Sgurr nan Gillean and the demons of doubt

Route: Sgurr nan Gillean

Munros: Sgurr nan Gillean

Date walked: 13/07/2018

Time taken: 7.15 hours

Distance: 12km

Ascent: 990m

After descending I followed the burn upstream to find the place where it all started, where the seed had been sown.

The intrigue of early morning mist on the Cuillin Ridge from Portnalong

I found the spot, a small hollow by a pool on the Allt Daraich that, over forty years ago, accommodated a handful of tents, two teachers and half a dozen schoolboys who meddled with ancient primus stoves during the last week of the summer term. It was my introduction to Skye, to the abrasive qualities of the Black Cuillin’s gabbro and to the tenacity of midges. Importantly, it was where I first set foot on a Munro: but I didn’t know that then.

During previous summers we’d been coaxed, coached and cajoled up hills in the Lake District and Galloway, and introduced to the sharp end of a rope and the skin-burning dangers of the classic abseil in Snowdonia. Sitting on the slope above the campsite near Sligachan, scoffing reheated stew, tinned peas and watery Smash off metal plates, we stared across the glen at the ramparts of Sgurr nan Gillean and prepared ourselves to set foot on its slopes.

The Allt Daraich - site of an early 1970s expedition

Waterfall and campsite plunge-pool on the Allt Daraich

Years later, as the Munros infiltrated my life and when Compleation became a possibility, I began to wonder where this particular mountain journey might end. The summits with gentle gradients or easy access had already been visited. I’d been picking off the far-flung, awkward and forgotten over the last couple of years. Of the handful that remained, only one had significance: Am Basteir, the immediate neighbour of where I had long understood my journey to have started. The satisfying circularity was obvious.

And that’s when another seed began to germinate. As I read guidebooks, scanned reports and looked in detail at photographs on the web, shoots of doubt emerged. Had an ascent of Sgurr nan Gillean all too easily become a part of school and family folklore? Was the connection with the Peak of the Young Men too much of a cliche to be believed? Did we simply climb on it or all the way up it? Could, or would, a couple of teachers really take a clutch of sixteen year olds there?

As my Munro to-do list dropped into single figures the roots of this potential weed took hold. From seed to shoot, I knew there would only be one way to prevent this doubt from growing into a sapling. From weeks away, the plan was set.

On Friday I’d scramble up the south east ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean and settle matters once and for all. Then, on Saturday, after revelling on the airy north west ridge of Bruach na Frithe, I’d be able to enjoy a solitary celebration on Am Bastier: a wee malt, Talisker of course.

Anyway, who, on Friday 13th wants to climb something called The Executioner. It’s bad enough that you park the car and start walking from the Sligachan Mountain Rescue Post.

But what did Woody Allen say? “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

The all too familiar mists linger in the Coire A Basteir

For a day with a rare, nailed-on forecast of good weather, it was surprisingly quiet when I left the car. The iconic silhouette of Gillean and Bastier wore its obligatory early morning cap of cloud: a half-hearted tease in a futile attempt to thwart my plans. The approach walk dispelled any worries of a lingering stiffness after a long drive the day before, and the recent lack of rain meant it was accompanied by a satisfying parade ground scrunch rather than the normal exasperating squelch.

Dancing dragonflies in turquoise and iridescent blue flitted from one shrinking pool to another and the midges were obviously enjoying their breakfast elsewhere. I only had to worry about the dreaded cleg.

Entering Coire Riabhach - with the cairn marking the path to Pinnacle Ridge

Go up the stream to the waterfall, cross the pair of sturdy wooden planks that span its course then aim for a cairn on the shoulder below Pinnacle Ridge. Keep left and drop slightly into Coire Riabhach before clambering up chutes of pale scree on the opposite side. Until then there’s little need to worry about route finding, just the opportunity to relish the surroundings unencumbered by the pain of lactic-burning thighs or gasping lungs.

Across the corrie scratches of scree mark the way out of Coire Riabhach

The pale grey chute of scree on the left accesses the monochrome world above

The pimple on the skyline is the cairn - honest - above the jumble of stones leading to the upper slopes

Then, as you pass into a monochrome world of grey, you have to think.

Is that the scree-filled gully? Am I high enough? It looks tempting off to the right, but no. When everything you see is one big pile of stones, where is this bloody cairn?

And then you see it, and feel a fool because it’s so obvious.

Pinnacle Ridge

Above, it all starts again. Short stretches of scree weave between boulders and slabs in the shallow bowl above. The occasional cairn appears and the ascent begins to feel like a giant game of join-the-dots: I realise I’m the pencil. Gradually the layer of loose stones becomes thinner and I’m climbing easy angled slabs of bare rock. When my way to the skyline is blocked by a short wall I look left and realise I’ve climbed too high.

A short wall blocks progress - choices, choices - with Sgurr Beag at the end of the ridge and the point where I should have joined it

Looking east from above Coire Riabhach - Glamaig, Beinn Dearg Mhor and Marsco across Glen Sligachan

I can see the sea, and down the lower part of the ridge leading out to Sgurr Beag. I think I can see where I should be; but I’m not. Do I descend, skirt round and climb back up? No, I opt for intuition, turn right and keeping heading up. More slabs, some short grooves and the occasional chossy patch of scree, then I notice the rock has changed. The emery paper scouring of the gabbro has been replaced by smoother, more angular blocks. Is this the basalt dyke?

So I follow it upwards, block upon block. Reassuringly, edges and surfaces have been smoothed by climbers passing this way before. The geology tapers as it approaches the skyline and I’m confronted by ... well there’s nothing to my right apart from, let’s say, a big drop. To my left is a short steepish slab, leading to a big horizontal block. With my feet most of the way up the slab, and my eyes level with the surface of the block, I look to my right.

Six feet away is the tiny summit cairn, perched on the edge of a slab the size of a kitchen table. Beyond is the rest of the Cuillin Ridge, the tops of some hiding coyly beneath a veil of cloud, the spikes and pinnacles of others standing sunlit and proud.

Oh, I'm there. Summit cairn perched on the edge of Sgurr nan Gillean

Southern end of the Cuillin Ridge beyond the vast bowl of Lota Corrie

I’m alone for an hour on the top. At first I’m trying to picture two teachers and a handful of adolescent boys way beyond their comfort zone: I can’t decide. Again, that question: did we simply climb on it or all the way up it? Then I realize: it doesn’t matter. I’m there now, that’s what’s important. Repeat, revisit or first time round? It’s the experience now that counts.

Marsco and Bla Bheinn from Sgurr nan Gillean

I look across at the blade of rock to the west. Sgurr nan Gillean’s neighbour, Am Bastier, leans ever so slightly, as if stretching as much of its southern flank to the sun as it possibly can, seductively beckoning, tempting, alluring.

“Come on,” says The Executioner.

“Maybe,” I reply.

Am Basteir with Bruach na Frithe looming protectively in the background

But, of course, on Saturday God had his laugh.

The weather was absolute pish.

But at least the demon had been exorcised.

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old danensian

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