Can a mere walker stand on one of the most fearsome summits of Skye? Read on to find out how...
PART 2: THE BLACK CUILLIN
The day dawned bright, still and gloriously clear. We had our weather window, so we shouldered our packs and headed straight for the mountain. The route to the base of Sgurr nan Gillean involved little more than 4km of plodding across boggy moorland, before the day exploded into life as we traversed below the dark spires of Pinnacle Ridge (a V Diff rock-climb, if you’re wondering why we dodged it).
The ‘tourist route’ up Sgurr nan Gillean involves picking through a complex labyrinth of corries, gullies, crags and rocky slopes that echo with the sound of underground rivers that rage beneath the rocks. A slight word of warning here – this is definitely not a tourist route. Maps become virtually useless once you probe into the core of the mountain, with footpaths vanishing below the vast sheets of boulders and scree that stretch across the mountain’s eastern flank. Our target was the south-east ridge, which provides a direct staircase to the top, but it required constant reassurance from our guidebook to locate the access point.
Mist billowed around us as we finally crested the arête, which only added to the mountain’s aura. We’d unlocked the key to Sgurr nan Gillean’s summit, which lay less than 200 vertical metres above us, but a thin cloak of cloud now concealed it from view. We were officially plugged in to the Cuillin Ridge and it was everything we’d hoped for: knotted, gnarled, exposed and incredibly exciting. An obstacle course of turrets, spikes and rakes criss-crossed the route ahead, but the rough, crystalline layers of volcanic gabbro provided excellent grip for our hands and feet, turning it into a scrambler’s dream.
The route became less obvious as we tiptoed closer to the summit, with the ridge slimming to a narrow pinch at the top. The final few moves involved clambering up a short rock wall, before shuffling along a narrow shelf of polished rock that undulated for around 20 metres towards the tiniest summit I’d ever set eyes on. The exposure was so great that we were indebted to the grim weather for masking the horror of our surroundings, because it felt like being suspended in air. I checked the guidebook one last time: “Many walkers will appreciate an experienced companion – and perhaps a rope – to complete the final section.” I only had one of those luxuries, so I took a deep breath then edged forward (unroped) along the final few steps.
I’d half expected to discover three witches cackling around a cauldron on Sgurr nan Gillean’s summit, but all we found was a puny cairn and even more cloud, denying us what should have been the finest view of our lives.
On the few occasions the gloom did break, however, we got precious glimpses of the entire ridge sweeping away threateningly to the west, and it was suddenly easy to understand why so many top mountaineers use Skye as their training ground.
We paused on top for five minutes then formulated an exit strategy. We were lucky to have arrived in such calm conditions, and we knew all too well how quickly weather systems can switch on Scotland’s Atlantic coast, so we scarpered back down the ridge as swiftly (and as safely) as we could.
A few hours later we were back in the hotel, already starting to formulate some of those legendary pub tales we’d come looking for. Over two days we’d romped across the highest Red Hills, before claiming the scalp of one of Scotland’s least accessible Munros. We’d carried no ropes, hired no guides and managed to stay (just about) within our comfort zones while infiltrating the infamous Cuillin Ridge. We’d successfully brought Skye’s two great ranges together and packaged them into one ultimate hillwalking weekend. The only downside was the 12-hour drive home...
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THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN TRAIL MAGAZINE