Sgurr a' Mhadaidh, Bidein Druim nan Ramh, Bruach na Frithe, Am Basteir & Sgurr nan Gillean - & Tops
Sunday 15th June 2014

Weather/Conditions: Good weather: dry all day, good visibility. Some cloud coming down onto the southern Cuillin in the afternoon, but nothing that affected us.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 15.5km / 1850m / 7h 40m
Accompanying: Nathan

This trip came about as a result of wishing to know the Cuillin more intimately. The previous summer I'd been on the Munro Round, and had managed long links of the Cuillin. Suddenly the traverse became a possibility. I'd traversed most of the ridge in 2013 and finally felt I was gaining a solid knowledge of it.

The section between Sgurr a' Mhadaidh and Bruach an Frithe contains no Munros, so it's a section I naturally didn't encounter on my Munro Round. It was thus one of the great unanswered questions, and I made it a goal to make that link, thus learning intimately the greatest portion of ridge I'd yet to cross.

I invited Nathan along, and offered to pick him up from Fort William. I was taking a chance with the weather on this trip - it was forecast to be cloudy, but it was difficult to tell what the innocuous spots of rain on the forecast would come to. Would the Cuillin be clouded in and washed out? Could it come to nothing and leave the ridge dry and cloudless, only leaving it shaded from sun? Happily, it worked out the former.

I ended up spending quite a bit of time in Fort William as Nathan got prepared. We drove to Skye in the last light, the pines of Glen Garry sliding by as drizzle fell from the sky. The weather cleared up on the road out to the coast, and we crossed the Skye Bridge to the sight of the midnight twilight burning in the northern sky.

Nathan got in touch with Mike who runs Skye Guides, and organised we crash at his for the night. In the end, we stayed up until all hours drinking and being happy. But it didn't bode so well for a fresh early start! Mike upon hearing our plans, said "You're in for a treat". And he was so right.

Alarms were set early nonetheless. Yep, the drink had had an effect, but when Nathan suggesting toning our objective down in accordance, I was quick to respond; "I didn't spend £50 in petrol to come and get pissed". And so the day was set.


We parked up at Glen Brittle and headed up Coire a' Ghreadaidh. We put on a good pace, especially with the heavy rucksacks. The first main was to climb the Thuilm ridge to Sgurr a' Mhadaidh. Nathan had done it in winter, but never summer. I was getting back into the feel of the Cuillin rock, and we eventually climbed some scrambly steps to gain the ridge crest below Mhadaidh. If I were alone I'd have probably gone and climbed Sgurr Thuilm but it wasn't on Nathan's radar at all. I left it for another occasion.

The exposure really hit me on the Thuilm ridge, but of course I just had to stick with it and get up. There's one particular wall where my movement all tightened up. I really had to pass that carefully, through an upper enclosed groove then to the top. It had been a shocking start, enough of a reminder to treat the upcoming traverse with a measure of respect.

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh and the Northern Tops

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh was a short hop along the rooftop slabs, then we backtracked and headed to it's northern tops. This section is known for being a difficult and exposed section of ridge, and not bypassable by reasonable means. I'd always been so curious about it. There are two ways of descending Mhadaidh to approach the base of the northern tops: below on the right, there are slabby ramps leading down. This is the way we went, but was ultimately quite awkward! The better way is to stay high and go to the end of the crest. There is a "tower" described in the guidebook, but it doesn't appear as a tower from here - it's more like looking side on to a big wafer of rock. A fault runs right to left up it, and much contrary to appearance this gives easy passage. We didn't know this at the time however, something I only discovered on my first successful Traverse in 2015.

The first of the tops ("Third Top") was bypassed on the right, following a line of weakness. I didn't really have an eye for the line this time, but Nathan led the way, having been here before. It followed a couple of short exposed Mod corners, but no issue.

The second top ("Second Top") climbs a steep face, unavoidable and exposed. It seemed to have two tiers, split by a small ledge, so it helped me to break it down. My confidence here was on the rise: this terrain was falling before me, and I was highly enjoying pushing hard, pushing the speed.

The last of the Mhadaidh Tops ("First Top") was unproblematic, a rise to it's top then down the other side to the Bealach na Glaic Moire. Ahead lay Bidein Druim nan Ramh, one of the real crux's of the day.

Bidein Druim nan Ramh

Bidein has a well-deserved reputation for seriousness. Many of the Cuillin summits possess one major ridge on an axis. On Bidein, multiple dykes have worn into the ridge, leaving a triple crown of horns split by deep clefts. It's a spectacular summit.

We went over the east top, then climbed the wall of the Centre Top direct to it's summit. Nathan didn't bother with the top, while I traversed off to get a 360 panorama! It's the following section that provides the real crux of Bidein: the northern descent of the centre peak. Nathan had solo'ed along here previously, so we decided to try it again, unroped.

There are two crux's on this descent: the two abseils mentioned in the guide bypass both. In retrospect, unless you are travelling fast, light and ropeless, it certainly is easier just to abseil. The first downclimb took high slabs which seem to disappear into oblivion. It is an exposed place, descending an overlap. The point of weakness is hidden, but Nathan did an awesome job of locating it. This exposed slab gave way to a ledge before the final vertical descent to the gap. For the second downclimb, a weakness starts out right (looking out), then traverses left over a void to gain the gap. This starts very exposed then becomes marginally less perilous as the crux is negotiated. Even then it didn't feel V.Diff I've seen quoted. (I wouldn't solo an outcrop V.Diff in boots and a rucksack) If on a low-lying outcrop, Diff might be more appropriate.

Anyway, the North Top was easy by comparison, traversing out to, then up the west flank to gain it's summit.

An Caisteal & Bruach na Frithe

As soon as we crossed it, I enjoyed the An Caisteal area highly. The guide correctly calls it serious, but I felt it had a gentle ambience. Give the two gaps due respect and it's simply a very pleasant section of ridge. We were making great headway. The guide also mentions the belly crawl. I thought it common sense to bypass this. But later on we saw people do an awkward abseil. Maybe they intentionally did this? Nonetheless, the gap beyond An Caisteal steepened toward the top of the Tairneilear Stone Shoot, with the crux happily at the bottom.

Getting to Bruach was tiring, but fantastic. We'd done this long, complex section of the Cuillin a couple of hours. I knew then the Traverse could be in my grasp. I looked southward over all the Tops to Gars-bheinn and wondered how tired I'd have to be if I was this tired now. But nonetheless, this traverse put all the pieces in place.

Bhasteir Tooth and Am Basteir

We stopped by Sgurr a' Fionn Choire, then onto the foot of the Tooth. Nathan didn't seem keen to lead this, and I have to say I was pretty overawed the sight of Naismith's Route. We went for Lota Coire Route instead, but in retrospect, it would have been a great advantage to have led Naismith's. It would have set me up well for the full traverse, as in 2015, when I actually backed off it's poorly protected crux.

Lota Coire Route was pretty unproblematic though, and it's a real back-door route to the Tooth. It's also not very exposed and that hard either. Judging by people's stories, the crux seems to be finding the foot of the thing! But we had no issues, just go right to the very toe of the buttress. Half way up, Nathan said he was too tired to continue, and said he'd wait for me on Lota Coire and then see how he felt. So I continued to the top of the Tooth myself, exhilarated to be on such an iconic chunk of rock.

Am Basteir is pretty interesting from this side. A variety of ways are covered in the guide, and I traded the easier (c. 4b?) exposed variations for an essentially non-exposed 5b move! There's an undercut nose of rock which forms a footless, cruxy barrier, then you get above it, and it's all easy scrambling to the summit of Am Basteir. I was glad to be here. Not far away, just one summit remained. In doing so I'd complete a significant portion of the Cuillin Ridge, Mhadaidh to Gillean. How cool would that be?

I descended exactly the way I came, downclimbing the 5b move, then descending ramps to find Nathan at the foot of Lota Coire Route. He said he was tired, and would wait for me at the Bealach na Lice. I had a score to settle - Gillean just had to be done! And it would be a fitting climax.

Sgurr nan Gillean

Approaching Sgurr nan Gillean from this side necessitates you climb it's West Ridge, a ridge I'd actually turned back from in 2013. I remembered it for having an awkward section of pinnacles and a huge amount of exposure. So I didn't feel it was something I'd happily do. I scrambled up some easy terrain from the foot of Lota Coire Route to gain the foot of the west ridge (it felt adventurous - not a standard approach route!) then found the easy chimney to gain the start of the pinnacles. I dropped my heavy rucksack here, and continued, camera in hand. The exposure was there, but I could blank it out enough now to discover there were jugs everywhere! I'd just been too tired, uncoordinated, and intimidated to see them last time. Prior to pulling over, I looked down between my feet. It was so steep and severe, I could see both gullies on adjacent sides of the mountain drop away from one another. The exposure was amazing. And I'd be climbing back along this! Wonderful bubbly rock took me happily to the Window, then up to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh looked far away now, but I'd only taken three and three quarter hours from there. The entire Scottish north-west was spread out, so I took a panorama. It was a phenomenal place to be, in both views, situation, but also for having managed this chunk of the Cuillin, solo and happily in such good time. I had a good feeling the traverse could go, but on Sgurr nan Gillean, I was now pretty tired.


Descending the pinnacles solo was exciting, but I had a short wait for an older party who were also trying to solo across, hesitating and confused as to the route. I pointed to my rucksack opposite as for where to aim for. "That's yours?", they said.

Back to the bealach, skirting Am Basteir felt especially punishing, climbing scree with nothing left in my legs. I met Nathan back at Bealach na Lice. We descended north into Sgurr a' Fionn Choire, leaving the black rock of the Cuillin behind, descending back to more fertile areas. It had been a fantastic day, and I still felt really in my stride. In fact it was lovely to take the old Slig-Brittle drove road, down by the fairy pools and back to the glen. We only walked five minutes down the road before we got a lift to the campsite.

This trip was long enough ago now I forget the rest of the trip home. But that time we spent linking the tops is very well remembered. On a mountain range like the Cuillin, all the details are so intense, fine-grained and particular, that I can remember everything that happened. And yet time wipes the more mundane.

I made a couple of half-stabs at a traverse attempt a month later, but it never really got off the ground. As summer turned to winter, I began to wonder how on earth I would ever pull all the pieces together? 2014 had been unsuccessful, but it had always been because the weather wasn't right, or the partner wasn't there... Happily, this resolved itself in July 2015, when I made a complete traverse in a day, including a finish down Pinnacle Ridge. Just goes to show: in moments of doubt, don't give in, and keep working it, and luck will eventually fall your way.

360° Panoramas

Sgurr a' Mhadaidh

Bidein Druim nan Ramh

Bruach na Frithe

Am Basteir

Sgurr nan Gillean

Sgurr nan Gillean - Detail 220° East
Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 9.25am Glen Brittle Hostel
(1.45) 11.10am Sgurr a' Mhadaidh
(2.30) 11.55am Bidein Druim nan Ramh
(3.45) 1.10pm Bruach na Frithe
(4.50) 2.15pm Am Basteir
(5.30) 2.55pm Sgurr nan Gillean
(7.35) 5.00pm Glen Brittle, Fairy Pools parking
(7.40) 5.05pm Glen Brittle, hitched lift

Written: 2016-03-27