There are some moments in the mountains that will probably stay with you forever, special moments, unsuspecting moments and times where a new achievement has been gained. My recent visit up Bruach Na Frìthe in the Black Cuillin on the Isle of Skye ticks all of those boxes with a fantastic cloud inversion at sunset as my reward.
The Cuillin on the Isle of Skye have such a fierce reputation. They are monsters of mountains, Britain’s only alpine mountains and a 12km/7 mile knife edge ridge where confidence and experience is a must. As someone with a fear of heights and despite visiting the Isle of Skye now for over 10 years, I had shied from the main Cuillin with the sense of dread they filled me with, plus they were more often than not covered in cloud! I had done Sgurr Na Stri which is part of the Black Cuillin but not on the ridge or exposed and I had done the fantastic outlier of Blea Bheinn (Blaven) but my mountain experience on Skye was severely limited.
Back in November I had two weeks up on Skye leading my photography workshops there, visiting classic locations with much easier access. I had given myself 2 days off between the two weeks to allow myself to rest and reset. Resting isn’t always sitting in the cottage watching the world go by and as such I was making plans if the weather looked good. A day out in the mountains while physically tiring can be really good for you mentally and with only myself to look after it was a good excuse to find something new.
We had a pretty rainy week the first week even if we did manage to catch a few breaks and good light but typically for the clients, the Saturday was looking like good weather. So the planning began. I started researching a summit in the Cuillin I could perhaps head up for sunset, a summit that would give good views of the ridge and wasn’t too difficult. I also fancied it being one of the Munro’s. Bruach Na Frìthe came up as the obvious choice and was described as the “easy Munro” of the Cuillin. It was a 9 mile round trip but one that looked pretty easy in comparison. It was also described as one of the best places to view the ridge and a great viewpoint.
The forecast was for clear blue skies, light winds and a brief moment of high pressure before the rain was to return on the Sunday, this was my chance. I woke up on the Saturday to find it was actually a very cloudy day with 100% cloud cover. The clouds were a form of Stratus clouds, potentially Stratocumulus, it was hard to tell. It was a blanket of uniform clouds but experience has taught me during high pressure that if you get high enough you may get above them. I sat around eating my breakfast pondering if it was worth the effort. Looking at the base I was estimating it was around 700 – 800m and I knew with Skye not having the highest mountains there was a good chance the tops wouldn’t be above it.
Now just as a quick side note, you may have seen a lot of images recently of people being above the clouds, temperature inversions are a privilege to witness and are seemingly rare and special to see with a degree of uncertainty but every now and again you’ll enjoy a period where the conditions are almost guaranteed and even forecasts like the MetOffice make a point of it. It’s definitely worth heading out if you see this in the forecast and you’ll be able to witness something special without wondering if you’re wasting your time. I didn’t have this privilege or even knowledge as none of the forecasts had even hinted at this and experience on the ground really helps here. It does feel a bigger win when you get one like this.
Just in layman’s terms a temperature inversion is where cold air becomes trapped under warmer air. What then typically happens is that the cold air becomes saturated and forms into mist and fog. The fog is trapped in this layer and as you ascend the air becomes warmer and you will often poke out above the fog and mist. It isn’t uncommon to be very cold in the valleys and t-shirt weather when you’re above it. I like to think of temperature inversions in three stages, mist, fog & cloud inversions. Mist being the thin wispy broken stuff, fog being thicker but at quite a low height and then a cloud inversion for me are the special days. Cloud inversions technically don’t exist but I reserve the naming for the days where actually it takes significant height to get above the fog/clouds and once you pop out it can only be described as like being on a plane.
Back to Skye, I contemplated my choices but after the lockdowns of the previous years I’ve taken a glass half full approach and try and do things while we’re allowed. At the end of the day it’s a good walk and recee for future visits. I got my stuff packed and headed over to Sligachan and started walking along Allt Dearg Mor up to Fhionn Choire. A good path and I had walked a small section previously but this gave me a chance to already see new things where I could go in future with workshops with some of the fantastic waterfalls.
I was starting to get to the coire and it wasn’t looking promising, the cloud wasn’t shifting, I hadn’t seen any glimpses of sun and it was looking like a bust. I was fighting mentally to go on at this point the only thing keeping me going was the prospect of ticking off another Munro. I came across my first walker who was heading down and so I had a quick chat and asked if there were any views. “Sort of” was his response with the summit sometimes clearing but he didn’t fill me with hope, he didn’t sound like a person who had an amazing day. About 30 minutes later I came across the next group, their description was similar but a few minutes later while deep in the coire I managed to get my first glimpse of the ridge and summit. Now I was motivated, it may not last, I may miss it but there was a chance! Quite often cloud bases can either break or lower in the evening as the temperature starts to cool and this was my hope.
Mustering up my legs to carry on, I made the steep and scree ascent up to Bealach Nan Lice. As I got to near the Bealach I started to get above the clouds and rather than following the path I was meant to be on I took a quick diversion to what felt like to me part of the ridge. I was stood underneath the imposing Am Bastier and Bastiers Tooth, I was under no illusion what the tooth was but I didn’t realise I was looking straight at the summit of another Munro. Initially I was gutted to not have ascended it but then after looking afterwards what was involved I can see why it’s not often done on this route. I was stood on the ultra grippy black Gabbro rock looking towards Sgurr a Bhasteir. The clouds swirling, coming and going, revealing a new view every few seconds. I already felt like I had made it, I didn’t need to see any more, I had got around my fears of the Cuillin and I had been rewarded. I got my camera out, initially taking some handheld shots to be sure and then setting up my tripod.
Well, now it was time to make my way to the summit of Bruach Na Frìthe which wasn’t far behind me. However, I couldn’t see it as the cloud was spilling over the top of it, only breaking around the view I had just taken. As I had detoured, I had to pick my way along Sgurr a Fhionn Choire, a minor summit but some moderate scrambling was needed and route choice was essential, not helped by being in the mist. The black Gabbro rock is famed for being super grippy and confidence inspiring, what I didn’t realise was that a lot of Basalt was also in the mix which is also dark in colour but lacks any grip when it is soaked in dew.
I picked my way along, knowing I wasn’t in the serious Cuillin but feeling like I was. Any time you’re in the mist, it strips away your sense of scale and size plus hides any views further along to give perspective. Soon after I found the summit of Bruach Na Frìthe, a safe space with a bit of room but small by a lot of summits standards. It has a trig point at it’s top and is the only trig on the Cuillin Ridge. The views initially weren’t there but I was happy to have made it, the only way from here was down. I collected myself and decided to have a pause to see if anything developed. The previous walkers were right, there were fleeting views but nothing I could photograph. I had time though, arriving with plenty to spare and I find it’s good to just watch and monitor what is happening. As time passed the cloud did start to sink and the views started to open up, initially down the West Ridge which gives great views and if you’re lucky, if you look just left of the ridge you can see the Fairy Pools. I often like standing in places looking back at what I have done, so on my next workshop I’ll be looking up at the summit from the waterfalls.
Next we even managed to capture fogbows stretching across the summit looking back along where we had come from.
I was enjoying myself by this point and was happy to just stick around and see what played out. With every photo I was having to wipe my lens, the cloud was passing that quickly and was that saturated that the lens would just be a wet mess and I had to subsequently wipe for every shot, hoping I had wiped enough. The views were changing so quickly you had only a moment to get the photo before it had changed. To compound matters, my tripod had decided to break, the clamp on the head wouldn’t tighten and rather than let it distract me for too long I just decided to shoot everything handheld for the rest of the evening and hope for the best.
What appeared next was just amazing, as we headed into golden hour the cloud really started to sink and I got some amazing views. With so much cloud it was hard to know what I was looking at without reference, the scale just wasn’t there. This next image was probably my personal favourite from the evening, the picture doesn’t really give the scale of the area either but these rock pillars looked massive, imposing and impossible to the eye. What we’re actually looking at is Sgurr a Fhionn Choire, Am Bastier and Sgurr Nan Gillean. If you know any of the summits you’ll perhaps understand the significance better.
Am Bastier is that summit on the left, the Munro I was gutted to have missed out of but from this picture you can see the skill it would take to get up it! This next shot is looking the other way. I was more confident in naming the summits of Sgurr Alasdair (it’s the highest on the Island on the one on the left) and Sgurr Dearg is easy to spot because on it’s summit, the In Pinn or inaccessible pinnacle is infamous for being the only Munro which is a graded climb. It sticks out like a sore thumb and is easy to pick out from many points on the island. The scene was just sublime with the summits just poking out of the top and the cloud falling down the ridge like a waterfall. This is usually the classic view along the ridge but I didn’t get to really see it, not that I minded. Again I wasn’t out of the cloud constantly, with these views lasting mere moments. This shot actually did much better on social media than the one above and it comes a close second for me but it invoked much less in me during the actual experience.
And here is a closer up view of Sgurr Dearg and the In Pinn sticking out just above the clouds. Can you spot it?
As you can see from the above photo, there was a bank of cloud in the distance so any shots in the last 15 minutes were going to be snuffed out. The next shot is almost a repeat of the three summits above but in a cooler light and a little more detail is shown. I had a hard time deciding between the two but there is less mystery in this shot which is why it isn’t my favoured version.
Lastly and I only saw this at the last minute as the cloud really started to sink, I noticed that I could see way over to the mainland and the huge lump that is Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis was the only mountain I could clearly see out of the inversion, to top it off the moon was out. Amazing clarity to be able to see.
At this point with about 25 minutes until actual sunset the cloud started to rise again, closing in the views and the summits I could see had started to lose any light hitting them. I decided then I had more than reaped what I needed and I should head down with a little light left. This proved to be a wise choice. I had to come down a slightly different way to my ascent as I had made that diversion and finding the path among the scree and many false paths, in the mist was very difficult, a quick reminder that even the easy Munro can become difficult to navigate in the mist and with no prior knowledge to boot. It was a horrific descent at times, all 18 stone of me falling down the scree rather than walking down it, hoping I wouldn’t come to an abrupt rocky down climb from going the wrong way. However before long I was back in Fhionn Choire and on familiar ground. I made good progress and was back at Allt Derag Mor before needing the head torch. I was pleased to have left that little bit earlier and even better knowing there was nothing I had missed.
All in all the day was fantastic. I had finally got into the Cuillin proper and what a way to be introduced. I just couldn’t have asked for anything more. I had been left speechless at times and those that know me know I don’t often show excitement. At one point I even took a selfie which must mark a special day in the mountains. I can’t wait to go back and explore more. I am already planning my next trip.