Mountaineer of the Cuillin of Skye

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The Scotsman has published a delightful little article on the Cuillin of Skye:

In 1880, the Pilkinton brothers came to Skye on a fishing trip. They were experienced mountaineers, members of the Alpine Club. One of them saw on their Ordnance Survey map a point marked “inaccessible pinnacle”, the second highest point on the island – and unclimbed. They folded their fishing rods and succeeded in climbing probably the hardest summit in Britain.

Others were to follow, even the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, but this was before he was an accomplished climber – or a great beast. As a youth in 1892, he was staying with his mother at Sligachan Inn, which was the base for Norman Collie and many of the other famous Alpine climbers. Young Aleister had aspirations to become a mountaineer and his enthusiasm was such that he persuaded Sir Joseph Lister (of antiseptic fame) to take him along on an ascent of the Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, the Peak of the Young Men. Crowley became besotted with climbing just as later he became addicted to morphine.
The full article is available at The Scotsman

Why the Cuillin of Skye is a place for all climbers

CUILLIN OF SKYE: Hamish MacInnes

IT’S not because my ancestors came from the Misty Isle that I’m inspired to wave the Fairy Flag and hail this fragmented island as tops of the Seven Wonders of Scotland. Once, it had an abundance of kilted hardmen with a penchant for swords, dirks and axes. Vikings called it the Winged Isle and were in charge here for almost four centuries.

Little more than 100 years after the last clan battle, other warriors arrived on the island also to vanquish an enemy – the gabbro peaks of the Cuillin. One of the reasons was that by 1870, the railway had reached Strone, just across the Little Minch. This facilitated access for English climbers to make their mark in history. In 1880, the Pilkinton brothers came to Skye on a fishing trip. They were experienced mountaineers, members of the Alpine Club. One of them saw on their Ordnance Survey map a point marked “inaccessible pinnacle”, the second highest point on the island – and unclimbed. They folded their fishing rods and succeeded in climbing probably the hardest summit in Britain.

The Scots were also into Cuillin- bagging, and in 1873 Sheriff Alexander Nicholson, then based in Portree, made the first ascent of Sgurr Alasdair, Skye’s highest peak. The ascent was in thick mist and heavy rain. The sheriff’s plaid was deployed as a rope on “tricky bits” during the descent.

Then there was the indefatigable Professor Norman Collie, who, with John MacKenzie of Sconser, Scotland’s first mountain guide, in 1887 and 1888 traversed all the ridge’s main summits.

They climbed together for almost 50 years and made many notable rock climbs such as the Cioch. One of the peaks, Sgurr Mhic Coinnich, is named after John MacKenzie.

Loch Coruisk, encircled in precipitous gabbro, proved popular. Boswell and Sir Walter Scott viewed the starkness of this scene, and Scott wasn’t lost for words: “We were surrounded by mountains of naked rock, of the boldest and most precipitous character.”

Others were to follow, even the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, but this was before he was an accomplished climber – or a great beast. As a youth in 1892, he was staying with his mother at Sligachan Inn, which was the base for Norman Collie and many of the other famous Alpine climbers. Young Aleister had aspirations to become a mountaineer and his enthusiasm was such that he persuaded Sir Joseph Lister (of antiseptic fame) to take him along on an ascent of the Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean, the Peak of the Young Men. Crowley became besotted with climbing just as later he became addicted to morphine.

Skye is an island for all seasons and the Cuillin a place for all climbers. Like Sgurr nan Gillean, they are mountains of youth. The traverse of the main ridge is an experience which no mountaineer should miss, but the way is long.

With three friends, I was lucky to do the first winter traverse after various abortive attempts.

This expedition is still vivid to me today; mountaineering at its best, cramponing on crisp neve, the low brilliant winter sunshine. Then a cold bivouac on Sgurr na Banachdich followed by a frigid dawn where the sea was like an azure mirror and you felt you could touch the Outer Hebrides. In the dark pit below lurked Loch Coruisk, looking ominous in winter’s cold shadow.

Dr Tom Patey, one of my companions on this climb, summed it up: “I feel confident that the winter traverse of the main Cuillin ridge will always retain its place as the greatest single adventure in British mountaineering.”

• Hamish MacInnes, OBE, is an international mountaineer and world authority on mountain rescue. He designed the first all-metal ice axe and has written 21 books.

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