20 Apr 2012

Hiking in the Black Cuillin Hills of Skye

I finally made it to Skye. It took me a long time to get there, and I only stayed for three days, but I managed to climb one of the peaks that comprise the Black Cuillin Hills (and it was a munro to add to my very small "bagged" collection).

My parents had stayed at the Sligachan Hotel many years ago and recommended that we should do the same - a perfect base for attempting any munro climb in the area. We arrived just before sunset and got a room with an incredible view over the hills to the south-east. The window opened fully and I immediately set up my tripod and started snapping away; within a few minutes a huge rainbow graced us with its presence.

The following morning we set off armed with waterproofs, map, compass and packed lunch and stupidly took slightly the wrong track and ended up in a large area of bog. We made our way across the bog and back to the intended route - a gravel track up to a quaint white cottage. The route from there was easy, winding gradually uphill alongside a picturesque river dotted with small waterfalls. Ominous clouds drifted over the top of the peaks that we were heading towards, but lifted occasionally to give a glimpse of the goal.

I'd taken some detailed directions from a hiking website and photographed the pages on my compact camera, and took it out to refer to from time to time. We had to look out for a cairn by the path after about 3km which marked the point at which we should cross the river, before heading up a corrie. The corrie led to a ridge up to Bruach na Frithe, allegedly the easiest of the munros in the Cuillin range. We reached a small cairn and decided that this must be the spot, so crossed the river and headed uphill, again finding ourselves on rather boggy ground and not finding the path. It didn't seem to matter too much; the ground dried out and we were heading in the right direction. The cloud above lifted for a minute, enabling us to see three figures on the ridge bathed in sunlight. The fog quickly returned and obscured them, and the jagged peaks above.

We eventually met a path (we'd obviously crossed the river too early) and reached the bottom of the ridge. It was a little exposed, but the weather was fair at this stage. Above us the cloud had lifted and gave us the window of opportunity that we needed to attempt the munro (I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing so if visibility had been poor). The climb was steep and rocky, but the path fairly clear and easy. We stopped from time to time to enjoy the views of Skye to the North - it was possible to see the Old Man of Storr.

The path eventually reached a few narrow ridges, with a sharp drop on either side, and I began to feel nervous for the first time. After a small exposed section the path then clung to the right of the mountain, and we began what is known as scrambling - climbing over higgledy-piggledy rocks, using our hands to help us climb. A few times we lost the obvious path and I felt quite miserable as we clambered up steep rockfalls with a massive drop below us.

We reached the top fairly soon; a great relief to me to have got there, although I felt a bit panicked about the prospect of having to climb back down what we'd just clambered up. Additionally, as we reached the summit the cloud had drifted back over the nearby peaks, allowing us only views to the west and south.

We had intended to continue and descend by a different route, making a loop, but the way was completely obscured ahead of us. After a hurried sandwich we headed back the way we'd come, deciding that this was the safest option. The descent was far easier than I'd hoped and far easier than the ascent, as we were able to see the clearest path down. We picked up our pace as it started to hail - the hail whipping from the north straight across our right cheeks. We made it down the scrambly bits and back to the steep scree slope, before we got out of the hail shower. Looking back the whole of the mountain was now hidden under the massive hailstorm - we'd made it just in time.

As we headed back down the corrie we found the path we'd missed on the way up, and soon reached the river and a large cairn which marked the turning point. At this point it started raining; at least it wasn't more abrasive hail. The rain didn't last too long - the weather on Skye seemed to be characterised by massive storm clouds bringing short, sharp showers. When we reached the waterfalls I decided to stay there and try some long exposures, leaving Murray to head back to the hotel alone.

I took longer than I thought I might and felt pretty dehydrated and cold by the time I reached the hotel. Murray made me a cup of hot chocolate and I had a long bath to help my muscles recover. I felt glad that I'd done the hike, and proud to have bagged another munro - especially one of the infamous Cuillins, but I hadn't really enjoyed the top bit of the climb. Of course my fears were soon forgotten and a couple of days later we repeated the experience on Beinn Alligin over on the mainland above Loch Torridon. As a friend said: "beware of the munros; they're addictive."

More photos of my trip to Skye can be found on my website.