Monday, 1 April 2013

The Cuillin in Winter

The Cuillin
Usually I try to get to Skye at least once every year and some times manage a second trip. I had never been there while the ridge had on its winter coat on despite years of wanting. I'm not much of a twitter user and only really go on once or twice a week at most so it was by chance that last Thursday I noticed a tweet by the guide, Alan Kimber, with a link to a photo of the Cuillin taken that day. upon opening the link there was only one thing that i was going to be doing over the Easter weekend! The snow was down to at least 3-400m and the forecast was near perfect too. I set about trying to find someone else who would be available and enthusiastic enough to head up to the far North West. John was Skiing in Glen Coe when I phoned him and was very keen. I arranged to meet him the next morning at Spean Bridge.

Me and John with the Forcan Ridge behind

After meeting on Friday Morning we decided to do the Forcan ridge on the Saddle on the way up. It was a fine day with a cold wind and the ridge was under good winter conditions. Unfortunately John twisted his ankle whilst descending and then found two hollows under the snow with the same foot in the space of 5 minutes, dreadful luck. After getting down we continued to the Croft bunkhouse in Portnalong, which is now under new ownership. It was apparent that John would not manage anything the next day as although giving little pain, his foot had swollen up considerably. I decided that I wanted to have a go at a traverse of the northern three Munro's on the ridge. Being solo it would be the most serious thing I've done in the mountains anywhere but there was no reason I couldn't mange it.

John on the Forcan Ridge

I got up at 0730 the next day to a beautiful morning. I chose to sort out my kit outside the bunkhouse where it was very pleasant. I opted to take two 45m ropes with me which would give me a larger margin of error when it came to needing to abseil. Personally I didn't mind carrying the extra weight as I had three (ended up doing five) planned abseils to do although after adding food, water, some slings as well as personal climbing kit from harness and helmet through to waterproofs did make my pack quite heavy. When climbing with someone the fact that the ropes are out and not actually being carried makes movement a lot easier as opposed to carrying them on your back like I would have to do. I drove along to the MRT post at Sligachan where I started along the path.

Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir

My planned route was to go up the South East ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, down the West ridge, up Am Basteir from the col before descending onto the Tooth and finally heading over Bruach na Frithe and then down the North West ridge. I moved quite quickly up towards and then through Coire Riabhach, all the time the towering bulk of Gillean and the crooked fang of the Tooth in all their awesomeness doing nothing to inspire me with great confidence and certainly making me thing twice about my plans. Upon reaching the Coire that is bound by the SE ridge and the famous Pinnacle Ridge, it was time to get geared up. The snow ahead up to the ridge was solid of the nature that only shows spike marks from crampons as proof of your passing. I put on my harness now rather than wait till reaching an abseil and fumbling around in an exposed position where the added hazard of crampons could be serious, then I begun ascending the slope that eventually formed into steep easy gullys on the SE Ridge. I made quick and efficient progress on the snow mainly due to its perfect constituency and as I reached the crest the view beyond was nothing short of phenomenal  The rest of the ridge held its winter bindings down to a low level on all of the flanks that were visible and also the route to Gillean and beyond to Am Basteir looked very intimidating.

The ridge up Gillean with Am Basteir beyond

I headed up the ridge sticking to the crest until it steepened, the route then went round the Coire Lota side following ledges with some exposed rock steps until rejoining the crest at the eastern end of the summit. The summit crest was impressively exposed and after a few photos I continued on the traverse down the West Ridge constantly subconsciously weighting up the chances of a fall with the consequences of that fall to judge what speed I would allow myself to move at. The crux of the day came just after threading the window (which didn't seem to be optional in winter) when the route involved descending on steep crusty snow with no decent axe placements or handholds above the NW face of Gillean. After this section was complete the rest of the descend was easy up until the top of Tooth Chimney was reached which was the first of the planned abseils on the route. There was good gear at the top and one rope was long enough. From the bottom I traversed back onto the ridge and made my way to the Col.

Me on the Summit of Sgurr nan Gillean

Veiw down the West ridge

I raced up the easy but exposed crest of Am Basteir until reaching the notch about halfway up. A short abseil was required and once again there was good gear in place so I didn't have to leave any. After the summit of Am Basteir is passed the route goes down left on to the Coire Lota face until the Neck with the tooth is reached. I had thought this would require one abseil but I ended up doing two and leaving gear at both. It is far better to leave gear when you feel it necessarily rather than trust dodgy looking anchors or risk getting a rope snagged or jammed whilst trying to retrieve it. After reaching the neck I ascended onto the top of the tooth.

Half way down Tooth Chimney

View from the bottom of Tooth Chimney

At this point I had an internal dilemma  I had seen people abseiling off the high overhanging nose of the tooth some years ago and it was impressive to say the least. There was already a thin but new looking bit of cord in place and I had no desire to abseil down the enclosed King's Cave as I had done a few summers ago. Added to this I had lugged around a rope that I had so far found no use for. I was running thin on excuses not to do it and despite being very apprehensive and the view off the nose doing nothing to settle me I decided to do it. I got out my other rope and tied them together, I left a crab on the cord but was unable to back it up. Throwing the ropes over the edge and watching them sway out into the abyss above Coire a'Bhasteir before disappearing below the overhang also done nothing to settle my nerves but I had gone too far now and this was getting done. The anchor was such that until I was out on the initial hoared up slab before the abysmal drop below it could not be properly tested yet it was only the niggling doubt that arises from fear that told that it might not be as solid as it looked. Once the initial push was done and I was over the edge I began to enjoy what is probably one of the most exciting abseils in Scotland. About halfway down I heard a click and realized despite being methodical I hadn't done up my screw gate to which my belay was on and had heard a bit of gate chatter! The last 10-15m of the abseil after passing the final over hang is completely in mid-air and by the end you find yourself on a wide but exposed platform.

Gillean form Am Basteir

After retrieving the ropes and with the major difficulties behind me I continued along to Bruach na Frithe. I had not encountered anyone up until reaching the col with Sgurr a'Basteir but Bruach na Frithe being one of the Easiest Munro's on the ridge, gets a lot of traffic and this showed with me passing in excess of 20 people form the short distance form here to the summit. The high cloud that formed and lingered since the blue skies at which I had left Sligachan to had now given way to the sun again and this took its toll on the snow(as well as my face as the sunburn showed the next day!). descending the narrow NW ridge was enjoyable at first but as the snow softened it became more and more of a task. About halfway down an opportunity to descend into Fionn Choire by a solid snow slope in the shade arouse. This would also allow me to traverse over the col above Meal Odhar and onto the Basteir gorge path. After reaching the path I stopped and dipped my feet in the river as I was feeling the effects of wearing rigid boots and crampons all day, then I headed back down to the car.

Me after Descending the Tooth

On top of Bruach na Frithe

Looking down the NW ridge

John tried to go up with me to Coire Lagan the next day but had to turn back unfortunately. We had planned to do a traverse from Sgurr Mhic Choinnich round to Sgurr na Ciche. I went up myself and traversed a very exposed Mhic Choinnich before abseiling down kings Chimney and then descending the Grade one gulley 'Bomb Alley' which joins onto the stone shoot. I might have went further and even stayed away for a few more days but I bruised my ankle at some point the previous day and it wasn't getting any better.

From the ridge up Mhic Choinnich

The Exposed crest of Mhic Choinnich with the ridge beyond

Looking down Bomb Alley into Coire Lagan

The two days on Skye are certainly the most serious and committing things I have done in the mountains and the traverse of the front three was probably the best day I've ever had. Skye is special at the best of times and in winter, it is surreal.