The annual Burns Night trip to Skye was usually the highlight of the mountaineering club calendar. The third weekend in January would find a few dozen of us piling into an assortment of clapped out hatchbacks, the suspension groaning under the weight of students and their piles of kit and food for 3 nights. We hit the road in convoy, driving north through the darkness for 5 or 6 hours, radio blasting out Guns N Roses.
As we pressed on the roads grew quieter and gradually more dimly lit as the street lights of towns were left behind. Snow poles passed by in streaks of light along the A9, then we turned off onto narrower and more winding lanes. I stared through the glass window into the absolute blankness of the night, looking past my own reflection and wondering what sights and places we were passing by. Gaelic started to appear on the roadsigns, marking the ways to towns and villages with tantalisingly Highland names. Mountain tops only half imagined lurked in the night.
When we finally arrived and the engine noise was replaced by quiet I swung open the door to a rush of cold, crisp air. The darkness of the car was replaced by the vast space of night. My knees cracked as they straightened, my back clicked as I stretched like a stiff dog. I took my first deep breath of real clean air, feeling a sea breeze on my neck and a glimpse of starlight above shadowy hills.
There is magic in awakening somewhere you arrived by night. Discovering yourself blinking in the morning sun, surrounded by new sights. In the early morning I woke among the stirring of bodies on creaking bunks, and followed a ray of light to the edge of the curtain. I pulled it aside slightly, and discovered that the sheet of mirrored black glass from the night before had been replaced by a vista of mountains as pointy and exciting as those of a fantasy novel.
Just outside the Glen Brittle Memorial Hut ran the single tack road we had come in on, with a fence and telegraph pole beside an old-school BT phone box. On the other side of the road the mountains began. Slopes of stubbled brown grass dotted with sheep slanted up, and up, and up, rising, climbing, narrowing, darkening, steepening. Higher and higher they drew the eye, into inaccessible places, into rearing cliff faces and vast coires, into bold and fearful awe. The mind was transfixed by their sight, and by the strange fearful joy of imagination which said they beckoned.
This was first sight of the mountains of Skye; the Black Cuillin. True mountains in every sense.
Looking at the Black Cuillin on the map is like looking at a crime scene. Some poor, unsuspecting contour lines just got done in by a gang of permanent markers, and were left mangled and twisted beneath forbidding black scrawls. That was my impression as 4 of us gathered around the map spread on a huge wooden table. Fingers were pointed and waved above the dark lines as we drew our plan, peaks named like offerings and heads nodded sagely as guidebooks were consulted. I kept my mouth shut – I was a novice with no local knowledge to offer, and just wanted to get up there, anywhere. There was debate about the merits of one peak vs another, constant repetition of the word conditions like a mantra. But, after a few minutes, consensus seemed to be reached. We were going somewhere called Inpin.
No, it was ‘The In Pin’ apparently. I had no idea what that meant, but I’d find out later as far as I was concerned. For now I stuffed my slightly-too-big rucksack with warm clothing, cheese sandwiches and camera. I was sure to pack two pairs of gloves this time, and I also got excited by the addition of a helmet, a long handled ice-axe, and a proper pair of crampons. I was slightly better prepared this time than I had been on the Cobbler the previous winter. My leather boots were not ideal, I’d been told, but apparently they would do.
My brother Alex was one of our group of 4, and although I still hate to admit it, I was putting all of my faith in his greater experience and knowledge. A couple of years older than me, he’d already had two proper seasons doing real winter climbing, plus a trip to the Alps. He knew what he was doing, as far as I was concerned, and I put my trust in him. The next man in our team consisted of Simon, who was French and liked mountains. He didn’t say much, but he exuded an atmosphere of calm competence and experience, besides having demonstrated in last night’s table climbing that he was phenomenally strong. Table climbing is a game that climbers play. You lie on top of a table, then try to go right under it and back to the top without touching the floor. It’s much harder than you think. Then there was Chris, a post-grad student with a few years on me, and the kind of stories about foreign lands that proved he’d been around. He was also one of the wittiest people I ever met, and was naturally a popular figure in the club.
It was under grey skies that we set off. There was even a threat of rain in the air as we walked uphill over the boggy and brown slopes. The hills were shrouded, but expansive views opened behind us and to the side; the islands of Rum and Canna like drifting mysteries in a distant haze. The horizon was lost in a grey mist that welded sea and sky together.
We trailed higher and higher in one another’s footsteps, chipping away at the bottom of the mountain, until we finally drew near the snowline where the hills turned from brownwet to whiteblack. Just then, as we passed the end of one huge spur of hill, the cloud began to lift, raising a curtain over the mountain stage. Like smoking volcanoes, the sharp peaks revealed themselves layer on layer, ascending into the sky. Sharply pointed, buttressed and snow-blasted. Vast and seemingly impregnable.
We no longer walked among grass and bog, but rock and snow. The land began to cup itself around us as we pushed on uphill, up steeper slopes that were more rock than earth or bog, entering the vast amphitheatre of Coire Lagan. We threaded ways between boulders larger than houses, black on their sides with white lids of wet snow. Eventually we found ourselves beside a tiny lochan. Its waters were rippling darkness and light, flashing deep reflections of the soaring peaks on all sides. These were Mountains, with a capital M. Directly beyond the loch lay a vast rock wall, topped by a peak that rose to a perfect point – Sgurr Alasdair. It seemed unassailable from every angle, with flanks that either plunged vertically for hundreds of metres, or otherwise swept out in broken ridges that looked gap-toothed, as if they had been chopped into by some vast stone axe. On the opposite side, equally imperious walls of bare rock rose into the sky, leaning back to some unknown and unseen summit.
We took a break there, beside the lip of the coire, where ancient ice had carved out this home for giants. Each of us took some time to himself, wandering here and there, and it strikes me now the way that each one of us found some way to interact with the place according to our character, projecting ourselves onto it and taking away some different aspect. Simon stood alone, quietly contemplating, taking it all in silently. Chris built an incongruously cheerful looking snowman that seemed at once both completely at odds and completely at home in the ruggedness of our surroundings – a cheeky grin in the face of authority. Alex clipped on his crampons, grabbed his axes, and started to climb thin lines of ice on steep boulders, seeking the satisfaction of physical interaction with the elements. I photographed the extraordinary natural sights around me; compelled then as I am now to try and see the deepest beauty of all, and to hold it inside myself.
Even at this point we were all intoxicated by the spirit of the mountain. Thrilled to be in such surroundings, delighted by our own daring, and the optimism of confidence. We were… mountaineers! And for us, the mountains held all we wanted.
Beyond the loch were huge slopes of broken scree, covered by and locked in place by snow. But all directions seemed to lead either to vertical cliff faces, or otherwise mysterious grey disappearances. Except one point, where the slope reached up right to the coire rim, where nothing but a small protrusion of rock seemed to mark the top. To the left and right of this point were huge peaks, so where we might go from there I was not sure, but that seemed an exciting enough place to start.
In the distance behind us rain clouds were drifting across the isles on pillars of light. Ragged clouds like grey swans nudged at the hills, and wreathed themselves around the dark volcanic stone. All the world was a dance of water, air, and rock. Before us lay the prospect of higher ground. I hustled the other 3 together to lift their axes in a testosterone-fuelled salute to the hills, and then we set off.
For the first time in my life I found myself using crampons and an ice axe in earnest. Once the crampons were strapped to my boots my feet felt more secure, but awkward. Every second step was a scrape of metal on stone, or a slight off balance as the protruding spikes made my feet touch the ground too soon, or with all my weight on one point. To my surprise I found I reacted to these moments with a sort of shuddering disgust, like the thought of dentist drills or of scraping a chalkboard. It was just horrid when you got it wrong. But this provided plenty of motivation to focus and learn, so I soon adapted to taking more care, concentrating on every forward step. When I placed my feet correctly, with all 10 points biting in crisp white snow, it was intensely satisfying.
Step by step we worked our way up the steep mountainside, feeling the wind increase with every metre. Sunshine burst through the clouds as we neared the top, with the clouds finally lifting from the tops just as we arrived at the lowest point of the ridge. Here at the top of the long slope it seemed as if the mountains had built a low stone wall for us to peer over. On the other side was a gut wrenching, heart stopping abyss – a drop-off so steep that you couldn’t actually see it. The mountain just vanished. Beyond that the air was full of whirling snow-devils of spindrift, and then the distant shapes of striated mountains further than the eye could see.
Everywhere, ice and snow gripped the mountain. Long crystals of rime bristled from boulder and cliff; piles and drifts of soft snow smoothed out the edges of vicious looking fans and pinnacles of black stone. The wind snatched at us, blustering into our faces and showering us with blasts of gritty ball bearings. I was absolutely delighted by it.
There was some discussion about the way forward. From this point everything above us was sheer cliffs above knee-wobbling drops, so we obviously had to descend first in order to go higher by a different route. I followed the others as they led the way, traversing beneath an edifice of coal black basalt. One by one my companions turned a corner in the mountain, disappearing behind the cliff. I stepped around the turn, and found we were ascending another steep slope with vast buttresses on both sides. This seemed to be a way to launch a sneak attack on the summit, but was still steep enough to need real care. Firmly I kicked the toe points of my crampons into the snow, leaning forward to keep my weight low. One hand dug itself into the snow for grip, while the other gripped the head of the ice axe, digging the shaft deeply into the mountain for grip. Memories of playing with the ice axe on Ben Bouie came to me. No game this time. Memories of farcically climbing a gully on the Cobbler. No place for mistakes like that.
After a couple of very physical minutes I reached the top of the slope and looked around, hardly able to believe my eyes at where we were. This was not yet the top, but we had now reached what appeared to be the top of a smaller, subsidiary ridge. To our left it reached out, horizontal, but narrowing further and further until it was a slim knife edge that sliced down back to Coire Lagan. On our other side was the base of another giant blade of rock.
Everything about the place filled me with amazement. The sheer verticality of the space; the elemental ferocity of the wind-blown snow; the epic seaward view, looked down upon from the heights of ridge, spire and pinnacle. I was filled with amazement that this was possible. The fact that people could be here in a place like this, that we could be here, I could be here; it was astounding.
Another steep slope yet lay above us, and it seemed that the mountain had no end. And it really was steep – easily 45 degrees or more. In the back of my mind I remembered flying down a snowy slope on an orange survival bag, and watching my ice axe dwindle behind me after I slammed it into the ground too hard. I clutched my axe a little tighter, knowing that this time it was for real. I carried this thing for a reason.
Leaning forward under the weight of our rucksacks, gripping the snow and ice with our spikes, we pushed up the final slope. To our left was open space in the form of a snowy grey void and a limitless drop. But to our right was a gigantic fin of rock that protruded vertically from the mountain. Its snow and ice crusted blackness seemed to loom protectively – a reassuringly solid presence. Step by step we climbed higher, placing more and more of the mountain beneath us, and I pressed myself close in to the rock wall, seeking to offset the gnawing exposure.
Abruptly the rock wall ended, and then suddenly so did the mountain. There was nothing left above us, except for the top of that huge fin of rock in whose shadow I had clambered just a moment before. As I reached the others I turned and saw it edge-on; its black sides vertical, capped by a huge boulder perched seemingly precariously at the very top. I recalled the thought I had had down in the coire – that the ridgelines seemed to have been chopped to bits by the blade of some huge stone axe. Well here was the blade, broken off and embedded in the mountain-side by the hand of an angry giant.
‘That is the In Pin. The Inaccessible Pinnacle.’
Wow indeed. The name made sense, and someone explained that it was the true summit of this peak, which was named Sgurr Dearg. The only Munro in Scotland that you needed to actually climb if you wanted to reach the top. And there, at the top of Sgurr Dearg beneath the summit of the InPin, ice crusted and wind blasted, with soaring dark peaks to every side, we had lunch.
It seemed not bad for only my second proper hill day in winter. Heck, it was my first time wearing crampons! But here we were. I munched on my sandwiches, which having been carried to the top of a mountain seemed to have undergone that strange culinary transformation that makes them taste amazing. Before us was the blade of the In Pin, with the rock fortress of Sgurr Alasdair dimly visible beyond it in the cloud. Seen from up here, on its level, it no longer looked impregnable, but inspiring. If I could be here why couldn’t I be there? Behind me, I saw as I twisted around, the line of the Cuillin Ridge snaked and twisted for mile on mile up and over many more peaks.
This must have been what it was like for the kids in the Narnia books. Enter a wardrobe, pass through, and find yourself in a whole new world of possibility. Appetite, consider yourself whetted.
Our immediate appetites for mountains and sandwiches were at least somewhat sated though, and it was time to begin the process of getting down. We crossed the top of Sgurr Dearg and started down the main ridge on the far side, leaving Coire Lagan and the In Pin behind. It was easy at first descending straightforward ground, with perfect views on all sides. The ridge stretched out ahead, but our planned route of descent lay on our left. Coire Banachdich, at first glance, was somewhat less intimidating than its neighbour, though not any less grand. But it still required great care to negotiate a route safely through its steep terrain of rocky slopes and icy slabs.
We turned left from the ridge and began the long and gradual process of threading a way back down. I played no part in the route finding, being still ignorant of the need to concentrate during this most important phase of the day, and also being too high on the joy of our successful ascent. Fortunately Alex and Chris were paying close attention to things, while I happily followed, clicking away with the camera, and Simon ghosted along at the back, quiet as ever.
At a couple of points we found progress frustrated, as we came to the top of a slab too steep or too blank to be considered safe. We had to go back up, find a different route around it, and keep on playing the game all the way down. After an hour or more we found ourselves back on ground that more nearly approximated horizontal than vertical. We took off our crampons, and in quick succession we all fell over, having grown used to being able to walk on slippy ground without them.
Darkness was starting to creep over the hills as we walked back across the wetness of the lower ground. Our bodies were aching and tired, but there was still plenty of effort ahead before we were home. My arms swung in an exaggerated way as I walked, my body overcompensating as it tried to be as physically competent as it was when the day began, but not getting it quite right. My legs hurt. I realised I could probably take my helmet off now, so I stopped to remove it and stow it back in my rucksack. As I swung the heavy bag around and up into its place once more I turned around, still filled with a pervasive sense of satisfaction as I traced the line of descent with my eyes. I was just there… and there… and there.
A hot shower and a Burns Supper waited in the glen below, but at that last moment of daylight on the hill, all I wanted was the next chance to be there again.