by James Garner
Thousands of Brits may flock to Europe each year for their alpine fix, but there’s somewhere on our little island* that might just tick the box for the majority of you. This write up takes you on our little tour of Scotland’s Misty Isle: Skye.
*connected to the mainland via the aptly thought name; Skye Bridge, built in 1995.
In the 1700’s, Skye, and more specifically, its Black Cuillin mountain range, was ignored by the mountaineers of the day. The place was thought to be too difficult, too steep and too inaccessible. Instead, major peaks in the Alps were established and first ascents were conquered: Mont Blanc (1786), Titlis (1744), Mont Buet (1770). It wasn’t until 1836, fifty years after Mont Blanc was first summited, that Sgurr nan Gillean (thought to be the highest peak at 966m on Skye at the time) was climbed for the first time. When OS first mapped the Cuillin in the early 1900's, it found that Sgùrr Alasdair (992m) was in fact the most prominent peak.
Since that day where Duncan Macintyre and James Forbes went up and down the now known ‘tourist route’ before dinner (although it was their third attempt), others heard of their feat and slowly started attempting other peaks on the ridge; Bruach na Frithe (1845), Sgùrr na Banachdaich and Sgurr Alasdair (1873), Sgùrr Dearg and it’s Inaccessible Pinnacle (1880).
After over 100 years, with a complete traverse done (Shabolt + McLaren, 1911 in just over 12 hours!), and all the major and mini peaks of Skye have been 'bagged', what does one do next? Find the most obscure and unique way to the top of course! Below is a list we have put together of the finest mountaineering routes you will find on the Isle of Skye, found by historical and infamous names dating back dozens if not now hundreds of years, you too can follow in the footsteps of legends.
1. Pinnacle Ridge, Sgùrr nan Gillean
This peak at the northern end of the ridge has developed a number of options to the top over the years. Most notably, Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean’s northern end. A grade 3 scramble throughout, with a few abseils for good measure, it’s a sure way of earning your whisky and haggis at the Sligachan Hotel, situated at the start and end of your mega day out.
The start is thankfully a delightful walk, with the target insight at all times. Once you start getting on rocky ground, it can be difficult to find the true start of the scramble so a bit of advice would be to make sure you have plenty of time in the day and plan beforehand so you have a good idea of where it will be. Once the start proper has been found, there a few route choices. This will all depend on your ability, confidence and weather, Pinnacle Ridge can be done by a novice with a guide or experienced mountain goat alike.
A good suggestion would be to bring a rope so you can safely abseil rather than down climb some of the sections. The rope can also be used for someone who may have a bit of a wobble from the exposure. Once you summit Knights Peak, a subsidiary of Sgurr nan Gillean, the hard scrambling is over and you can look forward to one of the best views the island has to offer.
2. Dubhs Ridge, Sgùrr Dubh Mòr
Remote, wild, long, friction slab, a boat ride as an approach and a Munro at the top. ‘Doing the Dubhs’ is one of the best days out anyone can have even if you could get a plane anywhere in the world.
Situated at the south east end of the Cuillin Ridge and above the isolated loch Coruisk, ‘The Slabs’ is a 1km continuous Moderate scramble/climb on grippy Gabbro rock. The highlight is definitely the route itself, but getting there is also memorable. Catching the boat from Elgol is far more favourable than the walking option: a 14 mile round trip, although this option is just as scenic as the boat option.
As for the climbing, it's immaculate, the crux is short-lived with very positive holds, although above some pretty exposed positions! It's not far from the summit of Sgùrr Dubh Beag, once there, an abseil is advisable, otherwise it's a S/HS down climb. From there the Munro of Sgùrr Dubh Mor (944m) awaits.
If reading this and doing more essential research doesn't get you giddy, watching a guy ride his bike down it on Youtube before it will sure get you psyched!
Our MD, Andy Hyslop wrote up a good description for the entire route, which can be found here.
Above: Lock Coruisk looking towards the Red Cuillin on a typical autumnal Skye day and the start of The Slabs.
3. The Clach Glas - Blàbheinn (Blaven) Traverse
Clach Glas is relatively small peak (786m), located north east of the only Munro on Skye not on the main Cuillin Ridge; Blàbheinn. What Clach Glas lacks in height, it sure makes up for in detail and character. Often known as the 'Matterhorn' of Skye (see photo below), it's a mountaineers dream if you need a relatively quick fix. It's also fantastic practice for the Cuillin Ridge Traverse (see No. 8).
Start off at the idyllic inlet of Loch Slalpin, opposite the hamlet of Torrin. Start following the tourist path up to Blaven but soon head off east for the slog up the summit of Sgùrr nan Each, to reach the summit a bit of scrambling is needed and a few small down-climbs. This is good practice for what's to come. Once you eventually get to the bealach between the two summits of Sgùrr nan Each and Clach Glas, this is where the proper scrambling begins. With a mix of gabbro and basalt, be sure to know what is slippy and what isn't, especially on a damp day.
After a fantastic start, with a precarious move below a small cave, head right to the summit of 'The Imposter' and the summit of Clach Glas itself. Once you very carefully down-climb from here, turn around to see a quite intimidating Skye Matterhorn. From there, route finding gets a bit difficult before reaching 'The Putting Green', the only place safe enough for a deserved rest. From there, it's on to the summit of Blaven, but not before the crux. An almost single move up to VD, and treacherous in the wet. A Diff chimney follows and then it's the tourist route to the top of Blaven and back down.
On a clear day, you get views of the whole Cuillin Ridge, as well as most of the island, mainland Scotland, Harris & Lewis as well as other Scottish isles. It's an absolute must when you're on Skye.
4. Naismith's Route; Bastier Tooth, Am Bàstier
If you're going to attempt the Cuillin Ridge at some point, then doing Naismith's Route beforehand is a sure way to improve your percentage of a successful traverse. It's a very exposed route but relatively easy climbing up to VD, although not a hard grade, it is often known as the crux of the traverse because of how far you've already come, with the end in sight. Mental and physical tiredness will be a huge factor in even wanting to attempt it or not. The Lota Corrie route is an alternative option for those not wanting to attempt it on a ridge traverse.
Having a day out on the ridge to do Naismith's Route is a long and brilliant day in its own right. Start off at the Sligachan Hotel and summit Bruach na Frithe (the only top on the ridge with an Ordnance Survey Pillar), often known as the 'easiest' of the 12 Munro's on Skye. Choose the peaks' north western crest for a bit of a scramble and a nice introduction to the ridge and what's to come. Head north to the bealach before the Bastier Tooth, which can be seen from the hotel on a rare clear day, it's not called the Misty Isle for nothing! Standing below the Tooth is a sure way to get you psyched, it's a monster. 50m of VD climbing (although likely to be graded S soon enough due to it being polished and missing a few gear placements nowadays) and two pitches, you will eventually summit the Bastier Tooth and onwards carefully to the Munro of Am Bàstier (934m).
Continue north towards towards Bealach a' Bhàstier and if you have time, a short roped climb (you will abseil back down this way) to Sgùrr nan Gillean. Head down Coire a' Bhàstier for the 'easiest' descent, or if time is on your side and you're not too mentally drained, head down SNG's Pinnacle Ridge!
Above: The Bastier Tooth shown from the road near Sligachan, just right of centre and The Bastier Tooth, up close just before the summit of the Munro, Am Bhàstier.
5. Sgùrr na Stri
Although small in comparison to many Scottish peaks, Sgùrr na Stri (497m) has what many believe to have the best view in the UK. As well as this, there's a pretty epic way to get to the top of it as well; a grade 2/3 scramble on exquisite slab.
Just like the Dubh Slabs, the best way to approach Sgùrr na Stri is by Misty Isle Boat from Elgol. Arrive at Loch Coruisk and head south east, crossing the Scavaig River and traversing the bottom of Sgùrr na Stri. Before arriving at the start of the scramble, you have to navigate round 'The Bad Step', which is exactly what it sounds like, stay high to get round it, slip and you're in the sea! Other options is the long slog from Kilmarie, and past Camasunary Bay, which is remote and idyllic and worth a visit in itself. This route does miss out 'The Bad Step' but is a lot longer.
Eventually, leave the coastal path and start up to the ridge. Due to the nature of the slabs and the angle of it, it's a go-where-you-please route. Stick to the harder lines if you wish but it's all only up to grade 3 scrambling max. Try and stay away from the gullies for a more fun experience. The descent is simple enough, head north towards Captain Maryons Monument, located on your map, and you'll soon find a track heading north back towards Loch Coruisk and your Misty Isle Boat.
This route should always be done on a clear day, as the view is really what you came here for. Upon getting to the top, head slightly north for a full panorama view of the whole Cuillin Ridge. With Gars-bheinn on your left at the southern end of the ridge, and Sgùrr nan Gillean at its most northerly point on the right, it really will give you a huge grin from ear to ear, if it doesn't, then you've chosen the wrong day and there's cloud in the way.
Above: Left: Sgurr na Stri with Camsunary Bay in the foreground and the Black Cuillin peaking out behind with Gars-bheinn to the left. Right: The Bad Step, unavoidable if approaching from Loch Coruisk.
6. The Cioch
High above Coire Lagan, lies an historical masterpiece: The Cioch. Norman Collie first stumbled across this grand rock spectacle in 1906, which begs the question, why only in 1906? It's due to its location and angle, it's really hard to see because of it's shadow and dark gabbro rock. Once found, for anyone, it's sure to prove to be a memorable day.
Used as a movie set for the movie, Highlander, The Cioch has become a climbing mecca and a must for any mountain lover visiting Skye. Start from arguably the best campsite to ever exist at Glenbrittle and head south east towards Coire Lagan. A guidebook is strongly advisable due to its location, you're likely to miss it otherwise.
Once you have hopefully found the base, take a pick from the numerous mountainerring routes up it, eventually topping out on Sgùrr Sgumain. Collie's Route (M), Cioch Direct (S), Arrow Route, (VD), Slab Corner (D) and the Cioch Nose (VD). Cioch Direct is the most sought-after, it's 150m of pure excellence. There are several others in the guidebooks so do your research and be sure to come back a few times as each route is totally different.
Historical, hidden and an absolute classic with mesmerising views of mountain and sea, what's not to like?
7. An Stac and the Inaccessible Pinnacle
The Inaccessible Pinnacle (also known as In Pinn), the only Munro that requires rock climbing to get to the summit. Its most travelled route, the East Ridge, graded at Moderate, although slippy in the wet from its basalt rock, is the most obvious choice but there are plenty of others to choose from.
This is a complex and complicated route, with a compass (and even a map) not being much use. However, bring a Harvey Map for the approach and descent. Skye's Cuillin Ridge Traverse book is the best there is for anything Cuillin related, with in-depth descriptions throughout. Section 5 of the book will help with this serious mountaineering route.
Head up Coire Lagan from Glenbrittle, heading to Bealach Coire Lagan. From there head up the rather impressive An Stac. Although avoidable to reach the base of the In Pinn, you're missing out on the best part of this route. It is the longest vertical section on the ridge with grade 3 scrambling throughout. Once on it, it is unavoidable so continuing upwards is your only option. The route itself is quite complex, so be sure to read up and make sure your route finding skills are in tip top shape. From the top, it's a simple descent to the base of the In Pinn.
Numerous routes can be taken to the top of the In Pinn, mainly in two pitches and most require an amazing abseil at the end unless you want to either down-climb the Moderate route you might have just climbed up, or down-climb the abseil route!
After your likely abseil, summit Sgurr Dearg (this actually used to be the true Munro summit), and head down Coire na Banachdich back to Glenbrittle. If you've got time, the scramble up to the Munro of Sgùrr na Banachdaich is brilliant and highly recommended. Head towards Sgùrr nan Gobhar and down to the road if you choose this option.
Above: Left: An Stac, with the climbers behind right shoulder of subject climber for scale. Right: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, rising 7 metres above the summit of Sgurr Dearg and behind, Sgùrr Alasdair (the highest peak on Skye) and The Great Stone Chute. The abseil line is down this face of the In Pinn.
8. The Cuillin Ridge Traverse
The pinnacle of all traverses. The longest continuous alpine route in Europe (I know, I didn't believe it either), over 12km of continuous scrambling, over 4000m of ascent and descent (about half of Everest and that's excluding the approach and walk back to the car). This is without doubt the most difficult continuous ridge in the United Kingdom. This is no small feat, and should be respected and planned meticulously.
This mountaineering route was put last on the list because all of the other routes described can easily be done in a day, this takes a lot of physical stamina and lots of experience to be done in less than 24 hours. Most parties opt for a 2 day option. As well as this, we have also done a more in depth guide for the full traverse, which can be found here.
Above: Left: One of many sublime views, this one looking back towards Sgùrr Alasdair and The Great Stone Chute. Right: Somewhere near the summit of Bruach na Frithe.
There's hundred of other options and a few alternative routes on Skye can be found below:
1. The Trotternish Ridge - not a mountaineering route, but one of the finest ridge traverses in Britain. A two day traverse rather than one is highly recommended to appreciate the crazily unique beauty of north eastern Skye. The 22.75 mile route starts at the geological weirdness of The Quiraing in the far north and ending at the island capital, Portree. For the fell and trail runners, this is your paradise.
2. The Skye Trail - A 79.6 mile unofficial route from the far north, covering the Trotternish Ridge like above but continuing south, visiting remarkable but little visited coastal cliffs, taking in steep trails above high drops, and passing through haunting deserted villages destroyed in the cruel Highland Clearances. It later passes beneath the very shadow and heart of the Cuillin and ending in the southern village of Broadford.
3. The Red Cuillin - for those who might need something easier than its scarier bigger brother. Offering steep curved hills with Glamaig as its highest point (775m). The views across to the Black Cuillin are worth the sweaty work.
4. The Greater Cuillin Ridge Traverse - thought the original Traverse was difficult? Try adding on Sgurr Beag and Sgurr na h-Uamha, followed by Garbh Bheinn, Clach Glas and Blaven. The ridiculous route is around 20 miles of distance and 4000m of height gain alone.
This article is a rough guide only, and all of these routes should not be taken lightly. Our suggestion would be to first buy a guidebook for the route(s) you would like to do and plan, plan and plan again. Experience is key, and if you think you haven't got it, go and get some in other areas of the UK first, or hire a mountain guide. These people know what they are doing on Skye and will keep you in safe hands and make sure you have an absolutely amazing day out in the best mountaineering playground in the UK.
Useful guidebooks + maps
Other useful blogs
Above: Left: Bealach Coire na Banachdich. Right: Sgùrr nan Gillean with its Pinnacle Ridge to the left.
Below: A panoramic video from the top of Sgùrr nan Gillean. First showing the Red Cuillin and Blaven, then the entire Black Cuillin Ridge.