For some years, I’ve had the ambition to do the Cuillin Ridge Traverse; from the moment I first heard of it I thought to myself, yes that’s for me! I wanted to do it! What’s more I wanted to do it in winter. I’ve always loved mountains in winter, the idea of battling not only the Mountain but the weather also has always held a fascination for me.
We finally found ourselves on Skye on the 23rd of January 2009; the mountains were loaded with snow; we just looked at one another and grinned! We pitched our tents at Sligachan and I spent the rest of the day showing Aidan around and trying to view the ridge from as many different vantage points as possible from Elgol to Glenbrittle. The weather was pretty good and despite me knowing how fickle the weather on Skye can be, we decided to go for it the following day.
We were up reasonably early the next morning to ascend Sgurr nan Gillean. We encountered a challenging river crossing, the snow was knee deep and soft, which made it hard and exhausting going and we made a navigational error which meant that we ended up falling well behind our planned schedule and at 16.30 still below the summit with our aspirations of the ridge traverse having disappeared. We also knew we couldn’t summit and get off again in those conditions before it got dark, we had planned for one night on the Ridge anyway so I suggested we bivy for the night giving us a full day to summit and get off the hill tomorrow.
Our ascent and descent the following day were much more epic than we expected. We got caught in a blizzard, which reduced visibility to a white-out and conditions made descent precarious with loose snow and ice covered rock. Aidan slipped and then in a moment of lost concentration I slipped as well. As I’d stumbled and fallen Aidan had been dislodged from his stance and had smacked his face into the rock splitting his lip, he’d also damaged his right hand which was now quite swollen. With the light slowly dwindling, and unsure of our exact location we realised that we would need to stay put so rather than risk ending up on more precarious ground in the dark, we bivvied again.
The temperature dropped, the wind picked up and somehow all our jackets and sleeping bags had got wet from spindrift that had melted onto them and so that night was cold, uncomfortable and long. During the night, I had plenty of time to reflect on the day’s events and the predicament we were in. We were cold, exhausted and unsure of our position. The options to descend the mountain safely by ourselves were running out. So in the morning we called 999 and got put through to the Police on Skye. I explained our situation and the police operator said he would contact the local Mountain Rescue Team and that they would be in touch. Ten minutes later I had a call to my mobile phone, the guy introduced himself as Neil the Skye MRT co-ordinator. He established our condition and position and told us the team would be with us in around two and a half hours; however, he would also contact the Helicopter which, if not busy, could be with us much sooner. Again, around ten minutes later I received another call, this time it was to establish our position and condition for the helicopter. We were told they would be with us in approximately twelve minutes, our hearts were lifted! It was like a great weight being lifted from us. As far as I was concerned we were now safe.
We heard the Helicopter a long time before we saw it, suddenly it appeared above Pinnacle Ridge, circling around our position. As the Helicopter appeared over Pinnacle Ridge again I shouted to them I could see them, I told them we we’re on their Right-Hand side, again they couldn’t see us. I asked my brother to flash his Head Torch, the Helicopter crew spotted it right away and dropped a red Smoke Flare. The Flare had landed on a flat area a few metres above us, Aidan beckoned me up to the red smoke spiralling into the air. I didn’t pick my rucksack up but simply tried to drag it behind me, I hadn’t realised how little energy I had. The sack weighed what seemed a ton as I tried to drag it through the snow up the slope, the down wash from the Helicopter was knocking me off my feet making the effort to get up the slope even harder. Aidan was now calling to me, as I looked up he pointed over my shoulder, I turned to see the Winch man standing behind me, he’d walked down the slope to me.
He shouted above the noise of the Helicopter asking me if I was ok? We both gave ‘Thumbs up’. We were given a chocolate bar and bottle of water each, the Helicopter door was shut and we were on our way off the mountain; just not in the style we’d anticipated some 48 hours earlier. We put down on the Helipad next to the Sligachan MRT hut, as we exited the Helicopter thanking the crew we were met by around 10 of the Skye Mountain Rescue Team, I have to admit at that time I felt awful, dragging these people away from their everyday lives, putting their lives in danger for people like me. I felt very humbled.
We were escorted into the hut and asked if we were ok? Given a welcome cup of hot Tea and offered food. We we’re then debriefed and a statement took as the MRT slowly disbanded around us and headed off back to their everyday lives. We soon followed, heading back to our tents a hundred metres away on the Sligachan Hotel Camp site with a very new and healthy respect for the Cuillin, especially in winter.