Isle of Skye: the conclusion (day three – the Cuillin Ridge)

6 Aug

A small loch overlooking Loch Brittle

The next day dawned bright and clear. We had decided that today was the day we would attempt the Cuillin Ridge traverse. We left at 7am, about two hours later than we had planned due to illness on the previous day, and started the three hour walk-in. The going was good – we had bags of energy, the sun was shining, the air was clear and all around us was beautiful. We stopped to assess our surroundings and take a look at the map half way up. We needed to fill up with water at a spring to ensure we had enough for the day, and wanted to make sure we didn’t walk past it.

Gareth had thoughtfully procured Go Juice, Cliff Bars and Isogel to help keep us going throughout the day – I was pretty sure I’d need it, even if he didn’t. Unfortunately my water carrier seemed to be leaking (user error as it turned out later) and I ended up drinking a litre then and there so as not to waste it! Cue many loo breaks later…

We carried on up, over slippery-as-hell scree slopes (really not my favourite, as it turns out, except downhill) and some interesting scrambling, until Gareth decided that it was time to get the rope out. Lesson One commenced: moving roped together. Learnt pretty quickly – no problems there but I can’t say I felt much safer with the rope than without it. As it turned out, being scared formed the vast majority of the remainder of the day. Being scared, quickly followed by being absolutely terrified, and being exhausted. At one point I definitely shouted up to Gareth “I don’t think I can do this! I’m s-s-s-s-o s-s-s-s-c-a-r-e-d!”. Gareth had already told me about his friend Anselm who always says “Man the f*ck up!” so I said it out loud to myself, manned up and climbed that damn wall!

Gareth on the walk-in (still ok weather!)

Gareth on the walk-in (still ok weather!)

By this time we had climbed up far enough, and the clouds had come down low enough that it was very misty all around us. I’d say visibility was down to about 100m, maybe less sometimes. We consulted the map and turned left when we should have turned right. We retraced our steps. We lost time. We climbed a peak and circled around it to take the next step of the route. I shouted to Gareth that someone had left a pink piece of tat up here. “What colour did you say?” he shouted back. “Pink!” I replied, “with a purple stripe”. I heard him say “Sh*t, we’ve gone round in a circle – we’ve already passed that once – we’ve arrived back where we climbed this peak!” We retraced our steps, we lost more time and energy.

I can’t remember much of the rest of that day. I know visibility was so bad that we only knew we were on the right path when we saw crampon marks, polished holds, very occasional foot prints in the mud and abseil points. Twice during the course of the day we heard, and then saw two other parties, one coming towards us, although we lost them in the cloud and they never came past us, and one behind us. Again after only a few moments they were swallowed up in the cloud and we were alone again. And so alone! However, lesson two commenced: abseiling. By this point I was almost frozen with fear, I couldn’t even bear to look at Gareth as he untied himself from the rope, standing on a tiny peak with the wind whipping around him and so much cloud around it felt like we were the only two people alive. I couldn’t decide if it was better or worse that I couldn’t see how far up we were but I knew I would probably never want to come up this mountain, or any other mountain, ever again, and also that it was quite likely that I would be single at some point during the day! Anyway lesson two went swimmingly and I was down before I knew it.

Me on the Cuillin Ridge (taken by Gareth)

The day passed – more climbing, more abseiling, a fair bit of going the wrong way I suspect, lots more being very scared and manning the f*ck up. Occasionally the cloud would lift slightly and we saw the beauty of the ridge, and this would remind me of part of the reason I wanted to do this. I wanted to accomplish the traverse (this, despite the fact I’d never done a day of moutaineering in my life!), I wanted to see how far I could push myself, I was convinced I would have had enough after four hours and be dying to get down. The rest of the time I looked down to see that thedamn campsite was still bathed in warm sunshine. I got progressively more exhausted, despite the various energy supplies we had. Certainly being as scared as I was wouldn’t have helped that situation, plus our time spent retracing our route all helped diminish our energy. After a three hour walk-in and nine hours of being on the ridge I had had enough. Physically and mentally I knew I had only got enough to give to get me back to the campsite, which I knew would be another three hour walk and we didn’t even know the way, except the fact that it was ‘down’. I had thought that it would be a tough decision to make, but when the time came, it was a very calm feeling. Just as I had told Gareth I wanted to go down, we saw the Innaccesible Pinnacle looming out of the cloud in front of us. I suddenly felt like crying, in fact I probably did. To be so close and to know I didn’t have the energy or the head to climb it now, which meant Gareth wouldn’t be able to either, was hugely upsetting.

It looked nice when the clouds lifted!

So, we came down after completing half the route and not even having enough energy to attempt the In Pinn despite the fact we had to walk right past the base of it in order to get home. Gutted? You bet. 100% gutted in fact. However I can safely say that I couldn’t have pushed myself ANY further that day. I was totally and utterly exhausted. It was all I could do to walk back to camp. At one point, when we could see the campsite, I felt like sitting down right there on the path and falling asleep. Only the fact that I knew Gareth was tired too, and I didn’t want him to have to carry me back, kept me going. We got back to the campsite at 10pm, after 15 hours away from it and just as the final light of the day was fading, and both fell down on the ground in front of the tent where we lay for about half an hour, just to get some rest.

It’s funny how quickly the bad bits don’t seem so bad any more. I already know I’ll be back for a second attempt, hopefully in a clearer weather window, but with much more knowledge of what to expect. Now I understand why fewer than 10% of parties complete the route. I have a lot more respect for it. And respect for myself? You bet. I never thought I could do what I did that day. I never knew I could push myself so far physically. I never knew that I could feel such intense fear, for so many hours and still continue to overcome it and overcome it and overcome it, again and again. Next time I’ll be braver, I know it.

Our route. After a three hour walk-in we traversed from right to left, ending by "ski-ing" down the scree slope on the far left. (taken by Gareth)

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5 Responses to “Isle of Skye: the conclusion (day three – the Cuillin Ridge)”

  1. Jennika Argent August 6, 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    Great reportage Georgie … and well done!

    I think if I had written a story about my Huayna Potosi experience it may have been very similar indeed! Except we were faced with altitude headaches, setting out at 2am (to avoid the snow-glare) and deep, thick fresh snow and crevasses wide enough to fall down (and Sky did indeed fall down). The fact that he was roped up to his guide meant he didnt die on that occassion…! Luckily Sky made it to the top because we had separate guides, so the fact that I turned back before reaching the summit didnt have any impact on his success. I also know I will go for it again in better weather and at the right time of year (when I have been promised it is a much easier task by far). Again, probably all the fog was good, so that I couldnt see the possible drop down a sheer slope of ice and snow. Although the fog didnt stop Sky getting SEVERE sunburn after forgetting to put on any sunblock. The way down was possibly the most all-over pain I have ever felt. No one part of my body was particularly in pain, it was like the pain was emanating from deep within my core.

    I didnt take many pics of those 3 days since it was a bit cold to take off my gloves and the camera was so heavy, I gave it to Sky to carry! Here is a link to my Bolivia pics….

    Illimani, La Paz
    • George August 7, 2010 at 8:49 am #

      I would love to read about that – it sounds horrendous! Thanks for the compliment :o) Your pics are great – I want to go to Bolivia now!!

    • George August 7, 2010 at 8:49 am #

      I would love to read about that – it sounds horrendous! Thanks for the compliment :o) Your pics are great – I want to go to Bolivia now!!

  2. Jae Neugent September 1, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Have discovered your blog via msn the other day and absolutely like it so much. Keep up the excellent work.

    • George September 9, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

      Ah thanks for your comment! Hope you carry on enjoying it :o)

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