One Girls Journey across the Cuillin Ridge in Winter

Memories of a winter traverse I completed exactly five years ago in February 2016.

cuillin ridge winter traverse scotland

A longstanding Dream

It was my longstanding dream to traverse the Cuillin Ridge in Winter. Throughout my university years, I used to write an annual list of goals. These could be anything from “run a marathon” or “go to a spa”, to “pass my exams” or “learn to cook gnocci”. Some things I would acheive and score of the list, whilst others would evade me and be carried over to the next year.

One ambition remained elusive, and for six consecutive years, I re-wrote the same lofty aspiration, list after list:

“Traverse the Cuillin Ridge in Winter, in a single day”. 

For those unfamiliar with the Cuillin Ridge, it is a mountaineering challenge of epic proportion. It stretches for 12km, takes in 11 Munro summits and involves 4000m of ascent. There are several abseils and roped climbing sections. Winter traverses are not frequently undertaken, largely due to the number of stars that need to align for success to be conceivable! Well consolidated snow; clear and calm weather; a good level of fitness; a suitable partner; time off work. After six years of waiting, finally these things all came together on 13th February 2016.

sgurr nan gillean at sunrise cuillin ridge skye

Setting out on the Cuillin Ridge in Winter

I met my friend at the Spean Bridge hotel, where we ate a massive dinner. I was a little concerned to learn that he had just enjoyed a long day ice climbing on Ben Nevis. He had never been to Skye before, but I had done my best to explain the scale of what tomorrow had in store for us! After driving to Skye, stealing a couple of hours of sleep, and lots of decisions about gear and strategy, we finally began the ascent up to Sgurr nan Gillean. [Winter traverses are typically undertaken from North to South, the opposite of summer].

It was an epically beautiful night, as we  stomped upwards through deep snow. The air was still, while moonlight glittered on the crystals around us. The ridge rose above us, dark and foreboding, an enticing silhouette against a star-filled sky. As we reached the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, the sun was beginning to rise. We could see the entirety of the ridge stretched out before us. The idea of travelling all that way was almost unimaginable. But one step at a time, we began our monumental journey

cuillin ridge winter traverse sunrise skye scotland

Fast and steady progress along the Cuillin Ridge in Winter

I had been told that parts of the Cuillin Ridge in winter can feel easier than in summer, but had struggled to believe it. I began to side with the fable when I found myself jumping off the “bad step” on Am Bastier. This is a section usually requiring a careful downclimb but today was banked out with snow. Later we would enjoy front-pointing in crampons up slopes of compact snow, that were normally loose scree. This was great! 

The ridge was in pristine condition and our progress was fast and steady. Around the summit of the third Munro top, my friend decided that he would call it a day and descend back to the Glen. He was hugely encouraging that I should continue alone and make the most of the paradisiacal conditions. It was a difficult decision. I felt guilty to go on alone, while he felt guilty to let me down. We bumped into Neil Adams, who was climbing solo due to his partner cancelling the day before. After an open and honest discussion, it was decided that Neil and I would team up, while my friend went to enjoy some fish and chips.

Cuillin Ridge full winter traverse
(This was actually the following weekend when I went back with my friend Sam for a second (3/4) lap!

The conditions were... phenomenal!

The conditions were spectacular. There was a well trodden path the whole way along the ridge, and so the challenge was mainly one of endurance. Still, the traverse demands an ability to move confidently in crampons on serious, exposed terrain, and efficient ropework to negotiate the abseils. It was the perfect situation of “type one fun”. 

Every moment was an absolute joy and pleasure to experience. The sky was blue and the sun shone bright, fuelling us with energy and  optimism as we danced along the beautiful ridge. The terrain was gloriously Alpine in character, yet here we were on a tiny Scottish Island with views out to sea, the Hebridean Islands floating on the majestic horizon. It was breathtaking.

cuillin ridge winter traverse skye scotland (2)

The long hours of darkness

Darkness fell upon us around Sgurr Alasdair, with still a very long way to go. The night was dark and consuming, with the moon size at only 15%. Those last several hours live in my memory as a blurry dream; a headtorch beam and foot steps. I remember noticing weird imprints in the snow beside me, and it was only when I started grabbing the odd handful of snow to stuff in my mouth and quench my thirst, that I realised I had been seeing Neil’s handprints from the same activity!

I have a vivid memory from during our descent. It was almost midnight and my brain was in “lets go get back to the cosy tent” mode, whereas Neil was maintaining a more balanced composure and categorically insisted we stop to cook dinner. I recall standing there in the cold, dark night, in utter despair as Neil got out his stove. I felt like crying with tiredness as he fried off the couscous with chorizo to “infuse the flavours”, when all I wanted to do was run for my bed! He was right of course, it was completely sensible to eat at that point and not rush like fools towards the finish line. In fact, it was certainly good that we did. Our final descent turned complex as we dropped below the snowline to discover all the boulders covered in a thick layer of verglas.

cuillin ridge winter traverse isle of skye scotland

A dream that finally came true

I was absolutely exhausted when we arrived back at the tent, 21 hours after setting off. As I got into my sleeping bag, I started munching sleepily on sweeties and chocolate and anything else within reach. The sugar coursed through my veins. My fatigue and hunger was overcome by a sensation of happiness, elation and pure joy. The stars had finally aligned and my dream had become a reality. 

As I closed my eyes, a thousand beautiful mountain-scape images filled my mind. Pictures of an epic sunrise, sparkling snowy ridges, dramatic cliffs, views out to sea, and footsteps in the darkness began etching themselves into memories that I will hold preciously for the rest of my life. 

By Anna Wells

I am fully qualified summer Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor. This summer I am offering guided scrambling on Skye (info here) and rock climbing guiding and instruction (info here)

Some Geeky Information for those who are interested!

Timings: We took 12.5 hours from the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean to the summit of Ghars Bheinn. We took 21 hours road to road (4am to 1am)

What parts we included: We climbed the In Pinn. We included the outlier Sgurr Dubh Mhor. We went out-and-back to Ghars Bheinn. We abseiled into the TD Gap but did not climb out the other side – we descended the gulley and regained the ridge. 

Equipment: We carried a 60m single rope between us, and two technical tools each.

 

6 thoughts on “One Girls Journey across the Cuillin Ridge in Winter”

  1. Having struggled terribly just to do Sgurr Nan Gillean by NE, ridge on good day, can only marvel at something like this. Head not made for heights 🙁

  2. What an experience!! Having done a 22 hour summer traverse, I can identify with being tired! A proper tick in the book.

  3. I’ve really enjoyed reading this and your photographs here and on the ATC site are wonderful. Very well written and a great achievement.

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