Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorich

Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorich

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Minch Moor wind power station refused

The Government reporter has dismissed an application by Swedish company Vattenfall to erect 12 turbines at Minch Moor in the Scottish Borders on the grounds that "the landscape and visual effects make the proposed wind farm unacceptable". Some of the turbines would have been built alongside the Southern Upland Way and it has taken eight years for the issue to be resolved.

Of course, the grounds for rejection apply everywhere these monstrosities are being built in Scotland. I fear that these 12 turbines will just appear somewhere else.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A Cuillin Anniversary - 10 June 2011

An entry in Sligachan Climber's Book begins :

"10 June 1911. Traverse of Main Ridge from Gars Bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean. This makes such an interesting expedition that a few words as to times may be useful to other parties".

After nine lines "as to times", it ends:

"We followed the ridge closely all the way & took all the tops of S. a Mhadaidh & all other minor points on the ridge" .   

Thus almost a hundred years ago the first complete traverse in a day of the Cuillin Main Ridge, one of the most significant achievements in Scottish mountaineering history, was noted in the book and signed L.G.Shadbolt and Alistair C. McLaren. The entry is made in the handwriting of Leslie Shadbolt.

The Main Ridge which swings round Loch Coruisk extends approximately 10km from Gars-bheinn in the south to Sgurr nan Gillean in the north and its traverse involves over 3000m of ascent, four main rock climbing sections and exposed scrambling where a slip could easily, and in some cases almost certainly would, result in a fatal fall.

Shadbolt a Welshman, and McLaren a Scot, had climbed together in Skye since 1906. Their first new route was on the north face of the Bhasteir Tooth, Shadbolt's Chimney, and in 1918 Shadbolt with D R Pye climbed the now famous, Crack of Doom on the great cliff of Sron na Ciche. In 1911, however, much of the Main Ridge was still unknown to them.

Gars-bheinn (distant), Sgurr nan Eag and Caisteal a' Garbh-choire

Main Ridge from Gars-bheinn to Sgurr Alasdair (centre)


Lynne just below the summit of Gars-bheinn
Climbers had begun exploring the Cuillin in the 1870s, over 30 years before the arrival of Shadbolt and McLaren, with famous names such as Nicolson, Slingsby, Pilkington, Naismith, King and Collie all involved in pioneering new routes.

It is no surpirse therefore that as climbers became more familiar with the ridge some began to consider whether it could be done in a day, but given that Norman Collie had taken eighteen hours to explore the section between Sgurr a' Mhadaidh and Sgurr Thearlaich the first suggestion that a one day traverse could be done was met with complete disbelief. The difficulties were many and varied:  four sections of rock climbing; lack of water on the ridge; unreliability of the compass and complex route finding.

Impossible except by 'super-climbers' some thought, while Abraham doubted if anyone would have the qualifications needed for success: exceptional physique and staying power; skill and neatness in rock climbing; an intimate knowledge of the ridge and perfect weather. Many made plans and at last one party decided to attempt the 'impossible'.

As previously said, Shadbolt and McLaren first climbed in Skye in 1906 but despite visits after that date much of the ridge was still unknown to them in 1911 and thus they failed to meet one of Abraham's requirements. Even now, with guide book descriptions of the traverse readily available, previous knowledge of the ridge can be an important factor in success or failure. But Shadbolt and McLaren were "bold and resolute climbers" not even laying down caches of food or water at strategic points, normal practise nowadays.

The orange pack has been left before Sgurr na Banachdich probably by guides on a 2 day traverse with clients. Sgurr Mhic Coinnich (left) and Sgurr Thearlaich

Starting at Glen Brittle the climbers travelled fast reaching Gars-bheinn in two and a half hours. McLaren apparently set the pace and, recording the timings meticulously, noted that they took one minute to rope up at the infamous Thearlaich-Dubh (TD) Gap (Collie, Mackenzie and King 1891), the first serious obstacle on the traverse which blocks progress between Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn and Sgurr Thearlaich - and  also Sgurr Alasdair, the highest of the Cuillin peaks. Before the Gap is reached the ridge steepens into a tower and from there an abseil takes the climber to the Gap itself.  The 25m north west wall is climbed to escape. The rock here is basalt,  horrendous in the wet and the Gap has been the scene of several accidents over the years.

On the Main Ridge Traverse on a peerless June day. Approaching the dramatic steepening of the ridge before the Thearlaich-Dubh Gap.
Sgurr Alasdair to the left, top of the Great Stone Shoot centre, and Sgurr Thearlaich right. (Enlarge to full size and climbers can be seen 3/4 of the way up the photograph)
Sgurr Alasdair is not actually on the ridge, but being the highest of the Cuillin peaks it had to be included. (They ommited Sgurr Dubh Mor which is well off the line of the Main Ridge, although today this summit is usually visited).

Sgurr Dubh Mor (left) and Sgurr Dubh na Da Bheinn

Sgurr Dubh Mor

Loch Coir' a' Ghrunnda

The round of Coire Lagan caused delays owing to unfamiliarity, although one cannot imagine that such climbers had any difficulty with the tricky descent from Thearlaich to the Bealach Mhic Choinnich or the ascent of the second rock climbing obstacle, King's Chimney (King and party, 1898) on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.

 Coire Lagan, L to R
Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Sgurr Thearlaich, Great Stone Shoot, Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Sgumain
(scanned from slide)

Climbers on King's Chimney (white dot and red dot at top)
(Scanned from slide). Collie's (Hart's) ledge can also be seen clearly.

  In any event Shadbolt and McLaren found themselves on the summit of Sgurr Dearg two and a half hours ahead of schedule having climbed the third obstacle the Inaccessible Pinnacle (C and L Pilkington, 1880).

Me abseiling off the short side of the In Pinn
(scanned from a slide)

There they rested and 'smoked a pipe for three-quarters of an hour' then traversed the next five peaks - Sgurr na Banachdich, Sgurr Thormaid, Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, Sgurr a' Mhadaidh, and Bidein Druim nan Ramh within two hours.

Not having cached water, they were now very thristy and were keen to reach the pool  below Sgurr a' Fhionn Coire. It was, however, an  hour and forty minutes later at 5pm when they arrived there and were faced with the ascent of the fourth and final obstacle on the traverse, Naismith's Route (Naismith and Mackay, 1898) on the Bhasteir Tooth, 'an intimidating sight for any tired climber'. Indeed it is.

The Bhasteir Tooth. Naismith's Route climbs the face
(Scanned from a slide)

Am Bhasteir and Sgurr a' Fhionn Coire from near the Bealach a' Bhasteir
(scanned from a slide)

Naismith's completed, the pair pushed on to Sgurr nan Gillean arriving on the summit at six twenty five, and at Sligachan at eight twenty, sixteen hours and forty five minutes after leaving Glen Brittle. They spent twelve hours eighteen minutes on the ridge, a very respectable time even today. No others repeated the traverse until 1920 when T H Somervell, of Everest fame, completed it in ten hours thirty nine minutes feeling so fresh on Sgurr nan Gillean that he proceeded to Sgurr na h-Uamha, the true northern terminous of the ridge.

J H B Bell and Frank Smythe followed in 1924 and in August 1926 Miss M M Barker ( the great Mabel Barker, friend of Millican Dalton) of The Pinnacle Club became the first woman to complete the traverse. Accompanied by C D Frankland they started the traverse, not from Glen Brittle but from the Scavaig hut. They took roughly fourteen hours, suffered hail storms as well as glorious sunshine and did not carry a rope, revealing the party's high standard of climbing*. The first all-women traverse was accomplished in 1928.

Then, in June 1939 The Greater Traverse, which includes Clach Glas and Bla Bheinn, was completed by Charleson and Forde in twenty hours and in 1999 The Cuillin Round which includes The Main Ridge, Red Cuillin, Clach Glas and Bla Bheinn was done by Rob Woodall in twenty three and a half hours, starting and finishing in Glen Sligachan.

In 2007 Es Tressider broke the record for a solo traverse of the ridge taking just 3 hours 17 minutes 28 seconds, by a combination of 'running' and soloing the rock climbing sections.

For me, however, it is the early days of exploration - The Golden Age of mountaineering - and the Cuillin pioneers that provide the fascination.  Whenever I think of the Cuillin, it is the exploits of those bold climbers that come to mind - names I have already mentioned - and others such as Steeple and Barlow, John Mackenzie, George and Ashley Abraham, J Menlove Edwards, Doughty, Buckle, Mallory, who with his wife climbed with Shadbolt and Pye in 1918, and of course later pioneers W H Murray and friends. Then I'm immediately transported to the ridge on a summer's day in the glorious company of, as Hamish Brown called them, 'the warrior peaks'.

"I am never easy with the idea of turning my back on the Cuillin. There is such a presence in their midst. They magnetise the senses in a way I have not encountered elsewhere. To turn and walk the other way  has always felt like committing a fundamental breach of nature's laws"  (Jim Crumley, Among Islands).


(1) All photographs are the copyright of 'Afootinthehills'. Slide scans are of low resolution to allow uploading.
(2) References: 

      (i) The Cuillin of Skye, B H Humble. The best history of The Cuillin, although unaccountably Humble spells McLaren, 'MacLaren'.
      (ii) Skye and the Hebrides Vol 1: SMC rock climbing guide.

      (iii) Sligachan Inn/Hotel, Vistors' Books 1869-1936. Selected Entries. Published by Portree Local History Society.
 (3) For superb photographs: The Cuillin - Great Mountain Ridge of Skye. Gordon Stainforth
 (4) Among Islands. Jim Crumley
 (5) *  Not surprising, given that this partnership made the 4th ascent of Central Buttress (HVS) on Scafell.