Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh (981m);
Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh (973m) and
Sgurr na Banachdich (965m)
- Pronunciation: Skoor uh Vathee; Skoor uh Ghredee; Skoor na Bannach-hich
- Translation: Peak of the Fox, Peak of the Thrashing; (probably) Milkmaid’s Peak, but usually translated as Smallpox Peak
- Total distance: 10.7km
- Total time: 5hrs 40mins
- Total ascent: 1273m
- Weather: A little misty to begin with, but this burnt off just after summiting the first peak to reveal a glorious sunny day with very light winds.
- Start / end location: The Glen Brittle Scottish Youth Hostel [OS Map Sheet 32 – Grid Ref: NG 409 225]
- Map: A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. The map displays on most browsers, but not unfortunately Internet Explorer.
Bill Murray, in his seminal book entitled Mountaineering in Scotland, offered an endearing description of The Cuillin (horseshoe ridge) when he looked upon the ridge and likened the crest-line to writing written in a stiff hand. It is a very good description, as anyone who has stood on either side of the ridge (in Glen Brittle or in Glen Sligachan) and has looked up at the serrated knife-edged ridge, will testify.
The Cuillin is widely regarded as the finest mountain range in Britain. Its most obvious feature is the sheer quantity of exposed rock on offer – with very little in the way of grass or heather cladding the slopes. Another feature is the steepness of the hills and the exposure that they afford the walker and climber. The quality of the rock, mainly rough gabbro, provides superb friction when climbing, which helps to combat the steepness of some of the ascents – although such quantities of exposed rocky terrain gives rise to huge amounts of frost-shattered and eroded scree.
For our first venture onto The Cuillin of this trip we chose to tackle the three “middle” Munros of the range: Sgurrs Mhadaidh, Ghreadaidh and Banachdich.
We drove down Glen Brittle from the north and parked at the youth hostel, which is about 2.5km from the head of Loch Brittle. We took a clear and well-maintained path east from the youth hostel that followed the course of the Allt a’ Coire Ghreadaidh burn. En route we passed a number of small crystal-clear waterfalls that tumbled down the burn from its source in Coire a’ Ghreadaidh. We never quite entered Coire a’ Ghreadaidh, but instead veered NNE around the foot of the mighty spur of Sgurr Eadar da Choire to enter Coire An Dorus.
To the north of us Sgurr Thuilm rose in an almost uniform slope of light coloured scree whereas to the east and south the terrain was an altogether more challenging cirque of dark and brooding, sheer, vertical cliffs. It was east towards these cliffs that we were heading and from afar breaching their tall walls to reach the ramparts of the ridge above looked somewhat of a challenge! However, we knew that if we kept heading east and deeper into Corrie An Dorus then we’d eventually reach a weakness in the ridge’s defences in the form An Dorus (The Door), a small cleft in the ridge that can be reached via a steep scree ascent.
We climbed the scree (hard work but short-lived) and topped-out at the steep-sided V-shaped door of An Dorus with Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh immediately above us to the north and Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh slightly further away to the south. Looking through the door, as it was, we were presented with a spectacularly framed view ESE towards Bla Bheinn, the only Munro that doesn’t lie directly on the main Cuillin ridge.
A short but enjoyable scramble on good rock took us northward out of An Dorus and directly to the summit of Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh at 981m or 3,218ft. Unfortunately, the mist had rolled in obscuring our views from the top. We descended back to An Dorus and did manage to drop below the mist where we got a good view of the scree-covered summit of Sgurr Thuilm (879m). On the other side of An Dorus we faced a slightly more challenging scramble to ascend the southern part of the cleft – albeit on positive holds. The technicalities are short-lived and we soon reached another little gap in the main ridge – the Eag Dubh (or Black Notch). This was passed without any difficulty.
Just above the Eag Dubh the ridge climbed towards our next obstacle – The Wart – a tower of rock that on first appearances blocked the ridgeline. On closer inspection, however, a pathway was found to the right that circumvented any difficulties. [The north side of The Wart is much higher than the south side – due to the ridge ascending north to south at this point. It looked as though the north face of The Wart could be climbed okay and the south side descended without difficulty. However, it might be a different prospect in reverse as a very steep down climb of the north face would be required!] From The Wart it was only a very short climb to the summit of Sgurr a’ Ghreadaidh at 973m or 3,192ft.
We continued south, first descending and then quickly re-ascending to the South Top (969m). Here our direction changed to the SW as we descended to a col just before ascending again towards Sgurr Thormaid (927m). Before reaching the top of Sgurr Thormaid we came to the Three Teeth – three individual rock towers set out along the ridgeline like … well teeth! These can be scrambled over or avoided by a faint path on the right (west side). We scrambled over them, with the last one presenting a bit of challenge to descend from (it would be very difficult to descend directly from the third tooth’s SW side – so we ended up traversing down on the west side to reach the faint path below).
Another short easy ascent took us to the top of Sgurr Thormaid where only a short drop to a col and then ascent of a broader boulder and scree slope separated us from Sgurr na Banachdich. As we descended towards the col we passed a couple that were planning on completing a circuit of the whole Cuillin ridge – a significant challenge. They had bivvied (short for bivouacked) out on the ridge last night – so were effectively trying to complete the traverse in two days. As we spoke I noticed a golden eagle soaring quite close by in Coire An Dorus. We all watched it until it eventually disappeared from sight around the west tip of An Diallaid.
From the col below Sgurr Thormaid we arced round south and then SSE to follow a much broader part of the ridge up boulders and scree to reach the summit of Sgurr na Banachdich at 965m or 3,116ft. Here, a friendly and inquisitive common gull joined us and Elaine fed it some broken up homemade shortbread, which it seemed to enjoy as much as we did. The views from the summit were sensational – Sgurr Alasdair, the highest peak on Skye stood out behind Sgurr Dearg and its infamous summit – a knife-edged blade of rock, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, which is the only Munro requiring rock climbing skills to conquer. To the left of Sgurr Alasdair stood Sgurr Thearlaich and in between the Great Stone Chute – a horrible never-ending steep scree slope and really the only way for a walker (as opposed to a rock climber) to reach Sgurr Alasdair’s summit. Across to the east, on the opposite side of Glen Sligachan stood the outlier Munro of Bla Bheinn and to the north the Cuillin ridge stretched out in a horseshoe all the way to the alpine profiled summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.
Our descent from Sgurr na Banachdich was via its broad west ridge. We started down some gently sloping scree until we reached a bifurcation above Coir’ an Eich: where one ridge led north to An Diallaid and the other continued west to Sgurr nan Gobhar. We followed a well-worn path that zigzagged down into Coir’ an Eich where it picked up the course of the fledging Allt Coir’ an Eich burn. This path eventually brought us back onto the path that we’d used earlier in the day when we climbed towards Coire a’ Ghreadaidh. We then followed the path downwards, passing the little waterfalls once again, and then all the way back to the Glen Brittle Youth Hostel.
[For anyone venturing into The Cuillin range I’d highly recommend the 1:25000 scale Harvey map: Skye – The Cuillin. This map is particularly clear and has an excellent 1:12500 scale enlargement of the whole ridge with all of the cols and bealachs clearly marked as well as all of the notable features such as the Three Teeth. The ridgeline is extremely complicated and navigation is made worse by the fact that the amount of metallic ore in the rock makes magnetic compasses unreliable.
The main ridge is generally very narrow and very exposed – for which one needs a good head for heights and confidence in scrambling. Some of the hardest scrambling sections can be circumvented by rough paths – but beware as these paths can be hard to find, especially in poor weather, and they don’t necessarily avoid all of the technical obstacles.]