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Fundraising for Mind Over Mountains, and the Cuillin Ridge, by Jo Byers

This amazing blog was written by Jo Byers, a member of the Mind Over Mountains walk leadership team, who took on an incredible fundraising challenge for our charity in 2023. This is the story of her challenge, in Jo’s words:

The black Cuillin hills on the Isle of Skye are seen by many as a jewel in the crown of British scrambling. I was lucky enough to spend a year living and working on Skye and completing ‘the traverse’ of this range of mountain peaks quickly became something that ‘peaked’ my interest (pun intended), not just because of their beauty and imposing presence among the landscape that I had quickly fallen for, but also because of their challenge and reputation as some of the most severe and exposed summits in the UK.

Comprising 22 tops with 11 Munros (and plenty more besides!) plus several impressive climbs, completing the 12km traverse is well recognised as a significant undertaking for any scrambler or climber, requiring a lucky combination of conditions, physical fitness, mental stamina, and navigation. I was aware that an attempt would push me well beyond anything I had done in the hills before, and because of this, I wanted to do it as a fundraiser for Mind over Mountains, a charity for whom I work as a mountain leader. Their name would sum an effort like this up in one! The charity offers professional mental health support, bringing together walking in nature, mindfulness and time with experienced coaches and counsellors in an unhurried, unpressured setting; which can be a true catalyst to help people to make positive changes in their lives. Plus, the opportunity to spend time in these iconic hills, hopefully linked by overnight bivvies and together with my brother Charlie (another self-confessed Cuillin addict already experienced with the traverse as well as being a strong climber/supporter), seemed like a very special opportunity indeed…

Whilst the idea took root and refused to leave, no real opportunities for an attempt arose during the early summer months and the possibility that I might be able to have a go before leaving the island seemed slim. I carried on building my fitness on hill days with friends and scrambling wherever possible (including spending hours ‘traversing’ large beach boulders along the coastline near home whilst recovering from a knee injury).

Just one week before I was due to leave Skye, a weather window emerged that seemed custom made for the purpose. Charlie and I kept an eye on forecasts and planned last minute transport arrangements for his arrival from the South. It seemed amazing that things might be coming together to have a go at this thing, and, that I might have the opportunity to combine it with a fundraising effort for Mind Over Mountains. Despite one broken phone, finishing a work contract and time for some very important goodbyes to friends and colleagues who had made my year there so special, Thurs 31st Aug at 12pm found us both in my flat in Teangue, packing bags with harnesses, climbing gear and lots of dry food, ready to have a go in the last possible moment and with a JustGiving page up and running for MOM.

The traverse classically begins with a very special boat ride taken from Elgol, a point on the peninsular of Skye, towards Loch Coruisk, the ‘Cauldron of Water’ nestled in the heart of the Cuillin mountains. On this occasion, we were greeted by porpoises cresting the waves on one of Skye’s most sparkling of days where the sun makes the water appear turquoise, and the mountain peaks are sharp and clear to the eye. It felt utterly fortuitous and fitting to be heading out by boat, almost a year to the day that I had arrived on Skye and taken the same vessel out to my first day in the Cuillin, on an adjacent peak, Sgùrr na Stri. I was so excited, but also apprehensive, both due to the physical endeavour I knew I was about to undertake, and the question of whether I would be able to keep my head in the right space all the way to the end. We passed lolling seals and discarded scallop shells in the cool blue waters of Loch na Cuilce, and on dismounting the boat were able to fill water bottles in the ‘Mad Burn’, as we crossed it and began to ascend towards the summit of Gars-Bheinn.

This first peak on the Southern end of the ridge yielded some stunning views out towards the small isles of Muck, Rúm and Eigg, as well some of my favourite spots on Skye – the ‘Viking Harbour’ (Rubha an Dùnain) and Camasunary, enjoyed with friends and family over the year. Tripping along the ridge bathed in a late-afternoon golden glow felt remarkable – we were up, and the challenge was ‘afoot’ (again, no pun intended). The ridge line curved before us towards the Northern end with many of the individual peaks visible from this Southern perspective (it had taken me a long time to begin to recognise them by name) and appeared tranquil and not impossible, if a little jagged... We continued until the evening light started to make the craggy structures difficult to see by naked eye and stopped for water and to heat an evening meal of ready-cooked rice and a shared tin of mackerel.

Drinking in the Cuillin can feel difficult since water is hard to find on the ridge, hence water collection usually involves a descent. As Charlie kindly volunteered to descend the scree into Coire a’ Ghrunnda with water bottles, I crouched alone on the chilly bealach, full of adrenaline and fatigue from the ascent and effort of the last few days, wondering if I had the physical stamina to make it through, and moved by the feeling of exposure, not just from the height on the ridge but also the severity of the peridotite features and remoteness. We rehydrated with a doublestrength hot chocolate as the moon rose directly behind us (the residue of the previous night’s ‘Blue Moon’)- beautiful and extra welcome as an extra orb of light to brighten the route.

Pushing on with a bit more scrambling by headtorch, we reach our first bivvy site near the summit of Sgùrr Dubh na Da Bheinn (technically just rings of stones set out by guides to provide some shelter against the elements) around 10.45pm. It had been an exciting few days and I couldn’t keep my eyes open, warm in my combined bivvy and sleeping bag with my climbing harness as a pillow. Waking early the following morning (which happened to be our shared birthday -unfortunately we forgot the cake and presents…), we completed an ‘out and back’ trip to bag the second Munro, Sgùrr Dubh Mor, leaving bags near the bivvy site and then swallowing some cereal and brushing teeth. This felt oddly luxurious in the middle of this boulder-strewn moonscape! We donned packs again and headed onto the first significant obstacle en-route, the Thearlaich Dubh or ‘TD’ gap. Charlie led the climb, and we hauled packs up (unfortunately slightly the worse for wear as a result) before I had a go at my second outdoor rock climb. Graded by climbing standards as ‘Severe’, the climb ascends a corner groove before a tricky crux move – overall the experience was exhilarating though demanding and I reached the top feeling surprised and encouraged that I had made it up. Spurred on by this success, we covered Sgùrr Alasdair and Sgùrr MhicChoinnich, moving carefully and consistently over the remarkably tough gabbro rock (though happily grippy in the dry heat of the day) and with a rope between us.

I knew friends and sponsors of the challenge were behind me and welcomed the pressure and encouragement of the fundraising page as I changed my boots for climbing shoes and fought my way up the second climb of the day, ‘Kings Chimney’ with a heady blend of nerves, determination, and a recognition of the need to press on with the task at hand. I whimpered and growled my way past the crux move as Charlie shouted encouragement from the top. From here, there was little time to waste, and we pressed on towards the infamous peak of Sgùrr Dearg, the socalled ‘Inaccessible Pinnacle’ for mid-afternoon. This had been my first true rock climb a year previously and is marked by a huge exposure on both sides with a moderate climb ascending over a whale-like spine. This time, fortunately, it felt significantly easier (or was I getting tougher?) and resting on top before the abseil in the afternoon sun felt like a real achievement. Despite me managing to catapult a climbing nut into the void below en route, we were progressing at a reasonable speed and things were going well so far. With approximately 4 hours of daylight left, we were on track with a hope to reach An Dorus (often seen as the ‘halfway’ point of the ridge) before bivvying and moved steadily towards this through the evening over the summits of Sgurr na Banachdaich and Sgùrr a Ghreadaidh with increasing fatigue.

An Dorus is little more than a rocky cleft between two peaks, but it felt brilliant to make it there around 9pm, and once again, Charlie (who possibly had a little more left in the tank) volunteered to get water. By this point we were both decidedly crispy having limited ourselves to 2 litres of water each to drink through the hot exciting day. Once again, he left with a headtorch down the tricky scree-boulder gully whilst I sat and contemplated the efforts of the day, wrapped in a belay jacket to protect against the chill of the night and a few scattered midges. The lack of a communicative phone (apart from a borrowed brick for emergencies turned off in my bag) heightened the experience of exposure and loneliness, and it was somewhat eery casting my headtorch beam into the Coire below and occasionally seeing Charlie’s tiny headtorch light reflected – unfortunately the 45-minute excursion turned into an hour as he began ascending towards the wrong cleft, easily done in the dark. Eventually I heard the softest of crunches 100s of metres below and shone a light at intervals to reassure myself he was on his way back.

Now with an extravagant whole three litres of water each, I heated some couscous mixed with a cuppa soup (highly recommend, though strictly only for such occasions) with extra salt and oil, and we ate from the pan before donning packs one last time to climb up onto the first section of Sgùrr a Mhadaidh. Here we stumbled on one tiny bivvy ring of stones, barely big enough for one person. Crossing fingers that there might be another higher up, we continued, and sure enough soon a second more generous ring emerged out of the night, looking extremely inviting in my fairly exhausted state. Bivvy bags out and teeth brushed (hygiene first!), it was reassuring to see the moon again tucked behind the bulk of the mountain, and a faint breeze happily kept away any nighttime midge-y friends. The dry weather felt lucky, making lying out without a tarpaulin much more comfortable, though the night felt cooler, and I struggled to drift off, my thoughts a swirl of peaks and rocky climbs…

The alarm went off at 5.15am with a wet dew coating the bags and a heavy fog hanging around us. Blearyeyed from lack of sleep and nervous though excited for the day ahead, I packed my bag, put on my harness, and tied into the rope. No teeth brushing this morning. We made it to the first top of Sgùrr a Mhadaidh in time for the orange-blue clouds to clear briefly in the valley below, and despite the swirls of fog around us, it was a beautiful early start to the day. Pressing on with a few cereal bars in pockets, the three remaining tops of Mhadaidh passed in a haze of fog-imposed caution, moving at each step with care to ensure that neither of us sustained a slip or twist, regardless of the extent of exposure this could mean an injury which would limit or end the trip. It is this intense concentration and physical effort which the Cuillin traverse is recognised for – attention must be taken at every stage and this cognitive effort adds huge additional intensity to an otherwise challenging route. We continued with the rope between us, paying out and collecting in to have it at a reasonable tension between us. Continuing on and over Bidein Druim nan Ramh it was necessary to rig abseils to descend sections of the route safely, and my normal tolerance (and enjoyment) of this task seemed to diminish as my senses became more and more heightened from the continued exposure.

On one abseil, my rope skidded across the anchor point launching me across the side of the rock face in an extremely ‘refreshing and interesting’ moment for us both, though in reality nothing had happened except the rope shifting on an edge! Luckily, we had both completed careful checks of the abseil system before commencing and I found my feet and lowered to the bottom with a slightly higher heart rate than might otherwise have been! Imposing black gabbro shadows of impossible bulk continued to loom out of the fog before us and I was having to work hard to keep my confidence up. I focussed on completing the task for MOM and tried to hold on to the priorities of safety and consistent forwards movement.

We had passed several other teams attempting the traverse in the past 24 hours, but by this point had met none of them again, possibly due to the worsening forecast, which was now making itself known, with increasing gusts of wind and no lifting of the morning fog. Reaching the bealach after Bruach na Frìthe at 12.30pm felt like a huge milestone on the game plan, and I inhaled a peanut butter bagel, finally starting to feel like I *might* be able to consider the possibility of a successful completion. I tried to push that out of my mind however, knowing that there was still several hours of technical scrambling left in increasingly poor weather conditions.

After a few jelly babies, we hit the gabbro again and, having allowed myself momentarily to relax, started to feel a real dip in my energy and momentum. The stress of managing the constant exposure over unfamiliar terrain over the past 30 or so hours left me feeling like I had almost no reserve left to manage my head up and over a huge feature, the last uncompleted Munro - Am Bastier, plus the Basteir Tooth – a section which is possible to bypass but an impressive obstacle that many choose to include.

Combined with the fog and billowing gusts of wind, my anxieties got the better of me and I mumbled something to Charlie about ‘being at the end of my tether’ (and felt it) before bursting into tears. His pragmatic and not unreasonable suggestion to ‘start up and see how things go’ (the prospect of which I was both grateful to be pushed for and terrified by) left me little choice but to respond to his encouragement by following him up the first few moves of Lota Corrie route. A few more tears of exertion and self-woe escaped en route, but with shaky legs and some genuine enthusiasm I was able to pat the top of the Basteir Tooth, trying not to feel stressed by the precipice immediately to our left (Naismith’s route, the last of the major climbs and one that I was happy to miss given the conditions). Descending briefly to the Nick, we climbed onto Am Basteir, the last of my Munros on Skye, and shuffled on to the last few sections leading up to Sgùrr nan Gillean. I was *really* getting to the end of my ability to keep calm now, the wind gusts adding an extra layer of stress in this foggy-craggy playground with its mysterious shrouded peaks, but whimpering seemed to help, and I started inching my way up the last features.

I was aware of how close we were now getting, though there was no room to switch off or stop concentrating, with every move requiring ongoing care and concentration - up to the window and on to the summit of Sgùrr nan Gillean. The cairn on top was there and I couldn’t believe we had truly made it – it was hard to comprehend that this was indeed the other end of the ridge!

Despite the first buzz of satisfaction, I couldn’t allow myself to switch off as we still needed to make it down safely. A few last tricky sections drew out the stomach-churning adrenaline in descent, moving over wet greasy rock feeling difficult in a frazzled mind now crying out for some easy moving and perceived ‘safety’. Finally, though, we found ourselves progressing nicely down the south-east ridge- and after another hour of hard work- were moving as fast as sore knees would allow towards the Sligachan hotel. This was another two hours walking out of sight down Glen Sligachan which looked clear and as beautiful as ever in the evening light looking over to the Red Cuillin and with the promise of civilisation, felt immediately a far cry from the starkness of the landscape above.

Later, over salty chips and an Irish coffee (promised to myself in the gusting fog at the top of Sgùrr nan Gillean though not altogether traditional) in Seumas’s bar, I started to normalise and allow myself to acknowledge how incredibly special it was to have completed something together which had sat with me as an idea and now become reality, not just for me marking the end of my time in such a beautiful and wild place, but also to raise the profile of a mental health charity who provide valuable work in the hills.

This had at no point been ‘a done deal’, and many teams fail on their first and subsequent attempts due to any number of obstacles within or outside their control.

The experience had felt quite overwhelming, pushing me physically and emotionally to the max, and the sense of achievement would take a while to sink in. The logistics of collecting cars late meant the final part of the journey wasn’t *quite* over, but I finally permitted myself to check the communications from the MOM fundraising page on a dying phone battery which permeated my haze of fatigue and gave me a welcome boost.

Would I do it again? Impossible to say, but I’m honestly not sure I could.

But will I be back to the Cuillin, time and time again – 1000%. What a place. What I learnt:

1. The benefits of a little bit of coaching and encouragement/cheerleading to see one through the seemingly impossible are priceless.

2. The mind can trick us into ‘not feeling safe’ (and vice versa). Shifting your attention to moving beyond the crux of the problem can be helpful.

3. It is (sometimes) worth experimenting with comfort zones.

4. A sense of purpose is powerful motivation.

5. Feeling safe and getting to choose is a MASSIVE privilege

6. It is worth holding out for success.

7. Small steps add up.

8. Sometimes it really is a case of ‘mind over mountains’.

9. Being out in the hills and having shared adventures is one of the best ways I know to return to yourself and recognise new perspectives.

10. Plus, the almighty impressive feat of guiding and navigating on the Cuillin. Respect to all who do.

The biggest of thank yous to Charlie for seeing me through the highs and lows and supporting the navigation and guiding – I could never have attempted this without you and what a perfect birthday gift to be able to share the experience.

And thank you to Mind Over Mountains for giving me the inspiration and reason to push myself to complete this in support of the work that you do. I am proud of the opportunities you create for people to have their own adventures and breakthroughs in the hills.

Just like my Cuillin ridge attempt, achieving 'success' in mental health can depend upon a combination of factors - having the right people and conditions around you, bravery and perseverance when facing difficult situations, and the right support to break down challenges into achievable goals. If anyone has enjoyed reading this and would like to donate to support the work they do, please see Mind Over Mountains | Restoring Mental Health, Naturally or my JustGiving page here Joanna Byers is fundraising for Mind Over Mountains (