MANY mountain days can be a psychological battle as well as a physical one and none more so than in Skye’s Black Cuillin.
The thought of scaling Scotland’s Alps can reduce many a budding Munroist to a trembling wreck, and there are many who find these peaks a step too far, hence the boom in the number of mountain guides plying their trade here.
For most walkers planning to tackle them solo, the first step is to win the battle in your head.
I had planned three days in the Cuillin to move closer to a third Munro finish. Then I made the mistake of reading the comments on some of the hill forums. There are no other mountains in these isles which throw up such a wide range of emotions.
No matter that I had already climbed these peaks at least twice before - suddenly doubts surfaced where there had been none. If I was going it alone, it would be a triumph of mind over natter.
The excitement builds with every passing mile as you head deeper into Skye, the shapes of the mountains looming ever larger, drawing you in yet in equal measure warning of the tasks ahead. From Broadford, the peaks of the Red Cuillin are first to thrust into your face, bold slopes rising sheer from the road.
You pass through Scullamus and Strollamus, villages that sound like they have been named after wise old philosophers. With the fearsome Black Cuillin just around the next corner, it would be no surprise if the next settlement was Dangermus.
Then the first sight of the most feared and loved mountains in the country, the classic Sligachan view, always awe-inspiring no matter whether you are a conqueror of Everest or a day-tripper who has never set foot on a hillside. The sharp pyramid of Sgurr nan Gillean, the outrageous threatening lines of Am Basteir and its attendant Tooth and the gentler charms of Bruach na Frithe.
On a fine sunny day, even from a distance these peaks look sharp enough to cut you to the bone. On a wet, miserable day they appear to be shifting and sliding like giant serpents behind dark veils.
This was supposed to be a fine day. High pressure was in charge over most of the country and I had clear skies, and, more importantly, clear mountain tops on the drive up. But once I got over the bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh things changed.
The low cloud and drizzle which was covering the Outer Hebrides had decided in somewhat Putin-esque fashion that it needed to expand its territory and had curled a “comforting” arm around Skye.
The Slig view was spoiled by light rain on the windscreen and the hills playing hide and seek in the rolling mists. Maybe it would be better round the back. But halfway down Glen Brittle the hills had vanished completely so it was decision time.
Should I press on into the cloud and hope it would clear, or cut my losses and head back over the bridge into the sunshine for hills that I could see?
Like most hill goers, I’ve been on plenty of mountains in wet, sightless conditions and it’s not a lot of fun. But when you are in the Cuillin on your own in these conditions it becomes foolhardy.
The magnetic make-up of the rock means the compass can go haywire and in this maze of rubble routes are easy to lose. Paths that look inviting end at the top of a sheer cliff and what looks like a good route may soon become well beyond the capabilities of many. Even retracing your steps can become a lottery.
We learned this lesson the hard way once on an attempted ascent of one of the easier peaks, Sgurr na Eag. We became disorientated in the high part of Coire a’ Ghrunnda and circled round on ourselves, the compass proving no help. In the end we got lucky, reached the lochan and then managed to find our way down. It could have been a lot worse.
My decision was easy in the end. I spent a week here some years ago in Mediterranean conditions and it was magnificent. The thought of going up now and not seeing a thing didn’t appeal one bit. I wanted to savour these hills, to enjoy the puzzles and problems they threw up and soak in the views, not slip and slide my way along the ridge in anxiety and misery.
I would rather wait six months and take them on in my choice of conditions than rush round in masochistic fashion, as if it were a punishment rather than a pleasure.
It’s never a good feeling to walk away from a day you have been looking forward to, but knowing when to turn back is almost a hill skill in itself. I kept telling myself that as I left Skye to tackle some peaks I could see.