From a story first published in 1947 comes the inspiration for a modern-day excursion. Anna Wells of the Jöttnar Pro team finds mystery and adventure amongst the unfamiliar terrain of the Skye Cuillin’s wilder side.
Having spent hundreds of hours climbing and mountaineering around the Cuillin Ridge on Skye, it was with great intrigue that I read the simply yet aptly named book “Mountaineering in Scotland” by W.H Murray. Among tales of great exploits and first ascents, I found myself most enthralled by a story entitled “Twenty-Four Hours on the Cuillin”. The author recalls an overnight adventure where he and his climbing partner traversed a portion of the Cuillin Ridge before dropping over the back to Loch Coruisk. After a serendipitous meeting with a cruise ship that led to much pampering, they regained the ridge via the Dubh Slabs and returned to Glenbrittle.
As someone quite goal orientated, I was intrigued by the notion of such a wandering excursion without a specific objective. The idea of spontaneously choosing a route rather than sticking to designated circuits and paths well-trodden. In addition, I had always considered the Loch Coruisk side of the ridge to be a different world altogether; the idea of linking this up with the far more popular Glenbrittle side was enticing.
And so I set out, with a helmet and a small rucksack, ready to write my own adventure. In the spirit of new experiences, I decided to access the Cuillin Ridge via Coire Banachdich, a route I had never taken before despite almost fifty ascents of the West Ridge only a few hundred metres to the right. Arriving at 900m on the col between Sgurr Banachdich and Sgurr Dearg, I briefly greeted some very familiar terrain, before scrambling into a notch and looking down “the other side”. I could see the beginnings of the Coruisk River and a shape carved out where Loch Coruisk would lie further around the corner. The descent looked a little intimidating: a long scree slope followed by rocky grass slopes, with not much in the way of a path. Dropping down from the ridge line, the feeling of remoteness was quite overwhelming and I suspected that I would not see anyone else for a long time.
The ridge looked different from this side. From this perspective, it was harder to identify each jagged feature and I was surprised by this new-found rawness. Eventually, Loch Coruisk came into sight and with it the first views of the mighty Dubh Slabs. Clouds were rolling in, belying the impeccable forecast, and adding an extra element of uncertainty to the challenge which lay before me - the famous Dubh Ridge. Its gabbro slabs rise for 900 metres, one of the longest rock climbs in Britain, from the serene shores of Loch Coruisk all the way to the rugged and imposing summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag.
The climb in itself was pure unrelenting joy, padding up endless slabs of the grippiest rock you could imagine. I stopped every hundred metres or so to look back at the incredible view. As I climbed higher, the majestic island opened up below me and the turquoise water glittered in the morning sun. I felt free and alive, inspired by my surroundings and enjoying the simple movement of dancing up the rock. Occasionally I would pause to consider a trickier section, choosing a more precise line as my eyes scanned the rockface for features that would propel me upwards.
Soon I reached the summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag, and then backtracked a little to find the bypass for the abseil. The ridgeline meandered onwards towards the summit of Sgurr Dubh Mor and with it a sense of familiarity. On one hand, I relished these final moments of unfamiliar terrain where my brain made hundreds of micro-decisions about which way I went. On the other hand, I looked forward to the comfort of reaching a summit I had guided several times this summer, for which I knew every intricate detail of the descent.
Upon reaching the summit I felt like I was stepping back onto “the other side” of the Cuillin Ridge. It was like waking from a dream and falling back into reality. For the first time all day, I could hear voices and see other people. The mystery, anticipation and sense of adventure melted softly away. I meandered down to Coire Ghrunda and forced myself to pause for a moment. I took off my shoes and dipped my feet in the water and thought about the glorious day I had spent in the mountains.
It had been wonderful to create an adventure within an area I knew well, and to see the mountains from a whole new perspective. Mountaineering often allows us to experience a whole range of feelings in a short period of time and I marvelled at how smoothly my emotions had changed that day between excitement, angst, joy, uncertainty, confidence and calm. I reflected too on the influence of the weather - the unease brought by thickening clouds, or the elation brought by sunshine. I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet a cruise ship in Loch Coruisk, but I felt sure that WH Murray would have been pleased with my adventurous journey that he inspired.