Cuillin Ridge June 2007
|Date: 6th June 2007
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney
At various stages over the past few months Pete, PJ, Sandra, George and I talked about the Cuillin Ridge and decided we'd like to do it. We'd all climbed together at different times and had always had great craic together so a trip like this was a natural progression for us all.
We arranged to get the midnight Larne - Cairnryan ferry on Wed 6th June 2007, which coincidentally was my 36th birthday. PJ's Audi already looked stuffed but we managed to squeeze in my huge kit. I had offered for me and George to share my 2-man tent, as a weight saving measure, but this only elicited the excuse "I fart in my sleep". My rejoinder that it was OK because "I tend to throw the horny leg over the nearest recumbent figure" ended in jibes about Brokeback Mountain. I think George just wanted to show off his new Marmot 4-season.
We didn't sleep much on the way up to the Kyle of Lochalsh, especially those in the back seats where bum numbness quickly set in, the middle seat being especially excruciating, but my long legs got me excused from sitting there on several occasions. We enjoyed a big fry in the local hotel and stocked up on supplies in the Co-Op. Noting my foreign looking banknotes the till operator said, "You're Irish eh?" "Aye we're off to do the Cuillin Ridge", I quietly boasted. "Sure you aren't taking it seriously", he said, "Not one of you has a can o' beer or bottle of whisky between you".
The drive through Skye has some of the best scenery you'll ever see. The jagged peaks of the ridge take your breath away. We caught a few Zs after setting up camp in Glen Brittle then PJ and Sandra set off to find the start of the ridge route to prevent mistakes the following day. Pete, George and I filled water containers to lug up to the Inaccessible Pinnacle where we planned to bivvy the following night. Pete set off up Sgurr Dearg with 15 litres in his pack while we humped 5 and got a taste of what it was like to carry a heavy pack up steep scree and heather. We hid the supplies near an obvious crop of brown stone and took some photos. The quickest way down was into the Coire Lagan which we descended into via a long scree slope, virtually skiing through the loose rock on the opposite side of the valley from the Great Stone Chute.
We didn't need an excuse to go to bed early and were sleeping by 9pm, rising around 6am to a total midge-fest. The leisurely bacon and egg breakfast with coffee was abandoned and we all raced out of camp leaving behind equipment that we'd improvise for later. I struggled to keep up with the others and this quickly set the tone for the weekend, me plodding behind and the four of them having long rests while I caught up.
Part of the reason for this was lack of training, with me totally underestimating what the Cuillin Ridge was. "Bit of climbing, bit of abseiling, bit of walking, right?" WRONG! The other reason was the weight of the pack I'd stuffed. Word is bound to get around so I'll just list the entire contents so that you can all laugh and point the finger. George and Sandra's admonition "Alpine style = travel light, travel fast" obviously didn't sink in and I went for the adage "Pack for every eventuality".
Anyway we stopped for a quick breakfast around 7am just below the steep climb up through Coire a Ghrunnda to the lake. There's an obvious path out of the Glen Brittle camp site, behind the toilet block that forks right over a series of streams and ascends to the base of the Coire. At the lake we skirted round to the East and up an obvious zig-zag path to the top of the ridge at Caisteal a Garbh-choire, with Sandra making the obvious comment "When you're up, you're up!" The sun was getting strong by this point and having left my cap at camp I rigged up a spare t-shirt to stop my head and neck frying. We left the packs here and followed the ridge to the start proper at Gars-bheinn, crossing Sgurr Nan Eag and Sgurr a Choire Bhig on the way.
We met a few groups coming the other way that must have either bivvied the night before or got up really early. By 10am we were approaching the summit of Gars-bheinn where the ridge really narrows and you get a taste of proper ridge walking with huge drops on either side. The day was heating up and with little or no water with us we couldn't wait to get back to the packs and a cool refreshing drink. The slog back up Sgurr Nan Eag was particularly tiring and I was ready for a bite of food to replenish the energy levels.
A short descent brought us to our first rock climb, which we all roped up for and Pete lead. It was a bit awkward but not too taxing to climb with the packs on, the route being no great height and the rock grippy. Not much further on we had our first short abseil followed by a longish but easy scramble up towards Sgurr Dubh Mor. Pete skipped on to the top, PJ mumbling about "Iron Man" competitions while the four of us dropped our packs to pick up on the way back as this peak detours East from the main ridge line. We had to go hunting for the packs on the way down but luckily George had a homing beacon installed on his and guided us back to our precious water.
Next up was the infamous Thearlaich Dubh gap which we abseiled into behind two groups, one of which was abseiling on down the chimney to the left for a trudge up to Sgurr Thearlaich. The other group was labouring up the polished crack on the far side and seemed to be having a tough time of it. This instilled doubt in us but then we remembered that we're well 'ard Irish climbers, and George decided to lead it. It turned out to be a one-move wonder, stick your boot deep in the crack and pull up to the ledge on the left but in the wet it would be a lot harder and you can see why non rock climbers would chicken out.
We'd decided not to climb with packs and after a blonde moment involving Sandra, PJ and a knot in the rope, we rigged up a tight line to haul the packs up. It all went well until the space beneath a boulder was used as a latrine (as it had been before us) and the banter turned wild. Even the muttering group above us couldn't hold back the mirth. I forgot to clip the karabiner to the last pack and shouted "Take it away, boys!" George and Pete pulled mightily on an empty drag line and we exploded with laughter down in the gap. It took some time to recover our composure and get climbing out but this was a highlight of the trip, not least because we'd "dun it proper like".
We dropped off the shoulder of Sgurr Thearlaich, left the packs again and made the short scramble to the top of Sgurr Alasdair. From this highest peak of the ridge (993m) you could see the whole of the ridge, and we had our first sight that day of the Inaccessible Pinnacle rising up likes a shark's fin from the ridge just beyond An Stac. Another quick rest and we picked our way along the narrow ridge towards Sgurr Mhic Choinnich descending by 2 abseils to the bottom of King's Chimney, a Moderate climb. The packs prevented you from getting into the crack and forced you out to thinner stuff on the face but it wasn't really any trouble and again we were proud of having done it properly.
Pete had surged up An Stac which looked like 200ft of crumbling edifice. The girls were loathe to climb it and set off up the scree path to the left. I thought I could maybe traverse off it at some point, but found myself going up and up. The middle section was quite crumbly and I had to test every hand and foot hold which was unnerving but I was soon at the "In Pin" followed shortly by George who started when I was 3/4 of the way up. Monkey boy! After drinking loads of water we settled down around 8pm to gorge on lots of pasta, refill the water bottles for the next day and lay claim to the various bivvy sites dotted around the ridge. Lacking cutlery we used Compeed blister plaster cases broken in two, to scoop pasta from a communal pot. The midges never really died down despite a light breeze and I suffocated inside a warm bag rather than donate another drop of blood to the little buggers.
After a leisurely 5am breakfast we queued behind a group of 3 Scots one of whom soloed the Pinnacle. Pete led PJ and Sandra "Alpine style" up the route, with PJ on a figure-eight bight on the rope and Sandra tied on 4m behind on the end. It speeds things up as long as the rope between the 2 girls is tight. I led George up behind them when PJ shouted that she needed slack as the rope was over a rock and pulling her towards the edge. Pete was way above on the 60m rope and couldn't hear PJ's shouts. Heroically I climbed up to them and managed to both make myself heard to Pete and get the rope into a better line. Drama over we continued, but with George and I on a 50m rope we couldn't quite reach the top. George had the privilege of leading the last 3m. "Underwhelming", he stated dryly. The abseil from the hanging chain was straightforward and we headed on to Sgurr na Banachdich.
The climb to this peak was especially tiring having added weight to my pack overnight with the sleeping bag etc. I was WAY behind the others and Pete came to my rescue, taking my roll mat to reduce the weight. The next two peaks Sgurr Thormaid and Sgurr a Ghreadaidh require ridge walking along very narrow points and you have to be extremely careful in places. By the time we reached the first of the four tops of Sgurr a Mhadaidh I was lagging again and Pete once again lightened my load, taking the dreaded pillow and my bivvy bag. The weight was now manageable and each step didn't feel so energy sapping. I'd taken to alternating which side of the ridge I walked on. East kept you in the sunshine but with the possibility of a cooling breeze whereas West was mostly in the shade and out of the burning effects of the sun.
Sgurr a Mhadaidh has 3 lower peaks before the main peak and there is a fair bit of graded 2 and 3 scrambling to reach each of them. There was even a Diff climb on route to the last peak, but we were getting used to scrambling up with packs and didn't even bother roping up for these. I could hear PJ shout "Come on Missus!" as she encouraged herself and Sandra up it and their whoops of delight as they topped out. "We're haaaard!" was becoming the phrase of the day.
The next peak was Bidean Druim nam Ramh where we got confused about the directions in the guide. At the foot of the peak staircase blocks of basalt and a squeeze under a large overhang leads to the top. From the peak slabby sections all lead to large drops. One of these had some tat that looked like an emergency abseil and nothing like the guide's advice to "descend fairly easily". Another lead down to very steep gullies and so we attempted to circumnavigate the peak. The path we found was so overgrown that four of us turned back. George had gone so far ahead though that we arranged to meet him on the other side. Pete meanwhile attempted to descend back to the start of the peak route and disappeared out of view only for PJ, Sandra and myself to hear a huge rock-fall that went on for at least half-a-minute. A querulous "Pete???" from PJ was answered with "I'm OK!" and we collectively breathed sighs of relief. We returned to the steep gullies, roping up to climb out and then abseiling into the next gully where George was waiting.
An Caisteal was another hard scramble with at least 2 sections were you had to leap a 2 foot gap across steep gullies but you couldn't fault the rock friction in the dry heat and just got on with it. We were soon approaching a huge drop just before the ascent to Bruach na Frithe and ended on a narrow ledge under a huge overhang. The gap narrowed until even flat on my stomach my pack was scraping the roof. We went one at a time to the gap, squeezing through and scarily over the edge to abseil down. A little further on we set up a second abseil and used the rope to slide George's pack over the gully. He then retrieved the gear and down-climbed to join us on the long long slog up to the peak. Running out of water and baking in the hot sun the trudge up to Bruach na Frithe left me physically and mentally exhausted. Sheer bloody mindedness got me to the top and I often pondered on how much abuse the human body can take. Shaking and barely able to speak I collapsed at the top where the guys had begged half a litre of water off an American couple for me and shared out their remaining food supplies, including an energy gel pack from George, all of which was gratefully received. 10 minutes later they were ready for the off again but I gave myself another five minutes after standing up and almost being sick.
Bypassing a large pinnacle below the peak on route to Am Baisteir I caught up with the troop as they were back-tracking again. We descended down steep scree to the right looking for the V Diff or Moderate climb up to the Baisteir Tooth. Not finding anything Pete and George looked at a section that would gain the top by a series of wide ledges. Pete took off up it (minus his pack) proposing an Alpine-style follow up by the girls, while George and I would ascend ourselves clipping into Pete's gear. He had difficulty finding gear placements but eventually the girls met him on a ledge half way up while George and I scrambled behind them and pulled Pete's pack up. Things turned very hairy when George went route-finding again while I decided to wait for a rope. The girls set off, aided by a bracing foot-up by me, only to run into the same trouble as earlier: a tight rope round the wrong side of a rock threatening to pull them off and Pete totally out of earshot. Their screams of "Peeeeeeeete!! Slaaaaack!!" unnerved both me and George and we separately soloed up to see if we could help. George ended up in what he later graded "a VS in big boots" and I got on something around a Severe, both of us offering prayers that we'd make it out of there. Before I reached them though, the girls had sorted themselves out and Sandra was shouting encouragement to PJ, "Get your leg up there!"
Five shaken people stumbled towards Sgurr nan Gillean with PJ exclaiming "I'm Margaret's daughter and we're gonna get up this peak!" We were all still determined to finish the ridge having come so far. Pete and George scrambled into a chimney that started easy but had an overhang near the top with thin polished holds underneath. The girls and I waited for a rope and laughed as Pete, sensing our tiredness, hauled us mightily up through it, barely giving us a chance to grab handholds. After a long trudge to the top and a skirt round the back of the eye of the needle it was time for a final photo at the peak. We barely rested before carefully picking our way over the knife-edge ridge down to the shoulder and finally off.
Tender feet and a stumbling fall forced me to go even slower on the way down. Pete and George set off across country while Sandra and PJ stuck to their own route and pace. At the base of the mountain I found a trickling spring and gratefully refilled the water pack. An hour later I was on the flat and hurtling towards the pub trying to stay ahead of the midges and thinking of a cold pint of Carlsberg. I staggered into the pub around 10:15pm, an hour after Pete and George and half an hour after the girls. I was met by Pete who shook my hand, took my pack and settled me down to the pint I'd been imagining for the past two days. PJ and George bought me a fish supper, which the pub kept warm for me after they closed the kitchen at 9:30pm. Were they the best I'd ever tasted? I made the mistake of removing my boots, but when people three tables over were violently sick I stuck them back on again.
A Ã‚Â£25 taxi to the campsite (later confirmed as 15 miles away) got Sandra back to pick up the Audi. She was gone ages and later confirmed being nervous alone in this taxi on the dark narrow roads, half expecting the driver to tell her about where he'd buried the bodies. After 2 pints we were ready for bed and glad to be collected. Glen Brittle actually had hot showers at midnight which I availed of before drifting off into an exhausted sleep permeated with dreams and sensations of falling.
Next day George had the audacity to mention rock climbing on Buachaille Etive Mor but he was overruled for a day of shopping. I could barely walk upstairs in Nevisport never mind tackle an hour's march with a gear-laden pack! We moved on to Glencoe and that night we got plastered in Fortwilliam, had an Indian with some rude waiters, lots more laughter and Pete and I had to let a couple of squaddies win at pool to avoid some unnecessary Scouse bloodshed.
You could say this was an eventful weekend and you'd be only half right. This trip took me through every emotion the human body can muster: fear, exhaustion, awe, pride and exhilaration. It left me physically drained and tenderised. There are sections that are just a blur and sections that stand out and I'll never forget. We were blessed with a weather window that was almost miraculous in its timing, such that even some locals we met were on their 5 th try that year to finish the ridge. And it was a team effort that got us through it, the 5 of us working very well together with nary a cross word, where a different group might have fallen out or even given up. I have to give credit to Pete and George who lead the most difficult climbs and without whom I for one wouldn't have completed this most awesome of adventures. 2 days after arriving home I've already forgotten the pain, the midge bites are healing and despite exclaiming "If I'd known it was this hard I'd never have come" a few times on the trip I'm nearly ready for another go. Well maybe in a few months...
King's Chimney Cuillin Ridge - Anthony Feeney getting squeezed out of the crack and onto the face of the King's Chimney, due to a large overstuffed pack.