Traversing the Cuillin Ridge

Having recently turned 60 it seemed a good idea to get a move on with fulfilling one of my more physically demanding ambitions. The Cuillin Ridge Traverse on the Isle of Skye was high on the list and I knew it wasn’t going to get any easier by deferring it. The traverse is an Alpine-style route unlike anything else in the UK and typically takes 2 days with an overnight bivouac. The walk in and out usually takes about 6 hours and the traverse itself consists of 12km of continuous scrambling mostly along a narrow crest, and with concentration required on every step it can take up to 15 hours in ideal weather conditions. I was fortunate enough to find a good friend and kindred spirit in Tim Brayshaw who was willing to risk life and limb to accompany me. However, we both agreed that our chances of success would be less than negligible without an experienced guide and my thanks go to Matt Barrat from Skye Adventure for his role in one of my life’s great adventures.

Rigorous Training

My qualifications to make the attempt were dubious at best with my limited mountaineering experience being a distant memory. However, I undertook what I believed to be a rigorous training programme, consisting mainly of a series of strenuous fell walks which included two rounds of the Yorkshire 3 peaks within the preceding month and I travelled to Skye feeling fit and well, although not without trepidation. Tim had even less experience than me, but is 20 years younger and incredibly fit and as part of his training he cycled 300 miles from Ilkley to Dorset in 19 hours with a head wind all the way (at least that’s what he told me!) We set off from Ilkley at midday on Saturday to arrive at our lodgings in Skye some 8 hours later, 2 minutes after the England v Wales rugby union world cup game had kicked off. We were hoping for a good result as an auspicious start to our adventure. That didn’t happen as the Welsh ran out winners, but at least on the weather front the ridge of high pressure was keeping the advancing low pressure at bay, although in every forecast the battle for supremacy seemed to be fought directly over the Cuillin. In good weather the traverse is very challenging, in bad it is all but impossible. The first couple of days were spent in preparation and fortunately the rain held off. Day 1 we got up on the ridge and familiarised ourselves with some basic rope work, and although the cloud was down, it was good to get a sense of what we were about to tackle. At the time we weren’t concerned about the lack of visibility as one of the benefits was that it almost certainly helped reduce our sense of exposure. Day 2 was spent at the coast climbing several cliffs graded severe. We were both comfortable with the climbing and pleased with ourselves, although Matt did point out that similar climbs on the ridge would be undertaken with walking boots and rucksacks. However, over the 2 days we obviously did enough for Matt to have sufficient confidence to go for the full traverse. Interestingly his biggest consideration was whether or not he could trust us with his personal safety, whereas our concern was very much the other way round.

Tackling the Ridge

Our first day on the ridge was spent in a seemingly never ending series of ups and downs with strong gusting winds and our gaze firmly focussed on our feet with the occasional long distance view as the cloud parted momentarily. At least the rain held off but by the end of it, some 10 1/2 hours later, I was most definitely not looking forward to a repeat day of attrition in the same conditions. But fortune favoured us as just before we reached our bivouac site high pressure finally won the battle of the skies which suddenly cleared to give rise to the most magnificent sunset, with the sun seemingly setting in the middle of the sea followed by a beautiful clear starry night. A 5.30am wakeup call the following morning saw us back up on the ridge in time for an equally sublime sunrise with unsurpassed 360 degree views (take a look at the video below) and our spirits were lifted as we realised we were in for a great day. We could clearly see the whole ridge and by this point the mainly Gabbro rock was dry and sticky and we had the confidence to move unroped. Matt was overheard making a call saying that if he came for another 30 years he doubted he would ever see such a glorious sunset and sunrise again. The rest of the day was exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure and an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. The views were stunning and the terrain seemed to belong to a different planet. After another 11 hour day of walking, scrambling, climbing and abseiling we finally arrived at the Sligachan Hotel for a very welcome beer and hot meal before making the long journey back home the same night. Written by Mike Cripps