Monday, May 19, 2008

54-61. The Southern Cuillin Ridge 17/05/08

Sgurr nan Eag (265), Sgurr Dubh Mor (228), Sgurr Alasdair (154), Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (217), Sgurr Dearg (In Pin) (164), Sgurr na banachdich (190), Sgurr a'Ghreadaich (185), Sgurr a'Mhadaidh (277).

Having never been on the main Cuillin ridge before and with Robin only having been on it a couple of times, we were in for a bit of a trial by fire when we set out to walk the whole thing in a day (how hard can 11km along a ridge be?!). Needless to say we didn't manage the whole lot and had to make our way back to the campsite after 8 of the peaks. Before I start my description, I should perhaps try to highlight how these hills differ from those on the mainland by introducing some new language.
Exposure: This is basically how scary the stretch of climb is. Lots of exposure might mean there is a big vertical drop to each side, low exposure means that if you slip, then you'll probably be ok.
Scrambling has various different grades: Grade one is where one can no longer walk up the hill. i.e. one uses hands, knees and feet for supporting weight, but there isn't normally much in the way of exposure. This grade can be found on routes up a few Munros other than the Cuillin.
Grade 2 is rarely found on the best routes up Munros other than the Cuillin. It will usually involve a large amount of exposure and will be steep or narrow, but the hand and foot holds will be quite easy to find.
Grade 3 can be anything up to a full-on rock climb. It will usually involve some tricky climbing moves amongst some more grade 2 style scrambling, but with lots of exposure.
Rock climbing is a step up from that. The climb will be vertical and will involve much harder moves and often very small or tricky holds. One should usually use a rope and not carry a rucksack. These are graded Easy, Moderate, Difficult, Severe, etc
I took to grade 2 scrambling really well and thoroughly enjoyed the new challenge. Some of the grade 3 stuff was great too, but once or twice Grade 3 made me a little edgy. The rock climbing was somehow better, because when one has a rope it is a more controlled enviroment and there isn't such fear (even with the level of exposure on the Inaccessible Pinnacle).
To start the description of our trip, we got up at 4.40am and set off carrying 3 litres of water each, plenty of food, harnesses and rope. We were soon merrily clambering into the eerie Coir'a'Ghrunnda and then attacking the northern slopes of the first peak, Sgurr nan Eag. The scrambling wasn't too hard here and we were at the top by 8am. We had a great view along the ridge, now mostly clear of mist, the airy peak of Sgurr Alasdair looking ominous across the corrie. We then began the walk along the ridge, depositing our packs to make the short detour to Sgurr Dubh Mor. This involved some more challenging grade 2-3 scrambling, but posed no real problem. It had an even better view along the ridge from its slightly removed postition. It was still only 9am, so we were optimistic, but things were about to get a bit more time consuming. One approach to Sgurr Alasdair is via the T-D gap, which involves an abseil and climbing pitch, so we skirted round looking for a grade 3 scrambling route that should take us to the top. Sgurr Alasdair is so steep, that at one point we were 0.1 miles from the summit, but still had more than 200m to climb. When only about 30m from the top, we came up against a wall and couldn't see a way on. We discovered afterwards that the main route was to the right of this, but it didn't look too appetising, so we went left where it looked slightly easier. Easier soon turned into tricky and then into more of a rock climb, which wasn't intended and was quite worrying in places, but we made it to the top eventually. I dropped my gloves, though, which made me unhappy for the rest of the climb. We needed a brief moment to calm our nerves and regain some energy on this spectacular summit before moving off. The time was now 11.30, so the whole ridge was looking less attainable, but we pressed on to what was probably my favourite stretch. Sgurr Alasdair is slightly off the ridge, so we descended to just above the T-D gap and then enjoyed some great scrambling up to the highest top on the ridge, Sgurr Thearlaich (not a Munro). We had to abseil down into Bealach Mhic Choinnich, where we had two choices. One was a Difficult rock climb up the face of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and the other was to skirt round the peak on the narrow-looking Hart's Ledge and get to the top from the other side. We went for this option and although the ledge was very exposed, the footing was sound and it was really quite an easy (and exhilerating) scramble. This fourth Munro was achieved by about 1pm and now we looked on to the infamous 'In Pin' which could be seen with a queue of climbers already on it. Getting there was fairly straightforward and we were able to leave our bags and rope up without any queue. This freakish knife-edge promintary of rock is climbed from the south edge. If on a climbing wall, this wouldn't be considered a very tricky rock climb, but the fact that there is a 30m drop on the left and a 200m drop on the right and that the area you have to work with is usually only a foot or so wide makes it more of a test of nerve. Robin went up first, stopping on a ledge halfway to let down a rope for me. I went up to join him and then he went on the the top. There were no hiccups and it was a great feeling at the summit. I seemed to want to sit down, though, because standing with a drop on all sides was making me dizzy. Abseiling down the far side was a simple business and we rested on the neighbouring top of Sgurr Dearg to survey the pinnacle - it doesn't look so high from the north, but it looks much steeper. It was now 4pm - climbing takes time. The next stretch of the ridge is an elegant sweep up to Sgurr na Banachdich - lots of grade 2 scrambling to get over two false summits and then reach the top. Despite the fact that this was probably the longest stretch betwen two peaks so far, we were there by 5pm. We had a great view either way along the ridge from here. The coming stretch looking particularly interesting. It started with the small top of Sgurr Thormaid, which we should have just climbed, but we decided to try and follow a small path around the side - this was a mistake, because it turned very difficult and exposed. Then there were the three teeth - this time the path to the left did work and we were now faced with the steep narrow north ridge of Sgurr a'Greadaidh. It involved some good grade 3 scrambling and once the south top was achieved, we walked (or sometimes crawled) along the tightrope crest to the north top. This bit was a genuine knife-edge and would really have been quite fun if we weren't so weary. It was now 6.30pm and we decided to go for one more peak. We descended into the gap of An Dorus, which involved some tricky scrambling and then scampered up to the top of Sgurr a'Mhadaidh, which we reached by 7.15pm. If our brains had been working, we would probably have descended north along slightly tricky slopes towards Sligachan to pick up our car, but being too tired to think we just decided to just drop down into corrie An Dorus and trudge back to the campsite. The start of the descent was bone-jarringly steep, but it soon levelled out into a pleasant walk and we pulled out a sprint finish to the road, where we hitched the remaining mile or two to the campsite. In all we had been walking for 16.5 hours, had done more than 3km or ascent, climbed 8 out of the 11 munros and had walked about 7km of the ridge. It made us feel slightly inadequate that the guy who gave us a lift was planning to run the whole ridge in under 5 hours the next day, but he did seem like a bit of a loon. All in all, it had been an excellent outing in perfect weather and we'll be back next year, I'm sure.

Blaven across Loch Coriusk

Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and the In Pin from the south.

Robin after Hart's Ledge

The In Pin across the An Stac screes, with Sgurr na Banachdich behind.

A side-on close up of the In Pin. Our ascent on the left and descent on the right.