Friday, 11 June 2010

Mountaineering on Skye

Sgurr an Fheadain

We arrived on Skye mid-morning on Wednesday. On the way up the weather had not seemed fantastic, with a lot of low cloud and some squally gusts; arrival in Glen Brittle soon demonstrated that the Cuillin were hiding under the perennial mists that plague Skye. We had originally planned to go for the Clach Glas - Bla Bheinn Traverse, but decided to attempt something easier and lower, considering the increasingly blustery wind.

Sgurr an Fheadain is a foothill of the grand Cuillin, a lower outlier of the northern range, its pyramidal bulk split by the remarkable Waterpipe Gully. The left spur of the mountain is an easy and uncomplicated Grade 2 scramble. The walk-in past the Fairy Pools was easy and had excellent views of the climb ahead; nowhere else can you enjoy a more or less flat walk directly to the base of your route. The slabs of the Spur begin more or less directly above the Fairy Pools themselves.

The route is easy and enjoyable, nowhere difficult or exposed, generally low in the grade. I would not hesitate to recommend it to beginner scramblers (providing they have the necessary hillwalking and general mountain experience to get them safely off the hill). The summit itself is a grand place, a rocky tower surrounded by airy gulfs on all sides. The descent, down hideously loose scree, was a taster of the toils that would come the next day!

After getting down off the hill the weather improved dramatically and we finished off the day with a trip to Elgol and the Sligachan.


The Round of Coire Lagan

Coire Lagan, situated at the southern end of Glen Brittle, is one of the most spectacular places in Britain. The skyline of Coire Lagan is a ragged crest of pinnacles, spires, boulder-jammed couloirs and some of the most heavyweight peaks in the country: Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, and the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A traverse of this crest, a full horseshoe, is a mission I have been planning for some years now but this was the first opportunity to actually do it.

We started early to avoid crowds on the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and the air was surprisingly cold on the walk-in to Coire Lagan. Things soon warmed up, however, as we began the unending toil up the Great Stone Chute of Sgurr Alasdair. This interminable slog is the longest and loosest scree couloir I have ever seen in Britain, comparable to the nightmare of shattered rock beneath Schönbielhorn in the Alps. The Great Stone Chute climbs from Coire Lagan right up to the main ridge crest only a handful of metres beneath the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, and by the time we reached the col we were knackered and covered in stone dust.

Unfortunately, by this time the clouds had descended and we made the short scramble to Sgurr Alasdair's summit in sombre mist. Back at the col, we roped up in preparation to cross Sgurr Thearlaich. The first pitches out of the col are on steep Moderate rock; we moved together on a shortened rope over this terrain, threading spikes and placing nuts as necessary. It was at this point that we were hailed by another team, attempting the full crossing of the ridge; it turned out to be Will Hunt and his friend. I hope they were successful!

From the summit of Sgurr Thearlaich, an easy crest led down to two steep abseils into Bealach Mhic Choinnich. We considered our way ahead. Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Mackenzie's peak, lay ahead. The face presented to us appeared impregnable to first glance, but is in fact riven by two lines of weakness: King's Chimney, a dauntingly steep corner; or Collie's Ledge, which weaves an exposed passage away to the left.

We decided to follow Collie's Ledge, unroping at this point since a rope would be more hindrance than use on such terrain. The ledge is not very hard but monstrously exposed as it crawls its way between vertical cliffs. The cliff drops many hundreds of metres directly beneath your feet, and in places the ledge is inches wide. A more exhilarating place I can scarcely imagine!

The summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich is an airy perch with excellent views of both the ground we had already covered and the delights that await. This central section of the Round is easy and we walked unroped over the ridge-top towards the next challenge, the East Ridge of An Stac.

We put the rope on for this ridge, which is quite steep and furnished with much loose rock. A slab and corner led to the upper arete. Despite the dubious quality of the rock beneath my feet, I enjoyed this climb tremendously: the line was devious, a true mountaineering route, yet the arete itself was simple and beautiful.

Upon topping out on An Stac we were greeted with our first intimate view of the ultimate objective, the most difficult mountain in Britain: the Inaccessible Pinnacle. This improbable-looking blade of rock is the true summit of Sgurr Dearg. Due to the relative difficulty of its easiest line of ascent (the Moderate but thrillingly exposed East Ridge), this peak is very popular and most summer days see queues waiting for their turn to rope up at the beginning of the arete. Happily, it was still early in the day by the time we got there, and there was nobody ahead of us.

I climbed the crest of the Inaccessible Pinnacle with a rising sense of delight. This is iconic British mountain terrain, one of the great climbs that every mountaineer yearns to do once in his life: regardless of its easy standard, in my view a climber who is not moved by this peak is no climber at all. Its relatively easy standard, in rock climbing terms, simply means that the climber can focus on the enjoyment of the situation and the anticipation of the summit a rope's length ahead.

James joined me at the top of the In. Pinn, and as we prepared the rope to abseil we took in the exceptionally lovely view. All of the Cuillin could be seen, most spectacularly of all the jutting precipice of Sgurr Alasdair. On three sides were the sea and idyllic green islands, and beyond it the mainland, distant ranges of unfamiliar mountains blending into blue haze. In the far distance, the highest of them all, Ben Nevis.

We didn't have long to enjoy the position, for other teams were coming up behind. A spectacular abseil down the vertical West Ridge took us back onto solid easy ground. After sitting in silent contemplation for a while longer, the silence of the mountains contrasting with the climbing calls from teams on the Pinnacle, we started down the ridge crest back towards Glen Brittle and the sea.

The Round of Coire Lagan is without a doubt the finest day I have ever spent in the British mountains during the summer months. It eclipses my previous high-points of Tower Ridge, the NE Buttress, and Pinnacle Ridge by an infinite measure. I think this trip is going to be difficult to beat!



  1. Excellent! Your descriptions of the ridge and the feelings and views from being privilaged enough to stand on it are far better than mine. But at the end of the day the words do not ever truely capture the beauty and wonder of being there.

    It is a very very special place.

  2. Sounds like you had an excellent time. I've done the Corrie Lagan round a number of times, and each time it's been one of best summer days out I've had in the UK.

    The next time you do it, may I suggest you go up Sgurr Sgumain, across the col and then up the excellent SW ridge of Sgurr Alasdair? I feel those two peaks really add to the feel of the round. You also go around all three sides of the corrie, which I suspect will appeal to your aesthetic nature. It has the added advantage of avoiding the great stone chute...