recover on Monday and then hit a host of other smaller mountains and ridges on our gradual return south through Glen Shiel to Glencoe.
The Cuillin ridge, however, had other plans.

The drive up was basically a coffee fuelled ride of utter insanity. I wanted to drive up overnight from Bristol to Sligachan in one go to avoid the utter bullshit involved in a daytime journey like caravans, accidents and traffic jams. Which worked in that sense. I don’t think I’d realised though just how exhausting that would be. Beyond Glasgow everything was a blur of espresso and frantic metal blaring out to keep us focussed and alert. And swerving around deer through Glencoe.

By the time we were cruising through Invergarry the sun was coming back up, and we spotted otters swimming along the coast as we arrived on Skye at 6am. The weather was spectacular; the red Cuillins were deep pink in the morning sun, the loch at the foot of the Sligachan campsite sparkled silently and birds cut dark streaks across the deep blue sky. Admiring the three distinctive dark summits of Bruach na Frithe, Am Bastier and Sgurr nan Gillean was equal parts inspiring and intimidating, knowing that in another day we could be descending the steep escarpments leading from them after crossing the innumerable peaks hidden beyond them to the south of us.

Camping at Sligachan - Red Cuillins behind
After a couple of hours sleep, some breakfast that felt like dinner, and some more sleep we got restless and alternated between coffee crashes and food highs, napping in the amazingly warm sunshine and pottering around the silent campsite. I felt a sense of something akin to guilt for being in such a beautiful place, surrounded by beautiful mountains and climbing, in some of the finest weather of the year, but sat around doing nothing!

By the early evening we were joined by our friend Oli who’d been working on Eigg recently and was planning to camp with us for a few days, and a friendly neighbour on the campsite, Dan, who was able to offer us some first-hand advice on sections of the ridge.

We packed as light as we thought we could, being mindful of how much water we’d need if Sunday were to be anywhere near as hot as Saturday had been, sorting out the bare bones of a rack and splitting the weight between us. That night I tried my best to get some sleep, but my body felt jet lagged and sleep was elusive and light.

At 2am my alarm broke through my hazy doze and I was up, out of the tent and immediately set upon by an apocalyptic cloud of midges. The entire day and evening had been so breezy and hot the little gits hadn’t made their presence known and I’d almost forgotten about them!  I had no idea where my repellent was and got bitten to bits in seconds. Joe flapped frantically to the bathrooms and emerged with arms covered in red bites.
The car offered the only escape and we drove with the windows open to Glen Brittle, blasting the bugs out with the breeze.

We set off at 3am in the dark, warm, muggy night along the path beyond the campsite. I was amazed (and almost childlike in my excitement) at the number of frogs hopping around on the footpath we were following below the silhouette of the ridge.

Joe slogging up Gars-bheinn
It was a hot night, and long before we began the steep slog up Gars-bheinn we were sweating profusely and getting through more water than we intended. Joe somehow managed to swallow a giant bug and was immediately sick. An inauspicious start.
Gars-bheinn. What to say about Gars-bheinn? When approached from the south along the footpath and ascended more or less directly via the grass slopes this mountain is a bit of a nightmare. Steep? Yeah just a bit. Loose? Yeah, some sort of scree-based horror show. Ticks? By the bucket-load. I was flicking them off my hands every time I touched the ground. Tiring? You better believe it. Is this some sort of Cuillin Ridge rite of passage that no one tells you about? I have my suspicions. Maybe everyone forgets because the views are so incredible once you reach the col (sorry, bealach). The short scramble to the summit opened up even more expansive and stunning views of the ridge, the surrounding coast, the lochs and the incredible sunrise.

We paused for a few minutes to allow ourselves time to catch our breath and take in the views. It was 4.30am and we were finally at the start of the Cuillin Ridge.

The ridge stretches out ahead

Joe and I looking fresh and optimistic still at the summit of Gars-bheinn
Having such a clear view was great in terms of planning our route. I don't imagine many people get the benefit of such clear skies when they're starting the ridge traverse as we did for forward planning. The downside was that it made Gillean seem so much closer than it actually was!

Setting off, the first few steps, felt so exciting! All the anticipation and build-up, the long 2.5hr walk-in and trudge uphilll, all the preceding training over the past few months. It had all been building up to this. In those first few steps the tiredness seemed to disappear and was replaced with excitement. We were finally beginning our Cuillin adventure.
Our first challenge was soon surmounted, our first Munro in the bag. Sgurr nan Eag was a deceptively easy first obstacle.

To get to Sgurr Dubh Mor we followed the instructions from the mini guide but decided to scramble up the side of the gully rather than ascend the scree filled base of it, and quickly found ourselves in some exciting exposed positions on brilliantly grippy vertical shelves and worked our way rapidly to the bealach, dumped our bags and found some windy, tricky scrambling route to the summit. We followed much easier grassy paths back down and made a mental note to remember that should we have to do it again there was a much easier way up.

The entire ridge at sunrise

Sgurr Dubh na da Bheinn was quickly dispatched and we were on the lookout for the TD gap which we knew to be our first major obstacle. We felt like we were making really good time at this point, but I was also beginning to feel really tired. I was a bit worried as we had a huge distance still to go, both horizontally and vertically. It was now around 6am and it was getting hotter and hotter with sun out in full force, and not a breath of breeze at all. I was drinking as much water as I dared, but I knew I had a long day ahead of me and was trying to ration it.

Shortly before we found the TD gap was an amazing section of near vertical scrambling up a wall with great hand and footholds but with a level of exposure that would get a mountain goat sweating. A drop of at least 200ft below our feet and with heavy packs we swung up this stretch of rock, my heart pounding out of my chest by the top.

Some entertaining scrambling

A few metres on from this and we were at the TD gap, rigging a quick abseil and descending into the bliss of the shady crevice.

I was very happy here that Joe took some time over the lead of the crack (Joe is far quicker, more experienced and better than me at placing trad gear and rigging top ropes so without ever really discussing it, it was generally agreed that he would lead the climbs), as it meant I got more respite from the sun. I was worried that I had already sweated off the sun cream I had put on at the car, and I'd left the bottle in the glove box. I could tell Joe was getting tired too from his lead up the route,  and when it came to my turn to second the route I was really surprised at my own struggles with it - I felt so fatigued and things I could normally haul myself up felt unduly challenging. I was shaking at the top and found the walk up the bealach between Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Thearlichh incredibly draining. We crossed the scree slopes between the summits and dropped our bags in a little stone bivi shelter, before slowly making our way to the summit of Alasdair.

Sgurr Alasdair looms ahead

At the summit we sat baking in the sun, staring off into the distance at the range of peaks still to come. The gap and its challenges had taken us far longer than we expected and we no longer felt like we were making such good time. We were both tired, and neither of us felt like the water we were drinking was making any difference to us. I have had some experience with proper dehydration before and could recognise some of the symptoms in myself; my footwork was less confident, I was feeling much more tired than I should for the distance we had covered, I was feeling sluggish and incredibly thirsty. I knew that the reason the water wasn't helping was that it wasn't replacing essential electrolytes and other salts we had been sweating out, and no matter how much water we consumed it wouldn't be any use.

We talked openly about how we felt and agreed that to continue was to invite disaster, a chance of one of us making a mistake, and even just a stumble on some exposed ground on the ridge could mean injury or worse. I would never want to push myself too far and have to call for assistance. Joe felt the same, we knew there was no shame in being honest about our situation and our condition. Between the drive up, the lack of sleep and the immense heat we knew we were done.

We escaped down the stone chute towards Glen Brittle, a punishing escape route down steep, loose, big scree and found ourselves marching through ever hotter sunshine towards the car. We talked about the mistakes we thought we had made and how we could remedy them in a couple of days to try again. All other plans we might have had were immediately put on hold. The ridge had defeated us that day, but we knew we could do it.

We had carried too much with us - with the forecasts and conditions carrying a fleece a hat and some gloves was overkill. Whilst I wouldn't normally consider going into the hills without them we knew it was silly to bring them again. We decided to pick up a load of rehydration salts so we wouldn't just be drinking water next time - something I've found really useful in hot weather before and something I've given to others in the hills when their energy has been flagging. I've seen the restorative effect they can have first-hand and am a big believer in them. We reckoned we didn't need as much food either, and figured we could try to load up on sleep and sustenance the next day,  then get an earlier start - setting off at midnight from the campsite instead to allow ourselves more hours walking in the dark before it got too hot.

Once back at the car we headed to the Oyster Shed and pick ourselves up some amazing seafood. The seafood platter proved to be some sort form of protein joy and made us feel a hell of a lot better. Back at the Sligachan campsite our friends reassured us about the decision we had  made, told us we had done the right thing, gave us food and let us sleep. Then night we got good and drunk.

The next day we made for Portree to load up on food and rehydration salts - ultimately the key to our success later on. We also dozed a lot of the afternoon, and around 7pm I knocked back a couple of sleeping pills to ensure myself a few easy and uninterrupted hours of deep sleep.

Relaxing at Sligachan
They did their job! When my alarm woke me up at 12am I felt properly rested. We drove off to Glen Brittle with a sense of deja vu. Only this time it was much darker and much cooler. Although still just as midgey.

We decided to walk further along below Gars-bheinn to the east this time in search of a gentler route up that steep and savage mountain. The extra half hour traversing along was probably just about worth it. We aimed for the ridge rising from the east and had a marginally easier time of it than we had a couple of days before, and the slightly lower temperature was noticeable. It was still a mega-slog, and I still found myself flicking a never ending army of ticks off my hands. But upon gaining the summit I didn't feel as beat as I had before, and seeing that although the sky was lightening the sun was still well below the horizon was encouraging.

An awesome Cuillin sunrise

We took the same route we had before over these early stages, our confidence buoyed by the early hours, and the knowledge we already had of the beginning of the route. There was no need for route finding or reference to the guide book, we knew exactly what to expect and where to go for the first few hours.

The TD gap was far more easily dispatched this time around, Joe quickly leading up and placing gear where he already knew it would go. I seconded it towing up a line for two other guys we'd bumped into along the way to help speed up their traverse. It was incredible how much better we were feeling at this early stage.

Atop Sgurr Alasdair we marked the summit with our usual fist bump but this time with a confidence and knowledge that we weren't in the least bit tired yet - the route so far had been trying but we were winning. There was no sign of the exhaustion that had overcome us before.

A short but intense scramble brought us to the top of Sgurr Thearlaich. From the slabby tops we headed downhill discussing the benefits of heading up King's Chimney or along Collie's Ledge. In the end the weather helped make the decision. The slow rise of the sun was dampened by a thick mist rolling in over the peaks, the summits previously spread before us in a clear path now obscured and visibility reduced to mere metres.

Joe on Collie's Ledge in thick cloud

As we couldn't see our way up the chimney and we felt we weren't making great time we opted for Collie's Ledge, a narrow, rubbley "path" where a large strip of basalt has eroded faster than the surrounding gabbro, leaving a 6" high indent on the side of the mountain, a section wide enough to be a considered at path which contours around the steepest section with an incredibly airy sense of exposure, before petering out and forcing you to scramble to the ridge before back-tracking to claim the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.

Below Sgurr Mhic Choinnich we were still enduring abysmal cloud cover and thick persistent fog. We chose to eschew An Stac in favour of the runner’s route to save us some more time and head up the ramp to the In-Pinn. In such dire conditions and with the visibility we had I'm amazed we found it. We ended up over shooting our target and ascending the ridge beyond, contouring the ridge and virtually stumbling upon the hulking block of the Inn-Pinn's western edge by the usual abseil spot. We scrambled around it until we reached the route up from the east side and Joe once again led off up it, placing a single piece of gear before constructing a comfortable belay for me to join him.

As he set off from this mid-point belay a light breeze parted the mists that had threatened to thwart our attempt. By the time I reached the summit of the staggeringly amazingly positioned, and completely legendary In-Pinn the skies were completely clear and blue with views in all directions and our path onwards once more revealed to us.

Being at the top of the In-Pinn is a mountaineer’s dream. Although not technically difficult by the standard route (in fact Joe basically rope-solo'd it and I'd have been happy doing the same) the position it leaves you in is totally unique; standing on a 4ft wide shelf of rock with a 70ft sheer drop on either side of you, with no other way off than an abseil and knowing you're on a unique Munro top. The feeling is incredible, just like this peak.

Seconding the In-Pinn

Epic In-Pinn selfie

Abseiling off Sgurr Dearg (In-Pinn; it has a proper name too) we set off for the Midget Ridge and quickly dispatched the minor summits trying to bar our progress. At this point with clear skies and a good view of Gillean we felt unstoppable.

Looking back the way we'd come - Sgurr Alasdair stands above everything else

At the top of Sgurr na Banachdich we took a few minutes to recover in the sun, drink a load of fluids and eat some food. We'd been making sure to eat every hour so far, but had been reluctant to allow ourselves a proper break. Whilst allowing time for our now trembling leg muscles to relax a pair of guides approached with some clients from near our home turf of Bristol. They asked us how we were going and what we were up to, and seemed impressed with our time so far to the point we were at. We felt dead pleased with ourselves at that. Until they casually mentioned that An Dorus, a bealach beyond a few more peaks and some tricky ground, was generally considered to be the halfway point time-wise of the one-day attempt, and we were probably at least another hour away from that! Well aware that we were 7hrs in already we were thoroughly daunted at the prospect of a further 8-9 hours of the ridge still to go!

Awesome views abound

Between us and An Dorus loomed the shapely triangular point of Sgurr Thormaid which was quickly summited directly via some fun scrambling, all the more pleasurable because of the ease of route finding and the clear views of the ground ahead. The “three teeth” we rapidly circumnavigated and we clambered to the top of Sgurr a’Greadaidh, covering all of the little tops along the way as we were never sure which one was the summit proper. Some very narrow sections led us to some extremely steep drops, and I was glad the visibility continued to be so good for us, in thick cloud without prior knowledge of the ground this section would have been incredibly tricky and time consuming.

As we cleared An Dorus and climbed up Sgurr a’Mhaidaih clouds began to roll up the valley from the east. Dark, thick, heavy low clouds. Just beyond the summit (which I don’t remember clearly at all for some reason) and approaching the tricky ground of the “three tops” the heavens opened and we were drenched in minutes. Our movement slowed as the lines of basalt rock became treacherously slippery and I could feel my mood turning with the weather. We had been on the go by now for around 8 or 9 hours from Gars-bheinn, only stopping briefly for food and water, but never for longer than 15mins at any time. The day had been so hot I was worried I was getting through my water too quickly and was rationing myself and getting through my bottles of energy drink quicker than I would have liked as a substitute for my water, knowing I’d want it later.

A brief pause to admire the view
The ground around the three tops was confusing. We tried to skirt around the first one to the right but found we were losing a lot of height, and feeling the way we were we couldn’t face following a line that took us so low. Instead we went against our guide book and headed up, battling with the wet ground as the rain continued to fall.

Luckily after half an hour or so the rain stopped, and the ground quickly started to dry out in the heat of the day, only the basalt dykes retained their slippery nature for a while.
A few times over the three tops we found ourselves ascending sketchy, steep ground in lieu of knowing where else to go, Joe often finding the ways up and me leading the way down, descending the steep gabbro slabs, finding down climbs or the occasional bit of abseil tat to drop us into deep cracks between the hills only to re-ascend steeply on the ground beyond.
This was by far the most demoralising part of the day. Although the rain had stopped it had left a humidity in the air that made us feel even more tired and thirsty. We were both swinging in energy and motivation levels, pushing each other through bouts of exhausting and taking turns to route find, repeating a natural pattern of Joe finding ways up and me finding ways down. We talked little about anything but where to go next, how much closer Gillean was looking and how much we wanted a beer!

Bidein Duim nan Ramh was the big objective that stood between us and the last enchainment of three peaks that stand like sentries overlooking Sligachan. Psychologically standing on that last stretch of ridge we knew would be a massive boon to our morale, being able to look down at the campsite and loch that had become our home. Bidein was the gatekeeper to that land of hope, with only a little non-Munro in between.

The three summits of Bidein were far harder to get around than we expected from a distance. More steep slabs were descended, and dropping down onto the rock bridge (a boulder wedged in a deep scar cut deep into the mountain) was incredibly intimidating. Danger was becoming harder to quantify, and I was finding any sense of nervousness was becoming amplified by the amount of sugar I was consuming to keep me going, causing me the occasional bout of shakes and I had to breathe deeply to keep calm and focussed. Joe found a way through the rock barrier beyond the bridge and we quickly scrambled up some steep, stepped basalt chimneys. These amazing natural features are narrower than a normal staircase, but are shaped just like stairs only far, far steeper. They make for an excellent, natural scramble to give a rapid ascent of the face of the peak.

Finding our way around some steep ground
Beyond the summit we struggled once again to follow the instructions of the guidebook, and followed our own instincts to get off the steepest parts of the slabs and rigged a quick abseil down a very step and intimidating looking “down climb”.

An Caisteal was a much less intimidating prospect after dealing with Bidein, but we still took the time to do a quick abseil off the back of it to avoid another steep sharp down climb. Some of the “down climbs” are incredibly steep, and I think that without prior knowledge of them most people would find them much safer to abseil. Fortunately there’s a good amount of abseil tat in-situ, although this last one we did back up with one of our spare ‘biners as it looked like the rope could snag on the bits that were already there, and no one needed that at this time of day!

From the summit of An Caisteal I’d spotted a group moving ahead of us taking a nice looking diagonal line up Bruach na Frithe which from our angle looked incredibly steep, but it was obvious from the way they were moving the line they were on was very easy.

A steep easy climb from the gully at the bottom of the abseil led up to it (here we had an amazing view down what looked like a very easy escape down to the fairy pools, which was incredibly tempting). Bruach na Frithe I remember clearly, although my memory for much of this part of the day is actually quite sketchy. It was a beautiful climb, the sun seemed less harsh and I was looking forward to the view from the peak I had been staring at from my tent for three days. And the view was worth it. From the summit looking north there was no more ridge to see, just steeply sloping ground all the way to Sligachan. OK, so to the right were more mountains still to climb, but the change of view ahead was amazing, and to be just two Munro summits from completing the ridge was a massive boost. We sat at the top and gave ourselves some time to recover. We had been on the ridge for around 13hrs at this time. My legs felt OK but my body was tired. I wanted more food than I had on me, and I was running really low on water.

The Bastier Tooth and Am Bastier looked way, way bigger from our perspective on the ridge than they had from the campsite, where they had looked like nothing more than a tiny notch between Bruach na Frithe and Sgurr nan Gillean.

Upon approaching the Tooth I was feeling more and more intimidated. Up close the Tooth is a vast, imposing, leaning block of solid cliff. I scooped up some snow still lying in the shade of it, closeted from the sun, and stuffed it into an empty water bottle, hoping it would melt and see me through the descent later.

Joe contemplated which route to lead, but in the end he knew there was only one route he wanted to do up this monolith. The infamous Naismith’s route. An intimidating, steep crack line which hangs suspended above a drop of at least 100ft to scree, rocks and death. I wasn’t quite so excited for it, as I mostly wanted to sit down and sleep, exhaustion at this point getting the better or me. But since I only had to belay him and then second it, I really didn’t have anything to complain about, so I attached myself to some boulders at the beginning of the shelf-like traverse and belayed Joe as he climbed sideways out over the savage drop. At the end of this narrow shelf of rock we knew we wouldn’t have enough rope for Joe to get up the route while it was hooked into the couple of bits of gear he’d placed getting out there. He set about setting up a hanging belay from a thick spike of rock directly below the start of the crack and I traversed out to meet him.

Meeting Joe at the end of the ledge (which at the point of this hanging belay completely disappears) I hooked into the spike with a sling, we faffed about with the ropes for a bit and Joe backed up the hanging belay with a nicely placed nut. As more of a boulderer with only a newly found interest in trad climbing, hanging belays suspended from rock flakes and nuts was something I found pretty horrendous, particularly having been on the move for 14hrs, having not slept for a very long time, and being completely maintained by huge amounts of sugar. I had severe shaky leg syndrome going on which I’m sure put Joe right at ease.
Fortunately nothing was going to put him off this route, and I reassured him the shaking was just the sugar, nothing to do with the appalling sense of exposure and nausea I was enduring. Once a few bits of gear went in above me I felt a lot better, and somehow Joe smashed through the route in no time at all. Detaching myself from the flake I took a moment to look down and around, and actually felt myself enjoying the exposure and complete sense of adventure. Joe had made some quiet comments from the top regarding the dubious quality of the belay at the top making me really focus on the way up, and after the short horizontal section of the crack found myself really enjoying the climb up the steeper section on great quality rock. At the top of the Tooth we took a minute to film where we were, both of us looking completely ruined and tired.

We meandered our way around beyond the Tooth, searching for the easiest way up to the top of Am Bastier, following some dead-end basal dykes and losing our way until we eventually struggled up and located the summit. One more Munro to go.

The descent from Am Bastier was pushing me to my limits. My feet were tired, my right knee was sore from all the steep downhills, and every step made Sgurr nana Gillean seem even bigger.

Fortunately Gillean wasn’t as hard to get up as it looked from a distance. All was going well until we came to a steep chimney. I had hit my limit. I slumped over a boulder at the foot of the chimney while Joe scampered up it, followed by a couple of very impressive runners who had just run the entire ridge. Joe lobbed a chocolate bar down at me from the top, followed shortly after by a rope so I could climb up with a bit of security. From the top of the chimney all that was left was to squeeze through a hole in the rock and before I knew it we were at the top; the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, the last summit of the ridge, the most northerly point and the climax to an insanely long day. It had been 15 and a quarter hours since we had left Gars-bheinn, 18 hours since leaving the car at Glen Brittle. We sat for a few minutes, staring down at Sligachan, then looking back along the ridge. The melted snow water was all either of us had left and for some reason it was barely thirst quenching. The midges had come out to greet us and were swarming around us sat at the summit. They encouraged us to move swiftly on.

Exhausted but happy on the final summit

We followed the south east ridge to descend and headed directly down from the bealach along dried river beds. It was getting towards dusk by the time we reached flatter ground, and beneath our feet we could hear faint trickles of water, teasing our parched minds as we finished the last of the melted snow water. We trudged onwards, cresting a small rise which revealed again the lost view of Sligachan, still looking miles away from us. All around were only bogs and still water, offering no help of relief from our mounting dehydration. We talked about nothing but how much we wanted water, and of plans to lie beneath the tap at the campsite downing all the water we could.

A last view before the sun went down
After a couple of hours descent we rounded a corner to hear the roar of fast flowing water in the vicinity. We ran to the source of the noise and found white water cascading over some rocks, flowing fast and free. Normally I wouldn’t take water from a river this low knowing anything could be above it, but we were desperate. The first bottle-full from the waterfall mostly went over my face rather than in it in my desperation to drink.

Just before we reached the road, as darkness was reaching us, we spotted our friend from the campsite jogging towards us. He’d started to get concerned that we weren’t back yet and had come to look for signs of us descending from Gillean. Luckily we were only 10 minutes from the campsite at this point, and somehow managed to get to the campsite by 10pm, 21 hours after we had set off from Glen Brittle, and in time for a well-earned pint at the pub!