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5 posts • Page 1 of 1
Why I Love The Cuillin - Part 1
by BobMcBob » Sun Jun 09, 2013 1:30 pm
Munros included on this walk: Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh, Sgurr a'Mhadaidh, Sgurr na Banachdich
Date walked: 06/06/2013
Time taken: 9 hours
Distance: 12 km
Ascent: 1386m1 person thinks this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
After this week's shenanigans in Letterewe I decided I needed to get some proper scrambling done, so naturally I headed to Skye. I had a mystery to solve in Coire a'Greadaidh. My favourite guidebook has this to say about the full round of this coire: "(it) includes sections of hard scrambling and complex route finding, it is no place for bad weather or novices". Two years ago I'd visited it in terrible weather with a novice. It was a memorable day for all the wrong reasons.
I say novice. I'd met this chap called Malcolm when I was climbing Bla Bheinn and we'd agreed to do some more Cuillin together. The day arrived and it was one of those days when, if I'd been on my own, I'd have stayed in bed. But Malcolm had driven up all the way from Glasgow, we didn't really know each other, and neither of us wanted to be the one to say "Let's not do this, it's ******* dangerous." Malcolm wasn't a novice (he'd done more Munros than I had), but he couldn't read a map and hadn't done much scrambling. To cut a long story marginally less long, we went up via An Dorus, did Sgurr a'Mhadaidh, and then the cloud came down thick and fast on our way to Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh. We got hopelessly lost and it was only thanks to some calm thinking on both our parts (and some award-worthy navigation on my part ) that we got down at all. We both think we made the summit - we did find a cairn - but to be honest we could have been on the moon for all the idea we had where we were. So I've always had an itch to go back and check, and also see if I could figure out where the heck we'd actually gone wrong. The guidebook gives a route that comes in from the other end - over Sgur Banachdich - and then descends via An Dorus with the promise of sensational scrambling in between. I didn't need any more convincing
Starting from the Glenbrittle Youth Hostel the path started off as I remembered it, but sunnier. There are some splendid waterfalls on this route, although the ones lower down are in a deep gorge and hard to get a proper look at. First thing in the morning and the sun was in my face, but I took photos anyway.
The path wended its way upwards and then, just before the Allt Coir' an Eich, I turned off it, following an indistinct and boggy path that led up into Coire an Eich more or less alongside the burn, which was virtually empty and just trickled.
Even from this low, views out over the islands were already opening up.
So far this hadn't been very Cuillin at all. But on reaching the upper coire, it all became very Cuillin indeed.
The path then slogged up scree, proper good old Cuillin scree. A great many of my memories of the Cuillin involve scree. Sometimes at night I'm convinced I can hear the rattle as it avalanches away with every footstep. In case you haven't experienced it yet, I brought along a friend to model on the path for you. He doesn't come on all my trips, he only seems to like walking when the sun's out, but he's the only person who doesn't get fed up with my constant photography stops
The path, when there was one, trended towards the col on the ridge towards An Diallaid. The higher I got the steeper it got, and the steeper it got the more slippery it became. Two steps forwards, one step backwards. Someone was coming up behind me, making much better progress than me, somewhere off to my left. I'd been slightly led astray by my guidebook - I should have been on the other side of the stream, so I crossed over. The other person disappeared off into the distance while I stopped for yet more photos and to play on the rocks.
As I carried on up towards the summit, the superfast person came down. I said a cheery "hello" but she just scowled at me as if to say "What are you doing here?" and walked right past. She didn't seem to be very happy or enjoying herself and I thought she'd do better to direct that question at herself. I plodded on at my usual pace and took time to enjoy everything. The summit especially was well worth enjoying, for the views were some of the best I've seen.
To my mind, although I've yet to see it from the south, this is the best view you'll get over Coire Lagan. Its volcanic history has never seemed more obvious.
Coire Lagan by Markro, on Flickr
At this point several more people arrived, including a group of three being led by a guide, so I headed off downwards. The guide (I later learned his name was Jonah, so that's what I'll call him) checked if I was sure of the route and gave me some general directions. I was to keep meeting him, he was a very helpful chap who, without being asked, would give directions to anyone he passed if they were heading somewhere dangerous. And pretty much everywhere up here was dangerous
The way down to the north was very steep and pretty slippery. I was just beginning to think that I hadn't done any scrambling yet, when all of a sudden it became extremely scrambly and didn't let up until I was off the ridge at the other end. The first obstacle was Sgurr Thormaid.
I had an interest in Sgurr Thormaid. It is named after Normal Collie - an extraordinary Victorian polymath from an age when being good at more that one thing was still socially acceptable. A scientist, mountaineering pioneer, and explorer, he invented the medical X-Ray machine and the neon lamp, personally named more that 30 peaks, performed multiple first ascents in the Rockies and Himalaya, and is best known over here as the pioneer of multiple routes in the Cuillin. I first came across him as a chemistry student and have had a kind of fascination with the man ever since. Here I was about to climb the peak that is named after him. It gave me a shiver, but a good shiver.
Jonah had told me "Go left, and then straight up". And there was indeed a short gravelly section to the left that led to some scratch-marked rocks. Up I went, hard scrambling but nothing scary, and made the top. I'm in two minds as to whether this view of Coire Lagan is better than the one I had earlier.
After taking an appropriate pause to take in where I was and how long I'd known about this place, I descended the other side - easy going on slabs - and approached "The Three Teeth", which the guidebook describes as "huge rotten fangs of gabbro up to 20 feet high". I tried in vain to get some photos with me in for scale but the terrain was treacherous enough that I couldn't set the self timer and get in position in time. The guidebook said to bypass them on the right, which I did. Then I heard a clap from behind me. I looked back to see Jonah gesticulating that I should be going left. I wasn't about to argue with him - aside from his obvious experience and the fact the book had already been wrong once, he was built like a brick outhouse and had he not been a mountain guide could probably have made a decent living wrestling bears, or quarrying granite with his fists. I did as I was told To be honest, having him behind me was making me self concious. No offence to him but I wanted to be able to concentrate on route finding without worrying if I was going to get told off again I let the group pass. I also had an idea that I could use them as unpaid photographic models
I paused on the ridge for a while as various people overtook me. Two guys who had set off at 3am to traverse the entire ridge in a day didn't stop at all. Another guy, who I'll call Green Rucksack, stopped and chatted and then set off again, he said he was going to try to offer to trade some water with the two guys ahead if they'd rope him down a section after Sgurr a'Mhadaidh. I wished him luck. The thought of water made me realise I was getting low, so I took a detour over to where there was a huge patch of snow. 6 feet thick and hard as ice, it was tough work digging into it but I managed to fill a bottle. In this heat it wouldn't be long before it melted. I could have gone directly up from there to rejoin the ridge but I didn't want to miss out on the fun (and I like to stick to a crest wherever possible) so I backtracked and carried on from where I'd left off.
More hard and exposed scrambling led to the south top of Sgurr a'Greadaidh. Up ahead I could see Jonah's group on the main summit.
After another stop for a bite to eat I carried on. Now it was getting really serious. Like to stick to the crest? On this section there was no option. At one point I was on all fours, one hand and foot on the west side of the ridge, the other hand and foot on the east side, splayed out like a gecko This was seriously exposed, but not too difficult, and I was loving it No chance to stop for photos, even if I could have got the rucksack off there wold have been nowhere to put it Eventually I made the main summit of Sgurr a'Greadaidh.
I'm no doubt that that section was the most sustained and exposed scramble I've ever done. Counting the photography breaks and the snow detour, from the top of Sgurr na Banachdich to here had taken well over 2 hours. I recalled with a shudder how, two years ago, Malcolm and I had almost set off in that direction, just before the cloud cover cleared enough for us to orient ourselves (Compasses are not to be trusted in the Cuillin due to the magnetic rocks. If you know where the magnetic rocks are you know when you can use a compass. If you don't then trusting one could be worse than not using it at all)
From here, it got easier. From the summit, I headed out to the top of "The Wart", which the guidebook describes as a "huge rocky excrescence". Getting to the top if it from this direction is easy but you can't continue onwards from there, because from the other side it looks like this.
I sat down and gazed at the view for a while. Then I noticed something. There's a rocky ridge that runs from just beyond the summit of Sgurr a'Mhadaidh down to the col between it and Sgurr Thuilm. I know there's a scrambling route up it because I've seen a report from it on here. But now I could just make out Green Rucksack, attempting to scramble down it. I watched, getting ever more concerned, as Green Rucksack moved slowly downwards, heading directly for the top of an almost vertical, smooth slab of rock. He was getting into trouble, and my fear built to the point where I got my phone out to see if I had a signal. I didn't. I didn't actually want to watch but a feeling of responsibility compelled me. He came to a dead halt for a long time at the top of the slab and my tension mounted. He went left. He went right. And then, with a sigh of relief from me, he went back up. I waited until I could see him descending a scree ledge and then I scrambled down the side of The Wart onto the bypass path and headed for An Dorus - the gap where Malcolm and I had come up two years ago.
Getting down into An Dorus was a tricky little inward-facing downclimb, with a hidden foothold halfway down, but that part of the walk from two years ago I do remember very well, as it marked the point where we returned to relative safety . Getting up the other side for the climb up to Sgurr a'Mhadaidh was slightly simpler (just to the right of the top of the pass is a little chimney that's easy to climb). On the way up I caught up with Jonah and his group who were having a rest.
"You made it then?" he asked, with a slight tone that suggested he hadn't been expecting to see me again outside of a rescue helicopter.
I thought about saying something like "Why are you surprised?" but then I remembered the thing about wrestling bears and just said "Yes." And then to make myself look even more like a lost simpleton I said "Where's the top, up there?" while pointing at the top. I knew where it was, I'd been before. And I could see it. It even had people standing on it
Jonah, to his credit, just said "Yes, straight up". I did as I was told
From the top I watched Jonah lead his group away, not back to An Dorus, but off down a path. I decided to go that way too. Of course, the path petered out quickly, I couldn't see Jonah's group, and I ended up in some difficulty, the hardest scramble of the day, downclimbing the wall just west of An Dorus. I learned later from a guy I met on the way down, that they were probably heading for a ramp - the same one I'd seen Green Rucksack find earlier. What with Green Rucksack and now me I can understand why Jonah was always giving people directions. It's so easy up here to lose a path and get into trouble. And as a guide he's probably one of the volunteers who has to come up and rescue idiots who get themselevs into trouble through every fault of their own
The walk down from An Dorus was on yet more scree and loose rocks and then easily down following the stream past loads of lovely waterfalls. I was now too hot and tried take any more photos so I just put my head down against the sun and arrived back at the car park.
The big questions, of course, are firstly did Malcolm and I reach the summit two years ago? Yes, I'm certain we did. The cairn was easily recognisable and I remembered walking down past The Wart. Secondly, where did we go wrong? Aside from "going up there in weather like that" I'll probably never know. I don't remember walking up past the Wart so it must have been before there but how we actually got to the top will always remain a mystery.
Don't put too much store in my 9 hour time on this walk. I took more photos today than I've ever taken on a walk in my life. One thing about taking a big SLR camera on a difficult scramble is that it has to keep going in and out of its protective case and the rucksack. This is time consuming, especially when you take as many photos as I do Plus, I'm really unfit You can probably subtract at least 10 minutes from every hour of my time to get a reasonable estimate
There's a part two of why I love the Cuillin, which happened the next day. But now I need some lunch, and perhaps a snooze
by bootsandpaddles » Sun Jun 09, 2013 5:50 pm
The cheek of it! Not only did you use the services of our guide for free when we had handed over good money for the privilege but you used us as "unpaid photographic models". If I had your address I'd send you a bill.
by BobMcBob » Sun Jun 09, 2013 6:04 pm
Hey, he gave me advice without me asking for it. I'll send you all the photos I have with you in if you'd like
by bootsandpaddles » Sun Jun 09, 2013 6:15 pm
That's not quite how I remember it! We have plenty of photos, thanks!
by Sgitheanach » Sat Aug 03, 2013 9:39 am
The island is Canna. Good report.
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