This article was produced in collaboration with Scott Webster of Scott Webster Mountaineering. Scott is a mountaineering instructor and expedition leader who has guided on the Cuillin in both summer and winter.
A traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye is arguably Britain’s best mountaineering route. In summer it is doubtless a classic route, but in winter it has a near-mythical status where skill, fitness and good conditions must all align if one is to succeed. In February 2018, Mountain Equipment pro partner Uisdean Hawthorn smashed the speed record for the winter Cuillin traverse and completed the route in a staggering 4 hours and 57 minutes. His approach was understandably minimalist, but for mere mortals’ attempts here are some ideas.
Uisdean Hawthorn on his record breaking winter Cuillin traverse. Photo by Lukasz Larsson Warzecha
A full traverse of the Black Cuillin is 12 kilometres in length, includes plenty of summits and has miles of technical terrain, numerous abseils, and acres of exposure. It’s best considered as a big Alpine route, where the majority of parties will take two days. The juxtaposition of the snow-capped mountains and the sea below is seen in only a handful of locations worldwide and seeing the whole ridge stretched out in front of you is immense.
It goes without saying that fitness is paramount to a successful winter traverse. However, even more important than overall fitness is the ability to move quickly, confidently and safely across exposed terrain. Gain as much mileage on classic winter mountaineering routes as possible. In Scotland, routes such as the Liathach traverse, An Teallach traverse, and Ledge route and Tower Ridge etc. on Ben Nevis are perfect. Abroad, mixed Alpine terrain at approximately PD-D is perfect training. You need to be able to move un-roped safely and confidently on most of the ridge’s ground.
Photos by Lukasz Larsson Warzecha
When to go
The weather on the Scottish islands is about as fickle as you will find anywhere and good conditions might (or might not) occur anytime between December and April. Good winter conditions on Skye often come and go in the blink of an eye and being in a position to drop everything and go for it when the conditions look right gives the best chance of success. But, for most people this approach simply isn’t practical so here’s what to look out for in terms of weather systems:- North Westerly winds bring cool air and moisture from the Atlantic/Arctic which helps to build good snow conditions on the crest
- Prolonged cold temperatures with some freeze/thaw helps consolidate the snow
- Light winds for the actual traverse attempt.
In an ideal world a winter traverse will be undertaken in February/March when the hours of daylight are significantly longer than earlier in the season. As in the summer, your chances of completing the traverse are very low if the weather isn’t calm.
Photos By Scott Webster
Tips and tactics
Get to know the ridge well. Getting lost is commonplace and neither map reading nor GPS is going to help you much with route-finding on the Cuillin. An ‘onsight’ traverse of the whole ridge in winter compounds the difficulty and knowing a few key sections greatly increases the chance of success.
Traditionally, a winter traverse of the Cuillin is a 2 to 3-day expedition. For most people that’s the best approach, and a bivi adds to the adventure. Fast and light approaches from exceptional climbers and runners such as Uisdean Hawthorn and Finlay Wild have produced astoundingly fast times, but these people usually know the ridge well and have multiple ‘grades in hand’.
The standard approach for a winter traverse of the Cuillin goes from North to South. This means you abseil the hardest sections rather than having to climb them.
The Cuillin traverse has a guidebook grade of IV but this doesn’t really do the route’s difficulty justice. For the most part the ridge is grade II ground with short sections of III and the occasional pitch of IV. However, the Scottish winter grading system isn’t really designed to reflect routes of the Cuillin’s length and an alpine grade of D+ might better sum up the route’s overall difficulty. This of course assumes perfect conditions – in difficult conditions grade II ground can feel much harder and pitches of grade IV could be exceptionally difficult.
Photo By Scott Webster
Soft Shell legwear, and active insulation on your upper body, are probably the best options when you’re going to be moving relatively quickly and (hopefully) the weather is kind, meaning you can carry relatively lightweight waterproof clothing. A mid-weight down jacket is worth taking for the bivi, and some people might bring insulated legwear too. Gloves need to be dextrous enough to climb with but warm enough to insulate when moving slowly with tired legs. As ever, two or three pairs of gloves is best. The route is long and committing and not a place to find yourself with insufficient clothing or equipment, even if the forecast is good.
Recommended sleeping bag and mat
A lightweight sleeping bag is key, but don’t skimp so much that you don’t sleep. A bag with 400-700 grams of down in is probably about right, but check the overnight forecast and think about how you’ll feel after a tiring day. If you and your partner are really good friends then you could consider sharing a sleeping bag, but it’s essential to trial this at home first.
A warm sleeping mat can let you get away with a lighter sleeping bag and, combined with their comfort, they can make a big difference to how you feel on your traverse’s second day. However, most people go for a superlight foam mat.
You need a lightweight pack which you can overstuff and which is tough enough to survive a lot of climbing. The Tupilak series of packs were developed with routes like the Cuillin ridge firmly in mind. The Tupilak 45 is a perfect overnight pack, but if you’re packing carefully then a Tupilak 37 will hold bivvy gear no problem. Packing a Tupilak 30 with bivi gear will be a serious squeeze for most people, but it’s ideal for those traveling with the minimum equipment.
The largest of our Tupilak series, this durable, highly weather-resistant yet lightweight climbing pack is optimised for alpine and winter climbing on the steepest lines and biggest faces.