For most of us, climbing, mountaineering and hill walking are all nice ways to spend our free time, ways to stay fit and healthy and to give us a wee boost when we are feeling a bit down or when we need a bit of breathing space. For some people, spending time outdoors, in the mountains, climbing and walking is what keeps them alive. Some people have mental injuries so profound that they struggle to operate in everyday life like the rest of us. Some of these people have found that climbing is a powerful way to manage their symptoms and helps them to function in a relatively normal way.
Last week I spent some time climbing on Skye with a group of guys from Climb 2 Recovery and a group of guides and mountaineering instructors. Set up by wounded veterans for other wounded, injured and sick veterans and service personnel, Climb2Recovery is a charity that offers climbing courses to help with both physical and mental recovery. Much more than that though, through climbing they are building all-important support networks. This trip was supported by Patron Capital Charitable Initiatives and I got to climb with Keith and Aaron from Patron.
Many of the guys have PTSD and a couple of them have physical injuries. We were also joined by a couple of guys who have been presented with the George Cross. The stories of these guys were remarkable, both of their time in service and of its impacts afterwards.
We did a mixture of climbs at Neist where there is amazing single pitch climbing on sea cliffs and on the hillside above, big multi-pitch routes in the mountains, scrambling around the tops, a full traverse and a night spent in Coire Laggan. It was a bit damp on the first day but we had a dry two days in the middle for the full traverse and a few sunny days spent at Neist. In many ways it was just another week of climbing, but for these guys it was described as "transformative" or "life changing".
To me, the positive effect of climbing is no surprise. I have written previously about the idea that the natural environment has profound restorative effects on our wellbeing. “Attention Restoration Theory” tells us that the human experience of the natural world markedly assists in maintaining and fostering a strong sense of subjective wellbeing.
Modern day life in our urban, man-made environments, increases mental fatigue, stress and anxiety. Restoration of feelings of calm, relaxation, revitalisation and refreshment can be achieved by spending time in a natural environment. For it to be most effective, a natural environment should have three critical elements;
Removal from Normal Life
I’ve often said to people, hillwalking and mountaineering are like meditation. We are removed physically and mentally from our everyday lives. We get so involved in the moment, in the activity and its demands on us, that we very often forget all about our normal worries and anxieties. The more we are challenged by the activity, the less cognitive bandwidth we have for anything else. It’s only when we get back home that we remember about the outstanding bills, the anxiety caused by our work or any number of things that cause our mental fatigue.
Fascinating Sensory Elements
It’s really obvious that our mountains are full of astounding visual and sensory elements that are fascinating, beautiful, full of wonder and surprising. Over the last few years I have increased my knowledge of the natural environment massively. It’s also clear to me that there is a never-ending supply of new knowledge to gain, new insights to understand and new things to see. This understanding of the very small things in our landscape makes my enjoyment of the vast scale of the landscape even more rewarding.
It Should Be Expansive
By exploring the mountains that surround us in Scotland we get to feel the immense scale of the landscape, the power of the weather, and the never-ending nature of wildness, that can give us a proper sense of scale. In a blizzard on a summit with numb fingers and an unrelenting wind, when we have to take a bearing on our compass to walk off safely there is nobody else we can turn to, nobody else we can blame if we get it wrong, and no sympathy in the weather or the landscape. It is a good reminder that each of us is not at the centre of things with the world revolving around us. We need to learn some humility and to take responsibility for ourselves. This is surely the expansive nature of the experience that is required to make its restorative effects most profound.
In addition to the restorative effects of attention restoration theory, there is something about control, independence and responsibility that really benefits these guys. Recovering from PTSD as partly about regaining control of your life, something that we get a real sense of when we go climbing. There are few activities in which we are in total control of what we do, how we do it and what the outcome will be. We choose the challenge, focus on it totally and accept the responsibility of the outcome. After all, the outcome is totally dependent on our performace, nothing else. We can't blame the rock or someone else. If we can transfer some of this sense of self-responsibility and its effect of grounding us to our day to day lives, we will be better for it.
For me and the team of guides (Kevin, Hannah, Annie, Caspar and Rob) this was a wonderful trip to be a part of, a trip that had far more profound benefits to the people involved and one that brought home to us all just how basically good mountaineering is for all of us.
Over the weekend Miguel and I completed a Lochaber Traverse. For those of you that might not have heard of it, the Lochaber Traverse is a 32km route that takes in all of the Grey Corries (except Stob Ban), the Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and finishes on Ben Nevis. It includes 7 Munros plus a number of other summits, about 2,800m of ascent and kilometres of stunning ridge walking. Think of it as a far less technical alternative to the Cuillin Traverse! Some people complete the route in one very big day, but Miguel was keen to camp out so we opted to do it over two days.
Mist, midges and mizzly drizzle was the theme for Saturday morning when we met, but the weather forecast was set to improve and most importantly, there wasn't supposed to be too much wind over the two days. Perfect for being up high on, at times, very narrow ridges. We set off in low cloud and were kept moving by midges, but as we climbed higher we could see that the clouds were beginning to break. By the time we reached our first Munro of Stob Choire Claurigh the clouds had lifted enough that we were met with a beautiful view over the rest of the Grey Corries, with Aonach Beag far off in the distance. There was also a slight breeze so fortunately there was to be no more midges for the rest of the trip. The walking along the Grey Corries is just lovely. There are occasional little scrambly bits but for the most of it it is just really pleasant ridge walking. Over Stob Coire an Laoigh and Sgurr Choinnich Mor, before pitching our tents at the bealach between Sgurr Choinnich Beag and Stob Coire Bhealaich with stunning views across to the Mamores.
Waking up to rain on the tents was not ideal, but it stopped just as it was time to emerge. The weather certainly seemed to be on our side! The climb up out of the bealach towards Stob Coire Bhealaich is a tough one, particularly first thing in the morning, but meandering up through the mist and boulders, it didn't seem to take long at all to get up and over the final steep section and we were back on much easier ground. Wandering along the ridge we met a little ptarmigan desperately trying to distract us from her chicks, one of whom we saw scurrying off to hide amongst the rocks. Over Aonach Beag, and upon reaching the bealach the clouds once again began to lift and clear. Miguel really wanted to do the traverse in full so we did the quick out and back to tag Aonach Mor before making the steep descent to the foot of the East Ridge of Carn Mor Dearg.
With nearly 400m to reascend this felt like a big one, but the ridge and the views were distraction enough and we were on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg in time for lunch with only CMD Arete and Ben Nevis left to go. Clouds swirled dramatically around the North Face of Ben Nevis and ravens circled and cawed above as we made our way across the Arete. Scrambling up the final steep boulder field onto Ben Nevis we were serenaded by a snow bunting who seemed to follow us the whole way up, twittering his little song and clearing the clouds for us once again. With weary legs and after an incredible couple of days it seemed like a very fitting way to reach our final summit on the Lochaber Traverse.
Each year for the last few years we have run a Sea Stack Odyssey, a trip to climb the best sea stacks along the west and north coasts of Scotland. It's a trip that gets me super excited every time; my nerves jangle in anticipation, i love the whole experience of the trip, and the deep satisfaction afterwards. It's a big highlight of my year.
This year I was climbing with Barry and Stephen. We had to cancel the trip last year along with a lot of our trips, so Stephen was waiting a long time for this one. Stephen saw Old Man of Stoer one stormy November many years ago and wanted to climb it ever since. Barry found he had a week off at the perfect time and wanted to make sure he got the chance of doing these climbs in between a very busy work schedule. He had tried Old Man of Hoy ten years ago but found it impossible to bring together the weather, a climbing partner, fitness and days off altogether to make a successful trip. The three of us met up at Stoer light house and shared six brilliant days in the far north west of Scotland.
We dived in at the deep end with Old Man of Stoer. It's nice to have a warm up day to get to know each other and get into the climbing before we commit to a sea stack. However, the weather forecast ws looking wet for days 2 and 3, and it seemed like a good idea to make the most of the good weather on day 1. A few other people had made the same decision, and we arrived at Old Man of Stoer to find a tyrolean rope set up already, so no swim was needed. A good start!
We shared the climb with the other teams, happy to take our time. Most people there were from the south of England, a long way away from home. Old Man of Stoer has the best rock, the nicest climbing and fewest birds of all the stacks. It's a very good one to start with and we all got on great. The long and free hanging abseil down went well and we used the tyrolean to get back across again at the bottom. Someone else volunteered to swim after releasing it on the stack side.
We were off to a brilliant start and we drove round to Sheigra to camp, full of high expectations.
Sometimes the sea mist is dry, sometimes it is wet. This time it was classic warm front weather and everything was wet, the clag was in (Cloud Level At Ground) and it was pretty clear that we were not going to be able to climb Am Buachaille. We wanted to have a look though, just to be sure. The cycle in along the path was nice and we had a wee explore of Sandwood Bay beach, a wonderful long stretch of white sand in a very remote place.
Day three was wet too, but we used the time productively to relax, soak up the atmosphere of Sheigra, and to refresh some rope skills such as hoisting people up climbs, escaping out of a belay system when your partner is dangling on the rope and a few other useful things. The rain stopped and the rock dried out later on, enough for us to enjoy a couple of beautiful rock climbs at Sheigra. The rock here is, quite simply, perfect.
Day four is a transition day, a drive, two ferries (one big, one small), a taxi and a short walk to the bothy in Rackwick Bay. We got our first sight of Old Man of Hoy from the big ferry and a brilliant display of diving from the gannets just off the beach.
Having put up with two wet days, we were blessed with a perfect day for climbing Old Man of Hoy. It was warm, calm and the sun came out in the afternoon. We made an early start to make sure we got back to catch the last ferry to Stromness. Being first on the climb meant we climbed quickly and it was clear that we would have plenty of time to enjoy the experience. The scale of this stack is always very impressive. The bottom abseil (of three) is the same height as Old Man of Stoer. The second pitch is the crux and always provides a memorable climb of traditional chimneying and beautiful bridging up the corner above with a massive drop to the boulder beach beneath your feet.
The last pitch to the top is wonderful too. Solid rock with great protection and brilliant moves and positions lands you on the small summit of the stack. It becomes very apparent that the top is actually made of two separate stacks and you climb the corner and gap between the two. Razorbills nesting on the top welcomed us and we were circled by manic puffins nesting on the mainland cliff.
We hung out on top for an hour, to make the moment last for as long as possible and to enjoy the weather on this unique location. Just as rewarding as the climbing, making the abseiling go smoothly with no trapped ropes or stuck prussics is very satisfying. 60m ropes are very useful, well worth taking there just for this last abseil which turns into 50m free hanging straight onto the boulder beach.
We had time to spare before catching the small ferry back to Stromness and a fish and chip supper, back in the world of hostels and cafes, people and facemasks. Going climbing is such a perfect thing to transport you away from all the hastles of every day life, the commitments and obligations, expectations and things you have to put up with. It can be quite a jolt going back to normal life after a good climbing trip, but you always feel mentally refreshed even if you are physically tired.
We took the first ferry back to Scrabster and Stephen and I had time for one more climb. Barry had to make his way all the way back down south and had a very long drive ahead of him. Stephen and I stopped in at Sarclet to climb Sarclet Pimpernel, a wonderful pitch of climbing straight up a lovely arete from a belay hanging just above the sea. It was strange to be on rock with positive edges and hidden pockets after the rounded slopers and three dimensional moves of the sandstone. Beautiful warm weather, guillemots looking for fish and looking at us, and a perfect end to a brilliant sea stacks trip.
I'm off to buy a tide timetable to start planning next year's trip!
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.