A CLOUDY START
Upon waking up at Sligachan Campsite on the Isle of Skye, I peered out of my tent to gaze upon the imposing summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, expecting to be hit by a wave of warm sunshine. The weather forecast for the Cuillin was surprisingly good considering the constant rain Scotland has had lately so hopes were high for the day ahead. Instead of warm sunshine though, I was greeted by a blanket of thick grey cloud above me and a torrential sea of midges around me. There were so many of them that I couldn’t close my tent fast enough without letting dozens of the little buggers in.
After hiding in our tents for a short while, Dyan and I decided that we would go for a wee whistle-stop tour of the island while waiting for the weather to settle down as it was supposed to clear up later in the afternoon. Scrambling up Sgurr nan Gillean would have to wait a few hours. There’s plenty things to see in Skye though so we took a wander around the Faerie Glen in Uig then stopped off at the Quiraing for a while to soak in all the atmosphere of that wondrous place while reminiscing of my previous adventures there last year as part of walking the Skye Trail and even a job interview for Columbia Sportswear.
HEADING FOR THE HILLS
We finally got back to Sligachan Campsite and hit the trail for 1pm, just in time for the sun to fully break through the clouds for the first time all day. The route starts next to the Skye Mountain Rescue post with minimal effort across practically flat heathery ground, crossing a few bridges over streams so clear they looked like glass. I haven’t been to the Fairy Pools at Glen Brittle yet but I’m beginning to get an idea for how clear and beautiful the water will be if the smaller pools on this side of the Cuillin are anything like it.
The closer we walked to the base of Sgurr nan Gillean the more impeding and dangerous it looked. Picking out sharp details on the ridges and huge pinnacles around the summit made it look like an impenetrable fortress. We knew there was a way up that was supposedly simple enough for mere hillwalkers without a plethora of climbing equipment though so we pushed on to Coire Riabhach, cautious and curious about the climb ahead of us. The last time I was in Glen Sligachan was to wild camp on the summit of Sgurr na Stri in the middle of Autumn. I was surrounded by shades of deep orange and brown then so it was a welcome change to be here again on a beautiful summer’s day with shades of green to compliment the bright blue sky above me.
THE ASCENT BEGINS
By the time we reached Coire Riabhach, the sun was blazing hot and directly above us, obscuring our view every time we looked up to see what lay ahead. What we could see though, through squinted eyes, definitely excited us; huge slabs of boulder to scramble over, steep sections of scree to carefully navigate and the enormous rocky pinnacles of Pinnacle Ridge to our north. Unfortunately we weren’t taking the route across Pinnacle Ridge as it requires ropes for at least one 20 metre abseil. It’s something I would love to do in future though once I get back into rock climbing again and push my skills further.
Gaining height at a fairly quick pace now due to the steepness of the path, every time we stopped to look at our surroundings the view would change drastically. From the scree topped Glamaig and the Red Hills in the east to the vast open horizon out to sea beyond the Sound of Raasay in the north. The views were getting better by the second!
OVER THE CREST
With a gaze firmly set on my foot placement among the rocks below me, I suddenly glanced upwards to realise I had reached the crest of the south east ridge. As if from nowhere, I was greeted with one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever had in the hills; the mountainous amphitheatre of the Cuillin. I’ve trawled through many photos of the Cuillin late at night, wishing to be there. I’ve imagined what it would look like when passing Sligachan countless times by car and foot. Nothing compared to that first real view of the immense landscape that surrounded me on that day though. I was in awe.
Like statues, we stood on a small overhanging slab of rock, surveying the endless beauty before us. I was fascinated by the new perspective to view my previous triumphs from; Bla Bheinn and Sgurr na Stri to our left, split by the Skye Trail on the glen floor. But also by the countless new Munros I hadn’t so closely set my eyes on until now to our right. If that spot was the summit and we had to return to Sligachan from there I would have been ecstatic but the day just continued to improve the more we ascended.
On our immediate left was the Munros of Bruach na Frithe and Am Basteir. There was only half a mile separating the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean from Bruach na Frithe, with Am Basteir in between. The fact all three of these are classed as separate Munros, considering the short distance between them, goes to show the severity of the route between the summits. Countless pinnacles, protrusions and steep drops would have to be negotiated to reach these so once again, that would be a trip for another day. This final section of scrambling to the summit was proving a challenge in itself anyway so onward and upward we went.
THE SUMMIT OF SGURR NAN GILLEAN
The final scramble to the summit was the most intense part of the day and also one that passed by the quickest due to sheer adrenaline. For every metre we carefully walked forward, we had to clamber and pull ourselves upwards another metre closer to the summit, the views around us continuing to improve as we pushed on. By this point though, route finding had become a little trickier so we were just looking for the simplest and safest way to reach the top.
I can’t be sure of the exact placement but near the top we encountered a fairly high gully without many footholds to help ascend it. It must have been roughly 10ft high with smooth slabs of rock on either side but somehow we both managed to bridge the gap by pressing our feet into each side and scrambling up. Dyan went first and made it look a lot simpler than I did. She is more than likely just braver than I am but my excuse is that I try to give full respect to the mountain when scrambling in a place like the Cuillin so act slightly more cautious when faced with a tricky move. I can’t imagine I would do any routes much more difficult than this without ropes for protection though as I was quite close to my limit for feeling comfortable. The tall gully alone was harder than any section of the infamous Aonach Eagach ridge in my opinion which is something we recently completed together too.
I would loved to have savoured these moments for longer but at roughly 200 metres in distance and ascent, the scrambling was over all too quickly and we were finally standing on the summit. All ridges around us dropped off so steeply that we could barely see anything directly below us. Being perched on top of a summit like that with endlessly beautiful views around us of the Cuillin, the Hebrides and the mainland was a feeling like no other.
Not wanting to leave immediately, we took a seat on the edge of a sloping boulder with our feet dangling above an abyss of scree and rock. I can’t think of a better spot for lunch in my lifetime, our eyes constantly darting around at the crazy pinnacles and remarkable rock formations surrounding us, as we refuelled our bodies from the intense ascent. We had the summit to ourselves for a while but after half an hour someone else came clambering up the same way we had. We’d had our time on the summit so we decided to head back down and leave him to it. Seumas’ Bar at Sligachan was calling on us for a well earned pint anyway so we packed up our bags and got going again, leaving the solitary walker on his own on what must be one of the best viewing platforms in the whole country.
THE LONG WAY DOWN
After scrambling up something as magnificent and rocky as Sgurr nan Gillean on a summers day like we had, only one thing could possibly take the shine off it; heading back down the same way. Scrambling down is never the easiest or funnest part of the day and somehow within minutes we had turned up at a completely different set of boulders that looked impossible to pass. After much deliberation though, we found a clear way around that involved standing on quite a narrow ledge to reach the safety of a long sloping slab of rock on the other side. Just as we were clambering down, another couple passed us asking the best way to ascend. I had no hesitation in telling them not to even attempt going where we just came from, especially as the wind was picking up now, making it even more difficult to pass.
Soon we were back at the point where we emerged onto the south east ridge from the gully below just an hour or so before. I couldn’t get enough of the views and didn’t want to leave so stopped for a few more final photographs before descending into the dark scree slopes below us which were now getting more and more hidden from the setting sun. The rest of the way back went by without incident, just finding any way possible through the scree for a few hundred metres down until the route levelled out and the path could be found again. Finally emerging from the shadows after passing through Coire Riabhach, we stopped often for the rest of the way, looking backwards at our achievement, feeling so lucky to have had this mountain to ourselves for most of the day. The rocky slopes of Sgurr nan Gillean were now lit up in stunning shades of yellow as the sun cast its final glow on it, a fitting end to a fantastic day.
We reached Sligachan for 8pm, and agreed to celebrate completing our first Munro on the Cuillin with haggis, whisky and a couple of well deserved pints of the locally brewed Eagle Ale. It was certainly the most exhilarating mountain I’ve ever been on and one I will definitely be revisiting again in future. If only I could guarantee more days like this when I come back to finish the remaining 10 Munros I have left in Skye.