Very Sgurry nan Gillean

15 05 2013

Tue 7 May 2013

Due to the weather being pretty dire in Scotland for the first half of the year, with snow most days and very high winds, the week I’d booked with a guide to do more of the Cuillin Munros on Skye was my first Munroing of the year. In fact, due to my broken bones last year, it was exactly a year since my last Munro so starting with Sgurr nan Gillean was pretty ambitious really! I’d only managed to do hillwalking in either the Lakes or the Dales – both very easy walking and, as I said in my last post, my preparatory outdoor climb had fallen through at the last minute so, consequently, I was feeling very unprepared indeed…

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(All photos by Richard Wood)
We met up with our guide, Ken, at the Sligachan and, after sorting out the required kit for the day, set off for the hill which at this point was half in mist. We strode off on the path at a good pace and, shortly after crossing a footbridge, departed from it for a shortcut across the moor. Now, while this might have been shorter, due to it being pathless, both Richard and I struggled as it rose up the soggy moorland and we started to lag behind. Coming back along the pleasant path later showed that, for walkers such as us who are used to paths everywhere, that is the quickest route really…

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Marsco from walk in

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Our Peak on Left (taken on way back when clear)

By the time we rejoined the path heading up into the base of Coire Riabhach and near the foot of Pinnacle Ridge, I was feeling that I was very unfit. I’d had virtually no sleep the night before with worrying about the walk and also hadn’t been eating for the last few days due to being depressed with the weather and the thought of possibly having to do fierce Cuillin peaks in high winds, mist or across snow – all conditions which make me nervous on tougher peaks.

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We headed up the wall of the lower corrie and round into a higher corrie which brought the spectacular pinnacles into view – I was glad we were not going that way!

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Pinnacle Ridge and our peak on left (taken later when clear)

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The higher corrie was quite scenic and had quite a few patches of snow but they looked pretty avoidable – all except one rake up ahead near the ridgeline – it didn’t look worrying though… The wind by now was gusting and pretty obnoxious – I hoped it was better up on the ridge – knowing it often funnels around corries I thought there was a chance it would be.

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We soon reached the snowy rake and I enjoyed the rest and the slower pace while Ken kicked steps for us up the snow. After the last few days of rain and warmer temperatures, it was pretty soft but quite deep so we would occasionally plunge through to our knees. Mainly though it was plain sailing…

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(Sorry, no idea why I’m groping my own bum on this one!)

Just below the ridgeline we stopped to put on harnesses and helmets and have a quick break for sustenance. Although we only stopped for about 10 minutes, I was shivering hard by the time we set off. We stepped up through a little gap in the ridge and I had a good look up it as far as the mist would let me see. I had to say that it didn’t look too bad but realised we couldn’t see the highest parts of the ridge and that some nasties could be hiding up ahead.

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We set off up the ridge on easy bits of scrambling and some scree paths – it all seemed fairly reassuring to start with, not particularly narrow and didn’t look to have nasty drops at either side – there was a lot of snow down the slopes on the northern side though.

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We were already roped up when we met… the bad bit! We’d been below the ridgeline to the left (south) and I’d noticed the wall on my right had been growing in height and was pretty vertical. Suddenly we came to a huge corner of rock blocking the way with a couple of narrow grooves up it either side of a block. It looked (to me) smooth and holdless and was running with water and slime. Ken started to tackle it but, after he’d had a few differing attempts at getting up it, Richard and I could both see we were never going to be able to do it so we shouted to tell him. I asked if it wouldn’t be better up on the ridgeline and he said we could go and have a look…

There was a convenient easy ledge heading back up onto the top of the ridgeline – we proceeded up it. At the top there were just a line of steep, sloping and smooth-looking slabs heading above us. They were only about 3 or 4 feet wide to start with and, with them sloping both upwards and to the side, I was pretty daunted. Just before the clamber up onto them, Ken told us to wait (in a nice secure niche) while he went up to fix a belay. He also put in a runner part-way up the slabs to give us better security while we shimmied up them.

Shortly, the shout came for us to continue up – as I was ‘middle-man’, it was my turn to tackle the slabs. I’ve read before about an exposed slab on this ridge and think this must have been the one – it was pretty horrid! There were a few small cracks in the slab which I managed to force my fingertips into to start to haul myself up onto the end but it was quite a large step up and I could only get my knees onto it. By the time I got both knees on, I could reach the higher right-hand edge of the slabs so just grabbed that with both hands and literally hauled myself along on my knees by pulling hard on my arms.

This worked fine for a few moments until suddenly I stuck fast! I pulled and pulled but wasn’t moving – what on earth was going on? I looked down and saw my knots had stuck at the entry to the runner (as they would) but, never having been in this situation before, I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was horrified that I was going to have to not only let go with at least one hand but also untie! I went into full panic mode and shouted at both Richard and Ken that I was stuck fast. Luckily, in my panic, I must have given enough information to Ken for him to calmly tell us to unclip my rope from the carabiner on the runner. I wasn’t about to let go for anything so luckily Richard did it for me – phew!

As Richard passed the runner I told him he had to bring it with him but, no matter how hard he hauled, he couldn’t get it out – I was amazed he could spare two hands to try! We eventually left it and joined Ken where I apologised but said we couldn’t remove his runner. He installed us in a safe place and went down to get it – it was pretty jammed but he got it out eventually.

I don’t remember much more detail about the ridge after the horror of the narrow slabs but we were belayed probably a couple more times. Each time we were grateful for wonderful safe-feeling niches to be installed in while Ken went ahead to fix a belay. I remember the narrow slab being followed by a much wider slab which felt pretty safe which I walked fairly happily up (and later back down).

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Soon, I noticed the ridge flattened out – it was pretty narrow by now though – probably a couple of feet at the most. There was also a small gap ahead which could easily be stepped across onto a slightly wider (probably about 3 feet) piece of flat ridge. Of course, by now, there was quite a bit of air either side of me and I was extremely fearful before I made my jump across that a gust of wind would suddenly catch me. I plucked up courage and made the leap across. From there I could see a cairn not far away and asked if that was the summit – it was. There was another very narrow section, probably only a foot wide and uneven, which I had to sit astride to get across and then a few easy yards to the cairn.

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Summit Ridge

Now, I’d been led to believe, from all the books I’d read on Gillean that the summit area was an uncomfortably small place. I’d been imagining it must only be about 3 feet square but it was nothing like that. It was comfortably-sized and even had some grass on it – I was amazed to see that in such a rocky place. There was also an interesting view to the rocky ‘window’ – the start to the west ridge which was looming out of the mist. It didn’t look like a steep or narrow start to that route but I’m sure it gets much worse further down – Ken said the exposure on it is very short-lived though. I have to admit to being slightly tempted but the huge amount of snow in Coire Bhasteir was putting me off a descent that way – that and I wasn’t sure what I’d make of the abseil down the large chimney at its foot.

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I tried hard to smile for the summit photos and Richard, who was roped to me and my official photographer for the day, tried hard to get far enough away to take one but I was very stressed out so didn’t look great. Ken then offered to take one of both of us and that turned out much better – I probably look just as bad but Richard’s delighted beam makes up for it.

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As I hate hanging around on summits when I know I have a stressful descent, I asked if we could leave immediately which we did with Richard now leading the way.

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I have to say that, apart from a few short downclimbs where Richard (very helpfully) spotted my footholds and sometimes even put my foot on them, I found the descent much better than the ascent and didn’t really get any more stressed. The sun also decided to make an appearance which cheered things up no end. Not long after our descent of the nasty slab, we unroped for the rest of the walk and sauntered down at our own pace with me even finding time to look at the view for a change and admire the Lota Corrie and the two peaks of Sgurr Beag (nice) and Sgurr na h’Uamha (fierce and spectacular) further along our ridge.

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Now Unroped and Relaxed

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Looking back up

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When we got back into Coire Riabhach, out of the wind and into the sun, we decided to have a much longer break for some of Richard’s lovely tea-loaf and some hot coffee. I admired a beautiful waterfall…

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This was probably the point where Ken found out one of the flaws of walking with a nervous mountain coward. When I’m worried I go extremely quiet, which I had been most of the way up – when I’m feeling better after all the difficulties, I suddenly become excessively talkative. I chattered away non-stop all the way down the hill. Richard was lagging amusedly behind and wondering what Ken would make of the schizophrenic change in his client.

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Interesting views on the way back…

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Blaven Clach Glas Traverse
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At least I shut up momentarily when we reached the Sligachan in full sun and got pints and sat in the beer garden. Although I’d lived to tell the tale, I wasn’t sure my knees would – they were black and blue!

Stats: 7.5 miles, 3135 feet of ascent, 7 hours, can’t remember any naughty words!

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22 responses

1 06 2013
Scotlands Mountains

It`s a sharp wee summit Sgurr nan Gillean and you did well given your apprehension beforehand πŸ™‚

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2 06 2013
mountaincoward

I suppose it wasn’t that bad really – just that damned narrow and sloping slab! I even found the summit ridge okay really. I always had Sgurr nan Gillean down as being joint-worst Cuillin along with Mhic Choinnich and I don’t think it was as bad really – certainly nothing like as sustained in the scrambling department!

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21 05 2013
smackedpentax

Excellent post (as always)…I really miss the Cullins and this has brought it all back to me…time I packed a bag…

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21 05 2013
mountaincoward

I can’t imagine missing them – I’ll be glad to finish them and have a more relaxing time when I visit Skye!

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19 05 2013
jackie sowrey

Carol, I’m jealous as the experience must have been exciting and the views stunning but I’m also relieved that I’ll know I could never do this. In the bad bit on the narrow slabs, I would have been petrified.The mountains and waterfall look stunning.

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19 05 2013
mountaincoward

I was panic-stricken when I got stuck on the slabs – about the same as petrified I think! πŸ˜‰ If I’d been calmer, it would have been obvious what I had to do but when I get in a flap, all rational thought goes out of the window. That’s why I don’t do those kind of peaks on my own – I’d probably be there for a very long time before I calmed down and figured things out.

It is stunning scenery though…

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18 05 2013
bob

Well done for getting that peak under your belt in those conditions Carol.
The dire forecast was enough to stop the mountaineering club I’m in from travelling up there but looking at your photographs it looks like you got some reasonable weather with decent views of the surrounding peaks. Probably due to the wind strength I’d imagine, blowing the clouds apart.
At least you know after the Skye ridge that should be the hardest section over with.

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18 05 2013
mountaincoward

We were pretty lucky with the weather we got on the peaks on Skye – the rest of the week was pretty awful. But it was the high winds and the thought of snow on the tricky bits which scared me most!

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16 05 2013
johndburns

Well done! Not bad for a first Munro of the season. I always think mist makes things much scarier than they actually are.

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

Yeah – I get so many people saying not to worry ‘cos it’ll be misty and I won’t see anything but I know the drops are there and, if I can’t actually see them, I can certainly feel them and also start to imagine they’re worse than they might really be!

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16 05 2013
Paul Shorrock

Great post Carol! It’s years since I’ve been on Sgurr nan Gillean, so thanks for bringing back happy memories.

My first time there I did Pinnacle Ridge as a ‘jolly’ with a couple of mates in the Royal Marines (young and fit then!) and was back again a couple of months later doing mountain training with 45 Commando.

Our route the second time was the ‘so called’ Tourist Route, which must be the way you went – I say ‘so called’ because it’s anything but a tourist route, but it is the easiest way to the summit. Our descent route was down the West Ridge.

One memory that stays with me is on the first trip (Pinnacle Ridge) where we stood on the summit and watched two golden eagles soaring above Lota Corrie.

Great stuff – looking forward to more posts from the Cuillins.

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

The next post is a long read…

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16 05 2013
stravaigerjohn

Terrific!

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

Thanks John

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16 05 2013
Dan Hudson (aka icemandan)

Well done! The good thing about Gillean is that you don’t reach the full horrors until you’re nearly there. I can remember my first time – it was misty, we didn’t really know what we were doing and we got to that step across the abyss just short of the top. My mate turned to me and said ‘I won’t tell if you don’t’. Pleased to say I found the nerve from somewhere and hopped across. It (and the Cuillins generally) are much less unnerving on a dry still day. I’ve yet to do Mhic Coinnich, Dubh, Banachdich and Ghreadaidh, and tending towards mountain cowardice myself, will read your further Cuillin reports with interest.

On another occasion I was on the top with a group of friends and out of the mist came a little guy in a vest and shorts wearing thick glasses looking as if he had escaped from a Mr Muscle advert. Appearances can be deceptive and it transpired that he had just run the whole ridge.

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

I wonder if that was Martin Moran you saw? He will have run the whole ridge I think – at least once…

I know exactly what you mean with the “I won’t tell if you don’t” comment – I think it’s crossed my mind more than once. But I suppose it filters through in the end that you only end up cheating yourself.

Ghreadaidh turned out to actually be quite nice and was one of the only Cuillin I enjoyed – I’d do it again πŸ™‚ Banachdich is easy if you do it via Coire Eich as a stand-alone peak – it’s difficult if you have to continue along its south ridge though – well, very exposed I think rather than difficult – supposed to be the narrowest ridge in the whole Cuillin. The up and back I did was fine though…

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15 05 2013
thecurvyhiker

Far braver woman than me!
Hope the knees aren’t too battered πŸ˜‰

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

They were too sore to use the next day – as you’ll see from the next report! They looked horrifyingly and uniformly black over the next few days – we tried to get a photo but it hasn’t really worked otherwise I’d have included it!

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15 05 2013
chrissiedixie

Looks pretty brave to me, too! The quiet/chatty, stressed/relieved person sounds very like me as well πŸ™‚

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

Yeah, I know a few people who do the quiet/chatty thing. Don’t think the guide had necessarily come across it before but he took the incessant chatter well πŸ˜‰

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15 05 2013
fedupofuserids

Excellent πŸ˜€

Shame the view from the top was obscured but you photos of when it was clear more than make up for it. Pretty brave for a ‘coward’ πŸ˜‰ Looking forward to your other Skye exploits πŸ™‚

Thanks for sharing

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16 05 2013
mountaincoward

I didn’t really spend long enough on the summit to see much view anyway, even if it had been clear. I told the guide in advance that I won’t stay on summits when it’s a stressful route so he knew what to expect. Luckily it doesn’t bother Richard to leave straight away as he’s now used to it – it used to bother him at first though. In retrospect I wish I hadn’t been so stressed as the actual summit was a quite pleasant place…

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