To British hill-goers and rock-climbers Skye is the Black Cuillin, perhaps the only true mountains in the UK, and without a doubt the most distinctive. Since Victorian times the name has conjured up images of climbing or scrambling on great faces or narrow edges of superb rock, the sea a constant backdrop and the Outer Hebrides floating at the edge of sight.
The reality is no less than the dream. A twelve kilometre long ridge of jagged peaks curves round the great hollow of Loch Coruisk, with towers of bare rock, plunging cliffs, corries sculpted from ice-smoothed slabs and cupping blue-green lochans. These mountains entice and intimidate in equal measure, their Gaelic names a roll call of some of the greatest pioneers of Cuillin exploration - John Mackenzie (Sgurr MhicCoinnich), Norman Collie (Sgurr Thormaid), Sheriff Alexander Nicolson (Sgurr Alasdair).
Though there are Extreme rock climbs to be had, and more awaiting first ascents, the real glory of the Cuillin is perhaps to be found in long mountaineering routes or in scrambles along the crest. An early guidebook recommendation of the Dubhs ridge, the round of Coire Lagan, Pinnacle Ridge of Sgurr nan Gillan and the Clach Glas – Blaven traverse as capturing the essence of the Cuillin still holds good today.
The traverse of the whole ridge in one outing is still regarded as a major prize in British mountaineering. With its 3000 metres of ascent, technical and route finding difficulties, frequent exposed sections, lack of water and the fickle West coast weather it remains a major achievement, probably more often failed on than succeeded.
In Lochalsh, perhaps the most famous mountain route is the classic ridge walk of the Five Sisters of Kintail. Most usually walked East to West this strenuous 8 mile walk includes three Munros and nearly 5000 ft of ascent. With breath-taking views in all directions it rightly deserves the accolade "classic". The walk starts in Glenshiel on the site of the 1719 Battle of Glenshiel, indeed the hill immediately East of the Sisters is named Sgurr nan Spainteach – the peak of the Spaniards – after the Spanish mercenaries who fled over its heights to avoid capture by the attacking English forces.
It is a hard slog to the top of the first Sister – Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe – and then the route follows the ridgeline all the way to the last Sister – Sgurr na Moraich – before the descent to Ault a’ chruinn. A traverse of the ridge takes a full day and requires a good level of fitness, the many ascents and descents taking a lot out of the legs. Walkers should also be competent map-readers as poor conditions are common with the hills regularly covered by cloud. The effort taken to scale the mountains is well rewarded however, as they are rich in wildlife.
Come, explore, get hooked. Visit the lower Red Cuillin or Trotternish hills for contrasts sake, walk the West coast and see the sun set over the Hebrides from the edge of spectacular sea cliffs, lie by Loch Coruisk and just admire Britain’s ultimate mountains, or complete your visit to Skye & Lochalsh "bagging" the Five Sisters.