Cuillin Ridge Traverse

By Darren Lambert – June 2003

I had been waiting for a chance to attempt this classic
mountaineering outing for years. May/June seemed to be the
ideal time for an attempt, so when our old mate Tim came
looking for potential partners, he needed to look no further.
The combination of school & public holidays in France &
UK, and the amount of annual leave left only a narrow window of
opportunity. The plan was to travel to Skye on the Wednesday,
walk to the start of the route on Thursday evening, bivvi,
complete the route on Friday, travel home on Saturday, attend
Mark Smith’s xth birthday party in Suffolk on the Sunday
(where for the mathematicians, 30ish<x<50ish).
Best the weather be good on Friday then.

The forecast looked reasonable, but by no means conclusive,
however we took a chance. Clare & I set out for Skye as
planned, picking up Tim at Glasgow airport, and arriving in
Glenn Brittle around 2am Thursday morning. As we emerged from
our tents at 8am, we took stock of our surroundings – plenty of
campers, the sea, the beach, and the low cloud. No visible
ridge. A call to the Culverhouse Weather Centre however
revealed a good forecast for Friday, and the instruction “Go
For It!”. So go for it we did. After a couple of hours
agonizing over how much gear (weight) to take, and a couple of
hours driving the car 15 miles to Sligachan then cycling back,
we set out for Gars-bheinn at around 6pm. Between three we took
two 50m half ropes, a basic rack (nuts 3, 5-10; Friends 1.5,
2.5, 3.5; two mid-range hexes; 4 quickdraws; and two 8 foot
slings each). Personal gear – Bivvi Bag, waterproofs,
Thermarest (wimps), Lightweight Sleeping Bag (wimp), food, 4
litres water, harness & helmet.

One of the guides describes the ascent of Gars-bheinn’s
scree slopes as “an early test of character”. Another mentions
“purgatorial”. I couldn’t describe it any better. We arrived on
the summit at 9.30pm, in the cloud, and it was cold – the bivvi
spots are right on the summit. Straight to bed then.

We had set our alarms for 5am although I didn’t need it. I
had been counting down the seconds since about 3am when I woke
up feeling quite cold. Clare seemed in the best humour as she
claimed to have been just warm enough in fleece, full Gore-Tex
and sleeping bag. I couldn’t wait to get moving.

We met a couple of disheartened souls travelling in the
opposite direction, just before the ascent to Sgurr nan Eag. It
turns out they had bivvied in Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda and were off to
bag Gars-bheinn, however they had already got lost in the cloud
on Sgurr nan Eag. They never did catch us. We were using Andy
Hyslop’s miniguide which we found excellent – very few wrong
turns over often complex ground. The guide saw us safely to
Sgurr Dubh Mor, and our second Munro. The cloud was kind of
clearing, and we were on guide-book time – just. Traversing
over Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn and down to Bealach Coir’ an
Lochain we overtook two more souls who had also bivvied in
Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda. They had bagged Gars-bheinn and Sgurr nan
Eag the previous evening – sneaky, and obviously not quite as
stylish as our own attempt of the whole ridge in one day. While
the sneaks scoffed cake, we scrambled up to the lip of the TD
Gap – reported to be the most technical bit of the traverse.
Abseiling into the gap we made a full assessment of the route
out on the north side – a steep green crack, absolutely running
with water. From the guide, we were to expect a grade of V-Diff
or Severe. Frankly, the theoretical grade was irrelevant. Rock
boots wouldn’t have helped, even if we had them with us. It was
treacherous, to say the least. Tim lead it and made it look
hard. By the time Clare had seconded, the cake-eating sneaks
had already decided they had no chance of leading it
themselves. They asked if we would take their rope up. We did,
and we would be glad later.

After I had also made the climb look desperate, we packed
the ropes and continued to the summit of Sgurr Thearlaich,
making the obligatory detour to bag the third Munro – Sgurr
Alasdair, the highest point on the island. By this time the sun
was out and we could see most of the ridge ahead. We had lost
time on the TD Gap, and we seemed to have an awful lot still to
do. Descending into Bealach Mhic Choinnich we had a brief
debate about the line of King’s Chimney, the second part of the
ridge that called for ropes. We agreed that it was the
streaming, dripping corner crack (what else?) with the move out
right under the overhang. Again, Tim stepped onto the front of
the rope and made it look interesting. Easier than the TD Gap,
but rock boots would have been welcome this time – for the
traverse under the overhang. Three safely up and onto the
summit of our fourth Munro – Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.

A brief stop to pack the ropes, have a bite to eat, a glug
of water and survey the route ahead. We were now well behind
time, so we decided to miss out the direct ascent of An Stac,
which looked enormous. Instead we scrambled up an easier line
on the west side – to the base of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A
stroke of luck – no queue. A team had just completed the route
and told us they had waited an hour and a half, due to a slow
team ahead. We decided to move together for speed, which gave
Tim the chance to tie his first Alpine Butterfly in anger. It
was a joy to climb on dry rock, and in such a fantastic
position. Within the half hour, we were striding off the summit
of Sgurr Dearg towards Midget Ridge and Sgurr na Banachdich,
Munro number six. This was a significant summit. It was as far
as Tim had reached on a previous attempt. This was also where
the ridge took a turn toward the north-east – making an escape
back to Glen Brittle ever further. It was 3pm and decision
time. We were three hours behind schedule, with an estimated
arrival time on the summit of Sgurr Nan Gillean of Midnight, if
the guide-book was to be believed. I felt quite disheartened at
this point however we made a decision to push on – the weather
was still good, and we had our bivvi gear.

Having made a slight wrong turn on the descent of Sgurr na
Banachdich, we re-gained the correct line over the pleasant top
of Sgurr Thormaid. The south ridge of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh
loomed ahead. The scramble up the ridge was very pleasant, as
was the traverse between false and real summits. At the summit
of our seventh Munro we met some very charitable chaps who
donated some vital energy in the form of chocolate and bananas.
Our water was low and Tim had run out of food. We were actually
going very well at this point, and I was perking up. We
scrambled down some tricky terrain to An Dorus then straight on
towards Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh, Munro number eight, followed by its
three tops, which provided the steepest and most technical
scrambling so far. Arriving at the grassy Bealach na Glaic
Moire, we re-assessed our position. 5.30pm and we completed the
last section in guide book time (just). Still on for a midnight
finish. The next section over Bidein Druim nan Ramh was billed
by some as the crux from the route finding and technical
scrambling perspectives. At this point we convinced ourselves
that we only had the resources to make Bruach na Frithe – still
four hours away. The Bhasteir tooth would have to wait for
another day. At least we had the chance to traverse Bidein in
good conditions, which would be valuable if we came back
another time.

Cracking on, and as the summit of Bruach na Frithe
disappeared into cloud, we set about the south summit of
Bidein. Good scrambling and very enjoyable, save for the
awkward descent into the gap between summits. Crossing the rock
that bridged the gap, the ascent to the main summit wasn’t half
as difficult as it had looked, however the descent on the other
side proved a little troublesome. We had been advised to spend
time looking for the correct route here – so we did. Eventually
we descended into the gap below the north peak via an unlikely
looking line – the first bit was quite tricky. The last bit
into the gap looked desperate to tired eyes, so we made a short
abseil. The north peak reared up ahead of us and our hearts
sank. The scree gully down into Coir a Tairneilear looked more
inviting, which is saying something. 7.30pm and we had been on
the move for fourteen hours. If we descend now, we might even
make the pub.

As it turned out the descent was quite challenging – loads
of scree to sap whatever energy we had left, followed by
unexpected cliffs where it had looked like a grassy downhill
jog. We drank from a very refreshing waterfall, which was
heaven after spending so long rationing water to small glugs.
With the main challenges over we had a choice to make. A four
mile walk over the moor to Sligachan, and the car – e.t.a. past
closing time. Or, a mile and a half walk to the Glen Brittle
road and the hope of hitching a lift to the campsite. The
latter sounded like the best bet, and we arrived at the road
just before 10pm. Clare virtually laid down in the road to stop
the first car – going in the wrong direction, and not even to
Sligachan. The second car was going in the right direction,
however it had five up so we didn’t even bother sticking out
our thumbs. Nevertheless, the car screeched to a halt, window
down. It was the sneaky cake eaters, with family. It turned out
they had baled out at the TD gap, but felt they owed us one for
taking their rope up. Without arguing, we spent the four miles
back to the campsite with our feet trailing out of their
hatchback – our rucksacks on their laps. Heaven. Beers at the
tent. Heaven.

So, a failed attempt but a fantastic day out. We’ll try
again one day. A world away but also thoroughly enjoyable was a
pint of Mauldons in Mark Smith’s back garden on the Sunday

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