the personal cuillin

Mon, Mar 26, 2012

With the apparent arrival of spring and a superb forecast of sun and light winds I jumped in the car and headed for the Cuillin on pre-season empty roads on Saturday. I hadn’t been up Sgurr na Banachdich in ages so I pulled up at the BMC hut, pulled on the shoes and headed straight up the hill. I knew there was a path somewhere that leads up into Coire na Banachdich and scuttles round the base of the Sgurr Dearg wall before secretly threading a way up the side of the cliffs that form the coire headwall but I wanted a new route and so, with the words of Nan Shepherd whispering from that wonderful book The Living Mountain, I ignored the path and just headed straight up towards the apex of the cone of grass that abuts the foot of Sgurr nan Gobhar.

Looking up towards Sgurr nan Gobhar

The mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

The start of the route is on delightfully bouncy grass and heather and the really steep bit towards the base of the scree is a veritable staircase of perfectly stepped grass until you reach the end at a narrow point of short turf that rests at the bottom of the screes. Cuillin scree is not to be messed with. I’ve toiled up the hellish screes of Glamaig straight from the ‘Slig’ and I’ve groaned up the screes from Coire Lagan in thick mist to the Inn Pinn so I wasn’t in the mood for repeating those experiences but from afar I could see there were heather leads up the face, interspersed with little crags which I could link up to mostly keep off the grey stuff.

And so it was a delightful mixture of short sections of intense concentration, almost like doing Tai Chi to get across the scree without moving too many blocks and romping up the wiry heather to the band of crags which provided lovely scrambling on good holds. I was being careful as at one point at the foot of a fault line which provided the route up one section of steep rock, there were hardy little plants waiting to flower. Nestled in the larger sized scree they were out of the weather and looked most interesting. It’s for this reason I wouldn’t want to descend this way. Apart from it being very steep and difficult to find from the top, there are too many rare plant communities eking out a living on the exposed screes.

Curious erosion on Sgurr nan Gobhar

Eventually I popped out on the west ridge above some interesting gullies that seemed to lead straight down to the roof of the youth hostel.

I was now on the previously unclimbed west ridge of Sgurr na Banachdich. Unclimbed by me that is, which is how one must approach new routes that one has never read about. I vaguely remember reading years ago something about the west ridge not being a good descent route as the route I’d just come up was difficult to find and the rest of Sgurr nan Gobhar is flying territory if you attempt any other descent routes. So apart from that I had no idea what the ridge was like. Would it go? Was there an impassible cliff? In the haze it looked long and high with the final summit before it abutted the main mountain mass guarded by some fearsome looking cliffs. But I knew if I could reach the bealach with An Diallaid the route to the summit would be won as it was easy from there. The question was whether it was feasible to get there in the first place.

Looking down the west ridge to Sgurr nan Gobhar

The forecast of 10mph winds was a little optimistic as I teetered on the narrow crest above the vertical drops into Coir’ a’Ghreadaidh in a gusty 30mph cool breeze. Now and then the ridge would narrow to an almost knife edge and with the wind gusting unpredictably I took the lower ground on the south side until forced onto a delightful little slab in a non intimidatory position that reminded me of Clach Glas scrambling. A couple of moves on huge holds and I was back on the ridge crest again, winding along big blocks and grass patches until I reached the final tower. This was formed by an overhanging wall which looked rather hard in the wind so I scrambled up some more Clach Glas level stuff to its base and traversed to the right into a rotten gully and was immediately called across by the siren singing of a wonderfully steep and secure basalt fault in the cliff. It was wonderful scrambling in a magnificent situation. Mildly exposed with great views of the summit rock architecture and as I popped out the top I saw with relief the broken ground below the crest that took me to the final summit on the ridge and then down to the bealach.

It was then a fine romp to the summit of Sgurr na Banachdich and the weirdly colourless view of the most impressive mountains in Britain, shrouded in continental murk coming in on the strong cold easterly.

Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh with Sgurr Thormoid between

The view to Sgurr Dearg with the Inn Pinn just peeking up over the edge and Sgurr Alasdair being very pointy was completely devoid of any other colour than grey rock. It was superb.

Sgurr Dearg and the Inn Pinn and Sgurr Alasdair from Sgurr na Banachdich

While the view over Coruisk and Blaven to the mainland looked like a tinted picture from an old mountaineering book.

Blaven and Coruisk from Sgurr na Banachdich

The summit was busy with a group from St. Andrews University so I secreted myself into the rocks out of the wind and settled down for munchies and music, gazing out to a languid Isle of Rhum while off in the distance the hills of Harris floated above a sea haze on the Minch.


Rousseau’s words from the second walk of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker were apt indeed for me.

These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day when I am completely myself and my own master, with nothing to distract or hinder me, the only ones when I can truly say that I am what nature meant me to be.

I’d come into possession of a fine pair of earphones that cut out all external noise and once fed and watered I settled down to soak up the views and put on Christine Primrose singing Bean a’Chotain Ruaidh. The white breakers crashed silently in slow motion on the far distant rocks round Glen Brittle beach and the point of Rubh an Dùnain led my eye out to the west where the people went. These glens were once filled with song and laughter and the haunting singing made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and tingle. It was a wonderful time lying sheltered in the rocks listening to the sounds of a vanished generation. Have a listen to Màiri NicDhòmhnaill’s version in the link above and, like me, dissolve into the landscape with the haunting singing.

Bean a’ Chotain Ruaidh

Eventually more pragmatic things intervened such as a shiver that reminded me it was cold up here! So I switched to Mozart’s Requiem for the descent of the coire below An Diallaid on brutal screes which went well with the sombre music. As I reached the grassy floor of the coire hot and tired from scree running, Lacrimosa began and I entered a sublime state of rapture, turning in a slow circle to look at the surrounding vertical unforgiving landscape.

It was a wonderful day of the combination of the senses. Tactile rough gabbro, cold invigorating wind. Strength slowly leached from tired legs by chattering screes while emotional batteries were charged and overflowing with atmospheric connection to the landscape. What a day!

You can see all the pics here.