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Classic Scramble - The Dubh Ridge

© Dan Bailey

Among the many attractions of the Dubh Ridge is its inaccessibility. Sequestered in the stony heart of Coruisk, guarded from casual visits by the bristling defences of the Cuillin, this must be one of the hardest to reach of all Scotland's classic hands-on routes. I guess its awkwardness only adds to the allure; but in the airless heat of the afternoon it was hard to maintain that spirit of romance. With late, low sun in our eyes and midges in our ears, we hot-footed it over the hill track to Camasunary bay, bowed under two-night loads with rope, rack and camera gear for added ballast.

Morning on the Dubh Slabs   © Dan Bailey
Morning on the Dubh Slabs
© Dan Bailey

It's a fair walk-in from Kilmarie, by way of the beach at Camasunary and the coastal path around the craggy foot of Sgurr na Stri. Tougher still would have been the up-and-over from Glen Brittle, via one or other of the Cuillin passes - an approach probably best done with day packs. Of course you could always take the boat from Elgol, adding a nautical spirit to the journey without even having to get your feet wet.

On the Coruisk coastal path, with the Dubh Ridge centre frame  © Dan Bailey
On the Coruisk coastal path, with the Dubh Ridge centre frame
© Dan Bailey

But the coastal path is a mini adventure in its own right, setting the Cuillin in its true seaside context (a fact that's less in your face when approaching the ridge from Glen Brittle or Sligachan). As we rounded the shoulder of Sgurr na Stri sharp peaks sprang into view, prominent among them the curved profile of the Dubh Slabs, topped by the jagged Munro summit of Sgurr Dubh Mor. From this angle the staggering scale of the route is apparent. A continuous line from sea level to summit, its 900m elevation is quite simply unmatched in the UK. Easygoing it may be, but it's rock practically all the way. A Moderate grade rock climb (but only just), the Dubh Ridge isn't only one of the longest routes in the country, but arguably among the most enjoyable at any grade. Despite its rock climb status, confident scramblers with climbing ambitions (and perhaps a more experienced friend) should find it manageable, on a good day. A lot of it is hands-free slab walking.

Feeling top heavy on the Bad Step   © Nick Brown
Feeling top heavy on the Bad Step
© Nick Brown

The Dubh Ridge from the air  © Nick Brown
The Dubh Ridge from the air
© Nick Brown

With hints of exposure, the coastal path continued above the glass-clear sea, where barely a ruffle broke the hills' mirror image. Stop to breathe and we'd inhale midge clouds; but the pace had to slow regardless when we reached the infamous Bad Step. Here a ledge leads out to a smooth slab directly above the sea. A juggy crack provides a handrail (or foot ledge - your choice), but that water is disconcertingly far down. On a cool dry day with a light pack the Bad Step would be unlikely to trouble most confident hillwalkers; but in the sweaty fading light, unbalanced by our mammoth loads, we had a few quiet moments to feed the midges. The trick is not to go too high, Nick discovered the wrong way. At least I could avoid his mistake by taking the easier lower escape from mid-way up the slab.

There must be worse places to camp... and the midges love it too  © Dan Bailey
There must be worse places to camp... and the midges love it too
© Dan Bailey

Coruisk arrived on cue with sunset. We hopped the river draining the loch and scanned about the rough boggy ground for a place to pitch, headnets at the ready. But our fears of a midge onslaught proved unfounded. As the evening land cooled, a steady offshore air flow kept our winged tormentors grounded. More by chance than intention, our chosen camp spot seemed to catch any breeze going.

No such luck next day, when the dawn stillness hummed with midges. Having foregone a morning brew we emerged from the tents at a sprint, remaining head-netted for the walk over rock and bog to the base of the Dubh Ridge.

Trying to outrun the midges on the lower slabs  © Dan Bailey
Trying to outrun the midges on the lower slabs
© Dan Bailey

A grassy gully breached the steep lower rock, and then - an early crux - a short flight of blocky steps and an exposed move up and right on small holds to get established on the slabs proper. There follows the longest and most enjoyable continuous scramble in Scotland, weaving an uphill course through acres of immaculate sandpaper-rough gabbro, tilted at the ideal incline for relaxed padding. Between long sections of almost hands-free walking, the occasional overlap or steepening in the slabs kept the interest flowing. It's go-anywhere ground, and we roved freely in search of the most entertaining line. The morning sun seeped down the slabs to meet us as we climbed, and soon we were in the full heat and glare of a windless late summer day.

Is this the most fun you can have in Scotland, without a rope?  © Dan Bailey
Is this the most fun you can have in Scotland, without a rope?
© Dan Bailey

On the lower slabs we found the scale deceptive, and having been on the go for what felt like ages we were periodically surprised when our confident predictions of a summit up ahead turned out to be just another terrace, with more and yet more slabs rising beyond. This thing is huge. Though no stranger to the route, the sheer joy of it still caught me off guard. If scrambling is about smooth, steady movement over exciting but technically straightforward ground, then the Dubh Ridge is the archetype of the genre. Flawless slabs on a perfect day - it was hard to believe we'd been sat at home only yesterday.

Bringing welcome cool, a thin cloud veil drifted in from the east, and the sharp peaks of the Cuillin began to fade into dazzling white.

There's plenty to keep you busy if you go looking  © Dan Bailey
There's plenty to keep you busy if you go looking
© Dan Bailey

The immaculate final slab before Sgurr Dubh Beag  © Dan Bailey
The immaculate final slab before Sgurr Dubh Beag
© Dan Bailey

Did I mention the scale? It's a full 700m of height gain to the subsidiary summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag, which marks the top of the slabs, and in map terms over 1km of distance. That's a lot of ground to cover on rock, and we certainly felt we'd put in some scrambling mileage when we emerged, sweating, on this dramatic little rock peak. It was time to kick back, relax, and watch the weather doing its thing for a while. To the east the glens were blanketed in the low cloud of an inversion, while the peaks of the Cuillin faded in and out behind stray whisps. In the air below us, an eagle patrolled the boldery slopes of An Garbh-choire.

Sgurr Dubh Mor emerges from the cloud, as seen from Sgurr Dubh Beag - it's where we're heading next  © Dan Bailey
Sgurr Dubh Mor emerges from the cloud, as seen from Sgurr Dubh Beag - it's where we're heading next
© Dan Bailey

Careful downclimbing from the summit brought us to the exposed jumping-off point (not literally) for the famous abseil. A highlight for many, a daunting prospect for some, and arguably one of the main reasons the Dubh Ridge is classed as a rock climb rather than a scramble, this airy abseil over a series of overhangs adds some spice and variety to the day. While the abseil can be avoided (and with it, the fantastic summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag) I'd always prefer to stick to the true line than dodge around the sides. We certainly felt it justified the weight of the necessary gear. Our doubled-over 50m rope reached the deck below with some to spare - but always tie a knot in the end in case.

You don't have to do the abseil, but it does add a certain Alpine something to the day   © Dan Bailey
You don't have to do the abseil, but it does add a certain Alpine something to the day
© Dan Bailey

The abseil marks a shift from the carefree slab padding of the lower ridge to the more serious and exposed feel here on in. More in keeping with the character of other high Cuillin ridges, a sharper arete led us up out of the next col, a thrilling scramble with slabs arcing off to one side and a drop into space on the other. As height was gained the crest took on an improbable look, and we soon found ourselves gravitating to rubbly ledges on the less intimidating left flank. Various lines are possible here, and rather than spend time finding the easiest we brought out the rope again for a short steep corner pitch back up onto the ridge crest.

Looking back down to Sgurr Dubh Beag from the upper ridge  © Dan Bailey
Looking back down to Sgurr Dubh Beag from the upper ridge
© Dan Bailey

Now we were up level with the central Cuillin peaks, with a grand view of Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Thearlaich, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and the little sharp fin of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, from which the clouds were steadily thinning. A short, less-taxing scramble took us along the slabby crest to the summit of Sgurr Dubh Mor, a mossy perch surrounded by a lot of space.

Sgurr Dubh Mor has a fantastic view of the central Cuillin peaks  © Dan Bailey
Sgurr Dubh Mor has a fantastic view of the central Cuillin peaks
© Dan Bailey

As with most Cuillin Munros, there's no hands-free walk off from Sgurr Dubh Mor, so in a very real sense the summit is only half the story. We picked a way with care down the rubbly ramps and steep rock steps of the southwest flank, before the blocky clamber up to Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn, our junction with the main Cuillin Ridge. By now the still air was baking, the rock hot to the touch. Grand ambitions often falter on a summer afternoon, and our original plan to stay high and do sweaty battle with some of the chief obstacles on the Cuillin Ridge was losing out to our emptying water bottles, and thoughts of a cool burn and distant beers back at the tents. Satisfied with one all-time classic in the bag, we headed down.

Grade: Moderate grade rock climb, including one abseil

Start/finish: Coruisk

Distance: 8km round trip from Coruisk

Ascent: 1040m

Access to Coruisk on foot: Via the coast path from Camasunary (including short grade 2 scramble on the Bad Step)

Access to Coruisk by boat: Regular boat trips and charters from Elgol from two operators: www.bellajane.co.uk www.mistyisleboattrips.co.uk

Equipment: Teams intending to do the abseil will need rope, harnesses and a small selection of just-in-case gear. Anchors are usually in-situ, but may need to be backed up. One 50m rope is sufficient for the abseil.

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 32; OS Explorer (1:25,000) 411; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000 with a 1:12,500 zoom-in on the ridge) is the clearest map of the Cuillin

Guidebooks: Scotland's Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)

Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse by Adrian Trendall (Cicerone)

Skye Scrambles by Noel Williams (SMC)

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24 Aug

Totally agree, this has to be the best easy rock route in the UK and one of the best anywhere. We did it in a day from the Glenbrittle campsite - round via the coast path in the morning, descent back over the ridge by some route that I totally no longer remember.

Otters & eagles on the way round to Coruisk, an absolute dream of a day.

24 Aug

Love it. Very inspiring. Thank youi

25 Aug

Great article & route. Always done it by sea kayak from Elgol which is a great way to carry the load.

27 Aug

An excellent route, but as with many rock routes, it requires care when wet. Steep slabs that you can practically walk up when dry, due to the excellent friction, are a whole different matter when wet.


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