Saturday, May 11, 2013

Winter On The Cuillin

British Summer Time started on Sunday morning, but the weather gods hadn’t got the memo. Looking over from the summits of Kintail, I could see the Cuillin with a top coat of white. So on Monday morning I was off down the road to the bridge and onwards to Skye.

My first goal was Bla Bheinn, so by lunchtime I was parking next to the path to Camasunary. I scoffed a couple of macaroni cheese pies from the Co-op on Kyleakin, (essential complex carbs, really) and then headed off to the bothy at Camasunary. After leaving my sleeping & eating gear there I headed up the south ridge of Bla Bheinn. The ground was bone dry, the grass brown and brittle. I found a decent path on the crest of the ridge, and made my way easily up to the snow line. The gullies on the west side presented stunning views of Sgurr nan Gillean and the whole Cuillin Ridge, snow-crested under Alpine blue skies. I had the hill to myself until the summit, and then saw only 4 other folk. Crossing to the northern (true) summit entailed a slightly awkward step, but other than that it was straightforward. I descended the same way, back to the bothy, arriving back as the sun dropped behind the Cuillin.

It was an international guest list at the bothy – French, German, Czech and Irish. An idyllic starlit evening followed, by the beach, where the French had collected a mountain of fresh moules. They steamed them on the bothy fire and shared them around, along with various beers and whisky.

I got up early the next day, and left the others snoring as I walked back to the car. From there I drove round to Sligachan, and set off into Fion Coire. Here it was another Alpine day – pristine frozen snow, deep blue sky and rocky summits. I plodded up the back wall of the coire, then walked round first to Sgurr a Bastier. Across the coire, Pinnacle Ridge looked fantastic, in perfect winter nick. I traversed around to Sgurr a Fion Coire, and climbed a short gully to its summit, then descended another entertainingly icy gully on the far side. From there, it was an easy plod up to Bruach na Frithe, which gave me a breathtaking view of the rest of the Cuillin, fully iced up from this aspect.

Throughout the day there’d been a haziness in the otherwise clear air, and the faint smell of smoke. Back in the car, I heard about the enormous wildfire just north of Fort William. Other smaller fires were visible on the island and mainland too. I found out later this is traditional, “Muir Burning”, by which farmers and landowners seek to improve the grassland. Traditional it may be, but not a good idea when they haven’t had rain for 6 weeks!

I drove to Carbost, hoping to get into the bunkhouse at the Old Inn, but they were full. The barman recommended instead The Croft Bunkhouse, a few miles down the road in Portnalong. An excellent choice as it turned out, well worth the extra couple of miles. It’s really comfortable and welcoming, with an excellent living room, kitchen and bunks. They also have a bothy and those wee wooden pods that are springing up all over the Highlands.

Up early next day, and off back to the Cuillin. I parked at Glen Brittle and walked up into Coire Ghreadaich. A fairly tedious scramble got me within sight of the west ridge, but thin icy snow made it quite difficult to reach. I climbed a snow gully only to find the rock at the top coated in ice, so had to reverse the whole thing. Another couple of false lines found me frustrated and still below the ridge. Fortunately I spotted a snow slope which then gave me an easy route to the summit of Sgurr a Mhadaidh (pronounced, for some reason known only to the natives, as “Sgurr a Vatay”)

A well-earned sarnie and flapjack there, as I surveyed the rest of the Cuillin. It wasn’t so sunny, but there was still no wind and the snow conditions were excellent. So I set off along the ridge with a spring in my step. I descended to An Dorus, then climbed a good snow slope to the first summit of Sgurr a Ghreadaich (“Hreetay”). It was a huge pleasure to be moving over good steep snow and rock; definitely another Alpine feel to the day. At the main summit I stopped for an eccles cake, but the wind had picked up, so I carried on south along the ridge. After the next summit, the ridge drops steeply before rising again to Sgurr a Banachdaich. The guidebook told me there was no easy way off until Banachdaich, and so I decided to turn around there and re-trace my steps to An Dorus. From there, it was a fun descent down snow slopes to the Coire, and a leisurely walk back to the car.

I spent the evening at The Old Inn first, where I bumped into a mate from Glenmore Lodge, now working for Mike Lates. After that, beer and whisky back at the bunkhouse, with the Czech lads, and an early night.

The next day was my last, as I wanted to head south to Ben Nevis and sample the excellent conditions there. So I was up at dawn, packed and drove back to Glen Brittle. I had a plan to do Sgurr a Banachdaich and then the Inn Pinn. The first leg of this, up into the coire and onto the ridge was fairly easy, and I was at the summit in good time. However there was persistent low cloud over Sgurr Dearg, and a frost on the rocks – not ideal conditions to solo the Inn Pinn! So I set off back down the ridge to Glen Brittle, which gave a few entertaining scrambly bits. Predictably, the sun came out and the cloud lifted, but I didn’t really mind. It had been an exceptional few days, the best I’ve ever seen on Skye, or anywhere else in Scotland for that matter!  Quite a week, and it wasn’t finished yet…

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