Coire a’ Ghrunnda Munros (Sgurrs nan Eag & Dubh Mor)

22 05 2013

Wed 8 May 2013

Due to the weather forecast for the Wednesday predicting quite high winds (which then didn’t hit us until late in the day), the decision was made on Tuesday evening to make our Wednesday’s objective Sgurr Dubh Mor via Coire a’ Ghrunnda (instead of Am Basteir) – we also hoped to add the other Munro of Sgurr nan Eag if there was time and we felt able. After yesterday’s performance, I wasn’t sure whether we were able – we both seemed very unfit… I’d had a restful night though as I believed these Munros were very straightforward and was seeing it as virtually a day-off… how wrong I can be I was soon to find out!

(All photos by Richard Wood – warning, this is a long post – get yourself a coffee!)
We met up with our guide Ken at the Glenbrittle campsite by the beach at 0830. We still had all our gear packed from the day before (some of which later turned out to be a major hindrance to me) so we set straight off for the long 3 miles or so to the entrance of the spectacular Coire a’ Ghrunnda. The path is largely flat, raised above the coastline at a great level for views, and a very pleasant walk in.

As soon as we rounded the corner into the start of the climb to the corrie, the climbing began in earnest up the steeply-rising path – either on scree or up large steps.

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At first there wasn’t much to see and I just noticed how strenuous the climbing was but, eventually, the boiler-plate slabs arcing round the corrie came into view with little waterfalls flowing down them – extremely scenic! Richard, my official photographer for the Cuillin, starting clicking away with his camera enthusiastically…

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I looked up and was a bit dismayed to see how far above us the top of the wall of boiler-plate slabs was however – we had a huge climb yet even to reach the lip of the corrie. We could by now see the outline of ‘the Castle’ (Caisteal a’ Gharbh Choire) above us and, to its left, the top of Sgurr Dubh an da Bheinn. I could already see the peaks looked extremely rough and blocky.

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At the top of the boiler-plate slabs, we had a fairly unavoidable short climb up some quite wet slabs to attain the corrie where the lochan finally came into view at last. This was the point at which my ice-axe, sticking up from my pack and fed-up with the lack of attention, started to make its presence felt! As I pushed my way up the wet slabs, it caught firmly on an overhanging slab and jammed me solid. I squirmed about, cursing all the while until I could get free and continue up.

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Looking back
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Distant Pinnacle on Sron na Ciche
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On reaching the corrie I was feeling pretty knackered and we sat briefly by the lochan to have a breather and get some food and a hot drink and discuss our route. I’d already decided that, after such a strenuous walk up into the corrie, I really didn’t want to have to come back another day to get the other Munro so we decided to try for both Munros but start with Sgurr nan Eag.

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Sgurr nan Eag (above) Sgurr Dubh an da Bheinn & the Casteal (below)
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Sgurr Alasdair

I’d been looking at Sgurr nan Eag – supposedly one of the easiest peaks in the Cuillin – and had decided it looked pretty tough and not altogether easy. The ridgeline had a large and vertical step in its outline – Ken said we would be tackling the boulders and scree to the right of that on the ascent. They looked steep but okay but there looked to be a band of crag at the top which I hoped was okay when we got there.

After five minutes or so we set off along the south side of the lochan for the start of the scrappy, loose path heading steeply upwards.

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Sgurr Alasdair from nan Eag

The benefit of such a steep climb is the rate at which you gain height and, within 40 minutes, we’d ploughed our way up to the summit ridgeline – I’d been pleased to see that the path wove its way through the top layer of crags without any problems. I was also pleased to see that the summit ridge, providing you stuck to the little scree paths at the side of the crest, was very wide and comfortable.

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Sgurr nan Eag Summit Ridge – Cairn comes into view
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I plodded tiredly along the ridge to the summit cairn at the far end, clambered up the rocks, tapped the cairn and then we stood for a while to admire the view along the whole Cuillin ridge.

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Ken outlined the route across the back (north-east) side of the peaks to Sgurr Dubh Mor.

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The traverse looked quite rough but, looking at the abundant grassy ledges rising up Sgurr Dubh Mor, I still found the peak very unworrying – I was soon to be proved wrong!

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We returned along the ridge to descend the northern nose of Sgurr nan Eag, keeping to the left of the crest.

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There were quite a few scree paths and some easy rocky shelves heading downwards until we got to the area of the steep step. Ken went ahead to scout a route and descended some pretty short but vertical chimneys. I was a bit taken aback but he stood at the foot of them and pointed out the holds – I was pleased they could all be descended facing out (my preferred method). We got down without any problems but I was a bit concerned at how hard such a supposedly-easy descent had been – I started to worry what other surprises lay ahead…

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Looking back up tricky step on ridge

The traverse past the Castle astride the ridge between the peaks was fine on its north-east side, aided at one point by a strip of snow which smoothed out the boulders.

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Route around Casteal (above) and looking back up to Sgurr nan Eag (below)
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There was then a rising traverse across fairly loose stones and above a bit of a drop.

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Last chance we got to look back at Sgurr nan Eag

Soon after, we were met with a section which I really didn’t like – an unavoidable climb up some slabs of about 20 feet. The route went up a short, easy groove to a narrow ledge, traversed across it and then climbed up a longer groove round a corner. I was also worried at this point that my ice axe, which had had a few attempts at pushing me off scrambles already, would start its antics again…

I was ‘middle-man’ on the rope again so, once the belay was fixed, Ken called for us to continue. He was making out it was easy but I wasn’t convinced! I got up to the ledge okay and shuffled along it, pausing every few feet for Richard to catch up as we were quite short-roped. As we shuffled along the ledge, suddenly my boot stuck fast! I couldn’t drag it out backwards, forwards or upwards and started to panic. Richard could neither see nor hear what my problem was and Ken wasn’t in a position to help. I struggled away trying to get my boot out of the crack in the ledge and, eventually, it came out. I then reached the corner and had a look round and could see I had a choice of two upward grooves. I didn’t really like the look of either but preferred the far one. I couldn’t see a foothold to get into that groove though so seemed to be stuck with the nearer wetter one. Richard was by now asking me what I was doing and more or less telling me to get on with it!

I tentatively set off up the wet groove – luckily it had some footholds in the middle of it but, them being wet, I didn’t quite trust them. I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d slipped really as I was tight on the rope but I hadn’t thought of that after my panic with the sticking boot. I puffed my way anxiously up to the waiting Ken, very quickly followed by the unfazed Richard and we continued on…

From there, the route started to make me unhappy. We were above larger drops, I didn’t fancy having to reverse the slab-climb earlier if I had to turn back, and the ground became increasingly loose as we steeply gained height. There were a few more clambers up wet and slippery rocks and mini-waterfalls and, looking up, all I could see was a wall of hostile-looking black crags stretching away above me. The ice axe had a few more attempts to get either me or Richard, in Richard’s case either bashing him on his helmet or trying to poke his eyes out – he wasn’t happy…

I vaguely noticed that we eventually passed below the col between Sgurrs Dubh Mor and da Bheinn and could see there would be no respite in the sustained scrambling before we continued straight up the side of Sgurr Dubh Mor. We eventually reached the first grassy ledge of Sgurr Dubh Mor contouring right but it looked nothing like as comforting as it had from Sgurr nan Eag and the drop into the corrie looked pretty vertical.

We traversed along the grassy ledge to Ken’s route up the crags above. My ice axe grinned gleefully – now it had some really good chances to get rid of me down the crags! There were fairly short pitches (probably 10 or 15 feet) interspersed with short, grassy ledges but I found most of them quite difficult and pretty scary despite the rope. I’m pretty sure the cumulative exposure of the day was catching up on me – it usually works like that.

There was one really awkward pitch up a corner with a crack running up it. We had to climb up onto a downward sloping piece of rock which was below an overhanging rock and we both found it pretty awkward. I tried using my knee on top of the first rock but found I couldn’t stand the pain after yesterday’s bruising. Probably a good thing though as that made me use a more correct technique of getting my left foot as high as possible on a piece of rock across from the main wall and the crack. With my hands pulling on the crack, my left foot pushing hard and my other foot smearing its way up the rock wall, I managed to get onto the first block and then round and up the second one. Richard, being shorter and less au-fait with climbing techniques, had quite a struggle but got up – I tried to help him by hauling hard on my section of rope.

Eventually, we were on a longer grassy ledge which led leftwards more or less up to the summit. By now I was feeling exhausted with the adrenalin and stress and had to have a short rest just before the summit, much to Ken’s surprise – he probably wondered why I couldn’t continue for the last few feet without a rest, but I couldn’t!

After a quick breather I continued the last few feet up to the very phallic summit cairn and clung onto it while looking down the big drop over the other side and along the horribly-narrow ridgeline and thanking the Gods we didn’t have to edge along there! Richard had little room to squeeze past me and, for a horrible moment, I worried he would fall off as he squashed past my rucsac – my ice axe had quite a go at getting him off the ledge!

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After a couple of minutes I asked if we could leave and we returned down the grass ledge to the start of the downclimbs. I managed to get back down the pitches with a bit of flapping and panicking but Richard was in the lead again and so could help me with footholds and, of course, I always had a tight-rope above from Ken. I found the top or bottom of the rope was getting in my way quite often though and kept having to step over one or the other section of it, sometimes at awkward moments. Coming back down seemed to be easier than going up had though and soon we were on the col where there are some awkward pinnacles to circumvent.

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Sgurr Dubh Mor and Pinnacles

I suspect the easiest way around the pinnacles is to the right but, as that was the northern slope, it was full of snow so not advisable seeing as the other side was clear. Ken had to scout us a route on ledges to the left of the pinnacles – some of the ledges looked unnerving as we rounded corners to them but generally the traverse went okay and we eventually reached the short climb up the ridge onto Sgurr Dubh an da Bheinn, a Munro ‘top’.

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The climb up the ‘top’ was absolutely fine and we only had to use the snow once for a short period but the route was quite steep and very blocky towards the top. I’d become completely exhausted with the cumulative expenditure of nervous and physical energy and kept having to stop for a quick breather. By now, my finger-ends had started to bleed again from handling the rough rocks (just like after day 3 in the Cuillin last year) and were now very painful. I’d bashed a fingernail and it had split right across the quick and the top part was poking down below the rest of the nail if I caught it – very horrible! I was also getting upset by the length of continuous scrambling we’d now been doing as my nerves were starting to shred. My thighs were also starting to hurt from having to push up and cushion me down so many large drops. In short, I was already a mess and we had the whole descent and walk-out yet to do… Physically, Richard wasn’t feeling any better.

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View to Sgurr Alasdair from summit

We stopped at the summit, where I could see the descent looked to be down quite a gentle ridge to start with, and removed our harnesses. We kept our helmets on until the corrie floor though. At this point, a gentleman ascended towards us and asked us if that (pointing to Sgurr Dubh Mor) was a Munro. We told him it was and I think Ken pointed out Sgurr nan Eag as the other Munro to him. Richard was concerned at his apparent lack of any kind of rucsac, I was concerned by the lateness of the day and his apparent lack of knowledge of his route (as was Ken). He then told us he’d attempted Sgurr nan Gillean the day before but had inadvertently followed a party onto the first pinnacle of Pinnacle Ridge! We were even more concerned… We had to leave him and start our descent though.

Almost as soon as we started our descent, the wind suddenly got up and took the place of my ice axe in trying to hurl us down the huge boulders and craggy areas of the side of the peak. Each gust brought at least one F-word from me, a bigger sulky pout and a longer face. I don’t think Richard was enjoying it either.

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Getting blown over!

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At one point Richard and I took a wrong ‘ledge’ and lost Ken and had to re-climb a section to relocate him. There were some awkward narrow ledges to shuffle along – not with big drops off them but where we had to hug rocks and squeeze round them – probably safe enough but it didn’t do a thing for our just re-proofed coats. I’d been very aware of the damage to my clothing all day, especially seats of trousers but was most concerned about my coat as they are so expensive to replace.

Finally, the rocky steps and ledges turned to huge boulders as we neared the corrie floor. These were even worse in the gusty wind but the end (of at least that section) was in sight and I was looking forward to the lochside where I intended to have another break and a rest. We eventually reached the flat ground and had a five-minute break to recoup some energy with Richard’s tea-loaf and nice, hot coffee. By now my thighs were screaming though and I knew what a steep descent they had still to go!

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What we’d come down – rough!

We started our descent from the corrie and I found that, by the time I reached the top of the scramble down the rock slabs of the lip, I’d lost all patience and I cursed my way down, dislodging rocks and generally being clumsy.

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The descent to the long path out was very steep and, by now, Richard and I couldn’t walk properly and were in pain. We did notice, however, that the waterfalls were now blowing back up the slabs in the wind so at least that was a distraction.

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I was glad to reach the flat path walk out past Coire Lagan back to Glenbrittle. Richard found it a very long drag back to base – I was fine while we were walking on the flat, it was just the descents which hurt. We eventually reached the campsite and staggered the last half mile or so to the carpark where I informed Ken that, sadly, we were going to be completely unable to join him again the next day for Am Basteir.

The after-effects of the walk are being quite long-lived. I’m writing this two whole days later and am still struggling to walk downhill due to sore thigh muscles and we’ve taken it easy ‘being tourists’ throughout. They were so bad after the drive out from Glenbrittle that, when we stopped at the Sligachan for a pint, I couldn’t get out of the car without swinging round like an old lady and pushing hard with my hands against the seat and dashboard. I couldn’t sit down in the bar without taking my whole weight on my hands either – nor get up again without the same.

Richard’s knee is bad and was very swollen when he arrived back (he has trouble with it and yes, he did use a pole for the descent). My hands have recovered but the first day were too sore to do anything to do with water or towels without help! My knees are completely black with bruising over the whole area and are quite a sight. These Cuillin peaks are not to be taken lightly and unless super-tough, I wouldn’t advise booking more than two days in a row with a guide. That was certainly the hardest day I’ve had there so far…

The most amusing thing has been that, when we called at Elgol the next day to enquire about boat trips, the girl in the booking office asked if we were ‘concessionary rate’ (aka old folks) – we certainly feel like we should be!

Stats: 10 miles, 3861 feet of ascent, 8 hours 20 minutes, very many naughty words – mostly directed at my ice axe!


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19 responses

1 06 2013
Scotlands Mountains

Aaah…memories.Sgurr Dubh Mor was my last Munro ( cough ) years ago 🙂
So long ago i don`t really remember much about it.Suspect that your memories may linger until you die going by the above though !

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2 06 2013
mountaincoward

I don’t think I found it anything like as scary as the other stuff I’d done with the various guides – just very sustained and excessively hard work! I wasn’t terrified at any point like I was with some of the others – I just wanted to walk normally again…

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26 05 2013
McEff

Blimey. That’s a walk and a half.

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26 05 2013
mountaincoward

Actually, it felt like 2 whole ones to us! 😉

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24 05 2013
chrissiedixie

I’ve had days when I’ve gone mad thinking I’m fitter than I am and then spent the next three days with my thighs in agony, unable to even walk up and down the stairs! And we all do this for fun…… 😀

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24 05 2013
mountaincoward

I’ve never had leg muscle problems really – nor joint problems. I think it was just that we were climbing/scrambling/clambering rather than normal walking for so long. Yeah… fun… must remember that! 😉

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24 05 2013
fedupofuserids

Great pictures that capture the route well – as usual another great read.

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24 05 2013
mountaincoward

Thanks – good job I had Richard as my photographer – if it had just been me and the guide, you’d have just got whatever he had time to snap – I certainly had my hands full!

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23 05 2013
smackedpentax

superb! and what amazing views you must have had too

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23 05 2013
mountaincoward

We did have great views but, unfortunately, I think I only really noticed them either when we stopped for a break or when we paused on a summit!

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23 05 2013
Paul Shorrock

Another great read Carol!!

Coire a’ Ghrunnda is one of my favourite places in the Cuillins – when we did our mountain training in the Royal Marines we spent a night there, bivi-ing in the Coire. It was done in proper tactical style, so any late walkers would have found a Company of about 100 marines deployed in all-round defence, with sentries and machine gun positions – not the usual hazard one expects on a mountaineering day!

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23 05 2013
mountaincoward

That would have been really funny! 😉

I agree it’s a very spectacular corrie and I’m really glad I’ve seen it… not sure when I’ll pluck up the energy to go back though! Probably when there’s no pressure of mountains to add to it!

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23 05 2013
stravaigerjohn

Glad to see you are back in action!

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23 05 2013
mountaincoward

I’ve been back out of action for a couple of weeks since that one – I found out on the next walk how much damage I’d done to my thigh muscles!

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23 05 2013
Janice Drake

Very impressive determination and amusing account. It is perfectly true that every hill day ends like that as you get older! You are very brave, well done!

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23 05 2013
mountaincoward

I’m just kicking myself now that we didn’t book up a boat trip straight away at the concessionary rates! 😉

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22 05 2013
bob

One thing about scrambling is the more you do it the easier it gets as you do build up a gradual feel for being on steep ground. Alex and I also came back from a club climbing trip on the cruel cuillin once as walking wounded. I’d smashed my ribs and he spent a week lying on a board as he’d hurt his back.
Some nice photographs Carol and its days like that you remember forever and enjoy them afterwards if not at the time. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The bad news is once you get older every hill day is like that when you attempt to get out a car afterwards 🙂

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23 05 2013
jackie sowrey

Not bad for concessionary raters! You must love it Carole or you wouldn’t do it. I can imagine the pain after such an adventure.

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23 05 2013
mountaincoward

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… eventually when you’ve recovered you mean!

Jackie, I’m not so sure I actually enjoy the Cuillin peaks but I do enjoy a challenge and I really do enjoy the feeling after you’ve conquered something difficult!

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