Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Feeling gravity's pull - Skye stories

Druim Hain late on a summer’s night. The Cuillin are introduced to me individually across the table of Coruisg. The shadows are deep in the corries and the noise of water falling reaches me from a hundred burns.  I turn back for Sligachan in some confusion. How I am supposed to do this?

From the connecting ridge the path ran out across the face and round a corner. A foot wide with broken crags above and a long, invisible drop below. I steeled myself and walked out along it.  At some point around 100 metres out the path disappeared at a step where the scratch marks showed its upward progress out to a corner perched above that drop.  Crouched in the gully below the corner I could sense it still... maybe 50 metres to the screes somewhere below. Eyes closed I could see the arc of my fall, like a tear drop down the face with maybe a single glance or a scrape off the rough gabbro. Roy stood above the corner urging me on but sensing the inner debate. ‘It’s easy – just move out and up. Then it’s straightforward from up here.’ I thought of the rope, useless in the sacks discarded below the summit of the previous peak.  ‘I am not doing it’ I said with growing relief.  He persisted and protested but he had seen the wobble and then the resolution before and he knew I had already turned round.  In my head at least. So that’s Skye for you  - scree or scary.

The day was perfect – warm in the sun and cool in the corries. The Cuillin gives that wonderful contrast between sun-warmed and cool shadowed gabbro. The rough rock varies in texture and temperature endlessly as the day progresses linking your senses to the hill through your slowly bloodying finger tips.
The path ran up past the gorge and up through the outer corrie to the rocky inner corrie which itself gave up under the long scree gully  up to An Dorus – visible above as a notch of deep blue in the skyline.  I reached the narrow notch quickly despite the backsliding on the scree , enjoying the evolving rock scene and the texture of the rough gabbro under my fingers.  On the right stood the scratched rock wall blocking progress to Greadaidh and slightly up and over the col was the route to Mhadaidh – up a gully above a remnant of snow running down the first few metres on the east side. I picked slowly up the gully looking deeply and breathing deeply at each hold . After the few short metres it opened out and I was up onto a flattish area where low stone walls have been built as bivouacs. An open face leaned against the main ridge and stretched away to the summit. I picked my way up the briefest scratches of a path and suddenly emerged on the summit with its wild eastern exposure. Coruisk, massive and grey in the sunlight echoed far below.  South down the ridge lay my way to Greadaidh – foreshortened, black and threatening. Any confidence I had built ebbed away into the depths of the corrie below and I clung to the rock and my rucksack as I ate a quick meal. No place for me to linger.  But in retreat, the pitch was less intimidating and the dark shadow of the gully faded to a reality of easy moves above a manageable drop.  
Round on the Glen Brittle side I examined the climb out of An Dorus with a calmer eye. Doable and not exposed – my kind of bad step. I was up the difficult 10 feet quick with some minor scraping and wheezing  and got a clearer view of the route ahead – less scary, less foreshortened. The day was coming together and my confidence was building. I traversed up some open, shallow slabs with the deep sword slash of the Eag Dubh still holding snow in its depths and then up and round the Wart to the ridge itself.  The next short section was straightforward and reminiscent of other narrow places on the mainland with a clear path working through boulders. I reached the cairn in good humour with only a small amount of fearful hand scrabbling and shuffling. To the south and to my alarm stretched a long saw tooth ridge topped at the far end – maybe 200 metres away by a second cairn. From here it looked higher. I sat down by the northern cairn and racked my brains. The guidebook was safe in the car but did it say the northern or southern peak was higher? I knew that I could sit here until the next ice age and not know for sure.  No option but the traverse out and back along the roofline of Skye to that distant cairn.  I dumped the sack and set off. The shuffling reached critical levels after a few minutes tottering along the edge and I resorted to au cheval bum shuffling before finally panicking and heading down to a small rake on the Brittle side which led with some difficulty beyond the south peak to the south ridge.  As I scrambled own to the rake my self-loathing of this gripping fear reached new levels. You complete dick – this ground is far more difficult than the ridge itself. But I could cope with more technical ground as long as the exposure was reduced. 
I doubled back along the south ridge which yielded easily to the cairn above. The reverse view of the Greadaidh ridge clearly showed the north peak to be higher. This was a double blow – not only was all that faff and fear to reach the south peak unnecessary but so was the current prospect of the return and the possibility of a screaming descent into the depths of Coruisk.  You complete and utter dick.  Bring the guidebook.

Rain on gabbro and slick scree and steep grass. Somewhere above us in the deep mist the pinnacle sat leaning back against Sgurr Dearg. About 2000 feet up under a vague crag we thought better of it and turned back down. The wind blew squalls and showers into our backs all the way down Corrie Lagan and the sheep fouled path to the Hostel. 

Pinnacle Ridge on a day of swirling mist. The first three pinnacles yielded to easy and relaxed scrambling before we gathered ourselves above the big drop and uncoiled the rope . The climb went by quickly before I found myself tottering on exposed slabs high up on the summit peak of Gillean. The world sloped downward at a constant angle all around me. Anywhere else it would have been horrible but the combination of sticky gabbro and mist obscured exposure made it work for me and shortly the summit somehow appeared on my left. Given that the ridge was taken head on we must have been hugely off route but I did not care - the top was tiny but reassuringly flat.  We scrambled down the West ridge and descended to the screes down some slimy chimney since the continuation of the ridge was designated as dangerous after the recent suicide of the Gendarme.  Understandable – the exposure maybe got to him.  We reascended to Am Bhastier and trod the ridge ahead nervously waiting for the tricky section to appear.  I climbed down into a notch and scrambled up the other side. Once back up on the ridge we chatted across the narrow gap and agreed that the hard bits must be further on. Guinness took three steps back and then launched himself across the gap landing with a sprachle at my feet. ‘Easy’ he said. The top of Bhastier came with no further bad step but half sensed and awesome exposure down through the mist. Swirls of cloud moved verticality up the crags below the summit before curving and breaking over the top. Back down at the gap we concluded that he had in fact jumped the crux. Back on the screes Bruach na Frithe was now in sight beyond the vertical black monster crags of Bhastier. It would be my hundredth Munro so there would be no turning back today. The hill is an easy walk in comparison to what had gone before and for the first time the mist lifts to reveal the sea and rock of Skye. Unique and surreal scenery stretched down the spine of the Cuillin to its terminal peak pointing out towards Ardnamurchan and Rum.  Only the pterodactyls were missing.

The day of the pinnacle and the first surprise was immediate. The first few moves off the ground felt like real rock climbing. In fact all the way to the first stance seemed like a regular pitch.  Maybe it was the polished dolerite – if you ignored the exposure it could have been the crag outside Glasgow where I used to go top-roping.  As a strategy for the day that worked well for me -  ignore the exposure and think about top-roping.  Standing on the stance is a study in focus. On the screes below Roy had said ‘ keep the ball on the deck’ about 100 times and I repeated it as a mantra.  I can see the mainland from here – keep the ball on the deck – I can’t see the bottom of the Pin on either side but I can see straightdown to the corrie floors on either side – keep the ball on the deck.....
The last pitch is closer to horizontal than vertical but the sense of exposure is overwhelming.  The view stretches to 60 miles in all directions and is not obscured by anything other than a couple of feet of rock leading up to the bolster stone.   At the top there was a short wait on the flat while Roy sorts out the abseil and I concentrated on screening out my peripheral vision.  He called me down to the stance under the summit and clipped me to the nice sturdy chain. I assumed I was going first so when he set himself up and leaned back I felt the ball rising from the deck. 
‘You canny leave me up here, wee man – surely I should go first?’
‘Me first and then I can protect your ab -  or d’ye fancy swinging out round the face?’
‘Fair enough........’
He reached the slabs under the pinnacle and after a while shouted up for me to ab when ready.  I checked the descender  and the screwgate again and then again and then leaned back gingerly.  One or two scrabbly slips on the upper slab created the picture in my head of swinging free in space round the steep side before I reached the steeper rock beneath and then finally the terra firma of Sgurr Dearg.  The ball was back on the deck.  A pinnacle no longer inaccessible but I still had a lingering sense of my own unworthiness, a certainty that I had borrowed the bottle for the climb. Still this is how I would do this.

So these scattering of days on the ridge above the sea have taught me the Cuillin. I have the gabbro scars on my fingers and I have seen the roseroot on the screes. My boots have left careful prints in the black sand on the lochan in Grunnda and I have heard the eagles echo in Coruisk.  But I have also learned that my place is not here amongst the pinnacles and sparkling rocks of the Cuillin. All this is alien to me and I cannot love it - this other place of gravity between the sea and the deep blue Cuillin sky.

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