Finlay Wild

Finlay Wild
Hill runner, mountaineer, skier
Supported by Norman Walsh Footwear and Mountain Equipment

Monday, 15 February 2016

A Fast Winter Cuillin Ridge Traverse

On Sunday 14th February 2016 myself and Tim Gomersall completed a Winter Cuillin Ridge Traverse from Sgurr nan Gillean in the north to Gars-bheinn in the south. Our route took in all 11 Munro summits, Bidein Druim nan Ramh, and included the TD gap. We started at Sgurr nan Gillean at 07.40am and touched the cairn on Gars-bheinn at 1.54.17pm. The summit to summit traverse took 6hrs 14minutes and 17seconds.

Tim and myself in Glen Brittle after our traverse
We had heard that the Cuillin traverse was in excellent winter condition, and were aware of several parties who had completed traverses in the past few days. The weather looked to remain good for Sunday, if a little windy, so we arranged to drive up to Sligachan and sleep in the van. I was excited to share this adventure with 23 year old Tim who already has many impressive mountain feats to his name including sixth place in the Glencoe Skyline race last year, the Cuillin Greater Traverse record, and an eight hour winter round of Glencoe to name just a few.

Setting off at 05.25am to walk in up the South East ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean we were brimming with enthusiasm. The weather was clear and we could gradually make out the familiar mountain masses as the dawn developed. Popping out on the South East ridge and seeing the main Cuillin spread out before us in its winter coat lit by early morning light was breathtaking, beautiful and incredibly exciting. We have both spend a considerable amount of time in the Cuillin in summer conditions - what would it be like in winter?

Looking south from Sgurr nan Gillean to the rest of the Cuillin 

Looking from Sgurr nan Gillean to Am Basteir and the Northern Cuillin

Several factors were key to our fast and light approach. The snow conditions were excellent, with both a decent base and a forgiving fresher covering on top. The weather was clear and the wind not too persistent. Several parties had been along the ridge in the past two days and so there was a trail already broken - which took a very good line for at least ninety percent of the route. We also had the advantage of light equipment. In particular, we both wore Salomon X-Alp Carbon GTX boots - which at 500g each are essentially a stiff running shoe with an outer gaiter. These take a crampon remarkably well. We decided to take two ice axes each, to allow a maximum of soloing, and used one technical and one super light axe each for the majority of the time. For the multiple abseils we took a 38metre length of 8mm rope, and a 26metre length of 6mm cord. We took multiple slings and abseil tatt although as hoped all but one of the abseils we made were already equipped by recent teams. In addition we had a small rack of nuts and 4 quickdraws, for use on the Inn Pinn and TD Gap. We took just over a litre of water each and ate mostly gels and jelly babies.

Equipment used

Setting off from Sgurr nan Gillean we were incredibly excited. Getting the timing right with days off work, weather, snow conditions and partner had all come to pass: now we could get on with the task at hand. Tim set a blistering initial pace and fell back on his alpine experience to rig the first abseil extremely quickly. From then on we developed an efficient partnership, soloing and running between the more technical short sections or abseils.

Tim on Sgurr nan Gillean just before starting the traverse
Finlay on Sgurr nan Gillean

Ideal conditions: Tim on Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh with the southern half of the Cuillin beyond

Tim powering on up

Having a broken trail which was in the right place was key to our speed. Also the recently used, visible abseils were quick to find and safe to use - they didn't need dug out, re-equipped or hunted for. We moved very quickly between the abseils on Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Basteir, Bhasteir Tooth; the second and then third tops of Mhadaidh. At times were were overheating in just a single thin top layer, but as we got to Sgurr na Banachdich and the change of general ridge direction, it got a bit colder in the wind. Reaching a wintery Inn Pinn Tim took the lead and we simul climbed up to the summit block at about 3hrs 15mins elapsed. After a quick abseil and another gel we continued on, and warmed up. Abseiling Kings Chimney we should have used both ropes, but didn't and had a short awkward downclimb.

Climbing the Inn Pinn

King's Chimney abseil

Approaching the TD Gap I was apprehensive. Things were going well but we still had this final technical obstacle to overcome. Many winter traverses descend into Coire a' Ghrunnda from the gap, but we felt that the ideal aesthetic was to include the climb out of the gap. After a brief pitiful attempt at some lassoing of the top of the gap from abseil, we descended and I set off on an anxious lead. To my delight, I found several positive hooks which I had no idea were there, despite knowing this short section well in summer. It's pretty steep with poor feet and my forearms were screaming, but at least it is short and fairly soon I was up and out. Me delighted, Tim seconded up and we continued on.

Finlay leading out of TD Gap

The sun came out now again and it was getting hot. We also picked up the pace slightly and enjoyed a brilliant romp up Sgurr Dubh Mor. Racing down the snowy gully towards Caisteal a' Garbh-Choire was certainly easier than ascending it in summer, although we had to make a few minor route changes in these winter conditions. From Sgurr nan Eag we stayed close, pushing each other on, and finally reached Gars-bheinn and its eagle's eerie view in a pretty knackered state. We took in the ridge and that favourite view across to a snow topped Bla Bheinn, before stumbling our way down the south west screes to the track and some water. A friendly family on holiday squeezed us into their car at Glen Brittle and dropped us back at Sligachan, for a much needed cup of tea.

Finished: At Gars-bheinn

The view back along the ridge

See here for GPS watch trace:

Split times:

Sgurr nan Gillean             00.00.00
Am Basteir                            16m37s
Bruach na Frithe                    20.57
Bidein DNR                           38.45
Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh                 43.24
Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh               11.00
Sgurr na Banachdich               22.33
In Pin                                      40.53
Sgurr Mhic Choinnich            25.19
Sgurr Alasdair                        26.58
Sgurr Dubh Mor                  1.17.04
Sgurr nan Eag                        28.50
Gars-bheinn                           21.51


A few weeks ago we headed down to the John Muir Trust 'Wild Space' in Pitlochry, to hang my first art exhibition 'Kaleidoscape'. It will run in the Alan Reece Gallery there for the next two months. It was great to see so many of my painting all up in the same space - 15 framed canvases and 5 framed prints.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Skimo British Champs washout

The 2016 Skimo British Champs were set to take place at the Roc et Pic race at Thollon les Memises on the slopes above Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). I've done the Roc et Pic before, and remember some great sections with sunny slopes and expansive views down towards the shimmering lake with bluebird skies above. Unfortunately this weekend was not to follow suit.

Things started badly for me as I expertly procrastinated on getting packed, and then for one reason or another ended up spending a pretty uncomfortable time in Glasgow airport as far from ideal race prep. Arriving in Amsterdam airport I was totally disorientated as I woke up to being climbed over by the guy next to me who was rushing to catch his connection. I just made mine, despite being in a sleep deprived, caffeine-addled, dehydrated suboptimal state.

That done I was in Geneva. Or rather stuck at the outsized baggage area in Geneva airport. Eventually it transpired that my bag was delayed until the evening, so I abandoned it and got a lift with the patient Neil, Andy and Tim to Thollon. 
Impromptu lunch break in Thollon Les Memises (Pic: Bjorn Verduijn)

Getting there it was decidedly Scottish - mild, damp and windy. There wasn't an awful lot of snow to be seen either. The race organisers had worked tirelessly to try and put on a 'C' course despite the conditions, but the briefing was noticeably devoid of racers, with the Brits making up more than 10% of those assembled. This wasn't really a good sign. Adding to this my lack of any ski kit led to a general uncertain atmosphere. A message came to the hotel that my bag wound arrive at midnight - well we would see I suppose but I wasn't for staying up hanging around for it so set the alarm and had a much needed sleep. Waking early we were greeted by an apologetic message from the race committee - the poor guys had been out at four am checking the course, and had decided to pull the plug. Looking out the window this was entirely unsurprising as the wind had now increased and it was raining and mild in a way that even Skimo Scotland might struggle to race in. Feeling fairly deflated we met the other Brits and I found that my lost bag had indeed made it. Just in time for the 'annuler' message.

After some moping about, commiseration and general indecision we decided to go for a skin anyway and - not being as hardy as the GB girls who went for a skin up the icy wet race course in the soaking rain - we headed fairly en mass to Grand Montets at Argentiere and skinned up the marked track to the ski area and down the home run. This was still pretty soggy but at least the wind was lighter, we were in the trees, and there was even some reasonable snow. Thoroughly soaked through we hit one of the Chamonix cafes for many coffees and frites.

Neil and Anthony at Grand Montets

Next day I went skinning with Colin, Guillem, Naila, Ben B, John and Alasdair at Les Houches. It started cloudy and mild and we headed up to Le Prarion before skiing some heavy snow and then down the pistes. Some folk headed up for another lap but some of us had other business - namely getting the entries in for Glencoe and Tromso Skyline races, which both opened that day at noon. Turned out this was a good idea as they sold out in minutes! Then I headed back to Scotland and the wild gales blowing lorries off the road in Glencoe.

Lycra at Le Prarion summit

Cheers to Ben Bardsley for all his work setting up the British Champs - no one could have predicted just how unhelpful the weather was going to be. There's always next year...