Tuesday 27 July 2021

The Finger of God


Photo- Carlos Perez Couto (CCL)

THERE ARE A FEW great cities in the world that live with mountains and quite a number of these lie in South America—C a r a ca s, Quito, Lima, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro. But in none does the mountains enter the city, sit astride its traffic arteries, and chop up its suburbs as in Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, the urban dweller has a choice of "umpteen" grade 5 and 6 routes a short sweaty stride from the nearest bus stop. One or two are a thousand feet high, others are two-pitch problems. The city counts at least one three thousand foot peak in its parish, and more virgin faces, smooth and unsullied by holds or cracks, than any other accessible spot on earth. Climbing in Rio has one great disadvantage: the heat. But every now and then, even in the hottest weather, a clear day will afford that distant visibility that brings the 7,000 foot Organ mountains into clear focus from the streets of the city. And there, climbing skywards, a gigantic replica of the pinnacle ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, is the multi-pinnacled ridge that culminates in Pedro do Sino, the Bell peak, at 7,400 feet. And the second of these pinnacles is enough to make the visiting, sweat-sodden, heat drugged climber straighten his curving spine.

Vertically sided, this pinnacle is a finger of rock pointing to the sky; a tropical dream that has no place in a real world. But it is real. Fifty miles of driving and a fine climbing road up the jungle clad flanks of the Organ mountains takes on to a favourite belvedere of Rio citizens, and there, right above, no less incredible at close quarters is the peak they have chosen aptly, to call the Finger of God. It was Harvey, my American friend and colleague, who had never climbed before, who introduced me to Carlos Costa Ribeiro, one of the best climbers in that part of Brazil, and who as a result arranged my visit. We fled the phantom city of 4.00 a.m. and arrived at the parking place as the granite finger turned red, and a tomato orb climbed out of a sea of white mist. "The normal way is round the other side?" I suggested to Ribeiro, from my casual reading. "Yes, but we shall do the east face." I thought of all the cheap gin I had drunk, and of Harvey, and looked at the sparse system of chimneys that held the seemingly overhanging blocks apart. But my immediate worry was the jungle, which holds for me terrors unimaginable to normal people. The vestigial trail led through dense forest, with little light. I watched for snakes. I listened for Oncas, I waited to be stung by insects. There was a slightly rotting smell, and I avoided Ribeiro's enthusiastic noises about the beauty of the forest.

We clambered up moss covered grooves, and edged an overhang by the virtue of a tree whose roots seemed to have finally died. Eventually the route is doomed. More hen-like scratching at slippery red mud and rotting vegetation brought us to clearing. Light, and a moment's dalliance on .a slab drenched in sunlight, and then back into the gloom, and a delicate traverse of some avalanched trees. "Here we leave the sacks," announced Ribeiro, adding, "And you do not need those things." I was lifting out some pegs and karabiners. He did not know I had heard about Brazilian safety techniques. At least I should remain attached to the face if the worst happened! We crossed another avalanche channel of trees and red mud, and leapt like apes from branch to branch along the foot of the steep south wall. Harvey never faltered. Using immense energy, and climbing wholly on his arms, he fearlessly followed where Ribeiro led. No ropes were used, and to one accustomed to the old fashioned handhold, the joys of couch grass, red mud, and greasy holdless chimneys, all too womb-like, offered me little joy. Their voices, chattering like monkeys, vanished into the vertical forest ahead of me. Only a deep red orchid growing wild and parasitically on a tree brought me any reward. Suddenly the forest was gone. Dense bushes had replaced them and a step further I was looking down the vertical north face. 

A little pinnacle was free of vegetation and we sat surveying our route, a steep serpentine crack occupied by the occasional tree. It looked impossible. Harvey talked of descending, and we talked him upwards. It was about grade 4, but grade 6 if the negligible belaying techniques were taken into account. Desperately I tied the party to all holds I could find—a meagre branch here, a piton driven in there; there was nothing more. Ribeiro climbed fast and well, Harvey fast and badly, his whole weight on his arms, legs flailing, calling out and getting continual uplift. I found the rock superb, almost holdless,and hand jams the only security between trees. After 200 feet we came to a cave, and on the floor of which Harvey lay heaving like a stranded fish. I joined him, prostrate from heat. In Rio that day it was almost 100°F. Ribeiro contemplated the way ahead—a steep wall leading out under an overhang which was circumvented by traversing. Where all vestige of adhesion by counter-pressure was gone, there was, Carlos assured me, a series of expansion bolts. A word here. Expansion bolts in Brazil are meant to last. They are inch in diameter, and often set in a full inch. Entire cordees will dangle from one of them without batting an eyelid. I lent Carlos two tape etriers, and he set forth. Just then Harvey decided to return. But he had waited a moment too long, and he was told how the mountain code forbade his solo descent, and now called for his heroic pursuance of the object of the day—Up! Carlos disappeared round the overhang, and the only thing that linked him to us was falling globules of sweat that he flicked from his fingers. I coaxed Harvey to the point of no return, and then withdrew so that his only moral support came from above—a support that remorselessly enjoined him to climb and seemed deaf to the words "I can't". Since I had no absolute confidence in Ribeiro's belay I tied us to a huge jammed block, and waited in the back of the cave just beyond reach of the sunlight. The rope tugged me up. It was awkward. Once clear of the overhang a crack slanted rightwards on a vertical wall. 

Malcolm Slesser
One could get a partial hand jam and one leg in. I landed tired and gave one baleful look at Ribeiro's belay—a loop of rope round a cactus whose roots could be lifted with my toe! Harvey was all in. But the worst was over. From there on we were in the mountain, not on it. Deep cracks led us upwards in perfect safety, and a final slab to stance twenty feet below the summit Harvey was agog with delight. We munched pineapples, and we revelled in the vista of peaks too innumerable to count. Many of them with fin walls. Three thousand feet below, the little town of Terespololis went about its business, and we thought of bee and sauerkraut and pork in the Restaurant Alpina at the end of the day. The final point of this peak is not possible without recourse to unmanly ladders. A huge crevasse separates it from the lunching place, dire and overhanging. But a thoughtful tourist agency had propped a ladder of metal against the upper lip of the crevasse and one by one we gingerly ascended acutely aware that the natural span allotted to untreated iron has elapsed and the moment of collapse was a hand. Appropriately, some rotted electric flex held the thing on to the upper lip. The top is flat and could hold a battalion and enough trees grow there to keep it comfortably in firewood for weeks.

A plaque recorded the first ascent by the easier west face in 1912. I quickly had reason to admire that first ascent. It is one steep hold less chimney after another and with the equipment of those days it was a very fine feat. In the first rappel Harvey lost his glasses. We heard the tinkle of their broken glass working down some great internal cleft. In the third, Harvey took one look over the edge, perceived a small ledge and then a continuing massive drop to a flourish of yellow blossomed Ipe trees a good thousand feet lower. He sensibly asked for a top rope. I went first and sat on my ledge contemplating in my foreground, a foreground of bearded lichen dripping from gnarled old trees. Behind, shiny black precipices appeared through windows in the mist. Harvey was on his way down ; myopically scanning the rock at his feet for purchase. About twenty feet from the ledge his safety rope jammed and the strain was taken from his abseil rope to that roundt his waist which promptly slipped to his chest. "Slack!" he bawled, and Ribeiro as he told me later, tried to de-kink the safety rope which was locked round a karabiner. He cried to Harvey to lift himself up on the abseil rope so that he could work on the safety rope, but poor Harvey had spent his strength. "Cut the rope" he ordered. The words shot through me like an injection. Cut the rope! My rope here in Brazil, seven thousand miles from another, and the whole panoply of Brazilian customs arraigned against me before it even got into the country; and then the parcels service, whose reputation was sufficient to deter most comers.

I was appalled. "Wait!" I cried. "We haven't tried all possibilities." I exhorted Harvey to climb. Suggested footholds, offered chimneys, even climbed up to almost his level and tried to swing him into a little ledge. But his strength was failing. He took no weight now on his hands, and was dangling full on the jammed rope. Eventually he would suffocate, and he had sensed this. "Cut the rope!" he howled. "I'll buy you another, I'll buy you as many ropes as you like. Cut the rope!" Ribeiro and I exchanged glances and the knife did its work and down I slid Harvey. He was beat. But Harvey was American, and tough. A long traverse brought us to a broad ledge, with a view over a remarkable smooth rock pinnacle towards the flatlands and Rio. Dusk etched the rock profiles, and laid the lowlands in an obliterating haze, and then with no more than thirty s minutes half-light left to us, we hurried down to our abandoned sacks, where there was one torch. One torch in the night, the black night of the jungle interior, is insufficient for three tired climbers handling greasy rock, greasy mud, twisting almost untraceable trails. I forgot snakes and scorpions, oncas and mosquitos. I merely memorised , the point a few feet in front of me where Ribeiro put his feet, and where Harvey followed. We tripped over lianas that hung from the trees like ropes. We got caught in snares of roots that looped out of the ground. We fell, and crawled, and swore, and pressed on, refusing all pleas for rest. 

I knew that to stop was to be there for .the night. Though the road was a few hundred feet below, the forest swallowed all sound and light. We didn't see the road, we tripped over it. As we walked up the road, ragged and mud spattered, to bathe in the river pool, I realised with pleasureable surprise that I was neither scratched, nor bitten, nor bruised. In fact I was very happy. Next day at work Harvey was showing on his bruises and scratches. He looked the luckier survivor of a bad automobile accident. An hour later as the smoke from his cigar wafted over our partition he said--"I'll buy you a rope. Abercromby and Fitch have the best mail order service in the world. You specify it, and I'll get it here in a few days." "Not at all, Ernie, it's just one of those things." An hour passed unspoken. "Malcolm, you got whisky?" I had not. It cost £10 a bottle in Rio. "I get it cheap," he said, -"Would a case be any good?" Every man, I reflected with a guilty sigh, has his price. As a Scotsman I had mine. From then on our climbing partnership was secure, and the hospitality of my household assured. 

 Highline Traverse to The finger of God: Ryan Robinson 2018.


Malcolm Slesser:  First published in 'The Climber'-February 1968


Friday 16 July 2021

Bearing Up : A cool line in the Cuillins


Author Paul Taylor has a point.

An odyssey (noun) - A long and eventful or adventurous journey or experience.

The fairy world is inhabited by many different types of fairies. Like the humans themselves they live in all kinds of houses. Time does not matter in the land of the fairies.

The Motif of the Mermaid in English, Irish, and Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales

Stephanie Kickingereder

What is a true wilderness experience? A long, exciting, mythical journey or a spiritual odyssey? What is the aim and what bearing does it have on the traveller? Is there any target or goal? After many years of chasing blue lines on the bottom of swimming pools, I changed my ways, preferring to scale rock or ascend mountains or both. Finding thrills following good lines. As a keen photographer, I’ve learnt the importance of lines-of-sight, discovering that landscape images frequently show a body of water in the foreground or background. It took many years of my time-line to piece things together, but the key that unlocked recent route plans was with the purchase of an open water wetsuit, then it all began to fit. I’d found merman skin. My wilder adventures have usually been by climbing, but surely water and rock don’t mix?... and rain stops play. My latest projects all have a common linear theme, across water and up rock, striving to create classic, memorable lines. Off we’ll go…. Bearing Up!

Planning from home in Halifax, I found myself looking at maps, zooming into significant water features, thumbing through guidebooks and searching for lines in the land. I had some knowledge of landscape art and was particularly drawn to the land art and photography of “A line made by walking” by Richard Long in 1967. This work was drawing me closer to focus in on an objective, to find a new simple way to plan some “good days out” and “get out there…” to “boldly” go… and go and keep on going… straight ahead, on one bearing.

Not long after, I read some of Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places” and a passage that clearly described his swim in the sanctuary of Loch Coruisk. I too have an attraction for the Cuillins, perhaps it’s the magnetic rock, but I couldn’t fail to glance an eagle eye over one line, stretching along the map and forming “The Skye-Line.” It wasn’t just that many of Skye’s main tourist attractions lay on this line, bisecting the Cuillin mountains, through Loch Coruisk, to the Fairy Pools, there was more; an in-land island, sea and summits, a ridge, the most awesome wall of rock in the UK and all in a wild and remote environment. I didn’t have a ruler long enough to link all the points…! I reached for the longest, straightest edge I could find, and joined the dots…


“Bearing Up!” Mascots, two teddy-bears, from A to Z, Azimuth and Zenith, ideas raced and there was no way back. I plotted route after route on my phone’s Viewranger mapping app, quick and simple, just a start, a lake, a good climb and a finish point.” When is a line not straight…? Answer: Everywhere. Light has been described as travelling in straight lines. But according to Einstein’s general relativity… As a matter of fact, ‘straight’ is a very relative term… to keep it simple and straight-forward... There is NO straight… since gravity alters the very fabric of space-time, bringing in curvature, it is safe to assert that nothing is actually ‘straight’. So by extension, light doesn’t really travel in a straight line. It just follows the curvature of the space-time fabric, whatever that may be. A pretty cool example would be when this was actually observed for the very first time- when it was proved that General Relativity actually holds good.

Faraz Ahmad www.quora.com/Why-does-light-travel-in-a-straight-line

The first observation of light deflection was performed by noting the change in position of stars as they passed near the Sun … by Arthur Eddington … during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919


The absurdity of straight lines soon dawns on me. My new routes cannot be completely rigid, I’m not mad! Of course it may all be rather eccentric, I would clearly need to occasionally bear left or bear right or I’d travel straight into dire straits… I needed flexibility in my approach. These straightforward ventures, linear from a bird’s eye view, would have their ups and downs… U-turn if you want to… but of course there was no going back. Cancel the alpine holiday, we hope for fair weather, out with the midge hoods, we commit to a summer of Bearing Up! … over the sea… to Skye.

Heeding some very sound advice from the Mountain Rescue Team, Rachel and I make a brief reconnaissance dash over to Coir an Uaigneis. We set off despite grey and gloomy weather, with the ridge looking distinctly imposing. I identify a rake that leads up to Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh and my angle up onto the Cuillin ridge. This would then meet the adjoining spur adjoining Sgùrr Thuilm. “Keeping on the straight and narrow” tested by jagged gabbro rock, I hope that there’s a thread that stretches higher into the mists. Peering into the cloud gives me no further clear clues but the gloom lifts enough below, to enable us to take a back-bearing photo down to Loch Coruisk and Sgùrr na Stri, the “Peak of Strife.” I point “Bolt-like” along my elected future bearing. The obstacle course stretches out, baring its teeth.

Why Go On a Walk, When You Can Go On a Bear Hunt?

We're going on a bear hunt.

We’re going to catch a big one.

What a beautiful day!

We’re not scared

Michael Rosen

We pitch up, with a fine dawn forecast, and I set off alone at seven in the morning, straight from the tent at the road junction (Grid Reference NG 5432 1561) on a bearing of 309°. The hill immediately climbs steeply and I am led by a small herd of deer high on the horizon. The weather is clearly set for a good day. Ben Mèabost rises up on my left, the deer flee off right. The Cuillin are obscured behind the horizon. Boggy topped, flowering with various marshland species, Ben Mèabost is the most southerly Marilyn on the Elgol peninsula. Its flat plateau reaches only 345 metres and is separated by Glen Scaladal from nearby Beinn Leacach. So time to “tick” this, then tramp over a Tump, splash across a sea bay, scramble over another Marilyn, make a long loch swim, with an island hop, “bag” a Munro (also classed as a Murdo) and finally scramble along a rocky ridge. What a wilderness feast! Sgùrr na Stri peeks its head up. 

An eclipse of its summit occurs as I continue down into the small glen. Climbing up the other side, a new panorama is revealed, the mild but still wild nature exchanged for the more remote and rugged views of the Cuillin. Then, down to the bay, where I’ll swim over the sea, in the realm of the selkie or seal folk where perhaps I’ll encounter… … water spirits … merfolk and … kelpie. The Scottish kelpie either appears as a horse or as an old shabby man. He can be found in all types of waters. He is a mischievous creature who likes to drown lonely humans. As an old man the kelpie walks behind lonely [travellers] tearing them apart and eating them up… A spirit called shellycoat who lives at the Scottish sea coast also … is depicted as wearing a coat full of shells which make a strange sound whenever he appears. He likes to play jokes by giving wrong directions to humans who are on a journey.

The Motif of the Mermaid in English, Irish, and Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales

Stephanie Kickingereder 2.1.3. Water Spirits and other Fairy Types

Shellycoats are considered to be relatively harmless; they may mislead wanderers, particularly those they think are trespassing upon the creature's territory, but without malice. A common tactic of a shellycoat would be to cry out as if drowning and then laugh at the distracted victim.


Camasunary (Camas Fhionnairigh) is a beautifully isolated bay lying at the foot of Blaven (Bla Bheinn). There are only two notable signs of habitation, a bothy and another larger property, privately owned, it’s a lovely spot perhaps to stay a while. I hear faint cries of children playing near the house as I prepare for the first aquatic adventure of the day. Three oyster catchers flit about the water’s edge on a gabbro boulder. I pack my kitbags. These buoyant, waterproof vessels are in fact an unusual eclectic mismatched collection of water containers, an orange tow-float and some bargain-choice black bin liners! I giggle at the possibility that a refuse bag manufacturer might sponsor such adventures.

 “From our classic Cuillin range of rubbish bag products, our best-selling black waste sacks are perfect for everyday use and swim-trek expeditions. Made from 160 gauge polythene, they strike the perfect balance between bag strength and price - thick enough so they don’t rip easily, but not too hard on the wallet either. Tested at sea and on Scottish lochs to always keep afloat. A popular choice, these are our recommended bags for Bearing Up! as well as chucking out…!!”

 I stick both boots in… don my merman-suit, and orange swim hat… cochall draoidheachd = magic hood

Merfolk wear a special hat which enable them to dive beneath the waves. If they lose this cap, it is said that they will lose their power to return beneath the water.


The water is cool, clear and calm. Changing from front-crawl to back-crawl, looking around, taking in the view, this is no place to race and no fun without lapping up the atmosphere. The waves crossing the bay buffet, disorientate and put me off balance. Overhead a small group of gulls, dive down to inspect their invader. The water is clear and shallow and I rarely lose sight of the bottom. My forward sightings are fixed on the lofty summit ahead but breathing to the right I regularly glance over to the little white houses onshore in the valley. A flash of a jellyfish below pulls me up but is rapidly replaced by sweeps of seaweeds and the shallows soon reappear as I approach the craggy shore. My swimming distance so far, about a kilometre. Unpacking boots, I happily find them dry. I wrap up the damp wetsuit in my tow float’s pocket. All remaining kit is bone dry and feels warm. I soak in sun and the satisfaction of having swum Camasunary bay. Sunshine, boots and socks warm my slightly chilled feet.

Next… a classic scramble, one that I was very much looking forward to. The direct route up the south east ridge of Sgùrr na Stri is a grade 1 route, gets two stars and is described as “only for experienced scramblers.” Many reckon the summit to be Britain's finest viewpoint. By taking the ridge route I would avoid the infamous Bad Step and take in the glorious view. Strictly speaking the summit would be slightly “off bearing” but sometimes making a minor diversion returns major rewards. I am not disappointed. The Cuillin lie stretched out ahead, bisected by Loch Coruisk. The image surpasses that which I had imagined it to be. A brief stop at the top and then I’m off again bearing down on Loch Coruisk to the "Cauldron of Waters". The descent is more awkward. The rake to the west of the summit leads down through precipitous gabbro slopes which in turn aim directly for an erratic boulder perched upon a slab and perfectly in line with a long thin island in the middle of the loch. This would surely be a lonely isolated, disorientating place in the mist. However, I have warm sunshine on my back, a clear view ahead and, as my photo shows, my own shadow as guide to point the way down. A perfect navigator. Boat passengers are clearly enjoying their day ashore having been ferried there by the Bella Jane.

 At the water’s edge I test its temperature. Not exactly balmy. There is not a soul in the lake despite a small number of walkers about its edge. I feel conscious of an audience as I line out a procession of burdensome baggage strung out on bungee cord and tapes. My orange swimming cap does nothing to help me blend in… I decide to set sail. With a simple glide, I’m off, heading to my island in the sun…The loch has been atmospherically painted by Turner, George Fennel Robson and Sidney Richard Percy. Lord Tennyson reported his own visit somewhat wretchedly:


“Loch Coruisk, said to be the wildest scene in the Highlands, I failed in seeing. After a fatiguing expedition over the roughest ground on a wet day we arrived at the banks of the loch, and made acquaintance with the extremest tiptoes of the hills, all else being thick wool-white fog.”

Sir Walter Scott also visited the loch in 1814 and described it more intensely:

 “Rarely human eye has known

A scene so stern as that dread lake,

With its dark ledge of barren stone...”

 Perhaps you’d best visit Coruisk, like me, on a good clear day. Rumours abound that the loch is the home of a water horse or Kelpie, the shape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland usually described as appearing as a horse but able to adopt human form. All that I can see is rocks, water and weed but my imagination gallops off wildly none the less. Any Kelpie would hopefully let me pass! I leave the outflowing Scavaig River which flows down to meet the sea at Loch na Cuilce, an inlet of Loch Scavaig. Only a few hundred metres long, it may be the shortest river in the British Isles. Submerged on my chilly course, but with the sun shining down on my back, I swim towards a mysterious island. Curious tourists ponder my progress. Whether they think my journey is mad or admirable is difficult to tell.

The water is once again clear and sparkling, perhaps swimming is spoiled by the need to wear goggles. Occasionally I stop to take them off and take in the view above water. A slope to the north east of me shows evidence of rock-fall down to the loch, most slopes are barren slabs. There are no trees. My bearing is parallel to the long ridge Druim nan Ramh, the name meaning "Ridge of the Oars." Each stream that tumbles down its slopes perhaps signifies a blade for the enormous “hull”. I paddle alongside, like a sailor, lost overboard from this giant long-boat but heading for a rocky “life-raft” ahead. One of a few isolated islands, this feature is also ship-shaped, anchored midway in the loch. Its sharp gabbro rocks prompt me to wear my purple “crocs” to protect my feet when standing up.

You tern if you want to! Gulls being the only residents are surprised by my arrival aboard. Feathers and the occasional pile of bones hint that birds are the only residents. The green woodrushes carpet and conceal the rocky isle under my “crocodile” shoes. I hear my name called out from onshore. So, Rachel has seen me at last! I wave back to her then, on the “bows” of the island slip back into the loch and take another photo. My strange selfie featuring feet could be titled “Crocs but no Gaiters.” Less than one mile of swimming to go, I tug steadily on my trailing baggage and pull away from the island… The steep continuously steady slopes of the Dubh ridge are on the left, “a contender for the best easy climb in Britain”. It’s a very long route in a remote setting. A few tiny tourists traverse its huge foot. The rough weathered rock climbs continuously up from sea-level to the summits at 3000 feet!

Sighting my target ahead, the line stretches out straight through the middle of the narrowing loch. Intermittently I lift my head forwards above the waterline. The V notch high on the ridge marks out the Skye-line. Despite such a clear target, I make a few zig-zag diversions off line, frustratingly buffeted by the steadily building waves. Nearing the shore a cheer goes out to my right. A couple call-out, something on the lines of, “Keep going!” Thank you whoever you may be! (I hope that they are not mysterious shellycoat tricksters.)

Giant boulders mark the entrance of the Coruisk River flowing into the loch. Rachel is waiting on an adjacent beach ahead, acting as a witness and marshall at this glorious transition checkpoint. The bottom comes up to greet me and I struggle to stand on the uneven ground. The changeover from water to land is tricky. The surface of the water refracts and reflects complex patterns of light, and bends or warps the images of any solid, firm or stable ground and confuses and befuddles my sense of balance. I concentrate on sensing a new centre of gravity as I escape the water’s upthrust and move back from being horizontal to the vertical world. I only just manage to adapt to the weighty heaviness of gravity and seem to impersonate an ungainly monster wallowing out of the lagoon. Perhaps I could be mistaken for an alien creature from the deep, an ancient merman or even a new-born shape-shifted Kelpie!

I wade through the clearer than crystal blue waters of the Coruisk River. I can’t hold back my enthusiasm, retelling the day’s events so far to Rachel who follows me along the river bank. We cross over and step up onto a warm dry slab where I lay out my dry kit, change into warmer clothes and produce my lunch from my chain of drybags. I have everything I need for a full day in the Cuillin and have either towed or carried it all this way including a dry 30 metre line of 8 millimetre rope. I really enjoy the feeling of transition from water to land, knowing that all is going to plan and I’ve left nothing behind. Rachel takes a few photos and we chat within the rock architecture about the splendid surroundings that had been sculpted here, drawn out along an almost perfect line by what must have been an unswervingly deep glacier. Erratic boulders litter the valley floor along with smooth whaleback glaciated slabs, scoured with striations. Everyone becomes a geologist in Coruisk, it’s impossible not to see the naked evidence around.

Lunch refuels my wobbling limbs. Trading in tired shoulders for less weary leg power is a welcome exchange. I check the arrangements for meeting Rachel on the Glen Brittle side of the Cuillin and set off on the next leg of my 309° journey, across the flat, marshy, boggy wetland stretching on for a thousand metres towards the Coir' Uisg Buttress guarding its head.  The buttress has been described by climber, Dave Birkett as 'the most awesome wall of rock in the UK.' Ascending its steep wall, Moonrise Kingdom is a new 130 metre high climbing route, scaled in three pitches and graded E9 (6b/c). Established by James McHaffie and Dan Varian the previous May, it is claimed as a contender for the most serious multi-pitch climb in the country. It’s not my line, nor ever shall be. Too hard for me…! but if anyone’s considering chasing the title of a true Bearing Up! champion, this would be my certain line for any purists’ adventures…

Looking back is as enthralling as looking forward. I take a glance along my back bearing towards Loch Coruisk, its central island and my rocky descent route from Sgùrr na Stri. It’s clear why the peak might give someone strife… Turning around to focus on the wall of Coir' Uisg Buttress on my forward bearing, I’m struck by how impossibly steep and sheer it all looks. There is nothing by way of vegetation other than some dusty algal deposits below overhanging faces. Adrenalin surges around my system and heightens my senses, I feel my lonely isolation as an insignificant, tiny visitor, and pushes my imagination further. Coire an Uaigneis, aka the Ugly Cauldron in my mind brews images of witches mixing potions high in the shattered rocky cirque above. “Cirque des Sorcières?” I spook myself thinking in French. Glen Brittle’s pools may have friendly fairies on the sunny far side of the Cuillin, but this side of the mountain is more like Mordor. Tolkein, Dante, Hieronymus Bosch all had visions of such vast, jagged landscapes. This is a pivotal point on my linear odyssey, where a poor route choice could lead to misfortune and misadventure…

Indeed the ascent is no easy feat. The route is along the edge of a steep sided ravine, described in the guide book as a “defile.” Water thunders down the falls on the right. I find my way up a challenging scramble passing old abseil slings discarded perhaps by long departed mountaineers maybe descending and in retreat. What a truly awesome adventure!

The slopes and walls reveal no obvious route but a tiny zig-zag takes me up to rather loose and slippery slabs below steep overhanging walls. My mind conjures up cautionary warnings, stressing the need to keep calm and carry on up. I pause, take a deep breath, test the holds, weight my footing and then gradually make the necessary moves. Will the way lead ever upwards or will I be forced back? I feel uncertain. But, eventually the angle subsides and the potential fall factor reduces to give way to an atmospheric amphitheatre split by a stream. Only a few days before, I had stood a little higher, on the spur perched on top of the wall to my right, scouting out the possibilities of getting through this section. I am increasingly confident that now the “only way is up” and once I have crossed the stream a pleasant scramble will place me at the bottom of the rake.

The ridge map shows two parallel crag markings. I aim to take a way between them, climbing a “stairway to heaven” rather than slipping down through any “gates of hell.” The scrambling becomes more entertaining, less precarious and I gain height confidently. It is hot work and I’m looking forward to a breeze over the bealach, to a pause, a drink, some food and breathing in the satisfaction of reaching my favourite ridge. I climb through a constricted section, breaking through to talus, boulders and some firm scree. I now know that the ridge will soon be within my grasp. With relief, I reach the notch on the crest below the summit of Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh, the fox’s (or wolf’s) peak, but no sign of any furry friends. I am completely alone. I had somehow imagined a welcoming party of ridge traversing mountaineers, climbers or even nimble fell runners at this point, but no one makes an appearance. Even on such a beautiful day, on such a classic ridge, you can be entirely on your own.

Having completed the full Cuillin ridge traverse a few years ago, the craggy way now looks more familiar. I teeter along the ridge, clamber down to step onto a large slab and saunter across to gain my line to the summit of Sgùrr a’ Mhadaidh. At 918 metres altitude, the view stretches out to Glen Brittle and down to mean sea level. The Munro bagged, ticked and recorded. My Skye-line Bearing Up! done.

Perhaps the upward journey is over and a further bearing of 309° from here is just stubbornly bearing down but the ridge to Sgurr Thuilm is coincidently on the same line! I start to descend the steep face towards this outrigging ridge spur. This will clearly be no picnic, so I stop and have something to eat… The guidebook informs me that the Thuilm Ridge is graded as an Easy rock climb, “…contains sections which are both exposed and hard. …is a fine scramble for those with the nerve and ability...” It is indeed steeply precipitous and route finding proves trickier than might appear from a map. I descend a route that others usually ascend and it’s more than a little challenging.

Two deep gashes split the ridge and neither gives me a way down. Instead, I follow the main central buttress and eventually find the col. Here, a stunningly beautiful aerial pathway between the rocky Coire An Dorus and Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh separates the “wolf” from the “door”. The way up to the summit is both straight up and straight forward. Sgurr Thuilm might seem to read as an oxymoron, “the jagged rocky peak of the rounded hillock”, or maybe it’s the “rocky peak of Tulm” but google translates it as the “peak of the flood”. From its top I see crowds of parked tourists’ vehicles, stretching out and sprawling, serpent-like along the single track road to Glen Brittle, “flooding the way” with cars and campervans in their pursuit of “wild swimming” at the Fairy Pools, creating the paradox of a “wilderness car park.”

He went thataway!

But one last challenge concerns me. The descent from this pyramid shaped peak into Glen Brittle is cut by gullies and scarred by scree slopes. The deepest of these is best avoided by side-stepping just over to the west. I ride down on the shards of rocks, pleased that I chose to wear mountaineering boots rather than lightweight shoes. Isolated foxgloves eventually appear, poking through the rocky, rugged hillside, and lower down the marsh cotton populates the boggy slopes. My transect following the “Skye-Line” is nearly complete. A distant lone bird soars skyward over the high horizon. The eagle’s aerial bearing bisects my own terrestrial-path, a fitting conclusion to a fabulous day.

So, did travelling straight from A to Z provide me with a truly wilderness experience? Was my new, long and exciting mythical journey, my spiritual odyssey coming to its end? What has been my aim and what bearing did this line leave on this lonely traveller? Was there any target or goal?... All becomes clearer during my concluding steps…

The route fords the River Brittle and leads me up to the car park. I am once again in the company of many fellow tourists. The combined results of such large visitor numbers at my chosen terminus have clearly left an unpleasant trace at the finish. A surreal landmark has been placed in the landscape, there’s no crock of gold at the end of this line, no “coire òir,” instead two large wheelie bins overflow with their daily input. Do the fairies mind? Does the Kelpie know of this rival monster? May the curse of the boggarts be upon the perpetrators! Will any fairy folk stand together united against this foe? As I turn to wave farewell to my linear pathway through the land of the selkies, can I perhaps hear a shellycoat cry out and then laugh, “Is the Isle of Skye refuse service bearing up?” Should I unpack my 160 gauge polythene black waste sack? Such a devious and ironic final twist to my tale. Despite it having been a very straight-forward day…

there are no straight-forward answers…

…at the end…

…of this…

…line... !


I’ve been going 11 hours on a bearing… but it’s been a beautiful day!

"The Skye-Line" Route Summary 10/8/2017

A swim across Camasunary Bay and a cross-sectional-bisector of Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin mountains to finish near the Fairy Pools, Glen Brittle on the Isle of Skye.

Bearing 309°

Start location NG 543 156 ? Finish location NG 422 255

Walk length 15.6 km ? Sea Swim length 1 km ? Loch Swim length 2.4 km ? Scramble grade 3***

Total Ascent: 1820 metres

Leave Big Trace!

Postscript 2018: Jack McGregor reports in The Herald 31st August 2018 on one “answer” to the overcrowding conundrum and the riddle of the Fairy Pools tourist trap, “a new 130-space car park and toilets [have been] built after receiving over £650,00 of public funding including £300,000 from the Scottish Government”

Only time will tell how the fairies will fare at these pools in the future… but then perhaps “ Time does not matter in the land of the fairies.” I am also pleased to report that on October 13th 2018, the Real3Peaks Challenge gathered 10 black bin bags of rubbish at the Fairy Pools led by Adrian and Bridgette with a team of volunteers from All Things Cuillin. May the fairy force be with you…

What is Bearing Up!?

The Bearing Up! project is a set of wild challenges that hopefully might "bear fruit" for the benefit of Mountain Rescue teams following difficult lines on one bearing within mountainous landscapes along adventurous lines, swimming challenging open waters, scrambling and climbing up steeper ground to support others in straits and also raise awareness of the rising number of floods that have reached new levels in our valleys. All lines are followed with a "leave no trace" philosophy and a target to "do each route in one continuous push within a day".

For more information visit: www.facebook.com/bearingup

Other successful tales of epic odysseys include;

"In Llyn and Incline"- Llyn Llydaw to Lliwedd.

Braving the water of Wales avoiding encounters with the Afanc.

The "Wast-Line" - Wastwater, Napes Needle and Needle Ridge.

Swimming over deep subaquatic gnome gardens that lurk far below and on to reach Gable’s famous pinnacle.

For donations to Mountain Rescue England and Wales visit


For donations to my local Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team visit 


For Skye Mountain Rescue donations visit 


Bearing Up!

Paul Taylor 2021 

Images provided by the author.