Summer series of interest, Part 6, Skye Cuillin traverse
On the second part of this series of articles about the Isle of Skye and the Skye Cuillins, this article will focus upon the classic Skye Cuillin ridge traverse that many aspire to. I hope to highlight a few areas that i feel are important for completing the Skye Cuillin ridge traverse and add some inspiring sections along the way.
First off, i will be focusing on the Skye ridge traverse from a south to north direction starting on Sgurr nan Eag and finishing on Sgurr nan Gillean but it can also be completed in the other direction as well, which is the common winter traverse. Secondly i will using the more common time scale of 2 days to complete the traverse with one bivi on the ridge.
Although, there are other options of doing the whole ridge in 1 day from car park to car park, doing the ridge in 1 day but walking up the evening before to bivi and then going back to get your stashed bivi kit after finishing the traverse on another day, doing the ridge over 3 days with 2 nights biving and doing the ridge over 2 days but walking up the evening before and biving before the start. All these options have their advantages and disadvantages, mostly to do with kit weight, fitness and ability to find your way.
Lastly i will be assuming that kit is carried along the ridge for the 2 days rather than spending a previous day stashing kit where you plan to bivi, to save weight on the ridge and also to give an intensive to get there!
Photos from a traverse in 2019.
The all important weather window
For me personally the weather needs to be dry for a successful traverse for the majority of the time. The Skye Cuillin ridge traverse can be completed in the wet but it does take a lot longer as there are some very slippery sections that mean progress is slow and route finding needs to be spot on, as normally when there is rain there is also low cloud and poor viability. If there is a 24 hour period which is dry over the 48 hours put aside for the ridge then it is normally ok. This means that the first day and bivi is dry with a wet second day or a wet first day that then drys up for the bivi and second day. If there a few showers that come and go then this is manageable but it does depend on when they come and what section you are on as to how that hampers progress.
The wind speed is less of an issue, just like with any day in the hills once the wind gets to a point where it is affecting your body movements then things slow down and progress becomes harder. Likewise with low cloud, this slows progress with route finding and is also a shame not to get the amazing and unique views but it shouldn't stop a traverse.
The temperature also needs to be considered as well, too hot and water can become an issue and too cold and you need to carry more kit to stay warm during the day and also at night. In May where a lot of traverses happen the night time temperature at around 900m can still only be above freezing and with hopefully having a clear sky, this might mean a thicker sleeping bag. But this is balanced with more settled weather and longer day light hours.
Most people that want to complete the Skye Cuillin ridge traverse have to travel, book time off work and make plans to stay in accommodation. This means hoping that the forward planning with these logistics coincide with a good weather window. I wouldn't assume that you can arrive on Skye and the next day start the traverse and leave 2 days later. Giving yourselves a larger time span increases your chances and gives flexibility with your planned approach, which might have to change to maybe one of the suggested options above.
The bivi, day 2 with day 1 behind and sunset over the Outer Hebrides from the bivi
Kit - what you need is all you need
When i plan for a Skye Cuillin ridge traverse i think to myself what i need and what i would like to take. In short only take what you need and if you can share kit with your partner then that is best. Some people would put different items of kit in to those two different categories but i do find that a lot of people take too much. Once you have the day essentials of your hill clothes, rope, helmet, harness, rack, food and water your bag is already nearly full. Add on to that the bivi kit of sleeping bag, roll mat, bivi bag, stove and food, for most their bag is at a weight that doesn't need to be added to.
A few things that i do to keep weight as low as possible: use my bivi bag as a waterproof liner in my rucksack, keep my evening food as light as possible (keeping the water content low) minimal gas, other than the clothes i wear during the day i only have 1 spare warmer top for the day or night, this means i can take a thinner sleeping bag, i don't take any 'luxuries', if im not going to wear it, eat it or sleep in it i don't take it, so no tooth brush, change of clothes, spare gloves etc.
Some people are more prepared to put up with a bit more suffering than others and this is a personal choice. Some don't take a stove and eat cold, others i have known don't take a sleeping bag and sleep in their clothes, and others can live off very little food for the 2 days and make up for it off the hill, but this is not me.
One way of saving weight is the mountaineering kit that you take. I have met people who have a full 60m rope and a full climbing rack, this is instantly going to add on kgs to the bag weight. I am not going to dictate what safety kit people should take (as climbing kit is to keep you safe) or when people decide to use it. But food for thought, i take a 38m rope for the longest abseil off the Inaccessible Pinnacle and a very light rack that i use on the TD gap and the Kings Chimney.
Good amount of kit and bag size. Start of the traverse after the walk in, half way along and abseiling off the the Inaccessible Pinnacle
The main elements of the pace that you need to travel is consistent and efficiently, its not a fast pace compared to a normal day in the hills but that pace needs to be kept for the whole 2 days (which could be 12-15 hours each day) and to use the time when you are not moving efficiently. There is a lot of ascent and descent and distance to travel over the 2 days so if you have too many breaks then the total time of each day will become unmanageable. I use the phrase 'its a pause not a break', as a break suggests a rest of inactivity where as a pause is a short interval from moving where other things happen: eating, drinking, route choosing. If you are on an abseil section or belay i class this as a rest of the legs so you can move off after.
I see a lot of people who have breaks to rest, which is fine in itself but there is a habit that each break gets a bit longer as the day goes on the more tired you get and therefore adding fatigue onto the day. This is where the consistent pace is important, if you feel that the pace is unsustainable then you are going to have to stop and rest the mind and legs. If a pace is set that can be kept through the day then your body gets less fatigued and your mind has a chance to rest on the easier sections because you are not rushing. Steady slow progress is still progress, stopping due to going too fast just un-does the extra moving pace you had, but you are more tied.
There are a few good resources to help with route finding that i use for the Skye cuillin traverse. The first is the Rockfax mini guide. This is a pdf A5 download that you can print out. For me it is the most concise route fining document out there. The diagrams are sketched rather than photos but they do logically match up when you are at the sections. it also gives you an accumulative time along the ridge of a maximum and minimum so you can see how you are progressing and help predict where you might get to for the bivi etc. The second is the new Cicerone Skye Cuillin Ridge traverse guide book, great photos and topos to find your way as well as other options for route fining.
I hope that these areas covered in this article help you plan and inspire your trip to complete the Skye Cuillin ridge. If you want to take the stress out of the route finding and be kept safe as well as advice as to what kit to take, we offer a 2 day guided Skye Cuillin ridge traverse through the summer months with a 1:2 ratio and a 3 day weather window set aside. Contact me here.