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In summer conditions, a successful traverse of Skye's Cuillin Ridge is a much sought after trophy, demanding the perfect alignment of weather, fitness, technical skill and partners. A winter traverse is a different proposition entirely, traditionally taking two to three days.


Anna Wells of the Jöttnar Pro Team completed it in a single day, and here gives an insight into this elusive, highly prized and ephemeral route.


Isle of Skye, Scotland

Location


Dec - Mar

Season

“I feel confident that the winter traverse of the main Cuillin Ridge will always retain its place as the greatest single adventure in British Mountaineering”. - Tom Patey


The Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye is immense in both scale and reputation. It twists and turns for eleven stupendous kilometres, an enigma of knife edge ridges and rock climbs unlocked by complex route finding. In summer conditions, a successful traverse is a much sought after trophy among the mountaineering population, demanding the perfect alignment of weather, fitness, technical skill and partners. A winter traverse is a different proposition entirely.

Snow conditions are uniquely fickle due to the island setting and relatively low altitude of the ridge, which never rises above 1000m. Ephemeral windows of opportunity come rarely and fleetingly. Add into the mix the short hours of daylight, the remote setting of the ridgeline, and the high level technical skill required and the prospect seems almost elusive. 

"An enigma of knife edge ridges unlocked by complex route finding."

"An enigma of knife edge ridges unlocked by complex route finding."

In winter, the ridge is usually traversed North to South, the opposite of summer, beginning on Sgurr nan Gillean and finishing on Ghars Bheinn. This lends itself to an achievable balance of climbing versus abseiling. In between lies a great deal of variation in both route choice and strategy. 


The majority of the terrain is between grade II and III Scottish winter, and for efficient progress, aspirant traversers should be comfortable and competent soloing at this level. There are short pitches of grade IV, such as the iconic Inaccessible Pinnacle, so climbers should have plenty of experience leading at this grade and ideally harder to allow for varying conditions. On the contrary, some parts of the ridge can feel easier in winter compared to summer. Front pointing up a nevé-covered scree slope is joyful, and during my own traverse the notorious “Bad Step” on Am Bhasteir was banked-out with snow and barely noticeable.

CUILLIN RIDGE Winter TRAVERSE

Starlight and nevé - some assorted film segments.

WATCH BELOW

Traditionally winter traverses have been attempted over two or three days, the summer issue of water shortages replaced by an endless supply of snow to melt! In recent years it has been increasingly common for climbers to undertake single-day traverses in a “fast and light” alpine style. This was the style I chose to adopt when the stars finally aligned for my own attempt on a cold crisp February morning.


We reached the first summit of Sgurr nan Gillean around 7am and could see the whole ridge stretched out before us, sparkling in the moonlight. It’s a good idea to check the moon timetable, paying attention to the moon phase as well as its rising and setting times - a small consolation for the shorter daylight hours. Excellent snow conditions allowed us to move quickly, arriving at King’s Cave in the Bhasteir Nick for sunrise. Here we stumbled upon two climbers still tucked up in their sleeping bags!

Prior knowledge of the traverse is essential to overcome the intricate route finding, in addition to familiarity with the escape options. Author Gordon Stainforth describes the ridge as “Alpine in character and yet super alpine in length”. As we walked, front-pointed, scrambled and climbed along a snow-capped knife-blade for hour upon hour, I couldn’t help but agree.

"A winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge remains one of my all-time favourite days out in the mountains, anywhere on earth."

The sun set around 6pm, but our day continued for another five hours. Partner choice is a vital factor, particularly during those long hours of walking in darkness when your body and brain are fatigued. My friend and I pushed each other on, passing the time with positive chatter and ultimately encouraging each other to complete the final “add-ons” of Sgurr Dubh Mor and Ghars Bheinn. Eventually, we descended to our pre-pitched tent in Glenbrittle, some 21 hours after leaving the car.


A winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge remains one of my all-time favourite days out in the mountains, anywhere on earth. It might be a delicate juggle to catch all of your stars in alignment, but when it finally happens I can assure you it is a journey worth waiting for! 

Specialist equipment (WINTER)


2,645 m

Vertical Ascent


11 km

Length

ESSENTIAL GEAR

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