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Dubh Mor and Ghreadaidh: Skye and the recurring essence

Dubh Mor and Ghreadaidh: Skye and the recurring essence

Postby old danensian » Fri May 25, 2018 2:34 pm

Munros included on this walk: Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh, Sgurr Dubh Mor

Date walked: 16/05/2018

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“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T S Elliot

Sgurr Dubh Mor
14.5km; 1171m; 9h 20m

Feeling out of balance, I’d mantleshelfed. Then, pushing up with the flat of one hand on the sloping rock I reached high with the other for a crack above. Fingers wrapped themselves round palm-scouring security and I pulled. Then, I pushed and pulled again to avoid supporting myself on a knee; a cardinal sin according to the person who introduced me to climbing.

“I’ll never reverse that,” I thought to myself, finally able to stand and look down.

But that’s the essence of Skye.

Yet a couple of hours later, I sat, relaxed, on a ledge with legs dangling down towards Coire a Ghrunnda. I scoffed self-congratulatory peanuts and a sandwich while contemplating the exhilarating joys of exploring the Cuillin ridge. Sgurr Dubh Mor had thrown down its gauntlet, but I’d picked it up and risen to the challenge.

And that too is the essence of Skye.

Last year Sgurr Dubh Mor, and its protecting neighbour Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn, had remained shrouded in mist while I stood on Sgurr nan Eag. I turned my back on them both. There was no need to thrash around and test my navigation skills just for the sake of it, so I promised myself a return trip. Any excuse.

Leaving the blissful beach setting of Glen Brittle

So, this year, I ended up at the Glen Brittle campsite on a gloriously sunny spring evening, replete with a fish supper snatched in Kyle of Lochalsh, and raring to go the next morning.

Unsurprisingly, the good weather had brought folks out in droves, which vindicated my decision to thrust an old climbing helmet into my bag at the last minute. The more feet there are above you, the more chance something could land on your head.

The obligatory shot of Rhum from the jaws of Coire a Ghrunnda

The slabs of Coire a Ghrunnda appear to bar the way

A teetering pinnacle that will come down someday

By the time I’d skirted the base of Sron na Ciche and begun to approach the glistening slabs of Coire a Ghrunnda I’d already met more than a handful of people and two guided parties. The path tucks in tightly to base of cliffs above. You make your way up a track littered with scree: it’s all come from somewhere I thought, wondering when I should don the ancient lid: later. Once above the initial scrambles by the waterfalls I waited by the loch and watched colourful dots on the skyline heading towards the Thearlaich Dubh gap. Clambering over the stones, boulders and crags to the left of the loch I followed in the steps of yet more people before scrambling away from a vaguely trodden path to explore a more direct route to the ridge on my own.

The vague line of a rocky rib rises from Loch Coir a Ghrunnda below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain and Alasdair

Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn and Caisteal a Garbh Choire above Loch Coir a Ghrunnda

On the ridge leading to Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn another guided party flew past seemingly intent on doing the ridge in a day and, once sat by the cairn on its top, I watched a myriad of coloured ants crawling all over Sgurr Dubh Mor and even more forming bristles on the skyline between Sgurr Sgumain and Sgurr Alasdair. The place was mobbed.

Back along the ridge to the peaks of Sgurr Sgumain and Alasdair

Then it got interesting.

Sgurr Dubh More from Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn - first select your ledges, then go upwards, sideways, upwards, sideways, and so on ...

And that’s the essence of Skye as well: as soon as one little test is over, it’s not long before another presents itself.

The descent to the bealach stays to the right of the absolute ridge, providing a perilous grandstand view down near-vertical slabs, patches of scree and seemingly unreachable ledges into An Garbh Choir below. You’d think that everywhere on the ridge there’s an ever-present sense of awe-inspiring scale, reinforced by bouts of exposure; but at times like this it suddenly becomes considerably more palpable.

Guidebooks and route descriptions then suggest that a series of ledges is followed to the top of Sgurr Dubh Mor itself. The fact that, when you look up, there are ledges everywhere, doesn’t make life any easier. At least you have options. And after rejecting some and following others, well, you’re suddenly there.

The northern end of the Cuillin Ridge from Sgurr Dubh Mor, culminating in Sgurr nan Gillean

The games climbers play - plenty of posing on Sgurr Alasdair

Across Caisteal a Garbh Choire to the summit ridge of Sgurr nan Eag from Sgurr Dubh Mor

Given the number of people I’d already seen that day, it was a welcome surprise to spend my time on the summit in solitude, contemplating not just the view but how I was going to avoid the need to reverse that awkward move below.

Standing above my previous point of potential inelegance, the solution was obvious. In fact, it was so obvious I didn’t know why I hadn’t chosen the staircase clamber and easy hand-traverse on the way up. Still, it had made life interesting. Choices and options: there are plenty to make and take. Some are good, others not so good, and yet more that just end up in the blind alley of unexpected verticality.

Again, an essence of the isle that one encounters time and again.

A lunchtime ledge on the descent from Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn - a bit too far to cool the toes on Loch Coir a Ghrunnda below

Back on Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn, I decided to make it a circular route back to the loch. The descent to Caisteal a Garbh Choire wasn’t quite crawling but the bobbing heads and occasional glimpses of people climbing up made it clear where the easiest line could be followed. At the base of the “castle” I chose pass it to the left and gain a little height in the hope of finding a more established way down the jumble of boulders below from its other side. I may have descended intermittent stretches of one or followed fragments of many in getting to the shore of the loch.

Another chat with yet another couple and it was time to leave the surrounding spires behind. As I watched a trail of multi-coloured specks still winding its way up Sgurr nan Eag, I decided to get away from the crowds and head back to Glen Brittle.

The return to earth, vegetation and Loch Brittle

A shower, a meal and a midge-free wander on the beach awaited: the latter rarely the essence on such a sunny day.

Sgurr a Ghreadaidh
10.4km; 975m; 5h 45m

Later the next morning I stood, framed in the shadowed throat of An Dorus, with an all-too-familiar challenge having haunted me all the way from the Youth Hostel some 900m below.

“You have to be able to reverse it.”

I faced in the direction of Sgurr a Ghreadaidh and saw a wall. To the right it was black and dripping. To the left, above the plunge into Coruisk, some smooth narrow ledges leaned towards me. I was sure they over-hung. I recalled reading a WH report of a group encountering a solo walker who took a tumble at this point, saved by a quick grasp of a rucksack strap. I put the thought to one side.

Then other recent thoughts re-emerged.

The evening before, I sat watching the sun set on the ridge above Coire Lagan. For me this was “glamping,” which merely meant I’d brought the larger of my two tents - and a folding chair. Mind you, I’d forgotten my pillows, normally a must when escaping by car: you can’t win everything. But, with fingers warmed by a mug of tea, I could still sit comfortably outside, staring at Sgurr Alasdair and mull over the day.

Legs are loosened above the Glen Brittle Youth Hostel

I, and most of the people I’d spoken to, couldn’t get over the numbers on the ridge. But, with the island’s growing popularity, the increasing number of people willing to pay for guides, and with the hordes mobbing the Fairy Pools just a couple of miles away, we unanimously and sadly concluded that it’s a trend heading in only one direction.

Of the outing above Coire a Ghrunnda itself, I relived the inevitable succession of challenges, apparently imponderable problems and awkward moments, each punctuated by stretches of calm and relaxation. The solutions were there, they just had to be looked for, patiently.

Resting on the slabs that protect Coire Ghreadaidh - looking back down into Glen Brittle

Rising into the bowl of Coire An Dorus

Just when I thought I was in an exposed position and had become accustomed to the immense sense of scale, I scrambled round a corner and - it really hit me.

Skye is a place where I’ve always known that confidence comes from experience and familiarity, from taking time and not rushing. You then get the double-whammy benefit of prolonged enjoyment and security.

Coire An Dorus and the sleek profile of Sgurr Thuilm from just below An Dorus

So, there I was at An Dorus. And appreciating that sense of scale and exposure again as my eyes came level with the horizon a few feet in front of me.

Way, way below and ahead was Coir Uisg. Below and behind, a string of at least six - maybe eight - had just emerged on the slabs forming the edge of Coire An Dorus. Another two were approaching the pale grey snaking tail of the scree slope that clattered upwards to where I stood. Again, it was not going to be a solitary day.

The previous year, like my excursion into Coire a Ghrunnda, I’d clambered to this very place, but turned left towards Sgurr a Mhadaidh. Late afternoon mists had swirled and I had decided to be content with a single Cuillin peak that day. Yet again, another excuse to return: and back then I didn’t have to solve the apparently awkward problem of climbing out of “the doorway.”

Now I did.

I’d already ruled out the left-hand option: it looked more like the opportunity for an abseil on the return. And I didn’t have a rope with me anyway. I looked to the right and stared, slowly working out the moves: two hands to swing round the initial bulge; get into the grove; don’t be too greedy with the first couple of steps; hands high right, hands left; slowly; a bit of up and down to check reversibility.

I breathed deeply with relief as the view to Coruisk below returned: I was above the so-called problem and all was still well with the world.

Sgurr a Mhadaidh from above An Dorus - the pale grey streak visited the previous year made route finding easy

And then the rest was just as all the various descriptions tell you it will be. Keep left; pass the gloomy cleft of Eag Dubh with only a slight drop; follow easy ledges leading up the right-hand side of “The Wart.” Alternatively, just follow the crampon scratches.

"The Wart" - easily excised on the right

All the way to the very top, past the overnight shelters, and along which a stretch where that sense of scale and exposure really hits. Straddle, balance, teeter: whichever makes you feel safer: style and elegance be damned.

The northern end of the Cuillin Ridge from Sgurr a Ghreadaidh

Sgurr Eadar da Choire and Sgurr Thuilm encompass Coire a Ghreadaidh

I wasn’t into a circular route today, so continuing along to Sgurr na Banachdich was left for another visit, another excuse. A long drive beckoned after packing a dry tent and snatching a shower back at the campsite.

Descending to An Dorus was straightforward, and the down-climb into the bealach itself was nowhere near as intimidating as I expected it to be. Too much thinking, too much anticipation and the unknown beast grows out of all proportion. I’m comfortable clambering down facing outwards and I’m happy down-climbing as well; it’s switching between the two when I’m halfway down that poses problems. I chose the latter to re-enter An Dorus and that time spent working out the moves an hour or so earlier proved invaluable.

All that remained was a noisy clatter down the scree back into the world of greens. There was nobody ascending so those few stretches that could be “run” could be descended quickly without exposing anyone else below to danger.

In the spirit of a recent thread on the Forum - my ancient (1975) climbing helmet basks in sunny glory below the twin peaks of Sgurr a Mhadaidh and Sgurr a Ghreadaidh

Part way down I was tempted by the warmth of sunny slabs, by the gentle sloooosh as they were washed from above. Then, the Siren-call of idyllic pools close to the path, where feet could be bathed, were all ignored. If my trip was lasting for another day I might have been there until the sunset. As it was, my psyche was in homeward mode, that frame of mind when every action is focused on simply getting down and returning to comfort.

Temptation lurks at every twist and fall of the burn as you descend into Glen Brittle

Leaving Skye, especially driving out of Glen Brittle has always been a wrench, ever since I first visited in the 1970s. The final view of the water pipe gully in the rearview mirror, the unmistakable profile of Marsco beyond the old bridge at Sligachan, the up-turned keel of Glamaig, even the golf course at Sconser: they all act as milestones on departure that you hope will be seen again soon. For nostalgic reasons I even miss the wait for the little ferry at Kyleakin: or does that simply reveal my age?

Fortunately, I know I’ll be back. As that confidence borne of increasing familiarity returns, the need to push those mountain risks beyond those we all accept, becomes increasingly unnecessary. I already know how far I want to go next time.

Nemesis beware.
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old danensian
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Location: Ayrshire

Re: Dubh Mor and Ghreadaidh: Skye and the recurring essence

Postby Alteknacker » Fri May 25, 2018 8:14 pm

Ah! What a place! The finest on the planet when the weather's lie that.
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Joined: May 25, 2013
Location: Effete South (of WIgan, anyway)

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