bert timmermans saskia van der loo
God took a break on Sunday - we crossed through the Cuillins. Through, since we passed through the wonderful valley between Red and Black Cuillins. Now, especially for this day we had begged for good weather, since traversing the Cuillins in clouds and mist might be a unique experience, but you certainly miss out on some things. When we awoke at Mary's and peeped out, the sky was as close to clear blue as we'd seen it since we got here. Kiss me, karma.
Mary had to get to church early, so Peter came by at 9 sharp to pick us up and to bring the baggage to the next stop on the other side of the Cuillins, Sligachan. At my request, he first drove us to Elgol, just to get a good look at it - and our conclusion was unanimous: we shall return (picture above - Elgol harbour is just visible below). Then we were taken to Kilmarie, said goodbye to our private weather forecaster, and set off to cross Skye, aiming for the Cuillin peaks appearing just above the Am Mâm pass (picture).
A walk through time
As mentioned before, the Cuillins had been teasing us for the past three days. From the moment we had reached the summit of Cnoc an Sgumain, the idea of walking beneath the peaks drew us onward. It's a symbolic crossing as well - it's mid-trek and you go from Skye's east coast to its west coast; from the south, also, to the north, and this is probably the most impressive crossing. Because, like anywhere in Scotland, walking through the land is taking a geology class, which amounts to walking through time (geological map). The Sleat peninsula, up to about Heaste, consists of ancient Lewisian gneiss, as can be found on the Isle of Lewis (what's in a name) and in the part of the Highlands which lies north-west of the geological fault known as the Moine Thrust (see map; not to be confused with either the Great Glen Fault or the Highland Boundary Fault - map), a fault which was caused by the squeezing together of Scotland and England some 450 million years ago (aka the Caledonian Orogeny), lifting the sea floor and deforming what is now the central part of the Highlands, but leaving the northwest untouched. This "surviving" Lewisian gneiss is among the oldest rock on Earth, formed about 2,800 million years ago (note that Earth dates back about 4,500 million years). On Sleat, this layer is often covered with layers of a later age, consisting of late-Precambrian Torridonian sandstone (which is more prominent in Wester Ross, especially, o surprise, around Torridon), with (especially around Ord) Cambrian and lower Ordovician quartzite (Sgiath-Bheinn) and limestone. Between Heaste and the Cuillins it's a bit of a mix of all ages, up to fairly recent (geologically speaking), but then the landscape changes dramatically. The appearance of the Cuillins, as well as Trotternish, dates back to recent times (the Tertiary age - about 60 million years ago) as they are formed of different kinds of igneous rock: the Cuillins of intrusive and Trotternish of extrusive igneous rock (look here and here for info - basically the intrusive kind is magma which has slowly cooled down underground and has subsequently been pushed upward or has simply remained while the outer volcano eroded away, whereas extrusive rock is lava -magma that erupts- which has quickly cooled down on the surface, often forming typical basaltic hexagonal pillars). The intrusive igneous rock of the Cuillins stems from the roots of the volcanoes which developed shortly after the basalt lava plateau of Trotterish was formed (which does not originate there). Still, the Reds and Blacks differ sharply: whereas the Red Cuillins (more accurately: the Red Hills - only the Blacks are actually the 'Cuillin') are composed mainly of uniform granite which has consequently weathered and crumbled uniformly over the ages, the Black Cuillins and Bla Bheinn (see pictures below) consist mostly of gabbroic rock (very dark solid rock), with edges consisting very often of crumbled vertical basalt 'sheets', all of which leads to less uniform erosion, causing the black mass to be cut into sharp-edged shapes by subsequent glaciations. Trotterish and the whole north of Skye on the other hand, came about when lava erupted from fissures (not from the Cuillin volcanoes) and hardened on top of older (Jurassic age) sedimentary rocks, comprised mostly of sandstone. When the land tilted, this rather weak sandstone gradually crumbled under the weight of the more solid basalt, leading to the massive landslides that we were to admire on the last day of our trek. In short, in doing the trek from south to north, you see what the land was like 'in the beginning', what covered it up in the first place, then the presence of volcanoes, and basalt... how impressive can a museum get? (check out more on Skye's impressive geology or on Scotland's geology)
In any case, when on Skye and the weather permits, there is no way of missing out on the Cuillin range. At any time the jagged peaks form a beacon, an axis around which the island's myriad peninsula's revolve. Crossing them would be straightforward and the path would be good, finally giving our shoes a chance to dry, and at the end was a hotel waiting - not that that's necessarily better than B&B (generally the reverse is true), but it has a certain ring to it. Above it all, from now on we would have a continuous trek for three days - so no more being picked up or being driven to the start of a walk until we got to the Storr.
Topping Am Mâm, we got a first good look at the Red Cuillins to our right and the inhospitable Black Cuillins in front, their main peaks encircling Loch Coruisk, a unique and apparently most impressive marvel of nature. The trek however did not pass by the lake, due to the potential risks involved in negotiating the infamous "Bad Step". For the 2003 version, Ian has included the possibility of taking the boat from Elgol to Coruisk and walking from there to Sligachan - but then you miss out on the first part of the walk, which includes a lovely bay, Cammas Fhionnairich, with a fine stretch of what from a distance looks like grassland (pictures above).
As the road turned towards the valley, we passed under the slope of Bla Bheinn and happened to make acquaintance with a particularly pretty waterfall, Abhainn nan Leac (pictures on the right). The weather was pretty warm, although there blew a steady wind, and the clouds provided us with a great lightshow when we laid eyes upon Loch na Crèitheach lying in an all encompassing quiet between Reds and Blacks. The wind drew bizarre ripples upon the surface of the loch, giving it the aspect of metal (pictures below).
Especially when you get to the valley floor, which has a path and was comparatively dry anyway, the rather dark Strath na Crèitheach valley we faced contrasted with the lovely open blue towards the south (picture).
After a bit of a rest by the river (picture), we got on our way and as we thought we approached the highest point in the walk, I was beginning to get a feeling I hadn't expected to come popping up so soon: the feeling of the light step - when you are driven forward by muscles that work the way they should. Yesterday, approaching Torrin in wet shoes, I was absolutely exhausted as if I had been accumulating exhaustion in the past days - which I had. But an unbelievably good night's rest did the job and I felt that from today on, every day would go down easier than the one before. Optimistic perhaps, but in the end I was right. Maybe I should point out that my lightstepping was also, and perhaps most importantly, due to the exquisite path. From Boreraig to Kilbride it had been an ok path, but the one today was real luxury. Apart from where you enter the valley, the path's clear, fairly broad and (!) with stepping stones to cross the burns - so goodbye to wet feet.
The valley, combined with the at times pitch black clouds racing above us, looked Gloomy with a capital G and it seemed like, if at any time the weather would turn bad, the mountains would crumble and cover us with black rock. Halfway, where the valley bends and you suddenly see that the end is nowhere in sight yet, the "you shall not pass"-ness of the Cuillins really gets to you, for you have no view out of the valley either north or south. Only peaks around, touching and occasionally hiding in the passing clouds, most prominently Sgurr nan Gillean (picture). When you've crossed the last big burn streaming down Strath na Crèitheach (picture), and you reach the lakes that lie halfway in the valley and Gillean towers above, suddenly a view opens up to the left as you look into Hartacorrie and see the ridge that separates it from Loch Coruisk, with behind it the higher ridge on the other side of the Loch. The light helped to make it into a bit of a postcard (picture). This was also the first day we saw and met other walkers, albeit in the strangest places. A couple we passed who stood gazing into an apparent nothingness just above the peaks of Gillean claimed they had seen a small figure moving about on the ridge; we finally made good use of our expensive Steiner binoculars and indeed spotted a freedom loving loony hopping down the edge that ran south east. Although our fear of heights is pretty legendary (to us, at least), there is always the hunger to get up there. When we were in Snowdonia, Wales, we put it into our heads to approach the Snowdon via the northern ridge of the horseshoe, over Crib Goch - an astonishing walk, but pretty scary when you suddenly find yourself up there with 200m down on the right of you nothing but absolute air. But what a kick, especially when you actually have fear of heights.
Once you've passed under Sgurr nan Gillean, the valley opens up and you see... the rest of Skye, which at that point did not look that impressive, were it not for the tiny speck of white, giving away our destination: Sligachan Hotel. Gradually approaching Sligachan (picture - in fact it's another cleared village) left me with mixed feelings of relief and regret about the first four days that drew to a close, thoughts and images raging in my mind of the pathless remoteness of Sleat and Loch Eishort, images of such power that they could not be erased by today's apparent climax of Cuillins in good weather. Plus I was already missing the idea of seeing Julie and Peter every day. I was desperately in need of a new goal and a stout or three followed by a couple of stiff gossers. The goal became the Quiraing, and the rest was fulfilled as predicted. In the hotel, I couldn't resists photographing my lady's feet - ain't walking great fun!
on the fifth day we walked from Sligachan to Portree, Skye's capital
weather on this day (midnight before the walk) : 850hPa temperature / pressure