Destination: The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins are probably the longest sustained alpine-style ridge in the UK, found in Skye, Scotland, they’re very spiky and dramatic.

In 2012, in March, our trip to Skye was beautifully sunny and hot. So much so that we went swimming in the rivers and sea.

Last time round, I still thought of myself as very unfit, and inexperienced. I’d only say my confidence has increased since then, but I’ve also demonstrated my fitness to myself and grown my confidence in travelling over exposed ground. Last time, the only Munro I summitted was Sgurr a’Mhadaidh via An Dorus – and I distinctly remember being on the top of this narrow ridge of rock, looking down at everything else. I remember looking around and noticing there was a lot of empty space between us and anything else.

Path to An Dorus - the scree slope
Path to An Dorus – the scree slope

This time, we’re going to stay in Glen Britle for 6 days, and the weather conditions are unlikely to be anything as like last time. MWIS doesn’t cover the Cuillins in a great deal of granularity, but I’m looking and hoping for reports of relatively little wind and precipitation. I’m also looking for a greater than 50-60% chance of cloud free summits – the Cuillins are one of those places where visual navigation is really the only way of doing things safely, and everything else are just aids for if/when you get stuck in cloud and need to return. The local regional medium term weather forcast looks damp, but ok.

SAIS doesn’t have an outpost in Skye either, but the latest Torridonian reports are positive, and the reports for the rest of Scotland also show a low risk. Obviously, conditions change, and we’re probably best placed to observe them. Significant new snow, or significant rises in temperature at altitude, are probably the biggest obvious atmospheric things we can be aware of that could cause problems. When it comes to actual avalanche avoidance, there’s a lot one can do on a snow slope to predict whether an avalanche is likely. From the SAIS observations in Glencoe and Lochbar, I think the conditions are likely to be snowy at altitude – mainly icey wet snow that has refrozen. Somewhat slippy to walk on, but ideal for crampons and not prone to movement.

If only the snow would freeze all the scree slopes solid please, and not exist anywhere else – that’d be lovely. ;)

Obviously all excursions and outings are weather dependent, and I’m travelling very well prepared for the conditions I’m expecting – Scarpa Manta B2s & G2 crampons, Ice Axe, down jacket, are packed.

I’m hoping the weather allows us to get up Sgurr Dearg/In Pin, Sgurr Alisdair, Sgurr Nan Eag, Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Sgurr Banachdich seems straight forward, but the standard route looks boring, so it might be an option for the first hike.

I think my climbing buddy would like to have a look Am Basteir’s tooth so we’ll take a look at that and maybe Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh too.

I might see (conditions permitting) if I can do a camping excursion from Glen Brittle up to one of the high corries… Probably one of the 3 closest ones. *shrug*

The Black Cuillins of Skye
The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Cuillin range is particularly interesting, as it one of the places in the UK where the 1:25,000 Ordance Survey maps just aren’t adequate. The 1:12500 Harvey’s map enlargements of the ridge, are considerably better, but no use alone. I’ll also be taking the excellent SMC Cuillins guidebook and the Skye Cicerone guide.

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

However a GPS device can only tell you where you are in terms of a long/lat reference – if you don’t have a map for it to overlay that position on, then it’s useless.

Thus, over the past few months, I’ve been working to improve the OpenStreetMap coverage of the Cuillins – from the various data sources available – 6 inch maps from the 1800s, Ordanance Survey open data releases, and Bing aerial photography, and thanks to the kindness of some guy in Germany, this data is now available for your Garmin GPS (and is loaded on mine!).

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain
Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Like when I went to Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be taking my Spot satellite pager device and will periodically fire off A-OK’s which will go out via Facebook and twitter. It’s not the same level of remoteness though, and though there will be mobile signal on the top of the mountains, we will also be carrying walkie talkie’s.

Spot will tell you my GPS position at the time I fired off the A-OK and I’ll mark the exciting and tricky bits of scrambles, and summits with custom alerts, saying they’re exciting.

I figure you might like to see where I am, but SPOT uses Google maps which are a bit rubbish in that area, so you’ll have to find a way to use the SPOT co-ordinates with this rendering of OSM: http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/en/map/black-cuillins-skye_4548#16/57.2007/-6.2260 perhaps you can hack the URL?

For next time I go away, I want to use the Spot API (go look – you may be able to hack something? *shrug* that pokes the co-ordinates auto-magically into the umap-osm thing – or at least, provides neat links to show where I am on a better map.

Anyway… Time for me to get packing! I’m excited! I hope to return with stories, and photos! :)

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background
The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background

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