The Cuillin Traverse, the UK’s Toughest mountaineering challenge
The Cuillin Ridge is a somewhat continuos ridge-crest famous with thrill seekers, munro (scottish peaks) baggers and rock climbers. Although low altitude, the Cuillins can be considered the only alpine quality route in the UK. But dont let the lone wolf fool you. Because of its fickle position on the Isle of the Skye on the rugged West Coast of Scotland, the Cuillins are subjected to harsh weather, strong winds and unpredictably fast changes of weather year-round. The ridge itself is a 12km mix of scrambling, summit shuffling, and alpine grade climbing (depending on route/direction taken). Oh and did I forget to mention the 4000 vertical meters of ascent and descent?A typical traverse is normally completed in two days with an overnight bivi on the ridge. If you are in the ‘superhuman’ category you may well be able to complete it in one long day. But why would you? A superb route deserves the time needed to enjoy it, and going to sleep wrapped in a bivi sack watching the sun dip under the horizon is a memory not soon forgotten.
We completed the ridge starting from Glen Brittle in the south, and finishing at Sligachan Hotel in the north. Benefits of this route are that the major difficulties are climbed (hardest) but most importantly that your trip ends at the pub in Sligachan. A good weather window of two days is required to successfully complete the climb. Our forecast predicted two days of OK weather, but closing in towards the end of the second day. The forecast was 20mph + winds, no rain. The wind was not an issue, but as soon as there is a small amount of rain the rock becomes slippery and unsafe.
We set out at 06:00 from Glen Brittle. Two and a half hours later we were on the ridge, with low visibility. We left our bags on a shelf above Loch Coir Ghrunnda then bagged Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr nan Eag. Abseiled into the TD Gap but the opposite face was wet, too slippery to climb safely. Down-climbed out of the gap, and scooted around and up onto Sgurr Alasdair. While on the summit there was another party on the top of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich playing a set of bag pipes (a Scottish tradition when someone has climbed all Munros in Scotland). The sound reverberated across the mountains and by then the cloud had lifted to give us a gods view of the earth, with true Scottish music to match.
From the Alasdair we dropped down, crossed the top of the great stone chute then up onto Sgurr Mhic Choinnich via the ridge. A difficult climb is available to the top via the Kings Chimney but is not for the faint hearted! We crossed onto the west side and climbed to the bottom of Sgurr Dearg, Inaccessible Pinnacle where we then freeclimbed up the East Ridge and abseiled down the West Ridge. The Inn Pin was an awesome highlight of the trip, truly great.
We had allowed 3 Litres of water per day but after the In-pin that allocation was gone. We managed to find a small drip of water at the base of the Inaccessible Pinnacle and we waited 1 hour and managed to get an additional 2 litres of water (1 L each) from this drip. Note to would-be climbers. 4 L per day minimum in warm weather.
We reached Sgurr na Banachdich by 9pm and biivi’d on some flat ground.
We were woken at 3am in our Bivi sacks to rain. It lasted about an hour before stopping. We set out at 6am. The weather was overcast and the rock was wet which made the going slow. Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh got the legs moving again. It then took us the whole day with wet rock to cover An Dorus then Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Bidean Druim nan Ramh, and tricky route finding in the fog around An Caisteal.
With time lost by route finding, it was 4pm when we hit the col before Bruach na Frithe.. We used the exit route (sheer 600m wall face) and sadly descended onto the exit route past the Fairy pools. We hitchhiked to the pub for the well deserved beer. Overall review? 8 Out of 11 munros conquered, 2234m ascent, 2100m descent in 24 hours (moving time). A true highlight and worth every second. Well recommended! And a big thanks to my awesome climbing partner!
Tips / Hints
Water is a major cause of failure, I thought 3L would be plenty per day (carried 6L / 6kg total) but even by scrounging 1 L extra on the ridge (making 7L total for the two days) it was barely enough and we still felt dehydrated. Hint: Only carry 1L of water (Total, To drink on the way up) on the walk-in and topup to capacity once up at Loch Coir Ghrunnda (saves carrying 900+ vertical meters). Take gardening gloves to protect your hands from the sharp rock. Route finding is very difficult in the fog, almost impossible. Consider taking a guide if pushed for time/weather window. I think if we had taken a guide, we would have been able to complete the route with the time made-up from route finding by yourself. Not impossible but takes longer and uses up precious time in your weather window.
How cold is it on the Cuillin Ridge at night/What sleeping bag will I need? The temperature sleeping bag I used for the ridge was a 5 degree comfort rating. Used in conjunction with an Alpine bivi bag and a Neoair All season sleeping matt. I was not cold at night, but borderline. I had all of my clothes on.
If you are sitting on the fence about whether to do it.. Am i good enough etc… Toughen up and give it a go! It doesn’t hurt to test yourself and your limits (within reason of course..!)
Fitness needed for the Cuillin Ridge – all of the guides say ‘must be very fit’.. but what does that really mean? I dont think it helps to say that. I will provide a benchmark for you. I felt physically strong on the route, my fitness did not fail me or cause me to slow down. I was running 6km in 30 minutes (could easily run longer but I hate running!), 3-4 times a week and walking 10+km everyday of the week (mostly for work). I hope this helps.
Enjoy and let me know how you go in the comments!