Earlier this month, Ian Craigie, whilst working for West Coast Mountain Guides, achieved a possible first, by guiding, non-stop, The Greater Cuillin Ridge Traverse on the Isle of Skye. This mammoth undertaking takes in the standard traverse of the Black Cuillin (from Gars-bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean), before continuing over Sgurr Beag and Sgurr na h-Uamha, and dropping down into Glen Sligachan. From here, the greater traverse reascends nearly 750m to reach the summit of Garbh-Bheinn, and finishes by tackling the brilliant Clach Glas – Bla bheinn traverse. To say this is a big day out is somewhat of an understatement, as in total, it takes in 12 Munros, 20 miles of distance and approximately 4000m of ascent. Initially, the plan was for a slightly more leisurely (but challenging and admirable none the less) 3 day Greater Traverse of the Cuillin, but it didn’t take long for a seed of a non-stop outing to germinate. Ian takes up the story…
Originally planning for a 3 day Greater Traverse of the Cuillin, I met Stu and Tommy, both keen fell runners, in the Sligachan bar on the Sunday evening to discuss plans for the coming week. The Greater Traverse, as far as I was aware, had not been guided in its entirety before, and with it being a fairly substantial undertaking, a good game plan would be key to its success. As the plans developed, I mentioned how amazing, or if at all possible it would be to attempt it in one day, to which Stu and Tommy both raised their eyebrows and said “well, we had been thinking the same thing”…
A new plan was hatched. After a training day on Monday we met at the Sligachan Hotel at 0715 on Tuesday morning and drove round to Elgol to catch the 0900 speed boat into Loch Coruisk, which in my opinion is the finest way to start a traverse, greater or otherwise. Whilst whipping over Loch Scavaig, we could admire out entire objective, laid out in front of us in the most magnificent panorama. The boat dropped us off on a natural rock pier close to which seals were basking in the sunshine. Off we leapt, the boat instantly shot away. This is where the fun starts.
The planned itinerary and timings were reasonably vague, to maintain flexibility, but basically we hoped to complete the main ridge, summit to summit in 12 hours, thus arriving at Sgurr nan Gillian at around 11pm. This would then have us completing the easier and less complex section down to Glen Sligachan, through An Fraoch-choire and up to Garbh-bheinn in the darkness and hopefully then by the time the sun came up we would be arriving at the beginning of the magnificent Clach Glas traverse which leads on to the final peak, Bla Bheinn.
We made good progress up to the first peak on the ridge, Gars-bheinn, arriving at its summit at 1130. From here the view opened out and the ridge really showed its fangs; twelve unrelenting, awesome kilometres of jagged peaks and arêtes snaking through to the horizon.
We moved quickly but surely through the initial easier section of the ridge and arrived at the first Munro, Sgurr nan Eag just after midday. A quick drink and snack and we were away again. For us to achieve this in a day we had to move efficiently and look after our energy levels to avoid crashing out later on. So, lots of snacks, little and often, lots of water and moving at a good rhythm and pace that we would be able to sustain throughout the expedition was essential.
Heading over towards the infamous and notorious TD Gap we felt rain. As it grew heavier our hearts began to sink. Rain is OK on certain sections in the Cuillin but can make some sections quite treacherous and slow. Particularly bad are the slabs of Sgurr Thearlaich and the steep, polished, basalt rock climb known as the TD Gap which can be virtually unclimbable in wet conditions. So based on this turn of events we sneaked down into Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda to bypass the Gap and ascended Sgurr Alastair directly to reach its summit and the highest point on the Isle of Skye. To our relief the sun came out again and quickly dried everything off. We were cool and refreshed, feeling good and excited to be moving more comfortably on the dry rock again. Steadily and surely we ticked off the peaks and summits and made good progress along the ridge.
We aimed to take in all the notable summits and Munros along the main ridge, but due to the complex and difficult nature of the terrain, although we weren’t moving at a great speed, there were times when it felt very physically and mentally draining. We had taken 3 full litres of water with us but as that started to run out and with no water on the ridge our mouths ran dry and we had to slow the pace down to avoid further dehydration. The end of the ridge still looked a long way off.
Making our way down off the fourth and final peak of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh the most wonderful sight befell us. A tiny patch of snow, only about one square meter in surface area, but it was enough! Wonderful, dense, crystallised snow melted quickly in the water remaining in our bottles. We drank greedily and then re-filled, taking what we felt was required to complete the last section of the main ridge before we would descend into the valley and would be able to refill.
It was 1900 and we had already had a long day. We had been moving for 9 hours, but the fresh water had invigorated us and we were feeling good as we tackled one of the finest but also one of the most complex and involved summits; Bidein Druim nan Ramh.
So after some amazingly exposed climbing to reach the summit and two abseils later we were back on more amenable ground.
From here we still had the three northern Munros on the main Cuillin Ridge to go. The setting sun spurred us on and we made good time over An Caisteal and up to the summit of Bruach na Frithe. It seemed rude not to watch the sun setting, so we dropped our packs and rested our legs for the first time since we had set out. Sandwiches were eaten and remarks at the beauty of it all were made. The softness of the light spilling over the greener northern end of the island was a powerful and refreshing contrast to the ground we had been on and our bodies and minds began to feel a little refreshed. As the warm orange glow turned grey, the wind grew cold and we knew it was time to move again.
After a quick detour to Am Basteir we began up Sgurr nan Gillean, excited to be approaching the end of the main ridge in good time, and well on schedule. We made the summit as the light disappeared, swiftly attached head torches and pressed on.
Before the descent into Glen Sligachan, there sits the lonely peak of Sgurr na h-Uamha that marks the geological finish of this section of our journey so we made an eerie scramble up through the darkness before descending back into the valley. Tommy’s feet had taken an absolute hammering by this point and he was fighting through a lot of pain so he decided that it wouldn’t be sensible for him to carry on to Bla Bhienn. So after a spooky walk through the misty moorland we arrived at the path and waved Tommy off as he made his way back to the campsite and a well-deserved bed. We kept going, relishing the soft ground, and the kilometres were eaten up as we were able to stride out for the first time in hours.
Before we knew it the sun started to rise again and we took our torches off at the top of Garbh-Bhienn. It was 0400 and we had been on the move, non-stop, for 18 hours.
Staring across towards Clach Glas, the steep sided and gnarled ridge that guards passage to our final peak, we began to realise that we were actually going to make it! The rope went on for the final time and the excitement of what we were about to accomplish drove our legs on and we moved swiftly and smoothly across the ridge, up to Clach Glas’ table top summit, down the other side and up the final crux chimney to reach easier ground and an eager jog to the trig point, cairn and our finish point… It was done. We had just completed the most magnificent and majestic mountaineering expedition in the UK. Our feet hurt and our legs ached and our minds were exhausted but we had made it. We sat for a while and looked across at the pinnacled skyline feeling relaxed, proud and very pleased with ourselves… And then we remembered we still had to walk down.
(19 hours summit to summit, sub 24 hours start to finish).