Highlands and Islands
Earlier last year a friend had told me about two men from Bristol driving to the Isle of Skye overnight to traverse the island’s Cuillin Ridge, a mountain range that allows for 12km of continuous scrambling with sections of climbing, making it the longest and most challenging mountain route in the UK. Tales of having to sleep on the ridge and pre-stashing water along the way made me want to visit as soon as I possibly could, leading me down a rabbit hole of researching the island and the climbing potential that the place had. Deep into a UKC forum, I stumbled across a PDF of the first five pages of a discontinued 2010 Skye bouldering guide called ‘Gabbrofest’. The book’s description of miles of ‘notoriously hard to find’ boulder fields made the place seem untouched and mystical, a point exaggerated by the guide’s Celtic inspired font and its cover showcasing bare feet with wings.
All of this research being done in early January, during the darkest months, begged the question; would it be possible to visit the island and climb sooner than the May to September stretch that extensive tourist websites suggest? We knew that traversing the Cuillin was out of reach until the summer months and that climbing during the winter months in Scotland was notoriously difficult, but we wanted to see what could be done.
I left Devon first thing on an early February morning and headed to Edinburgh where I picked up Eve. We collected some Scotland climbing guides from a friend and made sure we had everything we could possibly need, questioning whether it was legal to drive with a car so full and then set off again. Passing through Glen Coe and crossing the Skye bridge after 15 hours of driving and a tour of the finest service stations that the UK has to offer (Lancaster is savage). The island’s roads are infamous for being covered in potholes and we had heard that this year it was especially bad, following recent snow and ice. Which, combined with the hammering rain, low lying mist and exhaustion from driving made the final stretch to the village of Dunvegan feel like a video game.
We arrived in one piece, greeted by weather that was far from ideal climbing trip conditions. Checking the weather forecast that night, it indicated that the next morning might be the only dry patch for the three days we were there, so we drove south to Glen Brittle to find the car park empty. It was apparent that there weren’t many other people naive enough to think that bouldering was going to happen that day, but the setting perfectly reflected the guide book’s remote depiction of the place, so we started the walk up to Coire Lagan Boulders. With the 1pm rain prediction approaching uncomfortably quickly, we decided to head to the most ‘accessible’ boulder, which we got pretty lost trying to find. We eventually spotted the cluster and made our way through the bog to ‘Bob the Boulder’, where we arrived with wet feet but found dry rock. Things were looking up so we quickly got the pads out and got them set up in the puddle below the climbs, it quickly became apparent why the guide book recommended bringing a tarp. Warmed up and about to start climbing, rain and hail came down in full force and the rock was drenched, hours earlier than we had anticipated. Suddenly, the memory of work asking me if this trip was weather dependent and me replying ‘no’ was hammered into the forefront of my mind. My pounding head and the violent crackle of the hail blurred into one for a minute or so until it fell silent and all I could hear was my own breath - the rain had passed and the skies were looking clearer. After patiently waiting on the wet bouldering pads, the rock became semi-dry and we were both able to climb a problem each on Coire Lagan’s fabled rough and painful rock before the rain came down for the day. Feeling lucky that we had got to even briefly boulder in the Scottish winter, we squeezed the water out of our socks and paced back to the car.
The next day was a write off weather wise, so we decided to walk to the ‘Rubha Hunish’ lookout on the Northern most part of the island. A former coastguard lookout point which has now been converted into a Bothy, a basic shelter that is free for anyone to sleep in. This one in particular is often used as a whale watching spot and one of the few places in the UK where you can see the Northern Lights. We arrived at the Bothy and made some coffee with beans we had bought from ‘Caora Dhubh’ (Scottish Gaelic for ‘Black Sheep’), an independent coffee shop based in the small town of Carbost. After studying the poster of which whales could be seen if the weather was good enough to see more than 15 metres out of the lookout, we started the windy walk back to the car park to prepare for the next day.
We had accepted that no more outdoor climbing was going to take place for the rest of the trip, so we decided on our final full day we would climb a munro, a Scottish mountain with an elevation higher than 914 metres. We had been suggested ‘Bla Bheinn’, as it’s known for offering spectacular views of the Cuillin Ridge. We set off from the silent car park early on Friday morning and headed upwards through rivers and past waterfalls, into the mist. An hour and a half in, the path becomes faint and we made our way up scree gullies towards the ‘Great Prow’ and numerous other dramatic rock features. Gaps in the weather revealed the scale of the landscape, with clouds of mist being forced through the sky illustrating the power of the wind that day.
Feeling humbled, we continued to the summit at 929 metres, admired the non-existent view through the mist, had some cake and then made our way back down before the next spell of extreme weather was due to set in.
Feeling as though we hadn’t done quite enough climbing this trip, we drove to ‘The Third Ridge’, a small but well equipped indoor climbing wall located in the town of Portree. We met the owners who showed us the bouldering room, lead wall and then upstairs where there was a moonboard, training room and a group of 13 or so locals who were there for their weekly open dinner. We had some curry, heard stories of giant beached whales and Viking Monoliths, did some climbing and then got ready for the next day’s long drive back to Devon.
Was it possible to climb on the remote Isle of Skye during the winter months? Kind of!
It certainly wasn’t the conditions you would hope for on a climbing trip, but if you are willing to make the most of small gaps in the weather and get wet, you may well get some climbing done. There are endless walks and scrambles that can be done on the island during winter conditions and being there during the quiet season has its advantages. The roads were quiet, we didn’t come across anyone on any of our outdoor climbing and walking days and the dramatic weather certainly added to the remote and mystical reputation that the island has.
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