If it weren’t for the Cuillin

The story of Nick Hamilton‘s Cuillin Main Ridge traverse has some useful lessons even for folk who don’t aspire to anything so challenging. The photo above is the main ridge, and the drawing below is by Nick.

Although it was many years ago I remember most of the details with surprising clarity. The cold, the heat, the rock, the snow, the exhaustion, and the exhilaration. It is all there in much greater detail than my remembrance of many recent days on the hills. But then a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is something rather special and not the sort of experience one forgets. I suspect the sharp images also result from having shared the experience with old Steve; tall and skinny, grey and wrinkled with tremendous stamina and a horribly smelly pipe clamped between his teeth. He’s gone forever now and I really miss his company on the hills.

Early June 1982; we left Sligachan campsite at seven in the evening to drive round to Glen Brittle. It was early June and the weather was set fair. We were walking before eight, slow and steady with all thoughts concentrated on the task ahead. Would I make it, would the weather hold, would the water last: why did I offer to carry the rope. Round and round in the head until it seemed only sensible to turn back and attempt it another time. But then the black-throated divers on Loch an Fhir-bhallaich whistled a more positive note and our spirits lifted. The faces of the Sron na Ciche were alight in the full glow of the evening sun and the temptation to go climbing instead tugged in a different direction. But that would be a cop-out too and the slog round to the Allt Coir’ a Ghrunnda was waiting. We filled the water bottles there, four pints apiece, because we knew we’d be finished before we started if we failed to find water higher up. Then a rising traverse across the rock-strewn shoulder of Sgurr nan Eag, around the head of Coire nan Laogh and onto Gars- Bheinn for eleven o’ clock and a twilight that only the mountaintops can provide.

The cold crept in quickly once we stopped moving and before it was fully dark we were frozen. Well, I was frozen because I had chosen to do without a sleeping bag. Steve was a bit more comfortable but I sought to reduce his comfort to a minimum by reminding him that he would have to carry his bag all the way and that we would not be taking it into account when we dished out the rope carrying duties. The night was beautiful but cruel and by three in the morning I could stand it no longer. We crept away from Gars-Bheinn in the dark and gradually gathering speed as the light increased and our bodies warmed up. Along the ridge to Sgurr a’Choire Bhig and up to Sgurr nan Eag. “Number one” said Steve with feeling and rapped his pipe on the summit cairn. We noted the occasional snow patch with some satisfaction; our plan might just work. Nothing stirred except some wispy cloud that had gathered overnight and the eastern sky glowed with the promise of pain to come. Down to An Casteil and the first bit of excitement when we couldn’t immediately find the route off the northern end. Up to Sgurr Dubh Na Da Bheinn and some hesitation as we justified our decision not to go off the main ridge to Sgurr Dubh Mor. It is not uncommon in mountaineering to invent compelling reasons for doing or not doing something only to find them shallow in retrospect and this was one of those occasions. We should have done Sgurr Dubh Mor but we were too anxious to get to grips with the dreaded Gap and we passed on in a hurry.

The Thearlaich Dubh Gap looked surprisingly mellow in the morning light, quite different from when I had contemplated it some weeks earlier in mist and rain and had fled. This time there could be no turning aside so we abseiled down the south side and scrouged * our way up the smooth and slippery north face. There was some relief to have got in front of the Gap. The short walk to Sgurr Alasdair was a lighthearted affair with the morning sun pleasantly warm on our backs and the prospect of a stop for refreshment. Six in the morning and all’s well. Or was it? Up until that point I had been very frugal with my intake of food and water to the extent that it was twelve hours earlier, at Sligachan, that I had last had a proper feed and a good drink. Even here at the top of Alasdair I was sparing in the extreme taking only a little of the precious water and a Mars Bar. I had forgotten all the lessons about stoking up for future effort in my determination not to run short later in the day. The steep descent off Sgurr Thearlaich was not too bad but it was my turn to lead at King’s Chimney and by the time I hauled myself onto the top of Sgurr Mhic Coinnich I knew something was going wrong. I was exhausted and couldn’t understand why. The thought of grappling with the loose rock on the ascent of An Stac did not go down well and I crawled up the An Stac screes instead to end up gasping and laid out like a beached whale at the foot of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Whilst gazing up at the morning sky in a state of some shock and bewilderment at my condition Steve’s steady voice broke in and provided the key. “It’s an energy problem” he said and added between puffs of his pipe “You haven’t had enough grub”. Right; time for the secret weapon. Out came the steak sandwiches, prepared at some expense, to supplement the honey butties and the Mars Bars. A couple of these, half a pint of water and another Mars Bar for the kick-start. The power came flowing back and by the time we had abseiled off the Inn Pin I was recovering fast and cursing my stupidity. Nine in the morning and our schedule was in tatters.

The North end of the Cuillin

The middle part of the ridge from Sgurr Dearg to Sgurr a’Mhadaidh is straightforward and we could have moved faster but the sun was starting to hurt and we forced ourselves to slow down. Despite this our water was disappearing alarmingly fast and it seemed likely that we would be dry long before the end of the ridge. But our plan worked; by doing the ridge early in the season we had banked on using snow to boost our water supply. We had been careful not to drain each water bottle dry but had left them about a third full. We found a good-sized snow patch just below the summit of Mhadaidh and set about adding it to the water in our bottles. The time was well spent and we had another couple of pints each at the end of our efforts. It was after midday and the heat was vicious. From the lowest part of the ridge at Bealach na Glaic Moire the clamber onto Bidein Druim nan Ramh is short but strenuous. The peak is the least well-frequented part of the ridge being some way away from the nearest road with steep, awkward rock on all sides. In the wet the aid of a rope on ascent and particularly on descent can be very welcome. We took a break from the relentless glare in a dark recess on the eastern side of the summit looking down into Harta Corrie. It was an effort to force us back into the arena. We arrived at Bruich na Frithe in a state of some exhaustion but with the feeling that we would reach the end somehow. We avoided mention of the major difficulty still to be overcome; how to get onto Am Basteir. Our plan had been the direct route up Naismith’s but when we arrived at the foot of the Tooth our resolve melted in the afternoon heat and we opted for Collie’s route instead. We had rationalised our feelings of having cheated somehow. A conscience can be a terrible affliction for a mountaineer!

Four o’clock and while resting at the Bealach a’Basteir Steve suddenly announced that he was not going to the top of Sgurr nan Gillean and that he would wait for me to return before descending. He was very tired by this time and as this was his third complete traverse of the Ridge I accepted that reaching Gillean did not hold the same promise for him as it did for me. It was only later that I began to think that he had done it so I could go by myself, and that knowing my solitary nature he had given me the opportunity to be alone at the finish. I always meant to ask him about it but I was afraid that he might be embarrassed and now it is a mystery that will never be resolved. The climb up Gillean’s west ridge was slow but sure with the chimney at the start easier than I had remembered. The gendarme was in position in those days and I passed him by with reverence. He’s gone now, unrecognisable amongst the shattered rocks below the ridge. The final scramble to the top was exhilarating and then I was standing at the summit breathing heavily and looking back along the ridge that had held such pleasure and pain over the previous fourteen hours. I waved down to Steve like a child waving to a parent after climbing a sand dune during a picnic on the beach. A dream had been fulfilled and the pinnacle reached. It would be all downhill from now on.

Back down the west ridge to where Steve was waiting, with the pipe between his teeth and a grin on his face suggesting that he knew how I was feeling. No time to talk; straight down to Loch Coire a’Bhasteir for a long drink and an icy plunge. The track out to Sligachan was long and dusty but it didn’t seem to matter. I lay on the ground outside my tent for an hour without moving, just thinking and gazing at the sky and the hills relishing the feeling of never having to walk again. I thought about the recurring line in Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘If it weren’t for the Cuillin’ and pondered the thought that Scotland would be a less magical place if it weren’t for the Cuillin.

The next day we went our separate ways. Steve back to Penrith and me home to Inverness. It was the last time I was on Skye with Steve although we had many good days on other hills. We buried his boots on Suilven a few years later but it is those twenty-four hours on the Cuillin that provide me with my strongest memories of a great hill-man and a great friend.

*  this is a word that Nick made up that describes a series of climbing moves that show very little finesse, no elegance and exhibit a degree of desperation!