The Mammut Cuillin test event had arrived. This year Mammut is celebrating its 150th anniversary and they aim to create the biggest Peak Project in history with an objective of putting 150 teams on 150 peaks worldwide. With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, Sunday saw Jim and myself setting off from V12. The original plan had been to drive up on the Monday, see what the weather was like and go for an ascent on Tuesday or Wednesday giving one recovery day before driving back. However, with the weather looking so good we opted to go a day early so we could do a little recce, after all – neither of us had been to Skye before!
With a reasonable if not elongated drive we got our first hands on sight of the snow-covered peaks of the Cuillin as we drove west towards the Kyle of Lochalsh. It is an imposing sight, dominating the western skyline like the ramparts of some giants castle with unnatural contortions of rock that don’t seem to be physically possible. This feeling didn’t diminish the closer we got. It is colossal against all that is around it, sitting loftily, razor sharp and majestic against the skyline, no matter which direction your gaze is drawn to it from.
After a quick run down to Glen Brittle by the beach for some sustenance as the midges were starting to show, we pitched up for the night at the car park leading to Fairy Pools. The idea being that we have a look at the most complex route finding section of the ridge in the morning, as all we had to go on so far were words in a book and we desperately wanted to know what it was like first hand. It would also serve as a heads up as to where we would be going should conditions deteriorate on race day.
Monday dawned bright and clear and we wondered up past crystal clear waters cascading down the ravine cut by thousands of years of rain and melt water. The sun was hot even at 8 in the morning but the river waters were burningly cold. We couldn’t see as much snow today so we were hopeful that when we got up to the ridge we would find it mostly clear.
We gently slogged on to the ridge base, what had seemed like a small distance from the road soon grew into a sizeable march. We picked our way through the corries until we got to the last position we could see water, here we filled our empty bottles that we had brought for a stash and set off up the imposing scree slope to the top.
We arrived to 40-50 mph winds at Bealach na Glaic Moire, the shoulder between the three tops of Mhadaidh (which quickly became known as the three tops of Murghi Massala as we weren’t able to pronounce Mhadaidh correctly!) The views down to Loch Coruisk and the rest of the ridge were stunning and very daunting, it was immense and beyond anything I had imagined.
We had the rockfax pocket guide with us and soon decided to head north from our position to have a look at the section to Bruach na Frithe as it was described as having ‘some of the most complex route finding of the ridge during the traverse of Bidein.’ We were taking our time as it was still early and this was already more walking than I had done in some time.
The section ahead looked pretty impassable at first glance and certainly like the kind of thing you would need to be roped up for. However, with care and by following the guide’s instruction it turned out to be a great piece of scrambling. We continued on at a leisurely pace, soaking up the views and enjoying the incredible aspect of the ridge until we finally reached Bruach na Frithe where we bailed down the NW ridge and started the long trek back to the van.
We arrived at the accommodation in Carbost early evening. After checking the forecast we settled in and awaited the arrival of the rest of the crew. The weather suggested a Tuesday race but my legs were aching after our less than 10km romp and the prospect of the entire ridge plus a 6 to 7km walk in at each end appealed like a night out in the open in Glen Midge!
James and Phil from Outside arrived next having travelled a day early too and spent it climbing at Kilt Rocks. By 9pm the entire entourage were ensconced in the bar and discussion turned to the race. The inevitable decision to race in the morning was taken in short shift, with a 4am start called for. For insurance purposes each team was assigned a guide, Outside got Terry while we had Dougal Taverner, both teams were blessed by the fact that the guides were happy just to tag along and be there in case they were needed and to give what was to be their most important aid in the form of motivation. By the time we had got our Mammut gear together, discussed the route with Dougal (this didn’t take too long as none of us had done it before and the only info we had was from our days foray), prepared food and stripped everything back it was midnight. We promptly retired to our quarters.
4am turned up like the end of a great holiday, far too quickly. I crammed some coffee down Jim to get him functioning and within the hour we were falling out of the car at Glen Brittle hoping we hadn’t forgotten anything and trying to look mean, motivated and athletic for the camera. It has to be said I was way off ever getting close to fulfilling this requirement.
It was reasonably warm and obviously already light being so far north. I had already drunk 2 litres of water on the 15 minute drive to the start, trying to hydrate as much as possible before we passed our last water source and I continued in the same vein as we set off as a group in the general direction of Gars-bheinn, our first summit. The Outside team soon pulled ahead even though the race was to be timed from the first summit to the last – it seemed they had a faster ‘ambling’ pace than ours. Ten minutes later we found we had all taken the wrong footpath and we had to cut back over broken ground to get back on track, a fine start! The wind was strong from the SE and cold in exposed areas, but once we had traversed under Coire Lagan and got into the Coire leading to Coir a Ghrunnda, we became hot from the exertion of the constant rising ground, picking our way up short rock gulleys, screes and ridges. We met up with Outside at the Ghrunnda lake to refill with water (I had consumed another 3 litres to this point and this would be our last chance of water without descending off the ridge until we reached our stash) and started up the rock strewn ridge. Dumping our packs at the top, we pushed on SE towards Gars-bheinn. The idea being that we would begin on the summit and head back picking up our gear on the way, this would be the only section done without it.
The clouds had started to roll in, creeping down from the peaks obscuring all in their wake and we were soon in mist, dropping out of it again as we went in to the col after Sgurr nan Eag. It was testing route finding in sections and it seemed an awfully long way to get to Gars-bheinn. Again the Outside crew drew ahead, and as we got close to the summit they loomed purposely out of the mist jogging down. Their race had started.
The guides were there as time keepers and would record the time we left Gars-bheinn to that when we arrived at Sgurr nan Gillean, if we made it! Arriving on top we took shelter on the back of the hill and prepared ourselves. I wasn’t feeling particularily confident, I had pains in my calfs and one of my knees and I was frankly feeling like I would be lucky to make it half way, but as we gathered ourselves in the mist a ray of sunshine burst through, lighting the summit cairn and the trio that sheltered there. It gave off an ethereal light such as you only get in the early morning with a promise of things to come and it was with that we started, the clock rolling just past the 8am mark. We jogged down the hill and over the ridge line being pushed from behind by the wind. At Sgurr a’Choire Bhig we cut low across its steep boulder strewn grass sides on the west, getting a little too low and having to scramble back up to find the correct line in the mist. After the col we worked our way up what seemed to me a much steeper slope than that we had descended to finally bag our second summit of Sgurr Nan Eag. All was rock here and as we dropped down to get our bags, yet again we went a little low. We had a quick bite to eat and got some liquid down us as the mist started to lift and we could see the Outside team traversing what seemed a vertical rock slope towards Sgurr Dubh Mor around 1km ahead. It was the first sighting we had had of them since the start and they seemed to be moving with purpose. We opted to leave the harnesses off for ease of movement and pushed on after them. It was all rock wherever you went, no grass just large rock ridges, walls, and boulders strewn over scree, down cols and chutes. We had to descend a long way to get back up again due to the massive rock walls of Sgurr Dubh na da Bheinn and as we crossed under the col we strained up to see Outside team heading onto their next target. At the summit, which was now clear of mist as it had all lifted, Dougal informed us that we were 15 minutes behind them as he had made a note of when they had reached it. We hadn’t clocked the time they had passed us at the start so were unsure whether they were making time or not but 10 to 15 minutes seemed about right to us.
We could see them approaching the TD Gap as we left the summit, this would be our first encounter with a graded route on the ridge and we were all keen to see what it would be like. After hopping over Sgurr Dubh na da Bheinn we descended to the gap where the other team had just disappeared. At the top we looked down on a square cut col that cascaded away to the east and sloped steeply off to the west. The other team were just climbing out of the HS on the far wall. Kitting up we rapped in, Jim heading straight out and getting stuck into the exit route, this was the closest we had got to the other team since the start and it felt like we were making up some time. The route out was far better than I had expected, thinking the climbing sections would be rather scrappy it was a lovely surprise to encounter such a pitch, its position undoubtedly giving it a good measure of kudos. Emerging at the top of the gap it became obvious that we had not actually made any time up on the others as they were just disappearing over Sgurr Thearlaich, the fifth peak having already bagged Sgurr Alasdair.
Again we chose to remove the harnesses and pushed on after our quarry. It was a mixture of steep uphill rock steps punctuated by small sections of scrambling, the detour to Sgurr Alasdair was only minutes, and we soon found ourselves descending to Thearlaich where once again we spotted Outside pushing on out of the Kings Chimney (V Diff). There was another team between them and us just reaching the bottom of the route and I was thinking we were going to get held up quite severely. However, Dougal got to them first and explained the situation, they then kindly allowed us to go ahead of them as they had already heard of the race and were keen to help out.
As I got kitted up a wave of nausea hit me, we were close to 2 hours in on the race but 5 since we had started and it was taking its toll. I was second up the route and at the half way mark my legs went weak and it took all my concentration to actually stay focused and in contact with the rock. Crawling over the top I announced the need for a break, scrambling to the summit of the Sgurr Hhic Choinnich I broke out some food, cramming as much down me as possible along with an energy sachet. In the distance the Inn Pinn of Sgurr Dearg grew like a finn from the back of the ridge, stark and glaringly obscure even in this terrain. Outside were just traversing the col between us and the Pinn, it seemed an awfully long way off. We could see Sgurr nan Gillean in the distance but it looked no closer than it had at the start, depressingly it looked to me as if the ascent of the Inn Pinn would take us further away still. The other team were now approaching the climb out of the col, they were starting to move less as a team with one of them showing signs of lagging behind. It looked a terribly long ascent of near vertical scree from our position.
Gathering our kit we struck off. It was becoming an automated response now, pain seemed the norm and it was just a case of trying to pace myself so I didn’t have another ‘spinning’ incident. The climb out of the col and up to the Inn Pinn was indeed epic, steep scree and rock plate for what seemed an inordinately long time, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Nearing the Pinn we just caught a glimpse of the others abbing off the far side as we approached the bottom of the fin where we were greeted by a group of about 10 others looking to get to the top. I feared a major hold up especially as there was already a team well and truly entrenched around half way up the ridge moving very slowly. Luckily Jim and Dougal had a lot more life in them than me and managed to get in front of the 10 at the base of the route therefore claiming it first. We put our harnesses on ready for the abseil and set off past the 8 on the ridge arriving at the rap block with no further hold ups. It always seemed that if you met anyone on route who was not doing the entire ridge they would always give you priority over their own ascent, something we became very appreciative of.
Once off the block we stopped for our agreed 10 minute photo shoot and I did some much needed cramming of calories as the slog up to the Pinn had drained my reserves quite badly. From here we could see the others approaching the top of Sgurr na Banachdich. It looked way further than the 15 minutes we guessed we were behind them, a time check at our rest point gave us 3.5hr, which meant if we could keep up the pace, which didn’t seem very possible to me, we should reach the end in around 7.5 to 8 hrs! I didn’t have time to think about it too long because with the time up, we were off again.
The middle section of the ridge is variously described as ‘mind numbing’ and the most likely psychological failure point. It actually went by rather quickly for me, the route finding wasn’t too taxing and you could just let your body flow automatically, across ridges, down cols and up the other side. We saw the odd person and every now and then the other team out in front, almost like a beacon urging us on. After Sgurr na Banachdich, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and Sgurr a’Mhaidaih, we dropped into the descent preparing for the crossing of Murghi Massala’s 3 peaks. This was a complex section that we had not done, being just before the area we had recce’d the day before. As we came over the lip of the ridge to look into the col before the three peaks we saw the other team walking back up from a long way down on the west, they were not more than 300m ahead. From our position we could make out what we thought to be the track over the summit but they were still way below it. Buoyed by the thought of actually catching up with them we pushed on a little harder than before. They eventually found the path up but by the time we had navigated the first peak we were on them. This was an immense psychological boost for us and no doubt the exact reverse for them. They had indeed been down the col twice looking for the route and wasted their lead in doing so.
We continued on as a single team until we dropped into the Bealach na Glaic Moire where we had hid our water the previous day. Here we all stopped and had a break, fuelling up with food and water. All seemed appreciative of the rest and there was no competitiveness apart from the banter, with no one seeming to be too eager to push on.
When it did become time to leave it was us that lead as we had the previous experience of this section. We hustled on over the south and north summits of Bidein Druim nan Ramh as a group, but as we started our descent it became apparent that we were gaining ground on the others. This continued as we pushed further on until we lost sight of them near An Caisteal half way to Bruach na Frithe. There was no doubt we had the bit between our teeth as we summitted Bruach na Frithe and dropped down to Am Bhasteir’s tooth where we took Naismith’s route to the top, a lovely pitch of severe before bagging Am Bhasteir itself.
Sgurr nan Gillean was plainly visible just a col away and we could make out the welcoming crew on top. There was still no sign of the others and it seemed that the tiredness had left us completely as we forged through the col and then off to the north to take a large long chimney back to the ridge line. We emerged not too far from the summit to be greeted by Mick Ryan from UKC, we threaded the needle that leads to the summit proper and arrived 7hrs and 56 minutes after we had left Gars-bheinn.
It seemed almost impossible that we should have gone so far over the terrain we had in such a short period of time. We had been blessed by the weather, having only been in cloud for two summits of the 14 and it hadn’t been excessively hot on the crossing. Gars-bheinn twinkled in the far distance and the ridge ran in super fast forward as my eyes re-traced our route, remembering every climb, slip, run, jump, view and summit as we had taken it.
We kicked back and watched the Outside team as they did the last leg from Bruach na Frithe to us, 30 to 40 minutes later they had arrived, equally elated at reaching the finish. We idled at the summit refuelling and soaking in the majesty of our position, days like we had just experienced don’t come too often. Finally the descent with its long walk out beckoned, and we bailed off the south ridge and eventually onto the Sligachan Hotel, via an opportune dip of the legs in the icy and welcoming waters of a passing stream. We arrived tired, sated and very content.
It could have been anybody’s race at the end of the day, following is always a better position to be in than leading as you don’t suffer quite the same pressures and one wrong turning can make the difference on such a route. It was an amazing experience, to do it with friends as we did in the weather we had in stunning scenery and completing it on the first attempt in the times we did makes it all the more special. Jim and I would like to offer our thanks to Rob Sykes and Mammut for making the trip a reality, Dougal Tavener and Terry Ralphs for being such tolerant and able guides, Mick and Dan (Yoda) from UKC for entertainment and information and James and Phil from Outide for being such great competitors and helping to push us as hard as they did.
If you ever find yourself in the position where you have the opportunity to do the Cuillin ridge and the skies are clear, do it. It will be an experience that will stay with you forever.
All Photos Gareth Aston unless otherwise credited. We will be reviewing all the Mammut gear we used on the race that enabled us to do the ridge in the time we did in the coming weeks, so if you want to know what’s good for fast and light keep watching this space.
If you want to check out Outside’s report on the Cuillin Ridge Race, you can see it here.