Way up in the north west, within sight of Cape Wrath, lies one of the finest beaches in the country. Sandwood Bay is a peaceful paradise, a two mile strip of white sand facing the wild ocean. Just along from the beach is Am Buachaille, a beautiful stack of sandstone standing proud of the headland, out in the sea. It sits, listing to seaward, on a pedestal that submerges beneath the waves at mid-tide and stays underneath for half of the tidal cycle. Climbing Am Buachaille is a wonderful experience, a great adventure despite the quality of the climbing!
Firstly, get the tides right. The stack is on a tidal base which is separated from the mainland by a sea channel of a few metres. This itself is about 50m out from the mainland cliff over more tidal slabs. As the tide is dropping, you need to be ready to swim the channel as soon as possible so that you can climb the three pitch route, abseil off and swim back across the channel before the tide comes back in again. There is enough time, but you do need to get the tides right.
Tide tables can be found on various apps and websites, or by buying a wee book. For planning far in advance this will cost a couple of pounds and it is the Lochinver or Kinlochbervie tide table that you want. Find a spring tide (a low low-tide) that is at lunchtime or early afternoon. It's a long way to get there so you will probably be best to drive north the day before.
There is a good car park for Sandwood Bay that is maintained by John Muir Trust. JMT also maintains the path to the beach and they do an excellent job. Become a member to support their work.
Set off four hours before low tide. The walk (or bike ride) along the track is 4.5km followed by another 1.5km walk across untracked heather to the headland. Follow the track to it's high point at 90m, just south of Druim na Buainn, then head north west through a slight col, past a lochain to the headland.
This is the first test of nerve. You will look down on the stack, still washed by the waves at the base, seemingly miles out to sea, and wonder how on earth this is going to work. Don't be put off.
From the headland walk back east along the top of the north facing cliff to find a slight path that goes down blocks and steep grass to sea level. The path goes down diagonally left, heading towards the stack (west) and is steep. At the bottom there is a very loose section that is unpleasant. Then follow incredibly slippery boulders along the beach for a couple of hundred metres to the stack.
Get changed. The swim is obligatory, you can't set up a tyrolean traverse. Take with you some dry bags to put all your gear in. Once one person has swum across, throw an end of rope across and use the rope to transfer bags of gear across, holding them up out of the water. Once you are all across with all the gear, get dressed into your climbing gear and find the start of the route.
The usual climb is up a corner on the left side of the landward face. I think HVS 4c is about right. The protection is spaced and there is ground-fall potential from the move to get to the first belay. A rack of medium cams and big rocks will do. This is the second test of nerve, starting climbing.
Pitch one climbs the open corner and steps right, up the wall and steps back left to the belay in a left facing corner. There is a lot of very old, corroded gear in the corner which you can back up with a small hex.
Pitch two climbs rightwards out of the corner around the arete. It's a wee move to step around but once you are on the front face again it's all pretty good. Find a crack to climb up and belay underneath a very steep chimney.
Pitch three is very good. It climbs the very steep chimney which seems outrageous. The quality of the rock is not amazing on the first two pitches so the idea of pulling on overhanging spikes does not feel right, but the rock is much better on this pitch and it all works out. Easier climbing gets you to the top.
One long pitch of abseiling will get you down to the bottom. Please do not add any more rope to the anchors without cleaning away some of it. As is typical, people often add rope to the anchors and none is ever taken away, leaving a huge pile of rotting rope on the top. It's only ever us climbers who go up this thing so it is down to us to tidy up after ourselves.
Don't celebrate too much yet because you have to reverse the gear haulage and swim back across the channel before the tide comes in again. The stack is 60m or so out from the mainland cliff so once the tide is up over the flat rocks at the base of the stack it would be a long swim back to shore, or a long cold night waiting for the next low tide.
The climbing is on sandy, sloping ledges with spaced protection and there are often fulmars on the stack that will vomit on you. We should try not to disturb the birds but they make a welcome distraction from the slightly scary climbing. This route is not climbed for the sake of the quality of the climbing (although in sections it is quite good). But the package as a whole is a fantastic adventure in one of the furthest away corners of our beautiful country. It's a wonderful excuse to go to Sandwood Bay and you can always do some really high quality climbing at Sheigra while you are there.
If you want to climb this and a couple of other stacks (Old Man of Stoer and Old Man of Hoy) you might be interested in our Sea Stack Odyssey which aims to climb all three in six days, 13th to 18th June 2022.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.