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My First Skye Ridge - Mike Davies

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After 20 years of wandering around Scottish glens and hills, slowly ticking off a few Munros, I had been putting off the Skye Cuillins. Putting off or saving, I’m not quite sure which, but as a solo hill walker the technicality of the ridge and the dreaded In Pinn were beyond my self taught skills.

Twice before I had booked guides but still had not made it onto the ridge. Once I had waited at the Sligachan Hotel for a no show and the second time I had to cancel due to work commitments.

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Too many years had passed too quickly since and the ridge was still parked somewhere down my to do list. I had always wanted to do the ridge as a traverse but I was not getting any younger or fitter. Finally, a chance encounter gave me the push I needed. While staying in Fort William in February, with my wife Eileen, we had decided to drive up to Elgol on Skye for the view, a coffee and a warm scone. When we arrived there was only one other car and the occupants had just gone into the cafe. I did my grumpy old man bit, as no doubt, they would take the window seat with the view I had just driven 2 hours to enjoy. Yes I know the view is still available for free outside but it was February and I wanted the package, espresso, warm scone and hot stove. So intent was I on ignoring the other group I didn’t notice someone come up behind me. “Mike what are you doing here?” It was Howard who I had worked with in Shropshire 10 years ago and had since retired to Aviemore and keeps a holiday cottage on Skye. How does that happen? Years ago I spent 6 days backpacking through the Fisherfield Forest and didn’t meet another person until the very last night, when I was seeking refuge in the Carnmore bothy below A’Mhaighdean, only to meet Terry in there who worked in the same office as me in Shrewsbury!

Howard’s house on Skye is luxury and sits on the shore on The Sound of Sleat facing Knoydart. He was going to be there for a week in June so did I want to join him? Free luxury accommodation in the middle of traverse season, how quick did I say yes! Back to Shrewsbury, holiday booked at work, guide booked, job done.

 

Now that I had a date to work to I could get going with the preparation. I read everything I could find about the ridge in books, magazines and on the net. I was getting to know the stats by heart, total 26km, ridge 11km and ascent/descent 3900m. I’m not a fast walker but have reasonable stamina. Nevertheless it still looked big and probably two 12 hour days. I gymed and walked as many hills as often as I could. I got Stuart from High Sport to take me abseiling on Pontesford Hll as I was an abseiling virgin and didn’t want to look like a total noddy when I met my guide.

My guide was booked for 5 days to give me the best chance of a good weather window and the week before I was checking every forecast every night hoping for settled fine weather. It looked mixed but improving.

Finally, in June 2013 after 20 years thinking about it, I was on Skye ready to have a go at doing the ridge. Apparently first timers success rate is less than 10% but I felt I had done as much preparation as I could. All I needed was good weather.

DAY 1 Met my guide Spike at Sligachan Hotel and, after a short wait for someone to drop off a helmet and harness, we were off up to Bruach na Frithe, the easiest ridge Munro, for a get to know each other day and a first look at the ridge from on high for me. In true Scottish style 8 a.m. had been bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds. 9 a.m. had turned a bit grey and by 11 a.m. on the way up it had all closed in. We were in cloud and it was raining, grrr. Lunch at the foot of Bhasteir Tooth, which looked hard to me, and then on up to the top of Bruach na Frith and the only trig point on the ridge. There was some snow underfoot and the weather was clearing again to give easy going, good views and a great walk typical of Snowdonia or my more usual Scottish walks.

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DAY 2 Meet at the Co-op Broadford, which seems to be the centre of the Universe around there, and great for supplies and goodies. Even the car park has amazing views across to Applecross. The plan today was Bla Bheinn via Clach Glas which would give me a little more exposure practice and I guess Spike was checking out my hill fitness and pace. The promised improving weather was arriving and it was a grand day, clear, dry and temperate. We had a great walk up with a good lunch stop on the only small area of grass on the ridge nicknamed The Putting Green. Excellent views of the Cuillin Ridge with time to look along its entire length and all the ups and downs. Had a close fly past from a rescue helicopter and hoped that they were just out playing for the day. Sadly it turned out later that they were recovering a walker who had been missing for some months. After lunch it was on to the top of Bla Bheinn and an easy walk back down to the car.

DAY 3 My guide seemed to thrive on loose plans and ours had been to meet somewhere along Glen Brittle at 9ish to take our bivvy gear up onto the ridge near Sgurr na Banachdich. Our rendezvous was no more specific than “ I’ll see his tent somewhere along the Glen.” As it happened I got a phone call just before I turned into the Glen, Spike was still in Portree so did I want to meet him there where I could indulge myself with a good espresso whilst we discussed weather and plans. Truth be told it was Spikes birthday the day before and I think it might have been a late night. The coffee wasn’t that good but the weather forecast was which seemed a fair trade.

We did eventually get to the YHA in Glen Brittle and shuffled rucksack contents to sort out what to take up and leave on the ridge for our overnight bivvy. A good clear dry day for the walk up but I was panicking about the time. Our 9 a.m. meet had turned into a 1 p.m. depart which wasn’t a big problem other than I just wanted to get up and down and home for an early night ready for a big day tomorrow. It was a good walk up to Banachdich where we had a brew and stashed our gear just below the top. It was obviously a popular bivvy area as I was impressed by the selection of nice flat prepared bivvy spots that were available. We bagged our gear then secured it under some rocks and headed down. We could bivvy here tomorrow or further along but we were now committed to at least reaching here for food and a bed.

DAY 4 Spike stuck with his usual rendezvous plan. I would find him somewhere along the Elgol road, just look out for his tent. Our plan had always been to go in from Elgol by boa t and I liked the sound of this as a fun part of the trip. Good views, shorter walk in and no doubling back on the ridge to get to Gars Bheinn. All accounts of ridge traverses stress the need for an early start but the first surprise yesterday, when Spike tried to book an early boat, was that the first one didn’t go until after 9 unless we wanted to pay £150 for a personal taxi - ferry version. Gulp. After 9 it was then which seemed a bit late to me but Spike knew the route and my pace. Surprise number 2 was that when the boat offered to drop us at the foot of Gars Bheinn Spike announced that, as the weather was so good, we would go up via the Dubh ridge. A late start and extra climbing were perhaps not the best combinations but hey in for a penny in for a pound.

The crossing from Elgol to Coruisk is always a joy. What an amazing view and the sun was shining. We had our weather window, all I had to do was get up there and get along it. On the crossing we passed a small ship moored in the bay which looked impressive, made for good pictures and added to the drama of the view. Little did I realise until we landed that said ship had just disgorged about 50 ecotourists who, having been shuttled ashore on a mini fleet of RIBs, were stood around drinking whisky and listening to a piper. So much for peace, quiet and solitude! We skirted past as quickly as we could and then half way along the Loch we were at the foot of the Dubh ridge. As one guide book quotes ‘Britain’s longest rock climb.’

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The climbing was relatively easy with good angles and little exposure until we reached the sharp perch of Sgurr Dubh Beag, a narrow ledge above an overhang, which the book I have since read quotes as ‘an exciting abseil, not recommended as a first ever abseil.’ It was time to thank Stuart for my Pontesford Hill practice. Spikes approach to my novice abseiling was similar to his rendezvous, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine, just go for it.’ For years I had worried about the In Pinn and now we seemed to have introduced extra drama just for the hell of it and the fact that the sun was shining. I don’t like an audience and this was also the only point of the day where we met anyone else. Two others were just setting up their own abseil and I’m not sure about the etiquette but Spike was set up and gone while they were still gathering their thoughts. A shout from below and it was my turn. Over, down, thank you Stuart and onwards to the top. The Dubh ridge is a good climb in its own right but it had taken extra time and effort and we had only just reached Sgurr Dubh Mor and the ridge proper.

After that it was turn left and out to Sgurr nan Eag having already decided not to go as far as Gars Bheinn because of the time. We then had to double back but at least now it felt more like ridge progress as we began to work our way along from south to north. Bivvy and bed seemed a long, long way away.

When we reached the TD gap climbers were queuing and again, because of time, we took the bypass. Although an integral part of the true ridge experience I am a hill walker not a climber and my goal was to get from one end to the other doing all the Munros on the way so I was not precious about missing a technical bit.

It was about now that I got a hollow empty feeling in my stomach and started to realise that I was running on empty only the solution was not my normal long leisurely break with a brew and a picnic. You should be careful what you wish for. The weather had been too good and so hot that in my attempt to ration my drink I was dehydrated, which I remembered is one of the most common reasons for failing to complete a traverse, doh! Also best practice is to stick to your normal hill food and drinks but in an attempt to keep up with the science of rehydrating I had put some flavoured Isotonic tablets in my water. Now it just smelt and tasted like campsite toilet cleaner and all I craved was fresh clean water. The upshot was my stomach had shut down and I could not eat what I needed for energy and we had still got hours to go. Panic. Every now and then I tried to force something down but not very successfully. At best I managed a piece of fruit cake and a few stale jellybabies. Tip, don’t use stale ones, they take too much chewing. My stamina is not bad and I was able to keep plodding on but it was taking the joy out of the day. The day started to cool but it remained warm, dry and clear. The going was good and the views were amazing. We trundled on along the ridge ticking off the Munros and tops until I could see the In Pinn ahead. I remember thinking I’d still got to do that and reach our bivvy which seemed miles away. As it happened, when we reached the In Pinn, Spike just scampered up it, tied on and shouted me up. “Easy climbing, easy climbing, go, come on, come on.” In truth it was compared to some of what we had already done. I was too tired and hungry to even notice the exposure and then I was sat with Spike at the top. Even the abseil from the top was a non event after all my worries and I could relax and enjoy. One advantage of being late was no queues and no audience. We had the whole place to ourselves. The dreaded In Pinn done.

At the next col Spike decided I was competent enough to continue on my own to the bivvy site. Super fit that he was he was just going to nip down to Lord knows where and fetch water. I was knackered but it was good to have an hour on my own with Spike gone and no one else around, although at the time my thoughts were about bed and my wretched stomach.

I have never been so pleased to reach a destination after 10 hours on the go, 6 Munros and 3000m of ascent with an extra ridge climb thrown in for good measure. I was starving and thirsty but it was to be a good news, bad news evening. Sunset and the views were incredible. The bivvy site and temperature were super comfortable. Spike arrived with fresh water but I struggled to drink much, a sip of tea and a biscuit came straight back up. Super fit Spike had gone the extra mile to fetch us fresh water but had forgotten to leave our dinner in the bivvy stash. Luckily or unluckily I couldn’t eat anyway so it was not a problem and we had plenty of other stuff with us just nothing I could get down.

All things considered I had brilliant nights sleep, very comfy and slept like a log. Morning was bright and sunny again and I did manage to eat some porridge. I was stiff but thought we might actually get to finish today.

The disadvantage of day 2 is carrying out all the bivvy gear so with slightly heavier sacks we set off again. Shortly after Spike left me sitting at a col while he nipped down again for more water. Oh to be that fit! While he was gone I tried to fill the time by eating but it was hard going and the final result was one sandwich in 40 minutes, not good for another potential 10 hour day.

One piece of pre ridge advice had been to take some leather gardening gloves. I had thought that had seemed a bit over the top so I had bought some not quite so heavy reinforced gloves. The result was I had worn through the fingers yesterday so I also spent a bit of time trying to tape up my fingertips with plasters from the first aid kit.

Spike returned and off we went but I must admit running on empty was hard going and today was turning out to be even hotter than yesterday. In the heat I found wearing a helmet all the time quite claustrophobic with minimal ventilation. The taped up fingertips didn’t last long either so leather gardening gloves is the way to go.

I can’t remember any dramas that day as we progressed along the ridge but I do remember thinking it was so much longer and exposed than I had expected. It was the sheer scale of everything that was a surprise even having read all the books. I can cope with 12 hour hill days and the guide books had said ‘think Crib Goch, Aonach Eagach and Striding Edge.’ But I think I had expected some sections like this with some better paths in between. Nothing had prepared me mentally for 10 hours of ridge exposure that was so constant.

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The upshot was that at 4 p.m. when we reached Bruach na Frithe, were I had first come onto the ridge three days before, Spike said “We needed to call it a day.” We were relatively close to the end but there is a sting in the tail getting over the Bhasteir Tooth and Spike thought it might just be too much when running on empty. After here until the end there were no easy ways off and so down now was the sensible option. He must have been right as I was in no mood to argue and even felt slightly relieved as an easy way down sounded good. We split up for the walk out and I spent 2 hours thinking disappointment verses how good was the Irn Bru going to taste when I reached the Sligachan Hotel and, yes, it did taste brilliant. Sugar, caffeine and fizz all in one hit.

Spike arrived just after me so we then shuffled cars back to Broadford and onto Elgol. I had always envisaged a celebration steak on completion of the traverse but it was not to be. I had not completed and my stomach had shut up shop in protest at not enough liquid. I stocked up at the Co-op with what I fancied that might slip down easily, all junk but needs must. Tinned spag bol, tinned rice pud and ready made jelly. By the time we reached Elgol with the pressure off and some Irn Bru inside me my stomach began to switch back on. The weather was still sun and cloudless blue sky so after my first espresso in 2 days I sat by the jetty looking across to the Cuillins eating tinned spag bol and it tasted wonderful. It was just the start I needed and I spent the rest of the night grazing on all sorts of goodies, pork pies, sausage rolls, crisps and chocolate. Simple pleasures! Finally, back to Howard’s where I just drank, ate, slept, drank, ate and slept.

Next morning refreshed and re-energised I started to ponder the what ifs and wonder if we should have pushed on to finish, but too late now. Time for home.

Howard left Shropshire some years ago to retire and spends his time between Aviemore and Skye. When I left Howards I picked up a hitchhiker to Broadford who turned out to be a landscape gardener from Shropshire, who has also moved to Skye. My last treat at Broadford was a sausage sandwich from the Co-op car park burger van and the new owners had just moved up there from Shropshire. Are we all drifting up there?

Years ago I used to rush up to Skye to catch the last ferry at night. Then came the bridge but at a price with a toll although we still thought it was great. Next the toll was dropped which was even better as we have a free crossing with no time constraints. So what do I do now? I pay to catch the old ferry from Kylesku to Glen Elg just to enjoy the slower pace and take in the views. A leisurely crossing is followed by a last coffee stop at a favourite viewpoint overlooking the Five Sisters in Glen Shiel and then that’s it. The trip is over and now the long drive home down the dreaded M6. Until the next time............

Thinking of the next time I had sworn I would not try the full traverse again. I like to do long leisurely days with plenty of snack stops and brews which the ridge definitely is not. Now I am writing this it feels like unfinished business. The bad bits were not so bad but the good bits were brilliant. I am going to have another go so all I need is to ask Eileen for another week away in June. Actually she is typing this up for me so perhaps I just did?

 






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