The Skye Cuillin – Britain’s most difficult mountain survey

John Barnard on one of the two summits of Knight's Peak.  Photo Taken by:  Alan DawsonFollowing on from the success of Britain’s new mountain back in April this year, we have a guest post from Myrddyn Phillips on his latest mountainous challenge.

The Cuillin Mountains of Skye in the Highlands of Scotland are renowned as having the most challenging mountain environment anywhere in Britain.  These mountains contain narrow, complicated ridges where a day’s outing can require a mountaineer’s skill and knowledge to overcome their difficulties.

Picture: John Barnard on one of the two summits of Knight’s Peak. Photo taken by: Alan Dawson

Having surveyed over 150 summits in the uplands of Britain, surveying was not new to us, but none compared to the task we now set ourselves as the Cuillin Mountains are like nothing else in Britain.

The two summits we aimed to survey were Knight’s Peak (NG 471 254) and the Basteir Tooth (NG 465 252) both being classified as Munro Tops in the latest edition of Munro’s Tables,  the 3,000ft Scottish mountains first listed by Sir Hugh Munro and published in the 1891 Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) Journal.  The list consists of Separate Mountains, eponymously known as Munros, and Subsidiary Tops, now known as Munro Tops.  They form part of the most popular list of mountains in Britain.

As Knight’s Peak had a map height of 915m (3,002ft) and the Basteir Tooth 916m (3,005ft) each summit was close to the qualifying height of 3,000ft.  As these map heights have a margin of uncertainty of +/-3m we wanted to obtain an accurate and definitive height for each using the latest GPS technology.

The Knight’s Peak survey was conducted in conjunction with the SMC and The Munro Society (TMS), whilst the survey of the Bastier Tooth was organised by TMS.  The participants for this most difficult of mountain surveys gathered at Portnalong on the Isle of Skye in early September.

Survey team on the Basteir Tooth.  Photo taken by:  G&J Surveys.

Survey team on the Basteir Tooth. Photo taken by: G&J Surveys.

The 11th of September dawned wet and dank but with a limited time frame on Skye and a forecast of improvement we took our opportunity and set out for Knight’s Peak.

Following the path that starts near the Sligachan Hotel, we made good progress beside the clear waters of the Allt Dearg Beag.  We walked up into the mist reaching the high Coire Riabhach and headed for a chimney gully between Sgurr nan Gillean and Knight’s Peak, where the party donned protective helmets and climbing harnesses as this part of the route has the rock climbing grade of “Difficult”.

Beyond the gully an airy rising traverse led to a small ledge on the crest of Pinnacle Ridge, followed by a higher traverse giving access to the two summits of Knight’s Peak.  Our preliminary assessment with the Abney level made the northerly summit about 0.1m higher.  Soon our GS15 was set up on a small tripod and aligned with the high point of this summit, whilst Alan Dawson placed his Leica RX 1250 on the highest point of the southerly summit.  A two hour vigil now started as Ordnance Survey requires a minimum two hour data set for verification of the result.

John Barnard on one of the two summits of Knight's Peak.  Photo Taken by:  Alan Dawson

John Barnard on one of the two summits of Knight’s Peak. Photo taken by: Alan Dawson

Nearing the end of the survey the mist began to lower and blue sky appeared above, while below us pinnacles of rock thrust their way up through the mist as the breath-taking spectacle of a Brocken Spectre appeared.  All that remained was to pack the equipment away and carefully head down our inward route.

Two days later we set out for the Basteir Tooth and although showers were forecast, the outlook for the day was good.  Making our way up beside the Allt Dearg Beag we followed the path up to the base of Pinnacle Ridge.  The morning’s sunshine was soon replaced with lowering cloud and the day’s first shower, as we followed a scree path toward the Bealach a’ Bhasteir.  The way to the Basteir Tooth was over the Munro of Am Basteir.  Negotiating its ‘Bad Step’ with the aid of a rope, we reached the summit of Am Basteir and just beyond we we abseiled down a short overhanging pitch to reach the narrow confines of the bealach between Am Basteir and its Tooth.

The survey equipment was soon in place and aligned for its two hour of data collection.  Once the data set had been gathered and the equipment packed away we slithered down the Tooth and squeezed down through a hole and small cave to a chamber with an abseil point.  From here we abseiled down the 80ft of vertical rock which is the sidewall of King’s Cave Chimney to a steep scree slope below and the path back to the awaiting cars.The data sets were sent to Mark Greaves at Ordnance Survey, who kindly processed them.  But what of the result, would the Basteir Tooth and Knight’s Peak remain Munro Tops?  The result confirmed by Ordnance Survey is that the Tooth is 917.16m (3,009ft) and Knight’s Peak is 914.24m (2,999ft 5½″).  The SMC, who are custodians of the Munros and Tops list have adopted this height for Knight’s Peak.  Therefore it just fails to retain its Munro Top status by an approximate 6½ inches.

So, Knight’s Peak has now been categorised as a fully fledged Corbett Top, having lost its more influential title of Munro Top.

John Barnard, Graham Jackson, Myrddyn Phillips and Andy Nisbet


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2 Responses

  1. Ianto

    How sad. The compleation of the Munros was always a challenge. Many hill-walkers ambitions have been dashed against the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Those of us who succeeded and went on to face the Tops knew that there was always the possibility of failure on the Bastard Tooth and the Knight’s Peak. From now on, in bar room conversations, when people claim to have done the Tops I know that I will always be able to say “Yes, but did you do the Knight’s Peak”.

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