Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Cuillin of Skye: Sgurr nan Gillean

I arrived at Sligachan at teatime. On a summer's evening, there was still plenty of time to climb the three northernmost Cuillin Munros - Bruach na Frithe, Am Bastier, and Sgurr nan Gillean.

Sgurr nan Gillean from Sligachan:

Sgurr nan Gillean sits at the termination of the jagged Black Cuillin ridge, facing across to the worn, rounded Red Cuillin. There are three routes to the top, all difficult. The climbers-only Pinnacle Ridge, the terrifying scramble of the West Ridge, and the deceptively named 'Tourist Route'. I was keen to tackle the West Ridge, and headed up a boggy path from Sligachan - all bog myrtle and midges - into the naked, rockier world of Coire a' Bhasteir, being careful to stick to the boiling black slabs and avoid the deep slot gorge of the All Dearg Beag. Above, the Basteir Tooth hung menacingly. To the left, the pinnacles of Pinnacle Ridge revealed themselves. Obscured in roadside views by being head-on, Pinnacle Ridge consists of four huge pinnacles, each bigger than its neighbour: culminating in the fifth pinnacle of Sgurr nan Gillean itself.  I scanned the West Ridge looking for Nicholson's Chimney - I had read this was the easiest route onto the ridge. It was going to be key to a successful ascent.

Pinnacle ridge from Coire a' Bhasteir:

Steep but easy ground leads to the Bealach a' Bhasteir, where the real work of the evening begins. The West Ridge starts with an impassable face, but a short traverse round to the north leads to a couple of gullies. I investigated and attempted them, making sure I was comfortable with reversing each move. At the top of the gullies I popped out onto the West Ridge proper, and clung tightly to the rock. To take another step would be like stepping out onto a tightrope over the Niagra Falls. I reeled, gravity tugging at my feet. Suddenly, the vision of my mother weeping by my graveside popped into my head. Sick with awe, I carefully returned to the safety of the gully and descended.

Had this been Nicholson's Chimney? If so, it had led me straight to the narrowest and most terrifying part of the Cuillin Ridge. I was sure it was a further traverse along... but I looked, and nothing seemed obvious. Could I traverse all the way round to the gap between the summit and Knight's Peak on Pinnacle Ridge and try there? No, I had had my fill. I would content myself with Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe, and tackle Sgurr nan Gillean via the Tourist Route next morning.

Back at the campsite I fell into conversation with a man who was pissed off. The hotel staff, he informed me, had unpitched his tent whilst he was away and thrown it in the river. He had no proof of this, but had had an altercation with them the night before about camping next to the hotel. The trouble is it is not really a campsite - just an area of wild ground next to the Sligachan Hotel. The owners don't like people camping there for free and fouling the river with human waste, but this being Scotland and still stuck in the feudal age, they have no powers to create an official campsite. I had a few pints and decided that to be on the safe side, I would just sleep in my car. Changed days from when the elderly Cuillin pioneer Norman Collie would sit in the lounge of the Slig, looking up in melancholy reminisce at the hills he was now too infirm to climb, but not changed enough.

Eastern Cuillin from path to Camasunary:

And so next morning I set off early from the Sligachan Hotel, following the rough, boggy path along the Sligachan River; the day fine, warm, and full of promise. The path in the glen continued on for some way below the sunlit pinnacles of Pinnacle Ridge, until the summit itself was passed and the path turned uphill. Four points of contact were necessary at times, and the trail wasn't the easiest to follow. I wondered what else lay above. I hoped the Tourist Route would not defeat me as the West Ridge had done.

Eventually the southern ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean is reached. I headed upwards and, each time I thought the ridge couldn't get any narrower (controlling my breathing, telling myself "slow and steady gets you there"), another even more exposed section appeared. I kept my head however, even over the hardest part: an awkward, undignified step over a precarious ledge. Sensationally exposed, yet a piece of pish compared to the West Ridge.

Sgurr nan Gillean from Blaven, later the same day:

At last I reached the tiny summit with a sense of relief and achievement. This is one of the very finest summits in the British Isles, surely the airiest outside a sea stack. The entire main ridge of the Cuillin stretches away west and south, a complicated, densely sculptured area where the ordinary 1:50,000 scale Landranger map is entirely hopeless. The whole Cuillin Ridge covers less ground area than the single Munro Ben Wyvis.

East of Sgurr nan Gillean, across the deep trench of Glen Sligachan, lie the smoother, rounded Red Hills, and the long, jagged spine of Blaven. I looked at it. I looked at my watch. It was early enough in the day. I fancied climbing it too. Thus I gingerly retraced my steps over the Tourist Route, breathing more easily the lower I descended, yomped along Glen Sligachan out to the road, and drove to Torrin for my second Munro of the day, the joy of youth and movement in my veins.


blueskyscotland said...

Been up pinnacle ridge a few times but any route is good on that mountain. There is a campsite at sliggy two minutes walk from the pub. Stayed there last summer and it was only £6 a night which even we thought was cheap and good value.

Robert Craig said...

Sounds good Bob/Alex. It was a while ago I was last in the Cuillin - I really want to return again. I think my head for heights has likely got even worse in the meantime though.