The Cuillin Ridge, Skye: Hints and Tips
Jon Jones is an instructor at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland. He holds the Mountain Instructor Certificate and is an extremely experienced climber, mountaineer and hill walker. In this article he shares his experiences on the famous Skye ridge, and explores what is required for a successful traverse. From how to train and prepare to ridge tactics, top tips and a suggested kit list, this article will help you make the traverse in one piece.
This article was originally published in 2008, but has been revamped for 2011. It includes photographs from the UKC user gallery.
Water, there has got to be some somewhere? I have not drunk for hours and the sun is just relentless. I feel shrivelled like a prune. I haven't a clue where we are. It all looks the same!
"Jon, I am running on one calorie!" murmurs a parched Dougald.
It's time to call it quits!
The words above may read familiar to those who have attempted the Cuillin traverse. 12km long, 3000m of ascent, 11 Munros (peaks over 914m or 3000ft), over 30 summits and technical rock climbing up to Very Difficult (if the easiest line is taken) makes the Cuillin ridge traverse the most challenging mountaineering journey in the United Kingdom.
Leslie Shabolt and Alastair McLaren completed the first continuous traverse of the Cuillin ridge on The 10th June 1911. They made the journey from south to north in a day, having taken a little over 12 hours between Gars-bheinn and Sgurr nan Gillean. A very impressive time even by today's standards. They were old Skye campaigners with many first ascents on the Cuillin so undoubtedly used their local knowledge.
The Cuillin is steeped in mountaineering history. Many famous pioneers' names bounce around the corrie walls. Even Bonnie Prince Charlie and his escorts would have walked in the shadow of the Cuillin, floundering through the bogs heading for Elgol to get a boat to the mainland and eventually France!
Preparing for the traverse
Ask yourself: are you fit enough? Going to the gym to jump on the treadmill once a week is not going to do it. To be successful you have to be feeling 100% on top of your game and performing at your fighting weight. To get fit for something of this scale requires careful planning and preparation. You need to do this yourself, as I am not going to drop a full training programme on your lap. However, some things to include in your programme would be endurance, endurance and have I mentioned endurance?
"...a cheap pair of canvas gardening gloves will save you hours of either taping up or blowing on your fingers in the evening..."
Top tips would include getting used to wearing a medium weight rucksack (as you may be carrying some bivi kit) on scrambling terrain. The pack needs to be close fitting but offer freedom of movement so you can lift your head up and won't be restricted even with a helmet on. Make sure you get your feet used to wearing your scrambling boots all day in potentially warm temperatures: basically break your feet in. To save your fingertips on the sharp Cuillin gabbro, purchase a cheap pair of canvas gardening gloves as this will save you hours of either taping up or blowing on your fingers in the evening.
You need to prepare body and mind for complete and utter full body exhaustion. If you have ever taken part in any kind of marathon or endurance event then you're well on your way to understanding what to expect. As there is so much ascent and descent involved it can get hugely demoralising and time seems to quickly fall by if you are on a technical section that requires rope work.
When on the traverse, break it down into sections. For example when I do it north to south I break it down to three sections. Sgurr nan Gillean to Bruach na Frithe, from Bruach na Frithe to the Inaccessible Pinnacle, then from here to Gars Bheinn. Let the clock tick for a whole section rather than an individual peak or crux section. It all evens out in the end!
What I mean by this is two fold. One: you need to have a high level of personal competence in climbing and scrambling.
Two: you need to have good knowledge and be well practised in rope skills required for rock climbing.
The technical standard of the climbing on the ridge is never more than Very Difficult, but since most of the ridge is sustained and exposed scrambling with extensive sections of Moderate and Difficult climbing, it is certainly wise to be able to lead Severe so that most parts of the ridge can then be comfortably soloed. Indeed to be successful on a traverse you need to be happy at soloing around 95% of the ridge. As soon as a rope is deployed, time is lost. What could take five minutes to solo may take up to an hour when using rock climbing equipment and ropes. You need to be happy moving over moderately technical terrain wearing scrambling boots and a rucksack. Forget the rock shoes, it is big boots all the way.
It is essential that you have the skill and knowledge to construct sounds belays, be able to lead climb whilst placing sound runners and have the ability to abseil and retrieve the rope. You do not need a huge amount of climbing equipment, as many of the crux sections are fairly short and sharp, with the longer climbing sections requiring a cool head with fewer runners.
Training routes and ridges
The best way to train and prepare for the ridge is to do some of the individual classics spread around the Cuillin. This could include either rock routes if you're wanting to hone your rope skills or these could include ridge lines up some of the peaks to hone your scrambling skills. What you can also do (highly recommended) is sections of the main ridge itself, not only to get the practice, but also to get familiar and gain valuable route finding knowledge. To be successful on a full traverse attempt, previous knowledge is invaluable. Training in the area also gives you the feel for the Cuillin but also further tactical knowledge i.e. the best path to take when starting or finishing, escape routes and location of high water sources.
Other recommendations that may be more accessible to people would be some of the North Wales, Lakeland and Lochaber classic scrambles, such as the North ridge of Tryfan followed by Bristly ridge on Glyder Fach, Pinnacle ridge outside of Patterdale, the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe or Tower ridge on Ben Nevis.
The first choice you have to make is are you going to do it in one day or as a two-day exped? To have more chance of success and to enjoy the experience then a two-day exped is recommended. If you like to gamble, enjoy suffering and have good knowledge about the ridge then a one-day traverse is the way.
Next you need to decide when you are going to do it. The obvious times are from May to September and cross your fingers that the weather gods are with you. A high pressure holding high cloud is perfect as it gives you clear weather but the cloud protects you from some of the sun. I have seen just as many people fail through wall-to-wall sunshine as I have from rain and wind. Do not even consider an attempt if it is raining, you will be slow and never make to the end in daylight!
As long as it is dry, not too windy with fairly good visibility then you have an excellent chance.
To give yourself the best chance arrive with several days to play with, so that you can pick the best day or days for your traverse attempt. You can still use the poor weather days to scope out sections of the ridge and place equipment such as bivi gear and food.
Do you go north to south or do the opposite?
Since my first encounter with the ridge over 15 years ago when Dougald was on one calorie, I have done the traverse in both directions several times. I have no personal preference but when I guide students attempting a full traverse I go north to south. Doing the ridge from north to south has a couple of advantages. Firstly you have a less strenuous start and secondly you can abseil many of the technical sections. Doing the ridge from south to north is equally as satisfying plus gives more climbing options if you wish, such as the climb out of TD Gap (V Diff) and King's Chimney (Diff) on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. Below, I've explained the route north to south.
Park at the forestry car park (grid 423 258) at the north end of Glen Brittle and take the Allt Dearg Mor path to the Sligachan, at the col (grid 448 268) turn right into Fionn choire and follow the burn line to the top of the ridge (this will hold water as high as 875m so an excellent place to restock on water and fill extra bags to save you dropping down again).
From this point dump your kit and proceed to bag the north section, consisting off Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Bhastier. It is your choice if you want to bag Naismiths Route (V Diff) on the Bhastier tooth on your way past (see below: highly recommended)!
Suggested kit list
- Personal clothing and equipment
- Bivi kit
- Harness, helmet, belay device and prussik
- 35lt rucksack
- Lightweight summer sleeping bag
- 1 X 16ft sling with pear shaped karabiner
- Scrambling boots
- ½ - ¾ length foam mat
- 2 X 8ft slings with pear shaped karabiners
- Lightweight waterproof top and bottoms
- Small lightweight gas stove with small cylinder and lighter
- 3 X 4ft slings set up as quickdraws with 6 snap gate karabiners
- Map, compass, GPS, phone and guidebook
- Small pot with tin foil lid, mug and spoon
- Wires sizes 2 - 9
- Toilet paper and plastic bag.
- Roxcentric size 7 – 8 or a camalot 2
- Clothing that is warm lightweight and easy to vent
- Plenty of bivi style food, such as boil in the bag etc
- Some spare abseil tat
- Sun hat, sun cream, canvas gloves and warm hat
- 45m rope
- Plenty of food and water
Once you return to this point, down the extra water you carried from the burn and crack on over Bruch na Frithe and onto the middle section of the ridge. At Bealach coire na Banachdich 860m (grid 444 217) you can drop down the west side to another high burn at around 800m. This then gives you your fluid for the southern and final section. Batter over the 'In Pin' (I prefer to go up the east ridge and then abseil down the steep west side) and then around to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, dumping your kit at the start of 'Hart's Ledge (2)'. Bag the summit then double back to your kit and follow Harts Ledge to the start of the 'North Ridge (mod)' of Sgurr Thearlaich. From here it is over Sgurr Alastdair which is the highpoint on the ridge. At TD Gap you abseil down and then you have two choices:
Option 1. Carry on down the gully (being very careful) to pop out below the SW face and then traverse round to Bealach Coir an lochain and so back to the ridge.
Option 2. Pitch out of the Gap on the North face at around 'Severe' (fairly thin).
Then cruise over the Dubhs, find the wee sneaky route that takes a downward traverse around the East side of the Garbh – choire and then up to Sgurr nan Eag (the last munro) and along to Gars-bheinn (the true finish to the ridge). From the summit descend SW to the coastal path and follow this to the Glen Brittle campsite. The shop is always open and has a fantastic collection of cold drinks and ice creams. Once you have chatted some folk up at the car park about your adventures then it's an easy free lift back to your vehicle only 5km away.
One day or two?
Single day attempt
Take in all the advice in these pages and good luck! Sure, if you're a fit hill runner and a competent climber with a good head for heights, have some prior knowledge and good weather, bingo the ridge is yours! If you fall short of any of these essentials and are just a mere mortal then read the next bit.
Consider dropping everything you don't need for day 1 at a bivy site. See the equipment list on the right and the top tips and handy hints below.
Don't worry I'm not going to suggest you carry a tent and hang frying pans from your rucksack. Doing the ridge in two days requires the same kit and tactics as if you were attempting a two-day alpine route: i.e. a lightweight bivi. For this experience to be comfortable, you want it to be dry. If possible do an equipment drop the day before your attempt. If you give yourself 12 hours for the first day and 8-10 hours for the second then any faster is a bonus. If doing it north to south leaving the car around 6am will get you on the ridge for 9am. It then takes around 3 hours to do the northern section getting you back to your kit at midday, from here it is 6 hours for the middle section and so to your bivi site in Coire an Banachdich (you would have dropped this off the day before). This coire works well for a bivi because you have a very high burn so you don't have to drop to far from the ridge, but also a fast descent out to the valley if the weather, mind or body breaks. The next day demands a 6am start again, which means the 'In Pin' for 7am and no
queuing so having the route to yourself. You should be on target for Gars-bheinn
at around 2pm so back at Glen Brittle for 4pm.
Top tips and handy hints
- Remember whatever kit you stash at your bivi site will need to be carried with you the next day. Unless you plan to go back up to retrieve it after you have finished (bad idea).
- Stash the food you want for day two at the bivi site to save carrying two days worth of hill food on the first day.
- Stash plenty of evening food so you can munch to your hearts content all night. Remember you need the calories down your neck. Read the labels on your bivi food, some only have the same calorie content as a mars bar!
- Drink drink drink. Most people fail on the ridge because of dehydration, and it does not have to be warm and sunny. Make sure you start the hydration process a couple of days before. I always try and drain two litres of water on the walk into the ridge in the morning. Fill up at the high spring and drink another couple after completing the Northern end. This then leaves me a couple of litres to my bivi site.
- If you wake up in the night feeling thirsty then drink, keep a water bottle with you so that even if you're feeling lazy and exhausted you can slurp away.
High energy bars and gels work great in the day, just make sure you have tried them before hand so you now whether you like them or not? Some do have an acquired taste!
- Whatever guidebook you use, copy and laminate the sections on the ridge so you don't have to carry a full weight book with you.
- If the weather is wall-to-wall sunshine then dump the waterproofs, make sure you have a good sun hat and take extra sun cream.
- Take plenty of compeed. Slap it on as soon as you feel a hot spot starting.
Get out there and enjoy! Have fun and be safe. Don't forget the six P's. Proper preparation prevents p... poor performance!
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Guidebooks and Maps
I find the Harvey's Superwalker 1:25,000 map for The Cuillin far superior to any other. I suggest you use it in conjunction with the Rockfax Miniguide and the SMC Skye Scrambles Guide.