Cuillin Traverse, Part 1

I’m starting to wonder if North West Scotland’s reputation for miserable weather isn’t just a cunning plan to keep the crowds of tourists away – each time I’ve made the journey over the last couple of years I’ve met sunshine. There’s been cold and wind, but never the days of fog and drizzle that we’re told will probably get in the way of the fun. The little biting bastards are definitely real though – I’ve only just found and gotten rid of the last tick from last week’s adventure, so to celebrate such a milestone, here’s some words and photos from that time me and Jonny rambled the Cuillin ridge traverse…

Early June is often the time when hazy, overly ambitious plans hatched in the depths of winter either sink or swim – nothing drives me mad more than being stuck indoors revising through May, and as this round of exams was my last it seemed fitting that the silliness of the plan should match the occasion. First things first though: following the release from university was the classic cycling club ‘North Trip’. Stops at Nevis Range and Kinlochleven were on the cards, which included some handy practice for the upcoming Bluegrass Enduro on the 15th June.  Trucking on to Torridon, even the midges were being reasonable for the time of year. The classic descents to Achnashellach and Annat are as good as ever, although it’s never good to see the odd ‘Strava line’ appearing. I suppose it goes with the territory when an area gets as much exposure as Torridon has had recently.

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As good as all this was, a long weekend of bikes in places I’ve ridden before wouldn’t quite do the job. Becoming a free man needed something bigger to celebrate – a proper adventure where success was far from guaranteed. With that in mind, on the Tuesday afternoon the Berlingo was loaded up once again, and I hit the road round the coast to the Kyle to meet Jonny, where he rolled up with his lift, a visiting couple from Ireland. The ridge traverse had crossed both Jonny’s and my mind before, but I certainly hadn’t gotten anywhere towards giving it a realistic go. We stocked up on adventure essentials, large quantities of cheese and pasta for the most part, without a clear use for it in mind. Too nervous to fully commit to an attempt on the ridge, let alone a style in which to do it, we drove over the bridge to Skye into an early summer sunset telling ourselves we would “see how the weather looks”. Bed that night was a lay-by just outside Broadford, the midges making up for their laziness a few days earlier by coming out in force in the muggy evening air.

Vague forecasts suggesting continued high pressure proved true, and Wednesday dawned sunny and warm – already too hot for comfort in the tent by the time we got up at 8. The clear sky offered no excuses, and the idea of an attempt on the ridge was becoming more solid. The seafront in Broadford turned into our base camp, with climbing kit and calorie-dense foods strewn all over the shop. We basked in the sun and formulated a plan. Relying on guides written by Dan Bailey and Mike Lates (the man behind the local ‘Skye Guides’), the chat became more confident and hypothetical. On paper it all made sense! How could we possibly fail? We decided to take the fast and light approach, deciding that we would bivvy in Glen Brittle, ditching the sleeping gear there in order to hit the ridge with much lighter packs the following morning. The plan was to set out at the crack of dawn (early enough at this time of year when you’re at 57° North) and to complete the approach, the traverse and the walk out in a single day. It certainly seemed ambitious for a first, blind, attempt; we would be banking on relatively good fitness and experience of ‘ultra’ length adventures, and of course the unbelievable weather that seemed to be daring us to try it.

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The guides we had were also going to be critical. Mike Lates went into detail, going as far as to list the number of spike runners on the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Dan Bailey’s guide gave what seemed to be good detail on route finding along the massively complex route, offering help on where to look for the best line through the maze of scrambling and downclimbs. I was more nervous about the technical difficulties than the endurance aspect, and I was glad that Jonny’s climbing was in such a good place.  I got the feeling that he was looking forward the climbing sections – the steep and awkward ‘TD Gap’ and the imposing Bhasteir Tooth – more than me. We collated the two sets of information and arrived at a set of handwritten notes that would be our Bible throughout the attempt. The greatest problem was likely going to be the good weather itself – with the ridge crest being almost entirely arid, especially during the dry spell that we were in, water was going to be a major issue. Mike warned against carrying any more than 2 litres upon starting out to save weight, we drank and drank through the day to give ourselves the best possible chances of avoiding dehydration.

Finally, it was time to make a move. We drove to Sligachan and filled our bellies with pasta and chorizo. Picking up our sacks and locking the car felt like a big step – we would either come back successful or defeated. Hitching to Glen Brittle took a while, but eventually we got a lift with the local Minginish community bus, a visiting Swedish couple and the wife of an old school mountaineer by the name of Jessie James. We felt like we should know the name, and when we met by Glen Brittle Memorial Hut he gave us a grin and wished us luck. Before we went to a very early bed I noticed how grey the Cuillin were above us, in contrast to the greenness of the glen now that summer had arrived. Scotland’s hills are small in the grander scheme of things, but the Cuillin summits looked far from welcoming, even in the sunset. I crawled into the tent and slept uneasily, waking often and wanting time to slow down until the beep of the alarm.

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At 3am, the midges gave us a helping hand to get off to a speedy start. With the mild air and short nights they don’t take a break, and a cloud of them were waiting as we crawled out of the tent. There’s nothing like a midge attack to speed up the exit from a campsite, and at 3.15am we were off, without so much as a moment to consider what we were heading towards. By our reckoning we were looking at 20hours on the move, with little time for breaks if we were to make it to the car, 26km away, before the light finally failed at around 11pm.

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The approach to the ridge was a comfortable pace, slowed only by the thousands of wee stops. We drank at every stream crossing, hoping to be as hydrated as humanly possible as we hit the ridge-top desert. No worries though, every wee became more scenic than the last as the sun began to creep over the horizon, and the panorama of the sea and the Western Isles spread further and further around us as we climbed. We reached the ridge crest at 5.30am, and were glad to drop our packs. The out and back from Bealach a Garbh Choire to Gars Bheinn appealed more than the moorland shlep round to its scree-covered flanks. We moved quickly once free of our bags, and arrived at the summit of Gars Bheinn in just under an hour. One timer photo later, and the ridge traverse had started.

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