Flexibility and good coffee are essential ingredients to a successful road trip. I rarely go far from my espresso makers and camping is the way forward to keep things flexible. Camping is not hard work when you have places like Sheigra to stay. Sheigra is a tiny village of about twelve houses at the end of a single track road past Kinlochbervie. They have the most beautiful bay cut out of the contact between sandstone and gneiss. The sheep tend the grass into close cropped cover suitable for bowls or cricket and visitors are welcome to drive onto the machair, pitch their tents and leave a donation in the honesty box in return. The facilities include the sea, a beach and some of the best rock climbing in the country.
Day seven of our rock road trip took John and me to Sandwood Bay. We had bikes which helped with the approach of five kilometres followed by a short soggy walk over the heath to the cliffs on the south end of the bay. Here sits another sandstone tower on its flat sea washed plinth. Am Buachaille, is a more serious climb than the Old Man of Stoer. It sits about 50m away from the mainland cliff which itself is tidal. The incoming tide sweeps over the flat rocks very quickly once it has risen to a certain point. There is no option of a tyrolean so everyone needs to swim the 8m channel. The rock is a little soft and the protection is certainly slightly lacking. There is ground fall potential from the top of the first pitch. In addition, the fulmars can vomit their defensive bile about 3m from where they sit on their eggs.
John and I got the timing just right again and made the climb with time to spare before the tide got too high. Towards the top of the climb there is a very steep groove with seriously overhanging rock to pull up on. Thankfully the rock here is more solid and it is a spectacular section to enjoy before reaching the top. One abseil gets you down again before the return swim and walk up the steep turfy slope to the top of the mainland cliff. Climbing Am Buachaille is a wierd kind of triathlon with cycling, swimming and climbing all thrown in together. The climbing is not as high quality as most of the other routes we had done so far but, as a day of adventure, it was probably the best day so far!
Rain delayed the start of climbing on day eight. It did not last long, the met office forecast was really quite good for the whole trip. And with a walk in of about three minutes, the climbing at Sheigra is quite easy to access. The rock is very nicely featured gneiss, pocketed and striped into beautiful formations that dry very quickly. The main cliff is found in the second geo (would be called a "zawn" in Wales) above an enormous cave pounded continuously by waves from the atlantic. The next thing west is Canada. We warmed up on a hard severe climb called Shark Crack. I say warmed up but it was a bit of a surprise to be dangling off my arms on such a moderately graded climb. Presumption (E1 5b), over the big cave, sits back just enough though to be able to contemplate the next few moves and the outrageous position you're in. It traverse out to the highest and most undercut piece of the cliff and climbs it by a shallow corner. Simply stunning. I need to go back to try the other routes on this cliff.
John and I thought we'd go to Hoy after Sheigra but the showers just kept on coming and we were not sure it would work. So, on day nine, we stayed at Wick on the east coast just south of John O'Groats. The cliff to visit here is at Sarclet and the best climbs are Groove Armada (VS 4c) and Sarclet Pimpernel (E1 5a). These were no little filler climbs, they were completely amazing. The free hanging abseil to access them sets the scene. The slopy ledge at their base keeps you on edge as you sort the ropes wondering what the climb will be like. Once you start up though, it all comes together. Groove Armada is sustained, steep brilliant, well protected groove climbing. Sarclet Pimpernel is superb, serious, sustained but steady away on a perfect line. If you are up that far north, make sure to stay another day to do these climbs. You will not be disapointed.
Day ten got us to Hoy. I'm starting to really appreciate this place. Rackwick Bay is the most amazing place with pebbles on the beack more than a metre across and the cliffs on both sides of the beach rising up to a couple of hundred metres high. The scale is mesmerising. It is also home to fantastic bird life. Sea eagles have successfully bred here for the first time on nearly 150 years recently. A large proportion of the world's great skuas nest here, arctic terns dive bomb your head if you get too close to their nests, curlews make their strange calls and rush about the place, razorbills, puffins and black guillemots parade the ledges on the cliffs. Just spending time at the bothy in Rackwick Bay is a memorable experience.
Day eleven started out calm, dry and promising. The walk over the headland to the Old Man of Hoy was relaxed and comfortable, thinking ahead to a nice steady climb. You can never relax too much on these stacks though. John led the first pitch very nicely giving me the second and crux pitch. As I descended and went across to the main corner line I shouted back that it was like a beach down there. Sand on the ledges had collected unlike I found it at the end of April. The moves are hard enough without having to brush off every hand hold before you use it. Then itt rained and we worked out why some ledges are green and some are orange. The green ones get wet in the rain and when they do, they instantly get very slimy and slippery. I managed up the long fourth pitch being grateful that I was used to a bit of winter climbing in wet, slippery conditions. John had the pleasure of the dry last pitch to the summit on good cracks and positive holds. We timed it nicely so that the big ferry was going past when we were on top. If the captain sees you there you'll get a big blast on the ship's horn!
What a stunning way to finish our rock road trip. The Old Man of Hoy is a feature that stands out physically and metaphorically. It is deeply embeded in British climbing history and is always a big deal to climb. For John and I it was the culmination of two weeks of constant climbing, the finale to a very successful road trip that exceded both of our expectations. Despite some mediocre weather we climbed on every day and enjoyed amazing routes on every one of them. We drove home slightly stunned, overwhelmed by what is on offer on our own shores, and just how much of it we had managed to experience on our trip.
Here's what we did. For climbs between VS and E1, this list contains the best climbs on the best cliffs in each area we visited. There are many more areas but this is quite a good nice list that will show you what is on offer.
Coire Laggan, Skye Cuillin
Crembo Cracks HVS 5a**, Cioch Direct V.Diff ***, Integrity HS****
Klondyker E1 5b **, Vulcan Wall HVS 5a****
Bealach na Ba, Applecross
Sword of Gideon VS 4c***
Route Two HVS 5a****
Seana Mheallan, Western Sector
Skye and Kyle against Trugs HVS 5a**
Something Fine E1 5b*
Andy had Fish and Chips for Tea E1 5b***
Skate VS 5a*
Terrace Crack VS 4c**
The Friendly Groove HVS 5b**
Sculptress HVS 5a***
Old Man of Stoer VS 4c****
Am Buachaille HVS 4c***
Shark Crack HS 4b***
Presumption E1 5b****
Groove Armada VS 4c***
Sarclet Pimpernel E1 5a***
Thrumster Regatta E1 5b**
Old Man of Hoy E1 5b***
Dueling skylarks sing non-stop songs at each other while hovering perfectly stationary above the heather moorland. Seals glide silently through the sea channel, masters of their element, playful in their kingdom, unaware of onlookers far above. Green waves crash, salt water spray flies up revealing rainbows hiding in plain view. Sea birds glide then dive like arrows into the sea, picking out innocent fish. This is the setting for some of the finest rock climbing in the country; perfectly clean, solid gneiss full of cracks and pockets; sandstone gnarled and weatherd into contorted shapes; gabbro like a rasp on exposed skin, acres of exposed, solid rock carved out by elemental forces of nature. The north of Scotland is the ultimate rock road trip destination.
John and I have been climbing together for many years. We've been to the Alps thirteen times, climbed in Scotland in the winter and in the summer. John is a keen independent climber who is very capable. He is a regular leader of E grade rock climbs but mostly enjoys being out, moving well and confidently on rock, being immersed in, and feeling part of, nature. We had a rock road trip planned for many months and we were going to be completely flexible about where we went. The changeable summer weather might have meant we went as far south as Cornwall but, as it turned out, the weather forecast was best on the west coast of Scotland. John had never been as far north as Ullapool so we planned a trip to enjoy as much of the climbing in the far north as we could.
We had twelve days of climbing and the best place to start looked like Coire Laggan in the Cuillin on Skye. If you want a lot of rock, this is the place to go. The mountains are made of solid rock which dries out very quickly after wet weather. The rock is gabbro, the grippiest rock there is in the UK (if not in the rest of the world too). Climbers have been coming here for a long time but most people still go for the scrambles along the ridges. The rock climbs can be quite quiet. We started with Crembo Cracks (HVS 5a), amazing climbing with a slightly bold feel to the crux pitch, that leads up to the foot of The Cioch. Cioch Direct (V.Diff) got us onto The Cioch very spectacularly for the sword fight. Above, the cliff carries on right to the top of the coire and, if you have not done it, there is only one route to follow, Integrity (HS). The rock, position and sustained climbing are so good it all makes you smile with delight!
Day two was another Coire Laggan day, the best place to be for mountain rock climbing at the time. We tried a route with a great write up but one that is much less well known, The Klondyker (E1 5b). With much less traffic, the gabbro on this climb is still as rough as it ever was. It takes an indirect line that brings together a succesion of amazing pitches, stunning lines and astounding positions. The main pitch looks very scary, but the holds are there and protection too. Above, the climb snakes through a very steep bit of cliff up an incredibly exposed groove and a beautiful arete to the top of the crag. Amazing! From there it is quick and easy to walk over to Vulcan Wall (HVS 5a), a much better well known classic climb with two completely amazing pitches of sustained crack climbing. Hands slightly shredded, we walked down to camp at Glen Brittle for another night, very happy.
Day Three and a change of scene. Strong winds were forecast on the tops so we went for a crag a bit lower down. Beallach na Ba in Applecross has the most accessible mountain crag there is. It's a slightly odd concept, but a two minute walk in gets you to the start of what feels very much like a mountain crag above a very steep sided valley. The route to climb is Sword of Gideon (VS 4c), beautiful climbing on sandstone, first climbed solo by Tom Patey! It was windy and John put in a fine lead to manage the ropes blowing around so much. We were back at the car for lunch and a short drive round to Torridon.
Out west of Torridon village, the road winds around, up and over a sandstone landscape and drops dramatically into the tiny village on the sea called Diabaig. The rock turns to even older rock here, gneiss, and it could not be more perfect. Climbing at Diabaig is in a different league. Solid, beautiful, clean gneiss with cracks and features on a crag that is two pitches high, overlooking the bay and the view out to the sea with mountains all around. It was well over 20 years since John climbed Route Two (HVS 5a) so we did it again, just because it is so good!
So, after three days, we had already climbed seven different climbs, three with four stars (out of three). We stopped in at the little camp site at Torridon village, run by High Life Highland. There are very basic facilities but all you need to get clean and cook a meal ready for the next day. Rock road trip life is simple and soon settles into a rhythm of sleep, eat, climb and repeat.
Day four brought the start of the uncertain, unsettled weather we were to end up with for the rest of the trip. While a month's worth of rain fell in Lincolnshire in one day, triggering floods and rivers to burst their banks, we had cool, showery conditions, with sunny spells in between. There was little chance of predicting when the showers would come so being flexible was key. With this in mind we went for an outcrop above Torridon hoping for some nice climbing. Instead, Seana Mheallan gave us some fantastic climbing and a clutch of five routes.
The sandstone here is beautifully weathered and the setting is perfect, a breeze kept the midges away and the sun was out for enough of the time to call it a sunny day. Andy Had Fish and Chips for Tea (E1 5b) and Something Fine (E1 5b) gave me and John really nice leads. We even found a gentle, easy walk up to the crag, not the vertical heather as described in the guidebooks! We packed up as the rain came on and the midges came out, and headed north for some better internet access. Gairloch is home to some very fine cafes and brilliant crags but what we really wanted was to go for a big mountain crag - Carnmore Crag. However, the weather was not at all settled and it would not have been worth the effort of getting there, camping and trying the huge climbs there. So instead we went to Ardmair via fish and chips at Ullapool.
Day five was to be full of showers and bright spells. Ardmair was a perfect venue, quick to dry, easy to access and very good. We started with Terrace Crack (VS 4c) and worked out The Friendly Groove (HVS 5b) might have been named ironically. We took a siesta due to the rain coming on and had dinner at the superb campsite on the point sticking out into the loch. The evening brightened up again so we went back to the crag to climb Sculptress (HVS 5a) and carried on to the top of the crag for the sunset.
Actually, it was nowhere near sunset. At the end of June, the sun stays up for a very long time and we were not going to wait until it finally decided to dip below the horizon. But, you get the idea, it was a very nice evening with the sun reflecting on the water below the crag.
Day six. The Point of Stoer is about one hour drive away from Ardmair, looping around the wonderful hill called Suilven. We timed it just right to do the drive and walk out to The Old Man of Stoer before the low tide. Easterly winds for several days also made the swell very small so we had very calm water to cross to set the tyrolean to access the stack. As it turned out, there was already a rope in place which just needed tensioned properly. So, John avoided his first swim to a sea stack, something he was not completely sure of doing anyway.
For a sea stack, the rock and the quality of climbing on Old Man of Stoer are excellent. The route winds up improbable looking ground, through overhangs and steep grooves at a much more reasonable grade than you'd think. It is always a serious climb though; communication is difficult with the noise of the sea and birds combined with the circuitous route, a swim or tyrolean is required, high tides sweep over the base of the stack and once on top, you have to reverse the whole thing.
For John and I, it went very smoothly. I know the climb well now and we didn't have any fulmars to contend with either. All the things that make a sea stack more serious, also add to the satisfaction of climbing it. The Old Man of Stoer was a fantastic way to end the first part of our rock road trip. We carried on even further north in the second week and I'll tell you how we got on tomorrow.
We've had some changeable and unpredeictable weather over the last few days. We've certainly had some heavy rain but also some sunshine and light winds. In fact, we've had heavy rain falling less than a mile away from somewhere that stayed sunny! We've had to take our chances and hope it worked out OK. It was pretty good for Alex, Stu and Darren climbing Tower Ridge with me yesterday. We stayed mostly dry all the way up and down to within half an hour of the van when the heavy rain came in!
These guys have been climbing for a few years now and always wanted a go at a climb on the North Face of Ben Nevis. Tower Ridge is the best climb and they decided to use a guide to help them just to make sure we went up the right way and to learn how to move together on a rope, alpine style. This is what we did all the way up, throwing in a few pitches at The Little Tower, The Great Tower and Tower Gap. The guys did a great job in the greasy conditions and we even had views most of the way up. Happy birthday Alex!
Also yesterday, Andy and Nick walked to the summit in super quick time. There were views through the clouds which sometimes make it a more atmospheric experience.
Today was sunny though and much warmer. Andy's picture below is from just about the same place looking up Glen Nevis at the Mamores peaks of Stob Ban and Sgurr a'Mhaim.
Well done to the team from Children's Respite Care, raising funds that will go to give children valuable respite, by walking the three peaks in three days. The team of ten got off to a very good start today on Ben Nevis. Good luck with the remaining two peaks.
If you have been up Stob Dearg on Buaxchaille Etive Mor you might remember the little stream crossing at the foot of Coire na Tullach. Or you might not since it is normally very low and insignificant. On two previous occasions I have been unable to cross the stream due to the volume of water in it being too high, both in winter with snow melt adding to the run-off of rain. Today was the third time the water was too high to cross and there was no snow melt adding to it. Today was a very wet day in Glen Coe!
Simeon, Nick and I are doing a couple of days of rock climbing so we went for D Gully Buttress first today. Unusually strong winds for the time of year were forecast to be 40mph to 50mph on the tops so it was good to find a bit of shelter. The wind was certainly not a problem on the climb but it was really quite wet all day. The steep crux of D Gully Buttress felt quite slippery and cold, not a great warm up climb to be honest. However, Simeon has a lot of climbing experience to draw on and we got up this pitch and the rest of the ridge in good style.
Most of the climb is at a friendly standard, even in the wet. There are two disctinct harder sections though, the steep cracks lower down and a tenuous slopey ledged wall higher up. After this the angle sits back and the route traverses round to Curved Ridge which was grippy and much more simple in comparison.
Glen Coe in heavy rain is a very impressive place to be. The streams fill with torrents of foamy water, white lines cascading down the steep sides of the glen. We had a very wet time of it but the atmosphere was great, being right in amongst the streams and waterfalls where normally there are none was a real treat. You need very good gear to stay at all comfortable on a day like today but it is always worth giving it a go, even if the fun is type two fun. The drying room is on full blast now!
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.