Traversing the Cuillin Ridge
Watched by seals, we pushed the boats up a stinking bed of seaweed and onto dry land into a cloud of midges that wasted no time on formalities. As we changed out of wet salty neoprene we stuffed a rope, food and water into our rucksacks and revelled in a damp packet of fig rolls.
Having waited for a workable weather window, we’d set off from Mallaig several hours earlier whilst the sun was still high in the sky. The previous two weeks had been an extended game of cat and mouse as predictions of fine weather came and went. To complete the route within our self-imposed target of 48 hours, we needed a settled period of high pressure which would bring low winds and clear visibility – and having developed an obsessive-compulsive weather watching disorder, it seemed clear that our number had now been called.
Our intention was to complete a non-stop circumnavigation, initially by kayak, from Mallaig in the north-west Highlands across the sea to the Isle of Skye. From here we would then make a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, the UK’s longest and finest Alpine excursion, before returning to the mainland via a further 30 miles of open water paddling.
In pitch darkness we reached our landing site on the Skye coast. Watched by seals, we pushed the boats up a stinking bed of seaweed and onto dry land into a cloud of midges that wasted no time on formalities. As we changed out of wet salty neoprene we stuffed a rope, food and water into our rucksacks and revelled in a damp packet of fig rolls.
The south end of the ridge was gained quickly but all was not well. The low pressure system that had been sitting over the north-west Highlands for over two weeks was not giving up without a fight and as we ascended Gars Bheinn, the first of 22 summits, it was amid thick cloud and gusting wind. Visibility was around 10 metres and a slimy dampness coated the rocks. We’d expected a cloudless day and were reliant upon the time-saving benefit of being able to navigate mainly by sight. In conditions like these, we would need to micro-navigate the entire route which would be painstakingly slow. We both knew that trouble lay ahead.
Abseiling into the col where Collie’s Ledge begins, the clouds again parted and we were suddenly surrounded on all sides by clear blue sky. Making up for lost time and with the stopwatch running, we settled into a steady rhythm as we progressed our way along the ridge.
Midday came and went and the sun was sinking as we ground our way up the final summit of Sgurr nan Gillean. To our north was the beguiling light of the Sligachan Hotel, while to our south lay our return route to the boats and certain purgatory across the marsh and tussock grass of Glen Sligachan.
As the darkness enveloped us once more, the hours slid away whilst we floundered through boulder fields and up onto the high pass on the northern flank of Sgurr Hain. The simple passage on the map translated into a horror show of swamp and false summits and despite the passing of time, distance accrued in a most pathetic fashion. The goal of completing within 48 hours was slipping away.
Daylight broke as we skirted the mirror-still water of Loch Coruisk and by 4am our two upturned boats, watched from a distance by a herd of deer, appeared on the northern shore of Loch Scavaig. To the glee of the midges, we paused to change back into the wetsuits of 24 hours ago. The wind had now disappeared and the surface of the sea lay flat. To the applause of the seals, we slithered our way down the seaweed and into the boats and pushed off amidst the circle of mountains that hours earlier we had been on top of.
The first crossing was a windless 22 kilometres of silvery water, except that neither of us was appreciating it in the way that one normally might. With the clock still running and Mallaig a distant white speck, another soggy bag of fig rolls was deployed and steady, sugary, progress ensued. It was starting to look like we might make it.
With 46 hours, 1 minute and 10 seconds expended, we arrived back into Mallaig harbour with a train of seals in our wake. Like two vagrants, we lay untidily on the rocky beach by the slipway as the approaching tide lapped at our wrinkled and blistered feet.
As winter now starts to bite, it’s with relief that paddles will soon be swapped for axes, a pleasant sea breeze for spindrift and damp fig rolls for frozen ones.
As the darkness enveloped us once more, the hours slid away whilst we floundered through boulder fields and up onto the high pass on the northern flank of Sgurr Hain. The simple passage on the map translated into a horror show of swamp and false summits and despite the passing of time, distance accrued in a most pathetic fashion.
Although having lived, worked and climbed all over the world, Tommy’s spiritual home remains the Scottish Highlands. He was a Marine for 10 years, specialising as a Mountain Leader, and continues to take great pleasure in most things cold, wet and steep.
Tommy is the Co-Founder of Jöttnar, a new British company producing technical clothing for mountaineering, winter climbing and all-mountain skiing.