In the grip of the Cuillin

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Into the palm of the dragon’s claws.

We stood at the rim of Loch Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda. I felt as though we were in the palm of some prehistoric beast, its gnarled fingers reaching to the sky with names equally as striking: Sgurr nan Eag, Sgurr Dubh Mor, Sgurr Alasdair.

To illustrate just how rocky the Cuillin Hills are, it is interesting to note that – of the 39 Munros named ‘sgurr’ (i.e. sharp rocky peak) in Scotland – nine are in this 12 kilometre ridge of unforgiving land. The highest concentration in the country*.

From our vantage point in Coire Ghrunnda, it was easy to see why these spires had inspired the gods of Scottish mountaineering to make it their playground. In a range of just 12 kilometres, it contains 22 peaks, 11 of which are Munro status.

For those completing the full traverse “the reward is an intensely satisfying blend of hard physical and mental work mixed with some of the best scenery in the world.”

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Climbing Sgurr nan Ean

We made the steep ascent to Sgurr nan Eag. As we reached the top of the initial climb, rock gave way to air as the ridge line poured over the edge to the corries below. We turned right and summited before clambering back down into the bealach to Sgurr Dubh Mor. The midges were tempestuous, swarming any moment we stopped to consult the guidebook.

Never before have I felt I am in the hills only with their permission. The Cuillin inspire a power over you, a sense that – at any moment – those claws could grip and snuff you out.

Every handhold, every placement of the foot was only granted through the permission of these gabbro talons. These are hills to be respected.

These thoughts came to me as I considered Finlay Wild’s inconceivable 2:59.22 record for the traverse. Only someone with a unique connection to the landscape could have achieved that. Yet, he is no master of them; they retain the control, much like placating a dragon, allowing him to pass unscathed.

Here and there, pale rocks lay dotted around, reminding me, again, of dragon scales shedded from the higher tops, which have cascaded down over the centuries. Incredibly, looking east towards the Cairngorms, one gets the sense of how time has – and will forever – shape this landscape.

Miles away, Ben MacDui looked towards us climbing a range of mountains almost 400 million years younger than he. These peaks racing each other to the clouds, vying for head space, will in time return to the sea from which they were born. Nothing is inevitable, except gravity.

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It is not hard to understand what the seekers of the ‘sublime’ in the 18th century must have felt: the clutching sense of fear and the releasing sensation of wonder. These terribly beautiful hills inspire a fearsome joy. There is much to relish, and much to revere.

And yet, beneath our feet, it wasn’t just hunks of gabbro and chunks of basalt. In this volcanic land, blaeberries burst forth beneath old magma, rippling veins of iron criss-crossed the rock. Above, two caped ravens cackled as they had a mid-air battle.

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Amongst the volcanism.

As we made the final climb to Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn, we looked back to the  Caisteal a Garbh-choire – a looming tower of basalt, adorned in places with climbing slings from years of exploration. To reach the final Munro of Sgurr Dubh Mor required just as much thought as physical effort.

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Ascending Sgurr Dubh Mor

We walked thin lines, climbed over rocks that had never been created to be climbed, and reached the final summit of Sgurr Dubh Mor.

The midges chased us from the summit before long, but for a brief moment, I could hear the beating of the dragon’s heart. The ridge twanged with the strength of eons, reducing the power of humanity to insignificance.

Never have I felt so at the mercy of a range; never so thrilled by its majesty.

The Cuillin have gripped my imagination and I intend to return soon.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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