At the beginning of April last year, after two weeks or so on the Outer Hebs (see previous post), we took the ferry back to Skye and TLF dropped me off at the Portree campsite – I was the very first happy camper of the season – before driving back to Glasgow. Our friends Andy and Jen arrived from the Deep South later that afternoon and we set up camp together. That evening was spent planning the next days’ expedition over a couple of drams. The idea was to walk the Trotternish Ridge from just north of the campsite at Torvaig to Meall na Suiramach at the northern end of the ridge, before swinging around to the west and following the tail of the ridge down to the port of Uig on the west coast. As this elongated version of the route clocks in at a bit under 30 miles, with 2670m of ascent, we would of course need to camp on the ridge along the way.
That night the weather changed. From having been unseasonably mild over the last fortnight with hazy sunshine forming the overall meteorological picture, a building wind blew in from the east with freezing temperatures and a fair amount of snow. The early morning was still a bit wild and once we’d reassembled Andy and Jen’s ‘base camp’ tent, which had taken a good kicking, we re-calibrated our expectations. We decided to put the Grand Ridge Traverse back a day. So… what to do?
The Red Cuillin peak, Marsco, seemed to present a handy alternative for a day trip, so we motored down to Sligachan and set off along the Loch Coruisk/Elgol path. The distinctive summit with its elegant sweeping lines dominates the view ahead as you progress along the glen.
The ‘normal’ ascent of Marsco usually involves climbing along the Allt na Measarroch to the Mam a’ Phobuill bealach then launching up to the summit ridge via the steep slopes of the Coire nan Laoigh; from the summit the outward route is retraced. We had other ideas. The north ridge of Marsco is so compellingly steep that it seemed on this bright, crisp and absolutely bloody freezing morning, to say ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. If I hadn’t been with Andy and Jen I’d probably have run away screaming, but they’re made of sterner stuff , so we duly launched ourselves up the unrelentingly steep incline with thighs a-burning. To make matters worse, much of the ridge has a soft, springy vegetative cladding, so it was a bit like walking up a near vertical bouncy castle.
Eventually the gradient eased and we soon gained the summit ridge. Out of the lee of the north ridge the freezing wind was ferocious and bright sunshine coruscated off the frozen snow.
The Beinn Deargs and Glamaig formed the backdrop to the ascent.
Then, at the summit, the views were extraordinary.
We could see just about every snow-dusted summit along the western seaboard of Scotland and the views closer to hand weren’t bad either.
Blaven dominated our immediate horizon and the view down to Camasunary with the Small Isles beyond was tremendous.
Wee tottered down the Coire nan Laoigh to the bealach and followed the burn back to Glen Sligachan. It had been a good leg stretcher.
The next morning was a bit overcast, but the wind had died down and a light dusting of snow remained to give a bit of relief to the flat light. ‘From humble beginnings’ would seem to sum up the southern terminus of the ridge, which isn’t wildly exciting, if truth be told. Mind you, if the modest summits of Peinn a’ Chleibh, A’ Chorra-Bheinn and Beinn Dearg were in the Southern Uplands, they’d not look out of place.
As we approached the summit of Ben Dearg (552m), we got our first glimpse of what lay in store. In fact we could plainly see that it was actually The Storr lying in store… (sorry).
The next few miles of our route unfurled along the ridge before us; a vague path cleaves to the edge of the east scarp before climbing to the summit of the Storr. Our main concern was that conditions would remain clear; navigation wouldn’t be too big a problem in the murk, but it was becoming very apparent that this was one walk where missing out on the views would be a great big, fat shame.
The northern flank of Ben Dearg makes for a surprisingly steep descent, but once down, we fairly scuttled along the edge of the escarpment…
…before beginning the reasonably stiff climb along the flank of The Storr.
The rim of the cliffs along the vertical east face of The Storr provided grandstand views of the Storr Sanctuary, with its array of rock pinnacles including the renowned Old Man of Storr.
The summit (779m) provided opportunity for a pause-ette, a quick snack and the chance to take in the view west to the snow-covered Harris Hills.
We set off again with views along the next few miles of the sinuous ridge enticing us along.
…then up again. Our packs laden with camping gear, we were beginning to feel the up-down effort; still, it did seem to be brightening up a bit as we approached the top of Hartaval (668m).
Our outing was fast becoming a classic day in the hills; the serpentine ridge looked absolutely sublime in the burgeoning light.
We made good progress along the undulating ridge, taking in a series of tops and bealachs; our spirits in good order, in no small part due to the weather. We then encountered the only people we would see on the ridge that day, three handsome German lads who were walking from Staffin to the Storr in a day, with little to encumber them; that did make our packs feel a bit heavier! A sheer-sided cleft in the escarpment provided an obvious opportunity for a photo. Andy is sitting not because he’s tired, but actually because that’s one very exposed perch; much more so than it looks. He’s not usually given to failures of nerve, but this was definitely squeaky-bum time.
Continuing on our way, Beinn Edra loomed ahead; we were aiming for the Bealach Uige, just beyond this whale-backed summit, for that night’s camp. The Bealach Uige is one of the few places along the ridge where running water is available.
We continued over the next couple of top/bealach combos then at the foot of Beinn Edra Andy and Jen decided that they would skirt around the flank of the hill and would meet me on the Bealach Uige. We were all a bit knackered after nine hours of committed walking, but missing Beinn Edra out wasn’t an option for me as I was’ contractually obliged’ to walk every step along the ridge as the route is going in The Big Book of the Hebrides. From the summit (611m) trig point the view back to The Storr was as clear as a bell. The Cuillin are visible on the extreme right of the picture.
I trotted down the hill near the escarpment edge and eventually arrived at the bealach. The view north to the Quiraing presented a tantalising prospect for the next day’s walk.
I could see Andy and Jen still a way back along the western flank of Beinn Edra. When they arrived they were a bit done in as the going had proved to be really rough underfoot, so the ‘short-cut’ had proved to be a bit of a false economy. We found the only dry-ish few square metres on the bealach and pitched up. After a water-gathering sortie we cooked our dinner and had a wee ‘whisky-nail’ (copyright: Andy Dodd 2010) – this is a sassenach interpretation on the theme of the famous ‘rusty nail’ – a combo of Drambuie and whisky, though I can’t remember what went into this particular incarnation.
The breeze had picked up a little and in truth our pitch on the bealach near the edge of the escarpment was a little exposed. However, aside from a little rustling of rip-stop nylon a peaceful night was passed.
By morning, however, a turgid fug of perma-clag had descended on the ridge and we could hardly see a sausage beyond five metres. Hey-ho, we could hardly complain after the glories of the previous day. We packed up and continued on our way. Within a kilometre we had espied a tiny ‘tent’ on the Bealach Coisichean; this was the kind of bijou ‘shelter’ beloved of those versed in the dark art of ‘bivvying’. It didn’t look very comfy, but then its owner probably wasn’t hauling 15 kilos along the ridge. We greeted the occupant who was firing up a brew – a chap well into his sixties who was tackling the ridge from Uig to Portree. We supplied him with the requested intelligence on what to expect on his route ahead and I felt a pang that he’d miss out on the grand views we’d enjoyed the day before.
We slogged up the flank of Bioda Buidhe (466m) in the murk and followed the escarpment down to the Bealach Ollasgairte where a singletrack road between Uig and Staffin crosses the ridge . We couldn’t see diddly-squat and my camera was staying tucked away, I fear. However, if we had been able to see anything, this is how the view back south along the escarpment would have looked:
And the view north:
We crossed the road and picked up a fairly obscure path climbing along the flank of Meall na Suiramach (543m). Apparently, from the edge of the escarpment the views down onto the phantasmagorical collection of rock pinnacles, castellations and crenellations comprising the Quiraing is somewhat awe-inspiring; though for all we could see there may have been a giant Tesco superstore down there.
From the summit we followed compass bearings due west to descend towards the lower top of Beinn a’ Sga. On paper (the OS 1:25,000 map) this looked pretty straightforward even in dense perma-clag. However, on the ground the ground was one huge tract of sodden peat hags and deep run-off channels. This made for hard work, but eventually we were able to drop south-westwards down the flank of beinn a’ Sga and emerge from beneath the murky lid that sat along the ridge.
We crossed a deep gorge and climbed steeply west along the edge of Creag Sneosdal to the summit of Suidh a’ Mhinn (350m). From here we descended south along the escarpment edge before climbing steadily once again along Creag Colluscard and thence to the summit of Reieval (299m), the very last top along the ridge. There followed an unglamorous descent, crossing several user-unfriendly stock fences, to reach the minor Uig – Staffin road. We staggered the final couple of miles to the bus stop by the Calmac office in Uig only to find that the Uig – Portree bus actually stopped a mile up the road. This news was not welcome. However, we just about overcame this final hurdle and we were soon back at the Torvaig campsite, showered and fed with a ‘whisky nail’ in hand.
Obviously the ridge can be walked in either direction and where you start and finish is up to you. A day walk alternative is to gain the ridge at The Storr and walk north to Staffin or Flodigarry, or vise versa. It’s a cracking walk, but one to save for clear conditions if you possibly can.