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MONDAY, JUNE 11, 2012

Race along the Ridge

This year saw Mammut celebrate their 150th anniversary and to mark the occasion they went to town! Declaring it 'The Biggest Peak Project in History' the aim was to send 150 teams up 150 different mountains across the globe. The project was kicked off with an impressive Mammut Anniversary Base Camp consisting of around 150 tents at 3,471m on Jungfraujoch in Switzerland.

James Turnbull and I were fortunate enough to be asked if we would like to be involved in one of the UK’s projects, 'The Race along the Ridge', and without any hesitation we jumped on board. The idea was for two teams to race one another along the Cuillin Ridge, arguably UK’s finest mountaineering outing, on the Isle of Skye. Neither of us had done the ridge before and those of you who have had the misfortune to meet either of us can imagine our excitement (which James couldn’t contain). The plan was to spend 21st - 25th May on Skye and hope that the weather would provide an opportunity to get up on the ridge on one of the days.

Isle of Skye
We set off from the Peak District after work on the Sunday and headed north, James driving, me reading out the Rockfax route description of the ridge, hoping that at least some of it would sink in and make sense when up on the ridge itself. The forecast was looking good for the week, although reports were coming in that there was a significant amount of snow on the ridge and neither of us had any winter gear! We stopped off in Fort William for the night and awoke to brilliant blue skies and midges! The north face of Ben Nevis was holding more snow than when I had come up in March for winter climbing!

James on Grey Panther E1 5b, Kilt Rock

The sun was beating down as we drove onto Skye and with the guys from Mammut not due to arrive until early evening we drove north to sample some of the fine climbing at Kilt Rock. This was my first experience of sea cliff climbing and with no-one else there we had the pick of the routes. James jumped onto the classic Grey Panther E1 5b *** which was a brilliant route and other routes climbed were The Electric Bag Pipe HVS 5a ***, Secret Service HVS 5a ** and Internationale E2 5b **. As we drove to the bunk house at Carbost, where we would be spending 4 nights, we could see the Cuillin Ridge dominating the sky line.  To say it looked long and intimidating is an understatement but luckily it looked like the snow had nearly all melted.

Phil in front of the Cuillin Ridge

We met up with Rob Sykes from Mammut, Dougal and Terry, our guides, Mick and Dan from UKClimbing and Gaz and Jim, the guys from V12 who made up the other team. It turned out that Gaz and Jim had perhaps had the more productive day and had been up on the more complex part of the ridge to gain a heads up on the route finding and to stash several litres of water, which would come in very handy on race day!  After some beers and food we decided that the race would go ahead the following morning in a single push with a staggered start, with team Outside to set off first. For insurance purposes Terry was assigned to team Outside and we discussed tactics for all of 5 minutes. Luckily James and I had followed a strict training regime of 2 runs, some beer and going climbing that day and so we were well prepared for a continuous ascent.

Race along the Ridge
Our alarms went off at 4am which actually didn’t seem too bad because it was light outside! Final preparations were made and we were driven to the start at Glen Brittle campsite for 5am. A few photos in all our Mammut gear then Rob hurried off back to bed. We were now on our own as the 6 of us made our way up to the ridge via Loch Coire a’ Ghrunnda. The race was to be timed from Gars-bheinn in the South to Sgurr nan Gillean in the North so the walk in could be taken at a more leisurely pace.

Out of the mist, the race is on!

The relatively flat coastal path was easy going until we realised we had taken a wrong turn! So off to a great start! This gave way to a steep rocky path that scrambled its way into the coire and a chance to take in as much water as physically possible and fill up our bottles. We were travelling pretty light and with only had 3 litres for the whole ridge I was a little concerned I may not have enough. The 6 of us made the steep rocky ascent onto the ridge just south of Calsteal a’ Garbh choire and dumped our packs before making our way to the start of the race at Gars-bheinn. The cloud had come in and the wind was blowing. It felt chilly as the sun had yet to break through at 7:30am and we hoped the cloud would lift so as not to impede our route finding. We started the race just before 8am, as team V12 approached the trig point, and it was on.

We jogged the first section over Sgurr a ‘Choire Bhig and up the steep slope to Sgurr nan Eag with route finding being fairly straightforward especially as we had already covered this ground. We arrived at our bags, took on some food and water and donned our harnesses, figuring that it would save us time when we needed them plus they were light and comfortable enough to move in. We traversed off the main ridge and down towards Sgurr Dubh Mor and under huge walls of rock. We looked back and could make out the small figures of Jim, Gaz and Dougal, moving smoothly and effectively over the terrain. This was going to be tough!

Terry approaching Sgurr Dubh na da Bheinn

As we descended Sgurr Dubh Mor we passed within 20m of team V12 on their way up. We tried to hide and move stealthily so that they couldn’t see where we had been. A slight navigational error saw us on a huge flat boulder with no way to descend other than retrace our last few steps. V12 saw this and shouted some banter up at us. We were moving well and were soon abseiling in to the TD Gap, which requires a Hard Severe pitch on the north side to negotiate. The climbing itself was brilliant and involved getting whole limbs jammed into the wide crack. Just as we set off after the Gap the others abbed into it. Soon Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Thearlaich were under our belts but despite this Sgurr nan Gillean never seemed to get any closer.

Descending Thearlaich, a group in front were kind enough to let us use their ropes to abseil which saved us some time and then it was up King’s Chimney, a fantastic bit of climbing (Diff) before a long and draining slog up the Brown ramp to the base of the famous Inaccessible Pinnacle. My energy levels were low at the point, having been on the move for over 6 hours so I scoffed some food and took on some water. We set of up the Inn Pinn moving together on the best Mod climb I’ve ever encountered just a head of several other teams and abbed off the back. I was in need of a rest and so we took this opportunity to take a few and take on board some fuel.

Abseiling from the Inn Pinn

We moved across the ridge as fast as my cramping legs could go and we ticked off Sgurr na Banachdich, Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh and Sgurr a’Mhaidaih with relative ease and in good time, meeting the odd team out on their own adventures. The sun was out and the views were breath taking. The gap between us had been pretty consistent the whole way that is until we reached the section that involved the most complex route finding. We descended an obvious looking path into the col just before the 3 tops of Mhadaidh only to find out that it led to a dead end. We had to slog back up the steep loose path only to see team V12 closing in and soon after we were moving as a 6. The others found their stashed water from the previous day and we all took this moment to have a decent rest and take in our surroundings. The others had reccy’ed this route and their advantage became clear as they opened up a lead on us as we ascended Bidein Druim nan Ramh. James, in his effort to make up some ground managed to trip over a block and slammed to the ground. Fortunately it occurred on a broader part of the ridge with some grass on the side and he was fairly unscathed.

Sgurr nan Gillean had miraculously moved much closer and the end was in sight. The trickiest part of the ridge was getting us on top of the tall and narrow trig point on Bruach na Frithe. We roped up for Naismith’s Route (Severe) on the Bhasteir Tooth before somehow managing to find and strenuously climb a 5m overhanging jamming crack onto Am Bhasteir. We could see the other team just below the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean and the welcoming party of Rob, Mick and Dan. There was one final scramble to overcome and we threaded the needle just before the final summit 8hrs 25mins after setting off from Gars-Bheinn. We finished 2nd with V12 finishing in an incredible time of 7hrs 56mins.

Terry with the majority of the ridge behind us

It was great to have made the traverse, first time, in a single push, in glorious weather with great company! We sat down and contemplated what we had just achieved and took in some much needed water and food. It was a relief to be able to look around and relax, knowing that the descent was relatively straightforward even though it was still another 2.5hrs back to the car park in Sligachan and some much needed beer!

Climbing on Skye
The following day, after a bit of a lie in, saw the whole gang head to Suidhe Biorach near Elgol. The sun unbroken all day, the sea tranquil, with grades to suit everyone saw us having a relaxing day at the sea cliff. From here we had a great view of where we had been up high the day before across Loch Scavaig. The sea cliff had a big ledge at the bottom where you could wander around and the rock was highly featured with pockets, eroded jugs and cracks. Routes climbed included Alter Ego E1 5b **, Mother’s Pride E4 5c ***, Hairy Mary VS 4c ***, Crack of Zawn E1 5b ** and Jamie Jampot VS 4c ***.

Phil on Crack of Zawn E1 5b, Suidhe Biorach

As if we hadn’t done enough, Thursday saw us head up to Sron na Ciche, a huge face of rock on the west side of the Cuillin Ridge. It was hot and sweaty work on the approach and even more so for Gaz who carried up his 20+kg paragliding rig. Good effort. The aim was for everyone to climb up to the famous Cioch block where we would have a photo shoot.

The Cuillin Ridge from Elgol

James and I chose Bastinado E2 5c *** as our way up. Luckily the climb was in the shade but it also meant that the first crack pitch was a little damp. We followed Terry and Dougal which made it quite a sociable outing. Two tricky moves in the middle gave way to the easier final pitch and we were soon on a large ledge below the Cioch. James and Jim then quickly dispatched Overhanging Crack E2 5c** whilst we waited for the others.

Phil on Bastinado E2 5c, Sron na Ciche

On top of the Cioch we posed for a few photos for Mammut and then descend back to Glen Brittle for a quick dip in the surprisingly warm sea. Pleased to say Gaz managed to fit in a flight after hauling his gear half way up the mountain.

James on Overhanging Crack E2 5c, the Cioch

The view from the Cioch

So an amazing week was had and we would like to thank Rob at Mammut for organising the whole event, Dougal and especially Terry for being fantastic guides and having to put up with James and I, Mick and Dan for their wealth of knowledge and Gaz and Jim for being great sports.

There is also an account of the race from their opponents Gaz and Jim on the V12 website.

MONDAY, JUNE 11, 2012
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