the litigious mountains

Mon, Jun 2, 2008

I’ve been ruminating on remit for a Mountain Leader (ML) lately, as I’ve been doing some “guiding” in the Cuillin for my old friend Corncircles, who’s researching a book that takes in some of the classic outings in the highlands. The latest foray into the rocky world of the Cuillin started me thinking on what it would take to be able to offer my services to paying clients, as opposed to helping friends through challenging terrain, as, believe it or not, most of the Cuillin are “off limits” to holders of the ML award, who’s remit basically states:

“lead parties in the mountains of the UK and Ireland”

However, there’s a little word missing from the “mission statement”. That word is “all”.

When I first went for ML training this was a real eye opener. Were they serious, I wondered? They certainly were. Being a Mountain Leader and being effectively “banned” from certain mountains just didn’t seem right and it created a grey area, especially on Skye, in the Cuillin mountains. As an ML, the Cairngorms are ideal. Big open grassy spaces high in the mountains, requiring excellent navigation skills and challenging party management in extreme weather both summer and winter, if you have the Winter ML. However, head west and the remit starts to get hazy. Grey areas appear and the more rock, the greyer the remit. The ML qualification does not allow you, as a Mountain Leader, to lead parties on ground that requires the use of the rope or formal scrambling skills. So the Aonach Eagach is out. Tower Ridge on the Ben is not allowed. The Carn Mor Dearg arete is a maybe and you’re limited to the scree grind of Coire na Tulaich on the Buachaille rather than the delightful scramble of North Buttress. These are routes on mountains that are out of remit for an ML but when you reach Skye, you get into the ridiculous situation, to me anyway, of actual mountains being off limits to Mountain Leaders.

I’ve explored scrambling being added to the remit of ML via the MLTA but the general impression is that anything requiring the rope or rock skills is the sole preserve of the MIA. ML more or less represents the top end of amateur involvement in the guiding profession and MIA requires a massive step up both in skills and commitment. It covers scrambling and teaching rock climbing to VS 4c standard, which is way over the top for most ML holders, some of whom just want to be able to lead parties on scrambling terrain. Then again, a lot of ML holders are not happy anywhere near rock. So adding rock skills to the ML remit would more than likely raise the bar too much for general uptake of the qualification. Hence, adding scrambling as a module to the ML for those who wish to take such an assessment addition. But that impinges on the livelihood of professional MIA holders. A gnarly issue indeed.

So the upshot of all this, as some see it politics, is being the holder of an award that has built-in legal implications. MLs who are essentially high level Walking Group Leaders tend not to encounter this grey area but those who are mountaineers but have neither the financial resource nor time, to go for MIA and who have the skills to lead on all mountains, no matter how much the rope may be used, by their nature get into very grey areas. And there’s no better area to show this greyness than the Cuillin of Skye.

So this is a lighthearted look at the legal implications of being an ML in the Cuillin, which includes me. It’s not casting aspersions on anything or anyone or making a statement about the nature of outdoor qualifications in relation to the modular structure of the modern learning process. Rather, it’s a chortle along the Cuillin Ridge, north to south, for those who have just crossed the Skye Bridge and realised they’ve forgotten their porta-jury. I’ve given each of the Cuillin munros a Wig Rating, for the chance of an ML ending up in front of M’Lud should they find themselves with a party on the “wrong” mountain. I hope you have a chortle too.

Sgurr nan Gillean

This venerable peak, which Sorley Maclean reckoned meant "Peak of the Gullies" rather than "Peak of the Young Men" is a bit of a grey area, hence the 3 wigs. West Ridge and Pinnacle Ridge are out of remit, no question. That leaves the tourist route up the SE ridge but it's very easy to lose the route on the way down and there is a lot of rock to negotiate, so you're going to end up scrambling at some point, albeit mild in nature. If you know the clients and the party is strong then perhaps it's in remit but if you have a quaking member of the party, you'd be better off taking them up Glamaig instead. Having a telescopic audience from the beer garden of the Sligachan won't help your case either, when you claim, in court, that the party was abducted by aliens and all ran over a cliff.

Am Basteir

We've got our first 5 wigger! That means this mountain is completely off limits to Mountain Leaders. The popular interpretation of the name is "The Executioner" and an apt title since that's who you'll end up in front of if you're caught on this with an ML badge! Since the block broke away years ago, the gap into which one must descend has become a vertical step, graded by some Severe, with considerable exposure and no place for a slip. So I'd be looking to carry a rope with a 90% chance of using it. So that means it's out of remit. There's a flanking route you can take to bypass the downclimb but the ground is so horrid that I would never contemplate taking a group along it, even if I could find it, which I've never managed to do. The downclimb does it for me every time, as it's easier to manage and there's a couple of cracks to get wires in to lower someone over the edge. All the holds are there. They're just hard to see from above and on the way back, it's a breeze. But it's still off limits to MLs.

Bruach na Frithe

We go from one wigging extreme to the other on this one. Bruach na Frithe (freeeee at last!) has a very nice walking route to the summit via Fionn Choire, just as long as you stay away from Sgurr a'Fionn Choire, which is not allowed. You can weave a way through any rocky bits on a fairly easy to follow path. You could even descend via Coire a'Bhasteir as it's a scree path into the coire although there is a big area of bare slabs to negotiate on the way out of the corrie. However, there's a path the whole way and I wouldn't be looking to use the rope anywhere on this route. The scrambly NW ridge is out of remit though, either that, or it's a 4 wigger and therefore too grey for my liking. Take this route down and you won't be Frithe for much longer.

Sgurr a'Mhadaidh

Staying in the low wigging stakes, Peak of the Fox is a walk up Coire a'Ghreadaidh to An Dorus then hang a left up the steep slopes to the summit. I would think it was ML territory as I wouldn't bother with a rope on it. The plod up to An Dorus is a grind though on very mobile scree in places and the gap itself is very constricted and the route up from there is rather steep, so I've given it a wig, just in case. The much better route to the top is via the west ridge, a superb scramble and therefore no-no to the ML.

Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh

No matter how you look at this mountain. Turn your head this way and that, squint, stand on your head, whatever, this peak is completely off limits to an ML. The "Peak of Torment" will result in just that should you bump into the Auditor General on this one. I almost gave it 4 wigs but the climb out of An Dorus and the descent back into thereof combined with the narrow summit are just too much to be in remit. I can see the rope being used without a doubt on an average party. You'd need a strong group of clients to make this peak in remit. Once out of An Dorus you can weave around to bypass the mild scrambling but the stakes are upped once you get past the Wart and move onto the summit ridge, which is narrow and exposed. There's really only room for one at a time to go to the summit and I wouldn't fancy leaving the group lingering atop some of the biggest drops in the Cuillin while I escorted them one at a time to the top, roped or otherwise. Even if you did chance it, you have to come down the same way as the continuation to Sgurr na Banachdich is off the wig scale.

Sgurr na Banachdich

As quickly as we climbed the wig ladder, just as alactricatiously we slide down the snake to zero. This is an ML's mountain, especially if you go up via Coir 'an Eich and An Diallaid. This is a walking route to a narrow and slightly exposed summit with stupendous views of Loch Coruisk and the southern Cuillin. The route up via Coire na Banachdich is equally good, passing under the ramparts of Sgurr Dearg, although in bad weather, coming down this way is very challenging as the headwall of the coire is formed by a vertical face and the only way down through it is on a narrow dyke that splits the face. Not ML territory. The ML route down is via the wide detour towards Sgurr Dearg, below the cliffs and doubling back into the centre of the coire lower down, thus bypassing the central face. But stick to the path and it's ML ground. Once past Bealach Coire Banachdich on the ascent, the crest of the ridge is a no-no as it's a scramble with exposed situations, such as roof-like ramps that disappear over the edge into what seems like nothing but thin air. There's also a V Diff move on the crest in an exposed situation. Great fun but not if you're an ML.

Sgurr Dearg

What a rollercoaster of a ride we're on! Back up to 5 wigs. In fact, the scale of wigness cannot cater for the wig rating of this mountain. The only place you'll find Mountain Leaders here is grouped round the base of the summit, forlornly gazing on the abseiling masses. For the summit is noneother than the Inaccessible Pinnacle (or Inn Pinn to her friends). A terrifying block of rock. Long and violently exposed on one side, short and brutish on the other and totally devoid of ML remit. In fact, if you're caught on this one, you'll be sewing mail bags in pokey for the rest of your natural.

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich

I've given this one 4 wigs as it's a risky undertaking for an ML with an unknown party. Route finding is tricky to say the least and the consequences of straying too low can be quite interesting. The approach from the Sgurr Alasdair side is out, as it traverses Collie's Ledge, which is no place for an ML, remit-wise, unless you go all the way into Coire Lagan and back up the dreadful scree to the bealach. So that leaves either a descent from Sgurr Dearg, after making your excuses for not taking the party to the top or up from Coire Lagan. The descent from Sgurr Dearg is rather steep and scree-loose so the ML route would be up from Coire Lagan, to be on the safe side, although the scree is mind-alteringly unstable. Then hang a right at the bealach and bump into the vertical face of Mhic Choinnich, which is where the route finding starts. If you've never been up there before and you turn up with a party of novices, you're in for a rough time and so are they. The 4 wigs apply to an ascent using previous knowledge and a strong party. An on-site with novices? Off the scale I'm afraid.

Sgurr Alasdair

The highest of the Skye highs. The king of the Cuillin. The most pointiest of views and a triumvirate of wiggy achievements. As long as you take the grinding ascent of the Great Stone Shoot from Coire Lagain. The less purgatorial route via the Sgumain Stone Shoot and the ridge from Sgurr Sgumain is off the scale as there's a V Diff rock step to get onto Alasdair from the ridge. So it's the stone shoot for this one. A murderous combination of loose mobile scree lower down and hard packed steep grit higher up. It takes you to a small bealach in the sky(e) from where it's a 3 wigger to the top. It's a bit exposed and rather scrambly so you'd need a strong party and the summit is tiny with rather large drops on the Coire Lagain side so good party management is essential.

Sgurr Dubh Mor

A delightful walk up to Coire a'Ghrunnda is about as far as the ML will get on this peak. From there, it's a fascinating scramble up though peridotite towers and spires with a narrow chimney to negotiate to pop out onto the main ridge on Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn. From there, it's a weaving route along the ridge, bypassing towers and tip-toeing above huge drops on narrow ledges, to the base of Sgurr Dubh Mor, where the real difficulties begin. There's an exposed break in the ramp line that rises diagonally up the face to cross and after that, the crux is a short but brutish corner that's impossible for the short of leg. In their case it's a gymnastically back bending move round a corner on a tiny ledge to reach the top of the main corner. From there it's a scree covered ramp line to the knife edge summit ridge and the very exposed summit. Funnily enough, the summit is a tuft of grass, upon which one person at a time may perch, wide eyed and stork-like above impressive drops. There's no really safe place to gather the group while each one teeters across to the summit. So unless you fancy the chance to peel potatoes all day and entertain Mr. Big in the showers of an evening, if you're an ML, you'll find something else to climb.

Sgurr nan Eag

If you were beginning to despair of getting past Loch Coire a'Ghrunnda, the highest source of fresh water in the Cuillin and my personal favourite coire, don't be downhearted as this peak is within ML remit, for me anyway. I doubt I'd need the rope on this one. It involves reaching the lochan then grinding up a scree path on the right all the way to the summit ridge, which is wide and accommodating for parties of most sizes. Superb views too. I've given it a wig though, as losing the route can lead you into real difficulties, such as vertical corners and crawl-through holes in the rock but the path is fairly obvious once you're on it so it limits the wigginess of this mountain. Descend by the route of ascent unless you fancy the Blues and Twos and a car chase out of Glen Brittle.

So that concludes our guide to the Cuillin for Mountain Leaders. So, for 11 munros on the ridge, If we take 0-1 wigs as being within remit, that means as an ML, I’d be happy to take groups up 4 peaks. 3-4 wigs is dodgy, so for me to attempt to lead a party up 3 peaks, I’d need to know them very well and have prior experience of the route and the weather would have to be perfect. A pretty unlikely combination if you ask me. And that leaves 4 peaks that are completely out of remit for an ML. So if you prefer muesli instead of porridge and you’d rather darn your socks of an evening rather than sewing mailbags all day, you’ll stick to the 0-1 wiggers. And you’ll have a jolly good time of it too.

So to recap on our stated remit as Mountain Leaders:

“lead parties in the mountains of the UK and Ireland” … except these ones…

Am Basteir, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh, Sgurr Dearg and Sgurr Dubh Mor. What a ridiculous situation and I haven’t even started on the mainland greyish ones, such as, funnily enough Liathach (“The Grey One”), An Teallach (“The Forge” - you’d need to forge your remit on this one) and so on and on…