Vertical Limits; Cuillin Finger & The ‘Worst Case Scenario’ for a Banana Flambée!
“It’s not the mountain that wears you out, but the grain of sand in your shoe.”
Whoever wrote that had obviously never sailed bonny boat, like a bird on the wing, over the seas to Skye – and set foot on the 3000ft+ plutonic batholith known as the Black Cuillin.
Greetings from Eileann a’Cheo (bless you) – the Island of Mist, where I took Mark to experience the trials and tribulations that I had enjoyed previously in the Black Cuillin.
The Black Cuillin of Skye are mountains of many moods. Mostly forbidding, ominous and intimidating. They are sharp and dark and stab unrelenting and merciless through the entrails of the island mist that commonly shrouds their slopes. On occasional sunny days, however, they change completely, crossing the whole gamut through daunting and threatening to downright mean, menacing and malevolent.
Mark’s first sight of the Cuillin was the classic view that takes in Am Bastier (pronounced ‘Am Barsitter’) – the jagged, black peak of The Executioner. This is a vision guaranteed always to fill you with a cosy sense of wellbeing at the start of a day’s walking. The severed lambs head that we saw to the side of the path did not deter us from our quest. We continued – but can’t deny peering tentatively behind a few boulders for signs of a slyly concealed wicker man.
Despite the omens, I managed to retread my steps up Bruach na Frithe (Bruch na FREE), this time without gibbering, wibbling or an heroic rope rescue from a 5 ft rock face. This was very significant progress on my previous bid for the summit!
Brimming with confidence at this Cuillin conquest, we decided to tackle Dearg (pronounced ‘Jerrack, of course). It was a classic ascent – if such can be defined as one executed on all fours, culminating with the intrepid mountaineer managing merely to lie on the summit, being too scared to stand or even sit.
We had been told that the top of Dearg was the size of a football pitch. Due to a slight error of scale, however, the summit appeared to be more Subbuteo than Old Trafford and set at a rakish angle, with swooping, aerial views of a lot of hard-looking, pointy rocks, 3000ft below.
This precluded any thoughts of standing, sitting or even crouching heroically atop our hard-won conquest and certainly dissuaded Mark from looking, even briefly, at the view. (There was no need. Most of what there is to see is at the bottom and we saw it much more clearly when we set off.) Rather, Mark drew his whole focus inwards to a single small stone, with which he seemed bent on scraping a tunnel back down through the centre of the mountain. (After its encounter with the incredible mining man, the summit of Dearg has now been reduced to 2,998 ft and it is no longer classified as a Munro.)
But imagine going through all that only to find that technically, we had not conquered the second highest peak in the Cuillin at all! The true summit of Dearg is actually a hideous 80ft knife-edge of rock known as the Inaccessible Pinnacle (or the ‘In Pin’ if you are a trendy Rock Jock), which protrudes at an unfeasible angle from the side of the mountain.
We tried not to feel too bad about the woman who was bounding around the summit of Dearg wearing a climbing harness. She was clearly some way beyond the first flush of youth but had just nipped up the In Pin before lunch. My brother’s girlfriend, Grainne, also climbed it – and that was only her 3rd ever rock climbing excursion! But enough of these heroics. My brother didn’t get to watch Grainne or have a go at the In Pin himself. He was way down in the corrie below, giving safe conduct to a couple who had been too scared on top to even get their camera out of the bag to record their triumph. He selflessly led them to a place where they might feel secure tucking into their bag of crisps and boiled eggs…
I have noticed an unfailing rule in the Cuillin. As the pronunciations get more hair-raising, so do the ascents. I figure that it will be a while before I attempt Ghreaddiadh and Mheaddiadh (Hreetay and Vatay, in case you didn’t guess!) particularly since Mark and I have discovered that, even away from the mountains, we suffer from a previously unrecorded affliction; AAS – Anticipated Altitude Sickness.
Thankfully, Eilean a’ Cheo (bless you – do you get fed up with the same jokes?!) has a lot more to offer than the Black Cuillin. The Red Cuillin, for example, are a lot more inviting, if you like walking up 3000+ feet of very steep, even, grassy slope. Being made of granite, the Reds erode into lovely, bosomy hills (without sheer drops) rather than the spiked ridges of their menacing gabbro neighbours.
In addition to AAS, I am sure that there is a medical condition known as ‘Black Cuillin Finger’ resulting from gripping on to the rocks, which have a texture akin to very rough sandpaper with penetrating glass needles cunningly incorporated. I also found that the rough-textured rocks do not do not work wonders for the seat of your pants during those tentative ‘on-the-bottom’ descents’. (For the record, the lovely, lovely Professor Brian Cox admitted on National Radio that he came down Kilimanjaro on his bottom!)
Cuillin Finger and Ripped Backside were mitigated by the purchase of walking poles on one of our daily pilgrimages to Island Outdoors. Walking poles are the best things ever! It could be deemed as reverse evolution, but Mountain Goats have got it right. Climbing and descending steep hills is a lot easier as a quadruped!
We saw Golden Eagles but unlike our previous trip, no White Tailed Sea Eagles. I impressed the ornithologists among us, however, with my sighting of hummingbirds in the garden. (They were goldfinches, actually, flitting among the flowers, but the twitchers were anxiously seeking their 50th species, so I thought that I would give them a handy helping hand!)
Service in the restaurants was almost up to the standards of previous visits. Last year, the Harbour View made us wait outside for 10 minutes, then sat us down and ignored us for another 10, then they conveniently torched their kitchen and were unable to serve us any food because the kitchen was filled with fire retardant chemicals and Chef had stormed out in a fit of artistic pique. He had, it seems, buckled under the pressure and precipitated a chain of events that had culminated in the ‘Worst Case Scenario’ for a banana flambée.
This time, we didn’t have such a flaming good time (aaaargh) nor did the chef have such flare (eeeeek!) We were made to wait 20 minutes for drinks once at the table, had to ask for bread, then ask for the butter to go with it, (all of which was thrown at us) then; “Where’s Nick’s starter?” “Where’s Nicks main?” “No, he didn’t order sole, it was sausages.” Then; “Please can I have a knife rather than a spoon to eat my steak?” All garnished with a drunken wine waiter who asked us all where we were from, then told us “I hate Southerners!”
I was so glad that standards hadn’t slipped!
And so it was that we discovered that in so many ways (conquering Cuillin, claiming compliments and classy cuisine) – Skye is the Limit!