A winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye, undoubtedly the greatest mountaineering route in the UK, takes a little more waiting than most other routes. Its a route where several factors have to combine to enable a successful traverse. Snow conditions on the ridge, a suitable forecast, available time and the right partner all have to converge at the right time. For these reasons it is, deservedly, one of the most coveted winter routes in the UK.
Ronnie and myself met in Glasgow on Monday evening, after driving from North Wales and N. Ireland respectively, to head north for a few days winter climbing. We had fairly open minds but knew a thaw that weekend would have stripped the buttresses. A check of Mike Lates blog that morning, check of the weather forecast and a quick call to Guy, who was already on his way over with Kenny, Donald and Duncan, confirmed that the ridge was definitely a good option!
It didn’t take us long to decide that the Cuillin Ridge was the best option and so off we set for Skye, arriving at Sligachan at 2:00am. We had decided that rather than sleep, the seemingly sensible option, we would just get our kit sorted, brew up and start to make the most of the good weather. 4:30am came around and with tired and heavy eyes we set off into the night.
Whereas I had never set foot on Skye before, Ronnie had completed the summer traverse several times and attempted the winter traverse quite a few years ago. A navigational error on the approach (it turned out our error wasn’t such an error after all and we took the long way round!) saw us arrive on the south spur of Sgurr nan Gilean just as the first rays of the sun poked over the horizon. We reached the summit of Sgurr nan Gilean at 9:00am and so began 15 hours of incredible mountaineering.
Descending off Sgurr nan Gilean the rising sun turned the ridge ahead of us a golden colour and I realised that this was the image I had imagined when thinking about a winter traverse. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe how beautiful it was and even if there were they still wouldn’t do it justice.
We had already decided that we would bivvy as, having had no sleep in the previous 24 hours, we were already a bit tired! The four guys ahead of us were going for the single push so had put a good track in and knowing that they should know where they were going took a little pressure off the route finding element!
What followed was continuously absorbing Grade I, II & III ground, both up and down, which we mostly soloed along with the occasional abseil down the steeper sections. Reaching the Inaccessible Pinnacle just after dark we settled down for a chilly night knowing that we had completed over half the ridge traverse. We saw two headtorches above us which turned out to be our friends Ken and Scott, also doing the traverse…small world!
The following day dawned a bit misty and after getting ourselves moving we eased back into the continuous up, down and around that the ridge kept offering. After a slight detour to gain Sgurr Alasdair we arrived at the TD gap. The guide talks about climbing out of this but rather than break up our flow we descended into the corrie and back up to the ridge as it seemed the other had done as well. The slightly longer detour out to Sgurr Dubh Mor was particularly taxing on our legs but back on the main ridge we joined up with Ken and Scott on the top of Sgurr nan Eag and continued together along to Gars-bheinn and the end of the ridge.
Standing at the end of the ridge looking back north along its entirety I felt firstly (apart from the pain in my knee) a sense of relief! Overwhelmingly, however, I felt the same sense of accomplishment that I get having completed a big alpine route. The Cuillin Ridge is truly of alpine scale and requires the same skills and commitment that any of the other big alpine routes I have climbed have required.
I feel privileged to have been able to complete the winter traverse so early in the winter season and on my first visit to Skye. Having had such amazing conditions and weather on the traverse I’m not sure if I would attempt it again in winter! It has definitely got me enthused for the coming winter season in Scotland, here’s hoping its a snowy one!