I overcame my immense fear to climb the In Pinn
Around 10 years ago someone close to me told me I would never be able to do the iconic Inaccessible Pinnacle. They reckoned the Cuillin mountains on the Isle of Skye would not be an enjoyable place for me to go. I agreed wholeheartedly with them.
They had just returned from a weekend of being guided on the much-revered ridge and they were explaining to me how impressed they were with the heights, exposure, immense views and steep drops. They knew my fear of heights.
I believe I said that even listening to the description of climbing the In Pinn and reaching the summit of several other tricky Cuillin Munros made me feel ill. Looking at the photographs made my hands sweat and my stomach churn.
But back then it didn’t matter to me because I never imagined I’d go anywhere near the place.
On Saturday, quite incredibly, I sat on top of the In Pinn. I also reached the summits of two neighbouring Munros, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and Sgurr Alasdair. It was by far my scariest day of hiking Munros. It may well have been the scariest thing I have done in my 48 years.
But I knew deep down that it had to be done.
My quest to walk all 282 Munros
Around 18 months ago I suddenly decided I’d like to compleat (correct spelling!) a round of Scotland’s 282 Munros. Until that point I’d not been at all bothered about how many Munros I’d hiked. Mostly I had simply walked to the tops with the G-Force because, when I met him, he was aiming to compleat his first round.
When I then added up how many I had hiked I realised I’d done more than half of them – and that’s when I thought I might quite like to finish them one day.
But there was the question of that dreaded In Pinn. It had long played on my mind – and it was something I knew I would need to address at some point. I often said I would probably end up with just the In Pinn to climb and that I’d need to be helicoptered on to the top when I was 95.
However, the G-Force thought I’d manage it on my own two feet. He has seen my confidence growing over the years of walking Munros with him. There had been times that I was frightened by a ridge, a sharp drop and a few scrambles but he’d witnessed my determination, too.
Over the past two years, G has tried to get me to go with him to Skye for a weekend but each time I found an excuse. I thought that I’d carry on walking the Munros that I knew I could cope with and push the thoughts of the Cullin to the back of my mind.
However, with a long spell of good weather this summer the number of times that I could say no to a trip to Skye became ridiculous. In the end, I agreed to this weekend.
The day I conquered the In Pinn
The conditions seemed perfect on Saturday and as G and I headed up the path from Glenbrittle with four Munro bagging friends – Danny, Johnny, Tommy and Billy – we felt lucky. The weather in Skye is notoriously fickle but, for once, it seemed to be fine. It was sunny, almost wind-free and seemingly settled.
I had been feeling very nervous about this outing for days beforehand and as we climbed higher the dread made my stomach knot and my mouth dry. I was comforted a little by Johnny, who also voiced his concerns about climbing the In Pinn. But I knew I’d need to face my own climb alone.
Looking up as we ascended the steep corrie above Loch an Fhir-bhallaich did nothing to calm my nerves. The dark and jaggy dinosaur back of the Cuillin loomed high above and although it is immensely impressive I felt sick at the thought of being required to walk on the ridge. It looked far worse up close than I’d ever imagined.
I tried, instead, to focus on the immediate path ahead, climbing the scree and boulders. The guys were chatting away and I listened to their stories of other Munro outings, life and general boys stuff. Billy had only four Munros left to summit to finish his first round and he hoped to tick off three that day.
In my mind I decided that if I managed to do the In Pinn that would be quite enough for one day.
It was only about 8.30am when clouds started to gather around the Cuillin. The bright and sunny day was already changing. As we ascended, the clouds further thickened.
Ominously, however, every so often the white mist would suddenly part to give another eerie view of the ridge ahead.
I decided that I preferred the Cuillin shrouded in clouds rather than clear because I didn’t need to be reminded of the horror to come.
First glimpse of the In Pinn
It is difficult to describe or understand the In Pinn itself until you are standing next to it. It’s huge. Even looking at photos and videos (I did my share of studying media of the huge rock prior to the trip) doesn’t give a true comprehension of the size, scale and strangeness of the In Pinn.
The giant rock sits like a shark’s fin atop the summit of the mountain Sgurr Dearg. It seems like a miracle that it has stuck there in its precarious position for millions of years. The Cuillin are in fact the results of glaciated remains of a solidified volcanic lava reservoir from some 60 million years ago.
While one side of the In Pinn is much shorter (18m), it’s at a vertical and overhanging angle that makes it tricky to climb. The other side is 65m long with a gentler angle. There are plenty of rocky steps and large holds and it’s considered to be an easy grade of scrambling. The problem is that the longer edge is very narrow in places and highly exposed.
The drop on either side of the ridge back seems incomprehensibly massive and daunting.
I had no idea what to expect when I was on the climb except I knew I would loathe it.
Climbing the In Pinn
I tried very hard to understand what I would be expected to do to reach the top but you can’t see the exact moves on the climb from beneath it. In any case, so many of my thoughts were crowded by sirens going off in my brain. I hate heights and I couldn’t calm my mind. My head swirled, the blood rushed through my ears, I felt sick and my stomach churned.
I could hear things going on around me and people telling me I’d be fine but I felt weirdly disconnected. This moment, the one I’d always feared, was right here.
Meanwhile, the G-Force calmly got on with the process of making the rock climb safe. He’s an experienced climber and set up a system of ropes, belays and temporary protection points with the aim of giving me maximum security throughout the climb.
When the time came for me to start the climb our friend Tommy (he has climbed the In Pinn twice before) came with me. He was right behind me, offering words of support and encouragement.
When I said I couldn’t do it, he told me I could. When I worried I was going the wrong way, he guided me. When my legs trembled and I could hardly lift my foot, he helped me to go on. When I needed to remove a piece of protection equipment, he helped me.
Just 10 metres up I thought I’d need to descend again. I couldn’t focus on anything other than the drop either side and I felt awful. Annoyingly the climbing was quite easy. If I had been climbing this huge rock at ground level I would have done it without any fear and in minutes.
It was simply the fear of heights that made me doubt I’d ever summit this mighty Munro.
Over and over I tried to calm myself. I swore a lot and I kept saying: “Don’t look down, just keep going, don’t look down, just keep going.” Talking to myself out loud seemed to help.
G had set up two pitches. At the top of the first pitch – and half way through the climb – I met with him again and apparently I asked over and over again how far I needed to go next. I wouldn’t relax, even though I was clipped to a sling attached to a huge rock. My legs trembled and I had a very dry mouth. Tommy continued to try to calm me and G offered masses of encouragement but I just wanted to get off the rock.
I stood flat against the In Pinn and looked straight ahead at the rock, never daring to look down or back. I knew there was a huge drop but I didn’t need it to be confirmed. I now had no choice but to carry on but I wished I could stop right there and never do another thing.
I also hated myself for being so afraid. I wished I could be braver and that I could enjoy the experience. It is very annoying to be so scared of heights.
The second pitch to reach the top felt awful. There is a narrow section to climb over (I think this is called the crux.). It seemed to be only about the width of me although looking at photos it might be two or three times my width. But the drop either side is so frightening.
My legs were so tense that I felt them cramping.
Again I talked out loud to myself. “Don’t look down, just keep going, for fuck’s sake, this is awful, I hate this, don’t look down, just keep going…” I heard my own words, I think I heard Tommy offering words of support, I gritted my teeth and I told myself I had to bloody well do it.
And I did do it. I got to the top and I sat down exhausted. I felt only extreme fear. I was on top of the In Pinn and I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be off that rock and to never return.
I told G to please get the abseil sorted as soon as he bloody well could. I let him take a photo and then he went to secure the abseil set up. You abseil down the shorter side.
I honestly did not feel any elation. I chatted to Tommy about nothing in particular – although I believe the subject may well have been the menopause, strangely! – and I sat stiff with continued anxiety.
Then one thing I did vaguely enjoy was the abseil. It would take me off this horrendously exposed place and I managed to smile a bit through the descent. The photos of me shows a tiny person on a huge, huge boulder.
With my feet back on the top of Sgurr Dearg, it took at least another 30 minutes for me to start to smile again. I was shaking as I hugged the other guys in congratulations and although I drank water my mouth continued to be dry.
Then, finally, a small feeling of pride started to build from somewhere. I kept looking up at the In Pinn (G was by now guiding Billy and Johnny on the climb) and I couldn’t believe I had actually done it.
I don’t think it took more than 20 minutes in total but it was a 20 minutes I never want to repeat.
My thoughts on climbing the In Pinn
I still agree with that person who told me I’d be afraid of the Cuillin. I am still scared – and there was more fear to come on the two other Cuillin Munros – but I now feel totally amazed that I did the one thing I never thought I would.
I also want to thank G for his amazing support (as well as Tommy). He somehow knew that I might be able to do the climb. He said that until I started climbing the In Pinn itself he wasn’t 100% sure I’d go through with it. However, once I’d decided to go for it he was sure I’d not give in. He was right.
I would never have done it unless he was in charge of the ropes and belaying. His quiet calm, expertise and confidence in me was what I needed. His belief that I would rise above my immense fears is very special.
I am now sure that if I can climb the In Pinn, I reckon most people can do the same.
However, there was a lot more drama and fear to come over the rest of the day…