The Cuillin Ridge Light is the best ridge in the UK for mere mortals. It uses cunning and knowledge to take the easiest line, hard climbs are bypassed and the bar of necessary experience and skills is lowered. You still ascend the Munros, climb the Inaccessible Pinnacle, do a few abseils and there’s enough scrambling to satisfy anyone. Adrian Trendall explains.
Imagine seeing the distant jagged skyline of the Cuillin Ridge from Elgol, seeing the first peak Gars-bheinn, then tracing the route along to the finish on Sgurr nan Gillean. Imagine descending to Sligachan for a celebratory drink, exhausted but elated. The Cuillin Ridge doesn’t have to just be a figment of your imagination. With a little help, the dream can be translated into reality.
Skye’s Cuillin Ridge is a world class route of high-quality scrambling. For many it remains a dream, but it is within reach of many walkers and scramblers. This point was brought home to me by a recent successful traverse with a client aged 70. To a certain extent, the weather can be the final arbiter, but there are lots of ways to increase your chances of success.
Andy and his wife Gerry live in Cornwall and it’s taken them 30 years to ‘complete’ all 282 Munros. This summer I helped to guide them on the Cuillin Munros. For Gerry, that was enough, job done, but Andy wanted to do the Cuillin Ridge. By necessity, it had to be in the late autumn, not necessarily the best time.
Given the short hours of daylight, the chances of bad weather and the age of the team, it would be a challenge and the The Cuillin Ridge Light (CRL) was the obvious line to take. The CLR is a non-dogmatic approach to the Cuillin Ridge, starting on Gars-bheinn and finishing on Sgurr nan Gillean. What happens between these start and finish points is open to much interpretation and variation.
The CRL opens the traverse up as an option for many people. It bypasses several of the more technical climbing sections in favour of easier and quicker routes that are perhaps more in keeping with the overall character of the ridge. The CRL takes the easiest possible line starting from Gars-bheinn and finishing on Sgurr nan Gillean.
The major bypasses
1. The Thearlaich-Dubh Gap This is an awkward Severe grade climb with a fearsome reputation and is probably the hardest climb on the ridge. It is hard and potentially time consuming.
Bypass It is bypassed via screes below the base of the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap. Leave Bealach Coir an Lochain and descend on the Coir a Ghrunnda side to a scree path that runs along below the entrance to the TD Gap and leads to the bealach between Sgurr Sgumain and Sgurr Alasdair.
SW flank, Sgurr Alasdair (grade 3 scramble) An initial chimney pitch leads to easier scrambling and the summit.
Thus, a Severe grade climb is replaced by a much more amenable grade 3 scramble. A bonus of this bypass is that it takes you down close to the spring below the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap. Knowing you will be able to refill water bottles here means you can start out with just enough water for the first part of the ridge.
2. King’s Chimney (Very Difficult) It looks worse than it is but is still an awkward and potentially challenging climb.
Bypass Collie’s Ledge (Moderate) After the initial few moves of Moderate climb, Collie’s is basically a grade 2 scramble and provides an amazing traverse high above Coire Lagan. It leads to the N ridge, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.
3. An Stac Direct (grade 3 scramble) This is a serious route and certainly at the top end of its grade, with massive exposure.
Bypass An Stac bypass (grade 2 scramble) Mainly a walk and easy scrambling, it is a lot quicker and offers a chance to overtake groups before the potential traffic jam of the In Pinn.
4. The BhastierTooth Naismith’s Route This is an exposed Severe and is intimidating. Not only is it a hard climb but coming right near the end of the ridge it could hardly be in a worse place when both physical and mental energy levels will be at a low.
Bypass Traverse around on screes between Bealach nan Lice and Bealach a Bhasteir. This is just a walk. The Bhasteir Tooth and Am Basteir are completely bypassed and a Severe climb is replaced by a walk. The downside is a loss of height and the associated extra ascent, but it’s much easier and quicker. Some will want to tick Am Basteir since it’s a Munro and it can be accessed by its E. Ridge (mainly a grade 2 scramble apart from the Difficult Bad Step).
With the Cuillin Ridge Light, the route can be made even lighter if time or conditions dictate. The aim is to finish, and another bypass may make it possible. On a major scale, the complicated three summits of Bidein can be completely bypassed via screes on the Glen Brittle side. By taking this bypass linking Bealach na Glaic Moire and Bealach Harta, a lot of time can be saved. A speedy walk replaces complex scrambling and abseils.
On a minor scale, lots of bits of the ridge can be bypassed with easier traversing a bit below the actual crest. A classic example of this would be the ascent of Sgurr na Banachdich, where the best scrambling is on the crest, but easier lines abound on the Glen Brittle side.
This is probably heretical, but you could just walk around the Inaccessible Pinnacle itself. Perhaps something to consider only if you have climbed it previously and there is a big queue or bad weather.
There are no hard and fast rules and many decisions must be made on the day. Just remember, it’s your traverse and so long as you are happy with your line and what you achieve, that’s all that really matters.
Reasons to opt for the Cuillin Ridge Light
1. The route changes potentially bring the route within the grasp of lots of people.
2. The easier alternatives keep the momentum going and allow faster progress, especially for people who are not experienced rock climbers. For non-climbers, sections like the TD Gap can really interrupt progress, take a lot of time and reduce the enjoyment factor as heavily laden people struggle up awkward climbs.
3. The bypasses are more fun if you are out on the ridge for several days and carrying a significant weight of food, water and bivi gear. Unless you are an experienced climber, attempting the TD Gap or Naismith’s route with big, heavy packs will take most people well out of their personal comfort zone.
Some purists may sneer at this ‘light’ version and say: ‘Oh, you haven't done the ridge if you haven't done X, Y or Z.’ I believe a more liberal view is in order, and I feel that you've done the ridge if you start at Gars-bhein and finish at Sgurr nan Gillean, having taken in the Munros in between.
This makes for a fantastic, world-class route. Andy, his climbing partner Mike and I still ticked all the Munros including the outlying Sgurr Dubh Mor, enjoyed miles of scrambling and walking, several abseils and the iconic In Pinn. as well as two bivouacs high on the ridge.
Undoubtedly, we were slow not just due to age but the shorter hours of daylight and the adverse weather with meant damp rocks, snow, hail and rain at times. Luckily, this didn't matter since we had planned for being on the hill for three days.
Additional points to increase your chances
1. Catch the Misty Isle boat from Elgol
Not just an enjoyable boat trip but it means the shortest possible walk in and a good chance of keeping your feet dry even in approach shoes.
Andy and his climbing partner, Mike, were both very hill fit and this paid dividends and enabled them to keep going over three days. The fitter you are, the better, and it’s best if the fitness is gained in a relevant way such as hill walking and scrambling.
Get out and practice, get fit and get used to being in the hills in the footwear you will be wearing for the ridge and carrying a pack full of gear.
3. Climbing ability
There is one section of the ridge that is very complicated and doesn’t have any bypass. The four tops of Sgurr a Mhadaidh involve graded climbs of Moderate (3rd top) and Difficult (2nd top). Thus, this is the benchmark section, the one place that could stop you. In dry conditions, the climbing is fairly straight forward but if it’s wet then difficulties increase. Thus, the ability to climb to Difficult is really the lowest common denominator. Despite the very name, Difficult isn’t that hard in the whole scheme of climbing grades. With a bit of practice, it is achievable especially if you are doing the ridge with a friend or guide who can lead the technical pitches.
Any pre-ridge experience or practice is a bonus and lots of people have access to indoor climbing walls where it is possible to gain the necessary climbing and abseil skills.
Don’t despair if you aren’t an experienced climber. One client had never climbed or abseiled, so we spent a pre ridge day on the In Pinn which allowed them to experience both roped climbing and an abseil. However, the client was extremely fit and had extensive walking and scrambling experience and this was what really ensured success.
With the Cuillin Ridge Light there are very few technical climbing pitches and the majority of the terrain is rough walking and miles of scrambling. Scrambling is really the terrain which can determine success or not. All the scrambles can be protected by ropes but this can become a very protracted process and to succeed you need to be happy scrambling without the need for a rope apart from on the most exposed sections.
4. Pre-placing gear
Food, water and bivi gear can be pre-placed thus saving a lot of weight in packs. On the downside this means you are absolutely committed to reaching your pre-selected location and need to factor in a day to place the gear and another to retrieve it.
Another possibility is to start off with bivi gear, use it for the bivi at the end of the first day then leave it for later retrieval.
5. Hire a guide
By hiring a guide or going with an experienced climber friend who knows the ridge you will improve your chances of completing the ridge by a quantum leap. Not only will you get someone that knows the route and the best line to take but they will be able to safeguard you with a rope on the technical sections.
Our traverse wasn’t typical. It was undertaken late in the year with very limited hours of daylight and forecast temperatures down to minus 7 when wind chilled was factored in. We planned for 3 days and were carrying a lot more than a typical summer traverse. However, it does go to show how the Cuillin Ridge Light allows a lot of people a reasonable shot at the ridge especially in more favourable conditions.
We went in by boat from Elgol, ascended Gars-bheinn and continued along the ridge until just before the TD Gap. As a bonus, we visited the outlying Munro of Sgurr Dubh Mor before descending to the spring below the TD Gap for water. It was a long night spent in bivi bags but a good time to rehydrate, refuel and sleep.
The next day we continued along the ridge almost to Bidein. Progress was slow as we experienced sleet, hail and rain and visibility was severely reduced. Day three saw success as we arrived on Sgurr nan Gillean before descending to Sligachan for a celebratory drink or two.
Having done the Cuillin Ridge Light many times with clients and friends, I can highly recommend it. Everyone that I have done it with has enjoyed it thoroughly and just been grateful for the reduced level of technicality and the opportunity to experience one of the world’s most iconic ridges.