The Black Cullin is a mountain range on the Isle of Skye. The Cullin are the UK’s most technically demanding mountains and a full traverse, the Cullin Ridge, is a sought after tick for any climber.
However, with a standard ascent time of 21 hours, typically split over 2 days, a full traverse of the Cullin is a difficult undertaking of Alpine proportions. The vast majority of first timers fail (9/10) due to poor fitness, preparation and running out of water. The Cullin are famed for poor weather and many parties encounter navigational difficulties while they are on the ridge.
During our traverse of the Cullin Ridge we were blessed with a perfect forecast. Cool temperatures, clear skies, little wind and settled for at least 2 days. Critically though, we had no time for key preparation days, such as stashing water/food on the ridge or climbing the more difficult sections prior to a traverse attempt.
We were slow to start our first day, unsurprising given the 10-hour overnight drive. By the time we reached the start of the ridge, a 3-hour uphill slog to Gars Bheinn, the heat was oppressive, and progress was painstakingly slow. We reached the summit of Sgurr Alasdair at around 4pm, from which you get a great view of the rest of the Cullin Ridge. Although we had been on the go for 8 hours, we had a whopping 2500m of ascent left with virtually no water.
As we descended Sgurr Alasdair towards Collies Ledge (an exposed ledge dissecting Sgurr Mhic Connich) I spied a possible water source and bivi site where we could spend the night and replenish our water supplies. We collapsed into our sleeping bags just after sunset and watched the stars, setting our alarms for 5am. From looking at the guidebook, we estimated we had around 13 hours of climbing and a 3-hour descent ahead of us. Success was not likely.
The sunrise was magnificent, and we arrived at Collies ledge just after 7 in the morning. We had summited the famous inaccessible pinnacle before 9am, the halfway point of the ridge. After the Inn Pinn we were really started to hit our stride and the climbing was fantastic with tremendous amounts of exposure. With perfect visibility, there was little in the way of navigational difficulty or objective risk. Crucially, the temperature had dropped slightly on the day before and there was a slight breeze. Unincumbered by ropes, we moved quickly until the ascent up to Bruach na Frithe.
Once again, I had run out of water and I felt nauseous. Where we had been moving quickly before, I now felt cumbersome and slow. My climbing partner Tom very kindly offered me some of his water (he had carried 5 litres a day!) and I ate the last of my food. It was around 3pm and we still had a good 3 hours of climbing a 3-hour descent to finish. The nuts/water most have done the trick, so with renewed vigor we pushed on and reached the coll between Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean where we dumped our packs.
The climb of Sgurr nan Gillean was a delight and we summited around 5pm. After a quick handshake we re-traced our steps and with a quick abseil arrived at our packs with around an hours daylight left. I messaged a friend who agreed to give us a lift from the Sligachan pub to our car in Glenbrittle. We arrived at the pub just after 9pm, having been on the go for over 16 hours. Exhausted, I ordered a pint of locally brewed ale and slumped into my seat. As I sipped on my pint I reflected on one of the best days I’ve ever had climbing, a day I won’t top for some time. Perhaps it is the rarity of such days which makes them that bit more special.