Tackling the Cuillin Ridge traverse
8 minute read
After a failed attempt on the Skye’s Cuillin Ridge traverse in 2019, Caroline returned this year to have another go. Taking the Cuillin Ridge Light approach, she managed to complete the route in a day. Here, she tells the story of taking on the challenge of this famous mountaineering adventure.
'I wasn’t expecting to see grey clouds in the distance'
'I wasn’t expecting to see cloud covering the ridge!'
'And now it’s raining!'
We had spent a chilly night at Glen Brittle campsite and had set off at 5am to start the never-ending trudge to Gars-bheinn (the start of the Cuillin Ridge traverse). Seeds of doubt were now creeping in as to whether this was actually the perfect clear day the weather forecast had predicted. To do the ridge in a day adds a certain pressure that things run smoothly and in good weather conditions.
This was back in April 2019, when we attempted the traverse during a week's camping trip to Skye. Planning ahead, we had dutifully stored some extra water at An Dorus (the halfway point of the ridge) the day before, as there is no easily accessible or reliable water source while on the ridge itself.
Now, after seven hours since leaving camp, the rock treacherously slippy at times and so slowing us down, and with no visibility or views, we agreed there weren’t going to be enough daylight hours to complete the ridge.
We decided to escape down The Great Stone Chute. No sooner had we dropped below the ridge line, but the clouds departed, and by the time we reached the road at the bottom of the valley, it was a beautiful blue-skyed hot day. Typical, we both thought. By late afternoon we had gone back to the ridge to retrieve our stashed water bottles, and the views were incredible.
After a last minute decision to not fly to Geneva as planned for two weeks of alpine fun, and after realising getting last minute accommodation anywhere in the UK in August was not going to happen, we packed our car and drove to north west Scotland for some classic mountain walking, wild camping and overpriced Airbnb-ing.
With a watchful eye of the weather forecasts we spotted a possible window and made an impulse drive over to Skye to finish our holiday with Adrian Trendall's Cuillin Ridge Traverse guidebook, with a cautious hope that we might have some success.
After our failed attempt in 2019, we vowed we would never again make the boggy trudge from Glen Brittle campsite. We looked at the weather and decided on the day. We crawled out of our tent the day before to be greeted by darkness and fog. Hmm I thought. Not the clear sky that was forecast…
This time, after failing to reserve a place on the boat from Elgol, we had parked at Kilmarie, and took a 10km walk around the headland, with rucksacks containing camping gear to camp at Loch Corruisk. The rain came down, and with a foolish reluctance to accept it and stop to put on waterproof trousers (as it was not what the weather had forecasted) we arrived at Loch Corruisk, completely sodden.
We chose the least soggy but equally midge ridden place to set up camp and spent the next five hours sat in the tent until it was time to sleep, not daring to go out for the midges. We shared the spot with two yachts who anchored overnight, and more than a few deer.
We woke at 5am and were greeted once again with cloud. You must be joking, I thought. Maybe weather forecasts in Skye just aren’t forecasts, but random predictions.
We tried to stay positive that the clouds that were shrouding the ridge line weren’t threatening, and would surely pass. Joe was concerned with my slow pace up to Gars-bheinn. It had turned out my rehydrated meal the night before - three years past its use-by date - really hadn’t agreed with my stomach. We popped onto the ridge and into the cloud with a reduced ability to see the view and a deep sense of deja vu.
It felt very quiet and eerie at first, without much visibility the rocks loomed out of the clag, and occasionally we could hear voices in the distance, but see no people.
Much to my relief, it became clear the clouds were swirling and not shrouding the ridge, offering glimpses of the beauty below. By the time we reached Sgurr Alasdair we were mostly out of the cloud. Seeds of optimism crept back.
The traverse is relatively straightforward until it gets to the Thearlaich Dubh Gap. However, not long after the clouds parted, it started to hail, complicating the descent of Sgurr Thearlaich before Collie’s Ledge where hands on rock were needed to navigate the slippy slabs, and I cursed myself for not putting mountaineering gloves in my pack. I was now wearing all four of my layers and wondering if our decision to travel ‘light’ was wise.
Due to the weather, we bypassed the imposing ridge of An Stac direct. A fantastic scramble took us up the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and we had a short wait before abseiling off the top after a small guided group. Certainly no bottleneck like the guidebook describes. I felt strangely relieved by the presence of others and reassured that we weren’t the only ones on the ridge.
I felt very small in such a dominating landscape with the valley a long way down. On the crest of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh, Joe nearly took off as a gust of wind caught him unawares.
We reached the ‘halfway point’ of the route, An Dorus, after about 7 hours on the ridge. It was here we were passed by two very competent scramblers, no maps or guidebook in hand, who looked effortlessly slick.
It was at the bottom of the third of the four tops of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh that I stopped for a wobble. This was the most sustained scrambling and easy climbing with such exposure and consequences I had ever experienced, and the less than perfect conditions harboured a constant worry that we wouldn’t have enough time to complete the ridge in daylight.
There are many easier sections on the route with less severe consequences, but the individual features of the route were starting to blur into one, and the feeling that I couldn’t quite relax was starting to feel relentless.
After pulling myself together we continued. Just to rub salt in the wounds, we were then passed by the traverse’s current record holder, who looked to be out for a leisurely jaunt with a friend.
Looking at the map, it’s relatively near the end of the route, but it wasn’t until Am Basteir that it felt like it was going to be possible to succeed.
By this point, we had been on the ridge for just under 10 and a half hours and so as to not descend in darkness we decided to avoid Naismith’s route and Bhasteir Tooth, and instead took the Northern bypass and then summited Am Basteir by its eastern ridge via the surprisingly tricky Bad Step.
We reached the final peak, Sgurr nan Gillean as the sun was setting, after 12 hours on the ridge, and by the time we reached the path that winds down the valley, it was time to put the head torches on.
We walked as fast as our weary legs could take us, and after a mild navigational error taking us past a group of fairy-lit, mairjuana-smoking campers (!) we made it back to our tent safely, a surreal 19-hour day and only a few jelly babies left in our pockets.
Despite our relative lack of experience with the ridge itself and by no means perfect weather conditions, taking the ‘Cuillin Ridge Light’ options and bypassing the more difficult climbs meant that we were able to do the ridge in a day, albeit a very long one! What 2019 had taught us was that a wet and claggy start does not mean the ridge is lost, if you continue trudging.
The ridge, while confusing in route finding and map interpretation, its difficult pronunciation of the 11 Munro’s, the corries and climbs; it’s expedition feel and stunning scenery, all leads to an incredible adventurous day out.
Now, the wet slog back to the car…
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