Scrambling on Skye’s Black Cullin
You can hardly go wrong on Skye, even in The Cuillin. Contrary to usual Skye expectations most of my visits to ‘climber’s paradise’ have been blessed with mainly good weather; I’ve been very fortunate. There have been the odd occassions when rain has battered the land or cloud has come so close to hiding my feet from my knees that I’ve opted for a walk around the feet of the hills rather than struggle with dubious compass bearings in the hope of seeing nothing but gabbro at its closest quarters.
Yet still, you cannae beat the high ground. The first morning of my recent visit came with cloud and drizzle, not ideal for scrambling on rock heavily veined with seams of slippery basalt. The Black Cuillin is loved of climbers for its gabbro, so rough is this rock that you feel as if glued to it. But there’s also plenty of that basalt, a smoothe rock closely grained, ‘slippery when wet’, and capable of sending the unwary skiting downwards in the direction of oblivion! But the forecast was for sunshine come the afternoon. Perhaps I could start with an easier option. Bruach na Frithe is one of the easier Cuillin ascents, any awkwardness has to be searched for; there’s always an easier option just below the narrow crest. Since it had been a couple of years since I’d walked along the ridge it seemed a perfect compromise.
I stepped out of the car straight into a cloud of midges! Although the repellent stopped the blighters biting it hardly kept the perishers at bay; the only solution was a rapid exit upwards.
Even this wasn’t that easy. Before one reaches Bruach’s northwest ridge there’s a couple of easy miles to walk, first in the company of the eastern fringe of Glen Brittle Forest, with its dark and brooding conifers, then, more happily, with the company of the trickling Allt a’ Mhaim.
There was little thought of stopping for even a second. Just a stoop to the burnside for refreshment brought the midges on in hoards. Thank goodness for the Bealach a’ Mhaim and the feintest of breezes. It was at this point, in the vicinity of a little lochan, that I could at last turn to climb the easy angled slopes which prelude the mountain proper.
Although the thin drizzle had stopped, the mist hung low and heavy; I headed upwards into mystery. It doesn’t stay grassy for long. After a couple of giant steps in the broad ridge the ground becomes stonier; higher up the trodden way goes through tiresome scree before finally hitting the welcome solid gabbro.Although I was encased in a damp cocoon of mist, the ridge soon narrowed significantly, so much so at last that the only direction possible was straight ahead and up. No need for compass bearings here.
The promise was for clearing weather; I took my time and hoped. By staying on the crest, (there is a bypass path a little way below), I could savour the easy scrambling in an eerie world of little ghosts of rock.
About half way along the crest I hit a definite steepening, almost wall like; not quite an empasse, but, as prior experience warned me, necissitated a few awkward moves in an exposed situation. Today, with the cloud billowing around me like a safety net, that exposure seemed non existent.
As I climbed I felt the warmth of the sun as it slowly pierced the clouds above.
I picked my way along the crest concious that all to soon I would arrive at the summit cairn...hurry up sun!
I reached the round pillar of concrete (trig point), just as the first blue holes were appearing in the heavens above. Had I come too soon? I sat alone in a ghostly world of silence. Time for a long, lingering tea break. Somewhere nearby, yet quite invisible to my straining eyes, a raven cronked its welcome. Bruach na Frithe, ‘the hill of the deer forest or wilderness’, is a wonderful viewpoint, some would argue the best in the range. Just now those views eluded me. Instead I imagined the vistas, north and south, with all its jagged ups and downs, almost the entire Black Cuillin ridge, in fact. The remaining couple of mountains in the opposite direction, though tantalizingly close, hid capriciously in the mist. Am Basteir, Sgurr nan Gillean and the final Sligachan nails in the mighty ridge, Sgurr Beag and Sgurr na hUamha, were mocking me today.
I took a long lunch and hoped. Alas my hopes were dashed. At last it was time to leave. Those blue holes above me grew and grew, yet everything around and below me remained enshrouded.
Still, time was on my side. I decided on a somewhat more exciting route for off. The descent of the mountain’s South Ridge, though wonderfully narrow, presents even the non scrambler with a good way down. Some short sections need care when the rock is wet, even if that wet is only mountain mist, but nothing really serious.
A short climb had me up on Sgurr na Bhairnich, a minor bump along the ridge. It’s steeper down the other side; ledges strewn with loose rock called for a little more circumspection. The best route, well worn by the boots of a myriad other walkers, is obvious.
Dear reader, the finest and most difficult section on this ridge, necessitating quite difficuclt scrambling, now rose steeply ahead of me, (considering the dank conditions of the day, quite unsafely). An Caisteal could await a drier day!
Instead I dropped down the convenient gully into rocky Coire an Tairnlear, beneath the bastions of Bruch na Frithe, on my right, and those of Sgurr an Fheadain, to my left.
Even going down was sweaty work! And now at last the sun was breaking through the smoke. As I picked up the rough path on the corrie floor, the last clouds gave up their ghosts and soaring walls of rock took shape around me. The tight rocky corrie eventually opened its mouth and spat me out into the grassier, friendlier bowl of Coire na Creiche, ‘The corrie of the spoils’. You might imagine that by now the best of the walking was over. But not at all. Of all the Cuillin’s corries, this must be the finest.
Encircled by high rocky mountains, Alpine in stature; backed by the wonderful pyramid of Sgurr na Fheadain, with its deeply clefted Waterpipe Gully, you will undoubtedly take your time in here. As I always do, especially when the sun comes out to light the corrie floor, you’ll stop often for backwards glances to that tremendous panorama.
And as if that is not enough to please us all, the path, a true ‘tourist’s track’ at this point, has still to show you The Fairy Pools! Waterfalls leap and bounce over rocks that colour the water with blues and greens; white foamy water squeezes through fine little gorges where here and there knots of contented walkers sit for yet another well earned picnic. Truly a place to linger and enjoy.