Cuillin Ridge 2010 - 1 day
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney
They call the Cuillin Ridge “The most famous mountaineering expedition in the UK”. It’s certainly one of the most challenging. 3 years ago I sat miserably under the Basteir Tooth, sick from exhaustion and too many wine gums, power gels and other supposed energy boosters. I declared then “I’d never have come if I’d known it’d be this hard” and that was after taking 2 days to do it! What then, possessed me to say “Aye OK” when Mike suggested doing it over 1 day?
In the years in between I’ve been up the Matterhorn and Jungfrau, done the Glover in both directions and hoofed the Seven Sevens, so I guess I wanted to see what difference the years had made. So plans were made to coincide with Keith’s mountain leader assessment (which he passed, congrats!) and spend a few days on Skye with Mike, Sandra and PJ.
We had to squeeze in my Eoin’s First Communion that Saturday and got a late evening Troon ferry, arriving in Skye around 1am. The 5 hour drive north was uneventful because the others just fell asleep, too tired to even complain at my choice of CD music. Elbow are a great band I’ll have you know!
Keith’s party (wife Sandra, Billy, Alex, Chris, Maeve and Finbar) were starting their 2 day ridge adventure around 6am on the Sunday. Billy was still wandering around like a lost sheep at 1am, probably glad to just be there after booking flights for the wrong day and then forgetting a harness which we’d had to bring for him. We’d also had to bring Maeve’s tent poles which she’d left behind though handily there was room in Chris’ tent to spoon, I mean, bunk up. It was sheer coincidence that I got up for the loo at 6:30am, just as they were all leaving and offered to catch up with them on the Monday evening. “You’ll have to be walking them lanky legs fast to catch me!” suggested Keith. Challenge!
It had started as a girly suggestion: “Wouldn’t it be nice for the 1 day team and the 2 day team to meet on the last peak and walk off together?” But this suggestion hadn’t reckoned with the huge levels of testosterone and competitive spirit in Mike and Keith. “If I see them in the distance I’ll be like a heat seeker on their ass!”
So off went the 2 day team and us 4 decided to pass some of our day with a wee ridge. Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr na Gillean. Before we’d even reached the pinnacles we were sweating and puffing, Sandra complaining aloud that the “Donut Study Diet” hadn’t made her miraculously fit. “Are we taking too much on before tomorrow?” queried Mike. “Nah! We’re well fit.” I declared. 3 huge pinnacles and an awkward abseil later and I wasn’t quite so confident.
We headed on over to Am Basteir to find the cave abseil raved about by PJ and Sandra and maybe have a look at Naismith’s Route on the Tooth. Who should we find there but their Russian friend and Captain John from last year? What chance of meeting the same people in the same cave at the same time of year? Spooky! Karma took note of PJ’s comment about Sandra’s ungainly sprockle over the abseil edge and she found that she’d split her own trousers in the same manoeuvre. Now who has the bigger bum?
Our recently re-discovered friends happily pointed out Naismith’s and then we hoofed back to camp for a 6:30pm pasta dinner and quick rest. The day had been far too big an outing and Mike and I were VERY tired as PJ drove us round to Glen Brittle around 8pm. Sandra collected Billy, who’d dropped out of the 2 day team with a stomach bug, and they drove Maeve and Keith’s cars back to Sligachan. With a heavy sigh and heavier packs, Mike and I said goodbye to PJ and trudged up to Coir a’ Ghrunnda hoping to make it to Gars Bheinn and a bivvy site by nightfall.
The girls had generously offered to come up the next day and pick up our bivvy gear and each leg sapping step on the way up only confirmed that we’d never do the entire ridge in a day with that kind of weight on board. Half way up I was all for bivvying at the lake and “scooting” out to Gars Bheinn in the morning but Mike insisted we push on despite my grumbles and his own tired nausea. We found an excellent site above the zig zags but bypassed it until we reached the ridge line and saw exactly how far away Gars Bheinn was. “Sod that!” We dropped the packs and took the bivvy gear back to the site and got settled just as night fell around 11:30pm.
The 3am alarm clock came way too early. It had never really got dark, a near full moon and a clear sky meant we were plodding over to the start of the ridge at 3:30am. There we discovered a pair of climbers, in a much smaller bivvy site, also ready to start the ridge. At 4:30am it was game on and Mike was off like a scalded cat.
At 5:20am we were back at the packs on Sgurr nan Eag and munching on dry sandwiches despite a severe lack of appetite. The other 2 guys weren’t far behind and in fact caught me up at Caisteal a’ Garbh-choire. I’d tried to solo but it was too early in the day for such an exposed and unnecessary climb. I followed them on the proper path around the side, met Mike and we headed up Sgurr Dubh na da Bheinn.
“Is Sgurr Dubh Mor on the ridge?” we asked ourselves. Of course it was and there was no doubt that Keith would have done this Munro so we couldn’t take the chance of a post-ridge pub slagging. We topped this one at 6:50am with the other 2 guys hot on our heels. Well one of them was much faster but his slower mate was holding him back. Lucky for us!
At TD Gap I arrived (after a fairly exposed moderate section gave me the first of the ridge willies) to find Mike had negotiated his way in front of a group of 3 by stating that we were going to solo it! Make the words “Off” and “Feck” into a sentence to guess my reply. Mike did eventually boldly solo it while I took a rope and dragged the others’ rope up behind me. I was shaking with tiredness and hunger when I topped out and took a good long rest, lamenting to PJ via text “Bloody Pinnacle Ridge!” It was 8:10am.
Sgurr Allisdair and Sgurr Mhic Chonnich quickly followed at 8:30am and 8:40am and then we abseiled into the gully next to King’s Chimney. I’d climbed this last time and wanted to try Collie’s Ledge for a change so Mike soloed again with little difficulty. The ledge wasn’t half as exposed as it looked from Allisdair and was wee buns too. 9:25am.
So then. An Stac or the scree? Had to be the former really and I’d picked my way up to the top of this by 10:20am. Mike was already on the Inaccessible Pinnacle with 2 other climbers just topping out and not another soul in sight - a complete turnaround from Keith’s 2.5 hour wait the previous day. Mike had the rope so there was no choice but to solo it myself and by 10:30am we were on the other side, crossing over the ridge for a reprieve from the stiffening wind and another snack.
Sgurr na Banadich was next and it nearly proved my undoing. It has at least 3 false ridges and every time I prayed the summit was near another lump loomed above me. I collapsed in a shaking heap at the top at 11:40am and spied Mike waving on Thormaid but I needed rest and sustenance. Some time later I got up to move and Mike moved off too but that was the last I saw of him until the Sligachan hotel next morning. I now doubted (and I guess Mike did too) whether I’d finish the ridge and mentally re-adjusted my target to Bruach na Frithe.
The path round to Thormaid drops low to the left before ascending again on the other side but I didn’t drop low enough and ended up in a scree filled gully with a largish drop off the end of it. On the far side were 2 chimneys and I knew one of them would lead me over to the correct path. I was just too tired to attempt to climb back to the summit to start again. The first chimney was a crumbly mess and I watched lumps I’d pulled away tumble over the edge below. “Ooh Mummy! I’m not in a good place right now!” The second chimney began nearer the edge but the rock was much better, the climb wasn’t as steep and I was soon out and over, pushing up Thormaid at 12:15pm. Phew!
On Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh I managed to contact PJ and we agreed that Mike was probably now so far ahead it would be best to let him batter on. I resolved to either down climb or find other teams with a rope if I came to an abseil point. She and Sandra had done Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor, the 1 Munro we’d missed first time on the ridge, and were heading back to camp. Keith was at Bruach na Frithe by this point having pushed past the In Pinn to Banadich the previous evening. Some would say it made sense to continue while there was still light, having lost so much time at the Pinn. The cynical would say he was terrified of getting caught by Mike and me and wanted as big a head start as possible on the 2nd day!
Ghreadaidh was another beast of a climb but I still found myself passing other climbers and suddenly the legs were working fine again. These “peaks and troughs” of energy and tiredness had come and gone all day. By 1:05pm I was on the summit. By 1:30pm I’d also reached Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh and plundered on to the 3 tops. On the middle one I had to wait for a team of 4 guys roping up for the Diff. I chatted away in the sunshine to Phil, Jim, Seymour and Dave (everyone has a friend called Dave!) and we agreed that I’d share my ridge knowledge in return for use of their rope at abseil points. We spent most of the remaining ridge together although I never did find out why Jim had “Mr Tea” stencilled on his helmet.
We crossed Bealach na Glac Moire and once again bumped into Captain John and co. who also knew our 4 guys from the Manchester climbing wall. Small world. Keith was texting that he was cold waiting for us on Gillean, though I suspect he’d just arrived. Captain John was the 3rd person to inform me that Mike was “just ahead” and had probably just finished Bidein Druim nan Ramh.
It was 2:50pm by the time we were all stood on the block before Bidein, having climbed the basalt staircase. There was much faffage as we tried to decipher Andy Hyslop’s notes even though I knew last time I’d just dropped to the “bridge block” and climbed the opposite face. Eventually we did that but with the guys roping up again it was 4:30pm before we were on top. Then we faffed again trying to find the abseil points and it took a phone call to a slurring Keith (who was now in the pub) to point us at the north side of the slabs. It was then 5:30pm before we did the north summit. Much much time lost.
By 6:00pm we’d covered An Caisteal and were readying for the last abseil which starts on that low-ceilinged ledge. A team of 2 caught us up and we all shared the rope for the final, final abseil just before Bruach na Frithe but I couldn’t help feeling I was just losing more time as I watched body after body descend. “Come on!!” The wind had seriously picked up by now and I shivered in a cold sweaty fleece. It was 6:40pm before we were all walking up and I put in a frustrated and moany call to PJ about how I could have moved quicker if only Mike had hung back a bit. I’d calculated about 2-3 hours lost now moving with such a large group.
Bruach na Frithe near killed me last time out and I’d saved some chocolate and a cereal bar for a wee energy boost on it. This time I near ran up it and passed all but one of the others, even though they’d had a good 10 minute head start while I’d been on the phone. By 7:15pm we were marching down towards Am Basteir. I’d given the lads the option of walking off at Bruach but Gillean was close enough to touch and we all wanted to finish properly. I pointed out Naismith’s to them and took us all down the scree on the right hand side, buffeted by the gusting wind which now had a real chilly edge to it.
On the way down the lads had suggested that we might possibly cheat a little and skip Am Basteir but I’d done everything else on the ridge and wasn’t going to cheat now. The plan was to find Collie’s Route and a succession of Moderate ledges at the bottom corner looked a likely candidate. I scampered up the first 50m or so while the others roped up again and clambered slooooowly after me. “For God sake, it’s a 30 degree blocky slope!! Why are you putting in gear and belaying??” I wanted to find the ridge line as quickly as possible so soloed off right and up slightly steeper ground, pointing out my route to the other 4.
By 8:20pm I’d found the ridge and steered left to the summit, waiting for the others to appear at some point on the ridge line. “What the hell’s keeping them??” I shivered behind a rock until 8:45pm and then made a decision to carry on to Gillean. I felt guilty and hypocritical after complaining about Mike heading on but they were 4 guys together, they had bivvy gear, were capable (if slow) climbers and sunset was now only 45 minutes away. I was already on a warning from PJ: “3 strikes and you’re out!” I couldn’t afford the shame of a 3rd career benighted session!
I reached the bottom of the scramble to the right of Nicholson’s Chimney (a dirty wet line that’s fine for abseiling but not climbing) shortly after 9pm. Earlier the previous day we’d watched a roped-up team cross the little pinnacles on top which involved a step across the yawning gap to the middle pinnacle. Buffeted by a 50mph gusting wind, on my own with no rope and no helmet, the step took on significantly huge dimensions. “I’m fed up living on my nerves this blimming day!” my (heavily censored) thoughts went.
I looked back at Am Basteir and spied the other 4, still some way short of the ridge line, although making steady progress. “Can’t wait up here that long” I figured. All day I’d been pleasantly proud of the grip provided by my new Asolos (especially on the downward slabs) and I’d have to really trust them now. I waited until the wind dropped a little and went for it quickly, laughing with relief when I gained the tat above the abseil point. That just left the “Eye of The Needle” and the last wee scramble to the top, sending a “Hurrah!” text off to PJ at 9:30pm. So 17 hours from start to finish, I’d done it!
The wind meant a mostly hands and knees job picking my way SE down the ridge and the route back to Sligachan and it never really let up until I’d dropped way, way down into the valley. One huge gust nearly sent me into ankle-threatening gaps in the boulder field causing a “Would ye ever feck off?!” scream to the weather gods. I was now wrapped in coat, gloves and hat and was warm as toast though. The same spring as last time gave me another 2 litres of water which I supped greedily every few minutes.
Half way down I got a call from PJ and stopped to switch the head torch on. She could spy me from the Sligachan Hotel, where the other Colm Cillers were pinting and slagging away and I promised to be down in an hour. It was closer to 2 hours from that point, the path goes on for absolute ages, and I was mind numbingly fed up when I got a text to say “I’m on the path up to meet you, look out for my torch”. Brilliant! That raised the spirits enough to put in the last half hour and get back to the campsite for a cold tin of beer and a hot shower at 12:30am.
At 11:00am next morning I got woken for breakfast baps at the Sligachan with PJ and Mike. Everyone else had left to catch ferries but I got the gossip:
Gasp! Surely that means they didn’t actually do the ridge? I’ll let the 2-dayers put in their own report and refute these allegations if necessary.
I wanted to get a Sligachan hotel t-shirt and have “I DID THE CUILLIN RIDGE IN 1 DAY” printed on the back but they only had size XXL left. That may have fitted some Colm Cille members but was too large for me. Ah well.
08 Jun 2010
Time = Gars Bheinn -> Sgurr na Gillean! I swore mightily on Tuesday I wouldn't be back for a decade but by Wednesday there was already talk of "beating the time". With no Pinnacle Ridge the previous day and no faffage on Bidein etc. there's a good few hours to be shaved off it. Maybe in 2012.
07 Jun 2010
If you started on Sunday evening and finished at 12.30 am on Tuesday morning is that not a 3 dayer? Great report as usual, will go back for a one day race.