Mark BullockMark is a passionate climber, whose dream days are spent soloing easy routes in the big hills, dashing down at last light for pizza. He’s a writer, qualified Mountain Leader & Climbing Instructor, and has even won a few photography awards.
I’m not quite sure how to shape and express my thoughts on our recent traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye. But waiting until a later date to put pen to paper feels wrong. Then it becomes ‘this thing I once did’. I want to capture my feelings as they are now, even if what manifests is incoherent streams of consciousness, because the reality of events doesn’t tally up to the profound feelings they’ve generated. Those feelings are greater than the sum of their parts.
Libby and I had been planning a Skye trip for 18 months. Neither of us had ever done the full Black Cuillin Traverse, and quickly agreed to try it together. But as soon as the words were out of my mouth I panicked. Libby is fitter than me, a vastly better climber, she has more experience soloing and she’s a Mountain Guide. Basically, I knew I’d have to step up to not embarrass myself, or let her down.
I started training. As well as running and solo circuits near my home in Devon, I spent a week in Snowdonia getting some mountains in my legs and my head into gear. But I had mixed success. I had a dream day on my own on Tryfan’s East Face. But I backed off on others. I ran the Snowdon Horseshoe in under 2 hours. I also down-climbed ignominiously from over half height on the incredible California Arete, in the quarries. That is an itch I’ll go back and scratch. So practice, but perfect not made.
We arrived late on Skye, to fine weather. Regardless, we wrote off an attempt the next day, because of car weariness. We used that day instead to recce the middle section with the most concentrated section of route finding and trickier climbing. It was glorious, but I came down pooped and chastened. The climbs felt goey, even on rope.
“Don’t be despondent,” Libby sagely told me. “We’re tired, with heavy rucksacks. It will feel much easier in running gear with light hydration vests.”
The next day it rained, and got really bloody windy. Marginal forecasts turned poor. Wet and windy became a theme and we wondered if foolishly we’d foregone the only good day of our window. We filled these days checking out the other crags on the island, Neist Point, Old Man of Storr, Kilt Rock, while the wonderful Elgol provided some distraction from the elephant in the room. We might not get our chance.
Giving the weather every chance, we resisted the urge to head south a day early and try to get something done on The Ben or in The Lakes. Instead delaying our departure as late as possible, gambling that if Saturday yielded a nice day, even a half day, then a mammoth drive Sunday and straight back to work on Monday would be worth it. The little weather window we saw on Saturday morning turned out to be the prime slot for one of the best days in the hills either of us had ever had. Good things do come to those who wait.
The day started with a 4am alarm. It was already light. Midsummer this far north sees only a strange twilight between midnight and 3ish. I ate as much granola as I could poke down, drank a litre of water wishing I could force more in, scoffed a banana and brushed teeth. Already packed bags were shouldered, and we walked away from Glen Brittle campsite, in a fairly sombre silence.
After a deliberately slow energy-conserving amble, we turned abruptly left to begin the slog up Gars Bheinn, a section that the guidebook calls ‘an early test of character’. I can say without melodrama, that by the top, all the chat from Libby that we’d cruise in, sit around chatting and eating, have a stretch and then go for it, was utter tosh – I was knackered. Before 8am. A Danish pastry partially picked me up. I applied all my spare layers, and added cold to knackered.
Chill hastened, we set off. Months of waiting, preparing, training and researching, dreaming and yearning, and suddenly we were running.
I was jerky, stumbling a little, so overtook Libby to try and find some rhythm and get warm. That pace stopped abruptly at the first inclines of Sgurr nan Eag, where I also abruptly stopped being cold. Libby had consigned the route description to memory – ‘left here, right at this pinnacle, pick up this contour path’ – so it would have been wiser (obvious, you might think) to keep her within earshot rather than hare off following my nose. Fortunately, the hills slapped the spaniel-psyche out of me, and she caught up, looking decidedly less sweaty and gaspy. Despite Libby being an uber-experienced British Mountain Guide, and me a bumbling ML, and her having revised the route while I only revised scenarios of falling to my doom, I couldn’t help myself but to repeat “I think it’s this way” far too often.
Still surprised that we were actually doing it, we approached the infamous TD Gap with controlled urgency. I had a quiet word with myself. You’ve trained and waited for this chance Marky, it would be a great shame to bottle it now. As extra protection from the fear-sobs, I’d carried my climbing shoes. As I sat and put them on I felt nervous. The down climb was fine. But watching Libby on the climb out of the Gap gave me cause for concern. She didn’t like it. This wasn’t in the script. Doing it in fell shoes, and not as tall as me, she’d found on the recce that she needed to do two more moves than me to reach a jug rail, and these involved insecure palms and small shiny edges for feet. Wearing trainers, I could hardly blame her for hesitation. I didn’t like it either, and I could lank it to the jugs.
I offered to make her feel better by reminding her what a bad climber looks like. Caught up in the moment, conscious brain silently chastising me. Wait! the heck are you doing? This hasn’t been signed off?
At the top, Libby’s head appeared while I was reapplying my running shoes. “Interesting decision to go feet off on that move.” Inspiring her with ineptitude had worked.
You’ve trained and waited for this chance Marky, it would be a great shame to bottle it now
Sgurr Alisdair, Thearlaich, and Mhic Choinnich, passed quickly and easily. Confidence and energy were high. By King’s Chimney I was in the zone. Soloing was just an extended form of scrambling and there was no way I was going to fall. Laughing and joking, with three of the graded climbs done, it felt like we were half way.
The sun was beaming, we were beaming, and we were making good progress. In this mild euphoria the Inaccessible Pinnacle was a cruisy bask. With no-one at the bottom we started up the improbable blade, casually chatting away. I’d done this years ago, but had no actual memory of the views out to the right – on account of the mind-bending exposure. This time was a romp. We were elated at the top.
Two pairs were rigging abseils so we reversed the East Ridge. At the bottom, two guys roping up asked how we planned to tackle An Dorus. Without ropes we only had one tactic, which seemed to alarm them, but their eye-brow raises only bolstered my confidence.
Over the top of Sgurr Dearg and on towards Banachdich, physically half way, we started to flag. I had a gel, and a bar, and drank more than I’d rationed. But the climb to the next summit from the Bealach dragged, and I palmed my knees to aid upward progress.
The guidebook says the next section is ‘the mind numbing middle section’, and calls it ‘interminable’. Sans recce it felt slow and exploratory. Greadaidh, May Day and Bidein Druim nan Ramh were confusing. ‘Three Tops’, ‘Three Teeth’ and ‘Three Pinnacles’, these landmark names didn’t help either. We were sure the guidebook sent us left when we should have gone right, right when we should have gone left. I twice questioned Libby (wrong again, both times), and we belly crawled a horizontal cleft above a void that was so off route it would have made for fun viewing for anyone across the coire.
“Lib? Do we actually know which mountain we’re on?” She laughed an admission back at me and kept going. There was a notable zig-zagged down climb at An Dorus that refocused the mind, but the rest of that section is a blur. I remember wanting to tell her my knees hurt and that my legs were tired but then deciding to keep quiet. What was she going to say? Aww, you poor poppet..?
I managed to keep those thoughts to myself for about twenty minutes.
“My knees hurt… And my legs are tired.”
We ran out of gas here. By Bruach na Frithe I was done in. I had about 100ml of water left and was very thirsty.
“We could just stop here couldn’t we?” said Libby. “I mean, that will do, won’t it?” I was drenched in sweat, had been for hours, my knees had aged 20 years.
Am Basteir was disgusting, but by the time we were slogging up Gillean I could feel the joy. We’d done it, no more difficulties, not as fast as we wanted but in perfect weather and with no mishaps. But then Libby inexplicably went all direttissima on me (yes it is unfair of me to criticise the person who did all the route-finding) and took us up a dark, wet, bottomless gully. An unexpected sting in the tale. I cursed under my breath as she disappeared out of ear shot. But even on a semi-serious ad-hoc solo, in a fatigued and woozy state, I still felt a surge of confidence. At this stage – I felt I could basically climb anything. No idea what the grade was, it didn’t matter, by now we were pretty much at one with everything.
Topping out to see her smiling on the summit, we hugged, giddy and giggly. There were two stout Geordies on the top of Gillean.
“What have youse two done?”
“The Ridge,” Lib replied modestly.
“Aye but what part? Where from like?”
“All of it.”
[Astonished look] “But it’s only half past 2 youse must be ninjas?!” We laughed as they surveyed our packs. “Have youse not carried ropes or gear?! Solo’d all climbs ‘n’ abseils? Jeeezus! Pair o’ space cadets!”
We offered a tot of our summit Talisker. Kicking off our shoes and sitting in the warm sun, we chatted and they told us about their day.
“Will you be in the Sligachan later, you must let us buy you both beers?”
“Clachaig hopefully, we might make a start to the journey South tonight”
“CLACHAIG!?! What are you driving man, a Delorean?!”
My legs were bruised and scraped, my feet were battered and disgusting, and I couldn’t use the finger-print recognition on my phone for a week
The walk out was a trudge. From the road by the Fairy Pools, we cadged a lift back to the car, got changed, then drove to dinner and more single malt in the Sligachan (he was right about the overly ambitious nature of making last orders in Glencoe). A gloriously clichéd end to our perfect day.
The following days were introspective and surreal. I knew I’d be exhausted, after a long day like that. The ascent and descent, extra mileage of the walk both in and out, the emotional intensity of soloing, the near constant concentration of never putting a foot wrong when scampering along above potential death falls. All of this would of course it takes a toll and the 15 hour drive home didn’t help, nor did a 12 hour day back at work on Monday (including 6 hours back in the car). But the next fortnight was spent in dazed reverie. At work on Monday I wore long sleeves to hide scratches on my arms, my legs were bruised and scraped, my feet were battered and disgusting, and I couldn’t use the finger-print recognition on my phone for a week.
If my body wasn’t coping well with the workload I’d demanded of it, the mind really was struggling to digest everything. It felt like a cross between emerging from a hard-fought life-preserving battle, and a state of rapture. A joy so deep I struggled to describe it to friends and family. Do people want to know that stuff anyway? I think they just want you to say ‘Yeah it was amazing’, maybe show them a photo or two and move on.
We live in an age where overblown adjectives and hyperbole are so common; words like awesome and amazing are used so frequently they lose impact. I regard myself as relatively eloquent, but I can’t articulate it. Going along that ridge seemed to touch every nerve and involve every emotion. Frightening, taxing, tiring, joyous, serious, fun, beautiful… every trait felt involved. I’d poured myself into it physically, mentally and emotionally and was utterly emptied. But what it repaid me in kind was a timeless gift; not just memories, or the confidence boosting thrill of successfully stepping up. Not just the cherished loveliness of sharing a day that special with a dear friend, or the primal privilege to soak up the majestic grandeur of those mountains, but somehow an affirmation of self. Still more, a duplicitous act of simultaneous give and take, with a sum greater than the parts, some magical ingredient added that fundamentally changed me.
We both felt our little weather window had appeared in such a perfectly fated way, that we were sort of looked after. Neither of us are religious, but there was an spiritual nature to it.
The statistics associated with the journey don’t justify my hippy feelings either. They’re only V Diffs. It’s only 8 miles. It was only half a day in the sunshine. But it was something far beyond what often gets called ‘an epic’. It wasn’t an epic. Nothing ever went wrong. We dug deep, but even before we got back to the car we’d worked out we could go an hour faster. I wasn’t scared on any of the climbs. Nothing added up to the impact it made.
Months later I’m still dumbfounded. Should we go back? Would our slowing down towards the end eventually leave a sour taste? Or would a future crossing pale in comparison and nullify some of the perfect beauty of this day? If we left it alone, what on Earth comes next? What else comes close to a day this good? Should I stop climbing altogether? Go out on a high? I’ve never been into it for thrills and ratcheting up the stakes, but having a day like this – a raison d’etre, and then some – has stopped me in my tracks. Its serenity has made the future a blank canvas that I’m nervous to touch
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