A long rambling essay about a long rambling day out.
I wanted to write something about a day on the Cuillin Ridge, from just a couple of weeks ago, but it’s still settling down in my mind and I’m not totally sure how to really shape and express my thoughts on it yet. At the same time it seems silly to write about it in a month or more’s time, then it just becomes ‘this thing I did once’. It sort of needs to be current to a degree, I want to capture my thoughts on it, even if they’re somewhat incoherent or unformulated. So this post may turn into a rambling stream of consciousness. Or I may delete it. But at least it’s a start to getting some words down. Because the reality related to those thoughts isn't matched by the profound feeling they're generating. They're disproportionate to what actually happened.
Libby and I had been planning a Skye trip for well over 18 months. We’d both discovered that neither of us had ever done the full Black Cuillin Traverse, and agreed to try it together. Almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth I panicked. Gulp. Libby is fitter than me (think The Tortoise and the Hare), a vastly better climber than me, has way more experience of soloing than me, and basically I knew I’d have to step up considerably to not embarrass myself, or let her down. So I started training around Christmas time, for a May holiday and attempt. Libby was injured, and as cruel as it sounds I relished the chance to steal a march on her while she stagnated. I ran and ran, got as much rock mileage in as I could, and went to North Wales to pick her up in pretty good, confident spirits, but then it snowed on Skye. All week. We’d planned to do a summer crossing, so had to console ourselves with a week of Welsh trad. It simply wasn’t worth wasting the fuel costs and journey time when the ridge was covered in snow and the weather was so wet and volatile.
We agreed to try again. A year later, and this time Libby wasn’t injured, but she’d still managed to lay down some ground rules, in her humble way, about our tactics: an old shoulder injury would really not tolerate a heavy pack, and she was keen to go as light (and ergo, as fast) as we could. Fast and light was fine by me, having done the Dartmoor crossing in March, my cardio fitness was pretty good.
I spent a few days in North Wales getting some mountains in my legs and doing some easy soloing to get my head in gear as well. But actually I only had a 50% strike rate with the solo’s I'd tried, finding 3 big multi-pitch Classic Rock ticks 'fine', but then backing off 3 as well. I ran the Snowdon Horseshoe in 2h 19m, just about beating Libby’s PB. This wasn’t even much consolation though, as I know full well Libby didn’t dig anywhere near as deep as I did, to run it in only 10 minutes more. Taking a quick summit picture on Snowdon, the solitary woman on top had looked at me in a funny way, and when I said "Hello" she replied, “I think you have, erm… dried energy gel?... matted in your beard?” I was a state, and coming down off Lliwedd I even stumbled and fell, like a drunk, as my legs were jelly. I had to console myself with it being good training, some really useful mileage, a stern reminder that going uphill is hard, and a need to focus on that aspect of running for the remaining month before Skye.
So Wales was a really worthwhile trip. With solo’s of Flying Buttress, Gashed Crag, and the outrageously exposed Spiral Stairs under my belt, plus the Horseshoe run, plus running up to Heather Terrace and down from the top of Tryfan. And another day getting beasted up and down both sides of the Pass with Libby, I was definitely on the right track. On the downside, I’d backed off both the Classic Rock ticks on Carreg Wastad (Crackstone Rib felt as loose as Rob’s Mum, and by the time we got to Wrinkle I think my brittle confidence was gone anyway), and also down-climbing from over half height on the incredible California Arete, in the slate quarries. That one remains as an itch I will go back and scratch. So yea, getting there, but work still to be done.
Collecting Libby to head to Skye we had a decent forecast. Overcast with sunny spells, it seemed to look the same all week. That will do. We arrived late, and wrote off an attempt the very next day, even given a favourable forecast, because of car weariness. We instead used that day as a recce of the middle section that’s got the most concentrated section of route finding and harder climbing in it. It was glorious, but even 'only' walking, I came down exhausted and chastened. The climbs had felt go-y enough even on a rope! Libby sagely told me "don’t be despondent, we’re tired, carrying heavy packs, and it will feel much easier in running gear with just hydration packs".
The next day it rained. And got what the Met Office technically refer to as really bloody windy. Decent forecasts turned very poor. Grey, wet and windy became the theme and we wondered if we’d foolishly missed our only good weather day. I became borderline desperate: “The winds die down by midnight, maybe we could run it by moonlight?” I wondered if Libby was rethinking her offer of running with such a total punter? We filled our days with seeing the other crags on the island. Gorgeous Neist Point is one to head back to for sure, away from the crowds of tourists at the Lighthouse the atmosphere of the other parts of the crag was other worldly. The Old Man of Storr no less so, it's easy to see why it’s appeared in Sci-Fi films. Kilt Rock has one of the most tempting looking Extreme Rock lines I’ve ever seen, and wonderful Elgol also provided some fun distraction from the elephant in the room: we might miss out, again.
Giving the weather every chance, we resisted the urge to head south a day early and try to get something done on The Ben or in The Lakes. Instead delaying our departure until as late as practicably possible, taking the chance that a 15 hour drive Sunday and straight back to work on Monday would be worth sticking around for. It really, really was. The little weather window we saw on Saturday morning turned out to be the prime slot for one of the best days in the hills either of us had ever had. Good things come to those who wait.
The day started with a 4am alarm, it was already light, midsummers day this far North sees only a strange twilight between midnight and 3ish. I ate as much granola as I could poke down, drank a litre of water, wishing I could force more in, and scoffed a banana. Bags were already packed so a quick scrub of my teeth and a wee and suddenly we were walking away from Glen Brittle campsite, in fairly sombre silence (mostly fatigue, but also probably gathering our thoughts for what was to come).
After 2 hours of deliberately slow energy conserving ambling, we turned left and began the slog up Gars Bheinn that the guidebook calls “an early test of character”. I can say without melodrama, that by the top, all that jibber jabber from Libby that we’d cruise in, sit around chatting and eating, maybe have a stretch and then go for it, was utter guff - I was knackered. By 8am. A Danish pastry partially picked me up. I applied all my spare layers, and added 'Cold' to 'Knackered'.
Hastened by the chill, we suddenly set off, after over 18 months of waiting and preparing, training and researching, dreaming and yearning, and suddenly we were running.
“We’re running!” Libby shouted.
“We’re running!” I shouted back.
I was nervous and jerky, stumbling a little, so I overtook Libby to try and find some sort of rhythm and get warmed into it. That stopped abruptly at basically the first inclines of Sgurr nan Eag, where I also abruptly stopped being cold. Libby had revised the route description, consigning it to memory - left here, right there, pass this pinnacle on that side, pick up this contour path here, so it would have been wiser (obvious, you might think) to keep her within earshot rather than hare off following my nose. Fortunately, the hills slapped that spaniel-esque over-enthusiasm out of me, and she caught up, looking decidedly less sweaty and gaspy.
The windproof layer was stashed in the bag somewhere before Sgurr Dubh Mor, and the 'route finding' (for me) was still a very loose term. Despite Libby’s being an uber-experienced Mountain Guide, and me a bumbling ML, and her having revised the route while I only revised scenarios about falling to my doom, I still seemed to be saying "I think it’s this way" far too often. I took us up a gully to the wrong top, and she did well not to slap me.
Still vaguely surprised that we were actually doing it, we pressed on with controlled urgency. Libby was scribbling down our split times between tops, so we knew we were roughly doubling Finlay Wild's times, our arbitrary gauge of respectability. Approaching the infamous TD Gap I started to have quiet words with myself. You’ve had nearly 2 years waiting for this chance sonny Jim, it would be a great shame to bottle it now because you’re too timid to climb a short V Diff without a rope. As an extra precaution to give me no excuse for the fear sobs, I’d carried my climbing shoes, and a small amount of liquid chalk, as I sat and put these on I still really hadn’t made up my mind whether I could/would do each climb. The down climb went fine. I got started before I had a chance to hesitate. Then sitting and watching Libby half way up the climb out of the Gap - some cause for concern. She didn’t like it. That wasn't in the script. Doing it in trainers, and not as tall as me, she’d found the other day that she needed to do 2 more moves than me to reach a jug rail, and these involved insecure hands and small shiny edges for feet, in running trainers, so I could hardly blame her for hesitating. I didn’t like it either, and I could lank it to the jugs. As she came back and made noises (for my benefit?) about us maybe taking the gully, I offered to make her feel better by reminding her what a really bad climber looks like. Ignoring the sequence I’d used on the recce (literally no idea what I was doing, hadn't even made up my mind to go for it, just being caught up in the moment, my conscious brain silently chastising: 'woah! What the hell are you doing? This hasn't been signed off?'), I made a thuggy move on jugs - dragging my feet up and locking off , then throwing my foot back on, and suddenly was stood up with easier ground to come to finish. Libby’s head appeared soon after while I was reapplying my running shoes. “Interesting decision to go feet off on that move”. Funny! My plan to inspire her with my own incompetence had worked like a charm.
TD Gap to Sgurr Alisdair, then Thearlaich, and Mhic Chionnich, these past quickly and easily. Confidence and energy were high. Kings Chimney. I loved Kings Chimney. I suddenly felt in the zone. Soloing was just an extended form of scrambling and there was no way I was going to fall off. I was able to laugh and joke around with Libby, and then with 3 of the graded climbs behind us all of a sudden it felt like we were basically half way.
The weather was still glorious, we were both smiling, relatively fresh and making good progress, at around double Finlay Wild’s splits pace. Following on from this mild euphoria the In Pinn turned into a cruisy bask. No one at the bottom (we’d said we wouldn’t queue) meant we got straight on and started up the improbable blade, casually chatting and joking. I’d done this before, years ago, but had no actual memory of the views out to the right – on account of it being mind-bendingly exposed. This time it was a romp. Temporarily time pressures were irrelevant and we were both beaming as we topped out. Libby briefly headed for the West Ridge down-climb, while I retraced the East Ridge.
She soon shouted that the queue’s for abseils were too much and she would catch me up. We chatted to some guys roping up at the bottom who cautioned us by asking how we planned to tackle An Dorus later in our crossing. With no ropes we only had one choice or tactic, which seemed mildly alarming to them, and these eye-brow raises again added to my confidence. But somehow here, we started to lose urgency. Over the top of Sgurr Dearg and on towards Banachdich, physically half way, I started to fatigue. Eating some gels and bars, and drinking more than I’d rationed myself. The climb back to the summit from the Bealach dragged, and it was the first time I’d put my hands on my knees to aid upward progress.
The guidebook says the next section is ‘the mind numbing middle section’, and calls it ‘interminable’. Not far wrong. Sans recce this all felt very slow and exploratory. Greadaidh, “May Day” and Bidein Druim nan Ramh were confusing. The Three Tops, Three Teeth and Three Pinnacles - these landmark names didn’t help either. We were sure the guidebook sent us left when we should have gone right, right when we should have gone left. I twice questioned Libby (wrong again, both times. Learning curve?!), and we once crawled a horizontal cleft above a void that was so off route it would probably have made for funny viewing from across the Coire. “Lib? Just for the record, do we actually know which mountain we’re on?” She just laughed an admission back at me and kept going. There was the one notable zig-zagged down climb at An Dorus that certainly refocused the mind, but the rest of that section is a blur. I remember thinking to say "My knees hurt" or "My legs are tired" and then thinking 'Be quiet. What's she going to do? Say "Aww, you poor poppet"?' I managed to keep those thoughts to myself for all of about twenty minutes.
"My knees hurt. And my legs are tired."
Probably in hindsight we need to admit that we'd lost concentration a little. By Bruach na Frithe I was done in. I had about 200ml of water left and was very thirsty, only a couple of gels. We stopped and Libby said “We could just stop here couldn’t we? I mean, that will do, won’t it?” I was drenched in sweat, had been for hours, and my knees had aged 20 years.
To add to our general malaise we were now half an hour slower than our hoped for finish time, and still had 2 major Munro’s to go. Finlay Wild took 20minutes for this final section, looking across to Gillean, I thought we might take 3 or 4 times that.
Am Basteir was disgusting, but by the time we were slogging up to Gillean I was starting to feel happy, we’d done it, no more difficulties, not as fast as we wanted - sure - but an utterly perfect weather day and no mishaps, and then out of the blue Libby went all direttissima on me (yes it is unfair of me to criticise the only person to do any actual route-finding all day) and took us up some dark, wet, exposed and bottomless gully that provided an unexpected sting in the tale. I confess to cursing [her name] under my breath after she’d disappeared out of eye sight and ear shot. Too tired to be frightened by now, but I did suddenly need to really concentrate and get my head back on. Even though this felt like another semi-serious and ad hoc solo, and even in my fatigued state, I still felt a surge of confidence that at this stage I could basically climb anything. I was more annoyed than scared. No idea what the grade was, but it didn't really matter, by now we were sort of 'at one' with it all.
Topping out to see her smiling on the summit made those negative thoughts evaporate instantly and I dumped my bag and we hugged, elated and giggly. I stopped the stopwatch on my Apps (NB: word of warning to anyone thinking to attempt and record a crossing; they didn’t work, either of them, and it surely can’t be a coincidence that both Strava and Suunto Apps failed on the same run – having neither of them ever failed me before; so I wondered about the Gabbro (known to mess with compasses) maybe interfering with them in some way?).
There were 2 middle aged (older than us) and stout Geordies on the top of Gillean. “What have youse two done?”
“The Ridge” Libby said modestly.
“Aye but what part of it? Where from like?”
“All of it”
[Astonished look] “But it’s only half past 3 youse must be Ninjas?!”
We both laughed while they surveyed our packs…
“Have youse not carried ropes or gear?! Did youse solo all the climbs n abseils? Jeeezus! Pair o' Space Cadets yuz are!”
We laughed and offered them a tot of our summit Talisker. Kicking off our shoes and sitting in the warm sun, we chatted and they told us about their day.
“Will you be in the Slighachan later, you must let us buy you both beers?”
“Clachaig hopefully, I think we might make a start to our journey South tonight”
“CLACHAIG!?! What are you driving man, a Delorean?!”
The walk out was predictably a bit of a trudge. From the road by the Fairy Pools, we cadged a lift back to the car, got changed, and had dinner and a Talisker in the Sligachan (he was right about the over ambitious nature of making last orders in Glen Coe). A gloriously clichéd end to our perfect day.
The days that followed were introspective and surreal. I knew I’d be exhausted, after a long day like that (around 14 full value hours from tent to tent), with all the ascent and descent and mileage, the emotional intensity of the soloing, the constant and near endless concentration of just not putting a foot wrong when scampering along above potential death falls, I knew that would take it’s toll. A 15 hour drive home wouldn’t help, and nor would a 12 hour day back at work on Monday (including 6 hours back in the car!) before even unpacking a bag. But the rest of that week, and some of the next, I spent in some sort of bizarre reverie.
If the legs weren’t coping well with the workload I’d given them, the mind really was struggling to digest it all. It felt like a cross between being in some sort of hard fought life preserving battle, and a state of rapture. A joy so deep I struggled to describe it to friends and family. Do people want to know that stuff anyway? I think they just want you to say 'Yea it was amazing', maybe show them a photo or two and then move on. We live in an age where hyperbole and overblown adjectives are so common anyway; words like awesome and amazing are used so frequently they lose their impact. I regard myself as a relatively eloquent guy, but I still can’t fully articulate it. Going along that Ridge seemed to touch every nerve and involve every emotion and trait. Frightening, taxing, tiring, joyous, serious, fun, beautiful, savage… almost every aspect of my character was somehow moved. Changed? I felt like I’d poured myself into it physically, mentally and emotionally and was utterly emptied. But what it had given me in return was a timeless gift, not just the memories, or the confidence boosting thrill of successfully ‘stepping up’, not just the loveliness of sharing a day that special with a dear friend, or the privilege to be soaking up the grandeur and majesty of these make-believe mountains, but somehow like an affirmation of self. Like I was born to do that; But more, in a duplicitous way where I was simultaneously taking and giving, expending myself and improving myself with a sum greater than the parts, some magical ingredient was being added and it had fundamentally changed me. We both felt like our little weather window had appeared in such a fated way, and it was so perfect, that we were sort of ‘looked after’. Neither of us are religious, but there was an evangelical nature about it. The statistics associated with the journey don’t help me justify my hippy feelings on it either. They’re only V Diffs. It’s only 7 miles. It was only half a day in the sunshine. But it felt like something way beyond what often gets called ‘an epic’. It wasn’t an epic. Nothing ever went wrong. We dug deep, but even before we got back to the car we’d worked out how we could go an hour faster if we did it again. I wasn’t terrified on any of the climbs like I have been on others. Nothing remotely added up to the impact it made on me.
Weeks later I'm still torn about what to think of it. Should we go back? Would our slowing down towards the end eventually leave a sad taste that needs addressing? Or would a future crossing pale in comparison and nullify some of the perfect beauty of this day? So should we leave it alone? And if we leave it alone, what on Earth comes next? What else can come close to a day this good? Should I stop climbing altogether? Go out on a high? I've never been into it for thrills and ratcheting up the stakes and ambition, but having a day like this - a raison d'etre, and then some - it's stopped me in my tracks. There's a blank canvas for the future and I'm nervous to touch it. I came down from the Ridge totally spent. At work on Monday I had to wear a long sleeved shirt to hide the cuts and scratches on my arms - I looked like a self harmer, my legs were bruised and scraped, my feet were battered and disgusting, and I couldn't use the finger-print recognition log-in to my phone and online banking apps for over a week! Although I already miss it like a grief (Libby confessed to still looking at weather forecasts (ha!)), and ache to be there, I also don't want to sully this day in any way. Yet.