A Round of the Red and Black Cuillin
Including Glamaig, Marsco, Bla Bheinn and the Cuillin Traverse
Tuesday 20th June 2017
Weather/Conditions: Midnight start in gloomy and benign conditions of midsummer night. Bit fo drizzle preceding Clach Glas and Bla Bheinn. Then some drizzle and cloud came in over the Cuillin which broke on the ascent to Gars-bheinn. The majority of the Traverse was done under sunny skies and another amazing Gillean sunset.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 44.7km / 5700m / 22h 41m
Accompanying: Alone first half, Cuillin Traverse (2nd half) with Jack Thompsett
This day was a combination of having done that in addition to some longer walking days up to 50/55kms. So I was aware that if I could do this round, it would perhaps be the hardest single day I’d yet done in the hills from a physical, logistical and technical standpoint.
I spent the early summer trying to balance partners and weather, the two never seeming to come together. I came close once in April, then again in early June. Then out of nowhere, a couple days of good weather opened up around the 20th June, and Jack Thompsett and I agreed to meet at the Slig with a view to meeting on Gars-bheinn for the Cuillin section together.
On the 19th June, I headed for Skye. I stopped by Clachan Duich, a stop in Broadford, then an easy drive to the Slig. I just tried to relax, as I'd intended.
Jack arrived at Slig in the evening having driven over from Torridon. We packed rucksacks in the sunset, shot a selfie on the road with sunset colours on Glamaig, then he drove off to Glen Brittle (the long way!). For me, I tried to shut my eyes, but sleep never came. I also felt ready, despite having never before done a midnight start preceding a 24-hour route.
But motivation is great. Knowing you have your opportunity, that you are prepared and ready for it – that you want this, it is happening now, and you are willing to give. That counts for so much. It confounds me how I can be so lazy and sometimes find short hill days hard, and yet pull long routes out the bag only to find them (sort of) easy.
I was too keyed up to sleep. At Sligachan just preceding midnight there was a faint glow coming from a bright northern horizon. There was nobody about. I was here myself, checking my bag, about to start walking. I was excited. I watched the minutes go down. Checked the bag again. All fine. Lock the car.
Red Cuillin: Glamaig, Beinn Dearg's & Marsco
I headed over the bridge bound for Glamaig. I'd scoped this part out, as Glamaig is known for it's shifting screes. It was also a hill I'd never been up, so I was relying on finding the route in the darkness. I followed the Allt Daraich, then in time lost it. I was heading for Glamaig's more southerly aspects, where it seemed I could link up passages of grass.
However with the hill dimly illuminated, it was hard to see. Though for the most part, I managed to actually keep on track. The physical effort was so in-your-face, the rucksack was heavy. In the darkness, heather gave way to grass, gave way to stone. And oh my god, the rubble here is bad. Some of the worst I've seen. Sometimes just my weight would send the whole slope shifting with me on it. But I continued up. Sligachan grew smaller, it's lights now insignificant. I could see/sense the Red Cuillin ahead, all big hills rounding away to Bla Bheinn which was somewhere out of sight.
Coming over the top of Glamaig the sea burst into view, along with that beautiful northern glow. I really could see here with no headtorch, despite it being somewhere just past 1am. The cairn arrived soon after. Glamaig gave a sense of altitude and airiness almost as much as I've ever had on the hills. Maybe I didn't expect it, maybe it was the night-time exaggerating things. But it was a beautiful rush to come over the top and see Raasay and the sea so far below.
A quick photo and I was off again, down long screes to the foot of Beinn Dearg Mhor. These hills were a bit rougher than I'd expected. But over Beinn Dearg Mhor at a pace, I took a descent on very bouldery slopes to Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach which gave a rocky rise to a cairn at the end of the ridge. Another one falls! So over the Ciche, I descended down monstrously loose slopes to the foot of Marsco.
Marsco wound up being a ball-buster. Energy took a dip and at this point I also felt a bit sick. But I must just slog it out, now. Don't stop. Keep eating. I had some sandwiches, some of which went down ok (but more on them later).
Marsco was a long plod to the summit, but as a mountain it surprised me. Like Glamaig but better, it was another tremendous airy summit, a short ridge with the cairn perched right on the edge, sweeping down into the straths. And the Cuillin all right there, pressing in on you, Bla Bheinn behind and the desolate sea of the Inner Isles in the faintest of morning glows. This was beautifully oppressive, austere and hard. Bla Bheinn and Clach Glas were the centrepiece for their outline, clear cut and black against a grey dawn. All the spires and pinnacles that have weathered out were sticking skyward, certainly not a place for life it seemed, but it was also a sight I was thrilled to know I was soon to cross.
In spite of my lethargy on the ascent, Marsco was a real highlight. What a mountain, and what a view of what was to come.
But I didn't feel totally on top of the game either. It was another long way down to the base of Garbh-bheinn. Ahead was another long climb. I'd climbed the subsidiary top Ciche na Beinne Deirge because I wanted to, but here I bypassed Druim Eadar Da Choire. There was a desperation to keep on schedule now, and I got to the top of Garbh-bheinn only just on it. I tried to force down a sandwich with which the rucksack was so heavy. I struggled with half of one and didn't bother with the other half.
Clach Glas & Bla Bheinn
Now ahead of me was Clach Glas. It is a tremendous section of ridge, perhaps the most dramatic single bit of Skye, I think. The weathering of the basalt dykes here is so extreme, and consistently too. Garbh-bheinn in itself was a stunning big hill, but it was also perhaps overshadowed by what lay in front.
Some light drizzle made Clach Glas slimy, but I had no issues in climbing it. The trick here was to keep making route finding decisions, and keep climbing while trying not to let the pace drop too far. Inevitably, I'd get caught in little precise moments of climbing, and it all seemed to take a while. Then I'd look at the clock and in fact no time at all had passed.
I pulled onto the summit slabs of Clach Glas, alone, and with the rock a little greasy. Clach Glas's summit passed by in a flash, and then I was down the other side – almost a walk down the Imposter which was grippy and dry in a light wind. I had a phone topo to consult for this descent, and almost found the best way down, bar one brief reascent when I starting going into a wrong gully.
Up the screes of Bla Bheinn, I initially thought about avoiding the Diff chimney with the damp: there is a Mod bypass. But then I saw the chimney and I couldn't resist doing it. I'm glad I just went direct. The rest of Bla Bheinn was a nice plod to the top, arriving there in the half-light of morning.
I also arrived just after 6am, essentially bang on schedule. Having negotiated Clach Glas so smoothly made me feel my previous efforts on this hill had paid off.
The Coast via. Camasunary to Gars-bheinn
I went over Bla Bheinn's south top and down the south ridge which I'd never been on before. Asides Clach Glas–Bla Bheinn, everything was actually my first time, from Glamaig all the way to Gars-bheinn.
The descent went on longer than I expected it to. Time ran away a bit. But light was returning to the skies. By the time I was at Camasunary, campers by beach were just surfacing.
I walked to the Abhainn, went shortly upstream, then with shoes and socks off, got in and walked across. Now time was really running away and I was now well behind. To add to that, I just could not stomach the sandwiches. I'd put cheese, chorizo and pesto in them. Normally I love all that, but it's not nausea-friendly stuff: I took one bite of a sandwich and was immediately on the verge of throwing up. I had a pile of food as good as inedible and that left just some chocolate and cookies - not exactly a lot to fuel a 23-hour day.
I rounded the coastal path to see the Cuillin under cloud and drizzle. They were properly Black now, the curtains drawn across them. This mist was unforecast. Behind time, unable to eat properly and still at sea level, I felt this wasn't going to happen today. I could feel circumstances spinning away from my control, and with it the loss of the Round. If Jack had been standing at Camasunary I might have stopped it there and then. When will I come back though? I wasn't sure I could stomach doing all those hills again in pursuit of the same goal. For now, I just wanted to pack it in.
But Jack was standing on Gars-bheinn, and I'd have to climb those 900 metres to him. There's no other way out, within reason. I passed the Bad Step (it's not that bad but it would be a bad splash!) and crossed the River Scavaig on the stepping stones. Rounding the coast to the Mad Burn was rougher than expected with long grass, steep gabbro slabs and seaweed on the beach. And I was still at sea level... The only positive was that the mist broke apart once again to reveal the summits.
I struggled with the climb up, feeling tired - no energy, light-headed and dizzy. My coordination and clarity had gone. And how would I do things like the TD and Naismith's when I was almost falling on my feet? Still the upward treadmill kept going, Jack sometimes a tiny figure standing high on the summit.
But those 900 metres did disappear, and I traversed under the final tower rightward, to climb a short gully then a quick cut back to gain Gars-bheinn where Jack was sitting. It was now 10am, I was one hour late. Feck me, that climb was brutal. Really, really brutal.
However tired I was, in the event I couldn't bring myself to say no, stop. I certainly felt out-of-it (spaced out), and wasn't shy in telling Jack that. But at the end if the day, he'd driven from Torridon and got up early to be here. To not do the Traverse to be to sell him short as well as myself. Lets just do a few and see how it goes.
The moment I got my teeth into that Traverse, I was on it. I wasn't giving up then. One might think from the outside, that to start on a Traverse would be the hard part. Really it was the easier bit. Don't get me wrong, it was all hard work, but the mind's focus is the more important factor and it's wanderings had now shed away to allow a more precise thought process. And that was allowed by virtue of ridge's relative continuity.
I was breathing hard on every uphill, working hard. Legs were burning. No doubt Jack thought I must be suffering. It was odd to feel so wasted in front of someone that was so fresh. The first climbs en route to Sgurr nan Eag were fine. Beyond that, We bypassed the Caisteal then went straight onto Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn; it is always curiously a long slog.
We climbed to the TD Gap and abseiled in. Jack took this lead, because I was still pretty skooshed. He walked up it, no fuss. I followed fine and we were on again. Oddly, I was almost starting to feel quite 'good' again. The sun was starting to make an appearance, and just above us was the highest summit of the Cuillin and on Skye; Sgurr Alasdair. A quick rucksack drop, then out and back again.
I always enjoy how easy Sgurr Thearlaich feels now I know the route, compared to when I didn't years ago. We were behind a guide who went, just ahead of us, to King's Chimney so we bypassed on Collie's Ledge. No big deal, the chimney is not hard anyway. Out and back to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, and another one fell.
Sgurr Dearg, as always, was magnificent. I love An Stac. It just goes up and up into the sky. We took that right slant at the top to emerge on top slightly around the side. We got the rack out again at the InPinn. 50m of half line out again, Jack belayed me and we moved together for the last 10m. Euan was standing on top working on a film. All in all I placed very little gear, I think I'd just solo it now.
Off the InPinn, we continued to Banachdaich.
Contrary to my previous Cuillin traverses, this next central section felt harder. Beyond here the effort started to grind. Perhaps because I myself was more extended it felt more like how it is commonly described. But Banachdaich itself just gave us that gentle, long rise to the summit.
Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh was fine too, then we headed over to Sgurr a' Mhadaidh – past the summit, over the top of the 'wafer', and to the base of the north tops. Scramble up here, a couple walls and notches - then on again to Bidein Druim nan Ramh.
Bidein gave an easy climb to the top (watching out for the gabbro spike at the top of the basalt staircase!). The abseil descents confused me for a while before realising the abseil point was lower than expected. Asides that, everything was a known quantity.
Then once again – grind it out...
Gosh it was hard work. But I knew by now this was in the bag. We were running low on water, holding out for the spring beyond Bruach. Oddly, I knew I needed water but didn't feel it as thirst. Given I'd drank very little and eaten nothing but cookies for hours (and hours), I felt surprisingly good.
I remember very little of An Caisteal and the climb to Bruach, other than the effort and the feeling of needing to grind this thing down before it ground me to bits. Beyond Bruach na Frithe, Jack went down to the spring while I snoozed for a moment. I woke up getting mauled by midges, so moved to a windier spot by Bealach na Lice.
Then I took the lead of Naismith's. What a pitch. To have felt good enough and clear enough to want to climb this 20 hours into my day was something else. To have felt so rough before and to recover, just given time...
I headed out up the ledges and took a moment to get my crucial nut in on the 240cm sling. It's actually quite high up on the wall, almost out of reach. I passed the crux, placing a sling and hex in the upper reaches. I laybacked up the final crack then pulled over and belayed. Once up, we walked to the summit of the Tooth, then went up the recess on Am Basteir to do the boulder crux. Over Am Basteir, we went to the foot of Gillean, then up my normal RH chimney from where this final summit arrived shortly after.
It had been a hell of a long day, and to look at Glamaig now; I couldn't entirely process it all. Glamaig felt like another day altogether. It's a big route.
But I was now not in the mood to stretch things out more than necessary. We descended the SE Ridge, then walked out. Again, I was feeling remarkably good for so long on the go, and from being on consistently hard, technical ground, too. In the last light we walked back and in time reached the Sligachan Hotel.
We got a drink there then I immediately drove Jack to Glen Brittle and at that point the day just hit me. I dropped him at the car park, then dozed in the front seat for an hour or two. I then awoke, to drive imminently to Lochaber for work in the morning. The payoff was a tremendous sunrise back over Loch Linnhe.
That afternoon on Ben Nevis I noticed my legs hurting at a really deep level. Different to muscular tiredness or low energy; my legs just hurt inside. Time for a rest!
As I wrote Facebook that evening: “With Ben Nevis today, that's over seven vertical kilometres climbed since yesterday morning, and I've slept for about three hours out of the last sixty.”
If that's the biggest thing I do this year I'll be quite happy!
Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh
Bruach na Frithe
Sgurr nan Gillean
Sgurr nan Gillean 130° - NW Highlands Detail
01.56am Beinn Dearg Mhor
02.20am Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach
06.04am Bla Bheinn
07.09am Abhainn Camas Fhionnairigh
08.13am JMCS Hut
10.43am Sgurr nan Eag
11.15am Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn
12.32pm Sgurr Alasdair
12.59pm Sgurr Mhic Choinnich
13.38pm An Stac
14.00pm Inaccessible Pinnacle
15.08pm Sgurr na Banchdaich
15.51pm Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh
16.14pm Sgurr a' Mhadaidh
17.10pm Bidein Druim nan Ramh
18.10pm An Caisteal
18.52pm Bruach na Frithe
19.30pm Foot of Naismith's
20.13pm Basteir Tooth
20.26pm Am Basteir
20.50pm Sgurr nan Gillean