I am not a fan of heights and I had worried for years about climbing the infamous Inaccessible Pinnacle. I am not going to lie: It was very scary. But I did it with help from my partner and friends. Here is my account.
Climbing the In Pinn on Skye
Standing on top of Sgurr Dearg, on the Isle of Skye, seeing for the first time the infamous Inaccessible Pinnacle, I wonder, for a just a few thrilling seconds, what all the fuss is about.
For the In Pinn, situated on the jagged ridge of the Black Cuillin, has a fearsome reputation and it is considered by many people the most difficult summit in Scotland, as well as the crux peak of a Munros round.
As I gaze up, I see a vast blade of rock, shaped like a shark’s fin and sitting slightly askew above the 978m top of Sgurr Dearg.
At the western side, the rock rises 18m at a steep and almost vertical angle, yet from the base of the eastern ridge the 60m ascent appears remarkably gentle. I imagine this rocky outcrop located at ground level, rather than atop a mountain ridge, and consider how easy it would be to climb.
Yet, until you see the location, up close, with its airy drops on either side falling away to Loch Coruisk on one side and Coire Lagan on the other, it is difficult to know how you might feel.
As straightforward as that scramble of the eastern edge of the In Pinn might be, when situated at one of the most exposed points in the UK, the challenge is both mental and physical.
On reaching the In Pinn
I have been thinking about this Munro summit for several years while working my way through the Munros Table. My approach, as I ticked off more than 200 summits, was to mostly ignore the In Pinn and walk less vertiginous mountains instead, or to consider it something I might do at some point but without fixing a date.
Previously, I have summited other Munros that feature scrambles and ridges, such as the Aonach Eagach, An Teallach and Buachaille Etive Mor via Curved Ridge, but not without a lot of nerves and the encouragement of more experienced walkers.
Yet, I knew, a critical point in my pursuit of the Munros was closing in. If I ever wanted to compleat a round I would have to make a trip to Skye.
A good weather window
With dry and sunny weather forecast and a sudden desire to face the Cuillin challenge, my partner Gordon and I make the drive from Glasgow to Skye, enjoying an afternoon and early evening of glorious Highlands scenery. The journey itself to the island off the north-west coast of Scotland, via the 500m bridge over the Kyles of Lochalsh, is so often spirit lifting thanks to a superb and ever-changing backdrop mountains, lochs and rivers.
Meeting with friends at Glenbrittle, at parking just above a wide sandy beach, the chat sounds more nervous and brittle than normal yet still with overtones of excitement.
My first Cuillin ascent
We start by walking through a large campsite and a small gate to join an obvious path heading east, while hoping that the weather, so often fickle on Skye, remains warm and calm.
Ignoring a trail that forks right, the well-laid path climbs steadily upwards with views opening up as we go. Stopping to take off a layer of clothing – the warming sun and effort of ascent – offer the opportunity to fully survey the vista behind us, which takes in the coast of Skye, the diminishing beach and the isles of Rum and Eigg in the distance.
Now gazing upwards towards the Cuillin ridge itself, the series of high, dark mountain peaks look striking against a sky that swaps between hazy blue and thin clouds. The ridge is every bit as jagged – like the long back of a dinosaur – as I imagined but from this close range it is even more dramatic and brooding. It seems surreal to imagine that is what we are aiming after all these years of thinking about it.
At a large cairn, we keep walking straight ahead and on to a rougher trail with a short section of easy scrambling between large rock slabs. I think this is a taste of what is to come on the In Pinn.
Walking close to a tumbling stream we find ourselves at the edge of a truly beautiful lochan. The blue waters of Lochan Coire Lagan shimmer prettily in the morning sunshine accentuating the drama of a shoreline of vast rocks and precipitous scree-filled mountain slopes all around.
The most obvious scree slope is the Great Stone Chute rearing up to the south-east and the most common route to the Munro Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak on the Cuillin ridge.
Instead, we north and then north-east to reach the crags and cliffs below the ridge of Sgurr Dearg on a faint path that snakes steeply up through scree and huge boulders.
Climbing the next 300m or so of elevation requires a great deal more concentration and only when I stop to catch my breath do I carefully turn around to look back over the Cuillin panorama.
The terrain here is dark and coarse gabbro, which is very lose in places, but while the ascent is physically challenging it is relatively straightforward. Sticking close to large rocky crags, at the base of the southern side of Sgurr Dearg, the scree is shallower and firmer.
By now we are walking as a strung-out line, everyone finding their own pace.
The clouds are also thickening above and it is difficult to know what to expect as we approach the top of the scree at the bealach between An Stac and Sgurr MhicChoinnich. A wider ramp rises around the side of An Stac and there are signs again of a well-worn route.
We climb again, surrounded by a steep slabs just below the In Pinn, and suddenly, with the cloud clearing, I see the giant rock.
Climbing the In Pinn
The first ascent of the In Pinn was made in 1880 by the Pilkington brothers, two leading mountaineers that time. It was never climbed by Sir Hugh Munro, the originator of the Munros Table, which lists every Scottish mountain with a summit of more than 3,000ft (914.4m).
Most people who attempt this summit will hire a guide or go with an experienced walker or climber. I am fortunate that Gordon is a climber and has scrambled the In Pinn several times before.
I am lucky, too, that he knows me well. At the base of the In Pinn, he immediately gets busy, making safe the climb on the east side by setting up a system of ropes, belays and temporary protection points and allowing me little time to dwell on what lies ahead.
He reminds me it’s a relatively easy scramble on dry rock – the pinnacle is basalt, not gabbro, which can be slippery when wet but today it is very dry – and that I will be have our friend Tommy at my side for the climb.
He checks my harness, heads up above with what looks like great ease and I am left to start climbing. I breathe deeply, talk to myself inside my head, and reach up. The rock feels cold but there are many nooks and crannies that offer secure places for my hands and feet. At first, too, I can see only rock before me and this is strangely comforting.
Gordon had set up two pitches. At the top of the first pitch – and half way through the climb – I meet him again. His words of encouragement are lost in my swirling thoughts as I suddenly register the setting around me.
As I lean against the hard, flat rock, waiting for Gordon to climb higher again, I catch sight of the sheer drop behind me. In truth, I can’t see a drop only thin cloud and sky and that registers as: “There is nothing below you but air.”
My legs begin to shake and I feel one of my calves cramping with the strain. Sensing my apprehension, Tommy offers gentle words of assurance and urges me on. I know that to down-climb would be harder than to go up again and so I continue.
There is a section where I am on top of a ridge no more than about 30cm wide and I sense the sheer exposure but I look ahead and not down and that gives me a little confidence.
In some kind of parallel experience, it feels like the climb has taken me hours but also just minutes and there I am at the top. I sit down, hug Gordon and feel the mostly incredible sense of pride and achievement.
I am thankful, too, that the clouds are thickened and I can barely see below me.
Gordon is delighted I’ve made it but he can see I am also keen to make a descent. The usual route is to abseil the shorter side and amazingly I find the courage to lean out from 18 metres up and lower myself down.
On the descent a huge wave of adrenaline rushes through me and by the time I touch my feet on Sgurr Dearg again I am grinning – and chatting to anyone who will listen.
The most beautiful walk back
The views of the Cuillin Ridge on the return to Glenbrittle seemed more beautiful than on the ascent. A sky of deepening blue and a bright sun create a more pleasing background and I am transfixed by the view of the mountains further along the ridge plunging to the coastline and into a sparkling sea.
I am thrilled by the massive hollowed-out amphitheatre of grey rock, the wonderfully cooling waters of the lochan that we stop at to paddle and, then, the arc of stunning sandy beach that grows as we return to sea level.
I have no doubt my heightened senses are the result of euphoria having summitted a Munro I had for so long revered.
A geology lesson
The Cuillin is acclaimed as the most spectacular mountain range in Britain. The arc of jagged peaks, forming the ridge that is almost 1,000m high in places, is popular with both walkers and climbers.
There are 12 Munros summits in the Black Cuillin, 11 of which are on the main ridge.
The mountains represent the deeply eroded roots of large once-active volcanoes and take the form of solidified remains of the magma chambers that fed the volcanoes. The rocks are mainly gabbro, a coarse-grained type of basalt.
The many large rocky outcrops on the ridge are the remains of volcanic “vents”, the pipes through which the magma chambers were connected to surface eruptions.
The vents contain materials brought up from a deeper level, as well as the products of the eruption, such as lava and ash. This magma is a finer-grained rock that appears as vertical dykes.
In the Cuillin, the weathered and eroded dykes are responsible for much of the jagged outline and the creation of, for example, the Inaccessible Pinnacle. This type of rock is notoriously slippery when wet as compared to the courser gabbro.
Five more tough Munro walks
While Sgurr Dearg is a fairly straightforward ascent, the scrambling skill (Grade 3) required for the In Pinn, gives it the title of the most difficult Munro summit. Many people hire a guide.
There are other Munros that pose a challenge, too, because they also require you to scramble or climb on various sections or due to tough navigation or remoteness.
Indeed, many of the Munros on the Cuillin Ridge are difficult due to exposure and some scrambling sections. To reach Sgurr MhicChoinnich (948m), a kilometre along the ridge from the In Pinn, there is a Grade 2 scramble and some tricky route finding.
Another Cuillin peak is Sgurr Alasdair, the highest summit on the ridge at 992m. The “easiest” route up is via Coire Lagan and the Great Stone Shoot that can feel very exposed. Above is a Grade 2 scramble to reach the top.
Another challenging ridge walk is the Aonach Eagach. Located on the northern side of the Glencoe valley, the ridge has two Munros either end – Meall Dearg (953m) and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh (967m).
The hardest part of the ridge is the pinnacles, which take the form of exposed outcrops of rock with some tricky traversing. You could choose alternatively to reach the Munros on separate hikes to avoid much of the ridge exposure
The stunning ridge topped walk of An Teallach, Dundonnell, offers a scramble that you will never forget, although it can feel very exposed in places. The two Munros Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill (1062m) and Sgurr Fiona (1060m) can be reached by an easier out-and-back routes or via a lower-level chicken run.
Another ridge hike, Liathach in Glen Torridon includes two Munros, Spidean a’ Choire Leith (1055m) and Mullach an Rathain (1023m). The famous Am Fasarinen pinnacles are traversed along a crest, which requires a scramble that is very exposed. I walked Liathach recently.