Thursday, 30 May 2013

Eagle's Gully and the NW Ridge of Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh

The North-West ridge of Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh (Mod/Diff)
Eagles…they have been a very prominent feature of my time here on Skye. Some remarkable and surprising close-encounters has made me even more fascinated with these winged beasts and their contribution to the character of the island. Fitting then that my first ever gully climb on Skye would be "Eagle's Gully".

I've climbed lots of buttresses in the last few weeks, but I am a sucker for routes with  really narrow and exposed aret├ęs…and no-where does narrow and exposed as good as the Cuillin. But why not mix things up a bit and try something new?

I don't think I'd ever climbed a summer gully route before this morning, usually avoiding them totally unless filled with ice and snow. But a 2-starred gully route with a name like "Eagle's Gully", as a direct start to a narrow and exposed Moderate/Difficult ridge to a summit…that was enough to persuade me.

Eagle's Gully (Grade 3**) is the left-most of the two gullies on the right hand side

 Looking up inside Eagle's Gully

Coire a'Ghreadaidh

Where was the slime and moss and broken rock? Surely gully routes in summer aren't supposed to be pleasant? I guess it was inevitable it couldn't all be like that, and the slime and broken rock did make its appearance but not enough to stop Eagle's Gully from being an enjoyable direct start to my main route of the day.

Sgurr Eadar da Choire is one of the obscure but impressive Cuillin peaks that is looked at often but probably doesn't see many ascents. From the top of Eagle's Gully the summit tower looked intimidating and it involved some pretty exposed slabby moves to gain the highest point, from which the route ahead leads directly to the summit of Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh.

The start of the summit tower to Sgurr Eadar da Choire

Starting the gendarmes

"Fairly nerve-racking" is the guidebook description for taking the NW Ridge (mod/diff) crest directly to Ghreadaidh. I can see how that is justified…some extremely narrow gendarmes have to be tackled on rock that was sometimes pretty suspect. But I loved it, an unfrequented and varied mountaineering route to the summit known for having the narrowest sections of the main Cuillin ridge.

Some very exposed and narrow gendarmes mid-route

Sgurr nan Banachidich
The Southern Cuillin from Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh

This evening I am sunburnt and satisfied after the last few days. Who would have thought it was snowing here only a short while ago?


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Perfect sunshine on the West Buttress of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich

West Buttress (Diff), Sgurr Mhic Choinnich - the steep central buttress leading to the central summit

I get totally spanked by a route in Coire Lagan yesterday, without actually even setting foot on it. I'd stood underneath the long and steep West Buttress of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (Diff) and hadn't been able to commit myself to solo it…a wrong mindset and a cold wind sapping away any sense of bravery.

By the time I'd got back to my car I'd let that decision really get to me, and I spent the whole day feeling quite low and lacking in confidence. Negativity like that can be extremely damaging to someone who always climbs alone if you don't deal with it…so today I went back into Coire Lagan to deal with it.

Unbroken sunshine in Coire Lagan
What a difference the sun makes. Standing at the foot of the route again, I couldn't have felt more different to how I had just 24 hours earlier. Not a single cloud in the sky, and warm sun starting to kiss the rock…today I couldn't wait to get up there and deal with my unfinished business.

A very different morning to yesterday

 Sgurr Mhic Choinnich's right-angle profile

West Buttress is the direct route from the coire floor to the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, a fairly intimidating line but to me an inspiring one. Its steepness increases with height and by the time I was climbing the middle sections, it almost felt to be overhanging the lower half of the route.

The extremely steep top third of the route ahead
Looking across to West Buttress, just left of center
After pulling round a nose I was suddenly amongst the upper rock-band and the route starts to become spectacularly steep. An enjoyable chimney takes you to the famous "Collie's Ledge", a place that had amazed me on my first trip to the Cuillin a few years back.

The steep groove leading to Collie's Ledge, and the upper crux above
Mountaineers on Sgurr Sgumain

It felt absolutely brilliant to climb straight up from Collie's Ledge, up and along a thin traverse in a position implausibly steep for the grade but on totally perfect rock. And it felt even better to be enjoying it immensely, not feeling any of the fear that I'd anticipated yesterday, and had turned me back empty handed.

 Looking to the central Cuillin

 The extremely steep last pitch leading directly to the summit.

The very last move of the route finishes directly at the small cairn of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich's narrow summit, and I sat there grinning in the hot sun. Continuing over An Stac Direct (grade 3/mod) and Sgurr Dhearg just for the hell of it was as much of an excuse for more sunshine as anything else.

An Stac (grade 3/mod) as an afterthought before my descent

The Inaccessible Pinnacle
It can be very confusing being a soloist sometimes. It's all in the mind…I'm very glad I went back to finish the job.


Sunday, 26 May 2013

West Buttress of An Casteal and Tuppenny Buttress

West Buttress of An Casteal. Grade 3 to V.Diff climbing depending on exact line taken.
Big, heavy drops of rain falling from a sky that was blue and clear only minutes before. Sigh…at least it had waited until I was on an easier section of the ridge crest than a few moments before.

For the last two days my main aim was to climb again in unfamiliar parts of the Cuillin but to keep an open mind as to what to do. The two routes I ended up climbing were very different but both equally enjoyable for different reasons, and both in places I'd never climbed before.

An Casteal was until this afternoon one of the only remaining sections of the main ridge that I'd never stood on, something I was eager to rectify. Unwilling to commit to the more remote Harta Face with a questionable weather forecast, the West Buttress looked like a good way to climb to its summit.

Approaching the buttress
"Traditional" is I believe the appropriate term to describe West Buttress…a quite huge amount of loose rock everywhere, and a route which can be climbed anywhere between grade 3 and V.Diff. It felt good to be away from the crowds no doubt mobbing Coire Lagan from every side…

The imposing final tower of the route

Before the rain started...

The climbing improves with height and the final tower is in a proud and intimidating position leading almost directly to the summit. I was pretty glad the sudden rain waited to start falling until I was past "the Third Gap", the deep notch in the summit crest that has to be bridged/jumped onto a smooth and sloping slab. 

Climbing out of a wet and loose chimney
Approaching "the third gap" which needs to be bridged/jumped with a confident head on your shoulders

Tuppenny Buttress (grade 3***) yesterday was a very different route, 200m of continuously superb and rough rock that is probably one of the very finest buttress scrambles in Scotland. The holds just keep coming up a cliff that looks improbably steep for the grade, cracking fun!

The superb Tuppenny Buttress (Grade 3***), the buttress right of the dark central gully

Climbing up one of the steep dykes on Tuppenny Buttress

The weather is on the turn again now, will today be my last climbing day on Skye before I return to the Cairngorms?


Saturday, 25 May 2013

Ramp Route, East face of Clach Glas

 Clach Glas, one of the finest summits in Scotland
The smell of wild garlic was overpowering in the warm sunshine at the entrance to the sea-cave. The gentle lapping of slack water with no wind and a slight heat haze over the sea….it was odd to think I was here to kill time, waiting for the fresh snow to strip off the East face of Clach Glas.

Have I ever "killed time" more productively than my climb in to the Spar Cave? I shall cover it in a future blog post, but it proved to be one of the most incredible places I have ever seen in my life. There aren't words. 

 The very long "Ramp Route" (Moderate**)

Fresh morning snow on Clach Glas (left) and Blaven

During my stunned walk back to my car, I vaguely noticed how much warmer the air was feeling. Perhaps yesterday's snowfall would be on its way to shifting? It was…and my thoughts started to drift slowly back to the original purpose of my day.

Clach Glas is arguably the hardest summit in Britain to reach. Anyone who has completed its full traverse will have nothing but superlatives for its quality, a mountaineering route without peer save for probably the main Cuillin Ridge Traverse. Climbing conditions on the Cuillin have been poor this May and I have been limited to where I can climb…but I was eager to return to Clach Glas via a different route.

The route climbs the rocks to the right of the gully, the slants right underneath the central tower
 Sgurr nan Each

The summit of Clach Glas from the South-East

"Ramp Route" (Mod**) is one I've wanted to climb ever since seeing the superb photo of its crux in the recent SMC guidebook. I always find that soloing "Moderate" graded mountain routes can vary so much - they can often be very straightforward and laid-back to solo, but their situation amongst their surroundings can change things a lot.

Looking back to Clach Glas from "the Putting Green"
The right-hand ramp climbs the crack right of centre
The huge wall that overhangs the upper part of the route

I found every single move of Ramp Route straightforward to solo, but yet it did give a niggling feeling of slight stress  throughout once I'd started the main difficulties. It felt a lot like climbing on the West face of Aonach Dubh in Glencoe - a gradual rising sense of commitment the higher you climb, the topography confusing, yet "in your face" at the same time.

Fresh snow starting to strip off Am Basteir

 The Great Prow of Blabheinn

As is often the case, the crux wall was the most enjoyable and cleanest section of the entire route, and nicely dry before the wet snow that would greet me on my un-sure traverse of the upper face to reach The Imposter. Hardly a respite though, as the infamous descent of the South Ridge of Clach Glas followed, plus over 1000ft of slippery scree from "The Putting Green".

I'll certainly be back to climb on Clach Glas again, it seems to leave you wanting to come back for seconds.


Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Lochan Traverse of Coire Lagan

 "The Lochan Traverse" (Mod*) takes a diagonal line across the cliff, starting beneath the obvious white slab.

The cloud was down and the drizzle was starting, the hints of warmth brought by last week were absent, and things felt all very different to how they usually do when I'm starting a climbing day in the Cuillin.

But I am here to get to know Skye more intimately, surely that should involve experiencing the Cuillin the way they are so much of the time?

The North ridge of Sgurr Sgumain
 The Cioch in the mist

With all thoughts of a challenging solo put firmly to one side, for the first time ever I entered a Cuillin corrie with an open mind, not fixed and concentrated on a particular objective as I always have been in the past. It was fairly clear the weather was entirely in command this morning.

As the cloud descended even lower to 500m, my tracks turned towards "The Lochan Traverse" (Mod*) - a diagonal split between two layers of gabbro that crosses the West Buttress of Sgurr Sgumain. But even this low down in the corrie, I wasn't going to escape the fog for very long.

 The start of the Lochan Traverse

Looking back down the fold

A wet and slippery start and a few awkward moves, but a good choice for a foggy day that was starting to feel really quite cold. I like the way that so many routes in the Cuillin follow the endless splits and faults and breaks and sudden changes in geology that define the mountain range…natural passageways through threatening and serious places.


 Inside the split in the fog

A team on Arrow Route

I am struggling to think of anywhere I've been more interesting in the fog than Skye's mountains, be it the demented cliffs of Trotternish or the noble buttresses of the Cuillin. As if they aren't complicated enough, the fog reveals them to be even more convoluted than you thought. Is there anywhere with more character per square mile?


Friday, 17 May 2013

The North ridge of Sgurr na h-Uamha

The striking tilted "shark's fin" of the North Ridge of Sgurr na h-Uamha (Moderate*)
Things change so rapidly here. Yesterday I was bracing against a hailstorm watching fresh snow fall on the Cuillin, this morning I was enjoying dry rock and sunshine.

I watched in awe last night as the skies cleared and the entire island transformed into a totally different place to how it has been the past week. I snoozed during the 5 hours of twilight overnight, and woke at 4am to a thin layer of mist outside and the sky brightening once more.

The Northern Cuillin at 5am

Sgurr nan Gillean.

Sgurr na h-Uamha is one of the Cuillin's "odd ones out". It is overshadowed by its bigger neighbour Sgurr nan Gillean, and one of the lesser known of the Cuillin's peaks. But in the world famous view from Elgol Bay, is there any other peak that has such a striking outline as Sgurr na h-Uamha?

 Sgurr na h-Uamha is the steep, lower triangular peak in the middle distance on the left.

 Snow still lingering in Coire a'Bhasteir

Early fog forming on the Cuillin outliers

My purpose this morning was to climb and visit an area of the Cuillin that was totally new to me. To stand on a new summit and see unfamiliar views. As soon as I broke onto Sgurr nan Gillean's SE Ridge and saw Sgurr na h-Uamha, I knew my choice was a good one. What a peak! Like a shark's fin at an improbably tilted angle.

Winter remains on the peaks of the Southern Cuillin
The Third Pinnacle on Gillean's Pinnacle Ridge

The North Ridge is the classic route to the summit, but it is also almost the only means of descent as well. So like some other superb mountains like Clach Glas, this is a peak where the easiest means of descent requires downclimbing Moderate graded rock.

Two-thirds of the way up the ridge, I found myself unsure of the way ahead. Continue along the narrow ledge, or break up left? I probed around for 15 minutes or so, both options looking likely but neither convincing. I didn't want to climb into a cul-de-sac that I wouldn't be able to climb down again.

Sgurr Dearg and the Inaccessible Pinnacle
Am Basteir

But like so many of the Cuillin's routes, once you've found the right way, you almost feel silly for not having realised on first sight. And sections of improbable-looking rock are easy where on different rock types they would be far more testing.

The crux wall, on ascent and descent.
The easier lower half of the route

There is something very special about summits that cannot be retreated from or descended easily. Especially when they are higher in quality than some of their bigger and more famous neighbours…as is the case with a few of the smaller Cuillin tops.

I packed away outer layers and gloves and let the sun touch my skin with relish. A perfect morning to discover yet another extraordinary corner of this island.