Cuillin Traverse, Part 2

It’s more often thought of as a inconvenient outlier to the rest of the ridge, but the dawn-lit ridge walk back from Gars Bheinn was simple enough that it gave us the freedom to stare at the rest of the Cuillin in front of us, and a good warm up for what was to come. Just before we reached the bags we met the first climbing of the day: a diff solo up the broken tooth of An Caisteal a Garbh Choire. It was simple enough, feeling fresh and unburdened by the packs. We even found a pool of rainwater to drink from as the heat of the sun began to make its presence felt, saving precious mouthfuls of water for when they would be needed later on. Back at the bags, it was time for more peanut butter sandwiches, more gulps of water, more scenic pees.

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More simple scrambling, and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the lip of the TD Gap, a sharp notch in the ridge requiring an abseil in and a notorious climb back out. We wasted no time in getting geared up and lowering in to the gap. Jonny prepared to lead the polished off-width crack to regain the crest, and from the depths of the gap it no longer looked as steep as it had from the lip. However, the lack of placements for protection in the off-width was obvious from below, and as Jonny reached it I felt glad that I would be climbing it in relative safety as the second. With some squirming and fighting, Jonny forced a way through, and before long it was my turn to follow.

Some of the heavier items from Jonny’s pack had been transferred to mine to lighten the load for the lead, and as I set out to follow him to the belay above I could feel the heavy load on my back pulling me backwards, away from the reduced friction of the holds that had seen so much traffic over the years. I wondered how many of the hands and feet that had polished them to their current state had succeeded in reaching the end point of Sgurr Nan Gillean, and how many of them had been turned back even this early on. It was easy how the small nick of the gap could become the scene of an epic when the rock was wet and fog enclosed it. Today though, the rock was dry and the weather couldn’t have been better. The off-width crack was true to the words of Dan Bailey’s guide – an inelegant, fighting approach was needed, and although it felt insecure to simply jam a boot into the depths of the crack, standing up on that alone, it worked, and before too long I joined Jonny in the sun. I admitted to him that I wouldn’t have been confident to lead it, but with the first major obstacle seen off and the sun shining, the mood stayed high as we continued.

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We had been worried about the possibility of queues and wasted time at the route’s difficulties, but having been pleased to see no-one at the Gap, we were surprised as we continued to enjoy the ridge alone. Given such amazing weather, we expected several parties to be taking advantage, but we saw very few people throughout the day. It felt greedy to have the place to ourselves, so high above the crowds of visiting tourists that were enjoying the beach and the beautiful Fairy Pools so far below us. We fell into a good rhythm, enjoying bites of food and mouthfuls of water when we needed them, although already we began to worry about how long the 2 litres of water that we had brought onto the ridge would last us in the strong sun and warm rock. The rock itself was incredible: unfeasibly grippy gabbro that invited confidence as we warmed to it. Each individual crystal could be felt as a pin-prick under our hands – its joking description as ‘the best route in the universe’ in a guide was starting to make more sense.

The next obstacle to face us was King’s Chimney, another diff leading to the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. Given the quality of the rock and its (relatively) low levels of exposure, we decided to solo it, Jonny leading the way. The open corner was of amazing quality, and although there were a few moments when I began to regret the lack of a rope securing me to something. The holds were good when they were needed. A hand traverse to the right of the looming roof, and we gained the summit. Another munro ticked off, and a major time saving as the associated faff of gearing up had been removed. We felt more and more confident, and the mental boost of making real progress was noticeable. The moderate graded climb at the foot of An Stac soon gave way to good scrambling, and my mood hit a high point as we found ourselves at the foot of the Cuillin’s most iconic feature, the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

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Having tried, and failed, to climb it in rapidly deteriorating winter conditions the year before, the In Pin held a slight sense of foreboding, but the conditions we found ourselves in couldn’t have been more different to the horizontal sleet and miserable fog of the last visit, so we elected to move together, alpine-style, to the top. This perhaps wasn’t the wisest idea, as our total combined experience of moving roped together amounted to 20 minutes spent practising on the grass in front of bemused tourists in Broadford the day before. Our communication was good though, and the spike runners were plentiful. Although only graded Moderate, the exposure and the 70-metre length of the East Ridge more than made up for it, and the summit felt like a good achievement. The obligatory photos on top of the summit block were quickly taken, and the abseil down the steeper West face was done on the reassuring security of a chain anchor put in by the local guides. So far, our handwritten crib notes were proving accurate and invaluable. We were on time and feeling good, although the snaking curve of the ridge leading away from us was a constant reminder of how far we had yet to go.

My camera was soon forgotten as we got into one of the most complicated sections of the ridge, taking in Sgurr Thormaid, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh, Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Bidean Druim nan Ramh. There were no pitched sections, but the scrambling and exposure was relentless. The rough rock scraped our hands and the sun fried us. My head was beginning to feel a little fried too from the constant mental juggling of hands, feet and holds, and despite frequent attempts to lighten the load by eating some of it, my pack began to weigh heavy on my back at every step. I had known the traverse was a marathon effort, especially in a one-day push, and the dreaded fatigue was starting to creep in. Jonny had run out of water fairly early on, and eventually so did I. At An Dorus, another notch in the ridge that let us know we were over halfway, Jonny descended slightly to reach a snow patch that we had noticed earlier. It provided little relief from the thirst, as the resulting water was full of particles that had been blown on to the snow sometime in the winter, and the taste was that of leaf-mould, with a stale metallic tang.

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Still, we moved efficiently and made good progress. The massive batch of granola that I had made before leaving home a week earlier was still good, and I wasn’t feeling too dehydrated despite the sunlight being at its most intense. We saw the occasional couple enjoying packed lunches on summits, and although there was no time to chat it was obvious that everyone was loving the magically stable weather. Twice, we decided to abseil tricky down climbs on Bidean Druim nan Ramh, but the rhythm stayed uninterrupted for the most part, and the chat stopped us from retreating into ourselves. For a while, it centred around how we would celebrate with a cooled bottle of cider on the beach, tired and successful. It was hard not to think about our chances of making it as we exited the difficulties for a wee while and started the long slog over easier ground to the summit of Bruach na Frithe, last but two from the end. The ribbon of grey teeth and saddles behind us stretched further and further back to the pinnacle of Gars Bheinn, and the ‘summit’ of Sgurr nan Gillean seemed more and more obtainable. A quick descent down to a spring just after Bruach na Frithe gave a welcome break and plenty of fresh water to see us through.

One unmistakeable feature that still stood in our way was the Bhasteir Tooth, an overhanging prow of dark rock that guards the penultimate summit of Am Bhasteir. The shadow beneath it was cold, and the sharp lines of the tooth filled the otherwise clear sky. Naismith’s Route, a V-diff that skirted to the right of the formidable rock, was described a serious undertaking in the fatigued state in which a traverse party is likely to reach it, and I felt that my nerve and confidence on the rock had been left several summits behind us. We had been on our feet for 15 hours, and while I was coping physically, I hadn’t imagined that mental fatigue would be such an obstacle. Jonny was keen to lead it though, and without much chat he had set off along the rightward ledge system that led to the crack system of the route proper. I followed, and regretted it. The climbing was simple, but below us the sharp screes dropped away from the saddle, and soon I was perched 25 metres above them, the weight of my pack seeming to pull away from the rock face and downwards more strongly than ever. Jonny had already arrived at the crack system, and was trying to get a belay sorted. For the first time though, the voice in my head blurted out that it didn’t want to be here, it wanted to be safe in the glen below. For a second I felt furious with Jonny for soloing all the way out here without a thought, but quickly realised that my head had gone, and it was going to be far from easy to finish what we had started.

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Jonny called out that the rock was rotten – he couldn’t find a suitable belay. The unspoken implication was that we would have to retreat and attempt the easier Lota Corrie route to gain the nick between Tooth and main summit. This wasn’t such a relief when it meant down climbing the precarious ledges that we were stuck on. Every move seemed tenuous now, and the visualisation of the consequences of a slip came, uninvited, to mind almost constantly. We arrived back at the saddle though, both of us seeming fatigued and uncertain. Setting off down the screes on the South side, the easier route didn’t present itself; the only possibility we could see was a dark corner that led away out of sight. Jonny set off up it solo, the route was supposedly only a Moderate, but as he disappeared into the upper recesses of the corner he shouted that there was no way further, and he wasn’t happy to down climb. I would have to follow with the rope to allow an abseil. As I moved up over the mess of slabs and chock stones, I realised that this was far from a Moderate, and no wonder Jonny wanted the rope. After difficult climbing, during which the toys came dangerously close to being thrown out of the pram, I reached Jonny’s ledge and he quickly set up the abseil. The amount of tat threaded around the prominent chock stone from which we abseiled suggested that plenty before us had succumbed to the temptation of this seemingly simple break in the cliff. We retreated in a low mood, and once down realised that our only option was to admit defeat and to skirt around screes to the North, regaining the crest after Am Bhasteir and using the East Ridge to tick the summit. I was a little glad that we were turning away from the steep rock, and relieved that we had made some potentially dangerous mistakes without any more serious consequences. We had reached the point at which a clear head and logical thinking become both your best friend and the hardest thing to keep a hold of. Endurance mountain bike events like the Strathpuffer 24 had put me in a similar position before, but I had never had to balance such fatigue with the real danger of a steep ground mountain environment before, and I would be glad to get through it as quickly as possible.

Shameful detour complete, we ditched the packs again and trotted up to the summit of Am Bhasteir. Only Sgurr nan Gillean remained, and it was within sight. Fuelled up on a final handful of sweets and mouthfuls of water, we tackled the South-West Ridge. The initial Moderate chimney, a breeze if it had come earlier in the day, was a real struggle and showed how far my confidence had fallen over the course of the day. Once passed though, even our drowsy minds could appreciate the Grade 2 scramble to the summit. The sun was dropping in the sky now, and red light washed the rock, casting shadows in the many corners and gullies. Near the top the route became less obvious, but looking to my right we saw the ‘rock window’ that Dan Bailey’s guide told us to thread our way through. It framed the Red Cuillin behind it, and after we squeezed through it a few easy moves reached the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, the final objective of our route. Stopping the clock, it was 13 and a half hours since we had set foot on the summit of Gars Bheinn at the ridge’s Southern end. We were done, and it barely even registered in my dozy mind. After the mandatory self-timer photo we divided up a bar of chocolate to speed us down, and heaved up our packs for the last time.

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Even once the summit is reached, the Cuillin aren’t quite happy to let you go. The descent down the ‘Tourist Route’ from the summit was full of airy steps, steep slabs and awkward down climbs that were taxing to exhausted minds and bodies. As we moved, the Skye Boat Song forced its way into my head in the way that such songs do when we’re left alone with our thoughts for too long. Not that it was entirely inappropriate, and my mood lifted as our altitude decreased. Our guides estimated 3 hours journey time from Gillean’s summit to Sligachan Hotel, but as we moved off the ridge and on to a rough path that would lead us over the moors to the finish, we settled into the Death March pace of those who are running through a mental list of the food they’ve stashed in the car. I escaped the quick pace once or twice to look up at the ridge behind us as evening mist flowed around the peaks. The Cuillin had returned to their distant, benign form now that we had descended. The yawning gaps and the keen edge of the Tooth that had filled our minds and our view for the last 18 hours were now just indistinct parts of the skyline. I laughed to myself – it was slowly sinking in that we had done what we set out to do in fantastic style – and ran after Jonny as he disappeared over another rise in the path.

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Sligachan Hotel came closer and closer, until it seemed ridiculous that it kept disappearing behind lumps of moraine. Eventually though, we crossed the new footbridge and wobbled on to the tarmac at half past 10, feet complaining more than ever. 19 hours, 1o munro summits, 4,000m climbing and descending later, we had done it. One or two of the diners in the hotel looked up from their meals as we wandered past the window in the dark, and then went back to their plates. We had brought a little bit of the ridge’s wildness down with us, and I felt as though the people on the other side of the window would never understand what we had seen and felt, even if they did smell a lot better than us. With little ceremony, we piled into the trusty Berlingo and motored down the road to Glen Brittle. The drive was easy despite the fatigue, my mind had caught up with the day’s events, and it was racing. Once down at the beach, we deployed the very finest in Jetboil cuisine by tucking in to my favourite, couscous mixed with a Cupasoup, and unhealthy quantities of chorizo. Our well-deserved night’s sleep was almost jeopardised by a snapped tent pole, but luckily some clever person had hidden a length of garden hose in the tent bag at some point over the years, and with a makeshift repair effected we crawled in and lost consciousness straight away. Staying up to enjoy the cider hadn’t even been mentioned.

The sun ruined our lie-in once again, making the tent too hot for comfort at 7.30 the next morning. I crawled out, and noticed a car marked ‘Skye Guides’ next to us. On chatting to the slightly flustered looking guy packing his bag from the boot, I learned that he was Mike Lates, local guide and author of one of the guides that had helped us through the traverse. I explained our adventure the day before and thanked him for the help before he set off for another day up the hill with clients. For anyone else thinking of the Traverse, Mike’s guide is the best starting point in terms of logistics and details of kit; we wouldn’t have managed without it.

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Settling in to an easy morning, we breakfasted in the sunshine, packed up and headed up the glen to the Fairy Pools, a series of pools in one of the mountain streams and a popular stop with tourists. Once armed with towels and soap, we hobbled up the short path as fast as our battered feet would allow, stripped off at one of the more secluded spots and had a much needed bath in the clear water. Some tourists may have been scarred by the sight of us as they peered over the edge above, but we felt as though we had earned the right to enjoy the landscape that had tested us the day before. Despite the failure on the Bhasteir Tooth, we appreciated the huge effort and brilliant luck required to complete the full traverse in a single day at the first time of asking. A celebratory fish and chips at Broadford was in order before Jonny headed to Uig for work at an outdoor centre there, and I hit the bridge to head back across the mainland. This trip had taught me that with good planning and commitment  (not to mention the right partner) it’s possible to succeed where many others fail. As I drove over the bridge at the Kyle and looked back over to the Cuillin, I wondered how long it would be before the temptation got to me and I headed back to finish business with that Bastarding Tooth.

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