I confess I have no idea how I made it to the end of this huge and terrifying walk-climb on the Cuillin Ridge, Isle of Skye. It included six of the most northerly Munros on the much-revered and gnarly ridge.
Two years ago, I ticked off three of the 11 Munros on the ridge, the In Pinn (Sgurr Dearg), Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.
I am not great with heights (actually, that is an understatement) and the long drops on the narrow ridge, as well as the massive feeling of exposure, were over-whelming at times. I cried on several occasions and I was convinced I would need to be air-lifted off one summit because I was so paralysed with fear.
Somehow I made it through, but it meant that I was not keen to return to the ridge.
Yet, I still had eight more Munros to summit on the Cuillin Ridge if I wanted to finish my Munro round of 282 mountains.
Good weather window
Last week, time off work and a good weather forecast combined to give Hubby G and I hope of reaching some of the Cuillin Munros. Our good friend David joined us. It was his first time on the ridge.
The original plan had been to do two days of three Munros:
- Sgurr na Banachdich – 965m
- Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh -973m
- Sgurr a’Mhadaidh – 918 m
- Bruach na Frithe – 958m
- Am Basteir – 934m
- Sgurr nan Gillean – 964m
And a final day of two Munros:
- Sgurr nan Eag – 924m
- Sgurr Dubh Mor – 944m.
But for some reason, I asked G why we were not doing one day of six Munros. I think that after several outings of multiple Munros, such as the Cairngorms 4000fters and the Lawers Seven, I thought that it made sense to have one long day instead of two shorter days.
I had no idea what I was suggesting until I looked at Adrian Trendall’s new book, Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse. Combining the six most northerly Munros on the ridge would require a technical and nerve-testing connecting traverse via Bidein Druim nan Ramh and An Caisteal. That is, on top of the already emotionally difficult and tricky six Munros.
By the time I was convinced I didn’t want to do the six Munro outing after all, G and David were so keen to do it that I simply went along with the plan.
Start: Glen Brittle Youth Hostel
Finish: Sligachan Hotel.
Total ascent: 2300m
Lowest point: 21m
Hightest point: 973m
Not recommended if you don’t like heights
If you are afraid of heights, I do not recommend you do this half traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. In retrospect, the two separate outings to the three Munro groups would have been enough for my shaky nerves.
However, once committed and on the ridge, there are few places for an escape – and I had to bury my fears (most of the time!) and follow G’s amazing guidance. I was roped to G for safety for most of the day, after the first three Munros.
But, even when I am roped to someone, or the rope is secured to the mountain with nuts or wedges, I still do not feel totally secure. I always have “what ifs?” in my mind. (What if the nut comes out, what if the rock falls off, what if I fall and take G with me? etc)
Thankfully, G is an experienced climber and a very calm and patient guide. He also knows exactly how to handle my emotions and without him I doubt I would have finished all the Munros. (Without his encouragement, I would never have even ventured on to the ridge).
David, who is a much less experienced climber, doesn’t appear to have the same fear of heights as me. It was interesting to see how well he handled all the climbs, abseils and the narrow ridge sections. He actually enjoyed being up on the ridge. I can’t fathom how some people feel so afraid, while others relish the ridge and the heights.
My feelings on the ridge
I wish I could say I enjoyed the half traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, but overall I didn’t. I was way out of my emotional comfort zone for most of the time and I felt close to tears on too many occasions.
There were times when I could smile because I felt safe enough away from an edge or the awful drop-offs and climbs. And, I don’t mind abseiling once I have made the initial move off a ledge, so those sections of the ridge were fine.
I am also a fairly competent climber and I am fit enough to complete a long day in the mountains, which meant the physical side of this traverse was within my capabilities.
It was simply that my emotions often overcame me. “Paralysed with fear” is a good way to put it and this is how I felt.
I recall one time, halfway along the traverse between the two sets of three Munros, when I had a total meltdown. I was sobbing and hyperventilating. I told G I couldn’t go on. I was so frightened of what was around the corner, the next section of narrow ledge with horrible exposure, the next climb, the unknowns.
There were so many unknowns and the build up of these made me anxious for most of this outing.
While Cuillin rock is very grippy and I found I could trust my feet (I wore Salomon Speedcross trail shoes), there were also sections of loose path and scree. In my head, I could see myself sliding and never stopping until I was over the edge and falling.
I tried never to look down at the long drops below me. I only looked up or sometimes to the horizon. But, even still, my peripheral vision caught sight of the drop-offs on occasions. Looking at the photos and film clips (see below), is interesting because I don’t think I fully allowed myself to really “see” where I was.
My method, in a bid to keep my head, was to look only at the next move and only at the next climb or section of traverse. If I had dared to look further and wider I have no idea if I would have made it.
Even as we descended the final Munro, on a much easier section of ridge – although still with airy drops to contend with – I could not relax. It was only when we were heading down through the final corrie and back on to a path that I had any sense of relief.
A great achievement
I am incredibly proud that I managed to finish the half traverse; that I fought to overcome my fear. I do not want to return to a place that while obviously very beautiful and so very different from any other mountains in the UK, sadly makes me feel so emotional, anxious and terrified.
I will remain in awe of anyone who enjoys being on the Cuillin Ridge, especially the professional guides who look after many nervous walkers.
The record for a full traverse include Finlay Wild’s 2hrs 59mins 22secs and, more recently, Kelli Robert’s new female record of 5:56:46. I cannot comprehend these times, the solo climbing and down-climbs and their confidence in being sure-footed.
Our day extended to 14 hours. This included the ascent from sea level at Glen Brittle Youth Hostel to over 900m and the long walk from the last Munro to Sligachan. I was drained both physically and emotionally for days afterwards.
Photo and video overview: Half traverse of Cuillin Ridge
A few lessons learned on the Cuillin Ridge
Go with a guide or a competent climbing friend: I am lucky to have a husband who is experienced enough to guide me along the Cuillin Ridge. Many other people hire a guide. The way finding, climbing, abseils etc are like no other in the UK’s mountains.
Take the book: Skye’s Cuillin Ridge Traverse. It’s an excellent guidebook to a traverse, or sections of a traverse, on the Cuillin Ridge – and I will be reviewing it soon.
Midges can swarm and bite at over 900m. I have never experienced midges at such a height. They were fierce and because it was warm and almost without wind, they enjoyed biting us. My advice is to wear trousers or tights and take a long sleeve top, as well as a midge head net and Smidge.
Cuillin rock is sharp and rough. I ended up with sore and bleeding finger tips because of the climbing and traversing. My fingers still showed signs of being on the ridge many days later.
Be prepared for weather changes. The ridge can be hot, cold, wet, snowy and sometimes all in one day. It’s vital that you have the right kit and clothing with you. I took a waterproof jacket and trousers, tights, lightweight insulated jacket, spare long-sleeved baselayer, gloves and two buffs, as well as food and water and a midge net. I also had a harness, Petzl Meteor helmet, carabiner and belay plate. (Gordie and david carried ropes and other climbing kit.)
Water is very hard to come by on the ridge. We knew this before we set off and we took as much water as we could carry. But it was a very hot day and we did not have enough water and we ended up dehydrated. Many people reported the same on that hot weekend on Skye. (Many thanks to the amazing staff member at the Sligachan Hotel at 11pm who brought us each a free pint glass of lime and soda with ice. It was the best lime and soda I have ever had.)
Take both types of specs. I didn’t imagine we would be out for so long and I was wearing prescription sunglasses. I did not have my normal clear lens specs with me and this led to a difficult walk out in the darkening landscpae.
Take a head torch. You never know how long you will be on the ridge and a head torch is vital if you end up walking in the dark.
Eat little and often. I am good at doing this but even so it can be difficult when you are feeling tired and emotional. A lack of food and energy affected us all by the end of the walk.
Take sun cream. It was so warm that we sweated a huge amount and when you are on a ridge the sun exposure can be high. It looked rather cloudy when we started out but we spent a lot of time above the cloud and the sun was intense.
If you are doing an A to B route, remind your friend to take his car key. We had left a car at Sligachan and then driven to Glen Brittle. Half way through the walk, I asked David if he’d remembered his car key. Sadly, when he was swapping to a larger rucksack (so he could carry a rope) at our campervan, he had forgotten his wallet and van key. It was an expensive taxi ride to re-find his van key at our van.
- These Munros took me to 11 to go for my first round.