South Cuillin:
Sgurr nan Eag, Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn, Sgurr Dubh Mor, Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Inaccessible Pinnacle (Sgurr Dearg)
Sunday 7th October 2012

Weather/Conditions: Great weather all day! Really windy on Carn Liath but settled down into a stunning evening.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 29km / 1850m / 11h 05m
Accompanying: Dougie and Struan

I had snagged the car for a last-of-the-year trip to the Cuillin. It was October, and one day of good weather had appeared. If I didn't go now, the days would only get shorter, the snow would start falling, then it would be off until spring. I'd never been on this range in my life and I wanted to see them up and close. After all I want to climb all the Munros continuously next summer and the Cuillin are a large part of that trip.

I would leave on Saturday night, spend all of Sunday (hopefully) climbing everything from Sgurr nan Eag to Sgurr a' Mhadaidh. I had to be home for university by Monday lunchtime.

My research was enormous. I printed off maps, marked out topos and read every route description relevant to my plans. Out of pleasure (or obsession) more than necessity, I drew my own 1:10,000 map of the Cuillin. I left out the crags but traced the OS's beautifully high-detailed contours which they suffocate under a mass of black scribbles.

I was heading up to Sligachan to meet Nathan, who I first met through Walk Highlands. I stopped in Fort William for a tea-time McDonalds then headed on up into the dark lands of the north-west. In Glen Shiel I notice a flashing light up on the South Shiel Ridge. I pulled into a layby, suspicious. I watched it for five minutes, but wasn't sure what to think: a flashing light up on a dark mountain on a Saturday night shortly after dusk. The battle site car park was where the South Shiel route came back to the road. I headed down. The flashing light was nearly on top of me. I wondered what to do for five minutes then decided firmly: mountain rescue.

So I called. I didn't know whether it not was it was an injured person, but I said the light was flashing and very suspicious. The signal kept cutting out. I phoned three times in all, and each time I got a different person. Very frustrating to be in the bad reception of a valley. In the end they called back to say there was a man injured on the mountain, and rescue were already on their way. With nothing else to do, I continued on to Skye.

Nathan introduced me to Cameron in the Sligachan Inn. I told him about my crazy Eag-Mhadaidh plan and he was into it. We had a couple drinks, some good banter then headed to the campsite tents under the moon-washed Cuillin and Glamaig.

Alarms were off at 5am. I had a quick pasta, then got out of bed. Stuff packed; say bye to Nathan; into car - and Cameron and I were off. We wanted to be on the hill early as possible. We drove over dark roads, under cloudy skies to Glen Brittle. On the single-track Glen Brittle road, the Cuillin swung into view in twilit gloom; a mist-enshrouded black mass. I'd hoped for better weather than this. I didn't know what to expect at this point - would we bail at two mountains, would we somehow make all eight Munros?

Parked at the road-end, we packed our gear. All normal hillwalking stuff, plus one 50m rope, harnesses, helmets, slings and a tiny rack. I also packed Andrew Dempster's guide book and a lot of paperwork. (When you spend £50 on petrol you make damn sure you get your moneys worth!)

We set off.

Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor

We (briefly) lost the path, then got onto the track to Coire a' Ghrunnda. The sun rose behind the Cuillin, over the ocean which was still, like a millpond, reflecting shimmering gold and blue. It was an isolated place, barred from the familiarity of west coast mountains by a mountain wall of black gabbro. I only had the sea to look to; out past cloud capped Rum toward the little hills of Uist on the horizon.

Coire a' Ghrunnda pulled into view, full to the brim with mist. We headed up the left hand side of the coire, looking over to immense slabs, peppered with boulders like I've never seen before. A ring of boulders out on the moor marked the terminal moraines of a glacier now gone. The bones of these mountains are very close to the surface, more than most.

The upper parts of Coire a' Ghrunnda were all boulders and pinnacles; a surprisingly enclosed space more remote than I'd expected. We headed up Sgurr nan Eag over the boulders from the loch inlet; all fairly easy terrain. This was a brutal place, and as we walked the final ridge to Sgurr nan Eag, unencumbered by rucksacks, I reflected on being for the first time on a mountain range I already felt I knew. To the right: the ocean. Everywhere else were soaring grey peaks and left, below; the Coruisg interior.

We regained our bags and headed toward Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn. It was all almost walking, but rough with boulders, clefts and steps. Helmets were on from this point, we were walking underneath the scree pile of Caisteal a' Garbh-choire. I noticed bivvy shelters set up in it's shelter. I don't know about anyone else but I wouldn't bother going to sleep under that pile of choss. Plenty of stuff to disembowel you...

Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn was fairly easy. We left the rucksacks for the out-and-back to Sgurr Dubh Mor. We knew there was tricky route finding, we could have outwitted it. We still managed to loose the best route.

It's difficult to retrospectively remember where we went and even more difficult to describe: we cut off up a gully too early to regain the ridge and the foot of the peak itself. Once we'd actually got to the foot of the peak, we just followed easy ledges to the summit of the mountain itself, returning to Da Bheinn without any issues and some fun climbing.

Time for the big'yin.

Sgurr Alasdair

The weather was, mercifully, clearing up to resemble something closer to the forecast. Sgurr Alasdair was ahead and this was a bit of a mental block. From the outset I knew we weren't going to bother with the TD gap and all the abseiling and leading that entailed, but the alternative route as described on Steven Fallon's website sounded sketchy, too. As per his description, we skirted the base of the southern cliffs and picked up the cave on Sgurr Sgumain (another bivvy shelter) before traversing back onto Sgurr Alasdair. We headed up onto a gully full of jugs, to emerge out on the open face which dropped in amazing steepness to the verticality's of the cliffs below. Not a place to fall.

"continue up with extreme care on exceptionally loose ground" were Fallon's words. I might have been on a roll, but I didn't find it too difficult, nor as loose as I'd expected. To minimise stone-fall danger or being wiped out by falling climber, Cameron went first, then me. Yet while scrambling I was never particularly bothered about the exposure. It's good to know that this is a possible ascent route - in good conditions, at least.

Just short of the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, we cut up to the ridge and emerged onto the crest of the west ridge. Wild views opened up, crazy exposure, all the way into Coire Lagan with the InPinn basked in sun at the other end. Sgurr Sgumain; the Sron na Ciche faces; everything... what a place! I even felt a bit of exposure looking back to the way we came up. We cut back onto the face (the terrain on the face is easier than following the ridge) and arrived at the summit of Sgurr Alasdair.

It was almost hard to take it all in.

Off Sgurr Alasdair by some scrambling, we emerged at the top of the Stone Shoot and descended to the notch in Thearlaich. There were some fun moves up this, then some particularly exposed ones up by the summit. The next part of the route was really interesting, and provoked most thought and comment afterward. I posted two threads on's forums which provoked a lot of discussion. It was to do with the route over Sgurr Thearlaich which I hadn't realised would be such a problem.

Sgurr Thearlaich

We descended the Thearlaich rooftop slabs toward Sgurr Mhic Choinnich when we came upon a real steep section of the ridge, a cliff bisecting the ridge, outflanked only by a rooftop slab slanting down rightward. The only problem was the 150m cliff at the far end: you would fall all the way down towards Coiruisg. It was way too steep to down climb safely, we took time to consider the best plan of action. Some shattered blocks at the top of the cliff had ab tat around them, but no way was I abseiling off them. Andrew Dempster's book talked about a descent on the Lagan side some metres to the left. I had a look: cliffs all around.

In the end we set up a belay and pitched the rightward slab. Cameron came down on a top rope and we never managed to pull down his abseil tat.

And then, confusingly - a second cliff was in our way. Abseil required. The guidebook hadn't mentioned this. The blocks with the tat around them looked unstable, but sturdy enough, I suppose. I left one of my slings behind and we abseiled. In the end we spent 1 hour 20 minutes on the short distance from Sgurr Thearlaich's summit to Bealach Mhic Choinnich.

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich was up next: we scrambled up the short step to Coillie's Ledge and followed it around. Wow wow wow. What a place. It's a path that sometimes deteriorates into little rock walls, so usually gets a grade of Moderate. Cameron was wearing stiff soled boots. One caught on a rock and bent his ankle, sending him flying out towards to the void. With a yelp, he managed to catch himself. When I turned around he was still there and it sounded like a pretty close call.

I left the rucksack behind for the slabs leading to the top of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. This is a horrendously exposed place. That in itself didn't bother me, but trying to keep a camera in one hand while scrambling did. I didn't worry about myself, but one slip and the camera would be gone, no doubt flying 300m to the Coire Lagan floor. We made the summit easily and scrambled back, I picked up my rucksack.

Sgurr Dearg, Inaccessible Pinnacle

Time for one more. With deteriorating weather, we both knew the InPinn would be the last. We headed down to the base of the peak. The cloud steadily lowered and wind picked up. We talked about how we were going to do the Pinnacle, and were split between soloing and pitching. Now I've soloed up to E1 and consider a V. Diff a solo. The InPinn East Ridge is a Moderate. But of course it's a long, exposed Moderate and I have a rule that I only solo something when I've got the mojo together.

At the moment the mojo was nowhere to be found, but I saw the sense in Cameron's soloing argument. Do it quick, get off the mountain fast. We're both capable of it. We slogged up the slabs and scree of Sgurr Dearg as I steadily gathered my soloing head together.

The decision to solo was almost unspoken. The mist was blowing by, slowly greasing the rock up. I took everything out my rucksack but for rope and camera. We still had harnesses on. I took the rucksack up.

Cameron went first, up a juggy break in the face. All easy-going: I'd climbed something like ten metres when I arrived at the route crux where trust in two sloping holds and a small right foot hold are necessary to move onto the arête itself. The arête is one of the most horrifically exposed places I've ever been without a rope. There's about a foot-width of rock. Everywhere else, all around is death. That's what I thought at the time. It's laced with jugs, but feet in boots skated over the basalt. Fingers were slightly numb with cold. I felt slightly out of contact with the rock.

It wasn't fear but simple acknowledgement that, 1) I must not make a mistake and 2) I'm not in the mood for soloing right now and I'm treading a bit close to the line. At one point I looked up to see how far I had to go. The ridge soared up into the mist. I had miles to go. Head down and get on with it.

I better not fall or retreat: Cameron was on top and I had the abseil rope! I got a real feel for the danger of the Cuillin; it's almost melancholic. The mountains are traced with danger and of ghosts. And here I am one slip away from becoming one of them.

The angle eased back, success close to hand. The abseil would be easy; I've done enough of that. Holy shit, I just solo'ed the Inn Pinn! I wouldn't have expected that in the past. We hung around taking in the situation, then abb'ed off. It was nice not to have to think about dodgy anchors, the in situ one is great.

Descent and Home

Then we headed down, down the scree slopes to eventual release from the misted mountain sides. Down the scree and down, and down... We made a mistake.

We screwed up in our haste to get off. Instead of taking care to locate the path off, we followed a scree chute down. The scree chute reared to vertical and we sent down stones bouncing and spinning; a bowling alley. This wasn't the right route. With darkness very close by, we began re-climbing Sgurr Dearg. I had a topo and worked out what we'd done: with a topo in hand, we came up with a thought-out plan, but concealed by mist and under pressure, I couldn't ignore the internal gnaw of danger. We began to traverse buttresses in the direction Coiruisg. Then I feared we might actually descend into Coiruisg. Then we'd have a problem!

But then, we located a route through - not the one we came up, but still a route. We got below the mist. Tension dissipated. We were now down and safe. Our reward was firing down the stone shoots to the base of the Coire Lagan in a matter of minutes. We walked out by the loch, got harnesses and helmets off for the last time, and walked out of Coire Lagan chasing dusk Atlantic skies. The weather closed in on the mountains, Coire Lagan receded to black towers and lifeless in the extreme.

I walked out in a state of calm bliss. Cameron somewhere just behind. It had been amazing. A perfect day. Each summit laid the difficulty on a little more. The InPinn was the logical conclusion and the Cuillin even brought us a sting in the tail to end. A very full-on first trip to this amazing mountain range. After 13 hours out, I was wasted.

Happy to put on trainers and warm the car up, I dropped Cameron home in Broadford. I was slightly jealous, home for myself was still about five hours away.

I began driving, through a deserted Glen Shiel to Fort William. I was tired but really keyed up. In retrospect, I should have stopped at Fort William. I didn't feel too bad, though the guy at the petrol station would have begged to differ. Glasgow didn't seem so far, and I carried on. I slept in multiple lay-by's, clipped a stag on Rannoch Moor, and finally crawling into bed at 4.30am after 24 hours on the go.

360° Panoramas

Sgurr nan Eag

Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn

Sgurr Dubh Mor

Sgurr Alasdair
Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 6.00am Glen Brittle car park
(3.30) 9.30am Sgurr nan Eag
(4.50) 10.50am Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn
(5.20) 11.20am Sgurr Dubh Mor
(5.40) 11.40am Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn (return)
(6.45) 12.45pm Sgurr Alasdair
(7.10) 1.10pm Sgurr Thearlaich
(8.30) 2.30pm Bealach Mhic Choinnich
(9.00) 3.00pm Sgurr Mhic Choinnich
(10.25) 4.25pm Inaccessible Pinnacle (Sgurr Dearg)
(13.25) 7.25pm Glen Brittle car park

Written: 2012 some time!