Sgur Na Stri – “The hill of strife” –
I am over in Skye at Loch Coruisk staying in the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland (JMCS) hut at loch Coruisk! It can be a difficult place to reach but as I am getting on in years I came in by boat from Elgol after a 0500 start from home. The wee ferry the Bella Jane from Elgol was replaced as it is in for servicing but myself and Ray Harron enjoyed a great trip into Loch Coruisk in a day where the wind was bitter but the sun was out. The drive over was stunning with the sun and fresh snow and Elgol our port of departure a stunning place. I drove over by Loch Carron and over the bridge to Skye. From Broadford the road is tight and the last few miles to Elgol and the views of Blaven superb despite the cloud.
Parking can be critical so I was glad we arrived early and got a place to park. From Elgol the views are amazing the ridge was clear but a wee caught a rain shower in the boat. The boat takes about 30 minutes to the jetty on Coruisk and today it was quite but with a few other visitors not bad for late April. There were a bunch of kayaks getting ready for a trip to Soay and an overnight stay and I was glad we arrived early. The trip over is a great experience and we enjoyed the usual tourist chat on the way on the boat and this place is so stunning.
We saw plenty of seals and they were sitting on the rocks big and sturdy and then we would see them hunting fish moving like dolphins in the water “nature watch”. The Cullins had a smattering of snow on the tops that would make the ridge a really tricky experience and with a keen wind 40 knots a reminder that winter was still about. We passed all the familiar places including the “bad step” and were soon at the jetty!
Though we had use of the hut it only sleeps 9 myself and Ray were were camping so we had a fair bit of kit. It is a short walk to the bothy and we set up our tents and then were soon inside this superb hut. It was lovely and clean and even has running water and a loo, a bit of shelter in a wild place to me paradise!
After some sorting out then a quick lunch the weather was looking fine and I wanted to use the rest of the day to go up to Sgur Na Stri a hill that is forever in my thoughts. In A wild December night in 1982 I spent most of the night searching for an American F111 aircraft in heavy snow as I lead the RAF Mountain Rescue Team of 6 that were dropped of by helicopter in a blizzard next to the bothy at Cammusunary to locate the crash and the crew! What followed was an epic night of survival when we located the crash near the summit of this small but complicated mountain! The crew were sadly killed and I have written in detail about this tragic night in other blogs!
In these days there was no mobile phones and we did not get supported till 1100 the next day surviving a hellish night at the crash site. During the next week I worked with the American Investigation team and recovered the casualties! I have written in great detail about this night where I learned so much and have visited the site often but today we would visit it from more or less sea level and work our way up to the crags.
We left the bothy and crossed the river by the famous stepping stones and then after about 25 minutes followed the coastal path that goes to the “Bad step ” from here we worked our way through the cliffs finding wreckage at about 100 feet. This is imposing ground and over 1000 feet straight from sea – level full of black gabbro cliffs that look hard to negotiate through and trust me they are.
Even 35 years on wreckage is everywhere and it was a hugely interesting trip. This is tricky ground and though the mountain is only under 500 metres it is a hugely complicated place. There is huge scope for scrambling and rock climbing and I have had some fun in the past here on my many visits. Great care has to be take as it is easy to get on some steep ground as as the rock was wet in places we took it easy. Ray is the ideal companion on such a trip and must have had sore ears listening to me as this place like many holds huge emotions for me and my life in Mountain Rescue.
We located lots of wreckage this side of the hill is littered by it and I cut my hand on a piece reminding me this was a dangerous place when we searched for the crew in that wild dark winters night. Back then it was so tricky covering these ledges in the dark and covered in fresh wet snow and the hugely complicated ground was so scary at the time.. The smell of aviation fuel and burning is always with me in such a place and this is also a place where two young Americans with families perished.
We were soon at the main impact point not that far off the top at about 300 metres 1000 feet and it is still littered with debris. From here we moved onto the top stopping and taking it all in and amazed that when we located the main wreckage we were still hoping to find the crew but it soon became clear that they had perished. Today all these years later the ridge was clear and the views outstanding and with a bitter wind it was still a pull to the summit a rocky top.
On the twin summits we had a break and I remembered how when we located the crew we knew we could do not more and bivouacked in the snow! We had simple gear we were soaked after crossing the wild river at night and in the simple orange plastic bivy bag we froze. I stayed up walking about with the radio trying to get communications and trying to keep my party spirits up from the effects of hypothermia! The rest of the RAF Mountain Rescue Team from Kinloss drove 6 hours in bad weather to Skye and then had a few hours sleep and drove in the wild track and then walked in via Camussunary ! We were so glad to see them at 1100 and we they took over we got relieved and off the hill by 1600 it was some day! I had no bivy gear and had taken all climbing gear it was a huge learning night for me and we were so lucky that we managed that night. I look back and marvel that despite the dangerous ground and wild weather, the situation the troops with me were magnificent that night. Someone was looking after us as the ground even 35 years later in a sunny day was tricky. My old dog Teallach was the guide that night taking us up and round the cliffs and avoiding these deep gully and it big cliffs.
On the summit with Ray we took photos as to me this in the most magnificent situation for photos of the Skye ridge. The great tops were clear but the snow was still there and we were glad we were on such a low mountain but what a situation to be. We ate a bit and then descended the ridge by the normal route descending it is now a path this is becoming a popular mountain and we then we cut back to the Loch and over the stepping stones to the hut. Over a mile from the crash site we found a huge piece of wreckage that had travelled so far on the other side of the hill when the aircraft crashed, such was the force of the impact on the cliff by the crash. The first group from our club had arrived at the hut by the time we had got back. The wee hut was busy we had some tea a dram and then left early for the tent and the hinds were outside grazing!
What a place to be and despite a busy day and most of it on the go, the drive , the 6 hours on the hill.I needed a good nights sleep. It had been a busy day, really non stop so it was a warm night in the tent and I hoped for a great sleep ahead for a day on the hill tomorrow. Alone in the tent my mind went back to that fateful night in 1982, the great hope we had of finding the crew alive few and the effort we all put in. It was here that even after 11 years on Rescues that this was really near the bone at times. There are few will understand as it was the start of many an epic where my decisions as a leader would be critical to those with me. It was a steep learning curb.