Don't go into the gear shop after a whisky or two.
With a hectic work schedule I’d not planned or schemed this trip like the Chris of old. Usually I’d have had my head buried in all manner of books and maps and have trawled the internet for info and excitement (steady). The penny started to drop two weeks before when we’d had our acclimatisation trip with Steve and Rich up Pinnacle Ridge on St Sunday Crag. To be honest I’d left all the organisation down to the two of them. So having stocked up on all manner of extra gear Stu, Mark and I set off at the not too unreasonable hour of 07.30. After pranging my back left alloy (just brilliant that on a car less than one month old) on the boulders which surround Mark’s garden it was no surprise when I bit his head off for being a wee bit late. You’d have thought after fifteen years of going walking I’d have got used to his lack of promptness. With harmony restored we set off for Fort Bill all the time trying to outdo one and other in the diesel economy stakes. How things appeared to have changed. I’ve just related to Mark’s habit of leaving everything to the last minute. Guess what he’d decided he needed for Skye? Yup some new boots. He’d rung around and learnt that Ellis Brigham in Fort William had just what he wanted. As we were heading into town the though occurred, why don’t we call in and see Tom and Sheena. Given the history of pranks between us it didn’t take Einstein to realise we could have some fun at their expense. So, having rolled up on their gravel drive, the three of us climbed out, stretched our aching limbs, shouldered our packs and walked in to ask Sheana which rooms we were in. Needless to say after she’d huffed, puffed, shown us her diary three times, gone brilliant red in the face and given huge numbers of apologies she started to panic. Mark quite rightly put and end to it, Tom gave another rendition of “och yu bastards”and duly invited us into the kitchen for a coffee. Two hefty glasses of Highland Chieftain later and we were on our way to find Mark’s boots. This was a big mistake. Drinking with Tom and then entering a gear shop. It could only end one way. Hmm a nice, waterproof, windproof bargain. Ok, it may not necessary have been a bargain; however it is a damn good jacket. I should have stayed outside watching the old LMS Black five. Never mind if it started to rain or the wind got up I could do that and stay warm and dry. Passing through Glen Sheil the weather improved and by the time we reached Skye there appeared to be some promise, the sun was now shining and “eyup, did yu see that?” Kasabian live at the Skye music festival 25th and 26th May. Stu, had seen the band a month or so before in Manchester and was sourly tempted to do it again. There was no chance we had too much else on our minds.
With the sat nav working perfectly we arrived at the bothy just as Steve and Rich were returning from their water dump hike. That night we checked the gear, packed, repacked and generally larked around like a bunch of teenagers. Perhaps we were a little excited? Well, next morning when we woke the sun was out, but the clouds were skidding across the sky at a fair rate of knots. Would the weather forecast for crap rain and clag be correct? Twenty minutes later as we neared Sligachan to drop off Steve’s car it looked like the forecast was being confirmed. The sky was black, the temperature down at 5 degrees (this was sea level) and it started to blow a gale and chuck it down. Doom and gloom filled the car. A further twenty minutes later and we were rolling into the camp site car park at Glen Brittle in cracking blue sky conditions. This was Skye at its very best. It was so changeable in just a few minutes. With the sunshine came the mozzies, so without too much ceremony we shouldered our great sacks and set off with the ridge towering above us one way and the sea lapping at the shore the other.
Up towards the hail and sleet.
The banter was great. No doubt this was the excitement of what was to come, but also the company. Rich helped the mood when he advised that he’d just got a text from his partner saying the “the elf was horny”. The poor sod was almost ready to turn around and head off back to the Lakes to satisfy the needs of the elf. I’d not heard that expression before, but the message was clear. I just wander whether she knew he was sharing this message with all of us. “Bi ech my sack was heavy”. I don’t suppose I should have been winging as Mark and Stu were given the ropes to carry on account of them having the lightest sacks. Ok, Stu wasn’t there when we assessed them, but Steve’s word was final. We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but this section was easy. After all we had a path and the gradient was naff all. Needless to say it didn’t last. On with the jackets and then off again as the weather changed from sunshine to rain and back again. The weather couldn’t make up its mind. Wind rain and sun all followed one and other in quick succession. At fourteen hundred feet we entered what Steve described as a prehistoric scene. Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda was all rock towers and although there was a cracking lochan nestling under the cliff walls it was a lifeless scene. I never did see the tyrannosaurus rex; however I did leave a monster and a half of my own when we reached the lochan. I knew last nights curry was a bad idea. This corrie was where the trip to Skye really started. As we climbed more and more of the skyline came into view, Sgurr Alasdair being the high point of the Cuillin was soon towering above us on the left, whilst to the right stood Sgurr nan Eag our first goal.
Joy of joys, just two hundred feet of ascent short of the summit we took the opportunity to dump our sacks and head off for the first munro. Without the weight on our backs it was like walking on air. It was at this point that Mark dropped the bombshell ”y’know I’m not sure I can do this”. Although we hadn’t encounted anything that hard yet, it transpired that Mark was dwelling on one or two positions that were yet to come. Hmm! What could we do about this? Mark considers everything to the nth degree. Surely if I tried to convince him to continue I’d only be going over his thought pattern. He’s not stubborn, but realistic. Between the rest of us there was a concern that we’d come this far, we were safe in the hands of Steve and Rich, the weather was out of the top drawer and above all else we wanted to spend the weekend together. Surely Mark couldn’t or shouldn’t go back. He cautiously agreed to continue and five minutes later as we neared the summit his concern had turned to pain. Yep, it was hailing and even snowing a little as we topped out on Sgurr nan Eag. Unbelievably this was our first Munro in fifteen months. For various reasons, trips abroad, illness and lack of organisation our Munro tally had slowed somewhat. When the hail stopped the blue skies reappeared and at last we could finally take in the coastal view towards, the Inner Hebrides of Rum, Eigg, Canna, and further afield the Outer Hebrides looked like tropical islands as their silhouettes stood out against the bright blue sea. In the other direction we looked vertically down on the turquoise Loch Coruisk and the mainland beyond. This really was a place and a half and one which I could confidently climb without the need of a guide.
We couldn’t linger on the summit for too long as we had a great deal more to cover, so after retracing our steps back to the dumped bags, Rich and Steve spent a while reassuring Mark that there were plenty of emergency decent routes on the next section and that he would easily reach the summit of our next Munro, Sgurr Dubh Mor. Slow but steady progress was made as we descended towards the beallach, sidestepped the Caisteal a’ Garbh-choire (to mere mortals like me, an unclimable chunk that stood in our way) and reached the start of the ascent. It was here that we came across our first bottleneck of the trip. The route took us up zig zag ledges and a series of short sloping slabs. At twenty or thirty feet these pitches were plenty big enough to warrant the need of a rope. So after a patient wait as some rock climbing club scuffed their backsides all the way down these slabs, we had the joy of some steady hands and feet work before a final ascent over great building blocks to an even more impressive summit. This time there was barely sufficient room for all five of us on the summit at the same time. The weather was now bright, there were naff all clouds in the sky and I had started to perspire like the proverbial colander. What a situation!
Towards Sgurr Alasdair and the Cuillin high point.
Back at the beallach we unroped for a while as once more Mark was thinking of the rest of the crew. He was obviously fighting a demon and as he didn’t feel comfortable he was taking much more care which meant time and being the caring sort he didn’t want to restrict the progress of the rest of us. As I was finding out, Steve and Rich are persuasive and once again managed to reassure Mark that Sgurr Alasdair was safe and had plenty of escape routes. Duly roped up again we clambered over Sgurr Dubh. The process was repeated time after time as Steve and Rich (the Goat) took a safety first approach on each scramble. They had arranged for Stu and I to share a rope with Steve, whilst Mark took the shorter rope with Rich. During a decent unroped stretch I had the joy of carrying the sixty meter rope. Bloody hell it was heavy, I now knew why Mark had struggled early on. Being impatient I left Mark and Stu to quench their thirst from a spring (really a leak from the rock face) and made my way up towards Steve who was waiting by a perfect bivvy site which made use of a small cave. At this time Rich was seen scurrying around some rock or other in an attempt to avoid a nasty accident when last night’s pub curry started to take its revenge. On return his look of contentment showed he’d made it. One thing’s for sure in the Couillin’s there no shortage of places to hide ones decency. I was now raring to go but Stu and Mark were taking an age to reach this cave. For some reason I was feeling well and weren’t being my usual lethargic self. Once more roped up we made our way up the remaining few hundred feet of easy scrambling to the summit of Skye’s high point Sgurr Alasdair. I don’t recall this being too taxing, however the following night in the pub we met a so called experienced climber who’d frozen on this section. Apparently when you get the wobbles there’s naff all that can be done. This poor bloke found the quickest way to safety by descending the Great Stone Shoot. Could the views get any better? Undeniably they could. It was now six o’clock and the rugged Couillin were now bathed in a softer glow from the teatime sun. The Inn Pin was all of a sudden much closer and almost looked to be in reach on this marathon day. First of all we’d have to make our way across what looked like a knife edge ridge towards the next Munro, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. From this angle this arête looked unbelievably sharp. It didn’t help Mark’s concern when a group of four of five were seen dithering at one end as they weighed up their options. Being late May, we knew that we’d have another five hours of daylight and so pressed on towards Munro number four. Mark at this point tried one more throw of the dice. It then became apparent to me that his real concern over these last few hours had been twofold; yep we knew he didn’t want to slow us down, but more importantly he was worried about Harts Ledge. To get to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich we’d have to either attempt some pretty stern climbing or negotiate this ledge. On all other occasions Steve and Rich had been able to satisfy Mark’s concerns by suggesting emergency exit routes. In this case Mark would have to continue to trust their guidance.
Summit feaver and a pitch black descent to a bivvy site.
The fun and games continued as, roped together we made our way over the arête (not as sharp as it had seemed from up above) and then for the first time we’d have to negotiate a few lowers over vertical rock. I was in my element, meanwhile Stu was doing a fair impression of Tarzan as he swung pendulum like from side to side. With this exercise repeated a few times, time was moving on and we said goodbye to the last of our Coullin climbing company. It was 9 pm and we now had the ridge to ourselves. I knew now that we’d not stand a chance of bagging the Inn Pinn at this hour and so our aims became Sgurr Mhic and the need to find a suitable bivvy spot. Collies Ledge (or Harts Ledge dependent upon your choice of climbing book) stood directly in front of us and if anything it looked much worse that it would prove to be. It was in a cracking location, being a diagonal traverse across Sgurr Mhic, with great drops off to the left and what looked like a narrow rubble filled path which would need to be negotiated. We now found ourselves tantalisingly close to the summit, with so little daylight left. A direct ascent was out of the question and so with Mark gingerly making his way across the ledge we had one eye on the clock and another on Steve and Rich. Would they be prepared to make a dart for it and bag this summit at this hour? There was no doubt at all, they’re a pair of stars and after a quick conflab they chose to cut the corner and set off on a route up some great boulders which would take us onto the ridge proper. Looking up ahead Rich was almost dragging Mark to the summit, so much so that when Steve, Stu and I had reached the ridge Mark was a good hundred feet ahead of us and only a few yards from the summit. The next time I looked up through the gloom he was still in the same spot. The lazy git. Well, perhaps not, I was so engrossed in my efforts I’d not realised that he’d been to the top and was now on his way back down. On passing Mark, my words were that I’d have to make the top as he’d done it and our Munro pact had to remain. Just like all the other summits this one was miniscule and didn’t really have room for more than a couple of us. I could have stayed there for ages and taken in the views, but with the need to find somewhere to kip (after all it was now eleven o’clock) and the fact that there was naff all visibility we really did have to get a move on.
Steve and Rich had now upped the pace. They were intent on getting us safely to a bivvy site. In half light conditions like these concentration comes into its own, well that and the wish that you’d lived on carrots for the last year or two. The light becomes softer, distances appear much greater than they actually are and adrenaline must kick in as I suffered very few trips or stumbles. I was becoming single minded. I knew that once we reached the scree we’d be fine and so all efforts were concentrated on getting off this great sloping boulder field. I’m sure the others were in the same boat. With one false descent from the ridge corrected we found ourselves at the beallach and for the first time in hours we came across some degree of bivvy site. A few seconds of being buffeted by the wind and the realisation that the bivvy shelter would fit no more than two had us scurrying off towards the scree of An Stac. Earlier on we’d seen a great number of bivvy shelters in Coire Lagan and knew that when we found the start of the eroded rubble we’d find the start of the scree. Sure enough our instinct was correct. The scree was much better than anything we’d previously come across. If you took time and angled your feet correctly you could almost ski down it. Ok, the boulders were a little large in places. However, if you’re impatient like me, then you tend to leap from one sliding carpet of rock to another and generally end up stumbling onto some unseen lump of rock. Normally in such a situation your senses would be dominated by your view of what you could see happening to the rocks. In this case whilst the nominal moonlight only afforded a brief idea of what was happening your other senses took over. You could taste the dust and smell the odour of the rocks being bashed against one and other. I suppose it’s generally only hill climbers and stone masons who are familiar with this smell. Half an hour later at just short of one am, guided by our head torches we were stumbling from one shelter to another. Steve, being the kind considerate sort that he is walked up past the best shelters whilst telling us that luxury abodes awaited us if we pressed on a little. Once we’d come to the last opportunities we couldn’t be arsed retracing our steps and so made do with second best. Guess where Steve and Rich ended up? Thank fully it was still dry, so the task of preparing our bivvy was pretty easy. With our bed for the night made the easy thing would have been to go straight off to sleep. Sense prevailed and the burners came out to heat up our Wayfarer boil in the bag evening meal (ok, it was almost breakfast). At approximately two am, having ate and drank I laid there in my bivvy looking up at The Plough and many hundreds more stars. Due to the lack of light pollution they seemed to be so many more than I’d ever seen before. After sixteen hours on the hills this eye opener became an eye shutter. According to Mark I was fast asleep in a matter of seconds.
Towards the Inn Pin
With a pretty good nights kip I first awoke at around seven, the sun was just catching the craggy tops of hills that surrounded Coire Lagan, however the rest were silent and it was damned cold, so off to sleep I went again. This routine carried on for a couple of hours as I slept, woke up again, watched the sun turn more of the surrounding hills a golden orange and then went back to sleep again. Stu eventually created enough racket that we all stirred in out pits and set about making breakfast and breaking camp. After food, the next morning ritual is often the need to get rid of it. I don’t recall what Mark had been eating; however no sooner had he wiped his backside than a raven was seen diving in what he’d left. I know their role is to clean up the hillside; however this was taking it a bit far. Eventually at approximately eleven am we set off towards that damn scree. Mark, who by the way had not batted an eyelid over the ascent of the Inn Pinn was carrying the sixty metre rope and was struggling straight away from the off. I wasn’t really expecting that we’d get a great deal done on this second day and so set off up the scree in the knowledge that this thousand feet would probably be the hardest single climb of the day. After the scree it was simply a case of climbing a few hundred feet up a series of great diagonal slabs and then there in front of us was the base of the Inn Pinn.
Why o why hadn’t we got going earlier? It was like Briggate on a Saturday afternoon, there were folk everywhere. I suppose it was bank holiday Monday and we had glorious weather. A quick conflab over our options followed and we made the correct decision to queue rather than come back another day. Whilst there we killed time chatting with others and watching the moves and rope skills of those in front. During this trip Steve and Rich had oozed safety and for that reason we had so much confidence in them. One or two of the other guides didn’t quite create the same impression. There appeared to be all manner of improvised knots, haphazard belay techniques and worse of all an incident where two climbers in front of Steve, whilst half way up The Inn Pinn got their ropes tangled and so had to untie and retie themselves whilst clinging on to their airy perch. Now just a moment, “where are we in this queue”? A party of three more were roped up at the starting point. “Didn’t you arrive after us”? Well the guide in charge didn’t deny it. His response was that it was the protocol for the next roped climber to jump to the front of the queue. The ignorant git. If Steve had refrained from adopting the French guide approach and had waited his turn why couldn’t he? I suppose if we’d chosen him as our guide he’d have turned us back at five rather than topped out on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich at eleven at night. A couple more set off and then it was our turn. Steve had decided that he’d climb first, secure a belay point and then the three of us would follow him up. Meanwhile Rich would wait at the base of the Inn Pinn where it abuts to Sgurr Dearg.
Unchartered territory for a non rock climber
Steve took the lead and after waiting for a while on the ridge for access to a suitable belay point yelled down to advise that it was safe to climb. Stu, Mark and I, in that order followed. The climbing was a doddle, there were great jugs everywhere you needed them. The problem was more to do with the closeness of one and other on the rope. If Mark wasn’t kicking me in the head he was standing on my fingers. Unfortunately when you are tied together on an exposed lump of rock you can’t really afford to retaliate too much. Jug after jug followed until we reached the belay point. Steve being ever cautious attached the three of us to a sling before setting off again towards the top. I must admit that I had found the Coullin scrambling easy up to this point. Only when I found myself half way up the Inn Pinn clinging on and waiting for Steve to reach another belay point did my mind start to wander and take in the great drops down both sides of the sharks fin. To make matters worse I could hear a distant drone of a sea rescue helicopter. Initially it was seen hovering over Sgurr Nan Gillean, and then it did a great circle over Loch Corrusk before returning to the same spot. Looking closely I could just make out a winch man being lowered. Some poor sole was in trouble. With all this happening I became even more focused on the lump of rock that I was rather indecently clinging on to. In fact I was hugging it that closely that I could smell it. I suppose the only other option was looking up at Marks arse. Mark later reminded me that seeing me clinging on I looked shit scared. Cheers mate. After what seamed like an age we set off up a much steeper and narrower section.
All of a sudden I was fine again, the climbing was steep, but easy and I had plenty to concentrate upon rather than day dream looking at the great drop off both sides. All too soon we topped out. Steve then secured us to his sling and when we reached the platform clipped us in to the great chain which was tied around the base of the summit boulder. In no time at all I had edged my way to the top of the lower and was on my way down the vertical side of the Inn Pinn. Rich was waiting at the bottom to make sure we did nothing daft and no sooner had I reached the floor than the others followed one and other down. With the weather still on top form and the adventures of the Inn Pinn behind us we suddenly had one thing on our minds, the pub. Rather than continue climbing how about heading down, getting a wash and making for the pub? We spent just fifteen minutes taking in the scenery, the harsh landscape and of course the people who were either milling around, in a gallery watching the climbers on the Inn Pinn or just liggin art. Would we ever return to such a place?
Letting our hair down in the pub
Any way, the pub!! With that thought, we set off down the ridge and then another great scree slope. It was cracking fun, jumping around on the scree with boulders giving way and then once again the smell as they cracked against one and other. My only concern was that I’d stuff my new jacket. Somehow despite a few tummels I managed to get away with it. My new jacket was nothing compared to Marks glistening new boots. They were shredded and looked like they were ready for the bin. No doubt a good polish with tuxon grease would sort them out. Rich of course managed to do a somersault, whilst Stu took a couple of falls, one of which was flat on his face. It wasn’t just Marks boots that had taken a hammering; my fingers and hands some five weeks after the trip are still shedding layers of skin. Once we’d gathered by a small lochan we could relax as we made our way back to the Glen Brittle campsite. A couple of deer were seen bounding away over the skyline and in no time at all we were back at the car. Steve and Rich were dropped off at the Sligachan Inn for their debrief whilst the rest of us returned to the bothy to freshen up.
Back as a group of five we had two aims, food and drink, but not necessarily in that order. Using a phrase that Stu would later use on his DVD the mood of the moment could best be described by the song title “I predict a riot”. The pub in Carbost was buzzing and full of climbers and hikers all telling the tale of their trips into the Coullins. There were familiar faces, however thankfully Mr Protocol didn’t show up. Two pints and a hearty snack later we were back in the local pub by the bothy. This was much more subdued and so we had to make our own entertainment. The drink flowed and the effeminate Slovenian barman (I’m not really sure that I have the gender correct) tried his best not to serve us beyond the last order bell. Meanwhile a fifteen year old Roy Orbison impersonator (intact with dark glasses at midnight) did his best to entertain us. Having introduced our Slovenian friend the term “carryout” we set off back to the bothy with out booty tucked under our arms. Such nights tend to end in a blur; however Stu had remembered his video camera. There were all manner of fake welsh accents recounting Stu’s “Massive aren’t they” story. Rich’s hand gestures really helped with the explanation. From go knows Steve managed to acquire a bottle of red wine. Well, it had been left lying around, someone can’t have been that bothered about it so we had a duty to drink it. With the contents consumed it was duly refilled with diet coke and a few peanuts (don’t ask) and the cork was reinserted as best as possible. Rich then removed all fingerprint evidence by coating the neck off the bottle with nectarine juice. I have no idea what else went on that night other than the fact that it was three thirty by the time we crashed out. Maybe next time we get plastered someone should hide a video camera to recall the fun and games.
This had really been a cracking trip, with a little snow, hail and rain, but bags of sunshine when it was really needed. The achievements were five Munro’s and given the offer of assistance from Steve and Rich we would definitely take up their offer of a repeat trip to climb the remaining five on the list. The scenery had been out of this world, but best of all the group of five got on like best mates. Role on the other five.