/ ARTICLE: Cuillin Traverse: Taking the Easier Route
Adrian Trendall, author of new Cicerone guide Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse, explains how to smooth the hardest edges off the ridge, making it a more realistic prospect for iffy weather or less able climbers. We're dreaming of the day COVID-19 is over and we can all go back to Skye...
Having guided the ridge many times, taking all or none of the described bypasses on different occasions, I would say an equally great pragmatic consideration for two-day traverses is pre-stashing of bivi gear, food and water (if weather window and schedule allows).
The difference between doing the whole thing with a light pack and a heavy one is huge, and could easily make the difference between having the energy to take more aesthetic direct lines and not. I often find people's bodies and brains are fried by the time it comes to confront the Basteir Tooth, and both Lota Coire Route and the walk around on the screes feel like significant and fairly painful compromises to the line (it's also important to note that taking Lota Coire Route still leaves arguably the hardest moves on the whole ridge to gain Am Basteir).
I'd back what Andy Moles says, regarding pre-stashing gear for a 2-day traverse, and weight. I did it a few years ago with a guide and a friend. We stashed some water, mats, stove etc halfway and it made a big difference. But even then, having missed out the TD Gap on the first day, due to it being wet, we also skipped Naismith's Route at the end, because my friend was knackered. As the author says, it's not just the sheer physicality of the whole thing (inc. a horrible walk-in on a wet dawn, and a chunky walk-out at the end) it's also the mental drain of concentrating so hard all the time. There are few places where you can genuinely walk along simply admiring the views. With the constant exposure you spend so much time making sure where your hands and feet are. After we'd finished my friend and I promised ourselves we'd go back and do it again, just so we could actually try and enjoy it!
PS. If it's wet or damp, take and wear leather gloves. I didn't on the first day and the constant holding onto wet gabbro split 6 of my finger pads. The gabbro also trashed a new'ish pair of synthetic approach boots.
Fried-brain was my exact experience back when I went for a 2-day traverse many years ago... a single day traverse felt much easier (thought I had improved at climbing somewhat)!
I was planning to do a 2 day traverse at the end of May, after getting my better half round some of the more challenging scrambles in North Wales in April. Hoping we get a good September for a go now!
I've got great memories of a September 2 day traverse. If you get the weather, September is a great time to be on Skye, with the ridge usually a good bit quieter than May/June (but perhaps not this year!).
I'm sure all these easier alternatives have been well known amongst hill goers for decades! And the point has been made before about the silliness of the term 'Cuillin Ridge Light', so it's good to see it in inverted commas this time, and I'll stress the obvious that the ridge is still a major undertaking however you do it.
> PS. If it's wet or damp, take and wear leather gloves. I didn't on the first day and the constant holding onto wet gabbro split 6 of my finger pads. The gabbro also trashed a new'ish pair of synthetic approach boots.
I'd go a bit further and say just don't do it if it's damp! It's so much more dangerous, and so much more exhausting and time consuming with the additional care required to move safely.
I tend to wear fingerless gloves, partly for rope handling but also because I find it's the butts of my hands that take the brunt of the abrasion on scrambling terrain. I've also gone through the toes of a pair of new lightweight alpine boots in a matter of weeks up there.
Thanks Mike. Adrian says as much in the article:
"Even with all the bypasses, the ridge is still a serious proposition, not just physically but also mentally. The constant need to take care, to be constantly switched on for such a long time on such serious terrain, takes its toll. Lots of the scrambling may not be too hard but there is plenty of scope for disaster if care isn't taken. It's an environment fraught with potential danger and anyone undertaking it must accept the risk. Experience can help reduce the risk but nothing can remove it completely."
For those looking get away from the crowds.... a round of Coruisk up the Dubh's slabs (obv including An Stac direct because, well crest is best ;)..) and down the Druim nan Ramh, which is one of the longest continuously easy section of ridge in the Cuillin. Spectacular strolling right in the heart of it all..hands in pockets sort of thing. Half way along a fine grassy place for a bivvy too and a place to reflect on the pioneers who approached from Sligachan, over the Druim nan Ramh into Coruisk to climb on Sgurr a Mhadaidh.. see the old cairns probably placed by MacKenzie and Collie picking their way down to the Loch.. not many folk in there on a sunny June day and yet some of the biggest expanses of unclimbed rock in Scotland.
South villain and Andy hit the nail on the head about the mental drain and brains being fried. It's all too easy to just look at the grades for the ridge and think you'll be ok.
Did you return and actually enjoy it, Southvillain?
Hope you're well, Robert. Was great to bump into you on your one day traverse (think were on In Pinn as you raced past).
Looks like your plans are on hold, Will but hopefully you get a chance in September. Sounds like you've got a thorough training programme in mind which should (or would have) reaped dividends. Hope you get it done and when you're on Skye drop in for a brew and a chat.
And September is a great time to do the ridge! Did it at the start of October a few years back and you'd have thought it was spring (total blue bird). Just limited daylight so had to start pretty early...
> I'd back what Andy Moles says, regarding pre-stashing gear for a 2-day traverse, and weight. I did it a few years ago with a guide and a friend. We stashed some water, mats, stove etc halfway and it made a big difference..... wear leather gloves. ... <
Obviously there are many strategies. Now I'm older and less fit I planned for a 2 day missing out major difficulties in 2018. Plus I wanted to enjoy whole route and not be completely knackered towards end. No stove, pick up water en route and carry minimum, light footwear. Trusty old Buffalo shirt, helmet. Bivi: old short narrow Karrimat plus the lighter Blizzard Active bag (waterproof + insulation 250g). Light 8mm polyprop rope (abseil only) + minimal slings/tat and krab.
Started rather late, bivied after In Pinn, Descended next day before Bidein DnR due to weather, but not tired and with a mini adventure still to dream of.
PS Agree gloves invaluable....I used some cheapo industrial ones.
I'll second that. I also always found navigation really hard up there in the clouds due to the compass issues and complex terrain. It's one of the few places I've been lost more than once.
When Lynn and I did the ridge in a day, lightweight, as climbers we were most nervous on loose exposed descents and were glad not to be carrying more on our backs in such situations. In contrast I found the climbing pitches a delight, despite using few runners and leading in approach shoes.
We waited for the right forecast and got it first time with all the climbing pitches and most of the critical nav 'onsight' (despite some lunchtime clouds). Too many people we know who tried two days or one day in slightly marginal weather, took several tries before success. We don't think any of the several two day teams we overtook made it in on the second day, on the day we finished (we got to the last peak at about 11.30pm, as it got dark, with no signs of lights on the closer sections of the ridge to us. From Bidean we saw absolutely no-one anywhere ahead of us. Another big plus we discovered was our choice to use athlete's isotonic drink powder, as it was bloody hot in the afternoon and the more efficient hydration ended up being crucial (we filled up with water in the approach corrie, dumped the bags, shot across to the start, and on the return started the ridge with 2 lites of isotonic and a litre of water ( to drink with food) each. We ran out of drink before the end).
> I also always found navigation really hard up there in the clouds due to the compass issues and complex terrain.
Yes, it's desperate until you know it very well. I actually think that the way the magnetism issue is flagged is sometimes a bit of a red herring - the bigger issue in fog is definitely the complexity of the terrain. Even if compasses did work perfectly, they would still only be useful for rough orientation.
I'm surprised not to see mention of doing it North to South, when it becomes within the reach of the punter soloist, abseiling the harder bits. You do need to fudge direction and climb the In Pinn south to north but it needs less deviations than described in the post
Ahhh, the Cuillins. Three attempts on the ridge so far, and all of them enjoyable failures, some of the best mountain days I've had. With regards "pragmatism versus purity", my advice would be to aim high, and plan to do as much of the ridge as you can, but be prepared to sacrifice certain sections if necessary for time, tiredness, or trepidation.
Here are my outings:
1. [May, solo, light kit for a one-day exploration] My first outing on the ridge! After sleeping in the back of the car I set out at 5am, not really knowing what to expect but full of excitement, and waving a cheery hello to the deer as I passed. I followed the guidebook recommendation of the route up Coire A'Grunda, marveling at the light of the sunrise shine across the rock amphitheater. Already the scrambling was enjoyable, the velcro texture of the gabbro filling me with confidence. I passed some teams waking up in their bivi sites, and started up the scree to the col above. I didn't feel precious about doing every inch of the ridge that day, and once up on the col I couldn't ignore the Diff on the Caisteal in front of me, so I set off North straight away. I was on a roll, and after some of the best climbing and some incredible abseils soon found myself in the TD Gap and confronted by the Severe crack above. I pulled my rope from the abseil, and as I did so, the boulder I was stood on toppled over. Despite getting some impromptu airtime, I managed to remain in the gap and avoid cartwheeling down the steep screes below. My rope also managed to remain the gap, however it was now wedged underneath the boulder, which had come to a rest and was stubbornly refusing to budge any further. I chopped off what I could of the rope (look for some strands of blue rope next time you're in the gap!) and salvaged about 38m of it (it was a 50m originally). Unfortunately, the whole experience had me rather shaken, and now the prospect of soloing the climb felt beyond me. I could hear the tell-tale clink of hexes, so rather than escape with my tail between my legs down the scree, I opted to wait for the next party to arrive. They were happy to let me tie on if I helped with maneuvering their bags. Once at the top I wished them good luck and set off to make up some time. I passed a few guided parties, and soon was making my way up the Inn-Pinn. From the top, I called a mate, just to instill some jealousy. After the abseil I took stock of what was left and realised I wouldn't be getting to the end of the ridge that day. I decided to take the quick way back down the Glen Brittle so I could drive home in time for dinner with the wife.
2. [June, solo, light kit for a one-day traverse] This was it, this was my shot at the ridge. I'd done a recce, felt like I knew a bit of the ridge, and had climbed some of the hardest sections. Once again, sleep in the car, set off at 5am, wave to the deer on the way past. Coire A'Grunda went by like a blur, before I knew it was back on the ridge and making my way to Gars-bheinn to kick things off. My fitness was as good as it's ever been, my pack was light, and my new Sportiva TX2s were an absolute delight. The only thing that was off was the weather. In classic Skye fashion, a blue sky forecast had been replaced by murky mountain-hugging clouds. Even so, it was meant to improve throughout the day, so I kept my chin up and blasted through the first sections of the ridge. After the first abseil, I started to get my mind in gear for the TD Gap. It'll be just round this next corner, a short climb and then the abseil into the gap. No not that corner, this one. Or maybe the next one. Or this one? Drat. Something was wrong. In the murk I had somehow got bewildered by the Sgurr Dubhs, and now found myself scrambling back and forth along the Dubhs ridge trying to get re-orientated. My compass was useless, and by now I'd turned around so many times I didn't know where I was. I stopped, gathered my thoughts, studied the OS map (making a mental note to replace it with Harvey's next time!) and then set off again. At the top of Sgurr Dubh Mor I encountered several groups of people in similar situations. Together we set off back to the main ridge. They opted to head back down, but I decided to press on, despite light rain setting in. When I eventually got to the TD Gap, it was dripping wet, with a wet wind blasting through the nick - not the ideal conditions I had hoped for! Once again I decided to pack it in, and headed back to Glen Brittle just in time for blue skies and bright sunshine. After giving someone a lift (yes kids, we used to do that sort of thing before the COVID), I checked the forecast for the next day, and drove to the Nevis NF carpark for a nap, before setting off early in the morning to do Tower Ridge.
3. [March, pair, bivi kit for a two-day winter traverse] With only some weekends available, the chances of a good forecast, good conditions, and partner availability all coinciding are extremely low. We knew the snow conditions were great, but what had originally been forecast as a glorious 5-day weather window was starting look less promising. We decided to risk it anyway, 30mph wind with gusts of 40mph wouldn't be that bad right? Unfortunately, a few slack months of little fitness training between us meant the walk-in up Sgurr Nan Gillean was tougher than expected, and on the way over Am Basteir and the Tooth I experienced some awful leg cramp that had me in the self-belay position a couple of times. After taking on some more food and water, we pressed on, enjoying the perfect snow conditions. Unfortunately, the wind in some sections was much higher than forecast, and we had some difficult abseils with the rope tails standing up vertically above us. After spending half an hour freeing stuck ropes after the abseil at Bidean Druim Nan Ramh, we were hoping for a gentler afternoon, but instead found ourselves soloing some of the most mind-bending terrain we've ever been through. The wind continued to pick up, with some gusts easily exceeding 60mph and knocking us to our feet. That said, our confidence was somehow still building, and we pressed on to Sgurr Thormaid, where we found a perfect bivi spot in the shelter of the lee side of the ridge. We dug out a home for the night, and got the stove out, but halfway through the first pot of snow the wind seemed to turn around the ridge, and our cozy nook turned into spindrift alley. With both the stove and all our kit covered in fine melting powder, and the chance of a warm drink now stolen by the wind, we packed our kit again and opted to bail down Sgurr na Banachdich. We set up a bivi in the dark halfway down to the glen at a flat spot next to some snow, and spent a good couple of hours getting the stove to work in the wind and wet. Fresh snow falling on us in the middle of the night made for an uncomfortable bivi, but we made it back down to Glen Brittle in the morning feeling tired but satisfied.
Good clear guide books , good weather, miles of viability, other guided groups to follow. being a fit competent scramblers/climbers, having the right tactics all may equal
what is all the fuss about how hard it is.
Back in the real world you are going to be in for a real shock if any of these are not lined up for you.
There is just no substitute for spending time getting either a feel for the place by doing sections on day walks, or trying traverses and getting further along each time.
Attempt 1. 20 years ago. I can navigate really well and I have a GPS, so what if its drizzle and very little viability I will figure it out with this crappy map and the old SMC scrambling guide. I have lots of kit to eat and camp with and loads of climbing gear.
OUTCOME never even got to the TD gap, wandered around the first section confused after setting off late afternoon, being soaked on way up and shivering all night in June.
Attempt 2. 15 years ago. Still with crappy guidebook but better Rockfax mini guide and 1.10000 map. Right camping kit, not enough climbing kit, which made the TD gap in the damp interesting with the rope tied around my waist and using a knotted sling as protection. Set off too late day before due to rain all morning.
OUTCOME got to point where we could have made it but would not have got down to cars and driven back for work in Sheffield next day, the 3 of us sacked it.
Attempt 3. 6 years ago. Perfect visibility in the 28 degree sunshine. Left Glen Brittle at 4 in morning on a single push attempt with 7 liters of water. Made it all way to Bidein Drum Nan Ramh.
OUTCOME dehydrated, knackered, not able to think right as mind frazzled by all the soloing with not another person in sight in front of me. Old bloke I met having a break said to me time to go down lad, I thought sod it I can do it only been going 15 hours. Toke 10 steps and mind said go down. Thankful to old timer for leading the complex way off.
Attempt 4. 2019 Went up with a weeks worth of time. Did all the bits I did not know in day walks, apart from the Bidein Drum Nan Ramh section. Perfect weather, very fit, being doing loads of exposed climbing, right amount of climbing kit, rested and slept most of day, big meal at pub then slow walk in late in evening, few hours sat/laid on bag in a little rock shelter, set of in pr-dawn light, confident in whole route selection with no worries about going wrong onto harder terrain.
OUTCOME completed the full traverse in 14 hours, could not have done it any better had all my tactics right, flowed through it all and was still very happy to walk off not needing to concentrate as at the end met with a local lady who did Sgurr nan Gillean every week.
Moral of tail you can be lucky and all your stars line up perfectly for you as it did for the 2 lads I met on their first attempt who did it all. Most people are going to have to put a lot of graft in and thousands of miles to be able to gain the knowledge to do a traverse, or hire a guide, you do the math if it is your lifetime dream.
Great stories! That's the Cuillin for you. Have had 3 attempts myself, 2 solo, one in a pair and never completed. It was the weather every time! All great days out though, just as your's were
There are so many brilliant long day out rock routes with loads over 1000ft long - the last few guide book lines of ‘savour and enjoy’ apply to most of them. The trouble with linking a whole load of it together and adding a hefty wedge of pressure into the bargain is that the savour and enjoy soon diminishes. I wouldn’t bother to do it again.
It is excellent in quality; I'd admit I was surprised after becoming increasingly sceptical of so called 'UK Classics'. A pal and I did it two years ago in a single push after sleeping on the first summit (South>North) - absolutely brilliant. Carrying barely anything was still too heavy by the end of the day (we each had a very small sleeping bag as 'bivi gear'), other than an excessive rope and 3ltrs of water, that was basically it. It really is an alpine day, I've only ever felt dehydration like that in the alps! I think we took 18 hrs in the end by the time we were back to the hotel.
I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't done it, whichever way; 2-day, 1-day, bivi, no bivi, all-climbing, less climbing; if you've got some experience under your belt and a basic level of fitness you'll have a great time, even if it does take a couple of tries to get it right.
Very much looking forward to receiving my pre-order of Adrian's book and getting back on it at some point in the near future.
> Did you return and actually enjoy it, Southvillain?
Not yet! Still on the `to do' list. But reading what others have posted below, and having spoken to people (e.g. work colleague who's tried it, unguided, over a dozen times, without success) I'd reiterate the advice to use a guide. When my mate and I were discussing doing it again he said `do you think we could do it ourselves next time?' and I said `not without risking getting lost'. Some parts, as you'll know, are obvious - it's a sharp ridge after all - but others definitely are not, esp the cut-outs, if you need to avoid some of the climbs. We were passed early on the first day by two characters in minimal trail running gear who sped off ahead of us . We met them again several times as they kept speeding off on the wrong spurs. And if you lose an hour or so backtracking that can ruin an attempt. It was only when we got to the end, and spoke to people who professed admiration that we'd done it first go, that we realized how much does have to come together, i.e. weather, guide, fitness etc.
A British hiker emerged from five days alone in the mountains of New Zealand to find that the country had unexpectedly shut down in his absence.