Wednesday, June 03, 2009

97-99. The Northern Cuillin Ridge (Bruach na Frithe (200), Am Basteir (242), Sgurr nan Gillian (191)) 31/5/09

Well, the weather was really poor. I think we saw a small wispy cloud a mile or so above us at about 3pm - it really ruined it. I guess we had to make do with what we had.

Having bailed out after Sgurr Mheadaidh the previous year, we made this our first objective as Robin and I set off before 6 on a clear morning. We must have reached the summit by about 8 and were then on uncharted territory. Despite not having any other high tops, this next section of the ridge is one of the most tricky, with a certain amount of rock climbing required. But we had excellent conditions - with next to no wind and good clarity - and the rock is beautifully grippy, so we didn't have any difficulties. We got the better of the exposure and even managed without the rope here, which saved time. The scrambling along to Bidein Druim na Ramh was excellent, but we decided to avoid this little top due to the presence of a tricky down-climb off the middle peak, which would have required an abseil. As we passed on the west side, we looked up to see that an abseil pitch would have been quite possible, so maybe we should have gone for it, but better to be safe than sorry. Continuing on in a more northerly direction, we scrambled over An Casteil, which had three clefts to negotiate on the crest. The first two could be stepped over with relative ease, but the third required a 'bold leap'. It wasn't too bad (only about a metre) as long as you didn't spend too much time looking down into the gap, which was deep and full of danger! At the far end of An Casteil, we found ourselves looking down a sheer wall. There was no way I was climbing down it without a rope, so an awkward abseil ensued in slightly cramped conditions, but there was a place to pitch, so we assumed this was as intended.

Having packed away our harnesses after what would turn out to be the only time we used them, we gorged on flapjacks and began the somewhat easier sloped of Bruach na Frithe. We topped out at midday and suddenly there were other people around. The summit was positively crowded (this being probably the most accessible of all the peaks) and having only seen one other person in the previous 6 hours of ridge we suddenly had to do things like converse with people! One elderly chap had been so taken with the conditions at the top (it was perfectly still and warm) that he had been there for over two hours and was at that point deciding whether to attempt the slightly trickier Am Basteir, which lies only half a mile away. The top afforded probably the best views from anywhere on the ridge and especially the strange perspective one gets from looking on to the final two Munros. Basteir's tooth looking grim and ominous, with Am Basteir itself rearing up behind it at a jaunty angle and the much larger looking Sgurr nan Gillean in the background. Naismith's route which goes up the tooth is something only to be attempted by expert climbers and certainly wasn't for me in walking boots and we could see why.

After a short rest, we descended below and round Am Basteir (almost down to 700m) and then reascended to the bealach on the far side, where we left our packs to climb back up the most hospitable route. We were warned about a particular 'bad step' on this approach and so skirted round this, but it turned out to be quite straightforward compared to other bits of climbing we'd done, so we went over it on the return. Standing on the summit was quite vertiginous, although it's not quite as small as the top of the In Pin and it afforded spectacular views. We felt suitable humbled, however, when we were overtaken here by a middle aged man completing the ridge in about 8 hours, having bivvied on the ridge the previous night. Of course he had travelled light, without a rope and things, which makes it easy...

Picking up our packs and moving on to Sgurr nan Gillian, we had to start with a moderate rock climb, which was made trickier by having to overtake two roped-up climbers with a guide who wasn't too sympathetic to my requests for him to keep his rope still for 2 minutes whilst we edged past it. This meant that I was a little shaky after we finished this climb and this was the first time I really began to feel tired. Still, we were almost at the summit, so we pressed on, climbing through a tight window in the rock to get there. It was a good feeling to get there, meaning that we had completed the ridge (albeit in just over a year, or in about 19 hours, depending on which way you look at it!). There was no wind, so we were able to have a decent rest here and take some photos before heading down.

Whilst not being nearly as tired as the previous year, the descent of the east ridge seemed to take forever and it was only when we were fully on the flat did it become easier again. We had some venison and picked up our car from the Slighachan Hotel, who's whiskey collection was worthy enough of note that we vowed to make arrangements to sample some next time.

This part of the ridge took us 7 hours, plus 5 for ascent and descent, as opposed to 12 plus 5 the previous year, so although the second part was a bit shorter, we had definitely made better time. This was probably solely down to experience and fewer uses of a rope, so if we tried again, a time of 14 hours or so might be doable for the complete traverse.

BnF and AB from SnG.

Robin on SnG, with the earlier part of the ridge behind him.

Basteir's tooth, AB and SnG from the west.

Looking back south from BnF on almost the full extent of the ridge.

Looking on to the 3 pinnacles of SM and the northern Cuillin beyond.