The Old Pretender
Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt and Fiona McIntosh
Driving up the Great Glen, the Scottish Highlands were at their majestic best - Ben Nevis topped with snow, Loch Lochy spangled and blue. It was one of those dangerous days, when you could easily stride into an estate agent’s office and purchase a rustic croft, only to spend the rest of the year staring into horizontal sleet, regretting it.
At Kyle of Lochalsh, we crossed the bridge over to Skye, where the first dark clouds we’d seen all day shrouded the mountains. Fiona and I had come to ‘the isle of mist’ planning to traverse the Cuillin Ridge, though I wasn’t that hopeful.
Day 1. Contemplating the ridge from Sgurr Dubh Mor.
Regarded as Britain’s finest mountaineering challenge, this jagged 11km ridge is studded with 11 separate Munros (Scottish peaks over 3000 feet or 914m), bearing intimidating Gaelic names like Sgùrr a’Ghreadaidh (‘Peak of the Thrashing Winds’) and Sgùrr na Banachdich (‘Smallpox Peak’).
A large part of the Cuillins’ lure is the history, with many of Britain’s greatest climbers having performed on this stage. The first successful traverse was made in June 1911 by Leslie Shadbolt and Alastair McLaren, who took 16¾ hours door-to-door, including a 45-minute pipe-smoking break. The second, in 1920, was made solo by Howard Somervell, who climbed on Everest with George Mallory. And the first winter crossing, in 1965, featured top alpinists, Hamish MacInnes and Tom Patey. A Cuillins traverse is still a desired tick on all climbers’ lists, with extra kudos accorded to those setting speed records or other noteworthy feats - such as by Danny MacAskill, who rode along it on his bicycle.
Day 1. On the ridge, with the Inaccessible Pinnacle in view.
Our ambitions were more modest, however; namely, to get from one end to the other. For, while they’re officially called the Black Cuillin Range to distinguish them from the smaller, rounder Red Cuillins across the valley, the name could just as easily refer to the clouds which typically engulf them. Add in tricky navigation, plus – ironically - an absence of water up on the ridge, and the majority of attempted traverses are failures.
Indeed, this would be our second attempt. On our first, back in 2007, we started at the north end of the ridge and then spent a long day ineptly slithering about on exposed wet crags, lost in clag, with the magnetic rock sending our compass loopy and our map flailing in the wind like a torn sail. When the clouds momentarily parted at 9pm and we glimpsed a pub in the valley below, we blundered down, praising God.
Day 1. Setting off from Glenbrittle.
This time, we’d arranged to climb with a local guide, who we met at the Broadford Backpackers. Lou Reynolds didn’t fit my bill of a stereotypical hairy-kneed Highlander, being a petite, bubbly blonde, half my age and height. Having said that, she’d already completed 25 ridge traverses and was in training to tackle the North Face of the Eiger.
The next morning, the three of us set off from Glenbrittle parking lot at 6am, under a sullen sky, into a brisk breeze, with rain forecast. But on the upside it was late May, promising an almost endless day, even if it was to be lousy.
The key to a successful ridge traverse is going as light as is sensibly possible, given you’re on Skye. So, in addition to some basic climbing gear, we each carried a rain jacket, beanie, gloves, down jacket, light sleeping bag, food, two litres of water, midge repellent and, optimistically, sun cream.
Day 1. Looking out to Ghars-bheinn.
An easy trail led up to a small mirror lake, from where we stumbled through a boulder field and grunted up a scree switchback to reach the skyline. Stashing our packs, we followed the rolling ridge out to Ghars-bheinn (‘Echoing Mountain’), the traditional starting point for a traverse from the south. This wasn’t the most elegant way to access the start - since it would necessitate doubling back, adding add 2km to our trip - but it spared catching the erratic ferry to Coruisk, thereby facilitating an earlier departure.
After a cursory photo and glance at the watch (it was now 9am), we retraced our way back to our packs and tackled the first couple of Munros on our path. While ridge veterans are divided on the technical merits of travelling in one direction or the other in terms of speed, our logic was more grounded: having already climbed the northern half of the ridge, we at least wanted to bag the southern Munros if we baled again.
Day 1. gabbro good, basalt bad. Scrambling on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.
By now, the clouds had magically melted away to reveal a flawless blue sky and shimmering sea either side of us. Indeed, it was such a glorious day that - despite having completed less than a quarter of the ridge - we were already running low on water and risked being defeated by dehydration. Sacrificing the purist’s notion of sticking faithfully to the skyline, we dropped down to a small spring to refill our bottles. The pay-back was having to climb the west ridge of Sgùrr Alasdair, Skye’s highest peak at 993m.
The Cuillins primarily comprise gabbro, interspersed with slices of basalt and, even though I’m not especially interested in geology, I soon learned to distinguish between the two. Gabbro is a rough, igneous rock, harsh on the hands, but providing superb friction for Vibram-soled approach shoes. Conversely, basalt is shiny, smooth, slippery even when dry, and akin to black ice if the least bit damp. I also soon learned the ridge’s golden mantra: ‘gabbro good, basalt bad’.
Day 1. Abseiling off the Inaccessible Pinnacle.
The fifth Munro on the ridge, Sgùrr Dearg (‘Red Peak’), was topped by a 50m-tall, slender basalt fin known as the Inaccessible Pinnacle. It was once described as having ‘an overhanging and infinite drop on one side and a drop on the other side even steeper and longer’; and while this might be an exaggeration, it’s only just. Oblivious to its inaccessible reputation, Lou nimbly scampered up the sword blade as if it was a ladder. While roping up and placing gear eats up valuable time, so does getting stuck and having to be rescued - so I was more than willing to accept a belay.
At 6pm, we reached Sgùrr a’Ghreadaidh, the seventh Munro. There was plenty of daylight left, but we’d been going 12 hours and still had half the ridge ahead of us. More pertinently, Lou’s guiding company had stashed some sleeping pads, gas and a flagon of water in a small cave just below the summit. So we stopped to rest, finding three flattish platforms offering just enough space to stretch out. Though quite a rudimentary abode, it offered spectacular views of the lingering sunset over the Hebrides. And, best of all, the gentle breeze was enough to keep the midges away.
Day 1. Our bivouac.
I awoke the next morning, realistically braced to find my head wrapped in clouds, only to be surprised by a benign marmalade glow, heralding another bluebird day.
Our day’s labours started with the four tops of Sgùrr a’Mhadaidh (‘Foxes Peak’), followed by the three pinnacles of Bidein Druim nan Ranh (‘Ridge of Oars’). It was like fighting a mythical Greek monster - as soon as we knocked one head off, another reared up to confront us. Meanwhile, the route was a labyrinth of steep chimneys, loose gullies, thin ledges and cunningly-concealed abseils, while seemingly well-trod paths mischievously petered out at dead-ends. It was just as well Lou knew her landmarks and was leading; otherwise we’d probably still be there.
Day 2. Lou leading a pitch on Sgurr a Mhadaidh.
After some easy ground came Am Basteir (‘the Executioner’), a black dagger of rock with a profile to match its name. We took the coward’s approach, traversing below its northern face through a field of shin-deep snow, before sneaking up its east ridge. Our eleventh Munro and final peak was the impressive rock pyramid, Sgùrr nan Gillean (‘Peak of Young Men’), on which we scrambled through a needle to reach the summit crown, surprising a party of hikers unwrapping their sandwiches.
It was now just after noon and we allowed ourselves time to admire the view. Across the valley, to our west, were the Red Cuillins, through which the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie sneaked in 1746 to evade the pursuing British troops, after his defeat at Culloden; while to the south, the Black Cuillins curved round in a giant horseshoe, so almost directly opposite us was Ghars-bheinn, where we’d stood some 27 hours earlier. I felt the warm glow of satisfaction, even if we were somewhat off the speed record set by Finlay Wild in 2013, of under three hours.
Day 2. Sneaking up the east ridge of the Executioner.
Descending the southeast ridge, we set off towards the Sligachan Hotel, some 5km away. Steeped in climbing history, the hotel is where Britain’s first mountain guide, John Mackenzie worked as a gillie; George Mallory stayed in 1918, while on leave from the Western Front; and Norman Collie, who made the first-ever attempt at an 8000m peak (Nanga Parbat in 1895) died of pneumonia after falling in a loch when out fishing, aged 83.
Tramping across the moor, I pictured myself striding into the hotel bar and triumphantly ordering a pint of Cuillin Conqueror ale, which a friend told me emanated from the local brewery. When I did, however, the barman stared at me coldly, growled incomprehensibly and thrust in my hand a glass of dark fluid that tasted like peat water. Though I didn’t rate his customer-centricity, he was clearly quite astute.
Day 2. On Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, MacKenzie's Peak.
Day 2. Climbing up the final peak, Sgurr nan Gillean.