Adventurer, outdoor journalist and blogger Fiona Russell reveals how she conquered her greatest fear on Skye’s most perilous summit – the Inaccessible Pinnacle.
What if you loved big mountain hikes but suffered a fear of heights? What if you were ticking off an iconic list of Scottish mountains – the 282 Munros – and the crux mountain was standing in the way of the finish line? What if one day you agreed to climb up to that revered point, on the Isle of Skye’s precarious Cuillin Ridge?
The Origins of Fear
I can remember being eight or nine, excitedly climbing the steps inside St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was a school trip and we were keen to find out what the Whispering Galley was all about. To this day I have no idea. The moment I stepped on to the narrow platform that runs a full circle around the famous cathedral, 30 m above the ground, I was consumed by an overwhelming feeling of dread and panic.
I was stuck to the back wall, my back and hands pressed flat against the cold stone. Sweat dripped down my back, my stomach churned and my legs started to buckle. With my head spinning, I turned and fled back down. I didn’t feel right again until I was on the ground floor.
That was my first experience with acrophobia. Many more would follow – on clifftops, climbing walls, crags, narrow bridges, aqueducts and when walking Scottish mountains. It’s frequently irrational, often frustrating, and has limited my full enjoyment of the great outdoors.
Quest for Munros
There are 282 Munros – Scottish mountains with a summit of more than 3,000 ft (914 m). The list was first compiled by Sir Hugh Munro in the late 1800s and since then some 6,000 people have felt compelled to walk and climb a full round (some have recorded multiple rounds). Among these Munros are 20 or so that challenge walkers who dislike heights. Among the most feared are 11 summits on the Skye’s Cullin Ridge, a harsh and dangerous high-rise environment unlike any other in the UK.
Among those 11 is the appropriately named Inaccessible Pinnacle, or simply, In Pinn.
It is a vast plinth of rock, shaped like a shark’s fin, that sits at a strange angle atop the mountain Sgurr Dearg. To reach its summit, walkers must first hike the steep mountain to 978 m, and then tackle the In Pinn.
It’s difficult to imagine the In Pinn until you’re standing below it. On one side it rises just 18 m, but at a steep vertical angle. The other side has a gentler angle but poses a 60 m climb along a narrow ridge with alarmingly steep drops on either side. If you fear heights, it’s a dizzyingly scary route that can make or break a full Munros round.
The Mighty In Pinn
The In Pinn had been in the back of my mind as I worked my way through the Munros list. My approach, as I ticked off more than 200 summits, was to simply ignore it, walking less vertiginous mountains instead. I have somehow managed to conquer other peaks renowned for their stomach-turning scrambles and ridges, including the Aonach Eagach, An Teallach and Buachaille Etive Mor. I may have shed a tear on each of these, and reached the summits through sheer bloody determination alone.
But now the unavoidable in my pursuit of the Munros was closing in.
My partner, Gordon, an experienced climber, had been nagging me. He was convinced he could help me reach the top of this infamous Munro. I was still extremely reluctant, finding endless excuses, until a good weather window opened and I was persuaded to make the long drive from Glasgow to Skye with a group of friends.
The weather on the north-west island of Skye is notoriously fickle, but the conditions were ideal the day we headed up from the tiny settlement of Glenbrittle, in western Skye. The higher we climbed, however, the greater my dread grew. Looking up at the steep corrie above Loch an Fhir-bhallaich did nothing to calm my nerves. The dark dinosaur ridge-back shape of the Cuillin loomed starkly above and although immensely impressive, it made me sick to my core. I tried to focus on the narrow, snaking path immediately ahead as we hiked scree and boulders.
I was occasionally brave enough to stop, cautiously turn and survey the magnificent scenery. Far below, the steep-sided mountains plunged straight into the sea, a brilliant bright-blue hue. Higher up, at the base of a massive hollowed-out amphitheatre of grey-white rock, a large lochan created a dazzling diversion, with the sun glinting off the calm water’s surface.
The Final Ascent
It’s impossible to comprehend the scale – or shape – of the In Pinn itself until you’re standing beneath to it. I dared myself to imagine climbing upwards. I tried to feel brave. But I felt hopelessly out of my depth.
As Gordon set up a system of ropes, belays and temporary protection points, I became increasingly anxious. Alarm bells rang, my head swirled, blood rushed through my ears, and my stomach swam with nausea. I could hear things going on around me, people telling me I’d be fine – but I was disconnected. This moment – the one I’d feared for so many years – was right before me.
When I was just 20 ft up I thought I’d need to descend. I couldn’t focus on anything other than the severe drop. Annoyingly the climbing was quite easy. If I had been climbing at ground level I would have done it without any anxiety and in minutes. But fear made me fumble and lose my holds.
I tried to calm myself. I kept saying: “Don’t look down, just keep going, don’t look down, just keep going.” Talking to myself out loud helped somehow. At the top of the first of two pitches – and half way through the climb – I met with Gordon who told me I looked pale and ill. But there was no going back without an equally scary back climb and so I had to focus on doing one move after the next.
When I caught a glimpse of the air below I shook uncontrollably. My calf cramped from holding myself taut and my mouth dried. I hated myself for being fearful. I wanted to be braver. I wanted to enjoy the experience.
But I did it. I got to the top of the mighty Munro at 986 m and slumped exhausted against the cold rock. Amazingly I found the courage to lean out from 18 m up and abseil back down to Sgurr Dearg.
Did I enjoy In Pinn? No. But I endured it – and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. I know now that if I want something badly enough I’ll find the mental strength to achieve it, with a little help from my friends.
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Images: 1: Marcus McAdam/Alamy; 2: Adrian Sumner/Adobe; 3: Martin McKenna; 4, 5, 6: Fiona Russell; 7: Alexis Gilbert/Alamy