That’s right, filthy clickbait Ranked! The Skye Munros in order of difficulty for your average hillwalker, with a few necessary caveats.
This is an FAQ blog.
I have been guiding on the Cuillin for eleven years. Not for entire seasons since the first one (I learned my lesson), but always for at least a stint or two through the summer. I don’t know how many people I have guided in that time, but I could safely say it’s somewhere in triple figures. Their objectives vary, but there are a few typical ones. Some clients want to take on a full ridge traverse, some specifically want to climb the In Pin, some just want an adventure. But by far the most common client objective on Skye is bagging the Munros.
During the course of a day on the hill with someone I haven’t met before, I find I often visit the same topics of conversation. If they are bagging Munros, a common topic is which ones are the hardest – often with a view to which ones will I need a guide for?
The answer to that depends, of course, on each person’s experience and competence. Most walkers who are not climbers, and who don’t have a willing climber friend to call upon, know they will want a guide for the In Pin. But beyond that, it all gets a bit more fuzzy, because of a few other dependses.
One is weather, with a particular emphasis on ground conditions and visibility. Some of the Skye Munros are affected more than others by the rock being greasy, and the same applies to how difficult route finding becomes in the mist (ranging from quite tricky to desperate). Even in good visibility, it is very unlikely that anyone, no matter how experienced, will find the best lines on these mountains on their first visit. After years, I’m still occasionally making refinements to my lines. Often this won’t be consequential – you just lose a few minutes here and there. But in the worst case, following maybe-paths and what looks likely can lead quickly to some very bad, very loose situations.
Another ‘depends’ is the pragmatic question of combining peaks. For many of the summits, going up and down by the easiest possible line is considerably less technical than combining two or more in a single day. Given that the main ridge line never drops below 750m in height (and most of the bealachs are higher), the attraction of doing more than one Munro in a day is obvious. But in the extreme case, try linking Bruach na Frithe with Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh, to turn a straightforward walk into the hardest coire round in Scotland. Likewise, when you stand on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, it feels like you could almost spit on the summit of Sgurr MhicCoinnich – yet getting there is more tricky and complex than almost any other dividing section. So in order to provide a useful ranking of difficulty, I will specify where choosing not to make a commonly-used link from another Munro would make a significant difference.
A final ‘depends’ is the variation in individual strengths and weaknesses. Some people move well but are nervous, some move badly but are confident, some are good and some hopeless at route-finding. Some people have a terrible fear of getting lost, some relish independence and the chance of misadventure.
When considering this ranking, despite having been up all these peaks numerous times in wildly varying conditions and with different people, I concluded that simply going 1-12 is not all that useful. There are too many variables. So instead, I have split the Skye Munros into four categories, loosely based on scrambling grade (3-2-1-0) of the easiest line.
1. THE HARDEST ONE
2. THE OTHER HARD ONES
3. THE LESS HARD ONES
4. THE EASY ONES
Let’s start from the top.
1. THE HARDEST ONE
SGURR DEARG (INACCESSIBLE PINNACLE) (skoor JERRack)
For the purposes of this blog, not a whole lot needs to be said about the In Pin. If you can confidently solo a Moderate rock climb in a position of extreme exposure (and it really is extreme), and competently abseil 17 metres off a fixed chain, then you shouldn’t need a guide for the In Pin. The abseiling is not strictly necessary, but the alternative is down-climbing a steep and polished Severe, or down-climbing the ascent route (which, if there is anyone else on the route, is going to feel like a serious sketch for everyone).
2. THE OTHER HARD ONES
SGURR NAN GILLEAN (skoor nan GILLyan)
AM BASTEIR (am BASteer)
SGURR A’ GHREADAIDH (skoor a HREEta/GRETi)
SGURR MHIC CHOINNICH (skoor vikHOYnich)
SGURR ALASDAIR (skoor ALaster)
It’s in these middle two categories that a bit of debate comes in.
You can ascend and descend Gillean in isolation by the so-called Tourist Route of the South-East Ridge. This is a longer approach but easier than the West Ridge. The easiest line sticks to terraces down left of the crest, but eventually you can’t avoid some difficulties in the final section to the summit. The West Ridge, which is the conduit to combine with Am Basteir, features probably the hardest scrambling in ascent of any commonly used Munro route besides the In Pin, and normally an abseil in descent.
Am Basteir is mainly quite straightforward, but its smooth and sloping shelves feel sketchy in the wet, and the sense of exposure ramps up. It also has The Bad Step, which is only a boulder problem in size, but because it is a down-climb on which lowering off the edge feels awkward and the footholds are hard to see, feels like one of the hardest isolated moves of the standard Munro routes. As an alternative there is also the bad step bypass – which has no moves as tricky, but is longer, looser and more exposed. I tend to stick to the Bad Step, which at least is a cinch to protect with a bit of rope nous. For most people, given equal conditions, Gillean and Am Basteir are likely to feel like the second and third hardest Munros in terms of technical difficulty.
Moving southwest, the difficulties of climbing Ghreadaidh by the easiest route, from An Dorus, are short-lived, but not inconsiderable. Down-climbing the step back into An Dorus itself is the crux. Combining Ghreadaidh with Banachdaich to the south, which involves traversing Sgurr Thormaid and parts of the crest of Ghreadaidh itself, would put it more firmly up there as one of ‘the other hard ones’. This link is often done, but not usually in bad weather – where it is more common to combine with Mhadaidh only, as a relative ‘quick hit’ by Cuillin standards.
Like Am Basteir, MhicChoinnich becomes significantly nastier in the wet, where the otherwise friendly slabs towards its summit become potential slipways to oblivion, at least in the corners of your eye and mind. Like Ghreadaidh, its difficulties are in short-lived steps, some exposed and some not, but with a lot more of them. It is most commonly combined with the In Pin rather than Alasdair (though the classy option for those capable is a full Coire Lagan round, which has the enormous bonus of never having to engage in any direction with the Great Stone Chute or the An Stac screes, for which your life will be better).
Alasdair is a tricky one to place. The ‘easiest’ route to the Cuillin’s highest peak is to walk all the way up, and all the way down, the Great Stone Chute. To then reach the summit involves only a short section of fairly steady, fairly exposed scrambling. However, this option is absolutely grim. I have never yet ascended the Stone Chute in full (except in winter) but even coming down it is bad enough – and I say this as someone who loves scree running when it is actually scree, as opposed to a miserable matrix of ankle-clacking rocks and gravel, all moving inexorably downhill with every passing footstep. It just gets worse every year, and the narrows in the middle are objectively dangerous if other parties are above. So, while some walkers will choose this as a budget option (and I don’t blame them), like a Ryanair flight they may incur hidden charges. The upmarket alternative, the equivalent to complementary snacks if not quite a reclining chair, is the South-West Flank route, accessed by a tricky chimney close to the triangular cave and Henry Moore pinnacles of the bealach between Alasdair and Sgurr Sgumain, which is definitely sufficiently tricky (harder than any move on MhicChoinnich) to put it in ‘the other hard ones’ category.
3. THE LESS HARD ONES
SGURR A’ MHADAIDH (skoor a VAAti)
SGURR DUBH MOR (skoor DOO MOR)
SGURR NAN EAG (skoor nan AYK)
Mhadaidh is the easier of the two peaks accessed from An Dorus, particularly if, instead of descending the final tricky step into An Dorus itself, this is avoided by dropping down a slightly inobvious bypass route. Otherwise the scrambling is steady and the route-finding relatively straightforward.
Dubh Mor is very nearly in the next category up. Ask me tomorrow and I might have changed my mind. As an outlier from the main ridge on the Coruisk side, it is the most remote-feeling of the Skye Munros, and just getting to it is long and complex and rough. If the easiest line is taken, none of the scrambling on it is very difficult, and the trickiest steps are not high-consequence, but it’s not exactly a doddle either. For this one, it makes no difference whether it combined with anything else – the difficulty remains the same (though it is commonly combined with Eag and often Alasdair in what tends to be longest of the standard Munro days).
Technically speaking, the status of Eag is quite clear cut – it’s in a solid ninth place, as the fourth-easiest of the Skye Munros. And yet it can easily become harder, especially if undertaken in bad visibility. Even getting up to the lochan in Coir’ a’ Ghrunnda to begin with is not without complexity. The only scrambling that is required to climb Eag is short-lived and easy, but some of the route-finding is as tricky as any of the other tops. Combining with Dubh Mor is standard. This adds to the difficulty, but it’s a lot of repeated rough hiking to do the two separately.
4. THE EASY ONES
BRUACH NA FRITHE (BROOach na FREEuh)
SGURR NA BANACHDAICH (skoor na BANachdich)
BLA BHEINN (BLA VAYN)
Approached from Fionn Choire and avoiding the final little stretch along the crest by a path on the left, Bruach is probably the easiest Skye Munro of the lot, though a slightly longer walk than Bla Bheinn. It is mostly not even a steep walk, and not rough by Cuillin standards, excepting a short pull up to the head of the coire. It is often added on to the other northern peaks, either by the exciting direct route abseiling from the Basteir Nick, or by a slog back up under the north face of Am Basteir.
Bla Bheinn does have a little bit of very easy scrambling to get up out of Coire Uaigneich and again towards the summit, but it sometimes catches people out when they head up the more obvious path out of the coire and end up on the marginally lower south top, which is separated from the true summit by a tricky short section, which has stymied a fair number of summit bids over the years.
Provided it is done on its own, Banachdaich, like Bruach, features no scrambling at all, just a somewhat dragging steep walk out of Coir’ an Eich. Route finding on this one is not bad – essentially, just keep going uphill – but the line to descend back to the head of the coire is indistinct in the mist. As mentioned above, Banachdich is commonly linked with a significant boost in difficulty to Ghreadaidh and Mhadaidh, and also more easily with the In Pin (though the route finding is not totally straightforward, especially if one wants to avoid some scrambling around its central top). The potential issue with this link is that combining the In Pin with MhicChoinnich also makes sense, and doing all three can make for a long day, particularly if there are queues at the Pinnacle.
Guiding companies tend to offer the Skye Munros as a four-day package (not that anyone doesn’t also take bespoke bookings for any other combination of hills and days), with the assumed exclusion of Bla Bheinn. Having done a lot of such four-day bookings over the years, I’ve often ended up leaving out one or two of the other ‘easy’ ones, Bruach and Banachdaich, as well, for practical reasons that usually hinge on a combination of bad weather and client capability. Four days in a row in the Cuillin is hard! Just doing any of the individual days is hard enough for some Munro-baggers, particularly those who are getting on in years and whose agility is past its peak.
There is something of a vicious feedback loop with fitness when doing consecutive days – the longer you take, the less recovery time you get before the next one. I think this is often underestimated – if you’re off the hill by 4, do some stretching and good eating and hydrating, and successfully bully some Fairy Poolers into passing places for an efficient exit, you’re home and dry with time to chill. If you limp back to the car at 6.30 too tired to look after yourself properly, it can be a slippery slope. Those timings, incidentally, assume a ‘normal’ day when weather developments do not dictate an early or late start – too often people stick rigidly to working hours, when they would be better off suffering a rare alpine start or hanging on until lunchtime in order not to get drenched or to have to deal with greasy rock.
Until I have had a day on the hill with someone, I can’t really answer the question which ones will I need a guide for? Even after a day on the hill, I will usually need to insert a few depends clauses! Mountains are complex and so are people. It is always annoying to see, when someone asks a question along these lines on the internet, a bunch of strangers stating with assured confidence everything from ‘you’ll be fine, it’s easy’ to ‘going up there by yourself is stupid and irresponsible’.
I may work as a guide, but I have no interest in selling my services to people who don’t need them. When it comes to the Cuillin, there are more than enough people who do! So I can honestly claim there is no bias in the way I’ve presented the respective difficulties of these summits, only a well-seasoned backing of experience. It’s a complex environment, and I don’t doubt a few people have had epics on the supposedly easy ones, or unexpectedly breezed over the hard ones. It would be a shame to go to the mountains knowing too precisely what to expect.
Next up in the series of FAQ blogs – the Cuillin Ridge!