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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cuillin ridge in a day

This is the view towards Sgurr nan Gilean from the Sligachan hotel & bar on the Sunday after Adam's and my Cuillin ridge attempt on the 25.9.2010.

We did the ridge on the Saturday and in contrast to Sunday there was a layer of cloud just above the summits but the rock was mostly dry and there was no ice.

So why do the ridge? The main reason is that it is the only properly testing, local Alpinism exam for British climbers. The second is that it is in a unique setting: an Alpine ridge in a Hebridean island world. The third reason is that there are 11 Munros which can be ticked off in one go and thus walkers may consider hiring a guide like Mike Lates (to start at the top) to tick them all on one or two days. This allows walkers to utilize their fitness to manage the distance and the guides skills for the tricky bits. The fourth is that it is the first route in 'classic rock' which puts it onto the to do list of many climbers.

Adam had visited the ridge several times before and I was on it twice with Tim, who had done the ridge earlier this year. During our attempt I also took many photos to maybe help others who prepare for the ridge. The ridge is long and complex and thus a visual idea of what is what and what should be expected is useful. Also in this report we will say what worked for us and what did not.

First some tips. The first tip is to train. Train enough to be able to run a Marathon in 3.30-4 h and the person who leads most of the climbing should be able to climb VS with no fuss (which means you should be able to lead HVS or E1 on a good day). The TD gap in less than perfect conditions with boots etc. will feel easily like VS similar to Naismiths in a fatigued state. If VS is your top grade on a good day then consider taking more protection and assume that you will take more time for the climbs.

The second tip is to obtain plenty of information and to cut out all wishful thinking. The ridge is tough and you need to gather as much information as possible. The following is very useful if not essential.
- Hyslop guide:
- Mike Lates guide:
- SMC Skye scrambles and the soon to be published Skye climbing guides.
- Map:

Adam and I used an Ortlieb map case and a Harvey 1:12,500 map on one side and the relevant page of the Hyslop guide on the other side. The Hyslop guide is invaluable as it says whether to stay left or right of the crest and how to do the sections where route finding is hard. If you do not have much experience on the ridge then a GPS either with the grid references for all the major peaks or a mapping GPS with a OS map for the area is useful. If the mist descends then navigation will be tough.

Finally clothing and shoes. Avoid big boots unless you twist your ankles easily. For me Five Ten Tennies worked very well as they are good for walking, OK for jogging and the sticky rubber makes them OK for climbing although the tip is not as suitable for small features as a proper climbing shoe. Our climbing gear will be shown further below (TD gap section).

Our attempt started at 4 am in Glen Brittle. This requires immediate concentration as you can easily lose your way especially in the dark. Tim and my first attempt more or less ended in the Glenbrittle bogs where we were trotting around for ages with wet feet. Walking up the night before for a bivouac is the other option but then you will have to carry a lot of bivy gear during the day.

You have two main options for the approach to the ridge. Choose the Coir' a' Ghrunnda approach for dry feet but navigation can be tricky in the dark. No problem at the height of summer but we lost 20 min scrambling on dodgy terrain in the dark. The other option is to walk parallel to the ridge and then ascend Gars-bheinn directly avoiding the scree as much as possible but assume wet feet. The essential bit is to collect at least 2 l of water. You will probably need more if it is warm and if you sweat a lot. Here is Adam filling the water bottles in Loch Coir' a' Ghrunnda.

If you do the Ghrunnda approach leave your rucksack at the bealach and quickly go to Gars Bheinn which is actually quite a distance. When you arrive at Gars-bheinn turn around and your attempt starts. The photo below shows Adam looking back over the initial part of the ridge from Sgurr Alasdair.

Whilst on the ridge ideally have some points where you check whether you are on schedule. We had around 12 h from dawn to dusk and thus we had to be within the 'fast walking' times of the Hyslop guides at all check points to avoid climbing or scrambling fatigued in the dark. Not so much a problem at the height of summer. Here is Adam near Sgurr nan Eag.

We missed out Sgurr Dubh Mor as it is traditionally not included in a ridge attempt (... says Mike Lates in his guide). A must do for Munro baggers though. After that an exposed move to arrive at the TD gap to start the first classic section of the ridge. A good point to discuss the gear that should be carried, a topic of many UKC postings. Our climbing gear is shown below. It was:
- a 50 m Phoenix half rope;
- Black Diamond Alpine Harness;
- Four 120 cm slings on carabiners.
- One 60 cm sling;
- Nuts esp. around 5/6 and a small hex;
- Belay device.

This amount of gear is OK if you are at least a HVS leader. If you lead only VS or HS then carry more gear. Maybe a full set of nuts and some hexes plus a few quickdraws. However, slings are, like Hexes on Ben Nevis, the key gear for the ridge as there are many chockstones and spikes. You can protect the whole TD gap with slings. The abseil tat on the ridge looked quite good but especially after winter it might a good idea to take some extra tat to back up anchors that look worn out. Here is Adam abseiling into the empty TD gap ...

... and here I am climbing out again. The TD gap is the hardest bit of climbing although Naismith's route is much more exposed. As I have said above, the slings are key gear here plus maybe one or two nut placements. Aim for the horizontal gap on the left side and then wiggle up. The Vdiff grade is 'traditional' and in many other places a HS/VS grade would not seem overly soft.

My legs felt quite stiff after the gap and for Adam crisis time started. He managed to struggle to Sgurr Alasdair and then sat down with cramps, coughed, nearly vomited and looked finished. But I remembered that he did not eat any food in Glenbrittle and I did not see him eat anything since. Thus hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar was the most likely explanation. So he was almost force fed three Hobnobs and he started to recover. After the luxury of a 10 min break he started to feel better and we moved on. After Sgurr Alasdair there is a tricky step up to Sgurr Thearlaich.

Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Thearlaich and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich are shown on the photo below from right to left. The descent from Sgurr Thearlaich, the lower middle peak, is the first big route finding task and requires full concentration. The Hyslop guide says 'Descent the roof-like section on the right-hand side. Look for a notch in the ridge before the final lumpy section [quite a bit before the end]. Cut off right down a ramp which leads round to the bealach'.

The climbers way to ascent Sgurr Mhic Choinnich is King's chimney. Unfortunately I didn't manage to take a good photo with my fixed 28 mm lens but trust us, it is obvious. It is the right facing large corner. The photo below shows me starting the climbing. Scramble up a little bit and belay in the open book corner. Climb the corner and then traverse out right under the roof and step up to a good belay. It is graded 'difficult' in old money and much easier than the TD gap.

Very enjoyable. I just sat back and didn't anchor myself while belaying to save time. Adam climbed quickly and we moved on. We were a bit behind time and missed out the good scrambling on An Stac to follow the brown ramp on the right to arrive at the Inn Pin.

The Inn Pin never fails to amaze. It is an icon of British climbing and the nightmare of Munro baggers. I climbed on a single half rope and when the rope went tight Adam and I climbed in together for maybe 10 m. It is roughly 60 m of climbing. All only semi safe but then then the climbing is graded 'moderate' and we saved a lot of time.

Here is Adam abseiling while another party is ascending the short side.

Now the mentally tough middle section starts: a lot of rough walking and committing scrambling but no iconic features. Here the Hyslop guide is invaluable as it says how to tackle the individual sections. Below a view onto the section that follows after the Inn Pin and Sgurr Dearg...

... and here is Adam on that bit.

We met a guided party and it was a moral booster to hear the guide saying that we were going well. However, Adam then overheard one of the clients saying 'nutters'.

Below another view over the middle section with Sgurr nan Gillean far in the distance. By this time we were maybe 30 min behind schedule and I was constantly encouraging (to use a euphemism) Adam to give his best which he did.

The whole middle section is never easy and requires constant concentration.
The three tops of Mhadaidh are particularly tricky for route finding and exposed scrambling. Again read the Hyslop guide carefully before each section. It will help you stay on course as descending the wrong scree gully takes a lot of time and can get you in serious trouble. Below a Mancunian team who had bivied on the ridge. They were probably a wee bit too slow to make it to Sgurr nan Gilean before dusk and we soon left them behind. A great show for being the first time on the ridge though!

Here is Adam above Loch Coruisk. Ensure to reward yourself with a view from time to time if you have a view that is. It is truly stunning on a good day.

The middle part ends with the traverse of Biden Druim nan Ramh. Andy Hyslop says 'this section involves some of the most complex route finding'. He gives A-F advice on how to climb it. Look out for those basalt staircases and good luck in the mist. The photo below shows Adam doing another exposed scramble...

... and an exposed down climb. Try to down climb as much as possible and reserve time consuming abseiling only for the trickiest bits (i.e. after An Caistal).

The descent from An Caistal is again tricky in places but finally the middle section is done and there is some easier ground to Am Bhasteir.

Am Bhasteir is the pyramid on the image below with several climbers on top. We pushed on and reached the base of Naismiths route at 17.20 h.

The climb traverses out onto the very exposed face on the right and then follows an obvious crack to the belay. I became a bit agitated when I realised that we would have to climb two pitches with not much daylight left but I quickly reached the flake belay. During the traverse the base falls away and at the belay the exposure is large. After that step onto the flake and do a move which is tricky in boots to reach the upper bit of the crack which is easier to climb.

After that tick the tooth, descend a rib and then climb runnels on the right to the final overhang below the top of Am Bhasteir which is a tricky boulder problem. You might wish to short rope to there, set up a quick belay and climb it belayed. No photos of the climbing as time was running out. We reached the top and descended knowing that the ridge traverse was more or less in the bag. Here the view towards Sgurr nan Gillean in the evening light.

During the descent we met a large party with a casualty who had fallen off the bad step and had broken his ankle. However, they already managed to phone mountain rescue, had the casualty in an orange plastic bag and the helicopter was on its way. So we felt the casualty was well looked after and we pushed on. Here is Adam on the descent with the helicopter above.
The last obstacle was a back and foot chimney onto the West ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean. Here is Adam climbing it...

... followed by easier scrambling up the West ridge to the top and the end of the ridge at around 19 h 20 min. The photo below shows Adam enjoying a wee rest after a long day which was not quite over yet.

We descended the West ridge again via the chimney this time with our headtorches switched on...

... to the rucksacks just below the bealach and watched as the chopper was picking up the rest of the party.

I think both Adam and I thought about taking a lift with the chopper but we switched our headtorches off in order not to confuse the pilot. Also we didn't know whether the chopper would fly to the hospital but it descended gracefully towards the Sligachan for beers and food! Well, descending the ridge when knackered is part of the experience. Regarding the rescue, a great job by the mountain rescue team and if you walk or climb in the Scottish hills then ensure to donate a bit to these guys who might save you one day.

After the chopper disappeared it became very quiet and dark. Half an hour later the almost full moon appeared behind pinnacle ridge and helped us with some faint light. No path is indicated on the map and we were unsure whether to ascend Pinnacle ridge or whether to descend into the gorge. We did the latter and it seemed that we had reached a cul de sac when we spotted a ramp on the left that led us to the main path. However, the normal path apparently goes to the left of the gorge over slabs so you have little chance of finding that in the dark. Tim recommends the following instead: 'And avoiding it really is dead simple: in descent from the G-B col, just head right and stick right on the "join" between the screes below and the cliff above.'
The path went on and on and we didn't say a word for a long time. But finally the car noises came closer and my mobile rung. It was Mike, who asked where we were and 20 min later we entered the Sligachan bar. Mike, John and John's son immedeately rushed to get us a Blackcurrant lemonade followed by a pint of Cuillin ale plus crisps and shortbread. It was good just to sit, talk a bit about it all and to feel fatigue taking over.

Sunday arrived with sunshine and the air was crisp. We had a good breakfast in the Sligachan and then leisurely drove home to Aberdeen passing many of the views that would turn Scotland in the number one tourist destination if the weather was not frequently and reliably utterly miserable. First the view to Lochalsh and Kyleakin from the Skye bridge. Well worth the walk back up the bridge.

On the other side the lighthouse...

... and further down the road the iconic Eilean Donan castle in an autumn landscape.
Lochs and hills towards Glenshiel...
... and then the view towards Knoydart, one of my favourite areas.

Finally acknowledgments. A great thanks to the master of the Cuillin and Skye mountain guide Mike Lates for invaluable advice, to the friends from Oxford for the refreshments and all the support and to the Sligachan staff for the special favours that we received!


Anonymous said...

There is a path that takes you round the Bhasteir Gorge. Come down from the Gillean/ Am Bhasteir col and keep hard right, right at the transition from screes to cliff at the foot of the N ridge of Gillean. Descend this way for 20 minutes and you'll find yourself dropping onto an easy grassy rib. Follow the rib down and there's a path that joins the Tourist Path after another 15 minutes.

But too late now.... :-)

Main thing is-- well done!

--Tim C.

Coops said...

Excellent write up - useful information too. Refereed to it in a little piece of how I want to do it someday:

Ryan & Henning said...

Hi Tim and Coops,

Thanks a lot for your advice and comments which will be useful for future ridge candidates. It was a great day and since we had many people giving us advice I thought it was a good idea to pass on our experiences.



Anonymous said...

Good write-up, Henning. Can I suggest you put into your main narrative my bit about the path down from the Gillean-Bhasteir col? Not because I want to be famous (after all, I am already...) but because I've had the scary Bhasteir Gorge experience too in the past, and would like to help others avoid it. And avoiding it really is dead simple: in descent from the G-B col, just head right and stick right on the "join" between the screes below and the cliff above.

In the other direction, this is also the fastest way, I reckon, from Sligachan to the top of Gillean-- straight up here and then left up Nicholson's Chimney.

And I recommend the other direction! Now you've done S to N, try the ridge N to S!

That way you also avoid the bogs on the way out to Gars Bheinn (sorry...)