Skye Cuillin – A Summing Up

24 09 2013

One of the questions Munroists ask regularly on forums and the like, is which Cuillin peaks are the easiest and hardest. When they are nervous mountaineers like me, this is accompanied by much studying of horrifying photos, reading of blog and forums posts and much trying to make sense of the maps etc.

Now all the Cuillin Munros are finally behind me, I’ve been thinking what my answers would now be to those worried questioners. Here is what I’ve decided…

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Southern Cuillin (Richard’s photo)

I’m not setting myself up as any kind of Cuillin expert and everyone is different but this is how I found them…

First of all, you can even go and buy the Harveys 1:12500 map (twice the resolution of the 1:25000 map) and study it all you like – if you hit a misty day in the Cuillin without a guide, you’ll probably end up lost! The ground is just too complicated and, even if you can figure it out, there are the dreaded ‘compass anomalies’ to worry about. This is one of the reasons I spent an arm and leg on guides for most of the peaks, apart from the more obvious confidence aspects of course.

A guide is going to cost you at least £150 per day (2013 prices) for a lone Munroist – if you can get a group together it’s a good thing as it will only cost you around £30 per person extra. Getting weather slots and guides to co-incide is very tricky indeed and can mean you end up going up in quite nasty conditions which you wouldn’t have set out in otherwise. If you insist on doing most of the peaks separately, which I did, that makes it even more expensive. If you’re a nervous walker though, the sections between peaks are usually far harder than the simplest route straight up and back down one peak. Remember not to book too many days in a row with a guide – you’ll likely be using muscles you rarely use and you’ll lose all the skin off your hands in about 3 days on the rough gabbro!

Peaks you can definitely do on your own, which are totally non-scary and navigationally quite easy, are:

Bruach na Frithe, Sgurr na Banachdich and Sgurr nan Eag. Sgurr Alasdair could probably also be added to this list.

A bit more scary, more scrambly, but not too complicated to navigate are Am Basteir, Sgurr nan Gillean (‘Tourist Route’/SE Ridge) and the An Dorus twins, Sgurrs a’ Mhadaidh and Ghreadaidh. Sgurr Dubh Mor could fall into this category but I thought the scrambling was quite awkward myself and it would be navigationally difficult in mist. On a good day, if you have some confidence and scrambling ability, you’ll probably manage all these fine without a guide.

You have to have either a guide or a competent lead climber to do the In Pinn – it’s a rock climb!

As for Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, finding the foot of the dreaded An Stac screes is simple enough but I would personally recommend a guide after that. In a mist, I would think route-finding along the ridge would be fairly difficult and you definitely don’t want to get it wrong, although the huge drops either side of you are a good guide!

Peak by peak, from north to south, this is my summing up from a coward’s point of view:

Sgurr nan Gillean via the ‘Tourist Route’ or SE Ridge – an easy walk up to the ridgeline. Mostly okay until you reach a very exposed and awkward sloping slab. After the tricky slab you eventually reach the narrow summit ridge which has a small gap to jump (a bit nerve-wracking) and some exposed blocky sections. The exposure is quite short-lived however…

Am Basteir – a tricky peak in places, especially around The Bad Step. There is a bypass but it is on loose basalt ledges which are almost non-existent in places and with a few hundred feet drop. It would be quite tricky to find for the unitiated anyway and I’m not sure it is a set route as such. If you intend to use the bypass (if you don’t have a short rope), it’s a good plan to look for the bypass on the way up but, on the descent, you definitely want to tackle the Bad Step direct as descending those loose, sloping basalt ledges is a very bad idea – one slip and… 😮 It isn’t bad to climb up, just to descend. The rest of the peak, especially the second half after the step is easy enough and mainly just walking.

Bruach na Frithe via Fionn Choire – a very pleasant, easy and extremely scenic walk. One I can’t wait to get back to…

Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh (An Dorus) – apart from the initial scramble out of the An Dorus Gap – and I believe you can avoid that if you continue through the gap a few more yards and follow a gully up – an easy but very steep peak. Coming back down looks vertiginous and you definitely don’t want to slip! Made me feel sick anyway…

Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh (An Dorus) – after the initial scramble out of the gap (a tricky 15-20 foot or so of near-vertical rock) the peak is actually easy enough. There is a short awkward step just after the Eag Dubh cleft but it is only about 5 foot high – tricky but not exposed. I found the peak mainly a walk on paths and actually liked it – I’d definitely do this one again.

Sgurr na Banachdich via Coire an Eich – very easy peak with simple walking all the way. Not as enjoyable as Bruach na Frithe though.

Sgurr Dearg/In Pinn – get some rock boots and get to that local climbing wall. It’s not a hard climb at all but you’ll need the confidence both things will give you. Don’t look at the drops – it’s not compulsory – I have no idea what they were like! 🙂

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich – ugh! But I’m afraid you have to do it. A long and difficult ridge with lots of problems and very sustained exposure and scrambling. You’ll just have to look past it to the end of the day when you can put it behind you never to be done again!

Sgurr Alastair via the Great Stone Chute – the stone chute is better than you’d think and not particularly scary. When you get to the top of it, don’t tackle the first buttress you see – walk around it until you find easy paths leading upwards – minimal scrambling if you hit the right route so better on a clear day.

Sgurr Dubh Mor – the easier scrambling is to the right apparently. I’ve read that some folks have gone even further along the initial grassy ledge and then not scrambled at all but just worked their way up from grassy ledge to grassy ledge. I found the initial grassy ledge a bit exposed however and, as we had a guide and a rope, we just went up where he said. There was some quite tricky scrambling that far left and it was extremely steep…

Sgurr nan Eag – if you go up the obvious scree from the corrie loch, there are no difficulties at all. Coming down the ridgeline to do Sgurr Dubh Mor is quite a bit more scrambly and awkward though.

So, from hardest/scariest to easiest (in my view), the list is:

1. Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (this one is way ahead of the others and I never wish to set foot on it again!)

2 & 3. Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir share a place

4. In Pinn

5. Sgurr Dubh Mor

6. Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh

7. Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh

8. Sgurr Alasdair

9. Sgurr nan Eag

10. Sgurr na Banachdich

11. Bruach na Frithe

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14 responses

6 03 2014
Mart in the Hills

Very interesting thanks. Only done the easiest two so far, though some of the rest are on the erm to-do list, just not too far near the top 🙂

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6 03 2014
mountaincoward

I took me a couple of years and 3 visits to get through them and I needed a guide a lot. Now I’m after the tops I’ve got to start again and do even worse ones! 😮

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29 09 2013
McEff

Some useful info there, Carol. Thanks for that.

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5 10 2013
mountaincoward

It’s great to feel useful 😉

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25 09 2013
Paul Shorrock

I’d been looking forward to your Cuillin posts Carol, and you didn’t disappoint. Well done!!
I did most of the main ridge when i was younger – my Royal Marines unit (45 Commando) went there for mountain training, but I already had four Cuillin summers behind me by then. I think Sgurr Alasdair is potentially the most problematic – technically easy, but fiendishly complex to navigate, especially in the mist.
Good luck with your remaining Munros.

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25 09 2013
mountaincoward

Do you mean that you think the usual ‘Great Stone Chute’ route up Alasdair is navigationally complex? As it was clear when I did it, it’s hard for me to say but, the route I took back down which descended to just round the corner of the buttress above the Stone Chute was mainly on paths and seemed straightforward. I did rush it though as it was snowing and starting to get very greasy – we did a bit of an emergency exit from that one!

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25 09 2013
LensScaper

This will be a valuable source of information for many planning to tackle the Cuillins. Well written, Carol

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25 09 2013
mountaincoward

I hope it helps people to enjoy their experiences there – I know I didn’t enjoy much of it at the time. Looking back though, the stress beforehand was far, far worse than any of the hills except perhaps Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.

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25 09 2013
fedupofuserids

Full of useful information 🙂

Well done on ticking off Skye’s Munros – hopefully the weather will improve & you can get those pesky two done & dusted in Knoydart

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25 09 2013
mountaincoward

I think I’m going to have to do them next week, whatever the weather (excepting dangerous winds of course) as I want them out of the way and then I can plan my compleation! The year is advancing rapidly and winter will soon be here!

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25 09 2013
bob

Shocked at the price for a guide per day Carol. Lucky you got decent weather on your peaks so at least that was some consolation. That and the fact you can now look back and pat the Cuillin ridge as done and dusted.

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25 09 2013
mountaincoward

Yeah, it’s a shame I needed a guide for most of them but I think it’s a good job I had one… Now I know what’s involved in each peak, at least I can go back and attempt certain ones on my own now if I want to re-do them. I did end up getting quite a taste for Cuillin-ing on the last 2 peaks! Better late than never 😉

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25 09 2013
smackedpentax

excellent informative article…a small group of us are planning to go to Skye next year so this is really helpful 🙂

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25 09 2013
mountaincoward

I like to be helpful 🙂 I remember all the information I wanted to know when I was approaching the Cuillin. Hope you have a good trip when you go – and hope you get the weather I did for the Cuillin – they’re the only group of hills where I was lucky throughout with the weather! Well, in the west anyway…

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