Part 3 – Skye, attempt at the Cullin traverse.
I arrived at Skye’s Sligachan camp site after a 7 hour journey from The Lakes at approx. 5:00 pm on Saturday 3rd September. My motivation to pitch the tent quickly was enhanced by the Midge Mob, where is the wind when you need it, be careful what you wish for Paul!
The Cullin traverse is one of the five goals I’ve set myself for this year of being 50, quite why when my fear of knife edge arrete’s continues to haunt me but the dye is cast. With the accident to Tim in the Alps one of these goals will fall by the wayside & the other two are still some way of from being realised. Tim’s accident left me feeling I drifted through late July & August, in a nutshell I need the Cullins but feel they will be beyond me in the days ahead.
Sunday was a day to relax, a leisurely drive into Glen Brittle & along the Talisker headland was made in broken sunshine albeit that only the two Northern summits of the Cullin ridge were free from cloud. There was even time to read prior to setting off to meet Tamsin Gay (my guide) at 7:00 pm at Cafe Sia in Broadford for a Pizza & to discuss a plan of attack. Plans can be dictated by the weather & ours was no exception. A brief weather window for Tuesday & possibly into Wednesday was predicted before the next significant storm. My hopes of some nice little warm up scrambles were no longer possible, Monday we’d need to stock the Bivvy site & our traverse would be Tuesday/Wednesday if at all.
Back at the camp site I once again picked up my book & tried to induce sleep before lights out at just after 1:00 am. After an hour or so’s sleep I was woken up either by the need for a pee or by the continued chatter of three young guys by their campfire. Nature’s call was stronger than sleep so as I made my reluctant way over to the toilet block I inevitably couldn’t help but say ‘come on guys I know you are talking quietly but it’s 2:20 am.’ Natures call answered I was pleased to see the guys were good & had disappeared quietly into their tent.
Then at 3:45 the wind began to buffet the tent, by 5:30 the rain lashed & by 7:00 am I was moving my car to create a windbreak & re-securing tent pegs several of which had already bent under the strain. By the time Tamsin arrived to collect me at 09:00 the wind had eased just a tad but the rain continued to lash so there was only one sensible option, coffee. The first in Sligachan hotel, the second at Glen Brittle camp site, still no let up so it was with some reluctance that at 11:00 am we parked Tamsin’s car at the Glen Brittle Youth Hostel donned full waterproofs & began our ascent towards our proposed Bivvy site in order to stash our gear for Tuesday night.
Several river crossings led us onto steep scree where we put on helmets & harnesses & filled our water bottles. Moments later we passed a group of two & group of four making their retreat back to the hostel. Not long after we reached the relative shelter of the An Dorus gap, here we roped up & started the first of two Grade 2/3 scrambles which would take us onto the Cullin ridge. Tamsin then pointed out our Bivvy beds, two flat areas of ground each the shape of a coffin with a perimeter of stones 10” high before leading us to the cave where we would stash our gear. We temporarily also left our bags here whilst we scrambled over to the summit of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh my first Munro on Skye, this was done on a short rope. Whilst Tamsin had got to know me in Nepal back in 2012 & was reasonably aware of what I had climbed in the Alps with her partner Tim in the years since she was still needing to assess what all that would mean in context of moving across the Cullin ridge which is after all the U.K.’s foremost ridge traverse. Her encouraging words ‘your foot placement is good’ were listened to & pleasant to hear but I’d been nervous nonetheless.
Collecting our bags it was then our time to retreat, no trying to keep our shoes dry, we were sodden through, however it did give me time to try out the grip on my new La Sportivo Approach Shoes on Skyes famously schizophrenic rocks. Basically the Cullin ridge is famous for two types of rock Gabbro which is as grippy as velcro even in the wet & Basalt which is as slippery as a witch. Telling the two apart would be a constant vigil over the coming days but at least my shoe’s grip continued to prove to be as good as you could wish for.
Back at the car after 5 hours or so we made our plans for Tuesday, Tamsin dropped me back at the campsite & took my bag & wet clothing back to her cottage to dry things out over her fire.
In my tent that evening I again read but had time to feel a little more confident, I had been on the Cullin ridge, I had summitted one of it’s Munro’s, maybe I could actually have a slim chance of success.
Tuesday 3:30 am another night squall comes out of nowhere, I spread-eagle myself over the tents groundsheet hoping my weight will hold the tent down, it does & by the time Tamsin collects me at 7:00 am the wind again has eased a little.
We park at Glen Brittle campsite, Tamsin has un-packed my bag to dry things & re-packed it, as any experienced walker will know you have a way of packing your kit, Tamsin advises me to re-pack it my way which I spend 10 minutes doing, my kit is dry, at least to start with. However my camera has not fared so well from the soaking the day before. I turn it on, it makes frying noises, sticks open in the telescopic mode, it is clearly f….. & I leave it in the car. Usually a combination of my multitude of photo’s, memories of views & ability to read maps when back in the land of safety allow me to record my mountain journeys accurately. However on this trip I am denied the camera, will be denied the views so later ask Tamsin to produce a report of what we’ve done. I won’t quote verbatim her report here but will use abstracts from it where I think it helps convey the experiences we shared.
We set off from Glen Brittle at 07:45 am, our preferred option of taking the boat in from Elgol having been denied us due to the service being cancelled due to the wind. It’s a long walk in over boggy terrain, feet are soon wet again. Tamsin offers me the option to cut left for the first Munro missing the far South East end of the ridge out, as would happen frequently over the next 34 hours it’s an option I decline, I want the full ridge if at all possible. Tamsin’s notes – ‘Mist down to 300 metres. Drizzle, wet through early on. Pretty f…… windy too. Ascended in Ming.’
On this walk-in a thought process ‘Tamsin I can’t remember seeing my head-torch when I re-packed the bag’. Sorry Paul I hung it up & think I forgot to re-pack it’. Two people, one light, added pressure to move fast enough to reach the Bivvy before dark, bad omen.
We eventually bare left & begin to climb more steeply & after approx. 3 hours hit the ridge line to begin our traverse proper. The wind is buffeting annoyingly up here, the grassy ridge is relatively wide compared to what is to come but I am nervous, ‘come on Paul step by step, you must give it a decent go’ I repeat to myself. Soon with Tamsin sensing my anxiety we stop briefly for a bite to eat, at sometime during this first day she tells me that climbing Everest has a bigger first time percentage success rate than people’s first attempt at the Cullin ridge. Surprisingly that ‘comforting’ news didn’t affect me one way or the other.
We are soon on our first summit, Gars Bhein, not a Munro, the terrain begins to get rockier, it reminds me of Tryfan Grade 1 type terrain, I’m beginning to enjoy myself, as we twist & turn the constant wind becomes less constant, no views but it’s all feeling a lot better.
Our first Munro, Sgurr Nan Eag, is reached then a steep descent passing two guys who are bagging a day summit on their way up before we lose our way by descending too low. The inevitable re-climb is energy sapping, come on Tamsin I don’t need too much of that, I think to myself. Having re-ascended Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn we bump into one of the guides we saw yesterday, Steve Holmes, & his 3 clients, also on a day trip. Tamsin has the where-withal to ask him if he has a head-torch, he has, it’s the smallest I’ve ever seen but it’s soon in my pocket, one serious concern removed we will have light for two if it gets dark before we reach the Bivvy. Of course Tamsin having asked to borrow a head-torch made her client look like a total jerk, but hey I know when not to say something (well sometimes)!
We next remove our bags to do the out & back Sgurr Dubh Mor our second Munro.
Collecting our bags we move on towards Sgurr Alastair, without consultation Tamsin has decided we will bypass the infamous TD Gap to it’s South. This would have required an abseil in & hard climb out, the conditions were wet & slippy, her call, I make no remonstrations. Sgurr Alastair is the high point of the ridge & by association on Skye too at 993 metres, it is our 3rd Munro.
Next up we cross Sgurr Thearlich, Tamsin’s notes ‘Roof top slippiness’ as I straddle either side of a knife arrete, ‘one slow move at a time Paul’, as I continue to talk to myself. This brings us to our 4th Munro, Sgurr Maic Coinnich’ via Colley’s ledge which is where part of Dan McCluskey’s unbelievable Mountain Bike traverse was filmed. The path is only a foot wide, rocky & with massive exposure on the left, he is clearly very talented but needs to be sectioned in a mental institution before he damages a good bike. Tamsin’s notes – ‘Ascent to Mhic Coinnich slippy as f…, debated bailing out down An Stac screes but decided to do Inn Pinn & then re-assess.
The Inn Pinn’s full & more intimidating name is the Inaccessible Pinnacle, I’d first seen pictures of it over two decades ago & had immediately decided that Munro Bagging would not be for me. Put simply I wouldn’t be capable of climbing it let alone even want to so would never be able to complete the Munro’s. Time moves on as indeed we can, now I was here, after 10 hours on the go, I was at the foot of the Inn. Pinn.
Tamsin leads the first pitch disappearing out of sight & out of correct hearing distance as the wind whistles it’s merry tunes, think I understand, climbing Tamsin! The pitch begins in a protective feeling gully the first moves are hard, probably V. Dif, but it soon eases, then two thirds up the pitch, in seemingly the blink of an eye, the gully disappears & I’m on a narrow ridge with vertical exposure on either side. I have read this, Tamsin warned me of this but this is reality, ‘look ahead Paul, concentrate, one move at a time, there’s Tamsin on belay, first pitch done. The gradient of the second pitch eases as do the moves but the ridge narrows & I am again visually alone, it’s soon over though, I’m on top of the Inn Pinn & can’t quite believe it. Photo op. before a hesitant abseil following Tamsin’s lead soon has me back on safe ground at the Inn Pinn’s Northern foot.
It is now 18:40, from knowledge picked up whilst staying at the campsite I calculate it will be light until 20:30, Tamsin’s knowledge says the Bivvy is 2 hours away, we debate bailing or continuing, I again want to continue, Tamsin’s notes – ‘still can’t see anything beyond our hands anyway! Decide to push on.’
We are quick to our 6th Munro, Sgurr na Banachdich, Tamsin’s notes – ‘Keep scuttling to knock off our 7th Munro Ghreadaidh at 20:23’. This was the one we notched up the day before, our cave & Bivvy is just beyond, at last the skies clear, brief sunset, we are safe for today.
We both eat Pasta ‘n’ Sauce meals, both so bad that we fail to offer a taste to each other, then re-hydrate, boil water for our bottles to act as hot water bottles & climb into our sleeping bags & Bivvy sacks under a star lit sky, it is now 10:00 pm, sleep comes surprisingly easily.
I am awake at 6:30 just beating the alarm & have slept at least 6 hours, shall we snooze, yes, this decision soon re-paid with drizzle starting to end a dry night rather damply. Quick breakfast, Tamsin re-stashes her gear but I decide to carry mine, an extra load but tomorrow’s forecast is seriously bad & I don’t fancy another visit up here in those conditions.
Tamsin’s notes – ‘Not sure can carry on as ridge is sodding wet and heavy drizzle rapidly became pissing rain. Carried on anyway’.
We did debate this decision, Tamsin knew the next section was among the most difficult, my response, ‘It’s one of my 5 challenges for the year if we bail now the chances of completing it this year are negligible, but it’s your call Tamsin I added half-heartedly. I’ll take it as a kind of compliment that Tamsin led the idiot onwards.
Indeed the next section was difficult, exposed & narrow led to two hard climbs at V.Dif/Severe as we moved over the multi-summitted Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh our 8th Munro.
A change of direction West, North West, North of Bidein Druim nan Ramh, then negotiated two step overs in quick succession. The first required a short jump over a gaping void to a reasonable landing area, harder than it should be, exposure & weight of bag adding to the mind-games. The second was a totally different affair, no further in distance but the landing side was only a foot’s width wide at the start of a grade 3 scramble, this would need some thinking about. Soon I was smearing my trailing left foot on the cliff face, hanging on with my left hand whilst tentatively reaching across the void with my right hand. Should my right foot fail to bridge on the scramble ledge at least the combination of weight falling onto my right hand & Tamsin’s belay from behind should stop a serious fall into the void. Somehow it worked, I kicked away with my left leg & found a handhold on the far side with my left hand. Not elegant but effective, even Tamsin struggled here until she decided to follow my lead, of course she was not belayed as effectively as I had been, not because of my incompetence simply just wasn’t anything great to do it with on my side. The joys of this difficult two hour section were rounded off with an Abseil off An Caisteal, nerves clearly battered as I made it look extremely difficult.
Thankfully easier ground followed as we started the long traverse towards Bruach na Frithe, thinking we would soon see others on the Northern end of the ridge a call of nature was called for. Tamsin followed suit but women are less fortunate then men when it comes to peeing outdoors so as she continued to un-dress I began counting the clouds through the rain. Necessities done time to move on, I think it was around about now that Tamsin began the lesson for today. ‘Do you know about the two types of fun Paul, Type 1 is you are doing something & having fun, Type 2 is you are doing something & the fun comes afterwards’. ‘Tamsin this is a Type 2 Fun something’ the attentive pupil replied.
Having summitted Bruach na Frithe our 9th Munro we traversed North under Am Bhastair to tackle it from Bealach a Bhastier, there were no more discussions of bailing, we were committed to finish but as warned by Tamsin the ridge still had plenty of tricks up it’s sleeve.
We dumped our bags once again & set off for Bhastair with me saying the weather hasn’t been horrendous. Soon we hit the ridge connecting Bhastair with Gillean to be hit by a maelstrom. Just below Am Bhasteir’s summit there was a really technical section of traverse & down climbing it had also been slippery Basalt below that, Tamsin’s notes – ‘Bad step pretty bad’.
Bhastair was our 10th & penultimate Munro, clag, concentration, wind, rain whatever I didn’t even see the adjacent Bhastair tooth!
Retracing our steps across the ridge it was time to start our final ascent, vertical rock walls seemed to burst upon us through the clouds, we danced around them ascended the West ridge hit one of the hardest climbs of the day only to gratefully hear Tamsin say don’t worry we’ll be abseiling off before we get back to that. Then a short sramble to a hole in a rock. On the other side was the experienced guide Adele Pennington with a 65 year old Violin teacher client, they let us through before continuing their descent which was clearly going to be a long one.
One final scramble & we were on top of Sgurr nan Gillean our 11th & final Munro, the rain lashed, I turned to Tamsin & said ‘Tamsin I know there’s still work to do to get off this but we need to hug’, we did, then I suggested she take a joint selfie, thankfully Tamsin took her normal two photo’s ‘to be safe’ as on one of them I look particularly deranged ‘here’s Johnny’ comes to mind. I produced a bag of Jelly Babies, there was no Heads or Feet first as we shovelled them into our mouths. Tamsin had been keeping in touch with Tim during the Bivvy with Tim forwarding several weather reports all of which were crap. On Gillean’s summit she texted to say we’d made it, Tim’s response a simple two words – Bloody Remarkable!
No time to linger, soon overtake Adele & her client offering encouragement before reaching the final challenge the abseil down Nicholson’s chimney. This was longer than the one earlier in the day but done with just a tad more prowess. Soon we were back at the bags finished off the Jelly Babies in a slightly more controlled fashion before beginning the steep but relatively safe descent down through Coire am Bhastair. Once on easier ground I belatedly said Tamsin I’ll carry the rope now, on top of a heavy load it took it’s toll on my shoulders on the long walk out but we made good progress. Note to others wanting to do this on the Cullin even the walk ins & outs are big. We reached the Sligachan hotel at approx. 5:00 pm, Tamsin’s notes – ‘now hold the record for the wettest traverse ever. We are heroes!’
As Tamsin dripped into the hotel to change into a dry base layer I went & got my car from the adjacent campsite, picked her up & drove back to her car, on this journey we passed a sodden Steve Holmes both thanking him & returning his headtorch. Back at Glen Brittle I once again off-loaded some of my wet gear for her to dry. The walk out had given me plenty of time to think about the Thursday & Friday which I had also booked her for, with the recently de-plastered Tim flying in to join her on Thursday there was only one decision possible, ‘Tamsin, you’ve got me to achieve my goal, Thursday’s weather is crap, Friday’s not much better, I’ve done what I came for, that’s it, over. Just write some notes up so I can understand it all’. SHE DID & I DO.
With Thursday’s storm approaching Tamsin next act of kindness was to get me into my own room in a hostel, back at campsite the tent was almost torn down (by me this time) & rustled into the car.
Thursday evening Tim, Tamsin & I were seen at Cafe Sia reminiscing about a mixed summer, Friday a final coffee at her cottage to collect my dried clothes, those route notes & a headtorch.
Looking back now I am immensely proud of those 3 days in the Cullins, despite constant mental battles I don’t remember putting a foot or handhold wrong, that, knowing my pre-state nerves is quite remarkable to me. Indeed the only time I felt I could fall was during the initial buffeting when we first hit the ridge (other than some of the river crossings on the Monday). Lessons learned for future challenges, remember what you have done, reflect, believe.
Some thanks other than to those sufferers who have read this:-
Firstly Dorina for approving of what I do, I missed you & was genuinely elated to be telling you of our success.
Secondly, Nick for leading myself & Xavier up Snowdon’s Cribau ridge to re-introduce me to U.K. Scrambling just in time, it made me focus on footwear leading to a great next step.
Thirdly to Meta at Cotswold Outdoor, over six years ago she sold me my first pair of running shoes despite me almost baulking at the colour, no idea how many pairs of assorted footwear she’s sold me since but your La Sportiva suggestion was a game changer. Tamsin was jealous of my grip throughout despite her more expensive Scarpa’s.
Fourthly, Georg, Bristley Ridge with you & La Sportiva’s was a real confidence booster.
Finally of course to Tamsin, led amazingly well & put up with my obstinance outwardly at all times. Wonderful experience, Type 2 Fun of the highest order, quite probably up there with Monte Rosa 2014, as you said – WE WERE HEROES, at least for 2 days!