Sunday, July 1, 2012

Climbing in the Isle of Skye 2012


Climbing in the Isle of Skye 2012

Day 1, Monday June 18th;

After a long spring I felt the need to satisfy my wanderlust and decided to head to the Isle of Skye for a week of hiking and climbing. So, my bag packed I boarded the 10.50 train out of Mallow and set off on the long trip for Skye. The trip is tiring. A long combination of train and ferry followed by more trains eventually saw me board a bus on to the island at 11.30 Tuesday. Two more busses saw me north of Uig on the Trotternish peninsula and finally commencing my route at 14.00.
South of the Quiraing



Day 2, Tuesday June 19th;


Looking back to the start with Harris and Lewis beyond
My plan was to do the Trotternish Ridge on the northern part of the island over the first couple of days. This is one of the most unique landscapes in Europe and resembles nothing more than place where there was a slippage of one tectonic plate over another.  So impatience finally got the better of me and I alighted from the bus at Linicro and set out across the boggy ground for my first top Suidh a Mhinn. The weather was wonderful, warm, windless and blue skies. The ground underfoot was nice and solid and dry after the recent dry spell that the Highlands had enjoyed. Yet again my bag was bloody heavy. I was carrying everything I needed for the whole trip including my tent, food and clothes for the week. The initial pull to the first summit was fairly steep and combined with the weight of the bag I was in no doubt now tough the next couple of days were going to be. The wonderful vista across the blue sea to the mountainous landscape of the big island of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides provided a good excuse to stop and rest and enjoy the view. The entire ridge is over 30 kilometres long and involves well in excess of 2000 metres of climbing. My late start meant I would not be able to divide the outing equally so I would have a long day tomorrow. Still I would take it as it came and enjoy the experience.
The Quaraing

The first thing I noticed was just how dry the landscape was. Where normally springs and streams would be plentiful was now bone dry. It was clear that I would have to take care to ensure that I had sufficient water at all times. This only added to the load as I had to keep nearly two litres on me just in case. From my first top a long gentle decent to cross my first stream was followed by another long slog to the summit of Meall na Suiramach and my first views of the wonderful otherworldly landscape that is the Quiraing. This incredible place is one of the most spectacular spots on the entire ridge with its huge cliffs and spires towering above Staffin Bay. To the south the ridge itself can be seen stretching off into the distance in an almost unbroken series of fantastic cliffs and lochlans. All this framed by the sweeping landscape below and the blue sea beyond. As if this wasn’t enough in the distance the Highlands could be seen stretching away in a continuous line that promised other great days ahead.

The view from my tent.
By now I had done seven kilometres and over 700mtrs of ascent and I took a well-deserved rest and just enjoyed where I was and the day. The Quiraing is a popular spot and there were quite a few tourists about. I descended down and crossed the roadway at the col and as I climbed the steady pull towards the top of Bioda Buidhe I soon left them behind and found myself once more alone and enjoying the wilderness experience. Eventually the broad flat summit was reached and I began to think about finding a spot to camp for the night. A steep descent saw me arrive at a narrow col with a deep riven gully dropping to flatter ground below. There was no water near here so I plodded on towards the next col where there was more of a promise of water. As I neared the col I was delighted to see a gushing stream coming down from Beinn Edra. Good flat dry ground about 100mtrs away from the stream decided the issue; I had found my home for the night. It was a great relief to finally drop the bag and take off the boots and wander about unencumbered. I took my time choosing my spot to pitch the tent. I found a nice flat dry spot at the actual col itself and set up my home. The view was stupendous and I spent the rest of the evening in blissful solitude enjoying one of the best wild camping experiences I ever had. I ate, sat, read and listened to music for the evening and enjoyed the changing play of light on the fantastic landscape before me. All the travel and all the hauling of the bag was well worth the effort to find myself here in this magic spot. A good night’s sleep followed.



Day 3, Wednesday June 20th;
And so it continues

After walking 13 kilometres and over 900mtrs of ascent the day before I was under no illusions about the day to come. Twenty seven kilometres and around 1600mtrs of climbing lay ahead and the bag remained heavy despite a little food having been consumed. Still I was not about to complain. I awoke to another radiant morning with blue skies and that incredible view to sooth the soul. I lingered over my muesli and water (yum yum) and had a nice strong coffee and biscuits. Soon enough I had everything packed up and was ready for the off. The one drawback of camping in a col is that in order to continue you have to climb out of it. The 320mtrs pull to the summit of Beinn Edra soon got rid of any lingering cobwebs. Before me the ridge stretched for a considerable distance both north and south. I was in the heart of it yet it was a long way to The Storr which would be the highest point on the ridge and mark the beginning of the end of the route. West, lay the Outer Hebrides and east I could see a large part of the western edge of the Scottish Highlands. Further to the south the jagged pinnacles of the Cuillin could be seen beckoning for the days to come.
A panorama from the summit of The Storr

The Storr and the Old Man




The final summit on the ridge
Still no point in dallying as I still had a long way to go. There followed a continuous succession of ups and downs that steadily drained the energy. Eventually I found myself at the base of the climb up to The Storr. Here I enjoyed a bite of lunch and replenished my water supply. The slog to the top seemed endless but the rewards upon reaching the top more than made up for the effort. Here you can stand atop the huge cliffs that drop sheer for over 200mtrs and look down on the fantastical collection of rock pinnacles and protrusions’ that in mist make this a unique and haunting spot. Today it was merely breath-taking with expansive vistas drawing the eye elsewhere. I searched and searched but could find no sign of the cave where the paintings featured in the Prometheus documentary are to be seen. I’m beginning to doubt the veracity of it. What do you mean it was fiction, F##C OFF.

The view to Portree with the Cuillin beyond
 Anyway from here the end was in sight but it was still a depressingly long way to go. Portree nestles around a beautiful cove on the eastern side of the island but from here it was still a good thirteen kilometres away. Another long descent saw me arrive at Bealach Beag. I was hoping to find some water here but there was none to be had so I continued on for another couple of kilometres to Bealach Mor. Again there was no water here so I had to drop the bag and walk downhill for 500mtrs to find a source. Back again with liquids replenished I set off up the last climb on the route towards the summit of Ben Dearg over 200 punishing meters above. I was quite tired by now and was less than delighted to find that the final couple of kilometres before I hit the road at Achachork were the roughest and boggiest of the whole route. Eventually I reached the road and the four remaining kilometres to the centre of the village were tough on my tired feet. It was a little disconcerting to be back in a busy bustling tourist spot but the excellent fish and chips I enjoyed were a real treat. I didn’t have to wait long for a bus that whisked me out of town and soon I was pitching my tent in the campsite in Sligachan. I was well tired by now but a change of clothes after a long hot shower went some way to restoring my wellbeing. I settled down to wait for the guy whom I had agreed to meet in order to climb the Cuillin Ridge over the following few days. He didn’t show because a misunderstanding about  the rendezvous place and it meant that I was alone. Another aside is that the midges were absolutely awful. All you had to do was stop in the one spot for a few minutes and they would find you. Almost immediately a cloud of the vicious f##kers would envelope you. Still the site is located in a wonderful spot and the view towards the northern end of the Cuillin is breath-taking. I was looking forward to the following days.



Day 4, June 21st;
Sgurr nan Gillean from Sligachan

I had perused the guidebook and map and decided that Sgurr nan Gillean would be a good outing. The day was good with a high overcast that was well above the tops. My route was to ascend Sgurr Beag first to gain the ridge and then northeast to the summit. Down then the west ridge and onward to Am Basteir.  I was feeling the effects of the previous days but it was a welcome relief to have a much lighter sack to haul. My feet were also suffering the effects and I think a new pair of boots is required for these multi day excursions. I had the day long to complete the route so I set off at a leisurely pace.  I followed the path in by the Sligachan river until I was under the cliffs on the western flank of Marsco. Here I left the path and easily crossed the river and started the climb towards the dark Gabbro slabs that rose towards Sgurr Beag. I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this famously rough rock and it didn’t disappoint. It is terribly coarse and I imagine that anybody unfortunate enough to slide down it would have their skin scoured from their body very quickly indeed. Still it was wonderful and the climbing was easy yet interesting. Nice steady progress was made and soon enough I had attained the main ridge. Here the Alpine qualities of these famous mountains were much in evidence and brought the Aiguilles Rouges very much to mind.
Sgurr nan Gillean's elegant summit


The dramatic Sgurr na h-Uamha
Looking in the Sligachan Valley
To the south Sgurr na h-Uamha provides a spectacular and fitting end to this famous ridge but my destination lay northwest. The ridge ahead was engagingly narrow and gradually rose towards a pleasingly elegant summit. It drew me forward and ever more difficult and exposed scrambling had to be negotiated before I arrived at the small airy summit slab. This was a wonderful eerie and a great spot to sit and enjoy a bite to eat. To the west and south the entire range was on display and it truly inspired. Away to the southeast the beautiful outlier Bla Bheinn was another attraction. Pinnacle Ridge to the north lay in wait for another day and my descent route looked narrow and tricky and whispered that all my cares were not yet behind me. I set off down carefully and things progressed smoothly until I came to a crenelated narrow section which required one to down climb a vertical chimney. There were adequate hand and footholds so this soon passed. An easy path led down to the bealach under Am Basteir. I was quite weary now and I was in two minds as to whether to continue up the ridge to Am Basteir. I decided to climb it and set on up the easy ridge. Airy but easy scrambling led to a sudden drop a little way short of the summit. I knew there was a way to avoid it and continue but as I was tired I couldn’t be bothered trying to find the route and returned to the col. A long descent via the Bhasteir Gorge led pleasantly to the valley floor and the tent. I needed some supplies so I decided to catch a bus into Protree for the shops. I was just stowing away my climbing gear when I spotted the bus rounding the headland about a quarter mile away. I changed as fast as I could and made a dash for the bus stop only to see him drive off when I was only 100mtrs away. I decided to try thumbing instead and lo and behold I had a drive in a couple of minutes. A short turnaround in Portree saw me back in my tent an hour later just before it started to rain. It rained for most of the night but I didn’t mind as I was after another good day.



Day 5; June 22nd;

Camasunary bothy and Sgurr na Stri beyond
Today dawned cloudy but dry. I had looked at my options over the next few days and decided to head to the southern end of the Cuillin and camp either in Camasunary or at Lough Coruisk. This meant following the path along the river Sligachan through Glen Sligachan, then along Strath na Creitheach until you pass Loch na Creitheach and then enter Camasunary Bay. This is a well-made thirteen kilometre trail that wends its way easily through wonderful scenery.  As you crest the little col by An t-Sron the immaculate beauty of the bay is revealed. Framed on either side by high ground and the islands of Egg and Rum in the distance it is a magic spot indeed. This coupled with the fact that the day was after clearing and blue skies and sunshine were once again to the fore meant I was having a great time. I crossed the grassy field from what was a fine dwelling nestling on the eastern side to what was supposed to be a Bothy on the western side. I didn’t know what this was like but when I arrived I was delighted to discover that it was in good condition, clean with four bedrooms which had raised sleeping platforms. I immediately decided to stay here for a couple of days.


I unpacked all my stuff in one of the rooms and relaxed for a bit and had a brew. I spent a little time exploring my surroundings and as time passed my enchantment with my new home only increased. After a while I found myself eying the splendid rocky mountain called Sgurr na Stri which the guide book said offered a top class grade three scramble to its summit. As it was so near it would be a shame not to have a look and so off I set. It didn’t disappoint. Even though it is only 494mtrs high I enjoyed a wonderful scramble to its summit that was on pure Gabbro from around 200mtrs onwards. The summit or should I say summits are split by deep gulch so I clambered across to the western top and there I enjoyed a view to rival any I have ever seen. It is reputed to be the best view in Scotland and I would not argue. From here the entirety of the Cuillin are revealed framing the glistening Loch Coruisk. I sat a fair while and just soaked it in. I felt fortunate indeed to be in such a spot on such a day. No matter what happened from here I felt that this trip could be classed as a success. Eventually I made to return down, initially heading north before picking my way carefully down steep ground until I reached the river that drains Loch na Creitheach.  And so back to the bothy where later I was joined by five young Belgian hikers who provided good company for the evening. That night I slept like a baby.
The view of Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin from Sgurr na Stri



Day 6, June 23rd;

Today the plan was to once again attain the Cuillin Ridge. I went around the coastal path from Camasunary to Coruisk. Even though this is only four kilometres it is quite rough and is a little scrabbly in parts and even has its own “bad step” which provides a short but airy problem. The day was unfortunately overcast and there was a constant threat of rain. The rugged terrain and seascapes still made it feel quite exotic to me and I was once again enjoying myself immensely. It took over one and a half hours to get to the stepping stones at the outlet of Loch Coruisk and the day was deteriorating yet further. The rain occasionally came down and at times the cloud was covering the steep slabs a mere 200mtrs above sea level. After the stepping stones I picked my way up those slabs until I came to the flattish ground that had the wonderfully named Mad Burn draining from An Garbh Coire. This I crossed and made my way up the blunt nose that ascended towards Gars Bheinn. I was now in the clouds and when I reached an easement in the gradient I began to doubt that I was in the right area and feared I had ventured too far to the left/south. I sat down and resolved to wait for a break in the clag before I made a decision whether to venture on or not.

A moody Gars Bheinn
 I had been considering climbing the spur that let directly to Sgurr a Choire Bhig but at a grade three scramble and considering the weather I opted instead for the grade one route to Gars-Bheinn. Soon enough a slight clearance came and I was able to see that I was actually right where I was supposed to be. Strange mountains in the mist and rain can be intimidating for the solo climber and here I was beset by self-doubt and a feeling of vulnerability. Still I resolved to continue on but not to force the issue and turn around when I felt I need to. So decision made I headed for a steep narrow promontory that signalled the start of the route to the summit. When I arrived here I was very disappointed to find that the rock was Basalt and was horribly slippery and fractured. Though the climbing was easy it felt exposed and horrible. I took the easiest route I could find and resolved to descend easier ground a little further up if things didn’t improve. Onward and upward I went and I soon saw that the way didn’t actually stick to the crest of the ridge but went up a scree slope on the right. Onward ever upward and suddenly the summit headwall loomed fearsomely out of the mist. It looked desperate and I could see no obvious way to surmount it.

 I sat and figured what to do and looked again at the guide book. It was only a grade one scramble so there had to be an easy solution. Sure enough the book told of a path on a ledge on the right hand side that rounded all difficulties and allowed for easy access to the summit. This I followed and soon found myself on top. I decided to continue along the ridge to the next top Sgurr a Choire Bhig and then decide what to do next. This I did along the airy but easy ridge and upon reaching the top decided to retrace my steps and descend. There was no point in staying on top as there was nothing to see and I could have been anywhere.  So down easily I went marvelling at the Peridotite boulders that littered the corrie floor. Eventually I reached the Mad Burn and descended a different route that brought me directly to the wonderfully situated SMC hut at Loch na Cuilce. Back again along the coastal path where I got my first ever sighting of a Basking Shark. The giant was about a half kilometre off shore and stayed on the surface for about ten seconds before it once again slipped from view. Eventually the bothy once again came into view and once again relaxed for the evening. This evening I was joined by a tall English gentleman who quickly got a nice fire going in the hearth and later on by two rangy Dutch men who were on a flying three day visit to the island. Later still another man arrived who had been on a solo attempt of the ridge where a dropped rucksack had led to something of an epic.



Day 7, June 24th;

Bla Bheinn

Home sweet home
After another restful night I awoke today to find that things were still overcast but there seemed to be little threat of rain. I had only brought enough food for two days and I now had only a little left. I had to make a decision on what to do for the rest of the day. If I stayed I would have to forgo dinner and breakfast yet I was loth to climb anything with the full rucksack. I was speaking to Jim (the tall English gentleman) and he very generously gave me sufficient rice and biscuits to last me another day. This made my decision easy and after a leisurely morning I crossed the meadow to the base of Bla Bheinn and ascended the South Ridge. This gives a long easy hike to the south summit but to reach the true summit you have to overcome a very steep rocky scramble to a narrow arret and then climb easily to the north summit. The cloud was again obstructing any views but it all added to the atmosphere and gave the gullies that rent the west face a savage and menacing aspect. There was no point in dallying so I returned by the same route. I was back down in good time and relaxed for the rest of the evening well happy with not just todays outing but the entire trip. That evening I had a pair of German hikers from Bavaria for company.



Day 8, June 25th;

Today I began the long journey home. Again it was cloudy but dry so after breakfast I packed up and returned to Sligachan, enjoying my last views of the majestic scenery. After a three and a half hour hike I arrived at the road at 12.30 and was making my way to the bus stop when I stuck out my thumb for an oncoming car. Lo and behold he stopped and I enjoyed a wonderful conversation with a weathered man who surveyed the native Caledonian forests for the government. The trip to Kyle of Lochalsh flew by and I was only sorry that I had to say goodbye to this articulate and entertaining guy. So commenced the long sequence of train, boat and back to train trips that saw me arrive home 26 hours later. Tired but well satisfied with all that had passed I am already relishing the prospect of a return trip. It is truly one of the most beautiful and wild places in western Europe.