I've had my fair share of memorable days in the mountains, an environment that provides my income, brings me joy and allows me to share amazing experiences with awesome people and keeps my body healthy and my mind free. It's very easy to take all this for granted, but sometimes you have a day that reminds you just how special it is to be part of other peoples memories, when you see someone's grin over a vista you may of seen a hundred times before, when you see it again through their eyes and its magic.
Our 2 day traverse of the Black Cuillin Ridge was something special, my close friend Kevin had never even been on Skye, let alone the ridge. My brother and I had made our first attempt many years ago, failing due to being woefully under prepared and (being honest) very naive about what we were taking on.
To make a successful traverse, you almost need the stars to align; conditions, group fitness, rope work, manoeuvrability of the party over serious ground, kit, bivvy sites. So many considerations that if one element falters, like a house of cards, your attempt can crumble. The ridge is a serious undertaking, sustained technical ground with a heavy bag and little respite along the way, even collecting water can be a chore.
We had three days for our traverse and they looked good with stable high pressure, E - NE winds, a good direction for the ridge. We planned to do a bivy run to minimise the weight in our bags for our traverse. We headed up to An Dorus with empty containers to collect water en route and stash on the ridge. We chose a point just before the scree gaining as much height with light bags as possible. After a quick snack we kitted up to free up some space in our bags for the newly acquired water, it soon became apparent that we only had a fraction of the containers we had intended to bring, slight oversight, the others were in the van... not the best start but we decided that I would do a water run once we reached the bivy site and at least the water we had would allow Terry and Kevin a cup of tea and enough to get dinner while I went for the rest. We planned to stay around Sgurr a Ghreadaidh area, a long technical day that allows a slightly more relaxed second day. Kit stashed it was time to hydrate and fuel up for a fresh start the next morning.
An early start (6.30am) gave us plenty of time to enjoy the ridge. Starting in Glen Brittle we made a bee line for Cori' a' Ghrunnda again with empty water bottles to minimise weight, the loch at the top of the corie provides a great water source just a few hundred metres from the crest of the ridge. For many the start can feel quite mentally taxing, it doesn't feel as if your covering much ground when all of the Munros are taken in, by the time we had bagged Eag and the Dubh it was close to 11.30, still with plenty of technical ground to cover and Kevin was keen to challenge himself on the hardest technical part of the ridge, the TD Gap. I'm not a huge fan of the gap, the approach to the gap is loose and you can literally be held up for hours waiting for people to climb and haul their bags. I listened for voices on the approach in case we had to take the dodge around to the chimney pitch up Sgurr Alasdair, I could only hear a few voices and no commotion or shouting.. so we went for it. The guys in front were doing a one day traverse and were moving well and by the time we abseiled into the gap their second was starting to get organised to climb out, perfect timing!
We kitted up had a chat about the route before I headed up the polished steep groove. Terry was next, making steady progress to arrive surprised that it seemed easier than expected, next it was Kevin, with only a few rock climbs under his belt he had psyched himself up for giving it all he had. A few huffs and puffs later, he arrived, chuffed that he had managed to get up what, at first looked very intimidating. He was buzzing, he knew this was one of the trickiest sections technically. After some food and water, we bagged Alasdair then onto Mhiconnich which requires some careful route finding to get a safe passage to the bealach. At the Inn Pinn we were held up by a team that had taken 2 & 1/2 hours to get to the top of the pinn... Thankfully they let us pass to abseil off the end! A bonus to keep time on our side, we made fast progress towards Banachdich.
I could tell Kevin was getting mentally drained and he was starting to doubt the technical sections after a long day. We agreed we would get to the bivy site and get food, water and one of the (small) pre-stashed cans of beer! Then we could chat through the next day and see how he felt in the morning, I mean for anyone that knows how fickle the weather can be on Skye, and with a rolling cloud inversion out to the Outer Hebrides we convinced him this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to bivy in such a truly breathtaking spot. Some brews and food on the go I had a job to do, now where is that water..? after a long day the legs certainly felt 14 litres from the bottom of An Dorus. Calories and hydration are key to maximising energy for the next day, even if you don't feel like it, you'll need it, and what a view for a midnight pee!
I lay awake from 5am, enjoying the faint heat and light of the sun rising over the top of the ridge line, it was looking like another memorable (good memorable) day on the ridge. We chatted through the key sections again over breakfast so everyone knew the plan, highlighting the tricky areas and if need be, some bypasses to help ease the stress on the brain. Off we went, taking in Mhadaidh and the next three tops with some nice scrambling along the way. In my opinion this is one of the finest views on the traverse as you head for the third top... simply breathtaking.
The heat was building and we were, being typically Scottish, seeking shade at every opportunity. We spoke in depth about the complexities and time to traverse Bidein Druim nan Ramh and when we arrived we agreed to give it a dodge on the Northern flank. Another abseil into the col at the very end of An Casteil and we felt like we were covering ground quickly with the last three in sight. The only trig point in the Cuillin confirmed we were on Bruach na Frithe with the imposing Am Bastier laying in wait. We chatted about options and with tired legs and minds we opted to drop bags at the ascent towards the col for Bastier and Gillean.
The weight with all of our extra camping equipment felt nice to be off our backs making every step feel a little easier than before. We took Am Bastier in good time with the bad step being enjoyable for everyone! Next and finally it was time to tackle Gillean. It was busy, but we seemed to time it well and only waiting 15min at the abseil down the chimney, finishing the last of the technical sections, much to Kevin's delight! He couldn't believe it, we had managed to complete the traverse and after some doubts, here we were with just the walk out to get some well deserved food and a cheeky beer. Fish & chips in hand we chatted about achieving, for many a lifetime ambition of traversing this complex, challenging, mentally and physically draining ridge and in such memorable conditions, making and being part of memories for life.