The “Greatest Mountaineering Challenge in Britain” and a highly esteemed speed record. But where are all the girls?!
The Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye is widely considered to be the greatest mountaineering challenge in Britain. The quality and complexity of terrain is consistently engaging and demanding, with several sections typically tackled as roped climbs and abseils.
The ridge is steeped in history and has been a popular mountaineering objective since the late 1800s, although it was initially considered a multi-day objective. It was not until 1911 that a one-day traverse was first achieved by Leslie Shadbolt and Alastair Mclaren in a time of 12 hours and 18 minutes. This set a new standard and opened up a new perspective, with the “speed record” becoming a sought after title. Over the years the hours have whittled down to an astounding 2 hours and 59 minutes, which is the current record held by Finlay Wild.
One thing that struck me, was the lack of any female attempts of a fast one-day traverse. Or should I say more accurately, a complete absence! Whilst there is a lot of female trail-runners and rock-climbers blurring the boundaries between male and female accomplishment, the Cuillin Ridge provides a rather unique blend of the two skill-sets appealing to a rather more niche subset of mountaineers.
Over the years I had spent quite a lot of time on the ridge, informally guiding friends and family who had either asked for help to complete munro summits, or who I had dragged out to show them how amazing it was! There was no doubt that the Cuillin Ridge had a big piece of my heart! As a mediocre but solid climber, developing a gentle interest in hill-running, I began to wonder if I should attempt a fast traverse!
The main obstacle was getting my head around the idea of soloing everything without a rope, and I suspect that it was what puts most people off. In order to move fast, it is typical to “solo” up the climbing sections, and downclimb the abseils. Whilst the terrain never exceeds the climbing grade of “Severe”, it is very exposed with consequential falls, totally remote, and without the comfort of rock shoes and chalk.
In May 2017 I speculatively went up with my friend Murdoch to check-out the technical sections and see how I felt. After practicing parts on top-rope, and in some cases literally memorising hold sequences, I realised that I felt totally comfortable. Risk is everywhere, from crossing the road, to driving at 60mph, to lighting a camping stove; and after a careful risk assessment I had decided that this was within my threshold.
The day after the recce I had to return home to work three night shifts, but the very next day I was drawn back to Skye by an unrelenting spell of sunny weather. The climbs were fresh in my mind and my motivation was at an all time high, so it seemed like the perfect time to strike. On my drive back, I hit a pot-hole, exploded my tyre, and got retrieved to a garage in the middle of nowhere. The sympathetic mechanic allowed me to borrow a courtesy car, and by late afternoon I was pitching my tent in the Glenbrittle campsite; exhausted but too excited to sleep!
My friend Murdoch was still on Skye so in the end we decided to go together. It was great to have the company and it also felt safer. Blue skies, sunshine, and pristine dry rock were on the cards, and we spent an insanely fun day cruising along the ridge. Here is an account of the traverse which I originally wrote for Alpkit:
“As we headed out to Ghars Bheinn, we were overtaken by 3 lycra clad runners. As we began our traverse, I could sense Murdoch was getting some FOMO as they disappeared into the distance. However, rock climbing experience was a strong card to play, and despite our (my!) slower pace, we actually caught them up on the way down from Sgurr Dubh Mhor. And as they got their ropes out at TD gap, we soloed into the distance and didn’t see them again.
Over Sgurr Thearlich, Kings Chimney, An Stac, suddenly we were at the In Pin and it looked a bit busy. We passed two climbers on the way up who kindly stayed very still, and another slightly stunned group of three waited to abseil as we soloed down the steep side (with quite an audience below!). Tedious section over Banadich onto Ghreadaidh, then enough excitement to keep the mind occupied over to Bidean. The down climbing sections were easy on dry rock, and then came the long slog up Bruach na Frithe. By now, I was quite tired and extremely thirsty. Headache throbbing, sun burning, legs feel fine, keep going!
Just as the big, dark face of Naismiths route came into view, so did a snowpatch and I rehydrated greedily stuffing my mouth full of snow. Refreshed, we traversed out to the base of the climb and the exposure was already pretty big. We didn’t practice this bit, but the route was obvious. Halfway up was some dubious rock and suddenly I felt a bit scared and vulnerable. A moment to compose, keep going. Now the rock is good, we’re on top, and it’s the home straight! Touch the tooth, scramble over Am Bhastier, dump our bags at the col, and a final push to the summit of Sgurr na Gillean. I sit down at the summit, totally out of breath, thirsty, exhausted, delighted, elated!”
And so, on the 8th May 2017, I established the female record for the Cuillin Ridge with a time of 6 hours and 34 minutes. More than twice as slow as Finlay Wild’s record time! On one hand I felt a little embarrassed to be establishing a “speed record” with such a comparably abysmal time but on the other hand, I was very very happy. I was happy to become a little part of the history of my favourite place on earth, but moreover I was happy to have laid down the first stepping stone for other females to jump from. The record remains unbroken and I truly hope that someone will come along and smash my time into oblivion! I strongly believe that often we just require a change in perspective, and I would be delighted if my example could encourage or motivate other women to do just that.
I am now delighted to be able to offer my guiding services on the Cuillin RIdge! Click HERE for more information.