On Sunday 14th Feb Finlay Wild and Tim Gomersall pulled off probably the fastest ever traverse of the Cuillin main ridge in full winter conditions, taking in 11 Munros and all the obstacles on the crest between Sgurr nan Gillean and Gars-bheinn in a time of 6hrs 14mins and 17secs. They aren't claiming a record, but it would be surprising if it's ever been done quicker.
As the current summer traverse record holder (2.59.22 - see here) Finlay Wild's running credentials are well known, but he also has the requisite background in Scottish winter climbing. Though only 23 Tim Gomersall is no slouch either, with plenty of alpine experience and the record for the Greater Cuillin Traverse.
Amazingly Sunday was their first time on the ridge in full winter conditions, and also their first day out together as a team. But they were well matched, Finlay tells us, with Tim's initial youthful pace being made up for later by Finlay's stamina.
With reports of good conditions circulating on social media, and a rare excellent weather forecast, the ridge has seen several strong traverses in recent days. On Monday 15th Uisdean Hawthorn soloed it in eight hours, unaware of Finlay and Tim's effort the day before.
'This is very likely a new winter record' said local luminary Mike Lates of Skye Guides, who writes regular winter conditions reports for UKClimbing 'but equally significant is that dozens of folk managed it because conditions were so ideal.'
'I was able to give enough forewarning, and the combo of modern forecasts and the internet allows climbers to capitalise when things are good. Of interest was that mixed conditions weren't brilliant and for once the Ridge, or sections of it, was the thing to do. The norm is the other way around and the reputation for good Ridge conditions being extremely rare is justified. Last year we had incredible mixed and ice conditions but the Ridge was never in. The previous season three parties succeeded on final day of winter with the two parties who bivvied finishing on black rock day two! It is great that so many were able to appreciate Britains greatest mountaineering route but I would encourage them to next come back and do some real Cuillin climbing!'
'A winter traverse had always been on my radar' Finlay told us today, 'but it was luck that conditions, a partner and time off work came together.'
'We had heard that the Cuillin traverse was in excellent winter condition, and were aware of several parties who had completed traverses in the past few days' he writes in his blog.
'The weather looked to remain good for Sunday, if a little windy, so we arranged to drive up to Sligachan and sleep in the van.'
With a northeasterly wind at their backs for the customary winter north-south traverse (south-north is more common in summer), plus abseils already excavated and a trail broken along much of the route by previous parties, conditions were ideal for a fast time.
'Setting off at 05.25am to walk in up the South East ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean we were brimming with enthusiasm' Finlay writes.
'The weather was clear and we could gradually make out the familiar mountain masses as the dawn developed. Popping out on the South East ridge and seeing the main Cuillin spread out before us in its winter coat lit by early morning light was breathtaking.'
'Setting off from Sgurr nan Gillean we were incredibly excited. Tim set a blistering initial pace and fell back on his alpine experience to rig the first abseil extremely quickly. From then on we developed an efficient partnership, soloing and running between the more technical short sections or abseils.'
Snow cover on the scree helped the pair set a strong pace, with some sections going nearly as fast as in summer. When moving quickly they felt, if anything, a little over-equipped; but conversely at the slower technical sections their gear felt very minimal.
'At times [we] were overheating in just a single thin top layer' says Finlay, 'but as we got to Sgurr na Banachdich and the change of general ridge direction, it got a bit colder in the wind.'
Gear was stripped to the bare essentials:
- Salomon X-Alp Carbon GTX boots - at 500g each essentially a stiff running shoe with an outer gaiter. 'These take a crampon remarkably well' says Finlay.
- Two axes apiece to allow a maximum of soloing - one technical and one super light axe each
- For the multiple abseils a 38m length of 8mm, and a 26m length of 6mm cord
- Multiple slings and abseil tat, a small rack of nuts and four quickdraws for use on the Inn Pinn and TD Gap
- Just over 1 litre of water each and gels and jelly babies for fuel
Simul-climbing up the In Pinn, they reached the summit block at just 3 hours 15 minutes out from Gillean.
'After a quick abseil and another gel we continued on, and warmed up. Abseiling Kings Chimney we should have used both ropes, but didn't and had a short awkward downclimb.'
Approaching the TD Gap, the last technical pitch of the route, Finlay felt apprehensive. Many parties avoid the gap via Coire a' Ghrunnda - especially in winter - but their purist ethic meant taking it head-on, quite a prospect for a lightly equipped team.
'After a brief pitiful attempt at some lassoing of the top of the gap from abseil, we descended and I set off on an anxious lead. To my delight, I found several positive hooks which I had no idea were there, despite knowing this short section well in summer. It's pretty steep with poor feet and my forearms were screaming, but at least it is short and fairly soon I was up and out. Me delighted, Tim seconded up and we continued on.'
'We... picked up the pace slightly and enjoyed a brilliant romp up Sgurr Dubh Mor. Racing down the snowy gully towards Caisteal a' Garbh-Choire was certainly easier than ascending it in summer, although we had to make a few minor route changes in these winter conditions. From Sgurr nan Eag we stayed close, pushing each other on, and finally reached Gars-bheinn and its eagle's eerie view in a pretty knackered state.'
'We took in the ridge and that favourite view across to a snow topped Bla Bheinn, before stumbling our way down the south west screes to the track and some water. A friendly family on holiday squeezed us into their car at Glen Brittle and dropped us back at Sligachan, for a much needed cup of tea.'
- When he's not smashing mountain running records or working as a GP in Lochaber, Finlay Wild turns his hand to painting. An exhibition of his technicolour mountain landscapes is curently being held at the John Muir Trust's Alan Reece Wild Space Gallery in Pitlochry. Kaleidoscope runs until April 9th. We had asked Finlay to tell us about his painting, but it seems he's been a bit busy recently.