Life at its best

Life at its best

I’ve just returned from revisiting the island of Skye after an absence of over a quarter of a century (last visit, June 1994). I’d had such an intensive time taking photos for my book on ‘The Cuillin’ in 1993 – making no less than twelve separate visits in that year alone – that I’d somehow been in no great hurry to return. This was possibly a mistake because, after a recent total hip replacement at the age of nearly 70, I’m no longer capable of climbing mountains nearly as easily as I could.

Gordon on Sgurr Nan Eag, June 1993, with heavy Hasselblad camera sack and tripod. Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Thearlich behind. Photo: source unknown, I think he was called Dave.

Also I had forgotten just how truly wonderful and unique the Cuillin is: the savagery of the saw-toothed peaks themselves, the mystery of the wreathing mists, the theatricality of the ever-changing atmosphere and the spell-binding luminosity of the light.

On the first day, after visiting the wild and totally unspoiled Tarskavaig Bay on the Sleat peninsula and climbing the small pointed hill of Cnoc Armadail (the first time I’d worn mountain boots since my hip operation twenty weeks ago), we were about to get back into the car when we were treated to a spectacular rainbow that seemed to descend right into the Sound of Sleat only about 400 meters from us. It somehow set the magical, transcendental tone for the week.

Everything about Skye seemed even better than I remembered it; much is literally better as a result of a huge amount of inward investment since I was last here (roads, quality of service, range of facilities, etc etc). There is almost nothing tacky or tatty about it anymore, as it’s become a prime goal for the international tourist. It must now rate as one of the leading tourist spots of its type in the world.

But there was something else very noticeably different: the sad contrast with England. Almost as soon as we’d crossed the border, it was as if some invisible cloud of sickness had lifted. And by the time we’d reached Skye, after two very pleasant days spent at Rhu near Helensburgh, it was as if we’d returned to the real, normal world that has been so utterly blighted in England by the perverse hate-spreading virus of Brexit. At last, everywhere there were relaxed, happy people, full of good humour and wisdom, who spoke to you directly and not in mealy-mouthed equivocations.

We were staying at Skye Basecamp, a popular hostel for climbers and backpackers in Broadford, run by Mike Lates, my old friend (and great assistant on my Cuillin book in 1993).

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the hostel is the extraordinary number of young, intelligent international travellers who pass through it every day: Canadians, Australians, French, Germans, Poles, Italians, Japanese – I lost track of the number of nationalities. Not that it mattered: what they all had in common was an international spirit of camaraderie, and in the seven days I was there I had more interesting conversations than I’d had in seven months in England.

As my spirits rose, so did the clouds on the mountains. The next day, encouraged by a better forecast, I decided that our goal should be Coire Lagan, because Freda had never visited what surely is one of the wonders of British mountain landscape. There was something indescribably thrilling and reassuring about being back on that ancient, classic mountain path.

On the newly built path up to Coire Lagan, 12 Sept 2019. Memories, memories…. Photo: Freda Raphael.

The very first time I ever came up here was in Sept 1975 with the Thames Valley Mountaineering Club, when I took a black and white picture (on a new Asahi Pentax) at around this very spot:

On the badly eroded path up to Coire Lagan with the Thames Valley Mountaineering Club, 26 Sept 1975. L-R: Dave Clapham, Pete Hutchison, Neil ––, Bill Wintrip.

Nothing had changed except the condition of the path, which had been in an appalling state in 1975. Now it had been superbly rebuilt. But the weather conditions were very similar to that day in September 1975, only it had been a rather colder then. My logbook records that later in the day, on the summit of Sgurr Dearg, it had started to snow heavily. Forty-four years later, it rained for a while, so we put on our cagoules:

As we approached the lower Coire, the cloud started to clear in a tantalizing, quintessential Cuillin fashion. Mysterious, theatrical and spell-binding all at once.

We stopped for a snack once we were in the lower coire, below the giant, 1000-foot high face of Sron na Ciche. Of course, my mind wandered back to old times, as I retraced a classic rock climb I’d done here with Mike Lates twenty-six years earlier …

Classic rock routes over a 1,000 feet high. Click to show the Cioch Direct – Arrow Route – Integrity integral climb. Photo: Freda Raphael
A closer shot of the central section of the same route in July 1993. Climbers: Mike Lates and Joanna -?. Photo: Gordon Stainforth. Click to show route.
Mike Lates leading Arrow Route on Sron na Ciche, June 1993. My logbook: ‘Outstandingly good, but very sparse protection.’ Photo: Gordon Stainforth.
Mike seconding the first pitch of ‘Integrity’ above the Arrow Slab, June 1993. My logbook: ‘As superb as reputed. Beautiful sunny afternoon.’ Photo: Gordon Stainforth.
The lip of upper Coire Lagan, Sept 2019: Photo Freda Raphael.

Back to 2019, and I’m confronted by a rock band, a section of very easy rock climbing, to gain access to the the upper coire. It was shortlived, but rather smooth, so I had to take great care …

Gordon climbing the short rock band that gives access to Upper Coire Lagan, Sept 2019. Note the small figure on the path below. Photo: Freda Raphael.

… but in many ways it was a joy to be climbing on ‘real rock’ again …

Once we were in the superb upper coire we had a pleasant lunch by the lochan, and looked at such well-known features as the Great Stone Shoot and Collie’s Ledge on Sgurr Mhic Coinnich. At one time, the 1200′ Great Stone Shoot from near the summit of Sgurr Alasdair was the longest and finest scree run in Great Britain, but in time the fine scree in the upper gully has ended up on the lower scree slope so that only the lower 400 feet can still be scree run. When I first did it in September 1975 with members of the Thames Valley Mountaineering Club it was still intact, and my logbook records that we came down it in about 10 minutes.

Another exceptionally fine feature is the very exposed Collie’s Ledge on Sgurr Mhic Coinnich …

Gordon at lip of upper Coire Lagan, Sept 2019, with Sgurr Mhic Coinnich and the Great Stone Shoot behind. Photo: Freda Raphael. Click to see line of Collie’s Ledge.
Collie’s Ledge on Sgurr Mhic Coinnich, June 1993. Photo: Gordon Stainforth.

It was time to descend and, although I had to take great care on the final feet few of the rockband, I had climbed 1900 feet without any serious problems with my new hip.

Sun over Loch Brittle: descending from Coire Lagan, Sept 2019. Photo: Freda Raphael.

Once we were on the edge of the coire we stopped again to marvel at the extraordinary lighting effects: a sea of dazzling silver, 1500 feet below, flanked by the gigantic black fortress of Sron na Ciche. Black and silver; while at my feet the Ling heather and other flora was a Jackson Pollock painting of orange, red, purple and green. I was seeing everything with an almost new intensity. A large whale-like black boulder in front of me glistened with pinpricks of light twinkling like diamonds as the quartz crystals were enlivened by the evening sun. Literally, twinkling like diamonds.

But all such things are fleeting and the next day the cloud was down on the mountains, so we went on a fun ferry crossing to the Isle of Raasay, which we’d never visited, and had a very pleasant woodland walk.

The Cuillin from the Isle of Raasay, Sept 2019. Photo: Freda Raphael.

But something had to go wrong, I suppose, on a Friday 13th, and when I decided on our return in the evening to revisit the Sligachan Hotel bar I was shocked by the tasteless way in which it had been revamped.… All very dark grey, ‘post-modern’(?) and uncongenial – whatever ‘mountain soul’ it might once have had totally ripped out of it. One might just as well have been in some kind of motorway cafe in one of the tackier suburbs of London. I vowed not to return.

On Saturday there was monsoonal rain, so we stayed in the hostel all day, reading and talking … On Sunday we visited friends near Portree and, in improving weather, went for a walk on a beach in the Braes:

Freda and Gordon on a beach near the Braes. Ben Tianaveig in the background. Photo: Paul xxx.

On Monday, we climbed the very appealing Ben Tianaveig (Chee-anaveg), 1,355 feet, near Portree, that had formed the backdrop the day before. This was quite a challenge for me because the path was steep and slippery in places, and I had to take extreme care, fearful of dislocating my hip. I just could not afford a single slip anywhere. So the climb was rather more of a challenge for me than that into Coire Lagan. The summit views, however, perched over the sea and with a grandstand view of the moody Cuillin, were a stupendous reward.

On the summit of Ben Tianaveig. The name very aptly means Mountain of the Stormy Bay’. Photo: Freda Raphael.

Tuesday, 17th. Now, at last, the window of good weather that I’d been hoping for arrived. We set our alarm clock for 6.45 am, and before 8 had left the hostel on a perfect fine morning. My ambitious plan for the day was to get back on to the Cuillin Main Ridge at last, by ascending Bruach na Frithe, 3,143 ft, (which translates most curiously and misleadingly as ‘Slope of the Forest’.) Apart from being one of the best viewpoints on the entire ridge, the approach takes one into the stupendous Coire a’ Bhasteir (Corra Vashtyer, Corrie of the Executioner’) below the spectacular Am Basteir with its extraordinary 150-foot high ‘tooth’, shaped like an executioner’s axe  – arguably the most extraordinary piece of rock sculpture in Britain, and Sgurr nan Gillean, 3,167 ft, (‘The Peak of the Young Men’) – perhaps the finest peak in Britain (the only other contenders being Sgurr Alasdair and, on the mainland, An Teallach, Lliathach and Suilven.)

The main reason, then, that I chose to climb Bruach na Frithe via Coire a’ Bhasteir was that, even if we failed to reach our objective, it would be a rewarding mountain day. I told Freda that almost wherever we stopped would be a worthy goal, amid spectacular terrain.

The route comes in four stages: a three-mile walk across a bog; a steep rocky scramble up the side of the Bhasteir Gorge, a difficult slog up steep scree below the Executioner (I had serious doubts whether I would be able to manage this with my new hip), and a final easy scramble up the summit ridge to Bruach na Frithe.

The route did not fail to surprise after the passage of a quarter of a century. A superb new path (albeit very rough in places) has been made across the ‘bog’ so that it has virtually disappeared. Indeed, I couldn’t even make out where it was. I think the new path takes a route far to the east of the old one… So this section of the route went easily enough, although it took us over an hour and a half. Then came the second surprise: just how demanding the scramble was beside the spectacular Bhasteir Gorge – a route that I used to scamper up and down with a huge heavy camera sack and tripod, barely noticing it. But the sad truth is that with the onset of old age and failing limbs, the mountains grow both in size and severity….

An incomparably fitter Gordon en route to Sgurr nan Gillean in June 1993. Photo: John Stainforth.

One of the joys of the route is the way that Sgurr nan Gillean (‘The Peak of the Young Men’) reveals itself and changes its appearance until it is almost entirely unrecognizable, like a well-dressed and affable young man removing his clothes to reveal the strong, sinewy body of a Celtic warrior.

Gordon looking at Sgurr nan Gillean from roughly the same spot, 26 years later. Photo Freda Raphael

I have always been fascinated by the optical illusions embedded in the three dimensional rock sculptures of the world’s greatest peaks, the Matterhorn being perhaps the prime example. Sgurr nan Gillean is no exception. The way the vast majority of tourists see it from the Sligachan Hotel is highly misleading. From that angle and distance it merely looks like a fine, rather benignly rounded triangular peak. The obvious assumption from the way it looks is that it is a simple whaleback of two broad? ridges running east-west:

Most tourists I think would be amazed to be told just how different the reality is: a three-sided pyramid with south-east, west and northerly ridges, the latter coming straight towards the viewer. Somehow the darkness of the gabbro completely conceals its true topography (B):

But even this is not the exact truth, for the faces between the ridges are not gently angled like those of a pyramid, but are precipitously steep. The north ridge, coming directly towards the spectator, is actually a deeply-serrated narrow blade of five massive pinnacles, their sides vertical in places, half a kilometre in length. The other two ridges are likewise heavily serrated, but not so spectacularly as the ‘Pinnacle Ridge’:

Once we were over the lip of the rock band, the route into the Coire, like everything today, was longer than I remembered but I was delighted at last to be back in this extraordinary mountain sanctuary, directly below the Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean – so utterly different from the way it appears from Sligachan. (Our position marked by blue X above).

Freda in Coire a’Bhasteir below the Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean.
Sgurr nan Gillean at dawn from directly the opposite side (from the east).            © Robert Durran

I see from my climbing logbook that I climbed Sgurr nan Gillean five times between 1975 and 1993, and the Pinnacle Ridge twice. The first time I did it was in bad conditions in September 1975 with the Thames Valley Mountaineering Club. I recorded it as ‘an enjoyable mini-epic (in retrospect only!)’ Here’s my logbook account:

‘25th Sept 1975. Weather improved, but far from suitable for the day’s intended route. Set off rather late (11.15) across 3 miles of peat bog to do Pinnacle Ridge (III), Sgurr nan Gilean. Bill catches Pete & myself up to make rope of 3. Solo to top of 3rd pinnacle. In thick cloud. Descending this as last man called for considerable concentration on my part. Steep, greasy rock & now raining. Move together on 4th pinnacle (Knight’s Peak) round gendarmes, then I descend direct to notch – rock v. wet & icy, making this difficult even with a top-rope, so others abseil. Conditions now getting really unpleasant & cold, & now 5.30, so go along grass terrace to left then back R up loose rake to save time. Bill leads last 90’ pitch to summit ridge – good holds, pleasant. Summit 6.00. Then straight off along East Ridge by ‘Tourist Route’ (seemed like a motorway!) V. rapid descent in gathering gloom & increasing rain. Back at Sligachan at 8.00 just before completely dark. Hear news of Everest S/W Face success in pub.’

Eighteen years later, in September 1993, while doing my Cuillin book, I repeated it – this time solo and in fine conditions. Logbook: ‘A wonderful day’. At the 3rd pinnacle I met up with a team of ‘firemen from Fife’ who kindly let me use their abseil rope, and so I avoided the difficult downclimb I’d made on the previous occasion.

The abseil from the 3rd Pinnacle of the Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean, September 1993. Photo: Gordon Stainforth.

Now, in September 2019, sitting beside the little Loch a’ Bhasteir (marked on the map as being 1949 feet above sea level – rather appropriately the same as my year of birth), all I could do was gaze up at the Peak of the Young Men. For I knew also that this would have to be the high point of our day, indeed of our trip. The weather was looking threatening, and my hip was starting to hurt.

One of the maps I used during my Cuillin shoot of 1993, showing the routes I made on and around Sgurr nan Gillean that year. It makes me feel quite tired just to look at it now!

On the descent, Freda and I somehow managed to come down slightly too far to the north, and found ourselves on a final traverse, out of balance on wet rock and having to use quite small finger holds and underpulls – almost rock climbing. Freda, leading the way, had to point out every foothold for me, because I could not see them at all well owing to the ‘macular pucker’ in my right eye. Fortunately, the difficulties were short lived, but we hugged each other on regaining the safety of easy ground. Freda was very generous about how well I had managed with my dual handicap. But what would I have thought if I could have looked forward a quarter of a century in 1993, and seen myself now …?

Gordon beside the Bhasteir Gorge, September 2019. The route scrambles up the rocks on the extreme right of frame. Photo: Freda Raphael.

My hurting hip made the return to Sligachan quite an ordeal, and by the time we’d reached the car, I was completely spent. The day had been right at my limit – it had ‘given me a spanking’, to use a favourite expression of one of my old climbing friends. Nevertheless, it had been truly superb, having all the very special qualities of a mountain day, that is so different from all other days in ordinary life.

Click to see our 2019 routes

All we are left with after a day like this are our memories – that become superimposed on the map of all our previous memories – but how rich and rare they are, of a kind given perhaps only to a fortunate few.

We drove home the next day in perfect weather to dear old England, our ‘green and pleasant land’ now so horribly tainted by the lies and lunacy of Boris Johnson … How I would love to swing him on a rope above a huge drop (e.g. from the Basteir Tooth) to try and make him come to his senses, try to make him understand all that is best about life that has so obviously eluded him.

Sgurr Fionn Choire and Am Basteir from the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean, c.10 pm, 21 June 1989. Picture taken on my Hasselblad for my first mountain book, ‘Eyes to the Hills’. I had spent the previous night bivvying on the summit of Sgurr Fionn Choire. On this second night, I left the summit of SNG at 10.30 pm, and descended in the dark with all my camera and bivvy gear, getting back to the Sligachan Hotel at 12.45 am.
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