Traversing the Cuillin Ridge

The Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye is one of Britain’s greatest mountaineering challenges. It involves 4,000 meters of ascent and descent along 12km of continuous Alpine terrain, where weather conditions can turn quickly, scuppering the chances of a successful traverse. With this in mind, I approached this expedition with some trepidation, especially with my limited mountaineering experience. This was going to be a serious challenge!

…and it was. We undertook our traverse over two demanding days in a group of four, with two experienced guides, Mike and Malcolm, from Skye Guides. Having a guide is essential if you are unfamiliar with the ridge. Mike Lates has 26 years of experience on the Cuillins and has written one of the definitive guides, so I took much comfort in his ability to show us the way.

Mike Lates, Skye Guides

The day before our traverse we climbed onto the ridge from Glenbrittle Youth Hostel to stash sleeping gear, food and water into a cave for the second day. Not only did this lighten our packs, but it was also incredibly helpful since there are few points on the ridge for collecting water.

We started our traverse from the South side, taking a ferry from Elgol common to the foot of the ridge. The alternative option is a three-hour hike in. While there was some rainfall in the morning, the weather mostly shifted through phases of light sun and wind, with light hail and a little snow thrown in. While these conditions slowed us a little, we were thankful that the rain held off. Rain slows down the speed of scrambling considerably. Traversing the Cuillins demands constant concentration. It’s not the difficulty of the climbing that causes many people to fail, it’s the physical and mental toll posed by the ridge. It is the sustained scrambling, across grades 1-3, with some 3+ territory. We regularly used short-roping for safety. Only during short breaks did I really take in the spectacular, rugged views over mountains and sea.Much of the rock is gabbro – a coarse, grippy igneous rock – and this is interspersed with strips of basalt that is very slippery when wet. Sections such as the Inaccessible Pinnacle (or Inn Pinn) and Sgurr nan Gillean (the final summit, from the South side) involved some pretty exposed manoeuvres which tested my nerves! Especially in the spots with ice and wet rock. However, for the most part, I felt in my comfort zone.

Here’s a GPS track of Day 1 (unfortunately my watch battery didn’t last to track Day 2):

At the end of our first day, I wriggled into the bivvy bag, nestled between the tough gabbro rock. Wearing so many layers of clothing, breathing felt a little constricted but I was happy – especially after the rehydrated veggie curry and snifter of whiskey. During the night there was a little more hail/snow and a thick cloud that eventually cleared in the morning, giving way to a spectacular view from my bivvy spot:Morning View from Sleeping Bag

The second day was similar to the first in terms of terrain. A little windier perhaps, but kept in good spirits throughout and kept a rhythm.

There are 22 peaks across the ridge. Our aim was to get to the end and we didn’t summit every Munro. In total, we completed nine (out of eleven) Munros, which included:

  • Sgurr nan eag
  • Sgurr Alasdair
  • Sgurr mic coinnich
  • Sgurr dearg (the inn pinn)
  • Sgurr na banadich
  • Sgurr a greataidh
  • Sgurr a mhadaidh
  • Bruach na frithe
  • Sgurr nan Gillian

The two Munros we missed included Sgurr dubh mor (an outlier between eag and Alasdair that takes 1hr 15mins to include). We also missed Am Basteir (the tooth), an impressive, vertical slab of rock near the end of our traverse, which was not advisable to climb in our weather conditions. As Charlotte pointed out, it’s not going anywhere! And so I’m sure we’ll be back again. The Cuillin Traverse was an incredible experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Undoubtedly tough going and by the end, I felt beaten and exhausted. But it was totally worth it.