The Cuillin - A Cautionary Tale

The Cuillin - A Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale from a trip to Skye. Two Wainwright and Munro Baggers embark on their first trip to Skye's Cuillin.

The Cuillin - A Cautionary Tale 

The Cuillin - A Cautionary Tale

The Story of our First Encounter with the Skye Cuillin

By Paul & Karen

What on Earth Were We Doing?

It was raining, my boots were filling up with water, my fingertips were shredded, I was soaking wet. I was sat à cheval astride an upwardly sloping knife edged arête on top of a basalt slab which was on my left side. I couldn't see a thing either side of me due to the thick mist, but I knew that on my right side was a huge vertical drop to Coire Lagan, about 2,000 feet below. On my left was an even bigger drop in the direction of Loch Coruisk, about 3,000 feet below. Moments earlier, I had been laid on my right side on the slab with about 2 inches of my right boot on a small ledge and my fingertips in a small groove on the apex of the arête. Looking back, if my boot had slipped, I would have slid down the gabbro and basalt slab into the gaping abyss below. The most alarming thing was that I wasn't attached to a rope. I sometimes wake up at night, think about this moment and physically twitch.

I was on a Cuillin Munro called Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. It sits on the Cuillin Ridge, near its loftier neighbour, Sgurr Alasdair, the highest point on Skye and the highest point in Britain outwith the mainland. The next Munro on the other side of it is Sgurr Dearg's Inaccessible Pinnacle, which is the second highest point on Skye. Like all Skye's Munros, it rises straight from sea level to its airy summit in excess of 3,000 feet. It's a gnarly, pointy, rocky behemoth of a mountain. Its slabby upper section is like a sloping inverted 'V', rising up to its knobbly summit at 3,111 feet. It has Sgurr in its name because like most other Scottish hills with that title, it's big and pointy!
The An Stac screes in better weather

So how had we got ourselves into this situation?

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, also in better weather
We'd done a fair bit of walking in the Lakeland hills and had ticked off a couple of dozen Scottish Munros. One day, a friend of ours who had done a fair bit of climbing suggested we could go to Skye and do something on the Island. I'd read about Skye and the Cuillin Ridge and liked the sound of it - an eight mile ridge with over 20 tops over 3,000 feet and the ridge never falling below 2,500 feet. What's not to like? We naively said we'd like to do as much of the Ridge as possible (remember, we weren't climbers and had never been on the end of a rope in our lives). So, in July the following year, we set off for Skye. After all, the weather was bound to be good in July wasn't it?

On our first day we were champing at the bit to get into the hills. But it was raining! Off we went to the Old Inn at Carbost and drank tea for a while. Then we had a quick look round the Talisker Distillery. The sky seemed to be brightening, so down we went to Glen Brittle and shortly after, the rain stopped. We were off, slogging our way up the An Stac Screes and duly arrived at Bealach Coire Lagan where we got our first glimpse of the Ridge. Remember, we weren't climbers and this was the first time we'd ever seen anything like it. I was dumbstruck and felt like I was on LV-426, the planet in the Alien and Aliens films. 

Am Basteir and Bhasteir Tooth

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich
Above me to my left towered the huge buttress of An Stac, a grade 3** scramble looming dark and menacing out of the swirling mist. To my right was the rising north ridge of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. We set off nervously up the apex of the ridge, the terrain getting steeper and narrowing down the higher we got. Above 2,800 feet, it started to narrow considerably and luckily for me, I couldn't see anything on either side of the ridge due to the mist. Oh, I didn't mention earlier did I that at the time I wasn't too happy with exposure? I was now starting to doubt my ability to negotiate what was ahead, just as it started to rain. However, we were getting near to the top and well, we couldn't turn back now could we? I thought foolishly.  My two points of contact had already doubled to four well before we got to the slabby section I mentioned earlier. I then ended up perched precariously on the left side of the slab. Part of it was basalt and when it's wet, it's like soap.

I have since read descriptions of this section of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and words used to describe the exposure have been "delightful, thought provoking, yawning and even jaw dropping". Luckily, I still couldn't see a thing. Our friend shouted "Go à cheval Paul", so I hauled myself up by my fingertips (tut tut), swung my right leg over the tip of the arete and found myself sat astride this huge rising whaleback of a mountain. I was terrified. Even more so knowing that I would have to go back down the same way. I shuffled along the slab inch by inch until I managed to get to some grippier terrain and pull myself to my feet whilst hanging onto the sharp rock. I negotiated the last few metres and got myself to the summit. Now all we had to do was to get back down. We decided we'd rope ourselves together. This probably wasn't the wisest of moves. After all, only one of us was a climber and if one of us had slipped, we'd probably all have gone. However, off we went and managed to get back down the mountain unscathed. Strangely, going down didn't seem as difficult as going up. We'd been lucky though, very lucky.
  Scrambling above Loch Coruisk

Stitch Sgurr a Ghreadaidh

So what is the point of my story?

Quite simply, the point is, we shouldn't have been there without an experienced guide. Sgurr Mhic Choinnich is one of the more difficult Munros and to start on it was complete madness, especially given the conditions. This was our first day on Skye and we didn't have the experience or confidence to tackle what the day had in store for us. 

Since this particular day, we've visited Skye at least 15 times, and are in the very early stages of a Cuillin apprenticeship that we'll probably never complete. Indeed, few do. Of course, if you're an experienced climber or scrambler, you'll love it and won't find it too much of a problem. But if you're a hill walking Munro Bagger like we were, treat it with respect. This is no place to have your first serious scramble, and most of the Munros on Skye will require hands on rock at some point.

Traversing the two tops of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh

Paul & Karen on the Cuillin
Many people underestimate the Cuillin. Indeed, we were once in the Sligachan Pub and overheard a conversation between a group of young lads. One asked what the ridge was like. His mate said, "You just climb up to it and follow it along". My wife and I looked at each other, smiled and said, "They've never been up there before have they?" 

If you like sharp, rocky, pointy mountains, Skye is a superb place. The Cuillin has a massive curving ridge with many ridges emanating from the main ridge, huge corries scoured by glaciers, sea views, remote lochs and its own micro climate.

The way to see the Cuillin at its best is to hire one of the many experienced guides. They know the place inside out and will get you to some fantastic places and keep you safe.

Since our experience on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich I've spoken to two experienced Cuillin guides, one said he won't go near the mountain if it's damp and another has said that he always ropes up Munro bagging clients even if its bone dry.

The Cuillin Ridge of Syke

Thank You Paul & Karen for sharing this story. What an adventure, but not one to be repeated in a hurry!

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