14 hours in the cuillin

Mon, Jul 11, 2011

In which we climb the Dubhs Ridge, the longest continuous rock climb in Britain, find prehistoric paw prints in solid gabbro, pass a boulder the size of a house that had bounced clean over a cliff and finish below sea level in the dusk of a summer night.

Our transport into Coruisk

It started with a trip into the Coruisk hut on the Bella Jane’s rib from Elgol, with its famous view of the Cuillin. With Gars Bheinn on the left, Sgurr na Stri in the centre and Blaven on the right, we were bound for just left of Sgurr na Stri, where Loch Scavaig enters Loch na Cuilce and the hut nestles beneath ice smoothed gabbro cliffs.

The Coruisk Hut

It was a lovely evening so I decided to bivvy down from the hut and the next morning was just stunning. What a spot to wake up, with the Cuillin behind and Loch Scavaig and the islands of Rum and Eigg in front.

Bivvy site at Coruisk

Bivvy site at Coruisk

We set off around 9am on the Saturday morning, the Sabhal Mor Ostaig Mountaineerig Club consisting of Me, Rob, Janni, Archie, Arianne, Leah, Voitec and Andy and made our way up Coruisk towards the ridge. The Dubhs Ridge starts at sea level more or less and rises 2000 feet in unbroken flypaper sticky gabbro to the summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag in one magnificent sweep of boiler plate slabs.

Looking up Coruisk to the Dubhs Ridge

The first thing you need to do is get onto the slabs and this involves a thrutchy narrow gully followed by an awkward ascent of a wall over a whaleback and this wall is the crux of the whole route. If you just put your rock head on and get on with it, it’s easy. The key that opens your head is a very nice incut hold up on the right as you stand on the topmost ledge and gives you the confidence to move out of the step line and onto the face. Then it’s two moves and you’re on the slabs. Up a few feet to a niche, traverse left and up a crack and it’s done. I was glad I didn’t bother with the rope for this part as it was a great feeling moving free over the rock but Rob belayed some of the others who were new to scrambling.

Rob belaying Arianne at the crux

Looking down to the crux of the route

Now that you’re on the slabs the going is completely different. Acres and acres of sticky gabbro!

Looking up the Dubhs Ridge

Loch Coruisk from the Dubhs Ridge

The ridge rises in a series of slab sections where you walk up and now and then you come up against a steepening with some vertical bits here and there but as you’re moving unroped you don’t really want the hassle of pitching stuff but there’s usually a fine flake and crack line at the right hand end of the steep bits where you can forge a route up without having to use the rope, although for our younger bod, Arianne, the wee confidence rope came in handy on one of the steeper cracks.

Archie belaying Arianne up one of the flakes

Higher up there are what look like quartz bits that shine in the sun and I even found what looked like a paw print in the gabbro.

Paw print on the Dubhs Ridge

Eventually, as you near Sgurr Dubh Beag the slabs steepen and there are a couple of corners to negotiate. This part of the ridge is more broken and you have to search about here and there to find a route that isn’t going to go through loose ground but the views are just out of this world.

Looking down the Dubhs Ridge to Loch Coruisk

As you approach the final summit block you come up against the “Must Do” crack. You can walk round the side of the crag that it’s on but in keeping with the day, we all had to do it, unroped of course as the rock is so sticky. It’s basically a crack that runs up a steep gabbro slab and you just plant your fingers in it and use the friction of the slab to work your way up it. Superb stuff.

Rob coming up the "Must Do" crack

From the top of the crack it’s an easy walk up to the summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag and the end of the Dubhs Ridge. But with a sting in the tail. To get off the top you have to make a free abseil, i.e. abseil off an overhang into free space for 30m and it was here Arianne thought it wasn’t quite her thing. It’s not an abseil on which to learn as it’s pretty wild so I went with her and Archie to find the bypass route. Normally these routes are death routes across chossy faces and it’s better just to do the diretissma but in this case the bypass was easy. Just go back to the top of the Must Do crack and just before you reach it, you’ll see a very loose gully going down on the right. Go right over to the edge of the cliffs and descend into the gully on a loose path and head up the grass ramp. Just before the grass ramp narrows towards a boulder that’s only a couple of feet from the cliff face, step down onto the scree ramp and follow it up to the base of the downclimb below the abseil. If you stick with the grass ramp you’ll end up at the top of the downclimb, which is rather tricky. Just beyond the base of the abseil and downclimb you can descend into Coire a’Chaoruinn and this is what Archie and Arianne did. Myself, Janni, Rob and Leah pushed on towards Sgurr Dubh Mor on the narrow and exposed connecting ridge.

Looking back to Sgurr Dubh Beag

From here on, we were in the cloud, following superb ridge lines and grassy ledges into the murk. The way back to the crest wasn’t obvious and we couldn’t see much in the clag so just kept following the paths and ledges, cutting back to find others when the one we were on petered out on the face. Eventually we came to a dead end at the corner, which we knew was on the route for those who missed the route back to the crest and provides some excitement  for the end of the route. It’s a square cut clean corner cut into the steep south face and we decided we’d better rope up and pitch it as falling off it would be terminal. Every now and then the clag cleared just enough to reveal the drops into An Garbh Choire and it felt like we were sitting on a ledge near the top of the Empire State Building! Rob made a fine ascent of the awkward corner and slightly overhanging upper part and we popped out into clear air on the ridge again.

Looking north along the Cuillin ridge from Sgurr Dubh Mor

It wasn’t long before we hit the next obstacle though, a vertical drop of immense proportions but Janni spotted the route down to the left and we breathed easy again. From there it was a narrow and exposed romp along the knife edge summit ridge to the top of Sgurr Dubh Mor. From there I could go into auto pilot as I’d been along the ridge to Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn a couple of times before, which was handy as we were all getting tired by now.

Sgurr Alasdair from Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn

Janni, Rob and Leah on top of Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn

The clag came in again and we picked our way through the drifting vapours and hidden cliffs towards Caisteal a’Ghairbh Choire where we planned to descend into An Garbh Choire and back to the hut that way. Eventually we found the top of the coire and started the descent past the gloomy bulk of the Caisteal.

Caisteal a'Garbh Choire

The descent of An Garbh Choire has to be experienced to be believed. It’s well named (the rough corrie) as it’s more or less composed of boulders ranging in size from suitcases, to cars, to houses, down which you walk from boulder top to boulder top or thread your way through labyrinths of towering blocks. At one point we passed a house sized boulder that had come down with a recent rock fall and bounced clean over the cliff in the centre of the corrie.

Descending An Garbh Choire

At the flats where the main corrie ends we scouted around for a way down the cliffs and spied a path heading down to the left which took us down to the headwaters of Allt a’Chaoich, otherwise known as the Mad Burn. It was around 10pm by now although I was feeling fine. The options from here were either to keep following the more open corrie to the Coruisk path and back to the hut along the shore of the loch, or keep on the path and go down the Mad Burn directly to the hut. The direttisima won out and we followed the burn into its narrow defile before coming up against a vertical plunge of several hundred feet down into the sea. Janni however spotted the route again and we headed up a faint path onto the open grassy and very slippy face above the loch, climbed up a bit more and came to the top of a steep grassy gully that led down to the shore. Down we went, slipping and sliding as we were getting rather tired by now and the light was beginning to fade at around 10:30. We passed the water pipe for the hut and went down to the shore on a faint path that disappeared over a dodgy looking crag so we went the last few feet down to the sea, where Janni decided enough was enough and disappeared over a slimy bulge while I looked on horrified as she slipped about and almost became airborne. It could have ended in a rather different manner, possibly involving a long walk to get a mobile signal and a big yellow taxi. But she was made of sterner stuff and just made it over the bulge and into the dusk. Me, Rob and Leah opted for the easier option of stepping off the slimy rocks into the sea and traversing up to my gentleman’s vegetables in cool salt water. A couple of yachts were at anchor in the bay and we clung to seaweed draped over the bulging rocks and felt for boulders to stand on under the surface to keep ourselves above water. It was certainly refreshing though!

Rob and Leah after our below sea level return to the hut

We reached the other side of the outcrop and squelched back to the hut at about 11pm. 14 hours after we started.

I can report that adventure is alive and well in these crowded islands. All you have to do is go out and look for it.

You can see all the pics here.

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