Isle of Skye, Scotland
Dec - Mar
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.
“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."
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.
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!
"A winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge remains one of my all-time favourite days out in the mountains, anywhere on earth."
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.
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)
A lightweight but appropriately rated single rope will provide security on the technical climbing and abseiling pitches.
DDM: Crux 9.1mm Rope
A harness connects you securely to the rope. Its gear loops act as a carriage system for screws, slings and carabiners.
Petzl: Fly Harness
Crampons give purchase and stability in ice and mixed terrain. They come in mono or twin point configurations - the former generally providing dexterity, the latter stability.
Black Diamond: Stinger Crampons
Most will opt for twin ice tools, accepting this minor weight penalty on the steeper and more technical sections.
Petzl: Nomic Ice Climbing Axe
Lightweight Alpine Rack
Keep it light. Half a set of cams, a full set of nuts, a mix of approx 10 slingdraws and alpine draws, belay device, slings and 4-5 carabiners.
A mountain fortress for outstanding harsh weather protection.
Available in Men's and Women's
Our most popular down jacket. Form meets function in a featherlight package.
Available in Men's and Women's
A multi-functional hooded mid layer featuring Thermolite® insulation.
Available in Men's and Women's
A tough, technical and lightly insulated softshell pant.
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