It was a busy Christmas and New Year’s holiday and it’s been a while since I’ve posted, so here’s getting back into it with this first of 2017. Over the weekend of 14-15 January I was at the Isle of Skye Winter Festival. Run every year by Mike Lates of Skye Guides, the Festival is a relaxed and informal meetup between like-minded winter climbers and walkers who have come to know Skye Guides in various ways over the past few years. It’s been running for a few years but the last time I could make it was in 2013. So it was nice to be back again – crossing the soaring Skye Bridge and leaving the mainland behind is always a great feeling.
We (Marie and I) arrived on Friday mid-morning after being delayed on snowy roads from Glasgow, sadly too late for a full day out. In fact, we had spent the night in a frozen Glen Nevis car park. Upon getting to Skye we had an easy two hour walk from the Sligachan hotel over the moor towards Coire a’ Bhasteir; a brief warm-up for the winter weekend ahead. The Northern Cuillin looked beautifully stark in the flat afternoon light, with only a dusting of snow coating their angular lines. There was patchy snow and slushy ice underfoot – winter hasn’t hit the Isle of Skye in full force just yet.
After a sober evening (sticking to a dry January!) I set off with three others – Johnny, Daniela and Chris – on frozen roads towards the Glen Brittle. The forecast had been good for winter climbing; a short sharp cold snap with fresh, clear skies made for good winter conditions. We were lucky; Skye’s coastal location often makes for mild winter conditions, and thaws can wipe out accumulated snow and ice in short order (though admittedly it has been a mild winter across the whole of Scotland so far).
We had decided to tackle the Inaccessible Pinnacle, also known as the In Pinn. Famous for being the only munro top that demands a rope and rock climbing skills, the Pinn is actually the summit of Sgurr Dearg (the Red Peak in Gaelic). At 986m it’s a narrow whaleback ridge of rock, less than a foot wide in places. The most common way up and over is by the East Ridge. A Moderate rock climb in summer and a Grade III/IV in winter, it offers awesome exposure and a vertical drop on both sides.
Daniela and Chris were first, and when they were safely away I led the climb with Johnny as my second. The thin rime-coated ice made for tricky going, with little in the way of built-up ice allowing use of my axe picks in the normal way. Instead I climbed with one hand and one axe, using the latter for some crafty hooking. The crux (visible just above Daniela in the photo) was exhilarating and slippery, with few positive holds, but once above it the way ahead was nice and easy.
We abseiled from the Bolster Stone (the highest boulder), made a bit more famous last year to a whole new audience by Mr Danny MacAskill perching on top of it with his bike. Unfortunately the cloud had moved in by that point, so our views were limited in typical Cuillin fashion. The ridge is an infamous cloud magnet. In fact, many of the other people at the festival were up on top of Blabheinn (Blaven) at that point just a few kilometres away, still in the sun!
We finished off a great day on the Cuillin with a mass curry in the evening with good chat and a couple of presentations at Skye Basecamp hostel. Mike has put together a fantastic annual event in the Festival, and the opportunities for meeting new climbers, ticking off established routes and even putting up new lines is immense – Skye’s fickle weather notwithstanding! As if to underscore this, Sunday was mild, wet and cloudy when it arrived, so we decided to head back to Glasgow at midday. Here’s hoping for a start to the Scottish winter season proper – and soon.