“Its looking pretty special up there” was the reply Mike Lates, the definitive source of Skye information and local guide, gave to my question probing for current conditions information on the Cuillin ridge. At the stage of the phone call we were already committed, well past Edinburgh and making inroads into the 7 hour drive from Newcastle to Sligachan, but it was reassuring to hear that the recently reported “once in a decade” winter conditions on Skye had not disappeared.
I was travelling North with Ben, one of my long term adventure partners and someone who has a penchant for the remote and cold. We know each other through the leadership team of the Explorer Scouts and before university Ben and I had enjoyed some great trips to Scotland in the winter. The Cuillin ridge, however, has always been a level up for Ben as he is more of a mountaineer than a climber and the expectation was set a couple of years ago that, if the summer weather and time coincided, we would attempt the ridge together with myself leading the way. Neither of us had considered the possibility of a winter traverse purely due to the rareness of the ridge being in winter condition with good weather also present.
After a food stop in Fort William we continued North, eventually pulling into a layby next to the Sligachan hotel at around 10.30pm. The van was displaying a steady -6 Celsius so I was glad I had packed pretty much every warm layer I own as memories of a shivering night in the van the previous year linger with a cold, dull ache.
The alarm went at 7am. After an oat-based breakfast and much deliberation about what to take we decided on a final kit list that favoured warmth over weight and we set off. Already multiple sets of headtorch beams could be seen way up the the path and there were already some on the ridge but we were confident that we could move quickly and as we approached the ridge the sun was just catching the side of Sgurr Nan Gillean illuminating the snow in a magical orange shimmer; If it wasn’t -6C outside it might even have been a warming sight.
The slog up to the ridge with full packs was a firm wake up call to the steepness of the Cuillin bowl and we made our first mistake by not filling up with water lower down the mountain which resulted in a couple of enforced and time consuming stops to melt snow for water during the day. Once established on the ridge however the vista that presented itself was something I never expected to see in the UK as it is a ridge line that would not look a spec out of place anywhere in the Alps. Thankfully, we lost some weight from our rucksacks from the removal of crampons, harnesses and helmets and we left our bags at the bealach for our ascent of the West ridge of Sgurr Nan Gillean from whose summit is the traditional start point for a winter traverse.
I soloed up a steep chimney to get us over the crux of the West Ridge and as I pulled over the lip I met a team of four who were waiting to rig the abseil down where I had just climbed up. As it happened this would not be the first time we would meet this party as later on we would bump into them again as they only had one competent leader between the four of them and they needed some assistance with a difficult step. With the odds always against a successful traverse at the best of times it rang alarm bells in my head as to how they expected to move quickly enough as a group of four to complete the ridge in two days when they were getting the rope out far more than is prescribed when the emphasis is solely focused on ‘always moving’. Sometimes I question whether I focus too much on the objective and I forget that you can still have a brilliant time without completing what you set out to achieve as long as you all come back safe and well.
Once on top of Gillean we could start our traverse! We made good progress down back to our bags and then over Am Basteir and towards Bruach na Frithe. It was on the traverse of the Bidein Druim nan Ramh pinnacles that we caught up with the group we had met earlier and we moved together with them and a lonely soloist until arriving at our bivvy spot for the night in the Glaic Moire bealach. It wasn’t as far as we wanted to get on day one and in hindsight we should have started earlier but we also got caught up helping another team which you can’t account for and we were never just going to overtake and let them struggle.
The night was cold and still with the little thermometer reading a chilly -10 Celsius. I’ve never seen so many stars than I did on that night and for a time I fought off tiredness to just enjoy the moment but I lost the battle fairly quickly after a physically and mentally tiring day and I was more than aware that we were well behind the halfway point for the ridge. We put the alarm on for 5.30am and planned to be moving just as the sun was rising to maximise our chances of completing the traverse in two days.
Sunday began in a similar vein to Saturday with the major difference being the fact that we were already on the ridge so no early morning slog up to around 1000 metres! After porridge and yet more tea we downed the litre of water that we had both been keeping warm in our sleeping bags overnight and we set off just as the horizon was reddening with the glow of a perfect sunrise. With a clear ridge ahead of us and our abseiling system well tuned we were moving efficiently and we were on Banachdich, the half way point, in a few hours. The weather on Sunday was mostly similar to Saturday but with a little more cloud cover moving over which would cling to the summits briefly before moving on. As the cloud came in the visibility would drop immensely and it really gave an idea that this is certainly not the place to be when the weather comes in. Luckily for us the cloud would pass over soon enough and the magnificent view out to the Hebrides and the rest of Scotland returned.
After passing the Inn Pinn we were feeling the effects of a long two days and our pace slowed. The effect that the constant exposure on the ridge has on you is hard to explain but it is mentally draining as the requirement of soloing the majority of the terrain combined with the knowledge that most of the ridge is a ‘no fall zone’ means that you’re always thinking about your next step.
We meandered our way up the exposed face of Sgurr Thearlaich and a few abseils brought us to just below Sgurr Alasdair, the highest point on the ridge. We conversed about whether it was worth the extra few metres of ascent and all I’ll say is that one of us decided to bag the summit.
The abseil into the TD gap was fun as it coincided with a strengthening of the wind that prevented me from shouting up to Ben about the fridge sized loose block that I had wobbled on my descent. Safe to say Ben didn’t dislodge it as if he did I would have become a permanent feature of the ridge and wouldn’t be here to tell this tale. Our energy levels were low at this point and it was a slog up to the outlying Munro, Sgurr Dubh Mor. Despite all the ‘technical’ sections being behind us the guidebooks description of a “joyous romp” up to Gars-bheinn looking anything but joyous!
We accepted defeat where we were as the light was fading, along with our legs, and the weather was forecast to change to strong winds and rain during Sunday afternoon. Although we didn’t complete a traditional full traverse as we missed out the final two summits we felt that for our first venture on the ridge it was a sterling effort and that chasing the last of the light and potentially facing a descent in poor conditions was not giving the Cuillin the respect it deserves and we were content in experiencing what we both agree were the best two days either of us had ever had in the mountains.
The descent felt as difficult as the ridge itself! Down to the loch in Coir’ a’ Ghrundda and then battle with the steep, relentless boulder field and icy, wet slabs until eventually we reached the footpath out to Glenbrittle. I hadn’t told Ben this at the time but I knew that the SYHA is closed during the winter and that the only chance we had of a bed for the night would be if anyone was in the BMC’s recently renovated Glenbrittle Memorial Hut. The 4k walkout felt considerably longer on tired legs and blistered feet and I was happy when I saw an old chap pottering around the hut as we passed the window. After explaining what we had done and that I was a BMC and Rucksack club member he allowed us in and kindly offered us tea and cake. It turns out he was a member of the party who had done the second ever winter traverse back in the 1970’s and reaffirmed to us just how lucky we had been with weather and conditions.
The next day took us home, via Inverness for a van repair but the long drive back was done with smiles on our faces and a sense of disbelief knowing how long some people have to wait to get a chance to be out on the ridge in such fine winter conditions and how lucky we had been to have the opportunity to make the most of the perfect coinciding of weather, time and conditions.
The ridge itself is 13km long with 11 Munro’s along its length but the total distance from Sligachan to Glenbrittle is 24km. When you combine this with 4000 metres of ascent and descent, around 15 abseils and constant technical ground around grade III/IV the size of the challenge becomes apparent. I would thoroughly back up the claim that a winter traverse of the Cuillin is the “holy grail” of winter mountaineering in the UK and I would recommend it to anyone but do not underestimate its length, technical nature or constant exposure which drains you physically and mentally. I am content with my success on the ridge for now but I will certainly be back for a summer traverse and, if conditions allow, potentially a solo winter traverse as well.