MUCH HAS CHANGED in the Munrobagging world since TAC first appeared in 1991: the boom in gear and guidebooks, the steady increase in paths and erosion, the rise of bunkhouses and independent hostels, the decline in the up-glen SYHA sector. All these have been discussed here and elsewhere, but one significant change in Munro methodology seems to have passed pretty much unnoticed: how people go about tackling the wonderful-but-daunting Skye Munros.
Munrobagging climbers tend to do the whole ridge in one go, or at least in sizeable chunks, just as they always have done and always will do. For others, it used to be a case of picking at the Cuillin piecemeal, as conditions and confidence allowed, roping in a climber friend for the trickier bits and repaying them with a few drinks afterwards. In recent years, however, more and more people are hiring commercial guides - there are half a dozen Skye-based ones to choose from for starters.
It is now quite common to "clear out" the Cuillin in a single trip, rather than the old approach of siege tactics spread over years or even decades. This in turn means that a lot of people get Skye "out of the way", in Munrobagging terms, far earlier in their campaign, quite often before the 150 mark is reached. By contrast, the approach adopted by the Ed (a non-climbing, nervous-scrambling, not-to-be-rushed bagger) has left him feeling rather old-fashioned. Strictly speaking, the Ed does not fit the sample here, being still a few eggs short of his Munro basket, but he has (between 1986 and 2005) climbed all the Skye ones. A rope was used twice, on the In Pinn (dry and sunny) and on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (wet but clearing), and a commercial guide was never contemplated, as the safety aspect was covered by a friend from the Skye MRT. (Thanks, Kevin.) Quite how many trips this entailed is lost in the mists of the isle itself, but it included several intended Cuillin raids abandoned due to poor weather. There have also been outings to the Red Cuillin, Trotternish, and less celebrated corners.
So is this desultory type of approach really on the decline? To test the thesis, six Munroists were asked the following questions: For how many (if any) of the Skye Munros did you employ a guide? How often did you tie on a rope? How many trips to Skye did it take before the 12 hills were chalked off? Can you recall what numbers in the round your first and last Skye Munros were? Here is what they said.
I climbed Bruach na Frithe (Munro no.138 for me) on my first visit to Skye with my wife Sheila in 1976, and Sgurr nan Gillean along with club colleagues at the May weekend in 1977. Neither time was with a rope, but I was aware of the exposure on Sgurr nan Gillean. I did not return to Skye until May 1988, by when I had done 265 Munros. A friend suggested I would be better off with a guide, so I did all the Munros in six days with Gerry Ackroyd and was only roped on the steep side of the Inaccessible Pinnacle - although Gerry always had a rope with him, just in case. The weather was mostly fine with only two days of clag. The best day was undoubtedly the In Pinn followed by Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, along Collie's Ledge to Sgurr Thearlaich, up Sgurr Alasdair then down the stone shoot.
I completed my Skye Munros on Am Basteir, which I found the most nerve-racking, being very aware that one slip on the descent would be my last. So three trips over 12 years. Glamaig in 2005 was my third-last Corbett, but no Skye Munros have been climbed since 1988. I still have two Skye Grahams to do and wonder if Marsco or Beinn Dearg Mhor will be left until near the end of those. Like my friend Donald Shiach, who had suggested hiring Gerry Ackroyd, for me, the thought of doing the Skye Munros twice precluded doing the Munros twice - and anyway I prefer doing new hills rather than repeating them (Dumgoyne excluded).
I didn't end up hiring any guides to tackle the Cuillin. Early scrambles with my dad progressed to tentative climbs with friends at university, and Skye was the next logical step. Overall, seven successful days were spent on the Skye Munros (four of which saw us carry and tie on to a rope at some stage), on three trips spread over four years.
My first visit was with three friends in September 1999 and my first Skye Munro, Sgurr Alasdair, was no.144. The planned traverse to the In Pinn saw us mistake a horrible, loose groove for King's Chimney, which lay further to the left. An unpleasant struggle up Sgurr Mhic Choinnich ended the day. The rest of the week was spent dodging the rain on lower hills. An attempt on the Bla Bheinn-Clach Glas ridge was abandoned in heavy rain, although Bla Bheinn itself was later climbed in thick mist by an easier route.
Two of us returned in May 2001 but didn't fare much better. The In Pinn and Sgurr na Banachdich proved straightforward, but not enjoyable in the mist and rain, particularly given the rising wind. The only other foray onto the ridge - Sgurr nan Eag - also gave us a soaking.
Ambitions had changed by the final trip, June 2002. Whereas we had always wanted to complete the Munros, growing confidence and experience (especially in the Alps) encouraged us to attempt the whole ridge in one go. We were even there in good weather for once. A preparatory ascent of Pinnacle Ridge and a traverse of Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe was followed next day by a scramble around Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh and Sgurr a'Mhadaidh. The Bhasteir Tooth gave us a nasty surprise, though: apparently it's generally known that an abseil straight off the top doesn't reach the bottom with a 50m rope, but we found out the hard way! Nevertheless, we were ready: on 7 June 2002 we started at 2:50am from Glen Brittle. Initially all went well, including my last remaining Skye Munro, Sgurr Dubh Mor (no.184 in my round). Trouble duly struck at the Thearlaich-Dubh gap. I led this and found it tiring in boots: polished with little to stop a fall back into the gap. Further delays came with routefinding problems at Bidein Druim nan Ramh, and the final straw was rain just before An Caisteal. We didn't think we would be able to climb Naismith's Route on the Tooth, given rain and tiredness, and didn't fancy a circuitous route around. So we admitted defeat, left the ridge via a rubble-filled gully and trekked back to Glen Brittle - 18 hours car-to-car.
I haven't been back since, but writing this makes me think that I'll give my friend a call - perhaps another attempt on the traverse is in order...
I employed a commercial guide for eight of the Skye Munros. The other four - Sgurr Alasdair, Bla Bheinn, Bruach na Frithe and Sgurr na Banachdich - I did with my husband Lindsay. Although he had previously climbed all the Skye Munros, he was reluctant to take me up some of the trickier ones, having witnessed me take a nasty tumble on Beinn Chabhair a few years earlier. In his opinion I needed "professional help"!
I was a bit apprehensive at the thought of hiring a guide unknown to me, and put the idea on the backburner, as I would need to find someone whom I felt I could trust. Then in July 2001 some friends who were nearing their own completions arranged a guide (Paddy McGuire) for various Cuillin peaks, so I thought it would be a good idea to join them for some of the time. On the first day they had arranged to do Sgurr nan Eag and Sgurr Dubh Mor. This gave me confidence in Paddy, so while most of the group had a rest the following day, three of us arranged to do the In Pinn with him. Strong winds prevented this, so Paddy and I ended up doing Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh and Sgurr a'Mhadaidh on a one-to-one basis - the other two dropped out having already done these. Climbing out of An Dorus was rather tricky for someone with short legs, and a rope was used on two or three occasions, particularly coming back down into An Dorus in heavy rain.
The following day, one of my friends had booked Paddy for Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, so I went along for that as well. The rope was used briefly a couple of times, but we were encouraged to walk up the slabby bits unassisted. The weather was misty to start with, then a brilliant clearance near the summit.
My next available holiday was in September that year, and I booked another guided trip in the hope of doing the In Pinn. On waking to a misty morning I assumed the plans would be changed, but Paddy was happy to stick to the main objective on the proviso that we went up the east ridge of the Pinnacle, as the rock would be too wet for the more direct ascent up the western side. A rope was used for this!
In August 2002 I booked Paddy for my remaining Cuillin Munros: Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean. I agreed that a couple of other people could join us, and we climbed Am Basteir first. The rope was used to abseil off the awkward step and then to reascend it. On the west ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean the rope was used for the ascent of a chimney and a tricky gap and bulge where the gendarme used to be. This was yet another misty day on the Cuillin, but when you book a guide in advance you really have to resign yourself to the fact that you might not get wall-to-wall sunshine. For three of the hills I did with Lindsay we managed to pick sunny days, but Sgurr Alasdair had been misty from Coire Lagan upwards.
So I hired a guide for two-thirds of the Skye Munros, with a rope being used occasionally. Total number of trips to the island was seven, with nine hill days. My first Skye Munro, Sgurr Alasdair on 21 June 1998, was no.59 on my list; my last one was Sgurr nan Gillean on 27 August 2002, no.267.
I have probably been luckier than most in my visits to Skye, having always managed to do something on the hills, although not exclusively of Munro standard. I have been sunburnt, soaked and scared witless, but every outing was an expedition with a story to tell afterwards.
My introduction to the Skye Munros in 1972 was a solo effort on Sgurr Alasdair via the Sgumain/Ciche stone shoot and the chimney to the right of the "mauvais pas". This was early in my bagging career, at no.50 in my list, but I had been doing a lot of easy climbing beforehand so felt quite comfortable on the rock - although I failed to find the way off the north end of Sgurr Thearlaich and had to retreat to the Great Stone Shoot. There was still runnable scree in it in those days: it took just 11 minutes to Lochan Coire Lagan.
Back at the lochan next day the mist was right down, but I bumped into a strange pair who had a rope (of sorts) and wanted to do the In Pinn. The older guy claimed to have been in Raven's Gully on the Buachaille with Chris Bonington, while his companion was a teenage novice with 1970s bell-bottomed jeans. I showed them the correct stone shoot and tagged along. The Pinnacle was dripping, so we continued along the ridge, finally descending off Sgurr a'Mhadaidh: three more Munros with an unnecessary bit of ropework somewhere on Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh and rapidly diminishing confidence in my companions. (At the Pinn, Bonington's pal had wanted to go down a greasy basalt dyke towards a 400m face. I managed to convince him against it, although he was adamant that a compass was useless on Skye. He also had a habit of lobbing stones off the side of the ridge and listening for how long it took before they hit something solid.)
Two days later the weather improved again - the aforementioned sunburn day - and I managed Sgurr nan Gillean, in spite of taking an "interesting" route into the upper corrie. Next year saw an easy day on Bruach na Frithe, followed by Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr nan Eag, where I was having my pieces at the cairn when the mist dropped to reveal a cloud sea below me and a higher cairn 100 metres away! The first of many failures on Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, tantalisingly close to the summit in a damp wind, finished that campaign.
On the next few trips I went back with mates and tended to attempt harder things, eg the Clach Glas-Bla Bheinn traverse (where the rope came in handy in a couple of places) and Am Basteir in 1978, where the rope gave confidence to one of the non-climbers. But conditions on the In Pinn and Mhic Choinnich knocked us back each time. It took until 1990, ten trips and nos.241 and 242 on my list, to claim these last two peaks, only genuinely needing a rope on the In Pinn.
I've done them all at least twice now, but (un)fortunately some pre-dated my first completion so I still have seven to repeat - including the In Pinn and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich! I'd better get round them again soon before I'm too old and/or have to hire a guide.
When my sons realised I was serious about the Munros and didn't have any rock-climbing friends, they gifted me an OS map of south Skye with two days of a guide thrown in. So in 1996 we rented a cottage near Carbost for a week in September and I chose Colin Threlfall from a list of Skye guides based on the island. (That's worryingly close to being called Colin Freefall, not the greatest of names for a Cuillin guide - Ed.) He took me up Sgurr a'Mhadaidh, Sgurr a'Ghreadaidh and Sgurr na Banachdich (nos.142-144) on the first day and had me on a rope along the sharper parts of the ridge. He then thought I could manage the In Pinn and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, which was arranged for three days later and for which I was on a rope. I hadn't abseiled before, so Colin lowered me off the In Pinn. Launching myself backwards was one of the scariest moments!
The weather was good, so I managed Bla Bheinn by myself on one of the intervening days. The following summer we returned to Skye. Colin had turned into a fish farmer, but I found Mike Lates, who on 31 August took me and an American girl up Sgurr nan Gillean and Am Basteir (nos.199 and 200). It was there that I heard about the death of Diana, which made it a slightly surreal day. The gendarme had fallen off by then, but I'm sure I was on a rope for the bit between Gillean and Am Basteir - I can't remember. The weather turned wet that week but my daughter and I managed up Bruach na Frithe before it got too bad.
That left the southern three, and Mike took me along them in September 1998 (nos.246-248). It was almost an anticlimax, as I didn't realise we had got to the top of Sgurr Alasdair, last of the three, until Mike sat down and said that's it! Going down the stone shoot wasn't much fun, but I didn't care.
So out of the 12 I had a guide for ten (one-to-one apart from the day with the American girl), did one with my daughter, and the other by myself. I couldn't have contemplated the ten without a guide. Also, being on the island for a week at a time gave some flexibility with the weather. The biggest advantage of having a guide was that he took all the decisions about weather and route and when to put me on a rope. I simply did what I was told and kept telling myself that it wasn't in his interests to kill a client.
It was a beautiful, cloudless afternoon in June 1963 when I reached Sligachan for the first time, having taken two days to hitch from St Andrews. I had just completed my final degree exams and was dying to make acquaintance with the hills I'd been reading about when I should have been studying. I'd heard of a minibus service to Glen Brittle run by a Willie Sutherland and asked at the bar when it ran. I was given Willie's phone number. He asked how many of us there were, and when he learned I was alone but "would be joined by others very shortly", he replied with great Hebridean courtesy, "I could be about an hour." After three hours of waiting I gave up and set off, heavily loaded, for the Bealach a'Mhaim. The tramp down Glen Brittle was hard on the feet, but I was intoxicated by my first sight of the western corries as the views opened up. Little did I realise that the peaks would reappear only briefly over the next nine days.
The priority on that trip was to explore and savour the Cuillin, not to bag peaks. I had been hillwalking for only eight months, so, to some extent, was relying on slightly more experienced pals. The first day was spent on Sron na Ciche, climbing to the Cioch in mist and, just as difficult, finding a safe way off. Next, we spent a day tramping round Gars-bheinn and back in order to inspect Coruisk. Two wet days followed when the only worthwhile walk was to visit the Eas Mor in Coire na Banachdich.
The usual noontime breakfast next day was rudely shattered by a call for volunteers to rescue an instructor who had fallen on Window Buttress. Forty frantic minutes later we reached her with the stretcher from the mountain rescue post at the farm. Then, marshalled by big Eley Moriarty, who became a real climber, we carried her down and handed her over to Portree MRT who met us on the lower slopes.
On day six I finally reached my first Skye Munro, Sgurr na Banachdich, in such thick mist that we soon abandoned any idea of progressing further. Another washout followed, so it was on my last full day that I returned to the ridge with three others. Route-finding was difficult in the thick wet mist, but we ascended the Great Stone Shoot to Sgurr Alasdair, then went over Sgurr Thearlaich, using the rope for the tricky little descent before Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. This was climbed via Collie's Ledge, then it was on to Sgurr Dearg and the In Pinn.
Three of us climbed it by the short west side; with the rock greasy and cold, I was glad of a top rope. One of my companions announced she did not know how to abseil, so we had to lower her gingerly before roping down by the classic method. At that time there was no sling to abseil off, so our rope was round a rock - and jammed when we tried to recover it. After half an hour of flicking and pulling, never mind effing and blinding, it came free and we were able to conclude our day with a brilliant run down the An Stac screes, which were more or less intact in those days. These were my first Skye Munros, nos.17-20 on that round.
A year later I was back with three friends and spent a week based in Glen Brittle. This time the ambition was to do the ridge in one go, but first to get some practice on rock and familiarise ourselves with the sections none of us had been on. Three fine days enabled us to climb first Sgurr Dearg, revisiting the In Pinn by the short side, then going along to Sgurr a'Mhadaidh. Then it was to the south end: Central Gully in Coire nan Laogh en route to Gars-bheinn. We returned over Sgurr nan Eag, went out to Sgurr Dubh Mor, then over the Thearlaich-Dubh gap where we needed the rope and on to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich which we climbed via King's Chimney, again using the rope. The third day of exploration was the round of Bruach na Frithe, the Bhasteir Tooth, Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean. Only on Naismith's Route on the Tooth was the rope used. By this time I had become a proud owner of Munro's Tables and was counting, so these were nos.74-80 on my first round. The ambition to complete the whole ridge was thwarted by the weather breaking down.
Never at any stage did I consider employing a guide. For one thing, guides on Scottish hills were as rare as hens' teeth in those days, Gwen Moffat being the only one I can recall. I have since met Pete Thomas on a couple of occasions, but not as a client, except to purchase a print of his wife's splendid drawing of the In Pinn. In addition, we were the proverbial penniless students and with the brashness of youth were confident we would manage - which we did.
For reasons such as getting married, starting a family and pursuing other Munros (my wife would emphasise the last), it was three years before I returned to Skye. At one point I considered that Bla Bheinn should be my last, but in the end it was no.273 of the then 277 total. It was climbed from the Clach Glas col and my companion wanted a top rope for the short awkward wall and the chimney before the summit. The 12 Munros were therefore climbed on three trips, six separate mountain days. Since then, I have been back on umpteen occasions acting as (unpaid) guide to friends who were not sure if they could cope with the Cuillin, but who managed fine.
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