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Traversing the Cuillin Ridge - Will Townsend
Active Root co-Founder Will Townsend took on the challenge of climbing the Cuillin Rudge in June 2021. A spectacular but terrifying 2 day trip with an overnight, the Ridge isn't for the fainthearted! In this blog post Will goes into detail about the climb, his highlights of the trip and his top tips.
A novice hiker’s take on the Cuillin Ridge Traverse - June 2021
The Cuillin Ridge or ‘Black Cuillin’ has the reputation as the most challenging and spectacular mountaineering traverses in all of the British Isles. More experienced climbers and mountain runners travel light and do it in a day, however for most mortals the sheer intensity demands it to be done in a minimum of 2 with an overnight bivi on the mountain. The 2 days consist of trekking, scrambling and climbing for up to 14 hours on day 1 and around 10 hours on day 2. It requires being self-sufficient and carrying everything you need, including water, food and equipment for 2 days. The ridge is deceptively short in distance, only 7-8 miles, however along it there are 11 Munros all over 3000ft with 3000m of total traverse ascent. The mountains require up to grade 3 scrambling and / or severe climbing in order to summit. Watch this short video.
Why do it?
If you are like me, a part time mountaineer who is drawn to thrill seeking and big days in the mountains, then the Cuillins are definitely for you. A 2 day undertaking with an overnight on the hill makes the whole thing a bigger, more exciting adventure than just a simple one day outing. Although it’s a seriously tough undertaking it is possible to take it on with moderate levels of fitness, a head for heights and a lot of determination. You’ll be rewarded with an amazing mountaineering experience in stunning surroundings
The Cuillin is a fragmented rim of an ancient volcano that juts over 3000ft high with spectacular cliffs, chimneys and buttresses surrounded by lochs and sea inlets. Because the ridge is an extinct volcano the rock is made of granite called gabbro. Gabbro rock is notoriously rough; the surface is made up sharp crystalline spikes.
Rock texture can range from rough sand paper up to thousands of needles waiting to stab your fingertips. As well as hands and limbs taking a battering, your clothes and kit get ripped - even a small rub up can put a hole through them. What’s more, around the high cliffs and peaks are large loose scree slopes (made up of gabbro), which you have to go up and down to get over peaks and on and off the ridge. These loose slopes are challenging as any trip can result in bleeding hands!
Water everywhere and not a drop to drink!
What makes it’s particularly unusual and impressive is its close locality to the ocean. The views are amazing, looking out to the inner and outer Hebridean islands. However, being next to the sea makes it even more of a challenge as all climbs begin at around zero altitude.
Perversely, because the ridge demands settled weather, it is often very dry on the mountain tops, with little access to water. Unless you stash water on the mountain, you have to carry all of your water for at least day 1 and then overnight try and collect water from runoff drips for day 2.
Being a bit of a novice, I drank twice as much water as compared to our mountain guide, approx. 3.5 litres on day – not ideal!
Top 3 Highlights of the Ridge
Right up The Chimney
A particular highlight was the climb up the King’s Chimney, a crux climb on the way to the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, or MacKenzie’s Peak, which comes early in the traverse. To get to the top you have to go up a narrow 25m fault line, move right round an overhang recess, up again then on to safer scrambling ground. We approached it fairly fresh, got roped up Victorian style, tied together with about a 3m gap in between us. The climb began well and we moved steadily up the fault line, though it was probably slower than I’d have liked because my climbing partner struggled for grip in his walking boots. This meant that when we arrived at the point of moving across and out of the fault, fatigue was already to creeping in to the limbs and hands. The immediate increase in exposure as you step out of the fault added extra spice. As you attempt the next handhold all you are suddenly forced to stare out into the wild country on the horizon. As a novice this was dizzying and unbalancing, plus the heavy rucksack felt like it was trying to pull me off the wall! I began to panic.
All I could see were clouds and couldn’t get my next hand hold on what looked a big, smooth, slabby rock. The next hold was obviously crucial to success. The guide above me was trying to calm me down and give instructions, and my partner beneath me was struggling to get up towards where I was. Vertigo was in charge. After what seemed like a long period of trying and failing, I went for as long a reach as possible with the right hand and foot and then rammed the left hand into a hole. This move forced my whole body and hips away from the rock surface so I was using zero technique and totally ‘muscling it’. This rapidly depleted my grip strength and upper body energy reserves. I quickly transferred the right hand to a bigger hold above. For me this whole movement was sh*t scary. Although roped up, I felt like I was in a life or death situation, as a slip would have probably swung me along the rock surface, sanding me down as I swung! Clinging on for life with my hands I managed to sort out my footholds. I was shaking like a leaf but I’d made it through the tough part. The holds got easier and gradient less severe as I headed up towards safety.
The final push was lifting myself on a ledge and safety. This was fairly comedic as I couldn’t push myself up into a locked arm position, instead I scrabbled up on my elbows then had to put my knees onto the ledge, then roll 180 degrees to get on! This resulted in bruised and bleeding knees and elbows. But I was alive. The guide informed me that this section was one of the tougher ones!
10 hours into day 1, we came to the legendary Inaccessible Pinnacle. I had built this moment up since I began researching the Cuillins. A striking arrowhead shaped rock that thrusts up the final part of the 986m Munro. It is spectacular and savage looking in equal measure, like it had been shaped deliberately to inspire fear in the climber. By this point in the day I was pretty knackered, mentally shell shocked and physically sore all over. However I had successfully done a day of what I thought were gnarly climbs and scrambles. This made me feel battle hardened and ready to take on another one.
When you approach the In Pin there are definitely two sides to it. One side is where day trip walkers are milling around about 30m below the summit and the other is a dizzyingly huge straight drop of probably 1000ft. I focussed on the 30m drop and avoided eye contact with the other side! To give some insurance against the dangerous side we got roped up, and left our rucksacks at the bottom of the abseil.
Even with the rope and no rucksack, I was nervous. I just focussed on the rocks in front of me and tried to negotiate the first 10m safely. Compared to earlier scrambles it was quite easy. Lots of big holds and we made good progress up to the top. Here there was a small table top area to take a breather. The views across the Inner Hebrides were breath taking. With our breath back it was time for the abseil down the other side; again we’d already done a few bigger ones than this earlier in the day so 20m was pretty straightforward. Once roped up I bounced down the first half of wall; the second half was overhanging which resulted in dangling myself down rather ungracefully. However I had made it down unscathed.
Bidean Druim nan Ramh – heights and abseils
A highlight of day 2 was Bidean Druim nan Ramh or BDnR. This section involves several roped climbs and scrambles up chimneys, bad step jumps followed by significant abseils down sheer drop offs. Most of it was a blur apart from a couple of moments that stuck in the memory. One area of challenge was repeated nerve jangling climb-downs to abseil spots. In isolation these climbs weren’t big moments, however adding in 2 days of fatigue and already frayed nerves, they really stuck with me as genuinely scary. Although roped up most of the time, you were acutely aware that a slip would probably result in a short fall,causing gabbro injuries.
Moving round the tops of chimneys and down climbing to abseil ledges made my whole body shake. Then while the guide prepared the ropes for the abseil you were unclipped and standing on a 50cm square ledge with two sides of crazy drops. I clung onto the wall like cat! Once clipped into the abseil I chilled out a bit, knowing that a fall wouldn’t be fatal, just very sore. One of the abseils was particularly challenging due to the wall being at angle, as you moved down the rope pushed you over towards an edge where you would end up swinging round a right angle of a cliff. You had to use your legs to fight the inertia and keep away from the corner. The guide kept saying to line the rope up so it’s vertical and not at an angle, as well saying something to do with rubbing the rope against the rock edges being a bad idea – I tried not to think of the consequences! Further on in the climb we had to jump a couple of ‘bad steps’. One of them was probably 1m+ across, with a 300ft drop beneath. I found these un-roped moments especially testing. All you can do is commit to the jump and make sure you don’t undershoot!
Top 10 learnings from an enthusiastic novice mountaineer
1. Get an experienced guide – we worked with West Coast Mountain Guides https://westcoast-mountainguides.co.uk/ - Tommie Horrocks was an excellent mountaineer helping us move quickly and safely along the ridge. He made it a really enjoyable experience, he judged our skill levels and ensured risks and danger was handled accordingly. I cannot understate how tricky route finding along the ridge was, often your eye would be attracted to what appeared to be a straightforward line, however many of these lead to dead ends off enormous cliffs. Doing the ridge you are putting your life in the hands of your guide who knows the mountain and ours knew how to keep us safe and happy.
2. Read the book
Essential pre traverse bedtime reading: Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse: Strategies, Advice, Detailed Topo booklet and 10 Classic Scrambles
Particularly useful are the detailed diagrams of the climbs and scrambles, though I did find I was dreaming about the mountains quite a lot!
3. Don’t look down! Practice climbing
If you’ve done a bit of scrambling before on grade 1 or 2 routes and feel capable of the Cuillins, I would advise caution. The climbing and exposure are a big step up again and pretty relentless throughout the two days. I don’t have a big head for heights and thought I may suffer doing the Cuillins; to mitigate it I went climbing few times in the months before. I was glad I did as on the ridge I found myself panicking at times with huge drops all around. The nerves affect your balance and confidence and a heavy pack makes even the simpler sections tough going. The thing that spurred me on and helped me cope with the vertigo was the fear that failure would mean a really long shameful walk down the mountain letting down my climbing partners! Despite being terrified at times I just tried to look at the rock face ahead and get through the next ten metres of climb, then reassess. This plan stopped me looking down and kept the nerves at a manageable level.
4. Stay hydrated – pack Active Root
Without shamelessly trying to plug Active Root, in hindsight I wish I’d added more to all the liquids I drank! When doing a summer traverse you’re sweating profusely through exertion and heat, fighting to replace salt and stay hydrated. In day one I drank 3.5 litres in 14 hours. I should have added Electrolite+ (which has extra salts in it) to my 2 litre bladder bottle. Instead I gave away half of my Active Root stash to my guide and walking partner. Active Root sachets are light to carry and can be easily mixed with water. If I did it again I would have probably taken at least 10 sachets for all drinks.
5. Stash water for day 2
On the top of the ridge in summer there are virtually no natural water sources. Realistically you can only carry enough water (c.3.5litres) for one day therefore is vital to ensure your guide has a plan to stash water for the day 2.
6. Get as fit as possible
Stating the obvious, but if I were to do the traverse again I’d try and do a bit more upper body conditioning. I’m a pretty decent runner and hill walker but that doesn’t count for much with climbing and scrambling. Having to repeatedly haul yourself up onto ledges meant I could barely feel my arms on the first night. Although I got through, I probably would have enjoyed the experience more if I’d been a bit tougher on the upper body.
7. Comfortable scrambling boots, Compeed
Again, another one from the ministry of stating the obvious, make sure you are wearing comfortable scrambling boots. My feet are dismally susceptible to blisters and the pair of Scarpa Mescalito boots I wore did not disappoint. Mescalitos are a via ferrata boot and have excellent grip and rubber outers. They are ideal for climbing, toeing and scrambling, but are less supportive compared to normal hiking boots, so the longish walks on and off the ridge were prime blistering time for me. By the time I’d got onto the ridge, pressure points on my heels were already appearing, deviously finding their mark around the pre-emptive Compeed patches I’d put on. Combined with socks that were too thick, the perfect storm in a shoe had occurred. By the end of day 1 both heels were bleeding and big toes nicely missing skin. Although the feet were painful, in some ways they were a nice distraction from constant challenges and danger that were being endured!
8. Gloves and socks as thin as possible
Despite being on top of a mountain the day time temperature was in the high teens, low 20 degrees celsius. I wrongly assumed it would be colder and wore thick walking socks with approach boots. This was a bad move: my feet were boiling and as I mentioned, became very blistered. I also took advice and brought scrambling gloves to combat the rough gabbro, this was also a bad move as they were relatively thick with suede palms. Thick socks and gloves meant aggressive sweating that required drinking more.
9. Midge net and Skin So Soft.
Even though you’re on top of a mountain, the tiny little blighters are there in abundance. We did the traverse in mid summer with little wind, whenever you stopped to prepare for an abseil or take a drink they would be on your face, hands and any available flesh. They were particularly thirsty at the overnight camp. A decent head net and skin so soft are vital to keep the bites down to manageable levels.
10. Enjoy the ride - Take a camera
If you’re like me life may dictate that you won’t get up the Cuillins again any time soon. Don’t be afraid to stop and take as many photos and videos as you can on the ridge. There is nowhere quite like the Cuillin ridge, everywhere you look there are spectacular and savage views. Stop, drink it in and make the most of it!
Things I didn’t use in my bag
1. Glasses case, glasses and contact lens case – I wore contact lenses for the whole 2 days including sleeping in them.
2. Head torch, map and compass, didn’t get any of these out, however of course they would be essential in an emergency.
3. Salted snacks – I only ate half a large 200g pack of peanuts.