At full speed on the Isle of Skye

by Guillaume Beutier

Skye. Sky. Whisky. It's not a coincidence if these 3 words have similarities. On the Isle of Skye, the sky and the whisky are among the things that the island carves in your memory. Together with the Black Cullin of course, supposedly the first centre of interest for the OMC team on our week-end there.

Cullin Ridge
The Cullin Ridge with the Basteir Tooth and Sgurr nan Gillean

Let's kill the suspense before anybody dares to think we achieved anything: Skye was too fast for us! Too fast the sky, too fast the clouds flying over the island, changing rain into sunshine and vice versa before our brain managed to come up with any plan. Too fast the whisky passing by and disappearing from the bottles. Too fast the sunset, despite very long days, catching the bravest of us on the ridge. Too fast the Cullin Ridge, flying away under our feet in our crazy attempt to join both ends. Too fast Therese's car in Andy's hand, learning to become a formula 1 driver. Too fast the time, bringing the week-end to its end, despite extra days off, before we managed to embrace the infinite possibilities offered by the ridge to enthusiastic mountaineers.

But we don't have to be ashamed, our projects were ambitious. A first team (Julie, Richard P and Nick) was sent ahead, flying to Glasgow, to settle the headquarters, establish contact with the local authorities (Jerry and his friends), and attempt the traverse of the Black Cullin (by its shortest dimension). The strategy was quite surprising, as it was decided to abandon the car on the other side of the ridge and to forbid any retreat by taking a one-way ferry, committing the entire team to success, with only a faint hope of external help for the logistics. To make sure the surprise was total, the ascent began around midday, in case the mountain would have been on its guard by the sunrise. The plan worked very well indeed, and Sgurr Dubh Beag was conquered by the Dubh Ridge without any major difficulty, followed by Sgurr Dubh Mor. Moment of glory, but it's too late already. The Cullin wouldn't let such humiliation go unpunished. It's a matter of honour! Hey, we're in Scotland after all! And so began the long and perilous journey down to the headquarters. Only thanks to their world famous mountaineering and orientation skills, whilst descending to the valley, the team were caught by the night in steep and slippery slopes, out of reach from the civilized world.

Dubh Ridge
Nick on the Dubh Ridge.

In the meantime, the second team (Therese, Delphine, Andy and me) arrived on the island with no less ambition. We had the great advantage to count a local guide and no English members in the team ;). Due to our late arrival, we left the headquarters just before midday, without any clue that not so far away, the first team was only starting its ascent too. In order to acclimatise to the local environment, we decided to climb the Cioch - a proud gendarme under the main ridge. Just like the first team, we reached the summit without any difficulty, and Delphine can be proud of her first ever climb. Properly awaken by the arrival of the first team on the summit, the mountain suddenly became aware of us, and decided to add some spice to our project, to be fair with the first team: Tourist climbers appeared from nowhere and considered it clever to join the exiguous summit before we had left it. Precious time and two screwgates were lost, but we finally reached the safe ground and joined the headquarters in time for whisky.

Two Highlanders arguing on top of the Cioch about who should be the only one...

...later in the night, after many glasses were emptied and the loss of any hope to see our mates ever again had forced us to bed, the first team finally arrived, screaming for beer and whisky!

Some of the finest Scottish weather occurred during the next two days. Buying whiskey and drinking it became the main activity. Little was achieved outdoor, but let's mention Jim's great logistic effort to help the first team recover its hired car. I wonder why: it was surely covered against theft. The Old Man of Storr and some of the finest wet rocks of Skye were observed from places not too far from car parks.

The sky cleared with the bottles on the third evening, allowing my first swim of the year, and decent projects to be built for the next day. Therese, Andy and I aimed to achieve what we came for: the full traverse of the ridge of the Black Cullin (along its length). The strategy of the late start having shown its limits, we opted for a very early start, at 3 am. The full traverse of the Black Cullin is normally done in two days with a bivouac on the ridge, but my French taste for alpine style, backed up by the weather conditions and a couple of glasses of whisky, finally convinced Therese and Andy to give up this strange idea to carry extra kilos of camping gear. So, early we left, full of confidence, and reach the ridge with the sun. Everything then was just great ridge scrambling, amazing landscape, and time wasting. Until the famous "TD gap": a master piece of unprotected, airy and polished V Diff. Andy's climbing shoes were having a comfortable time in the hut and Therese's stomach was having an argument with an apple, so I had to do it. I had a very good time, stuck a few feet above the belay point, in the sun, exploring various options to compensate the lack of both holds and gear placements, and wondering where my mental skills had gone for holidays and why I was not born a Clansman instead of a lazy Parisian. In the mean time, my partners were freezing in the cold shadow of the TD gap. After my last unsuccessful attempt, a retreat was decided and soon the ambitious project was abandoned and changed into a nice lunch break followed by a long nap in the sun. An ascent of Sgurr Alistair (highest summit of the Black Cullin) by its SW ridge, including the interesting "bad step" (Scottish V Diff), was done to restore our (my?) pride. We reached the hut on time for dinner (and whisky). That day, our skin didn't waste a single photon of sun.

Old Man of Storr
The Old Man of Storr.

In the meantime, Delphine and Jim, on top of the Inaccessible Pinnacle, were looking far ahead to try to see us. Of course we were far behind and never reached that point.

Finally, let's mention the real epic of the week-end: the first team missed their plane in Glasgow (ah, Bank Holiday traffic!) and had to drive back to Oxford in a hired car.

For sure, we'll be back. Stronger. Or not.