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Scratching Cuillin Memories: Sgurr a Mhadaidh & Sgurr nan Ea

Scratching Cuillin Memories: Sgurr a Mhadaidh & Sgurr nan Ea

Postby old danensian » Mon Jul 03, 2017 5:29 pm

Munros included on this walk: Sgùrr a' Mhadaidh, Sgùrr nan Eag

Date walked: 19/06/2017

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Sgurr a Mhadaidh
8km; 905m; 5h

“Have you stayed here before?” I was asked at reception.

Reception? All I could recall was a man shaking the tent shouting “rent man” at some ungodly hour of the morning.

“Yes,” I replied, “but over thirty years ago.”

“It’s changed a bit,” laughed someone slumped in the corner.

“But the toilets are where they’ve always been,” said the young man, after checking if I wanted an electric hook-up. There’s a limit to the amount of power you can use in Terra Nova Laser.

I suspected this trip to Skye’s Cuillin ridge might shake that dictum that you should never go back. Glen Brittle, Coire Lagan and the towering spires had been lodged in my mind since the last of many visits in the 1970s and 80s: rose-tinted memories that had no doubt mellowed with age and in which the marvellous had long-since ousted the mundane. Rugged, remote and spectacular, you fed on adrenalin and exhilaration. This had been the place to be. A place where, in the evening, you sat on the beach in a solitary calm and watched the setting sun paint a pastel colourwash on the day’s serrated playground – while the midges allowed.

But, as recent media reports have reinforced, the dream was shattered at the head of the glen. It was like the Peak District on a Bank Holiday Monday. Vehicles lined the verges, squeezed between the “No Parking” signs. The car park was a battleground of double-parking. Camper vans and mini-buses jostled to pass, and drivers who had clearly never reversed uphill before were an insurance claim waiting to happen. Clusters of people ignored the traffic while photographing cloud-shrouded hills, waiting to feed an unbroken line of humanity that stretched to the waterfalls below.

In the previous century, when you turned left at Carbost, forsaking the Talisker distillery, that was it, you were on your own. You might meet another car, but only in the evening when the day’s exploits had been completed and thirsty climbers were heading for “The Slig.” Sometimes you met a Land Rover, and wouldn’t have been surprised to see a couple of sheep in the back.

With the influx of tourist popularity negotiated, and salt rubbed into the wounds of passing years at the campsite, it was time to reacquaint myself with the legendary ridge. After all, that was why I’d just spent five hours in the car. However, by early afternoon, clouds still stubbornly clung to the ridge. Yet, from steep grassy slopes, streaks of grey dripped from above and hinted at what lay hidden. Sat in the sun by the youth hostel, I waited for a window to snatch a view of the doorway: An Dorus. If it opened I’d go through to Sgurr a Mhadaidh, and maybe its bigger partner Sgurr a Ghreadaidh.

An optimistic look back into Glen Brittle ...

... but a gloomy reality looms above in Coire An Dorus

So I dawdled. Starting at 1.00pm on a June afternoon on Skye doesn’t constitute “late.” I could wander alongside the waterfalls and cascades of the Allt a Choire Ghreadaidh in solitary splendour, in contrast to the mobbed Fairy Pools just a mile to the north. I could follow the meandering gently rising path without worrying about darkness. I could sprawl on sun-warmed slabs, soothed by the stream’s sloosh. Waiting for the weather has its advantages. Relaxing, dozing, drinking, eating all prepare for any effort ahead. And, if the clouds behaved as the forecast predicted, I’d enter the shadowy embrace of Coire An Dorus.

By late afternoon, that’s what they did. So, I crossed the threshold into the monochrome world of Skye’s very own Fifty Shades of Grey.

Pallid slabs. Stippled ashen scree. Shadowed gullies. Sombre crags. The glistening steel of dampened gabbro oozing from gloomy niches. Lichen-blackened buttresses. Above, a tenacious wraith of mist thinned to reveal a rectangular notch at the lowest point of the skyline: the doorway: An Dorus.

A fleeting glimpse of An Dorus

I trod the pale grey line of freshly turned stones that marked the way upwards through another bank of drifting cloud, testing each step to ensure gravity didn’t take charge as the final slope steepened. The walls of the gully closed-in and the wind increased, funnelled through the narrowing gap. Overhanging rocks, that rarely saw sunlight, dripped. The fusillade rattle of falling stones echoed across the corrie. I was glad I was on my own, with no danger of clumsy boots dislodging anything loose from above.

Then, after scrambling up a short groove, the other side of the world filled my horizon. I was no longer confronted by rock inches from my face. I didn’t need to search the next twist and turn of the route. Up had suddenly been replaced by down, steep down, a steepness that made the previous few hundred feet appear as tortuous as the staircase at home. Beyond plunging slabs, lay Coir Uisg and, almost three thousand feet below, nestled Loch Coruisk. I was finally on the ridge, and this was exposure.

Loch Coruisk from above An Dorus

Dropping a few feet to some coppery green ledges, all that remained was an easy scramble up and to the left across an open slope of grey angular blocks for a hundred feet or so to the summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh. It may be the lowest of the Munros on the Cuillin ridge, but in such surroundings, size isn’t everything.

Summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh

I sat to soak in the views: Coruisk, Sgurr Alasdair, the smudge of the outer isles on the horizon, and the world of colour in Glen Brittle below. However, persistent cloud seemed unwilling to unveil the neighbouring Sgurr a Greadaidh.

Sgurr Alasdair peeps from behind a momentary clear Sgurr a Ghreadaidh

Back at An Dorus, I decided to leave Sgurr a Greadaidh to savour on another day. It seemed a shame to arrive on the top only to be deprived of the view. I’d enjoyed the walk into Coire An Dorus and would welcome the opportunity to take it easy and repeat the visit another time. You can have too much of a good thing.

Looking down a mist-free An Dorus

So, I simply scrambled, slithered then strode, retracing steps back to the car while Sgurr a Mhadaidh retreated behind a cloud. Of course, it wasn’t long before the ridge shed its blanket and basked in the evening sun.

Looking back to a clag-free Sgurr a Mhadaidh

And I could spend the evening reminiscing on the beach.

What better way to chill at the end of the day with a view from the beach

Sgurr nan Eag
14.5km; 1002m; 6h 45m

Ropes and climbing gear weighed me down when I last walked into Coir a Ghrunnda. All I recall is a romp across steep high-friction slabs that ended when someone carelessly removed his helmet to wipe away the sweat. It slithered, skidded, then flew, bounced once and disappeared from view. We stumbled over his cracked headgear on the way back, which resulted in a smile and his reassurance that he’d patch it up with some tape when we were back at the van. He was a somewhat cavalier first year medic and this reinforced our anxiety for the future health of both the profession and the nation. I wonder what’s become of him.

A grey start to the walk from Glen Brittle to Coire a Ghrunnda

Fast forward a few decades and I was travelling light, aiming for the pair of Munros at the southern end of the ridge, Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr nan Eag.

Another grey prospect ahead above the slabs protecting Loch Coire a Ghrunnda

A grey Rhum - there's a drink in there somewhere

Having foolishly ignored the high-level path round the base of Sron na Ciche, also meant I missed the one leading to the track high on the corrie’s left hand wall. Fortunately, a steep grassy scutter rectified the gaff. I was soon scrambling up through the broken rocks between the lower set of slabs and the cliffs to their left, followed by a rising traverse across the higher slabs that suddenly deposited me at the shore of Loch Coire a Ghrunnda.

The day was proving to be eerily similar to the day before; clouds had been reluctant to follow the advice of the forecast. Not until I reached the lochan did they begin to reveal the skyline knobble of Caisteal a Garbh choire. Finally I could see sufficient to trace a line through the crags and ramps of scree to reach the north western end of Surr nan Eag’s summit ridge. The scramble was on.

Swirling mists begin the reveal the scrambles above - Caisteal Garbh Choire

It’s one thing spotting an ideal line from across the other side of the corrie. It’s another trying to maintain it when you’re up-close-and-dirty. Drifting mists don’t help either. However, you can only go up, and I knew that if I was suddenly descending steeper ground then I was heading for Loch Coruisk and should have turned right.

Sgurr Sgumain, Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Thearlaich loom above Loch a Coire Ghrunnda

After an hour, the tiny pyramid of the summit cairn appeared about a hundred metres away and I was treated to a brief view. It made the day, despite being partly clad in clag, all worthwhile.

Summit ridge of Sgurr nan Eag

Yet the cloud hung like a roller blind with someone in charge of the cord playing games: up, down, up, down: now you see me, now you don’t.

After resting on top for fifteen minutes, I was reluctant to leave the airy perch by the cairn looking down on Coruisk and along the final spine of the ridge to Gars Bheinn. However, I’d also been watching Sgurr Dubh Mor, or rather the cloud in which it hid. As I reluctantly decided to descend, I concluded that the other one could wait. Again, as the day before, I knew it would be better enjoyed with the expansive views it offered. And it was another excuse to return.

As I started to descend, that devil with the cord played his hand again: the veil of cloud came down. With visibility lost I fell into the all too easy trap of misjudging the point where it was best to drop from the ridge and back to the lochan. After a while I began to realise that the sound of waterfalls flowing from the loch below was coming from too far to my right and knew they should be to the left.

I edged down, waiting for mists to rise to confirm what I suspected: I was on the wrong side of the rib alongside which I’d climbed upward. It was a timely reminder of the dangers of becoming disorientated. One chute of scree looks treacherously like another. What you might interpret as the vestige of track is, in fact, just another patch of compacted debris.

When the silhouette of rib appeared, at least I knew where I was and I could edge further down, searching for ledges and rakes that would take me to the right. As the mist finally lifted, I was barely a stone’s throw from the lochan, safety, relief and lunch.

Lunchtime views open up from the shore of Loch Coire a Ghrunnda

A leisurely stroll round the far side of the lochan found a suitable slab from where I could watch a succession of colourful dots progress upward. Occasional bristles made their way along the ridge or emerged from behind Caisteal a Garbh coire, and Sod’s law intervened. The weather played its inevitable hand by clearing completely. At least I could enjoy the views on the walk back to Glen Brittle and start to look forward to coming back in the future.

Inevitably, Sgurr nan Eag reveals its glory on the descent

Once out of the corrie I followed the tracks I should have taken on the outward journey, mulling over the experience of the previous two days.

On both days I’d been able to take my time, there’d been no point in rushing and I’d passed up a second summit with no regrets. There’d been no need to be greedy for achievements.

I’d been wary about getting back on to the ridge after so long and wondering if the confidence of experience and familiarity would return. I was reminded how easy it was to misjudge distance travelled even if your internal sense of direction was working. I always knew it as a place to be respected, and nothing had changed.

Sgurr Alasdair and Coire Lagan - what better view to hold in your mind as a promise to return - preferably without a thirty year wait

Back at the campsite I met the young man with whom I’d chatted on arrival the day before. I shared a final recollection that had surfaced while sitting on the hillside looking across the bay.

It must have been forty years ago, almost to the day, before our digital mobile age. A handful of us from the university mountaineering club, third years with finals behind us, had left stamped addressed envelopes with our tutors c/o The Post Office, Glen Brittle. In those days it was in the tiny white cottage across the river at Bualintur, open just a couple of afternoons a week. We gingerly crossed to learn our fates.

The cryptic comment added to mine implied that if I hadn’t been climbing so much during my second year I might have got a 2:1.

Far from scaling summits and cairns, or enduring epics and exhilaration, of such diverse recollections are our mountain memories made.
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old danensian
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Re: Scratching Cuillin Memories: Sgurr a Mhadaidh & Sgurr na

Postby Mal Grey » Mon Jul 03, 2017 9:09 pm

Excellent stuff, well written and enjoyable. Sadly my own Cuillin memories are also somewhat in the past...
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Mal Grey
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Joined: Dec 1, 2011
Location: Surrey, probably in a canoe! www.wildernessisastateofmind.co.uk

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