Black Coulin’s a blast!

Skye, along with much of Western Scotland had a remarkable summer; instead of the continuous rains for which the western seaboard is well known, there were weeks of glorious sunshine and virtually drought proportions.

For many of those weeks I had looked forward to my annual trip and the long range forecast for September promised much of the same.

When Matt and I arrived …it was raining! Even when the rain gave up (intermittently), low grey clouds clung obstinately to the tops of even the highest hills. Glen Spean and Glen Shiel were gloomy and unpromising. What would the morning bring us?

Our intention was to climb Beinn Dearg’s Inaccessible Pinnacle. Of all Scotland’s Munros only Beinn Dearg requires the use of a rope to facilitate its bagging. In fact, to attain its summit, the notorious blade of rock, teetering as it does over fearsome drops, requires only moderate rock climbing abilities; the exposure, however, is awesome.

We lay in our beds listening to the wind; its strength reached gale force status just as our alarm clocks told us it was time to rise. Today at least, The In Pin was out!

Matt was gutted; he’d travelled up from London primarily to conquer Beinn Dearg. “Maybe tomorrow”, I suggested half-heartedly; today we would have to pick a less exposed route onto the Coullin.

I suggested Bruach na Frithe.

The wind was no less fierce as we stepped from the car at Glen Brittle’s ‘Fairy Pools’ Car park. Hats and gloves and Gore-Tex coats went on at once. Across the road, guarding the back of a gloomy looking Coire na Creiche, the beautiful pyramid of Sgurr an Fheadain, its head to toe ‘Water pipe Gully’ a savage black slit, was barely free of the swirling clouds that were plaguing the higher tops around it. Bruach na Frithe looked uninviting.

Just across the road starts a fine path, an ancient byway linking Glen Brittle with Sligachan; we followed the well preserved trod north-eastwards.

The path climbs gently but steadily to the Bealach a Mhaim, down towards which stoops Bruach na Frithe’s fine north-west ridge. When we arrived at the wind chopped lochan that straddles the bealach, we took a path that pointed directly at the ridge.

At last the sun was breaking through. Grassy Sgurr Thuilm and black and jagged Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh looked dark and sombre still, in that direction the cloud gods held sway still. Not so further north where the beautiful cone of Red Coulin giant, Glamaig, rose pink and gleaming in growing shafts of sunlight.

Actually, the ridge splits as it spears its way down to the bealach, we took the more westerly of the two spurs. To begin with we went up on easy grassy slopes. After a levelling or two we were confronted by the toughest section of the entire route, a nasty scree slope that had us digging our heels and toes in for purchase. Thankfully this section is short lived.

But it drew our breath. And so did the backward glances we enjoyed as we paused to catch our second wind. Below, stretching out to sea, the mountain’s grassy flanks rolled away in a marvellous sun and cloud dappled patchwork of autumn gold and silver. We turned to climb. The wind was ferocious; it was difficult to walk at times. In fact had I been on my own I would likely have gone back down and found some solace in a sheltered corrie; I’ve been battered by such winds more times than I wish to remember, it comes to the point when ‘it aint necessarily fun no more’. But it wasn’t dangerous; Matt, a novice in the Coulin, wasn’t for turning back anyway!

Before us the buttress rose to a narrowing rockiness that I knew from past visits could be tricky in such a high wind. And at the top of said buttress, like two ants staggering, a pair of walkers were already making their own way down. I was willing to take advise.

They were a couple in their late sixties. “It’s a bit airy up there”, confirmed the man, “ it’s not a day for walking narrow ridges, that’s for certain!” His aged wife looked at Matt and grinned, “Ach, but you’ll do just fine, Laddie!”

For years now I have been using ‘trekking poles’ in the hills, they make a considerable difference to the knees, (especially in descent). At the foot of Bruach’s scrambly section, rather than stop to pack the poles into my bag, I tucked them in among some loose rock intending to retrieve them on our way back down.

Time to put hand, and everything else available, to rock. Matt used the term, ‘exhilarating’, as we laboured our way up and along. The wind was never fierce enough to cause us real concern, but with often sheer drops to the left of our narrow ridge, and the breeze assailing us from the opposite direction, I think Matt’s assessment of the proceedings may have been a tad understated. There’s plenty of good scrambling on the ridge and with concentration and by dint of the wind actually pinning us to the rock at times, it was certainly ‘interesting’. There came a final easily slanted basalt stepped chimney and then we were standing, a little breathless, by the summit trig point.

Bruach na Frithe is recognised as the easiest summit in the Black Coulin. This in no way detracts from the awesome views its summit affords. And today, with low dark cloud all about the heights and shafts of sunlight piercing this here and there, was no exception. The vista south, encompassing virtually the entire Coulin Ridge all the way to Clach Glas and Blaven, was stunning. Little Sgurr na Stri, its toes washed in the sea, glinted in her own private shaft of sunlight. To our north and very near, the final teeth of Skye’s justly popular ridge, Am Bastier and Sgurr nan Gillean, taunted us with their more serious rocky climbs.

Shelter was difficult so we hurried lunch and took to foot again. I suggested a wander around the south ridge as far as Sgurr na Bhairnich before the short rocky trek west, below Sgurr a’ Fionn Choire and The Bastier Tooth; I wanted to take Matt off the mountain by way of beautiful Fionn Coire, a wonderful green (for the Coulin) corrie with an inviting burn.

Then I remembered my trekking poles! It didn’t take too much mulling over. Someone else could have them. Matt thought I was mad to leave them, perhaps he was right. Yet I know he thouroughly enjoyed my chosen route of descent.

After exploring for a while and at last fed up with the wind’s abuse, we dropped down steep scree and then more bouldery ground, until we located the regular path into the corrie.

The burn we followed was as crystal clear as any mountain stream ever could be. We left it at last to follow another path over the foot of Bruach’s North Ridge’s eastern spur for one more spectacular sight. From between the spurs, issuing from a deeply incised gorge, tumbles the Allt Mor an Fionn Choire, it’s a feeder burn for the little lochan on the Bealach a’ Mhaim. It’s the gorge itself that holds the eye. Deep cut, like a troll’s cavern and with Bruach’s imposter of a ridge looking fiercer than it really is, the view now bathed in glorious sunshine etched itself into our memories as a fitting finale before the walk back home along this morning’s path.