Reaching for the Skye

So here I am, roped, harnessed and helmeted, clinging on to a narrow, rocky, vertical ridge, which juts out like a 50-metre high shark’s fin from the mountain below. The ridge narrows to around 50cm wide, my hands grasp either side. I’m inching along its spine, and I daren’t risk looking down at the sheer drops on either side.

Helen on Sgurr na BanachdichI’m on the fabled Innacessible Pinnacle, the ‘In Pinn’, in Skye. It’s the only Munro summit which has to be reached by a proper rock climb and I’ve been dreading it for years.

The day has come and, to be fair, conditions could not be more perfect; it’s a clear, dry, still day. But I am way out of my comfort zone – I’m a hill walker, not a climber! This is an easy route for climbers, but the extreme exposure notches it up another grade altogether. It’s nothing like the climbing wall in Edinburgh where I spent an evening the previous week!

I’m roped to my friend Tess, who is behind me, and above me my rope is being pulled tight by our guide, George. Logically, I know that there’s no way I could actually fall off this mountain but I’m shaking with nerves. I keep my mind totally focussed on the task in hand, concentrating on one move at a time. “Right, that’s a good handhold and yes, my foot’s OK here. Oh my God, don’t look down. Just look at the rock. Keep calm. Don’t look up. This’ll be over soon.” Add a few Malcolm-Tucker-esque expletives, and suddenly I’m cresting the summit and there’s George and my two fellow group members – and Tess is following me up. We all did it!

We sit at the top taking in the spectacular views across Skye and the Hebridean islands while George sorts out the ropes, and then one by one we’re lowered the 20m down to the mountain below. Then it’s a steep walk back down, with a huge sense of achievement all round.

Making their way up the Skye is a stunningly beautiful island. Shaped loosely like a lobster it has peninsulars in all directions and is a paradise for walkers, with coastal paths, coral beaches and hills of all shapes and sizes. But it’s the mountains of the spectacular Cuillin ridge which are the main draw for most hill walkers and climbers. The jagged black peaks look straight out of the pages of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

These mountains are a challenge, starting from sea level and rising up to around 1,000 metres, with narrow rocky ridges and routes which are quite technical. For many hill walkers this is the most frightening – and exhilarating – time they’ll have on a mountain in Britain.

Seven years earlier I had got lost on the Cuillin ridge in thick mist and rain. Four of us were blundering around rocky outcrops, aware of sheer drops on all sides. To add to the confusion, our compasses pointed due north when we knew we were heading south – thanks to the magnetic gabbro rock. We eventually managed to get off the mountain, but the experience left me with a deep respect for the Cuillin.

A few years on and I had begun systematically ‘bagging’ my Munros. Munros are Scottish mountains over 3,000ft of which there are 282, with 12 of these in Skye. I knew I would have to go back to the Cuillin ridge. While several summits are straightforward for walkers, some of them were definitely beyond my abilities. Not only was there the ‘In Pinn’ which required ropes and a climbing partner, but many of the other peaks also had their bad steps, their dizzying exposure and their serious scrambles. Route finding can be extremely difficult, as I already knew. Even in clear weather you can easily climb up the wrong route and then not be able to retrace your steps.

Climbing Ghreadaidh's topsSo what should you do if you want to get up on the Skye ridge but don’t have the skills, or a head for heights - or a handy climber friend? Fortunately there are many professional guides on Skye and I signed up for guided holiday with the Scottish Youth Hostels Association.

I cannot stress enough how much confidence it gave me to be following in the footsteps of George each day. He stepped lightly like a cat, hands in pockets, while I crawled and stumbled behind, but I knew I was in safe hands and wouldn’t get lost. George knew every corner of the ridge and would give a commentary as we went, pointing out good handholds and telling hair-raising stories of his various experiences in the local mountain rescue team to take our minds off the grinding ascents.

My week on Skye, at Glenbrittle Hostel, turned out to be one of my best ever holidays – though admittedly the perfect May weather helped! Coming off the hills each evening, we’d dive into the freezing water of a pool opposite the hostel for a quick swim. On our one day off we explored the Fairy Pools, a series of exquisitely clear, turquoise pools carved out of the rock along a burn nearby. Evenings were nicely sociable as, over a glass of wine, we swapped tales of derring-do up on the ridge that day with our fellow hostellers.

So if you’re keen to give the Skye ridge a go but are as nervous as I was, my advice is to consider taking a guide. You’ll learn so much more about the mountains when you’re not worrying about which way to go, and the guide will make sure you don’t go too far out of your comfort zone. These are serious mountains but as long as you’re fit enough to cope with the knee-crunching ascents and descents, you shouldn’t miss out on Britain’s most exciting and awe-inspiring mountain range. I now have the 12 Skye Munros safely ticked off – and I’m just glad I never have to go up the In Pinn ever again!

Helen Todd is campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. Read more about Helen's adventures in her previous blog posts or follow her @helenrambler.