On Saturday, after a blistering 12 hour minibus journey, I arrived back in Manchester from a week in the Black Cuillins of Skye.
It was a memorable trip, and by the second evening I thought it was all over – I was in great pain and could barely walk.
In my socks, I’d excitedly tried to run to otherside of the hut, and had managed to kick my little toes on my left foot on the leg of a wooden bench. Hard. About 3 of my toes on my left foot hurt like hell, and instantly I could tell it was serious.
As I hobbled to bed in pain, I wondered what one does if one breaks one’s little toe, and concluded that most doctors would prescribe rest, painkillers, and would helpfully suggest perhaps not repeating the experience if possible.
The next day, I woke up and found I could barely walk. Swallowing Ibuprofen and warding off suggestions of herbal potions, I asked our friendly medical doctor whether the intense pain meant it was broken – to which I got a shrug and a smile.
Fortunately, it turned out not to be broken, and the subsequent day, I took myself up Sgurr Dearg, to look at the Inaccessible Pinnacle. The cloud level was about 3-400m and hadn’t risen significantly since we’d arrived, however it didn’t seem to be raining significantly, and the wind had dropped to manageable levels.
Before I left for the Cuillins, I wrote this (new emphasis added):
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.
The Black Cuillins stand out for me, as one of those mountain ranges that deserves significant respect. A navigational error of 10m in the Peak District, possibly might mean wet feet but realistically is consequence free. A 10m navigational error in the Black Cuillins stands a good chance of meaning you try and scramble down a 30m cliff.
My GPS and OpenStreetMap generated map showed the “easy”, “path”, up Sgurr Dearg. At least, what little existed in terms of path, was available to me in relation to where I was. I picked the route up Sgurr Dearg, specifically because the route was relatively well traced on OpenStreetMap, and should be easy to find (up the ridge on path between Eas Mor and Loch an Fhir-bhallaich).
And off I went! Several times when I felt like I’d lost the path, I pulled my Garmin out, walked 15m in one direction and found the faint ‘path’ I was supposed to be following.
The descent was a bit more hard work (to Belach Banadich (easy) and then down to Coire Banadich(complex)), the route/”path” finding was more involved (Q: Do I walk around this sketchy-looking snow, or do I risk kicking down-steps into it without an ice-axe if I fall? A: Walk around) but after several attempts at following the GPS down different parallel gullies I was able to scramble myself to the path in the valley without too much faff.
When I got back, I took off my boots, sat down, and almost straight away, I heard a call over the walkie talkie radios.
Another group, with several friends in it, had been climbing Amphitheatre Arete (mod/diff) near the Cioch Buttress in Coire Lagan. The time they originally expected to be back by was rapidly approaching, and, as they told me, they were still abseiling down (having turned around at ~3pm).
It was 7pm. They told me they expected to be back by 10pm but if they weren’t, it might be time to call Mountain Rescue.
With nightfall expected around 8pm, tentatively, I asked whether there was anything we might be able to help.
“Well, if anyone was really generous and wanted to walk up here (the visibility is really bad) and help us work out where we are, then that’d be really generous and we’d be grateful – currently we’re above a big cliff that’s longer than our rope so we’re going to try and find a way around it.”.
Two of our group had been climbing in that area a few days ago, and we agreed to walk up there and try and find them. I wrote a note documenting the radio call, wrote a route plan, grabbed a walkie-talkie and briefed the other members of our group the situation, whilst the guys somehow grabbed a stove to make tea and a large quantity of food.
They also grabbed their climbing gear, by as we turned on our head torches, 45 minutes into the walk-in to our destination, we agreed that 5 climbers stuck up a cliff was worse than the 3 that already were. We would go to the bottom of their crag and help try to guide them down.
It was dark by this point, with thick mist that reduced visibility to 10-20 metres, and bounced headtorch beams straight back at you.
As reached a reached a point roughly parallel with the climbers, we took a bearing on the GPS for where we thought they might be, and left the safety of the path into the thick mist.
We headed across the valley on a faint path, then started up the hillside where we though they were. After a while, (we could hear and see nothing), we decided to shout and see if they could hear us. An echoing shout came back… to one side…. so we traversed that way. We knew from the radio that they were still descending, and so we periodically shouted until it sounded like they were directly above us, and then headed straight up the hill.
This was probably the most difficult point. In daylight you can look 10-30m away and choose the easiest possible route up a scrambly hillside. In thick mist, with head torches bouncing back off it, you’re stuck with what you can see – and so the scramble went through bits of streams, through boulder fields, up scree-ish slopes. It was unpleasant and with every step I was making a conscious thought – can we reverse this in these conditions?
Eventually, we got the bottom of some wet slabs, and very sensibly, the lads reeled me in and suggested it’d be unwise to go further. If we turned off our head torches, we found we could occasionally see sweeps of a powerful torch, high, high above us.
We setup watch flashing headtorches up in that direction – we could see their lights directly yet – just the light of their torches occasionally as it swept above a rocky outcrop.
We radioed through to our base (who’d setup a listening post) with our position from the GPS, explained we thought they were several hundred metres above us, and that we had limited audio and visual contact. If they did call Mountain Rescue at this point, at least Mountain Rescue would know exactly where to go.
And we waited – the guys made tea, we watched their headlights slowly bob into view, and counted them off one by one. Communication between our team was really important – we’d put on all our layers, and drunk the now tepid tea we’d made for the others, and tried various ways of staying warm (including dancing).
Finally, we got a call from the group above us letting us know they thought this was their last abseil (we’d heard those words before) but we strained our eyes up and tried to imagine figures attached to the bobbing lights through the dark mist.
Eventually (around 11pm), one by one, they made it down the abseil to the bottom of the wet slabs where we were. The guys had made some more tea and so (expecting them to be frozen), we pushed the tea into their hands, and questioned them about warmth. They gratefully accepted the tea, but apart from being varying degrees of exhausted, none of them were showing any signs of hypothermia.. Certainly they appeared warmer than we were!
We radioed through to base that they were safe, but at this point our radios were running out of battery, and so whilst the most important basic information got through, our longer plans for our return did not.
We didn’t know what was below us on the slope, we only knew the route we’d come up was safe, so rather than taking a GPS bearing for the path, we were forced to micronavigate back along our GPS trail from the route up. If you want an idea of something that isn’t fun, micronavigating down scree-ish/bouldery/steep scrambles, with 30 metre legs between where you are and when you have to stop to configure your next GPS waypoint (take a bearing).
Being up there without a GPS would have been terrifying – it was definitely the conditions when you could quite easily almost walk off the edge of a cliff without seeing.
Eventually, we made it back onto the path – and just a 40 minute walk to the hut… arriving back at 12:40ish or something. We’d been able to radio through some ETA’s to the hut once we were on the path, and like super-legends, they had amazing hot food ready for the tired climbers and rescue team when we got back.
All’s well that ends well, and we were all happy with the result – most importantly everyone home safely – but also reducing the risk of a prolonged ordeal for the climbers, a great deal of worry for everyone else in the hut, and, potentially, a spurious call to MRT.
If it were to happen again (and to be clear, I don’t want to have to navigate in those poor visibility conditions again), I think I could have communicated better with the hut team (they weren’t aware that hypothermia had been fully ruled out).
The climbers maintained that they weren’t actually in trouble, just the descent took much longer than they anticipated – even given they started 5 hours before nightfall, and estimated they abseiled ~10 pitches on their 60m rope. Possibly they went off route, or possibly they were closer to the top than they thought when they turned back – we’ll never know for sure.
What I do know, is that calm and professionalism of everyone involved – including the bravery and teamwork of the two guys (whom I had only known for a few weeks!) – and the patience and responsiveness of the hut team, contributed massively to making sure everyone got home happily.
Several days later, I decided to see if the main Cuillin ridge from Sgurr Banachdaich to Sgurr a Mhadaidh was possible in the weather conditions. This is a Grade 3 scramble – and is one of the trickiest and most committing parts of the ridge.
I set off with a less experienced group of 4 (including me), via Coire Eich, to the Sgurr Banachdaich summit. This is supposed to be the easiest Munro ascent in the Cuillins, and I can well believe it – it’s largely a slog up scree. In our case, in thick mist above ~400m.
With the OpenStreetMap maps I had loaded on my GPS, we found the winding paths through the scree and got to the summit without incident.
So we decided to give the ridge a go – and here the OSM coverage ends – the ridge is just too narrow, too rocky, to even attempt to mark a “path”. In addition, simply routefinding through scrambly bits of boulderfields becomes a challenge – given the thick mist.
At one point, we had to skirt below an icy old snow field on top of a scree slope, but above a steep misty gully. For every step between the boulder stepping stones on the scree, we sent small rockfalls into the vertical gully below. After passing that somewhat terrifying section (clearly Grade 3), we made it to Belach Thormaid.
From here, we tried to find a route to Sgurr Thormaid. I can read now, that I made an error and followed a ‘false path’ and tried to skirt round down on the left side, rather than somehow going up to the right. Fortunately, we made the wise decision, given the conditions, ability levels and difficulties in route finding, and retraced our steps (not without drama – the rockfally bit was twice as bad the second time round) and made it back to Sgurr Banachdaich, and returned back down Coire Eich.
I think (in complex and scary situations) I’d prefer to hike on my own, than with less experienced people whom I’m effectively responsible for making sure are within their ability zone.
The Cuillins are mountains with such a complex and unforgiving topography, that to navigate safely, you need to have studied the route incredibly thoroughly. Guidebooks, different flavours of maps, asking people, photos, crag diagrams can all massively help you – but given the distances are so short, yet the mountains so spikey, this is what one needs to do.
Being able to navigate visually only is likely to make things slightly easier – at least you may be able to route find more easily, and there will be fewer opportunities to misnavigate, but these mountains should be given a lot of respect, even in good visibility.
OpenStreetMap definitely meant better navigation abilities and GPS+OSM is a winning combination in mist made my life considerably easier and more enjoyable.
I think I prefer the solitude of solo hiking when that much is at stake, because my own mistakes don’t impact others in the same way, and I had a better understanding of what I’m not capable of.
It was a jolly fun trip – despite the dramas and relatively little time on the mountain, I had a very relaxed time(!) which was just what I wanted.
It’d be nice to go back in better visibility, and perhaps (with the right people) in full winter conditions with good visibility – I’m sure there would be several fun routes within our reach.
I thinking of maybe going as soon as the midges die off, or perhaps later in the year.