a bookish bimble on the cuillin ridge

Mon, Jun 2, 2008

Last weekend Corncircles was up and while his friends were guided up the Inn Pinn and various other spiky peaks by Skye Guides, I joined up with him to “guide” him along the ridge between Sgurr na Banachdich and Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh, as he was researching this route for his upcoming book on classic walks in the highlands. Instead of the usual winding path up Coire na Banachdich, we headed up from the youth hostel in Glen Brittle, making for Coir ‘an Eich and the ridge of An Diallaid, a superb viewpoint set among the rocky spires of the central Cuillin.

An Diallaid from Coire aGhreadaidh

It was while lazing at the foot of the ridge, by the burn, that we go talking about the use of guides.

The plan was to bimble up An Diallaid, head over to Sgurr na Banachdich and then over Sgurr Thormaid to Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and if there was time, nip up Sgurr a’Mhadaidh from An Dorus. It’s an easy walk up the An Diallaid ridge and more open than Coire na Banachdich, with some impressive drops at the summit and great views of the ridge where the Teeth bar progress beyond Sgurr Thormaid and from the top of Sgurr na Banachdich, you can watch Inn Pinners summit the detached block through the bins. The summit of Sgurr na Banachdich is right on the edge of some terrific drops and not a place to stumble around taking photos. It’s like standing on the roof of a skyscraper, which is in contrast to the easy nature of the route up from An Diallaid, which is just a walk and not requiring scrambling. The route up from Coire na Banachdich is also a walk but with the option of some rooftop scrambling above impressive precipices.

Sgurr Alasdair from Sgurr na Banachdich

With the low cloud rapidly burning off and the sun starting its day’s radiance once again (we’ve hardly seen rain here in two months), we headed off down the rubbly ridge towards Sgurr Thormaid. There are all sorts of routes you can take to get between Banachdich and Thormaid, all of them rubbly but easy. I kept in close to the main ridge line, following scree rakes and small gullies, to pop out on the narrow bealach. From here the scrambling is superb if you keep to the right hand edge, although it’s touching moderate in climbing terms. Only about 20 feet of it though, before the angle eases back and you rejoin scrambling terrain. An easier route goes up the face further left and makes for an obvious groove up which it’s an easy scramble. Weaving around will find you easy routes from there to the top of Sgurr Thormaid and the view of the impending Teeth.

Sgurr Thormaid

I’d read in all sort of books that the Teeth were a problem and that they could only be bypassed on the left, along rotten ledges. Well, as we stood on the narrow summit of Sgurr Thormaid, looking down the boiler plate slabs to the Teeth, we saw an obvious path going to the right, which we followed. I’ve no idea why all the books say to go to the left as the path to the right is obvious and is a most generous width throughout and the views of Loch Coruisk are stunning from the balcony path below the Picasso-esque blocks of the Teeth. We passed a couple of bivvy sites and then the path abutted a small ramp, up which we easily scrambled, although the drops on the Coruisk side were impressive and suddenly the Teeth were over and we were on the main ridge on a good path, heading up towards the south top of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh.

Sgurr Thormaid and Sgurr aGhreadaidh from Sgurr na Banachdich

This part of the ridge is nice scrambling on the narrow edge overlooking Coruisk although the difficulties can be bypassed on a path lower down and it’s possible to cut out the corner between the south top and the middle of the summit ridge, although this is where the main difficulties of the route are situated. From pleasant scrambling up the ridge, you suddenly top out, turn sharp left and are faced with the roof of Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh. One of the best parts of the whole ridge. It’s literally a knife edge in places, with progress made “a cheval” and considerable exposure above the east face. It’s a truly stunning location. I took some time guiding Corncircles across here as the rope wouldn’t have been much use due to the narrowness of the ridge. It really is a walkway the width of a plank in the sky. You almost feel like you’re flying, though hopefully not literally!

Cornircles on Sgurr aGhreadaidh south top

There’s a bit of a breather where the ridge widens a bit before the next section towards the main summit but it was chocka with walkers snaking their way through the contorted pinnacles and ramps, taking their time as it’s a rather tricky section. It’s not quite as exposed as the ridge from the south top but it’s much more complicated route finding and the drops above the east face are just as impressive and intimidating at times if you’re not used to them. From the level section of ridge where we waited for the crowds to pass, we headed straight down the next section, trending left to make a short step across a small gully to access a slightly rising ramp, about a foot wide, that bypassed the very difficult section of wildly exposed knife edge and from the end of the ramp, we crossed to the other side of the ridge, one step wide at this point and slithered down a groove with nothing at the bottom but a worn grassy ledge. Slither too fast and catch your foot on the ledge and it would be curtains here. It’s slightly less exposed on the other side but more complicated route finding and Corncircles was happier with the obviousness of the groove. From the bottom of the groove it’s a couple of steps round the nose of the ridge and the difficulties are more or less over. Unless you fancy tackling the summit block direct, which involves climbing a V Diff nose but the main path runs parallel to the summit ridge, about 20 feet below, until it’s possible to scramble up to the narrow summit.

Looking north along the summit ridge of Sgurr aGhreadaidh

We lay on the narrow ridge just past the summit and soaked up the rays, with Corncircles scribbling in his notebook to record the complicated twists and turns of the route for the book. Away to the west we could see the hills of Barrra and Harris, while Ben Nevis stood crystal clear on the eastern horizon. Rum seemed to float in mid air and the hot depths of Glen Brittle seemed a long long way away, shimmering in the heat of the afternoon sun. The strata of landscape over to Sgurr nan Gillean is just amazing, with its long, sinuous parallel lines slanting up from the sea all the way to the summits. It truly is an amazing place. A breeze wafted up from Coruisk but was lifted over our heads as we lay in the sun and all we had to do to cool down was sit up for a few minutes while the breeze cooled us down, then lie down again, as the wind rose over the sharp edge of the narrow ridge.

Coruisk and the ridge from Sgurr aGhreadaidh

The descent was the next section of the route, down to the left of the wart, a giant block of gabbro, hulking and harbouring black shadows in cool depths. Down a sloping slab we slithered, keeping to the edge of the ridge overlooking Coire a’Ghreadaidh until we came to Eag Dubh, the black notch. This is an impressive and very narrow slash in the face of the mountain that cuts deeply into the ridge. One must find a way down to it and then traverse round its head to reach easier ground but to do so involves an awkward step down a slightly overhanging wall. The wall is formed by the slab overlapping the one below and is only about 4 feet high but it’s rather intimidating to some, as you step down onto the sloping slab beneath. Corncircles said no, so I scouted around for another route. Eventually I found a faint path heading horizontally away from the notch, which led to an open scree gully, down which we wobbled and took the first exit on the left, onto sloping slabs of very broken rock. Again, no, said Corncircles and he made his way across lower down while I nipped back up to the awkward step to retrieve his rucsac. Further down, there’s a blunt nose to get past but there’s a much easier ramp leading down to the right. Some more twists and turns along the ridge and we were above the last obstacle of the day. The An Dorus gap.

Coruisk from Sgurr aGhreadaidh

The gap consists of a vertical face, facing Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, with a large ledge halfway down and an easier breakout to the left, as you look to Sgurr a’Mhadaidh. There was a considerable queue here as it’s a tricky downclimb to bypass the sheer drop into the gap. Although it can be an intimidating place, the escape into the gap is fairly easy once you get established on the steep left wall, as you look down. The downclimb isn’t vertical and it’s only about 10 feet onto a wide ledge and then an awkward step across into the gap itself, where the difficulties end. So while I waited for the crowds to dissipate and for the big C to answer the call of nature, I scouted around for an anchor for the rope, in case I had to give C help from above but the only two sizeable blocks I could find within reach of the short length I’d brought were far too detached to bear his weight. So as soon as the gap was clear, I downclimbed to suss out the moves, then climbed back up, gave instructions to get C onto the big ledge and I was given my instructions in turn. Get me down as quickly as possible! So I briefed him on the holds, then climbed down and guided his feet into place. It was all over in less than a minute. Get esteablished on the top holds, left foot onto the hidden ledge, right foot over there, hands down, Bim Bam Bosh, onto the ledge, over. A couple of steps to the left of the nose and we were in the gap.

Sgurr eadar da Choire from Coire aGhreadaidh

It was an easy walk down the screes and into Coire a’Ghreadaidh, beneath the castellated towers of Sgurr eader da Choire (the rocky peak between two corries), in the late afternoon sunshine, the hills of Harris clear on the western horizon. Sunburnt, tired but very satisfied we reached the car and I drove Corncircles back to the bunkhouse at Portalong before catching heading home.

It was a superb day on the hill and I contemplated the guiding aspects, not using the rope and instead showing how to scramble and helping with foot placements on downclimb sections was a real eye opener. It meant we could keep the pace going and I was always near enough to give reassurance on steep and exposed bits. On the way down the ridge from Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh I was going over scenarios in my head, how to get past the gap but in the end, it was just a case of making a decision, sticking to it and sticking close to give reassurance. All in all a fantastic day out.

You can see all the pics here.

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