Sunday, 12 September 2021

The Skye Cuillin: Dark Rampart of Mountaineering Desire

Beyond misery, despair, hatred, treachery,
beyond guilt and defilement: watchful,
heroic, the Cuillin is seen
rising on the other side of sorrow.

An Cuilithionn, (The Cuillin), Sorley Maclean


Landscapes get the poets they deserve. Lakeland had Wordsworth, ('bliss it was in that dawn to be alive') and the Grampians Byron ('away ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses') but there is one landscape in Britain that stands braes apart from the rest of this rounded and well-tramped archipelago. This is the Black Cuillin, the ultimate place; not the highest perhaps but the steepest, rockiest and most naked, out of bounds except to rock climbers and the most intrepid scramblers, washed with 4m annual rainfall and guarded by sudden disorientating sea-mists and fierce midges.

Such a landscape deserves an equally outstanding poet. It has one: Sorley Maclean. If you aren't aware of him, there is a good reason. He wrote in Gaelic, a language as sadly inacessible to most of us as some of Skye's more difficult peaks. But the English translations of his work give a taste of what you are missing:

In ascent from the corrie,
foot on shelf, finger on little edge,
chest to boulder, mouth to jutty,
on crack step head not dizzy,
tough arm strong unturning
till it grasps the skyline of your fifth peak,
where will break on the struggle's head
the great dim sea of gabbro waves,
knife-edge of high narrow ridges,
belt of the dark steel surge:
an ocean whose welter is tight in rocks,
its yawning mouths permanent in narrow chasms,
its spouting everlasting in each turret,
its swelling eternal in each sgurr.

We are a long way from daffodils here.


These dark ramparts of mountaineering desire lie beyond ordinary walkers, but my friend Graham and I recently hired the services of Skye Guides to take us along a part of the ridge. The Inaccessible Pinnacle was behind us: Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh lay ahead. 

Many years ago I had attempted the Cuillin Ridge in one expedition with a friend, abandoned at the Bealach Bannachdich due to bad weather. I separately climbed Sgurr na Bannachdich myself but didn't fancy the look of carrying on to Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh alone. The Skye Munros were all bagged, but the full ridge linking Sgurr na Bannachdich and Sgurr nan Gillean remained virgin territory, barring a teenage expedition in winter up Bidean Druim nan Ramh that I have no wish to repeat!

On Sgurr Thormaid with Graham and Tom from Skye Guides:

Our route seemed modest on the map, over the four Munros of the Inacessible Pinnacle, Sgurr na Bannachdich, Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, and Sgurr a' Mhadaidh, but Tom showed us how moving over technical terrain is a slow and methodical business, requiring constant communication to keep the rope between us taut. I had never moved together on a rope before, and found the teamwork aspect enjoyably absorbing. The difficulties melted away, moves made that I would never attempt solo. With Tom's encouragement, we maximised the scrambling by sticking to the stimulatingly exposed crest as much as possible, a process that was not just not terrifying, but actually fun

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh from Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh:

By Sgurr a' Mhadaidh it was clear that we had had a good day out and there was no prospect of going further. Content with the new terrain we had visited, I looked along the ridge. The rest of the way towards Sgurr nan Gillean would have to be tackled in another trip, maybe even two.

We turned downhill for the punishing descent into Coire a' Ghreadaidh and to slake our thirst in the burn.

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