Sunday, October 21, 2007


“Do you go to Sligachan?”

The early morning coach is filled mostly with shoppers making the three hour pilgrimage to the nearest metropolis – Inverness. Living in such a wild and beautiful place as the Island of Skye has its downside; all the essentials for life on the island may be close at hand, but should you feel the need for anything more exotic, the shopping trip will take a full day.

The driver nods. “Aye; single?”

Maybe he thinks I’m going to do the full Cuillin ridge traverse. Not this time; not alone and in completely unfamiliar terrain. The full traverse involves climbing, abseiling and, unless you’re very quick, a night bivvying out at 3,000 feet. We arranged our tour of Scotland to give two nights on Skye, which means I have just one full day earmarked for the hills. The west coast of Scotland isn’t exactly renowned for its dry sunny days; we must have had our full quota for this week for although we’ve had three days of glorious warm sunny weather with barely a cloud in the sky, giving prospects of fabulous views from the ridge,

today has dawned grey and misty – far more typical, and perhaps more in keeping with my intended excursion.

I board the coach, pay the driver the return fare, and find a spare seat. Is it me who seems out of place here, or is it the other occupants? I’m on the very doorstep of what are universally acclaimed as the best mountains in the UK, dressed in full-on hiking gear, yet I’m surrounded by urban fashion. Perhaps they fit better in the cosy climate within this coach, but just the other side of the coach windows I know is a place where I’ll feel utterly at home; in some ways perhaps more so than some of those who live here. The expectation warms my soul in a way nothing else can.

Given that Sligachan is one of the main points of access to the Cuillin Ridge I thought there might be more people getting off the coach here, but I’m the only one; maybe others are waiting for fairer weather.

Orientation with no peaks in sight can be puzzling. The first couple of miles are over gently rising moorland, with just the hint of steeper slopes at the boundaries of vision. Somewhere over there – or is it over there? – are the summits, but who knows exactly where? Even the compass is not to be trusted as the rocks here are magnetic. To begin with, the path is easy – not least because there is a clear track on the ground, a footpath across the centre of the island linking north-east to south-west coast. But before long the path rises into the mist; I take a last look back before the mist engulfs me, condensing in heavy droplets on my glasses, reducing visibility still further.

The path is obvious enough, but at some point I have to leave it and branch off left. I’ve been going for over an hour and I’m still on the moorland approach. The mist is thicker and surrounds me completely now; no peaks in sight or even any hint of them. I’m in a damp isolated bubble; colours exist only close at hand, washing out into greyness as the world vanishes; I am disconnected from everything, from the symbols of civilisation I've left behind – the coach, the road, the lonely hotel at Sligachan – and even from the peaks themselves . I wonder if I’ve been foolhardy, or selfish, striking out here into the middle of nowhere; perhaps I should have spent a comfortable day in Portree with my wife?

But I’ve studied the map carefully so I have a good idea of the overall pattern of ridges and corries that give or deny access to the peaks, and before long I reach the feature that marks the point where I must turn for the climb. The path has been following a stream; many tributaries join from the left, but only one of any significance joins from the right and it is at a point a hundred yard beyond this where I set off left on a new course. Knowing that I’m where I should be, when I should be, renews my confidence and I stride out with fresh purpose.

The ground continues to rise and I rise with it, time passing as indeterminately as my surroundings; there is little to look at except the rocks under my feet, but these demand my attention as the way is no longer smooth but lies over grass and boulders.

A twisted ankle in these conditions could be serious. For a few moments the air clears slightly; it seems the cloud is in two layers; one which hugs the lower slopes and one which hangs over the peaks. Here between them is a world hanging in nothingness; I look over a sea of mist below or up into a veil of clouds above. I have a choice here; across to the right, the dark silhouette of the mountain’s north west ridge rises high above the corrie floor. On a clear, dry day I’d have no doubt – that would be the route of choice. But today I err on the side of caution; that way has some steep exposed scrambling. Not the place for a solo climber in unfamiliar territory. And it’ll be slower.

So I take the direct route, up to the bealach

by the Basteir Tooth.

From here it’s an easy traverse

onto the summit ridge.

I plan to stop for lunch at the summit

but discover a flaw in that plan – the fearsome Scottish midges plan to lunch on me! The moment I stop and put down my rucksack I feel scores of them around my face. I pause only to slap on copious amounts of mosquito repellent, grab a muesli bar and eat on the hoof, inasmuch as scrambling over the wet rocks of the ridge allows. Thank goodness for hydration packs – at least I can drink plenty without stopping and being midged to death.

Since leaving the road, I’ve not seen another human being. Here on the ridge though is the first evidence of its popularity; out of the mist come muffled voices. I look up, but see no-one. Just like the voices, the sun, trying to break through, is muffled too.

At least without a lunch stop I now have time on my side. Where I might have spent an hour admiring the view, I can afford time for an alternative – and more adventurous – descent. Navigation here is trickier. I’m wary of the compass (although hindsight will show it to have been largely unaffected here; the strongly magnetic zones are elsewhere on the ridge, it seems) and have to go entirely on reading the terrain, matching the features to the map; those features visible up to a hundred yards away, that is!

I wondered earlier if wearing my heavy stiff-soled mountain boots was overkill, but I’m glad of them now – I have a long steep scree slope to descend. Big, bold steps, half walking, half skating down a loose surface which threatens to break free and race me down the mountainside. With the landscape below still hidden in the mist, the descent seems to go on for ever, but eventually – and to much satisfaction - I arrive exactly on target at the first major landmark of this route:

From here on down, the way ought to be easy – just follow the stream out of the lochan, all the way back to the road. Just one snag; the stream soon drops into a sheer-sided gorge, impassable by direct passage and best given a wide berth since the smooth rocks above follow a convex curve whose slope rapidly transitions from gentle, through steep to precipitous.

It seems to matter little that the long distance views have remained hidden today; the views of the mountain up close have been just as worthwhile:

The way above the gorge lies over smooth, bare, trackless rock; I ought to contour across the slope, but it's too easy to loose height; feet automatically choose a descending route. I descend too far, too close to the edge of the gorge, and have to strike back up the slope for a while. Past the hazard as I make my way down to rejoin the stream, I find my feet once more on a more-or-less clearly defined path, and then, almost without realising it, distant visibility is restored – to a degree - as I descend out of the cloud.

Once again, the journey becomes simple a matter of following the path others have trod,

back down to the road, a coach back to Portree and a resumption of the life of my coach companions.

And of course, the following day dawns bright and clear:

But am I disappointed to have missed the blue skies and distant views? Not a bit. Well, perhaps just the tiniest bit, but I got what I came for, and one day I’ll be back to do the full ridge; it’s good to know I’ll feel at home there, whatever the conditions.

I forgot to say; the peak I was climbing was Bruach na Frithe, at the north end of the ridge and probably the easiest and most accessible of the Cuillin range.

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