Niall Grimes is well known in climbing circles and his Jam Crack Podcast interviewing top climbers is very popular. Last time I saw him we were giving our good friends Andy and Kate a proper North Wales send-off to their new lives in NZ. With plenty of Dutch courage inside me I sidled up to Grimer, admitted my climbing abilities are nowhere near up to the lofty heights required, & offered to impart some of my many opinions on the world of mountaineering if he was ever struggling for interviewees….
Roll forward 2 mad years and I get a brief message from the man who ate the Blarney Stone asking if I was up for giving some thoughts on the Cuillin as part of the BMC’s new podcast series Wild Horizons.
I really wasn’t sure how it would pan out but I feel that Grimer’s questions lead me well through a mix of Cuillin climbing, history, geology and philosophy. I hope folk enjoy listening on the link below.
“Whose idea was it to take the sleeping bags down for a wash after a summer of heavy use anyway?” I kicked this blame culture thought straight into touch and looked at what I’d got to get me through the night; not quite the same league as Apollo 13 but staying alive was still the base-line….
The recent lockdown period gave us one of the longest cold snaps Scotland has seen for a few years. Great fun for those of us lucky enough to live here but my mind always worries about the implications for the coming season. Old snowfields make Spring guiding in the Cuillin pretty challenging with crampons often needed into May.
By the start of March, just 2 weeks after climbing roadside ice, mountains in the Highlands had been stripped in all but the deepest gullies and broadest high corries. The crest of the Cuillin Ridge glows red in a sunset and the forecast looks peachy for a few days so I contact some locals with a Traverse as an ambition.
Ruaraidh has been working off-shore pretty much since our snowy jaunt up Bla Bheinn back in January and is keen as mustard. All of a sudden I have to focus sharply on what this challenge entails. It comes down to fitness, hard snow and just 12 hours of daylight; we’ll have to be slick if we are to succeed.
Elgol connections gave us our first break; a 6am lift on a fishing boat so the alarm was set for 4.15. Trusting my directions Craig the skipper guided the bow onto my drop-off rock in the dark as if he’d done it a thousand times before. Cloud cover made the steep ascent a hot and sweaty affair but I was worried about condensation. Sure enough, the rocks began to glisten as we climbed into the murk and my mind wandered onto quite how soon we would have to give up the attempt and how the hell we’d get back home.
Can’t say I approve of bucket lists but a cloud inversion was among those on Ruaraidh’s list and the weather-gods nailed this one just as we reached Gars-bheinn, the first summit. It would have been heaven to sit there all day drinking in the magnificence of snowy peaks poking up through the bright white sea of cloud, the waterfalls of mists tumbling over bealachs and the Broken spectres. I was as wowed as I always am but, most significantly, the Traverse was suddenly back on. We had 9 hours of daylight to reach our bivvy kit on Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh…
Progress was good on the rough dry rocks over Sgurr nan Eag but I suggested leaving out the dog-leg to Dubh Mor and leave us margin for error. It was 11.15 as we kitted up with harness, helmet and crampons to traverse the snow necklace beneath Sgurr Alasdair.
Progress suddenly became stilted as we struggled with the incredible heat of reflected sunlight. Somehow the tiny section to the highest point on Skye had taken us 1.5 hours and we only had 5 hours of daylight left.
Traversing Thearlaich is one of the major obstacles on the Ridge. With snow sitting on all the easy bypass ledges we were forced to cling to the top edge in some mad positions with testing climbing and ropework for the next 40 minutes but then got lucky with a bone-dry bypass on the Glen Brittle side at the nose. Conditions improved massively from Mhiccoinnich onwards with hours of perfect rock for the rest of the day. Plenty of exciting positions still, but the main challenge was striking a balance between progress and the need for food and water. The Pinn gave us a brief slowing of the pace which was very welcome compared to competing with the heat and blinding sunlight reflecting off the clouds below.
Delicate exposed moving over Sgurr Thearlaich
The cloud-base rose as the sun and temperature dipped on the final rise to Ghreadaidh. It dipped just enough for a glimpse of the orange sun as we reached the bivvy but all focus was on getting tucked up before an evening of food, whisky and warmth. I abseiled down to the gear stash and sent the barrel back up. While Ruaraidh dug snow for us to cook with, I set to laying out the bedding and that’s when the wheels suddenly seemed to be coming off……
“Whose idea was it to take the sleeping bags down for a wash after a summer of heavy use anyway?” The cache has been in place for years, with 3 sets of kit changed regularly and whenever it gets soaked. It was all my fault; the grey matter had failed to remember asking the posse of strong guides to help during staff training last October and then clean forgot to get it all returned; doh.
Things weren’t that bad really. We had a sleeping bag, a bivvy bag, two sleeping-bag liners and half a dozen Karrimats so at least the client wasn’t going to suffer. Professional pride kicked in with bailing out not an option; I do love a challenge.
Boots off, into the liners then into the rucksack was first and allowed me to get the brewfest started. Warm food priority, one meal shared, then a big mug of tea. Filling the barrel with loose snow was a first and worked brilliantly to avoid having to move between brewing. Wrapping a Karrimat around the upper torso during inactive periods worked remarkably well at keeping my upper half positively warm and became key to the plan. After another brew Ruaraidh tucked me in and we both fell silent followed by the comforting sound of gentle snoring from the man with the full sleeping lux.
The morning after; snug as a bug and gently snoring
A brew made with melted snow needs to be sterilised with whisky which improved relaxation but, after an hour of decreasing comfort, it was time for another. The cycle of brews continued in surprising comfort with fine tuning of the self-wrap technique. Finally getting horizontal, a handy dehydrated meal wrapped in my spare socks made a comfortable pillow. Warmth hinged on not moving and there was a fine balance to be struck between stiffening limbs and jabby rocks versus the freezing hands and exposed flesh that losing control of my insulating roll would entail.
Nights spent in Alpine huts with loud snoring and heavy clumping all night has taught me never to expect to sleep but, instead, view the period as a bodily rest. Deep breathing helps and Mr Wimhoff certainly came into my thoughts at time. Keeping hands warm was achieved with different pockets dependent on the side I was lying on and, miraculously, the toes stayed warm in a single pair of socks.
At times the wind picked up and snow flurries passed through but the Paramo zipped up past my nose and the torch band kept my forehead warm. By chance I even developed a spiral-wrap technique that left a windbreak for my face, over the shoulder and down round the hips; pure luxury.
Z’s kicked in for sure; 7 hours doesn’t fly by if you’re suffering and Ruaraidh even woke for long enough to catch me snoring. “Best night’s sleep for over a month and I’m getting one of these Gortex bags for sure” pleased me that my client was on as good form as one could ever hope for. Teryaki chicken noodle pot tasted amazing for breakfast and slick teamwork had us on the go by 8am.
Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh’s tops.
That’s how we stayed for the whole of day 2, dictated by the frequency of hoar frost, damp or snow patches. So much about his performance was impressive and Ruaraidh’s recognition of that balance being better than whipping crampons on and off says it all; a good man to work with!
We bypassed Bidean both to save time and I was hopeful about finding a spring because we’d only melted just over a litre for the day. Hope didn’t spring eternal and we added thirst to the list of obstacles to overcome. Bypassing Am Basteir and getting to Gillean was clearly our best option as we dredged the barrel for strength and concentration.
Slap! Steel-hard snow in pre-formed footholds ducking under Am Basteir was, by far, the hairiest part of the whole outing and the decision to descend by the Tourist Route a no-brainer.
My man was so wired to the movement he didn’t even get the Glory shot of a selfie with the whole Ridge behind him as the clouds finally lifted fully.
Slept well that night 😉
A complex & unusual set of circumstances, coupled with a blast of Arctic air, gave our first Traverse of the year a very unique feel.
Basically I guided Phil on the first half of the Traverse then Scott Kirkhope took over for day 2 to successfully reach Sgurr nan Gillean.
Our days couldn’t have been more different- I enjoyed largely dry, warm rock, no need for crampons and even some gorgeous sheltered picnicking.
Often we were forced to stay on the very top of the crest which just added to the pleasure.
Sgurr nan Eag to Ghreadaidh took us about 7.5 hours
Scott woke to fresh snow falling and had crampons straight from the bivvy until reaching Glaic Moire nearly 3 hours later.
Much of the time was in the cloud with wind picking up in strength but Phil’s fitness & abilities kept them moving well. The clouds finally cleared on the final rise up Gillean, revealing once more the whole lenght of the Traverse. Ghreadaidh to Gillean had taken about 6.5 hours.
Despite the darkness I enjoyed picking my way off, crampons completely necessary until way below An Dorus where Scott and I passed and compared notes before he joined Phil for the bivvy about an hour after I’d left. The final hour was a delight with the moon casting my huge shadow across the moorland. Catching last orders in Carbost seemed a deserved reward.
One of the unusual circumstances was Phil flying himself into Broadford airstrip and, this morning, we were treated to a quick flight around South Skye before he headed home to England. Many thanks to Scott and Phil for a memorable time in so many ways.
The Skye Guides team has been flat out and, despite the worst summer in living memory, we’ve succeeded in getting the majority of ambitions achieved. Feedback from clients has been superb as people realise quite how skilled and knowledgeable our guides are. Equally the guides have been loving the challenges of choosing the right weather windows for Traverses, ingenious ropework to safeguard slippy terrain, keeping everyone focussed and finding the right way in near zero visibility. There is a feeling of immense satisfaction when it all comes together against the odds, some well earned beers, long hot baths and very solid sleep!
Many thanks to Andy Moles and Neville McBain for the superb images on this page from their successful Traverse on 18 & 19th August.
The gallery below has a mixture of the best shots from the period; click the pic to view more.
I never use the same route twice and we found some delightful clean ribs well to the left hand side as we approached the abseil from Dubh Beag.
Great excitement for me was finding a huge cave feature that I’d never even spotted. Somebody has even smoothed out the base to make it comfy enough to lie down in.
Paul climbed very well and we even had time for a look into the TD Gap which was horribly cold and greasy.
The final part of the plan was meeting Ian and Jon and take their car back out of Glen Brittle. They started their Traverse by heading up to spend the night in Coire a’ Ghrunnda before a long & successful day next day.
Francis & Ulrich were also successful. A seasoned alpinist Ulrich came round to visit me the next day. He had very kind words about Francis being amongst the best guides he has ever used. He was equally complimentary about the Traverse. It was far, far bigger than he expected and bigger than most alpine outings. For reference the timings for this Traverse, in good conditions, were 2 hours ascent, 17 hours of climbing from one end to the other (with a bivouac as well) and 3 hours to descend; a total of 35 hours from start to finish.
Dry rock and a warm breeze is too good to ignore so Paul & I dropped work plans and headed off to An Stac in search of some adventure.
A steep curving fault line just below the summit had attracted my eye for a few years but it was hard to tell what angle the climbing would actually be. Perhaps just an exposed scramble or just plain impossible?
80m of great exposed scrambling, easy in our rock shoes, led us up to the start of the overlap and a wee struggle to find much of an anchor. Paul led up the next 20m and the theme of delicacy and carefully choosing which rock to place protection in continued. Above this slabby ledge the corner itself looked crumbling and hard, out right looked more solid but definitely avoiding the line of the challenge so I choose a faint groove heading straight up.
A cam buried deeply into hollow sounding rock was soon matched on the other rope with an RP2 – times are a bit tough when I resort to placing micro-nuts in gabbro! Time to climb…. Avoiding some obvious lose flakes I found most of the holds solid enough as I tiptoed upward on the wonderful sticky gabbro. 5m up a large offset cam fitted nicely into a hole where the basalt had separated from the face. It seemed solid to touch but you can never be too sure and I was grateful to be able to “strengthen” this by using a screamer; clever type of extender that absorbs 4kN if it’s shock-loaded. Doesn’t sound much but that’s the equivilant to removing the effect of a 400kg weight hanging from it!
All good preparation for what was clearly, even for an optimist like me, going to be quite a run-out. The climbing that followed was beautiful, all in the feet but just the right number of positive and solid holds and the loose sections weren’t too hard to avoid. I discovered I was now climbing the surface of a basalt layer and surmounting this gave a good footstep rest.
I got tempted into the corner next in an attempt to find protection, regretted it pretty instantly and escaped up and back right to the basalt ladder. Pulling hard on your arms on this stuff always begs the question of how good the glue is, 60 million years after these layers were stuck together. Fortunately I’ve always (touch wood) found it to be good enough for my bodyweight.
Another reasonable large cam kept things under control before flowing moves led to the top and a predictably difficult search for a solid belay. Paul romped up stylishly then ran the ropes out to the sunny summit of An Stac itself. Good endorphine rush! Quite a serious proposition but technically not too hard The Hanging Slab is about E1 5a.
The In Pinn stood gleaming in the evening sunshine and it would have been rude not to climb it. Paul led the 4 star Hard V Diff South Crack on delightful warm rock.
Francis popped up behind us with brothers Steve & Piers on their Traverse; hot work but all of them were “steadying away”.
After an overnight bivvy near An Dorus the guys finished on Sgurr nan Gillean at about 2pm today; congratulations are deserved all around!
The Hanging Slab-
South Crack & Pinn-
Anyone unfamiliar with the Harvey SKYE THE CUILLIN map should treat themselves to a copy this xmas. The 1:25,000 scale map covers a huge area from Broadford, up to Sligachan, Carbost, Glen Brittle and right across to Elgol. But it is the 1:12,500 enlargement of the Main Ridge makes it the only map of any real use to climbers and walkers wanting to explore the Ridge.
It’s been an enjoyable task this week helping Peter Child at Harvey Maps with updates for the reprint in January. The project has been ongoing for quite a few years now; they reprint just about annually so map corrections can be easily added.
This year I suggested that some of the larger trails higher in the Cuillin could justify being added becuase they are comparatively easy to follow in good visibility. Pete was then able to double-check the ideas with aerial shots and produce an accurate end result that should aid a huge number of visitors.
Cliff numbering correlation with the SMC Guidebook
There are a total of 98 different crags from the book now all marked as close to the start of the climbing as possible. Previous editions of the map have, since 2004, had 55 crags marked; don’t worry these are all in the right place and match the map index. Fifty-five was the number of crags I thought the Cuillin had at the early stages of writing the guidebook. It was another 7 years before we went to print but the end result, particularly with these latest Harveys updates, means that climbers have a hugely increased chance of identifying and navigating to the cliffs they want to climb.
Signed copies of the Cuillin Guidebook can still be bought direct from us if you want another Christmas present!
2 variations are marked in the Cuillin section for the more adventurous including a traverse of Bla Bheinn down to Camasunary and a detour into Coruisk via the Bad Step.
The 2014 map will also be the first made of the new generation of tough polyethylene that is both more waterproof but also far more resistant to tearing. Great news for all, including our guides who carry their valuable copies every day through all sorts of weather.
Finally I’d recommend browsing the Harvey maps website for a fascinating insight into how modern, high quality mapping is being done. Enjoy:-)
Apologies for not blogging so far this month; plenty going on but very little reliable broadband still!
There’s been a mixed bag of weather and a late surge from the midgies but the majority of missions have been accomplished with the use of cunning tactics and a great attitude by clients and guides alike. Monday last was only the fourth day this year that has been lost to the weather completely!
The work has varied from Ridge Traverses, stag dos and showing travel journalists the stunning Cuillin to stunt filming for a new Gaelic soap. Clients have come from as far away as New Zealand, Majorca and Colorado; ranged in age between 11 to 70 years old. Major achievements include Jenny Dunn climbing her last Munro, Laura climbing the Pinn for her first ever mountain in full “Scottish” conditions and Marcus completing his long-held dream of a Cuillin Traverse.
Basking sharks and Orcas, eagles Golden and White-tailed and the last of the alpine flowers like Devil’s Bit Scabbius have all added to the enjoyment.
Here are some images-
Summer finaly reached Skye on Sunday; perfect timing to warm up and practice on Clach Glas & Bla Bheinn. No excuses not to head straight for our Traverse attempt next day.
AquaXplore ran us straight in on the RIB for a very humid but shady ascent to Gars-bheinn. The mists were our friend, keeping us cool all day as far as the TD Gap.
A 4am start, extended photofest and breakfast had us finally climbing onto Alasdair just after 5-30.
Slightly greasy as far as the Pinn then dry rock for the rest of the day. Bidean and Naismiths were day 2 highlights before popping out above the clouds to finish on Gillean with just the Pinn showing in the distance.
Pure magic- enjoy
With a Ridge Traverse high on Mark’s ambitions I decided a day of intense training at Elgol was in order after 2 hard days in the snow.
First was an hour of abseiling until Mark was completely happy doing everything himself.
Next was some intense footwork on the easy slab which took Mark from a rock hugger to a smiling rock gymnast in a matter of minutes. We had to dive for cover as a heavy shower passed over us but the rocks were dry enough to climb minutes later.
After lunch we crossed the beach to the main cliff. The noise of crashing waves reverberated under the huge rooves and created a seriously intimidating feel as we perched on our tiny ledge. As we covered the important sequence of what was going to happen I watched the next shower storm across the Minch towards us but a tiny cave at the foot of Fertility Right kept us dry.
Climbing a Severe standard climb on damp rock, rucksack on back and in approach shoes gave a realistic insight into what Mark is going to find on the TD Gap & Naismith’s Route when he returns with some fine sunny weather for a Traverse:-)
Dodging between some pretty awful rain showers for the past week but had a great day out with regulars Lisa & Vickie on Wednesday.
Narrowest section of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh
and relaxing the muscles afterwards
The weekend forecast improved enough to allow a Traverse attempt.
Rehen, Catherine & I took a ride in with Alex on the AquaXplore RIB on an increasingly choppy sea.
By the time we reached Gars-bheinn the tops were cloud covered once more and the winds were strong enough to knock us right over. Progress was slow & hard work as we battled to keep our feet along the “easy” section of the Ridge.
Overnighting in Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda we went to bed early hoping to wake in the perfect weather that was forecast but mist still clung heavily at 6am. The rocks were only slightly greasy on the rise up Alasdair but the exposed crest was soaking and treacherous to the Stone Shoot. We resisited the temptation to run away and made good progress to reach the Pinn at 11am.
Mist swirls around on An Stac Direct
The mists were finally clearing the tops and all those who had been lost finally seemed to home in on the Pinn. We got up just ahead of the mighty crowd and were briefly joined by Dave on his penultimate Munro.
The visibility and views continued to improve as we headed north and my Canadian guests were finally able to see the beauty of the Cuillin. Their previous summit was Mount Everest back in May and it was fascinating listening to their tales but also good to see and hear how much they appreciated the climbing and scenery in our wonderful wee mountains.
Catherine and Rehen with everything they had climbed in the Cuillin layed out behind them.
We descended from An Dorus as black clouds drew in from the south and got down just before the heavens opened.
For the Traverse recently we’ve been favouring the technique of a short first day followed by a long but very lightweight second. The result was, eventually, a very fast Traverse with newly-weds Geraint & Kate Davies (nee Bailey). Thanks to Robert and Bill on the Bella Jane for getting us off on the usual rocks despite the high tide levels
A drop in temperature and layer of cloud helped us keep a good speed up on the rise up Gars-bheinn. A real highlight was finding a beautiful large adder in thee grass hopefully looking for some rays.
The TD Gap gave the first real adrenalin buzz of the day
Rain meant we stayed in our very cosy pits until 11-30 the next morning; a record 18 hours of patience, eating, drinking & snoring! As predicted the rain stopped and the rocks started drying out in front of our eyes as we headed off shortly after midday. The rope kept us confident and upright until the mists finally burnt off as we descended from Sgurr Mhiccoinnich.
The fantastic effects continued as we climbed the Pinn
With the first technical section done it was time to put the foot to the floor and make up some time. Kate (nee Baily) holds a fair number of running records and brand new husband Geraint is no slob either. Cool breezes and thin cloud cover helped us eat up the miles.
We reached Bruach na Frithe not long after 6-30pm and the guys still felt good for an ascent of Naismith’s route on the Tooth.
A cold wind picked up and the mist drew in as we topped out on Gillean just after half past eight.
Having been through everything the Cuillin & I could throw at them, this pair of runners got their own back by beasting me down hill in the setting sun for a very fine tasting cold pint in the Slig.
Many congratulations to Kate & Geraint Davies on getting married last Saturday and for spending their honeymoon completing a very fine Traverse in less than 12 hours end to end (if you ignore the rain-break!).
Very hot & very busy just now. Wee selection of memories-
Sweltering Traverse 24th May
Overhang Cure E2 5b; New route at Elgol. 25th May
Dawn Glory 24th May
Skye Guides annual BBQ- ie the only one we get between winter & midgies! 25th May
Early Traversers on Sgurr Thearlaich today, 26th May
Many thanks to Simon Richardson and his fantastic winter climbing site Scottish Winter. com for bringing a well composed 18 minute Cuillin video to my attention. You can read Simon’s comments and fim-maker Iain Young’s comments about the Traverse here or click direct on the video The Cuillin Ridge- A Winter’s Traverse
Bring it on!
Matt set out with Simon and Tony early on Saturday morning to see if (my!) rumours of incredible neve on the ridge were true! We experienced a certain amount of trepidation when we saw that the snow line was 500 metres lower than two days ago. However we decided to have faith and press on to the South-East ridge of Sgurr Nan Gillean, where we were rewarded with a view of the entire Cuillin ridge.
Sadly the rumours of quality neve on the crest of the ridge turned out to be just that. Fortunately the amazing situation, incredible views, sunshine and enjoyment of the climbing more than made up for this.
The ridge seemed truly Alpine in appearance and appropriately an alpine approach of moving together provided maximum enjoyment in continuous but safe progress. Am Bhasteir had a massive covering of snow that made progress easier than in summer conditions. There was even a soft landing below the bad step!
We made good progress along the ridge despite the occasional bout of wading and arrived at the An Caisteal cave just as dark fell. There was a lot more snow than we expected in the cave so we decided to make our way past Bidean Druim nan Ramh to another bivouac site at Bealach na Glaic Moire. The 10ft deep drifts on the Bealach put paid to this plan so we found an alternative site to eat and lay our heads down at.
Sunday morning found us picking our way down the slopes of Coir a Mhadaidh and admiring the amazing views all along the ridge. There is an amazing amount of snow on the Cuillin and all the gullies seem complete (even Waterpipe Gully) and while it is mainly powder just now the mixed climbing should be in good condition and gullies should hopefully respond well to the upcoming melt-freeze cycle…
All eyes are now carefully studying the forecast for the next few days. Conditions are very close to being ideal for the Holy Grail of British Mountaineering- a Winter Traverse of the Cuillin Ridge.
Neil Mackay on the successful Traverse 30 November 2010.
Quoting from the SMC guidebook text I have just proof read over the past 24hrs-
In good conditions this is probably the greatest single climb to be had in Britain. Good conditions are rare with one period a season possibly above average since it was first achieved. The good news is that frequency does not seem to be decreasing and the internet now gives aspirants unprecedented access to forecast and condition reports. Anything but good quality neve on the crest makes progress incredibly slow and physical. Tom Patey suggested that a heavy dump of snow with little wind, so that the crest isn’t stripped, is the first stage. A minor thaw right to the summits followed by a sharp freeze and good weather (an easterly wind and high pressure) for the next few days is the ideal scenario. Opportunities must be grasped quickly before sun or rain strip the crest back to bare rock.
We now have the makings- a thick covering with a minor thaw that is estimated to have reached above the tops. Cold weather is forecast but there is a slight hiccup- the normally dream situation of a cloud inversion is predicted.
Summer Temperature Inversion
The more technical name for this is a temperature inversion which means the glens will be cold but the tops may be warm! How warm is the key factor; my feeling is that, above all this snow, the damage likely to be caused will be minimal and clear night skies will put a good solid crust in place within a night or two. Personally I would wait and see what Saturday looks like but be ready to go Sunday. Below a cloud inversion the weather is grey, damp and murky so don’t get put off! For more advice study the brief download from this website- http://skyeguides.co.uk/Downloads/SkyeGuides_TheWinterTraverse.pdf