Friday, 5 September 2014

The Skye Ridge

The Yorkshire Ramblers in the early 195os had one or two very interesting Whitsuntide meets at Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye. The participants met at Mallaig, to be taken by boat to Loch Scavaig, and fetched back a week later. I joined George Spenceley for two of these trips. Our ambition was to make the celebrated traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, and in the early part of the week we made our plans and deposited bottles of water at two places on the route in preparation for the big day. On the eve of our attempt we turned in early in my small army pup tent intending to set off at one in the morning. On such occasions I need no alarm clock; I keep waking up every half hour or so.

When we looked out at one o’clock it was obvious the weather was changing. The wind was rising,the sky starless and overcast, and there was already a hint of rain in the air. We cancelled the trip and when in the next hour our predictions were confirmed and the tent began to be shaken by wind and rain we sank deeper into our sleeping bags and soon fast asleep. It was a rough night, and we were aware once or twice of movement about the camp, but we were snug enough and slept on.

We turned out next morning, however, to a rather hostile reception. Our companions, assuming we were battling it out on the hill, had conscientiously checked our tent during the night, replacing pegs where necessary, making sure it did not blow down. We had better luck the following year, and once again, the plan was to leave Coruisk at one in the morning. This time we were a party of three, as we had been joined by Crosby Fox, a sea captain by profession and a keen mountaineer.

Our first objective was the summit of Gars-Bheinn, and we reached it at 3am after a scramble straight up its flank. In the dark on the way up, something hissed loudly at us and we persuaded ourselves that it was a wild cat. By the time we got to the top, daylight had already arrived, and all around us, so it seemed, lay the sea, dotted with islands and headlands,an inspiring sight. There is nothing quite like being up the mountain at the dawning of the day. One feels not only favoured but virtuous, as though the pleasure one experiences is deserved, and not simply a gift from heaven. We had some breakfast and moved on quietly enough, conserving our energy, for we had much to do. We had brought a rope and a sling or two and plenty of food and drink. I had even brought a sleeping bag, not against the possibility of bivouacking on the ridge, but in preparation for our night out at the end.

We made good progress over Scurr a’ Choire, Sgurr nan Eag, Caisteal a’ Gharbh-Choire, Sgurr Dubh Beag, and  Dubhs, to the Thearlaich-Dubh gap, where we met our first bit of difficult rock, and roped up for it. We were pleased, we were doing well, and we were soon on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest summit in Skye. It lays off the main ridge, but we were soon back from it and over Sgurr Mhic Choinich and An Stac to our next obstacle, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, or ‘In Pin’ as we always called it. The long exposed scramble  along the top edge of this remarkable blade of rock brought us to an abrupt drop. A number of old furry slings marked the abseil point. Not one of them looked worth risking one’s life on, but taken together were reasonably safe. To avoid having to add to the collection, we arranged one our own slings in such a way that when we passed through them all, ours was too long to bear any weight, but was there ready in case the others gave way. The heavier members of our party then went down, and since the old slings bore their weight, I, the lightest, was able to take our own sling off and trust to the old ones.

To be out on this splendid ridge, the rockiest of any in Britain, was rewarding on several counts. The panorama was magnificent with great hills standing out of the sea and going on, range after range, it seemed, into the far distance. The rock, gabbro, was as rough as sandpaper so that we stuck to it easily, and so steep as to convince us that these were on mountains, not hills. The day was hot and sunny; one might have been among the isles of Greece. It was good to be alive. Our way now led over Sgurr Dearg and the various tops of Sgurr na Banachdich, the smallpox peak, to Sgurr Thormaid and Sgurr a’ Ghradaidh, the peak of the mighty winds. It was midday now and we were still going well. George, a great believer in food as a means of combating fatigue, kept making sure were well stoked up. One item of food we’d brought was 11 raw eggs beaten up with sugar and carried in a glass jar. When it came to the pinch neither of my companions could face this delicious concoction, so I had it all to myself and I must say it slipped down easily and proved a highly efficient fuel.

It was about this time that we began coming across men stationed here and there along the ridge, not appearing to be going anywhere. We passed the day and went over Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh. Somewhere along the ridge, perhaps in the bealach by Harta Corrie, we stopped to chat with two such loiterers, and found that they were members of the Alpine Club on a meet at Sligachan Hotel, and that in recognition of his conquest of Everest, they were giving John Hunt a celebratory treat by enabling him and his wife to do an unencumbered traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. The pair were wearing espadrilles, and carrying no ropes, food, drink or spare clothing, as these were to be provided en route. This piece of gossip had an interesting effect upon our little group. By our steady and purposeful progress along the ridge we had made satisfactory time, had had no serious hold-ups, and were clearly going to make it to Sgurr nan Gillean quite comfortably.

We could now afford to slow up a little, take some of the pressure off, take full note of the incomparable rock scenery. But Crosby Fox became obsessively anxious not to be overtaken by the Hunts, and the fact that occasionally they could be discerned in the distance behind us gave a particular urgency to his fears. We were urged to step up the pace, and when we got to The Basteir Tooth and roped up for the rather intimidating pitch up from the little col, the presence of another Alpine Club man waiting there with a rope at the ready was like a goad to drive us on. I for my part, notwithstanding the 11 eggs, was getting tired having been on the go since 1.00 am in the morning, and I had little sympathy for the idea of this finishing spurt. But we made it and avoided the ignominy of being overtaken. On the way down across the moor to Sligachan in the heat of the afternoon we stopped at an inviting looking dub, stripped off and plunged into the peaty water.

We ordered dinner at the hotel. The idea was to sleep in the heather and set off at five in the morning so as to be up Glen Sligachan before the sun began to beat upon it, for the heat wave weather seemed certain to continue. My friends had been offered sleeping bags by two of the Alpine Club men we had spoken to on the ridge, and they thought it only civilised to take a shower before using them. For my part I went straight out into the heather, full of good food, got into my bag, and was blissfully asleep in minutes. George and Crosby fared less well. Livened up somewhat by the shower, they were pestered by midges and kept awake for hours. Consequently when I awoke at five, eager to get going, they were very difficult to rouse and very grumpy. It was for their own good, I pointed out, and in the end they had to admit it, for we got to Loch Athain in the cool of the morning and were up on Clach Glas by the time the full heat of the day struck us.

We were all fairly drowsy on this walk, but the interest of the rock scrambling kept us from nodding off, and we still felt. quite strong. As we went down the ridge of Blaven towards Camasunary an eagle lifted off a ledge just a few feet immediately below us, and sailed off leaving us in no doubt of its size and power. We continued on down, with the fine panorama of the sea before us and the jagged seven mile ridge of the Cuillin to our right. We still had the walk round to Loch Scavaig to do, but the hard work was over, and we felt well pleased with our two days of mountain travel.

When, a day or two later, the boat came and took us all back to Mallaig, I walked down the quay to see if I could get a herring or two for our supper. Some fishermen were unloading their catch into barrels. They were quite willing to let me take a few, but laughed when I tried to get hold of the slippery fish. “Put your hand like this,” one of them said, holding his own hand, palm up, with the fingers  out and bent up like claws, I did so and he hung a herring by its gills on each finger.

George and I, travelling in my open top Austin Tourer  pulled off the road at the white sands of Morar, and in the golden afternoon sunshine. We fried the herrings in butter over a driftwood fire, the air full of screaming  gulls clamouring for the guts and leftovers. What I remember about that delicious meal is how rich I felt....... and how favoured.

Tom Price : CCJ 1999