The ‘In Pin’ – [# 279 – 281]

Sgurr Alasdair (992m); Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (948m)
and the Inaccessible Pinnacle (Sgurr Dearg) (986m)

  • Pronunciation:             Skoor Alasdair; Skoor Vee Chonneech; Skoor Jerrack
  • Translation:                  Alexander’s Peak (named after the first recorded ascender: Alexander Nicholson); MacKenzie’s Peak (named after John MacKenzie, an early Cuillin guide and one of the first ascenders); Red Peak
  • Total distance:              14.5km
  • Total time:                     8hrs 0mins
  • Total ascent:                  1300m
  • Weather:                        Bright, but still quite windy.
  • Start / end location:     Parking on the Glen Brittle road opposite the Glen Brittle (climbing) Hut. [OS Map Sheet 32 – Grid Ref: NG 412 215]
  • Map:                                 A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window.

Looking from Glen Brittle campsite towards Coire Lagan - Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Thearlaich and Alasdair can be seen in shadow (L-R)

We managed a day off yesterday, which gave us plenty of time to drive over to Skye for two days of climbing before needing to rush back to the mainland to rendezvous with family and friends in Aviemore for our final Munro ascent on Saturday 1 October.

We parked the ‘van overnight at a spot that we’d used when we last visited Skye in June and took the car down the twisty Glen Brittle single-track road. Not far from the coast we parked by the climbing hut (just 1km passed the SYHA hostel). For this trip we had to pack some of our rock climbing gear, which included a 50m rope, harnesses and helmets each, plus a small selection of slings and climbing hardware.

The waterfall pouring out of Loch Coir a' Ghrunnda

We set off walking along the single-track road before then passing through the Glen Brittle campsite by the seashore. The start of the route from the campsite was exactly as we’d done before when we climbed Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr nan Eag in June. At the far end of the campsite a well-maintained path led east up the gently sloping hillside. After around 800m the path divided with the one to the left continuing east into Coire Lagan, and the one to the right, which we took, veering ESE around the foot of the huge Sron na Ciche buttress. Once we reached the 300m contour the path arced NE into the lower section of Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda.

We stayed close to the left hand edge of the corrie – right up against the steep crags on the eastern face of Sron na Ciche – from where it was easier to breach the headwall cliff. Reaching the upper corrie required a bit of “hands-on” scrambling over the cliff face – but it was great fun, always straightforward, and well worth the effort when we arrived. Once we’d overcome the cliff barrier we stood at the SW shore of the turquoise blue Loch Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda. On the opposite three sides of the loch stood the scree shattered peaks of Sgurr Sgurmain, Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Thearlaich, Sgurr Dubh an Da Bheinn and finally Sgurr nan Eag: all connected by the high traverse of the southern section of the Cuillin ridge.

We circled clockwise round the shore of the loch from “six to ten o’clock” to where a small stream flowed in. Here we left the shoreline and climbed over some easy-angled rock slabs as we headed for the Bealach Coir a’ Ghrunnda between the peak of Sgurr Sgumain (947m) on the right, and the top of the Sron na Ciche ridge on the left. As we neared the bealach we were confronted by a section of large boulders and mixed scree, which we had to overcome. Once we reached the bealach we could see our next objective: the scramble ascent of Sgurr Sgurmain’s south ridge.

The ridgeline ascent towards the summit of Sgurr Alasdair

This scramble proved very straightforward on the high-friction Cuillin gabbro and we were soon enjoying the views from the summit. To the north the delicious knife-edge ridge connecting Sgurr Thearliach (just behind Sgurr Alasdair) to Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and then onwards to the Innaccessible Pinnacle on Sgurr Dearg was presented in all of its precipitous and craggy glory. To the WSW, the mighty north face of Sron na Ciche extended magnificently down hundreds of vertical metres to Coire Lagan’s valley floor. Midway along the Sron na Ciche cliffs ‘The Cioch’ jutted directly out from the near vertical rock-face. This huge appendix of rock, rather like an upturned nose, was made famous outside of climbing circles by the 1986 Hollywood movie ‘The Highlander’ starring Christopher Lambert (a Frenchman playing a Scottish Highlander) and Sean Connery (a Scotsman playing an aristocratic Spaniard). The two men practiced duelling with swords on the top of The Cioch … it was a very spectacular setting.

Over a decade ago (May 2000) Elaine and I climbed onto The Cioch from the corrie floor below via a couple of rock climbing routes with our friend Mick. We didn’t get back to the car until nearly 01.00 in the morning, having had to abseil through a waterfall in near darkness. That was an epic!

Elaine - roped up and ready to climb up towards the summit of Sgurr Alasdair

From the summit of Sgurr Sgumain we turned our attention to the first real obstacle of the day: descending from the summit and crossing the ‘Bad Step’ before re-ascending on the other side to reach the summit of Sgurr Alasdair. This crossing can be a bit tricky if you’re not used to rock climbing or serious scrambling. However, we’ve both climbed this route before and had all of the necessary equipment (and more) to safely cross. We quickly stepped into our rock climbing harnesses, put on our helmets and sorted out the rope and climbing hardware. Elaine anchored herself to the rock and belayed me as I set off with the rope. It turned out to be extremely easy and I ended up only putting in a couple of pieces of protection (nuts) just because I had them with me. I made myself save (anchored to the rock) and Elaine then followed me across the gap.

The route to the summit of Sgurr Alasdair was then a straightforward scramble, but for speed we remained roped together and moved in what is called an ‘alpine style’: where much of the 50m rope was coiled over our shoulders and only a short 10-12m section extended between us.

Close-up of Sgurr Alasdair (highest) then Sgurr Thearlaich & Sgurr Mhic Choinnich - the Great Stone Chute lies between Alasdair & Thearlaich

We quickly reached the summit of Sgurr Alasdair at 992m or 3,255ft: the highest peak in the Cuillin range. The views were stunning, especially as we looked south to the two Munros of Sgurr Dubh Mor and Sgurr nan Eag that we’d climbed earlier in the season.

We scrambled down to the top of the Great Stone Chute, a horrendous scree-filled cleft running for several hundred metres from just below Sgurr Alasdair’s summit to Coire Lagan’s valley floor. It is the normal walkers’ approach for bagging Sgurr Alasdair. I’ve only ever climbed it once when it was snow-covered, which possibly made it a bit easier.

From the top of the Great Stone Chute we looked east to the rocky side-wall of Sgurr Thearlaich’s (984m) thin summit ridge. To gain access to the ridge we had to turn SSE (away from our ultimate direction of travel) and descended about 20m on a scree path until we found a notch in the rock-wall that we could climb. We climbed up this notch (exposed but straightforward) onto the thin spine-like ridge, where Sgurr Thearlaich’s summit was only a few metres away. An airy scramble NNW along the spine took us to another steep downward headwall that bottomed-out at the Bealach Mhic Choinnich. Literally, only a few tens of metres away on the opposite side of this bealach was the summit of our second Munro, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich.

The bealach can be reached by a short abseil starting to the left of our position or a tricky down-climb a little further back and to our right. We chose the latter and found that the hardest problem was finding the right route. We were, however, still roped together, so this provided a degree of protection to one another as we down-climbed in short pitches to arrive at the top of the bealach.

Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, like its neighbour we’d just crossed, consisted of a thin spine-like ridge. From the south, ascending to the summit could be done via the rock climbing ascent of ‘King’s Chimney’ (grade ‘Difficult’), or as we chose to do, by first traversing along ‘Collie’s Ledge’ on the west (left) side and then doubling back to scramble an easier route from the north. We easily located Collie’s Ledge from our position at the top of the bealach and, still roped together, followed it across the airy and exposed west face of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. This traverse made you feel like you were hovering directly above Coire Lagan – which we pretty much were! The ledge took us to the north side of the peak from where we scrambled up the north ridge to the precipitous summit at 948m or 3,110ft.

We then scrambled back down the north ridge to the top of Collie’s Ledge where we then followed a fairly obvious route downward to reach the top of An Stac Screes. From here, we followed the line (on the west) formed between the top of the screes and the base of the buttress walls of An Stac, before then continuing by climbing up on loose stones and boulders to the base of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. The Inaccessible Pinnacle, or ‘In Pin’ as it’s affectionately known, is a shark-fin blade of rock that juts proud of the steep WSW ridge of Sgurr Dearg. The summit of this blade is 8m higher than its host peak, and so claims the Munro status. It is the only Munro that requires rock-climbing experience to conquer – although the actual climbing is only at a low grade. The setting, however, is very exposed and exciting!

Just like a shark-fin seen from the side, one of the ridges on the In Pin’s blade of rock is easier-angled than the other. This easier-angled ridge began on the east side, which was from our direction of approach. I climbed up the rock-face on the south (left) side just beyond the base of the ridge to quickly reach the ridge’s crest. It was very blustery on the crest, which I then scrambled up to about 2/3rd height before I moved slightly to the right and onto the north face. I only placed a couple of pieces of climbing protection, as the technicality of the climb was very low. I soon reached the summit stance, which had a large block of rock perched on top. I made myself safe and called for Elaine to climb, which she did easily and quickly. We each scrambled to the top of the perched block at 986m or 3,235ft, and then back down to our stance at its base. To descend we simply abseiled (about 15-18m) off the vertical west wall onto a gently inclined series of rocky slabs that led to the top of Sgurr Dearg (978m). At the top of Sgurr Dearg we took off our climbing harnesses and helmets and packed them, along with our other climbing paraphernalia, into our rucksacks.

From the top we descended SW to pick up the path along the ridge formed between Coire na Banachdich in the north and Coire Laggan in the south. This ridge turned more westward and broadened out into a wide slope as we descended through yet more loose rock and scree. We continued to descend on a twisting path until we were just north of Loch an Fhir-bhallaich, where we then reached the path running out of Coire Lagan back towards the climbing hut in Glen Brittle (and our parked car).

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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