The recent warm, dry spell of weather has got us thinking about the Cuillin Ridge on Skye. A traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is a classic expedition that many people aspire to. What most people underestimate is just how big a challenge it is and how well it measures up to anything else in the world. It is truly world class.
Black Cuillin, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Eleven Munro’s are climbed on the full traverse, the highest being Sgurr Alasdair, 992m
A traverse of the full ridge often starts with Gars Bheinn on the south end and goes north to finish on Sgurr nan Gillean.
The walk out will feel far longer than it really is but you do eventually reach the Sligachan for a well earned celebration.
From Gars Bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean is 11km including the short extra bits to get to Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr Alasdair. There’s also 1750m of ascent going along the ridge. Add on to this the walk in (2.5km and 895m ascent from Loch Scavaig) and walk out (5km to Sligachan) making it 18.5km with 2645m ascent.
The exact route taken is open to much variation and you’ll need to decide your rules of engagement. Taking all the easiest options means there are several sections at grade Difficult that must be climbed and a few abseils. Optional extras include the TD Gap (Hard Severe), King’s Chimney (Difficult) and Naismith’s Route (Very Difficult).
Guidebook and Map
The SMC guidebook “Skye Scrambles” has a good description of all the individual sections as well as good diagrams. Andy Hyslop’s mini guide to the ridge is possibly the best resource to have though. The Harvey’s map “Skye The Cuillin” is the best map and is printed on waterproof paper. It’s at 1:25,000 but has the main ridge at 1:12,500 scale and also describes common routes on the sides of the main ridge.
The logistics can be awkward down to the single track roads and the length of the traverse. Two cars are often necessary and being based at Sligachan is probably best. Leave one car here and drive to Elgol to take the boat to Loch Scavaig. If it all works out you will get back to Sligachan after the traverse. However, if you escape off the ridge early you will end up in Glen Brittle a long way from your car.
Going from South to North as is most common in the summer, you have two options.
From Glen Brittle camp site it is best to walk up the newly made path to Coir a’Ghrunnda. There is good water here so you don’t have to carry any for the two hour walk in. A short boulder slope from the west end of the loch takes you to the crest of the ridge. Dump the bags and go out to Sgurr nan Eag to start your traverse from there.
The better option these days is to take the fast boat from Elgol to Loch Scavaig. You can ask to be dropped off on the west shore for the easiest route up to Gars Bheinn where purists will say you have to start anyway. This approach has the added dimension of a boat trip making the whole enterprise feel that much more adventurous, and is recommended.
There is far too much detail in the 11km along the ridge to include much of a description here. There is continuous scrambling and occasional sections of rock climbing. Getting along the ridge involves more route finding skills than navigation and it takes a while to get used to the structure of the rock to choose the best route. There are a few sections where time can be saved (or lost) with a bit of knowledge of the best line to take so spending a few days scoping out these sections is time well spent. In the mist, completing the traverse is all but impossible without prior knowledge of the best line.
Sections to scope out include –
Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor. Sgurr nan Eag involves only very simple scrambling if the best line is taken, this being on the west side of the crest. Sgurr Dubh Mor has a complex line that is particularly confusing in the mist.
You can lose a lot of time in the TD Gap so it might be worth doing this with your rucksack on or practicing hauling your packs. It’s good to know how to avoid it as well in case it turns out to be wet – traverse under the west side of the TD Gap on a trail in the scree to the Bad Step of the south west ridge of Sgurr Alasdair. Scramble up this and reach the top of Sgurr Alasdair.
Sgurr a’Mhadaidh and Bidein Druim nan Ramh are complex peaks, each with several tops. The central peak of Bidein usually requires an abseil to descend and finding the abseil point is tricky as it is not obvious.
Best tactics for a complete traverse
Spend some time on the ridge before you set out on your traverse. The Cuillin hills are unique in the UK for their continuously rocky nature and the relentless exposure on the crest of the ridge. It’s the never ending concentration required that is so draining for most people and getting used to the scrambling both up and down will help with this. By moving efficiently and confidently on exposed sections you’ll save lots of energy, both physical and mental, so get some long days in on the ridge first.
Set your rules of engagement. What is your objective? To reach all eleven Munros? To get from end to end? To do these and to climb the TD Gap and Naismith’s Route? Make sure you agree your objectives with your partners but be prepared to change these if the weather does not work out as expected.
Decide whether to bivi on the ridge. Watching the sun set over the sea from a camp on the crest of the ridge and scrambling on the ridge in the early hours of the next day are great experiences. The down side is carrying the extra gear required. Going light and fast is great, as long as you do move fast. Even then you should expect one of the longest days of mountaineering you’ll ever do. Another idea if the forecast is good, is to have a big dinner then walk up in the evening to sleep on the ridge. You’ll have less to carry then and will have a head start on the traverse.
Why is it so special?
It’s the toughest single mountaineering challenge in the UK so it’s always going to be valued very highly. However, there is so much more than this. Being on an island and rising straight out of the sea makes the setting outstanding. Sections of the ridge require you to stay absolutely on the crest with the full drop down to the sea on one side and down to Loch Coruisck on the other. The nature of the volcanic rocks is fascinating, following stepped dykes sometimes and crossing the many gaps where dykes cutting across the ridge have eroded. The combination of all these makes it very special but it’s even more special because you have to work hard and have some good luck to complete a traverse. As with most things, the more you have to work to achieve something, the better the reward.
We have guides available to help you complete a full traverse on any dates. Have a look here for full details. We also have four day trips to reach as many Munros in the Cuillin as possible. In good weather all 11 can be reached in four days. The cost is £470 per person for the four days and dates are 13th - 16th May and 24th - 27th September. Details here - Cuillin Munro Bagging.
We set a new record today for the most people climbing on Rannoch Wall on a February day. Given the dry warm weather it was an obvious choice but I still didn't expect quite so many people to be there enjoying the conditions. Elved, Tony and I were the fifth team up Agag's Groove, the best V.Diff. rock climb in the world, and several teams abseiled back down for multiple laps of the crag. January Jigsaw, Grooved Arete, Crowberry Ridge Ordinary Route, D Gully Buttress and Curved Ridge were all enjoyed by lots of people sharing a crag in very good humour.
For Elved, Tony and I, Agag's Groove was enough for the one day Elved climbs with a prosthetic foot after a climbing accident and this was the first rock climbing in ten years for Tony! We flowed up the route very nicely though and enjoyed the sensational exposure and sense of vast place above Rannoch Moor.
So soon after the cold weather there are more than a few slightly mobile holds so a little care should be taken. The nice wobbly spike right at the crux fell off a while ago last year but this has not really affected the moves past it to be honest. John, Jon and Tamsin enjoyed a lap and a half of the crag as well next to us, and our mountaineering course finished with a climb of Ledge Route. The settled dry and warm weather will be with us for another couple of days by the look of it before it cools down at theweekend and we go back to more normal weather and temperature for the time of year.
It feels like April in Scotland, with warm springtime weather and a receding snow pack that we would expect to see after a long and fruitful winter. Instead, it's late February and we should be battling storms, snow and serious winter conditions. This does not mean that there is no fun to be had in our mountains though. There is still great mountaineering to enjoy and if the rock is dry, go rock climbing! It's a fabulous place to be whatever you end up doing to engage with and enjoy the landscape. Get stuck in and have adventures that fit the current conditions.
So on Thursday Rintje, Sally Tom and I climbed NE Buttress on Ben Nevis. This is a classic mountaineering ridge climb that is equally good in summer as it is in winter. In fact it's great in the autumn and spring as well! There were some snow patches and the rock was wet and slimy but it was a fantastic climb and Rintje and I could not work out why we had not climbed it together before now. The snow patches were on the approach traverse from Coire Leis and on the sections of the climb that move left onto the Little Brnva Face slightly. The crest is mostly bare rock, the Mantrap and Forty Foot Corner are just on rock and just as hard as ever!
This weekend has been really very busy for us. Our Performance Winter Climbing Workshop took place at The Ice Factor yesterday, we had two groups on the Winter Walking Skills Workshop and our Winter Mountaineering Course started the three days with a climb of Curved Ridge to look at rock anchors, moving together on ridge climbs and transfering to quick pitches with simple belays. Today our Winter Ben Nevis Walk is enjoying a fine day to reach the summit, the Performance Winter Climbing Workshop is in Glen Nevis working on rescue rope work skills on the rock, our Winter Mountaineering Course is in Coire na Ciste going through snow anchors in Number Three Gully and we have another team enjoying the super classic Tower Ridge.
The sun is shining, the flowers are starting to bloom, the mountains are calling. Immerse yourself in nature and have adventures! It's fundamental.
It was really nice to see some fresh snow on Ben Nevis today. It cooled down last night and fresh snow fell down to about the level of the CIC Hut at 700m or so. The snow was pretty wet underneath but it had frozen on the summit and everything had a very wintry look to it. Rintje, Tom and I went to climb Number Three Gully Buttress which worked out very well. I'd seen the ice at the start of the climb yesterday and it looked fine. As we walked up, Green Gully also looked fine but looks can be deceiving. The fresh snow was a bit wet and sticky, and had filled in the first itch of Green Gully with soft snow. It looked inviting but would have been horrible to try to climb.
Rintje and I climbed Number Three Gully Buttress a few years ago but there are lots of variations on the route that I took last time. This time we stuck to the classic route and it worked out very well. At the top the route steps over a really exposed corner and then follows a ramp to the top which is tremendously airy. It's a fantastic position that we got a good impression of despite the steady snowfall.
We came down Number Four Gully which was very nicely filled in with some soft snow. There was a little blocking and cracking of the new snow but not enough to cause any concern with the depth that had accumulated. It was a challenging day to stay dry. Rubber gloves worked well for me today!
After an amazing day on Monday, the temperature rose and it started to rain at all levels. We've had two wet days with the freezing level above the tops and we have lost a lot of ice and all the rime that was on the rocks. It was a bit drier today and it was nice to get back up Ben Nevis to see what snow cover has been left behind. The clouds broke away in the eraly afternoon and gave us a very good view of the whole face.
Snow cover above 900m is still pretty good. The big gullies are full of snbow still and most of the rocks in the coires are buried. Tower Ridge has snow on it as does NE Buttress and some on Observatory Ridge but Castle Ridge has little snow. There is still a little ice hanging on The Curtain, The Cascade and random blobs elsewhere. There's snow-ice in some gullies such as Central Right Hand and South Gully, Green Gully and Point Five Gully but also a lot of water running down.
We have several more days of thaw to endure but they will be mostly dry. I hope we will not lose much more snow but I think the remaining bits of ice will fall off. Today I was working with Nadir, Jon and Sally on a photography shoot. We climbed a very nice piece of ice on Number Three Gully Buttress to the right of Green Gully and abseiled off. The line of Number Three Gully Buttress was very wet indeed and quite unpleasant to climb! It seems like mountaineering ridges and skiing the big gullies will provide the best fun for the next wee while until it cools down again.
What a wonderful day to be on Ben Nevis. There were lots of people out enjoying a really nice day of weather and climbing conditions on the North Face and Rob, Ali and I had a fantastic time climbing Ledge Route. This was a wee step up for them, something more "ropey" than what they have done before and it hit the mark perfectly. It was so nice that we went over the summit and down into Coire Leis to soak up the North Face atmosphere again. Well done to Ali and Rob, you did great and I'm so pleased you got such a nice day.
There were lots of teams out climbing good (and some not so good) ice. The Shield Direct had people on the first pitch and it looked like people were climbing on Gemini. Sally and Adam climbed The Curtain and reported it as pretty fat. Central Gully Right Hand, Thompson's Route were climbed and Point Five Gully had a few teams on it. The ice on the snow-ice gullies is not perfect - it is a bit cruddy and a bit thin in places. We need some more snow, thaw and freeze cycles to bring it on some more and build ice on face climbs such as Orion Direct.
Mixed climbing is quite tough now that there is thick icy rime on many of the crags. That said - Cornucopia was climbed today! Even Tower Ridge was really tough going today with icy rime on the rocks, a crust on the snow and ice in the cracks making progress very slow. There was a team at the Man Trap on NE Buttress making good progress.
We have a really good base to the snow cover. The snow is not deep by any means, we don't have that much compared to some other winters. However, the snow that we do have is frozen in place and is covering all the rocks and boulders. So it is easy enough to get around the tops now and when we get more soft snow the skiing will be very good. For the rest of this week though we will get a thaw due to high pressure sitting to the south bringing warm air from the tropics up to Scotland. Hopefully it will move away quicker than it did in January!
More fresh snowfall last night gave Lochaber MRT members a very tough job to rescue two climbers stuck on Tower Ridge. The call out came in last night and everyone got down by 11am this morning after a very long night. Well done to everyone involved and thank you.
Dave and I went up Ben Nevis to find some more ice to climb. We went to Waterfall Gully first and found it to be pretty mushy and insecure to climb. We just did the first pitch before abseiling off. The direct start to Gemini is a bit too thin I'd say but the big smear higher up looks great. The Shield Direct is also a bit thin but it will not take much more ice to be good to climb.
We went round to climb The Curtain but we decided not to climb this one after hearing from Donald King that it was pretty soft and cruddy as well. He had got a bit up the second pitch before deciding to retreat using a V-thread that was already in place. So Dave and I went over to Douglas Boulder where we climbed the SW Ridge. This was pretty well covered in fresh soft snow but the older snow underneath was starting to be a bit firmer and usable.
The big gullies and coires are now pretty well covered with snow. Tomorrow will give us another brief thaw, this time slightly more effective than the last couple. I think it wil get the snow wet enough to refreeze but without taking away very much of it. We have a base of snow building up very nicely which will make the rest of the winter pretty good for walking to routes and for skiing. It will also start to make some proper snow-ice in the gullies and on the faces, ice that does not exist in much quantity at the moment. The big ridges are starting to fill in and the thaw and refreeze will help this process as well. The higher crags are well rimed up right now but they might not be after the thaw tomorrow.
Well done to Dave for his first week of substantial winter climbing. North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor, Green Gully, Last Post, Waterfall Gully and Douglas Boulder SW Ridge is a pretty good colection of climbs!
The long walk in to Creag Meagaidh is made easier by the lovely path and the trees you walk through in the lower part of the coire. SNH has been keeping the deer density lower here than in most estates for a couple of decades in order that the trees, heather and everything else growing in the ground can regenerate. It seems to be working well, is great for better biodiversity and is very nice to see. It's still a long walk in though!
The Post Face is home to some very nice ice climbs. It's a big turfy crag with fairly poor rock and lots of water running down the gullies and grooves. In the cold weather we had recently the ice on Last Post grew to be very fat and it gave David and me an excellent climb today. It was a bit warmer last night and it did not properly cool down today so the ice was soft and friendly generally but also a bit cruddy hollow in places.
We climbed the first icefall in one long pitch of about 55m. This is the crux of the whole climb and it feel like quite a long way today! The next two pitches also have fun ice climbing before a snow slope finish with lots of spindrift at the top. If this is the kind of route you aspire to lead we can help - we have on elast place on our Performance Winter Climbing Workshop. Get in touch if you would like to get some top coaching in steep ice and mixed climbing as well as a day of climbing on a nice (hard) route!
We had the full Scottish experience today - long walk in, long steep route, plenty of spindrift, white out on top demanding careful navigation - just brilliant!
If you want to push into grade IV ice climbing or you are only just there at grade IV, don't go and climb Green Gully right now! The ice is more like firm snow which is fine to climb but the protection is not very good and it requires a bit more thought than you might expect normally. I wonder what Raeburn would have made of the soft ice. He did the first ascent over 100 years ago with one long ice axe (alpenstock) each and nailed boots. Firm snow is much easier to cut handholds and steps into and I wonder if he might think todays conditions were ideal for his techniques. In the modern way of doing things, with technical ice axes and ice screws, you might want to wait until the snow-ice is more towards the icy end of the spectrum.
On the way up the path Dave and I found the going quite slow with refrozen lumpy snow on the trail. We saw a big area of avalanche debris under Number Five Gully which probably came down very early on Monday morning. We also saw quite a bit of ice on Carn Dearg Buttress - The Curtain is good to climb and was climbed on Saturday, Gemini is pretty close to being formed and Waterfall Gully looks pretty good.
If you go into Coire na Ciste take your big legs (or take someone with you who has big legs). The crust on the snow is really hard to make progress through, especially since you sink to knee depth on nearly every step. If you know how long my legs are you'll appreciate these are deep steps! There are pockets of windslab in the coire all over the place and gearing up was a real test in the strong wind blowing snow in our faces.
On the climb the wind seemed to die away and we had little spindrift. The crux pitch is on fat blue ice and there is no cornice. The buttresses up there are all rimed up still, the big easy gullies are full, the ridges are filling in nicely. We need some more thaw-freeze cycles to create really nice climbing in the steeper gullies but this will come.
It's nice to be back climbing after watching some very impressive BASE jumping last week! David is up for four days of winter climbing and it seems like he has picked a good week to be here. There was a brief thaw and a little rain up to 1200m or so last night for a couple of hours. It then cooled down again but we did not get much further snow today. There was a rain crust on the snow which is a stabilising indicator. The snow underneath was damp and might firm up some more when it freezes again properly. We didn't get the strong winds that were forecast so today was a very nice day to climb North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor and to soak up the expansive views.
There is snow down to about 100m above sea level but no rime on the rocks in Glen Coe. This is fine for North Buttress which can be climbed in just about any condition. There are lots of hooks in the rock and if there is snow-ice in the chimney it is even nicer. Easy, comfortable belays and amazing panaramic views make it a lovely route. We went up to the summit and enjoyed some sunshine on the descen tof Coire na Tullach.
We will hopefully get a good freeze tonight which might well firm up the snow a bit more. There is now the startings of a base to the snow cover and some ice climbs have been good to climb. With the cold weather of last week there is ice at Beinn Udlaidh and some gullies have enough snow-ice to climb them. Over on Creag Meagaidh it looks like Last Post and Centre Post Direct have been climbed.
On Ben Nevis the big gullies are filling in and the rocks on the ridges are being slowly covered over. It looks like we will get a couple of very nice days this week before some gentle thaw freeze cycles come through at the end of the week and weekend. This will further consolidate the snow cover and create a little more snow-ice in the climbs. It's starting to build nicely!
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.