A Winter Cuillin Traverseby Alastair Begley Feb/2014
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Alastair Begley describes one of the most sought-after routes in the Scottish winter mountains, a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge in practically perfect nick. Before you mutter that some people get all the luck, it's worth pointing out that he pulled this off in last year's amazing late season. There haven't been many weather windows like that this year, but here's hoping...
This is an abridged version of the account that originally featured on Alastair's blog Masterplan Mountaineering
Having had a brilliant winter season I was quite content with staying down south. On the weekend in question I was supposed to be rock climbing in Cornwall. However, the weather had other ideas so after exchanging emails with Mike Lates of Skye Guides I decided to attempt a winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge instead. The ridge was in full on winter conditions, and a weather window promised cold weather, no wind and lots of sun.
A winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is a route which is not often in good condition due to being close to the sea. It is regarded as one of the finest mountaineering expeditions in the UK.
"The climbing on the ridge was breathtaking with some fantastic exposure and constantly interesting climbing"
We planned on taking three days on the ridge moving from north to south as is common in winter due to most of the difficulties being abseiled. Having never been to Skye I didn’t have an idea of what I was letting myself in for. All I knew was that we were going to have an amazing but tiring three days - and I wasn’t disappointed.
After an 11 hour drive from Bristol we pulled into the carpark at Sligachan at 1:30am, ready to start next morning. We woke to blue skies and Sgurr nan Gillean being lit up with the lovely morning light - a sight that made getting out of our sleeping bags easier. It was very cold with frozen condensation on the inside of the car. We started walking at 7:45 and made good progress, quickly getting to the snowline and grateful to don crampons and get some weight out of our heavy packs. We ascended up the “Tourist Route” to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean which depending on how strictly you follow the ridge varies from a grade I winter route upwards. On the approach we experienced all types of snow - bullet hard neve, soft windslab, hard windslab and powder; it was a sign of things to come on the ridge. As we reached the col at the start of the summit ridge the view of the entire Cuillin Ridge was spectacular and slightly intimidating.
We reached the summit in just over three hours which we felt was pretty good going considering the weight of our packs. Once there we put our harnesses on and started the ridge properly. We made good progress and after one abseil, some climbing ignoring tat from where other parties had abseiled, we arrived at Am Basteir. Here we had our first lunch and noticed that we were getting through a lot of water; at some point we were going to have to stop and melt snow for more. After another abseil we arrived at the Bhasteir Tooth where on the advice of Mike we abseiled straight off the top. It is the most wild abseil that I have ever done. Looking down from the top you can’t see the ends of your rope and it certainly looked further than 30m down, so trusting the advice I headed down, shortly getting to an overhang. Now free hanging, I looked down and see the ends of the rope dangling in free space! I could see they were close to the ground so assumed that on rope stretch they would make it; they did, just.
After the Tooth there was no more abseiling for a while and we made good progress along the ridge despite the soft spring snow due to the heat of the sun. Eventually we stopped for some food and to melt some water. We then started the Traverse of Bidein Druim nan Ramh, which turned out to be fairly interesting.
After abseiling off the North top we tried to pull the rope through and it was firmly jammed. Rich had to climb back up on prussik loops and sort out the abseil, and while he did this I melted some water and geared up for the hard looking climb straight out of the gap - a Diff covered in unconsolidated powder. After a few attempts I kept ending up back on the ledge a few meters up, due to not being able to find any purchase for the axes. At this point we had already been in this gap for ages and it was getting concerning. We decided to head down the Harta Corrie side to see if we could gain access to the icy slabs slightly lower down and thankfully we were successful. Now very tired we climbed up the steep slabs to the summit. After another abseil and yet more exciting soloing while tired we were on the south top as the sun was setting - fantastic.
We descended to the col and setup our bivi slightly down the slope and out of the breeze. This was where we learnt that in winter you really need a petrol stove as the gas cylinders just get too cold. We were up until 9:30 melting snow and boiling water for our dinner and much needed hot drinks. Eventually we had an OK nights sleep before waking up as soon as it got light.
It was really cold in the morning and we certainly needed a hot drink to get us going. Thankfully sleeping with the gas cylinders warmed them up enough and we quickly had hot drinks, and after breakfast forced our frozen boots onto our feet and set off. It was slightly misty but it soon cleared and became another fantastic alpine day.
A steep slog up to the first top of the day was much needed to get the blood flowing and we were both soon warmed up fully and happy to be on the ridge, with fantastic views and positions yet again. The morning went great thanks to the spring snow from the day before having refrozen solid, however it was still tiring due to the constant height gain and loss which meant that by 12 we were both feeling fairly tired - slightly concerning. However the climbing on the ridge was breathtaking with some fantastic exposure and constantly interesting climbing during some sections.
After a brutal walk up we reached the Inaccessible Pinnacle. We made swift progress of it thanks to bare rock. It was a fantastic climb and it was nice to have a rest from walking while we climbed it. By this point the snow was horrible soft spring snow again which meant that care was needed whenever the ground had been in the sun. The ascent up to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich was very mixed and involved lots of scrambling on dry rock, however we were soon on the snowy summit ridge again and at the Kings Chimney abseil. After an awkward abseil we arrived at the bottom and discovered that the ledge system down to the bealach was very tricky with the soft snow - 'type 2' fun. We decided to abseil the final section due to it looking very tricky and not wanting to waste time.
The guide says that the climb out of the bealach onto Sgurr Thearlaich can be awkward, and it was not wrong. In fact it was particularly harrowing. We made the mistake of making an irreversible move on soft powder and got to the point where we both wanted to be on a belay but there was nothing to belay off. This also meant there was nothing to abseil off, so we just had to get on and do it. After a very scary traverse with soft snow for the feet and almost nothing for the hands/axes we were at the base of a steep section of climbing which wasn’t too bad, however after a scary traverse soloing an exposed grade III mixed climb was not our idea of fun and when I got to the top I actually felt glad to be alive - a feeling I have never had at the top of a pitch before. After this experience we got the rope out for the next section and I am glad we did as there was some more climbing on snow covered slabs with cruddy snow which felt very insecure. However we were soon at the start of the summit ridge.
"We both wanted to be on a belay but there was nothing to belay off. This also meant there was nothing to abseil off, so we just had to get on and do it"
After an abseil down we dumped the bags and headed up Sgurr Alasdair with lovely evening light everywhere before descending down into TD gap and then down into Coir’ a’Ghrunnda, where we spent the second night. This felt much colder than the previous night but this might have been more due to damp sleeping bags, soaking feet, and being exhausted from two long days of walking.
The next morning we were both very tired and struggled to get going, especially with only one hot drink due to the gas getting too cold. We “quickly” walked up to try and warm up and were soon feeling happier. After dumping our bags we climbed Sgurr Dubh Mor and it became clear that even if we had made more progress in the previous few days we wouldn’t have got further than we had. We could only climb this Munro due to the snow having frozen overnight - it was fairly steep and very exposed and would have been un-climbable in soft snow.
After an interesting downclimb we were back at the bags and headed on south. After a few disheartening false summits the end of the ridge was in sight. We carried on along a brilliant ridge line to the end of the ridge at Gars-bheinn and at 10am we arrived at the top very tired but very happy to have just completed such a fantastic expedition.
After the steep descent off Gars-bheinn the walk along back to Glen Brittle went on a bit, but at around 1pm we arrived in the car park. Two painless hitches brought us back to the car and a pint in the Slig.
It was a brilliant route but was very tiring due to constant grade I winter terrain, lots of grade II which had to be soloed with plenty of grade III steps which we soloed most of. Combine this with 24km of distance, 4000m of height gain and little sleep. Overall from road to road we took 53.5hrs of which 30hrs was spent walking. From the first top to the last we took 47hrs with 24hrs walking. There is nothing else in the UK of this scale and I don’t think we could have had better conditions for the route. Everything about it was alpine and I can’t think of a better way to have finished my fantastic 2013 winter season.