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Isle of Skye: Cuillin Ridge Traverse | The Basics

by James Garner

The Black Cuillin mountains are located on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. This unique range of hills offers the most challenging mountaineering environments in the UK, with a successful traverse of the the 12km long ridge involving over 4000m of ascent and descent. This is a serious challenge and must only be undertaken by experienced climbers/scramblers armed with adequate equipment and provisions. 

How hard is the Cuillin Ridge?

The ridge itself is a monster, featuring 22 summits, 11 of which are Munros. The route takes on grade 2-3 scrambling throughout and a number of classic true climbing pitches, graded up to Severe - namely The TD Gap (HS), King’s Chimney (VD), The In Pinn (M) and Naismith’s Route (S) on Am Bhastier.

The traditional start for a non-winter attempt is at the southern end of the ridge at the top of Gars-bheinn. The approach is a 6.75km walk from Glenbrittle campsite, with the last few kilometres being an arduous scree-slog right to the summit. Alternatively, you can catch the boat from Elgol to Lock Coruisk. 

The descent is from the final peak and Munro, Sgurr nan Gillean. Make sure you have organised transport back to your car in Glenbrittle or Elgol or be prepared to thumb a lift or catch the bus, not ideal considering how tired you'll likely be. 

Is the Skye Cuillin Ridge dangerous?

Unlike most of the UK's ridge walks, the Skye Ridge provides complex navigational challenges, with route finding often proving awkward and errors leading to dead ends above massive drops.

A successful attempt requires planning (ideally doing sections of the ridge beforehand), good navigation (a compass is almost useless due the magnetic effects of the rough and sticky gabbro rock ), good weather and the ability to move quickly on exposed terrain. Be warned, only 5% of first timers (who haven't been on the ridge before) attempting a full Cuillin Ridge traverse complete it.

When's the best time of the year to do the Skye Cuillin Ridge?

Spring, particularly early in the season, tends to offer the best periods of weather on the Ridge with dry rock on the crest linked by old snow patches for a real Alpine outing, it's also before the Highland Midge arrives! It also goes without saying, that you are definitely more likely to be successful when the forecast is favourable. Rain will leave the sections of basalt rock extremely slippy and even the predominant gabbro rock, while gripper in the wet, can still prove treacherous.

How long will it take to do the Skye Cuillin Ridge?

You can either choose to go light and fast and try and do it in a day, or go for a two day option and bivvi 3/4 of the way along, ideally at Bealach na Glaic Mor, getting to here will make your second day that bit easier. Either option is equally good, but you need to be quick and confident at scrambling if you are attempting it in a day. Attempting it over 2 days almost guarantees a completion due to having the necessary kit to stay on the ridge, but the climbs will be harder due to heavier packs.

Below: John Hooson enjoying spring conditions on the Ridge, just below the summit of Sgùrr MhicChoinnich.

Skye Ridge Basics Guide

What equipment will I need for the Skye Cuillin Ridge?

Pack light. If you are attempting it over 2 days, along with the appropriate clothing and footwear, you’ll need a bivvi bag (there isn't many places for even the smallest of tents), light/compact camping mattress, a stove and adequate dry food.

There are places along the ridge you can fill up water bottles so a max of 2 litres is all that’s required, 1.5 litres for a 1 day attempt. Just remember to drink plenty in the days leading up to your traverse. There are also places you can stock up on water, but it means descending from the ridge to find it. 

Footwear: this could be the make or break for any successful traverse. Accomplished climbers/fell runners, looking for a fast ascent, will likely utilise a pair of quality approach shoes/mids, while those wanting a bit more support, protection from scree and reliable edging should opt for a solid pair of B1 rated boots. Whichever option you go for, ensure your footwear provides a high quality rubber sole - providing good levels of traction on open rock.

Clothing (assuming the weather is relatively clement): As with any trip into the mountains, good quality socks are a must. Trousers are recommended, as they'll offer protection from both biting winds and rocks. A merino base layer will offer more warmth, while a synthetic base layer provides improved breathability/wicking properties - choose based on the temperatures. A minimalist insulation layer (hooded version ideally) and equally light waterproof are essential, some light but tough gloves for protection from the wind and rock and a light hat.

Food: Take less than you might think you’ll need, but lots of high calorie snacks; nuts, raisins, chocolate and sugary sweets, energy gels will keep energy levels high.

Along with these snacks, dried camping food packs are recommended for two day attempts. These are really high in calories, extremely light and only require the addition of hot water. If possible opt for the ~800kcal versions, as these give you maximum bang for your buck.

Will I need climbing gear for the Skye Cuillin Ridge?

Yes, although your gear rack will need to be light. The pitches aren’t too long and wires 3-9 will likely suffice. Two or three screwgates and two or three 120cm slings (or more if you want to utilise the innumerable threads available). A 40m single rope will be the maximum length you'll need as this will cover the longest abseil, take a simple belay device or better still utilise an Italian/Munter hitch for both abseils and belays. Minimalists will utilise a sling as a harness, those who desire a little more comfort can opt for a lightweight alpine style harness.

Other essentials to take with you will be a first aid kit, head torch (with spare batteries/power pack), emergency shelter (on a one day attempt, as you will have your bivvi kit on a 2 day traverse) and helmet.

Kit list at a glance (full details above)

Finally

Just because we’re in the UK, don’t underestimate this traverse, it’s one of the longest continuous Alpine style routes in Europe and many fail at a first attempt. But a completion is an incredible feat and will 100% be worth all the planning and tenacity to get to the end!

Please note: this is just a basic, introductory guide to the Skye Cuillin Ridge Traverse. Our advice would be to plan, plan and plan again before making an attempt. Read up from different web sources and guidebooks and ideally make prior attempts on sections of which you are unsure.