A Winter Ascent of Sgurr na Stri
The Black Cuillin of Skye – a magnificent mountain range which just proves that size is not everything! Some of the world’s top explorers and climbers – amongst them Norman Collie, W H Murray (who attempted Everest and was part of the route finding team prior to Hillary’s successful summit bid), the Abraham brothers – have hailed their days on Skye’s jagged peaks as amongst the very best of their lives.
Collie himself spent his last days at the Sligachan Hotel, gazing out at that the stupendous Jurassic park view there.He is buried in the tiny cemetery near Struan, his heart forever in Skye. This despite comparisons with the Himalaya, the Alps, Norway, South America, the Canadian Rockies and other great mountain ranges of the world.The Black Cuillin – and they are every colour but black – are that impressive.Of all the mountains I have seen so far, many of our mountains, though much smaller, are equally impressive because they shoot up 3,500 feet vertically from the ocean or lochs.That killer combo of loch, ocean and mountain is what knocks me for six every time.For that reason, the Western Cape’s Table Mountain range is a huge favourite too.
We have managed to ascend 4 of the easier peaks of the formidable Cuillin , most of which are out of bounds to the ordinary hillwalker.Many peaks need a superb head for heights as well as a rope.
But despite the wonderful views from any of the main peaks which reward any ascent , the finest of all is reckoned to be from lowly Sgurr na Stri – a rocky mini Cuillin outlier barely 500m high.Chris cursed it as a ‘steep wee bugger’ on our first ascent around 10 years ago on a boiling hot, windless summer’s day (not many of those in the Hebrides). For over a year now I’ve had a longing to do it again and it’s niggled away at me like toothache.But it’s a long day out and weather or time or other obstacles, meant we didn’t manage it last year.Inexcusable and didn’t Chris know it from my moans and whines about making sure we did it in 2017.
So 11th February 2017, when snow was on the hills and days were still short, I couldn’t believe it when my husband started talking about a ‘weather window’ the following weekend and why don’t we make an attempt on the hill he was fed up hearing about?
Sure enough, February found us heading back up the road to Skye, with the express reason being to see Rena and take her out, but both of us knowing if the weather held as it was supposed to, that Sgurr na Stri was a goer.Lunch for our two favourite 90 year old plus ladies would have to slip to dinner , once the walk was over.
The forecast really was spectacular.We rarely get such a promise of blue sky and sunshine in mid summer! So it was with great excitement that we raced north on Friday lunchtime, the car knowing each turn in that road so well it could have driven itself.Oh, that it would have been as simple on that journey as enjoying the prospect of ticking off the longed for summit, savouring one of the finest walks in the world, happy as two peas in a pod.
But I’m rubbish sometimes at how things ‘should’ be. If Chris had been on his own, he would have had that calm, uplifting atmosphere in spades.But my dreaded fear of exposure , which has worsened over the years, kicked in big style and despite having done the hill before, I convinced myself during the 5.5 hour journey to The Misty Isle that my blasted nerves might struggle with it this time and Failure lay ahead.
“Don’t talk crap,’ says my much better half, sympathy eluding him, changing gear as he negotiated another bend as we wound our way down magnificent Glen Shiel. ‘You’ll be fine.’
We reached Portree and the Budh Mor Care Home just as the sun had set. The drive had been one of astonishing beauty, drawing our breath as it always manages to do, no matter how familiar we are with it all.
Popped in to see Rena and Mary, ceilidh music on the CD player…it’s like walking into an almost cliched version of arriving in the Highlands but finding that it really exists. Slightly horrified, I heard Chris explain we’d take them for dinner tomorrow not lunch, as we had an appointment with Sgurr na Stri.Great excitement from both! Really? How wonderful!Be careful! Maps were brought out, routes discussed, views predicted.I felt a silent fury towards Chris that bordered on the psychotic.We HAD to make the summit now – scary or not.
I can’t even remember what we bought in from the Portree Co-op that night for dinner.I swigged back a couple of glasses of Aldi Champagne and was glad of the fuzzy, muddled head it gave me for a few hours.We admired the night sky around 9pm, Orion, Cassiopeia, the Plough, the Pleiades…..wonderful.There was a hard, hard frost already and now another worry gnawed at me.Ice on the mountain.It was steep enough without negotiating that.
Barely slept a wink. Alarm went at 5.15am and I had watched that ungodly hour approach for half the night.I wäs already stressed and tense.Tea in bed as usual, then I jumped up and got dressed without as much as a by your leave.A shower could wait till later.I really just wanted to get the day over with.
We’d made up egg mayonnaise the night before so slathered that onto sandwiches and packed some fruit and water.It would be an 8 hour walk, plus travel…..more like a 10-11 hour day -then Saturday night ‘on the town’ in the metropolitan hub that was Portree, for mum – in- law and Chris’s aunt.Booked 1 Bosville Terrace the night before, so all sorted (even in winter I wouldn’t rely on getting dinner on Skye without booking somewhere.) We needed an early start to pack all that in.
We reckoned on 1.5 hours to drive from the house to Kilmarie, the starting point for our chosen route.The hill can be done by walking the ‘normal’ route 7 miles down Glen Sligachan but I’ve never really enjoyed that glen, it goes on and ON.Plus you then have its joys on the way back.A 15 mile walk. I suspected I’d rather throw myself into Loch na Creithach , below Sgurr na Stri, than face that purgatory.
We left at 6.30am, temperature minus 7C , roads gritted and Skye waking up to a rosy dawn.Parked at Kilmarie , one other car there already and got the gear on.It was baltic.Bone chillingly cold.By 8am, we were suited and booted and through the Kissing Gate (there had been NO kisses this morning) and along the frozen but good track which would take us to superb Camasunary and our first view of the objective which I had already christened Nemesis.
It was a glorious morning.The sun lit up Blaven, a stunning mountain to our right.In 45 minutes or so we had clambered up the stony track to reach the 200m high point of the pass and as ever, I was mesmerised by the panorama before us. Our first view of the snow-capped Black Cuillin and the deep blue ocean. Camasunary Bay was below us, the hills and moorland in their late winter raiment of pale amber and yellow and tawny. It was gorgeous.One of my favourite spots in all of Scotland – in fact, anywhere in the world.
And in the middle ground, the dark shadowed mass of the Hill of Strife, well named given the fret it had already got me into.
“It’s steeper than I remember.’
My predictable moan was dismissed by Chris, a man of great patience.With a mumble of ‘nonsense’ he headed down the track, a knee jarring descent to the bay itself.
We wandered across the golden sward of the bay, oystercatchers piping and not another soul or sound to be heard.
Rum shimmered on the horizon as we headed inland, using stepping stones to cross the river at the far end of the bay.
By 9.15am we were at the hill’s soggy, rough base.I felt a surge of confidence.Looking up, it was steep and a slog but no problem as such.Certainly no clinging on with fingernails stuff. Feeling happier, I picked up the pace, following Chris as we picked our way along the incredibly rough ground , trying to follow a faint deer track.
At 10am Chris called a five minute breather.The wind had been ferocious at the car (another worry) but we seemed to be in the shelter now and the bright morning sunshine actually felt warm on the skin.Lovely.Demolished a Picnic bar and a pear (I’d fuelled up a bit with a Pot -o- Porridge earlier) and it now just felt wonderful to be here.Finally. From what I remembered, the hill beyond this sloggy corrie was a dawdle, a grassy gradual incline with plenty of room.My kind of hill.
We were slogging up the final steep slopes to the ridge itself when a golden eagle floated high above us, gliding effortlessly across the sky.It was the first time on a walk I’d put the Lumix with its good zoom lens in my rucksack so no chance of a decent photo with the Nikon D5200’s 10-20mm landscape lens.
And then suddenly, we crested the ridge itself and the mountains known as the British Alps reared magnificently ahead.
The view stopped us in our tracks immediately.Wow.This was worth it already.Chris gave me a big hug, ‘That wasn’t so bad was it?’ I hugged him back, thrilled at being here.It’s a place of almost savage beauty, no softness and faintly intimidating; a hard, unforgiving place where danger lurks for the unwary.
We headed across the broken, slabby ground heading south towards the summit.The ground was incredibly complex, but we picked up a faint animal track and followed it over rocks and down into dips and hollows, then up again. Avoiding mini gullies and little drops and always, heading closer to a slab covered edge which teetered over the lochs below.My eye took in the thousand foot drops to Loch Coruisk and Loch Scavaig and I shuddered a little.
In a perverse way, I think those who suffer from vertigo are scarily drawn to these edges , knowing that in a moment’s madness, you could hurl yourself into oblivion, and realise your greatest fear.
Dragging my eyes away from the edges, nerves kicked in again.
‘We went up a sort of grassy corridor last time,’ I whined, thinking how easy it would be….so easy….to slip over if temporary madness hit. “This is wrong.’
Chris was having none of it.
“It’s not wrong, this is the way up.’
“No way.No way it was this rocky.’ I mumbled, negotiating another outcrop.
Chris is faster on such ground and just as well because he was out of earshot of my moans and groans as I followed his path ever up, up, up.One false summit appeared, then another.Then the next one. Always there was another formidble looking great lump of rock ahead that brought on another curse from Wee Feartie.
Still grumbling about my fantasy grassy route, I suddenly saw Chris silhouetted on an outcrop above me.That triumphant stance told me that he was on the summit.We’d made it!
As ever, a wee ritual, he handed me a stone to place on the summit cairn.What a surge of achievement as we drank in one of the finest views to be had from any hill.
It was out of this world.That combo of ocean, lochs, islands, jagged peaks……and the winter colours; tawny, deep blues, yellows. It was astonishingly impressive, mesmerising.Savage and wild.Raw.Gothic.Those shapes – it felt as if we’d been transported back to the time of the dinosaurs.
It was cold but not too bad and the knolls protected us from the worst of the wind.We hunkered down a bit and had some water and food.Food always tastes amazing on the top of a hill.
The summit is split in two by a fissure in the rock which can be seen from the front view of the hill from Elgol. It continues all the way over and down part of the other side.First time we were here, a sea eagle soared off the summit rocks, just as we arrived, metres away.
We spent around half an hour just wandering around where we could, taking photos, peering down to Loch Scavaig itself, making out the jetty where the boats from Elgol land, just visible and tiny.It’s not a huge loch but it’s one of my favourites, possibly even more so than Coruisk (Coire Uisg – corrie of the waters.Very true.)
The little white beaches, the translucent deep green water, the seaweed exposed at low tide, yellow as gorse. Over 200 Atlantic Grey seals live in the bay itself in summer but in winter, they are long gone. Or so it seemed from this eyrie.
The thing to do would be to camp up here, watch the sun set over Barra, now an ethereal chain of small blue pyramids on the horizon.See Rum’s shapely outline turn deep lilac blue and the ocean darken as the sky turned lemon yellow and peach and gold.Finding a flattish, grassy spot for the tent though wouldn’t be easy.
We descended slowly, picking our way down carefully, stopping often just to stare at our surroundings.I spied two guys making their way up, still far below us, but we passed each other invisibly, the ground was so knobbly and complicated.
You followed whichever you deer track presented itself, if it looked like it was going, safely, in the right general direction.
Then even more carefully down the steep but wide gully we came up, watching each footstep.
As the ground levelled off slightly, Chris whispered ‘Shhh.To your left.’
A red deer hind looked up from grazing.She had two calves, last years youngsters and they watched us warily as we stopped to admire them.So beautiful.On our last climb here 10 years ago in summer, we had seen a hind with two white-spotted fawns, grazing higher up beside a small lochan. Could this be one of the fawns now grown and a mother herself? Enjoying the grazing in the area she knew well, where her own mother taught her the ways of the mountains and surviving here in this harsh bare landscape? It was nice to think so.
Oh the joy of reaching Camasunary Bay! Flat, easy ground and a chance to sit for 10 minutes enjoying the crash of the surf and the faint warmth of the winter sun, now that most of the hard work was over.I say ‘most’ because ahead of us, the big stony track now climbed 200 metres up to the pass , so we had that minor slog to savour as we relaxed.We camped at this spot for my birthday one April – it is one of the finest situations on Skye.
The tide was out, now so we strolled along the hard sand then tackled today’s final uphill pull.A last look at it all from the top, truly magnificent and we headed for Kilmarie , a softer landscape and the car.In all, we had been 7.5 hours for the walk alone (we’d got to the car at 3.25pm) including around 45 minutes in breaks. With the ascent and re-ascent of the pass as well as the 500 metres ascent of the hill itself, we’d climbed closer to Munro height – 900 metres or 3,000 feet.No wonder the legs were tired!
An amazing day (finally and with apologies to Chris for being such a wimp) and a hill yes, I would do again. Just another wonderful day on Skye, as they usually turn out to be.