“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 😉
Heads up to all Traverse aspirants that the Cuillin Ridge is in full winter condition and that progress is comparatively fast.
Blips of freeze thaw have left great cover and good consolidation. This improved by the day since the first snows arrived just last Thursday (17th) and walking out yesterday was a delight.
We approached by An Dorus and were glad of a trail but consistency was amiable and really we could have punched our own trail with just a bit more effort. The crest is glazed as well as snow cover so no squealing crampons. Summer bypass lines are holding more depth so harder work in ascent but quite forgiving in descent so choosing the best line is a good challenge.
Forecast is currently for a fair amount more snow to fall on Saturday, a bit better for Sunday onwards with more possible until Wednesday evening when winds are due to turn to the drier northerlies.
Climbing conditions are already good with plenty of ice forming and not needing that much more. Avoiding routes that are just blanketed will be the hard part but plenty of rewards to be had. The shot below is of White Wedding looking too thin for screws just yet.
February 17th to 25th 2019
An open invitation to climbers, walkers and any others with an interest in the Skye mountains in winter.
It’s that time again for climbers to meet up, climb together and enjoy the post-match analysis. The Cuillin truly take on their Alpine status in winter and offer climbing and scenery like nowhere else in Britain. There is a whole lifetime of adventures to be had!!
2019- Its time for a return to the Glen!
5 days of stepping straight out of the door and into a Cuillin winter wonderland. This was how the festival started back in 2012! The Glen Brittle Memorial Hut is situated at the foot of the southern Cuillin with easy access to Coir’ a Ghreadaidh, Coir’ a’ Banachdaich, Coire Lagan and Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda.
After 5 nights in the Glen the festival moves to the big smoke and 3 nights with our fine friends and the Waterfront bunkhouse at the Old Inn, Carbost.
Over the past 8 years The Skye Winter Festival that has seen high levels of activity including over 60 new winter routes. Over the years only 15 days out of 80 have seen no activity so come keen and you’ll get rewards.
The Skye Cuillin an Alpine-style range offering mountaineering and climbing of the highest calibre that attracts real mountaineers but there is also a huge attraction for those who just enjoy being in amongst mountain scenery of such grandeur.
The festival is open to anyone between these 2 extremes and our only rule is that nobody gets left out! Come alone or with a climbing partner.
Guests come from far and wide as well as a strong local representation each year. The apres-climb is embraced wholeheartedly (interpret as you like); just choose a level that doesn’t stop the climbing! The festival has allowed us to meet some amazing people and hear about some incredible adventures.
Over the past 8 years we’ve well and truly blown the myth of the Cuillin being a poor option for winter climbing right out of the water. In 2018 Skye was the place to be with Traverses happening for over 8 weeks and multiple new routes. There is a whole mountain range of possibilities from hard-core mixed to truly alpine mountaineering.
It’s not all high-brow climbing with many parties enjoying the magnificence of the snow-clad Cuillin from the corries, easy peaks and the coast-line. There’s Neist or Elgol for rock climbing and we’ve got some dry tooling crags developed. Even skiing and boarding have been growing in popularity over the past few seasons.
What’s to do?
Accommodation and Food
The meet will start in the newly refurbished Glen Brittle Memorial Hut right at the foot of the Cuillin.
Waterfront Bunkhouse at the Old Inn will be our hosts for the following weekend.
Beds cost £20 per night in both venues.
The Memorial Hut and Waterfront both have good kitchens for self-catering and pub meals are available next door in the Old Inn throughout the 2nd weekend.
The annual dinner is a big communal evening meal on Saturday 23rd at a cost of £10pp. Not sure what we’ll go for but local venison steaks, genuine French fondue and full roast dinners have been the norm. Please join us and let your hair down!
If you’re interested in joining us just e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve beds. We’ll send you a booking form to complete with your climbing grade, Cuillin experience, and details to help with lift sharing.
Bed reservations will need to be paid for but, if you are unsure if you can make it, we can also let you know how busy the different nights are looking.
Attending the festival is free. Accommodation costs £20 per night for a bed and Saturday evening meal will cost £10.
This is very much a climbing event and the traditional banter associated with it. Wonderful characters and craic are the norm and over the years we’ve had illustrated talks on a variety of climbing trips and watched videos. Guests are welcome to bring anything from musical instruments to their own climbing snaps.
The Annual Festival dinner is cooked communally.
Please keep up to date through the Skye Winter Festival facebook page and retweet news using this shortened URL–#skyewinterfest. Add your own photos to the facebook page and make sure that privacy settings allow everyone to see them please.
Got your own campervan– You’re still welcome to join us for climbing & socially.
Last minute climber– We’re quite used to this scenario and happy for you decide to join us last minute. Keep in touch about bed space.
Unsure? Don’t worry if you don’t know the Cuillin- many of the Winter Festival regulars know the Cuillin very well, especially those who work here as guides. We’ll be offering route advice and information on the ground but, on the whole, it’s a non-working meet for us and we’re here to play like everyone else.
A list of attendees is circulated before the meet with details of their experience & depth of Cuillin knowledge. Through the meet walking and climbing teams slot into place after making acquaintances.
Don’t be intimidated- if your ambitions are modest there will be somebody similar who knows any time on Skye is quality and happy to just rock back and enjoy!
Travel– Let us know where you’re coming from and whether you want to share lifts- there’s a part of the part of the booking form to help put you together with others offering/needing lifts
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.
Clear blue skies and heavy frost signalled stonking conditions and we weren’t disappointed. I opted for one of the longest snow lines in the Cuillin, Diagonal Gully on Ghreadaidh.
The snow was uniform from bottom to top; not steel hard but definitely calf burning.
I’ve had big crevasses in the lower reaches before but todays wasn’t wide; deep enough to swallow us but we all crossed safely and paced ourselves on “fast simmer” for the next 1000ft.
The views from the Ridge crest were stunning with snow-clad peaks laid out spectacularly.
Climbing along the narrow crest was a slow and delicate procedure with only tiny amounts of rime ice muting the squeals from our crampons. Check out the short video HERE
The descent of the crest was higher octane with long runnels of water-ice to negotiate and the hard snow in An Dorus gave 20 minutes of concentrated and thigh-burning descent.