The Cuillin of the Isle of Skye are Britain's most impressive mountains, a compact group of Alpine peaks rearing straight out of the Atlantic. Forming a rough horseshoe more than 11km long, the Cuillin Main Ridge is a complex tangle of rocky summits, offering hundreds of fantastic mountaineering routes in a stunning island setting. Ignore the modest elevation - metre for metre there can be few mountains in the world to match them. They are predominantly made of volcanic Gabbro, which is rough, solid and a delight to clamber over. Big faces, soaring aretes and jagged pinnacles - they've got the lot. Climbing here is a unique and thrilling experience.
Since they are low, maritime and standing in the path of the Gulf Stream, there are no glaciers (what do you expect, this is Scotland we're talking about). Conditions are completely ruled by the sea, making for a changeable climate, to say the least. Rain and mist are the usual state of affairs, though they can blow off as quickly as they descend. Snow can fall heavily one day, only to be completely stripped the next. Decent winter climbing is a rarity here, and visitors would be wise not to pin their hopes on any. Most people come primarily for the rock, and when this is dry enough to climb comfortably they should consider themselves fortunate. Grumbles aside, the weather on Skye is so unpredictable that you can start your day in a pisser of a morning only to find that persistence is rewarded with a dazzling afternoon. It's all part of the fun.
As I've said, there are hundreds of climbs here, making a routes shortlist a bit redundant. Major crags include the beautiful 300m-high slabby walls of Sron na Ciche, the mid-grade Nirvana of Sgurr Sgumain, wild Coir a'Ghrunnda and the eastern cliffs of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. There are classics at all levels of difficulty from UK Moderates (and below) to the upper Extreme grades. However the Cuillin are most popular - and perhaps most notable - for their easier mountaineering routes, where hillwalking, scrambling and roped climbing are blended in a particularly rich way. Many low-grade classics are of Alpine length and character - ideal for climbers of limited talent, though they shouldn't be underestimated.
The finest and most famous of these is the Cuillin Traverse, linking all the major summits in one continuous push (this is probably why I've grouped the entire range under one heading, to be honest). After many attempts in the early days, this was only finally acieved several decades after most of the major Alpine peaks were claimed. One well-known guide has likened it to the physical rigours of a back-to-back ascent of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. It's not a task to take lightly, involving: a ridge-top bivvy; 3000m ascent; 11km of sustained exposed ridge scrambling with continuously interesting route finding; several abseils and a few tricky pitches of around UK Severe (UIAA IV, US 5.5)...and, of course, the weather. I won't even mention the infamous highland midges, those summer clouds of evil blood sucking pests (oh, I seem to have mentioned them. Suppose it's unavoidable). This is the best route of its type in the world, in fact one of the very best climbs you're ever likely to do. No, seriously - if anyone can think of a rival I'd be happy to amend my extravagant claim. The Cuillin Traverse is generally considered to be Britain's premier mountaineering adventure. Perhaps it's a surprise that everyone hasn't already done it - but then Skye is a long way from Britain's major cities, and the Cuillin never seem to get as crowded as busier hills further south.
A handful of extremely lucky buggers (myself not included) have managed to traverse the entire ridge in perfect winter conditions, an unbelievable expedition requiring several days of arduous and continuously exposed climbing, up to Scottish grade IV (alpine Difficile). Stashing supplies in at least one key point along the ridge prior to an ascent might be a good idea for this. The main difficulty is finding the mountains in really decent winter climbing condition; a soggy dump of snow followed by some nice freeze/thaws and then a period of cold settled weather would probably do it - but Skye's predominantly warm damp windy climate doesn't allow ideal nick to develop with any kind of predictability. Well, that's one for the wish-list...
Skye is a long way from the places most people live. Not as far-flung as its Norwegian big brother Lofoten, granted, but still a long haul. Driving is no problem, and it's a lovely journey of several hours through the Highlands of the Mainland to the infamous bridge over to the island at Kyle of Lochalsh. Until today (Late December 2004) visitors and locals alike could expect to get fleeced to the tune of £5 each way to cross this concrete monstrosity. This was the UK's first public/ private finance project, an ill-conceived and corrupt 'development' imposed on the locals against their will. It only brought benefits to the fat cats and the American bank that ended up owning the thing, somehow or other. The rest of us just had to subsidise them twice over, through tolls and then through taxes. Thankfully this intolerable situation has just been terminated by big Jock McConnell, our sainted First Minister. The bridge has been bought out and is now free to all comers, as it always should have been.
Public transport is also a possibllity, though hardly speedy. Catch a train (www.Scotrail.co.uk) from Edinburgh/Glasgow/Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, or a bus (www.scottishcitylink.co.uk) to Portree, tha 'capital' of Skye. Once you're on the island, call (01478) 612622 to check out the infrequent local bus times...though to be frank you're as well to hitchhike. One final option for the nautically-minded: for that real island feel try taking a boat from the tiny village of Elgol into the remote heart of the hills at Coruisk. You must book in advance - tel. 0800 731 3089 (www.bellajane.co.uk)
There are two traditional climber's hang-outs close to the mountains: Sligachan to the north (hotel, bar, bunkhouse, campsite, midges - accessed from the Portree bus) and Glen Brittle to the west (youth hostel, beachside campsite, midges - less easy to reach without a car). To save money, bring all your own food and drink.
No red tape. No conservation regulations of any sort really. The continued unsullied state of the hills is almost completely reliant upon the goodwill of some pretty untrustworthy rich landowner type chap. When you see how beautiful the area is you'll be outraged that it isn't even a National Park. Anyone want to start a campaign? Get in touch...
When To Climb
Mid summer is midge hell, and often quite rainy. Traditionally there are said to be long settled periods of good weather in May and September, though I've yet to see it. Basically you take pot luck at any time of year...
Discreet wild camping and bivvying is fine in the hills, though do please pack out all your rubbish (that's 'trash' in American). There is one small climbing club hut at coruisk, though you've got to be a member of some obscure tweed-clad sect to stay there I imagine. Anyone willing to prove me wrong / bigoted or whatever please do so!
There are few webcams, to my knowledge.
This was suggested by Turd the Third (thanks Turd - but why the name?). It's a view from the car park of the famous climber's haunt at the Sligachan Hotel. Unfortunately it shows the adjacent and much less interesting Red Cuillin, rather than the Black Cuillin (it's the black ones that's the best)...but at least it gives you some idea of the weather and the possible state of snow on the ground.
This is also of some limited use: www.lochalsh.com/webcam.html
It features the view of Skye and the bridge from the adjacent mainland at the town of Kyle of Lochalsh. The distant peaks are the Red, and (further back) Black Cuillin.
For weather info have a look at www.metoffice.co.uk which is OK for the big picture and the long-term forecast (by which I mean , up to 5 days in advance - a long time in Scottish weather).
Better and more accurate in terms of what the weather may actually be doing on the tops of the mountains is the forecast provided by the Mountain Weather Information Service: www.mwis.org.uk
The volcanic rock of the Cuillin is infamous for its compass-baffling qualities, thanks to the presence of magnetic stuff the precise geological explanation of which escapes me. All you really need to know as a climber is that this means you can't rely on compass bearings alone to get you out of trouble in thick mist, as your compass needle could at any one position be pointing in all sorts of misleading directions rather than magnetic north. The rock isn't consistently magnetic however, so if you take a few bearings in slightly different spots and then work out the average you might sometimes be OK. But how will you ever know for sure?!
A GPS can be of some help; use it either when you need to find your precise grid reference in moments of misty doubt, or maybe pre-programme the position of key summits and cols in advance, so you can tick each off in turn on your traverse, even if you can't actually see which mountain you're on (a frequent occurrence). However, the complex twists and turns of the ridge top preclude using a GPS to actually plot your route on the ground.
A combination of careful map scrutiny, potentially inexact compass work and occasional recourse to the GPS is about the best you can hope to achieve in terms of conventional navigation. Clearly, formal navigation alone doesn't really cut the mustard, even when visibility is OK. Let's say you'll also need a fair bit of routefinding nowse, or 'hill sense' in order to be able to 'feel' your way along, steering the most sensible course through complex rocky ground. This is more a mountaineer's skill than something hikers will be used to.
Books n maps
Britain's Ordnance Survey produce maps of very high quality and accuracy.
OS Landranger sheet number 32 (1:50,000) is good for the big picture, though it's of limited use for micro-navigating on the complex ground of the ridge crests.
OS Explorer no.411 (1:25,000) is rather clearer and easier to follow.
Best of all though, according to many climbers and hillwalkers, is Harvey's 'Skye and the Cuillin' at a variety of scales on the one sheet. The Harvey cartographical style makes the complex tangle of mountainsides and crests a bit more explicable, and they include useful information like possible escape routes from the ridge.
Skye and the Hebrides, Rock and Ice Climbs, published by the SMC: comprehensive route descriptions and topos for all the mountain and sea cliff climbs in the area.
Scotland's Mountain Ridges, Dan Bailey, pb.Cicerone : the eagle-eyed will have spotted that this is actually written by me. It covers ridge scrambles, summer rock and winter ridges all over Scotland, with several routes on Skye including one of the more detailed Cuillin Traverse route descriptions available. Nothing beats a bit of shameless self promotion, eh? Buy it, it's great. Good photos too...!