American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rock-climbing in the Skye

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1945

Rock-climbing in Skye

Elizabeth Knowlton

WHEN I think about climbing again, in that far-off world after the war, the Coolins of Skye are among the mountains I am most eager to revisist. But Skye after the war will be changed from the place where I used to stay, the place the pre-war generation of British climbers knew and loved. There was so much of color made the Misty Isle attractive, beside the fascination of the 25 black peaks of the Coolins, with their unequaled rough solid gabbro and multitudinous interesting routes.

Since I was last there, I have read of the death of Dr. Norman Collie; and John Mackenzie, the famous old Skye guide, his friend, went earlier. How can Sligachan ever seem the same without the sight of Dr. Collie’s saturnine face at his well-known table in the Inn dining-room, or a glimpse through the distant mists across the moors of two tall figures in weather-beaten tweeds, striding side by side in silent companionship?

At Glen Brittle at the other end of the Coolins, Mrs. Chisholm too is dead, and who will keep open house, and heart, for the “real climber,” as she did? No substitute article could fool her keen eye and gain accommodation in her popular cottage—she could see through their spurious enthusiasms in a moment, and for such her rooms were always “full.” But for the true mountain-lover, whether expert or neophyte, nothing was ever too good. Who, like her, will rise at dawn, or stay up after midnight, that climbers’ clothes may be dry and ready, and climbers’ empty stomachs happily filled? And can a wandering American hope to find again those groups of cheerful shabby young Englishmen with bulging rucksacks, who so hospitably used to offer the solitary climber a place on their ropes ?

Yet whatever losses the war may have brought to Skye, some of the things that gave that island its unique and unforgettablje quality as a climbing region will still remain. There will still be the local color of the Highlands—the primitive tighe dubh (black houses) by the roadsides, the shaggy-faced Highland cattle on the moors, and the red deer among the crags. There will be the evenings by the peat fire, with Gaelic songs and legends, and perhaps a tune on the pipes, or tales from Skye’s rich history, of Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald, or of Dr. Johnson’s memorable travels.

And there will always be the typical Skye weather, that rainbow weather, with its play of storm and sunshine across the landscape.

“If you are a delicate man,

And of wetting your skin you’re shy,

I’ll have you know, before you go,

You’d better not think of Skye,”

wrote Sheriff Nicolson many years ago; and it remains just as true today. The weather will always be of primary importance, never to be forgotten or disregarded. Bad weather, and marvellous rocks —they are the two outstanding characteristics of Skye climbing.

The Black Coolins rise almost directly from the sea—some two dozen peaks, as sharply pointed as a child’s drawing of mountains —not high, only a little over 3000 ft., but clean dark rock almost to their bases, and with only one summit that can be reached without real climbing. The volcanic gabbro of their faces, cracks, and chimneys is so rough that, as I soon learned by vivid experience, one can do difficult routes in nails even on the wettest days, clinging like a fly to the solid crystalline surface.

My first climb in Skye, a very typical one and a good one to begin on, was a traverse of Sgurr na Gillean, up the Pinnacles and down the Gendarme Ridge. Sgurr na Gillean, the Peak of the Young Men, rises just up the Glen from Sligachan Inn, and is the regular barometer of Sligachan walkers and climbers. About nine or half past in the morning, after a leisurely breakfast, the guests stroll out of the Inn in ones and twos to have a look at that mountain, and if the clouds hang too dark and low over its sharp peaks, they postpone their trips, hoping the omens may become more propitious later.

On the particular day planned for our climb, however, all signs were favorable—the sky light clear grey, and the clouds high and open, with glints of sunlight moving over the distant hills. So we started off across the heather, carefully skirting the bogs, and scrambled up over the screes above Eagle Crag into Basteir Corrie, from which we would reach the Pinnacle Ridge.

It was a very jocular party—the continual jokes and laughter centering on “Willie,” the leader of the group of four Liverpool men with whom I climbed. “Willie” was a sturdy, jolly, redfaced chap, wearing an old jacket patched with as many shades of tweed as Joseph’s coat—a jacket which was the subject of many of the pleasantries, he cherished it so fondly through all the rough work on the rocks, and was so proud of the details of the variegated effect, and seeming to value it as a real collector’s item.

In Basteir Corrie we put on the ropes, and mounted easily the steep face of the final Pinnacle, up whose convenient irregularities one could move with speed, thanks to that wonderful gabbro. Leaving the summit, we followed the spectacular knife-edge narrowness of the Gendarme Ridge, that dropped away on both sides into corries deep with dark-blue shadow in the grey light. The Gendarme furnished the high point of the climb, where it stood, slender and tall, a sentinel holding the whole width of the ridge. It could be passed only by embracing it boldly with both arms, and swinging a leg wide out over depths of empty space, to an invisible foothold on the far side. After the Gendarme, the rest of the ridge seemed tame, and soon we were down again into the corrie, and racing home with giant’s strides down the steep lower slopes deep hidden in springy heather.

On various visits to Skye, I was lucky enough to have the chance for several more climbs in the Black Coolins with hospitable climbing parties—there were pleasant days on the Window Buttress, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, Sgurr Tearlach, the Cioch, Blaven and others. The last and best of all was a new route on Mallory’s Buttress.

The climb must be made from Glen Brittle, and I was invited to join the others there. But it was a grave question if I could ever get in, for the tiny clachan accommodated less than a dozen tourists, and everything was full. Then one evening two men appeared at Sligachan who had just come from the Lodge at Glen Brittle. Full of hopes, I quickly packed my rucksack, and started off next morning to take their place.

It was a pleasant day’s walk, over the moors and up the low pass of the Ma’am, following a little burn with its crystal-clear pools set like jewels in the heather, then down the long length of Glen Brittle to the settlement at the sea.

I reached the Lodge late that afternoon, and was greeted with disconcerting news—two more guests were to arrive that evening to claim the quarters of those that had left! I already knew that Mrs. Chisholm’s cottage, that favorite haunt of climbers, was full to over-flowing. So it was suggested that I try the third and only other possibility—“Mary Campbell’s the Post Office.” She was known to have two rooms, and at the moment only one lodgqr. Mary Campbell proved completely unhelpful—the lady had engaged the second room as a sitting-room. It was almost evening now, I was rather tired and very hungry. In desperation I sought Mrs. Chisholm, to tell her my sad tale and seek counsel. She had never seen me before, but she listened with eager sympathy, and delivered judgment.

“The Lodge, I understand—she’s a newcomer in these parts. But indeed, I am surprised at Mary Campbell! Could not her lady do without a sitting-room for a day or two!” The rights of other guests had short shrift with Mrs. Chisholm herself, when it was the needs of a “climber” that were in question. “Don’t worry,” she cheered me, “I’ll take you in. One of the men will just have to make do on the living-room sofa.” Which, in spite of all my efforts to take this hard and narrow couch for myself, he just did.

The next day we woke to rain dashing against the windows, wind howling around the eaves, and breakers pounding the rocks of the cove below the house. Not auspicious weather for climbing. All the morning we huddled close to the little peat fire, listening to the disheartening chorus, and by mid-afternoon when the rain began to slacken a little we were ready for anything for a change.

“Let’s go and have a look at it anyway.” By the time we had reached the foot of the cliff, after an hour’s approach up Corrie Laggan, the rain had stopped entirely and the wind had almost dried the rocks.

“Come on. Let’s go.” And we started.

My climbing companion on this route was Ernest Wood-Johnson, who had made many climbs and first ascents in the Lakes, and some good ones in Skye, with his younger brother George, who was later to take part in Kanchenjunga and Everest expeditions. So as we tied on the rope, he asked me if I minded being addressed as “George.” For, he explained, “Miss Knowlton” seemed a little formal and unwieldy on the rocks, and George was the name he was used to calling his climbing partner. I modestly accepted the honor, hoping only that I would not disgrace my namesake too conspicuously, and “George” it was thereafter.

The route we planned to follow (note that I say “planned”) was made by Mallory up the Sron na Ciche.

“The guide says,” reported Wood-Johnson cheerfully, “that this is a climb of the fourth grade of difficulty”—the guide listed only four grades—“that it offers interest all the thousand feet of the route, and that it should be led only in rubbers (sneakers) — that it is not a climb for nails. But this isn’t a day for rubbers.”

We found easily the start of the climb, a short pleasant chimney. As I came up it, the rain began to come vigorously down. Behind Wood-Johnson rose the next pitch, a high steep slab, that had at its very beginning a few minor irregularities that might be considered footholds, nothing for hands except pressure holds, and things looking even smoother above. Sneakers would have been handy, but not at that moment, as already the rock was bathed in a thin film of water. Wood-Johnson looked at it dubiously a bit, then started slowly up, and vanished into the mist and rain. When I came to follow, I found a useful tiny rounded crack. But it petered out part way up.

“What are the holds after this?” I called.

“There aren’t any,” answered Wood-Johnson helpfully.

By the time I reached the top of the slab, the weather was definitely wet. The rain was pouring down heavily, and we were in clouds so thick that we could see neither the valley floor below nor the rocks above. It was somewhere on this part of the climb that we got off Mallory’s route. Not for lack of consulting the guide— I have frequent memory-pictures of Wood-Johnson braced on narrow ledges with his head bent over its fast-soaking pages, as the rain pelted down on him. There were examinations to the right and left—“It doesn’t seem quite right here. No, perhaps this is it.” During the time of heaviest downpour we negotiated a right-angle crack which must have acted as a drain for the whole upper part of the face, for it had become a lively mountain torrent. As hands must go above the head to grip the holds, a flood of water would flow down through both sleeves, to emerge under the bottom of the climbing jacket. This was the most completely aquatic climb I have ever taken, and we were both enjoying ourselves thoroughly —it was so undeniably an experience!

Having done its best for us, the rain at last began to grow milder, and the mists driving by now let us see around a bit. The guide was again produced. Nothing checked. Nothing was right or familiar. We were unquestionably lost.

The obvious and, in fact, only route up from where we stood was a long chimney leading out of sight above. Leaving me wedged in a little corner, with my toes on the edge, and a glorious view beyond them of clouds shifting and opening to give glimpses of the corrie floor far below, Wood-Johnson started up. It was a long time that I waited, and there were many moments when the rope did not progress at all. Then came the longest pause of all. I wondered what had happened. Finally the rope quickly moved a few feet. In a minute the slack was taken up, and I started to follow. The chimney was nowhere too easy, and at the top I found the explanation of the last delay.

“See this little projecting edge of basalt. You have to use it for hand-holds for both hands, to get out over the overhang at the top of the chimney,” Wood-Johnson explained, as he held the rope just above me.

“But is it solid?” I queried dubiously.

“I looked at it a long time myself, and wondered. But there’s no other possible way. So I finally decided to try it. And it held for me.” Obviously it had held.

As I came out over the overhang, I emerged from that damp, dusky chimney into the glowing light of a clearing sunset after storm—bright gold, under a band of ink-blue clouds, and a far outlook over a pale shining sea, on which floated the dark islets of the lesser Hebrides.

Another pitch or two, and we were at the summit, surrounded on all sides by wonderful views—ahead, the sea and islands, behind, the crowd of sharp Coolin peaks clustering black against the fast-fading sky, and just below our feet the dark rolling moors and the first appearing lights of Glen Brittle.

There was scant time to enjoy this beauty, however, and with all our haste it was night before we were off the scree. But the really appalling lateness of the hour for a Highland village did nothing to dim Mrs. Chisholm’s eager interest in listening to all the details of our success, as she fed us a most delicious hot dinner at 11.30 p.m.

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