Cúchulainn: The Ridge, 55 years on

Read an exclusive piece by Ian ‘Spike’ Sykes, author of ‘In the Shadow of Ben Nevis’, about what it was like revisiting the Coruisk hut with Coldhouse Collective for the first episode in the PERTEX® Elemental Journeys series.

‘It was raining as the boat left Elgol and sailed up Loch Scavaig to the beautiful hidden harbour of Loch na Cuilce at its head, right in the heart of the Cuillin Mountains of Skye. Nothing strange about this, it had been raining in the Highlands all summer.

It had been a few years since I was last here but nothing had changed much. Mountains rising steeply into the mist and a vast amount of steep black rock with Coruisk JMCS hut standing white and tiny with its back against a giant gabbro cliff.

I hobbled and splashed the 50 yards to the hut. The Coldhouse crew were already filming. “This can’t be much good,” I thought, looking at the leaden streaming sky, but nobody seemed to mind.“This is exactly what we want,” Matt Pycroft said, peering into his camera. “Atmosphere!” Well there was plenty of that!

This time it was different, the hut was spic and span and by the time I arrived Emma had a brew on the boil and Matt H and Ryan were already sorting out the cameras and filmmaking stuff.
I had been involved in a number of film shoots over the years but this was a bit different.

Ryan Goff shooting footage of Spike walking away from the Loch Coruisk hut, with Matt Hardy making sure the filming followed a steady path.

I felt a bit like an old bodger at first. I was still on crutches after a knee operation but the crew put me at ease and I gained a few ‘brownie’ points when I pulled a litre bottle of Bell’s out of my rucksack. An evening of merriment ensued and it felt as though we had known each other for years as we made our bed for the night in the hut.

Day two had its moments as well, the rain was pouring down in buckets when out of the mirk appeared a bride in a full , if somewhat bedraggled wedding dress with a rather sheepish groom. They’d wanted somewhere different to get married and this was certainly it! Filming ceased for a while and we broke out the Bell’s to celebrate.
That evening I discovered that the entire team were tone deaf as they listened eagerly to my crap banjo playing and actually asked for more, and then, blimey, they filmed it! By now I was getting right into this and basking in the game of being a film star.

The weather bucked up and the boys were filming using a drone. I’d never seen this done before but the footage they were getting of the Skye ridge was absolutely spectacular. This was our last day and I didnot want to leave. We sailed out into Loch Scavaig, the drone buzzing
around the boat still filming us with the spectacular silhouette of the Cuillin Ridge in the background.
So, I guess that’s the easy bit done. Coldhouse Collective have still to film Finlay Wild running along the ridge and all that, and then there’s the painstaking work of editing the miles of film taken. I know the huge effort that has gone into the making of this film and that ‘Cúchulainn’ will give an amazing and real picture of Skye in all its many moods.’

Written by Ian ‘Spike’ Sykes exclusively for Coldhouse Collective.


Shooting on the Cuillin Ridge

One of the unspoken rules of our expeditions into the mountains is that no one can complain about how much they are suffering. Early starts, long distances to cover, heavy packs, a lack of sleep – these are all things that every member of the team will be struggling to deal with and overcome in their heads. You accept it, you understand that you are all in the same situation, and you support each other with some frivolous banter and hearty encouragement. Any moaning just drags down morale and motivation.

With this in mind I found it difficult packing up my rucksack for what was to be my third trip up to Sgurr a Bhasteir on the Cuillin Ridge, a distance of about 5km and a total ascent of around 850m. I’d sprained my ankle about three weeks previously, and had it strapped up. I was concerned about slowing everyone down, but equally excited to be hobbling my way around the mountains again.

Matt Pycroft, Matt Hardy, Ryan Goff and I were set to spend a night filming and bivvying on the ridge – capturing a running sequence at sunset and sunrise. I knew the route well having been up and down twice to exactly the same spot last year. Not a great distance but a fair amount of height gain. From Sligachan you can see Am Basteir and the route in. I’m not sure if that makes things better or worse – the tiny silhouette of the Tooth never seems to get any closer as you trudge up the path next to the Allt Dearg Beag waterfalls, and on a still day the midges nibble your ears and the humidity makes the pools of water beneath you incredibly enticing.

Camera equipment, bivvy kit, extra layers and food and water all makes for a decent load to carry. Once you get up onto the ridge there aren’t many options for water, so you need to think carefully about how much to take and where you need to top up along the way. Meals and snacks also need to be carefully planned. You burn so many calories that you need to make sure you have enough energy to keep going and to keep the morale high, but equally you want to be as fast and light as possible to minimise the suffering and cover ground efficiently. A tricky balancing act that can only be perfected with practice.

That being said our intrepid cameraman Matt Hardy donned his usual 100 litre tardis-type pack, and Ryan’s hip belt broke before we left the car park, inducing an emergency repair fashioned from a spare piece of webbing. No complaining though, this was all par for the course.

The trudge passed slowly and uneventfully, and thoughts of the previous year’s trip drifted in and out of my mind. I had to chastise myself for feeling less than enthusiastic about making the same journey again – complacency is not my desired disposition, and I reminded myself I was lucky to consider these mountains familiar and have an abundance of memories amongst them.

On top of the ridge we setup our camp on the col close to the deep gully of Bealach nan Lice, a lofty position with glorious views to the North, West and East of the Isle of Skye. The guys prepped the kit and we began to recce for the sequence in preparation for sunset. The sky was clear save for a few streaks of white cloud that crept in and around the summits.

Matt Hardy was our body double for Finlay Wild, record holder for the Cuillin Ridge traverse and the subject of our capture in a couple of days time. Matt gallantly dashed backwards and forwards over the rough ground, bobbing amongst the gabbro like a chamois, following our instruction over radio comms and patiently waiting for the right wisps of cloud to frame the shot. No complaining from him, and I’m pretty certain he was even enjoying himself.

Concentrating so hard on capture in the mountains sometimes means you miss the opportunity to appreciate your situation, you’re so caught up in the technicalities of filming. Not so on the Cuillin. The atmosphere, the contrast of dark rock and empty sky creates the sensation that everything is moving, alive and breathing steadily, the ridge some great Leviathan washed up on the shores of Skye.

As the sun finally set at around 1030pm, we took in the red pink hue over the sea and then settled into our sleeping bags. Sunrise was at 0439am which meant starting up again at 0330am to prep for the next sequence. Matt and I had a fairly spacious tent with plenty of room for boiling up water in the porch and stashing kit. We chuckled as we listened to Ryan and Matt jostling for room in their slightly less palatial abode, the only time any kind of discomfort was vocalised.

Sunrise came around too quickly as always. I’m not a morning person before 10am, let alone 0330am, and the lack of sleep almost made me indifferent to the dawn light. Almost, but not quite. Matt Hardy danced over the ridge in front of Am Basteir as the light threw down its blue hue and opened up orange corridors across the land below. Ryan moved about deftly with the Sony FS7 shouting directions, and Matt Pycroft hunkered down on a rock ledge in an elevated position with the 5D Mark IV to capture the stills.

My duty was to approve of everything and ensure steady progress – no shot was to be left uncaptured. Then breakfast. Cold and tired, I fired up the Brew Kit as the incredible reds and pinks in the sky gave way to washed out whites and grey. We passed around coffee and porridge and discussed the capture and whether we were satisfied. The weather was due to turn and the clouds were banking up like the dark rings under our eyes.

It is a big effort for what turns into a few minutes of footage for a short film. Packing up and walking back down we debated the pros and cons of shooting in the mountains, the limited options you have when the weather turns bad, kit maintenance, tiredness and motivation. The conclusion we came to is that there can be no complaining, because not only is it all worth it in the end, but more importantly the experiences we have doing this job are enough to sustain us when we spend weeks on end back in the studio in front of our screens.

We reached the Sligachan Hotel at about 10am. Two days of toil for a small segment of a seven minute film. We ordered a full Scottish breakfast each.

“My ankle hurts,” I moaned.
“That was the worst nights sleep ever,” Ryan whined.
“Shut up” said Matt and Matt at the same time.