How to scramble: the Cuillin Ridge

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 04/08/2015
There's no mistaking that spiky silhouette... Photo by stocker1970/ Shutterstock.

Skye’s Cuillin Ridge is the Holy Grail of British scrambling. Are you ready for the challenge?

Describing the Cuillin Ridge as a scramble would be like billing K2 as an exciting mountaineering route – true, but fatally understated. It’s not the technical climbing that makes traversing the 22 peaks such a legendary challenge, although the 20-mile round crosses plenty of grade 3+ territory and takes in three (avoidable) Severe grade climbing pitches. No, the real reason why so many attempted traverses end in failure is the enormous physical and mental toll posed by this Alpine-style epic.

“4,000 metres of ascent and descent would make for a very big mountain walk, but the Traverse is definitely climbing not walking,” says Mike Lates, who has been a mountain guide on Skye since 1995 and completed over a hundred successful traverses. “Although technically simple, the situations are uniquely serious in the British Isles and drain nervous energy from even top-notch climbers.”

There’s a reason why hill folk are queuing up to put themselves through this gruelling challenge – and that, quite simply, is because the Cuillin Ridge is one of the best mountaineering routes in Europe. Remote, sustained, serious and with fantasy views over mountains and sea, this is scrambling at its most thrilling. Here’s how to tackle the one ridge to rule them all.  

Get training

Like any marathon-esque mountain route, the Cuillin Ridge requires some serious preparation. Not only should you be fit enough to spend two long and physical days on the hill, you’ll also need to be confident moving without a rope on difficult ground and have the mental resilience to handle the sustained exposure. Not sure if you’re up to the job? The best way to assess your own ability is to plan in some practice runs.

“Away from Skye do a hard practice scramble and then descend the same route for a realistic assessment of your abilities,” advises Mike. “Carrying a large pack adds even more reality to the experience but there is no substitute for traversing a section of the Cuillin Ridge, at any stage in your preparations, to see what it’s all about. Choose clear weather and go light, or you may be put off forever!” 

He adds that competent hill-walkers used to scrambling often fare at least as well as rock climbers “who can get nervous when not roped up”. To tackle the Ridge you need to be very comfortable moving over grade 3 ground and handy with a rope.

“You have to be able to set up a retrievable abseil for sure. If you’re with a partner you need to work out how to efficiently use a short length of the rope to keep each other safe on some of the awkward steps, particularly in descent. We’re not talking full rock climbing as this takes far too long and you’ll never reach your goal. I teach, and use, a ‘Victorian’ style of just the rope and natural anchors for all but the pitched climbs.”

As well as packing in plenty of scrambling practice, Mike recommends finding a trusted climbing partner of compatible ability and studying photographs, written descriptions and maps before making an attempt on the Ridge.

Planning an attempt

Some climbers have the skills and the fitness to complete the Cuillin Ridge in one epic day, but for most of us it’s a two-day venture. Carrying a giant rucksack will affect your balance and slow you down. The best option is to attempt the route in weather conditions that allow for a lightweight approach, ideally bivvying at the south end of the Ridge in the evening, leaving your gear and enjoying the Traverse with a small pack the following day.

“Allow at least a week based on Skye if you have serious ambitions on a Traverse,” advises Mike. “If you’ve done your homework you’ll just be waiting for a suitable weather window to be forecast. If it’s your first trip, get out and explore small sections while you are waiting.”  
Any period of settled weather between spring and autumn can be good to make the attempt, but bear in mind that under a blanket of snow the Ridge is in whole a different league.

Unlike many British ridge walks, the Cuillin Ridge poses a serious navigational challenge. With many false lines leading to dead ends or over huge cliffs, route finding is tricky even in good visibility. Compasses are unreliable because of the magnetic rock so orientation becomes virtually impossible in the clag.

Along with navigation and negotiating a weather window, the biggest logistical difficulty associated with the Traverse is balancing the need for speed with gear, food and water requirements. Some tackle the problem by stashing gear at their proposed bivvy spot, but Mike discourages this approach. Instead of wasting a valuable weather window in hiding a stash - which you may have issues in relocating - he suggests filling up with two litres of water on the approach and carrying a syphon to collect from small run-offs on the Ridge itself. More water can be collected by descending from your bivvy site on the first night.  
Your kit list will depend on the weather and what approach you decide to take, but Mike recommends a good pair of lightweight boots as the single most important bit of gear you’ll need.

Tackling the Traverse

Once you’ve sampled a few bite-sized sections of the Ridge, done bags of research and spotted a clear two-day weather window, you should be ready to take on the full challenge.
“Traditionally, the summer Traverse starts from Gars-bheinn in the south and finishes on Sgurr nan Gillean, 12km later, before descending to Sligachan,” says Mike. “None of the route is easy, but there are three key sections where route finding and technical difficulties intensify for a number of hours.”

The first begins just before the tricky climb out of the TD Gap, traverses Coire Lagan and culminates with an abseil from the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

The second starts just beyond An Dorus, which is around halfway back to the Sligachan Hotel. “Traversing the tops of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh is followed by the very complex and technical Bidean Druim nan Ramh, which involves two abseil descents,” Mike explains. “Then the final hard section can be a real twist of the knife for tired parties as the fearsome Basteir Tooth blocks the way. Beyond here, any route onto Am Basteir involves breaking through an undercut wall and a treacherously slabby descent before a final victorious climb to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.”

With so many factors needing to fall into place, it’s not surprising that less than 10% of parties setting off to attempt the Ridge succeed. You can increase your chances of a triumphant full Traverse by packing in plenty of research and preparation, but if at first you don’t succeed then just peg it as valuable practice. After all, a day spent in the Cuillin is always a big mountain adventure.


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