What do you need rock climbing shoes and flip flops, good planning and a bag full of enthusiasm for? Climbing Am Buachaille at Sandwood Bay, that's what. Especially if you have done no outside rock climbing before! This is the challenge that Andy and Ethan set themselves, with an atitude of giving it a go, getting the right training, and just being happy to be in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. It's good for all of us to take on challenges, new adventures, and to stretch ourselves every now and then. This trip certainly ticked all the boxes.
The weather was with us all the way. Learning to climb rock in warm sunshine above a calm glistening sea, on some of the most amazing rock anywhere, is pretty cool. Many people will choose a venue with fewer distractions to learn core skills like tying in to the rope, belaying, the pitching system, communication, asbeiling and taking out protection. But there is something totally inspiring about going to one of the farthest away bits of Scotland and learning all the skills as you go, in the place you want to be climbing. We chose a nice, gentle warm up and progression through the grades to start. V.Diff felt pretty hard as the first climb, and there was only 10m of it. But, very soon, the eyes saw the holds, fingers and feet connected with the holds, and balance and muscles worked in unison (most of the time) to allow for the climbing to happen.
We worked up to the same kind of grade as we would encounter on Am Buachaille, did several abseils over drops high above the sea, and generally got used to the system of climbing and solving the many little awkward problems that always crop up. Then we spent an idyllic night at Sheigra community crofters wild camp site, happily paying £5 per head for the luxury of flat machair for the night. Rain in the morning was forecast to clear early, and by breakfast time the blue sky was already returning and it was looking good for climbing Am Buachaille. However, this is the ultimate triathlon, with cycling, swimming and rock climbing, as well as the tide and sea state, sea gulls and slippery and sandy rock to deal with. Climbing Am Buachaille is a wonderful day of climbing, despite the quality of the climbing!
Get there early so you have plenty of time to prepare and swim the channel as soon as you can. In this way you will have the maximum time available to climb and abseil off before the tide rises again. We were ahead of time so we had the daunting site of the stack awash with water right up to its base, and waves crashing over the rocks all the way to the mainland cliff. Time to relax, wait and reassure yourself that the tide was going out. Not only this but the wind was dropping away, and the waves settling down. It was a very midgey walk down the steep loose path to the boulder beach so we were grateful of the plunge into the sea channel to wash away the little biters.
Three pitches of bold, sandy, steep rock climbing with occasional fulmar chicks still on the nest got us to the top, on Ethan and Andy's second day of outdoor rock climbing. To be fair, these guys have climbed Tower Ridge and Inaccessible Pinnacle, but two days of mountaineering don't prepare you for this kind of rock climbing! They both took it all in their stride though, seeing each and every section as a problem to decifer the solution to, calmly working out the problem until the correct combination of weight shift, pushing and pulling was found to unlock the move to the next one.
The swim back across the channel always seems a lot more friendly than the swim over in the first place. Only just after low tide, with calmer seas and more shelter provided by the base of the stack did make it much more friendly, but there is a psychological part of the calmness too. Swimming over for first time was full of uncertainty, swimming back was just fun. Massive congratulations to Andy and Ethan for even taking on the challenge, let alone how well you picked up everything and put it into practice straight away on one of the country's most adventurous sea stacks. Big respect!
Ben Nevis Ridges
With a day off yesterday and plenty of dry rock around, Caspar, Ruari and I were in need of a good day out in the mountains. Our options were either a big multi pitch route - Minus One Direct perhaps - or all of the Ben Nevis ridges, and it was very hard to decide. That was, until we got out of the van at the top car park. We were covered in midges instantly and the decision was made. We were going for the ridges. At that point we were actually under a layer of low cloud but MWIS suggested that the tops would be above, which made the idea of getting up high even more appealing.
But which order to do them in? If we were going to do all the ridges we wanted to do ALL of them, including CMD Arete. It is a ridge on Ben Nevis after all! So the logical place to start was with an ascent of Castle Ridge. The bottom part of the route was in the cloud still, but climbing the crux brought us out into the sunshine and looking down on the cloud that was just beginning to break up. From there we headed up the bouldery slopes of Carn Dearg and down Ledge Route. We wanted to avoid going back on ourselves as much as possible but we would have to do a little bit of looping around in order to use Tower Ridge as a descent, so next up was Observatory Ridge. This is the most sustained of all the ridges but being fully absorbed in the climbing meant we were at the summit before we knew it. Trotting past the crowds enjoying the sunshine, we headed for Tower Ridge and timed it perfectly. The parties we had seen on the ridge had already summitted so we had a clear run all the way down and back into Observatory Gully.
The third ascent of the day was North East Buttress and the legs were still feeling surprisingly ok. It was Ruari's first time on this route so he got the fun of leading Caspar and I up the Mantrap and the 40 Foot Corner, and once again we were on the summit plateau. Down the boulders we went, and on to our final ridge of the day - CMD Arete. It was a beautiful run along the Arete looking back at all of the ground we had covered, but making the final climb up the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, my legs were definitely beginning to feel all the ascent they had done. All that was left was the nice gradual descent and we were back at the van in exactly 9 hours.
This is something I had wanted to do for a while so it felt amazing to have done it on such a beautiful day, with good company and still feel pretty good after 17km and 2300m of ascent. I guess all the lockdown training has paid off!
How did you get through lockdown? It was a tough time for everyone, and a very tough time for some people. It will take many months before life returns to something like as free as it was last year, and the cost will be with us for many years to come. For me, I tried to resist the pressure to do something, the take up a new interest, learn a new skill. But, to stay fit, I did a bit of running.
Of course I jumped in far too hard at the start. Coming out of a winter of plodding in big boots, carrying big bags and ice climbing, I should have known that I would need to build up to running any kind of distance. Choosing routes that were too long and wearing old shoes gave me a touch of plantar fasciitis (sore feet) within a couple of weeks. Thankfully we had to do a two week stretch of self-isolation, a perfect rest period imposed on me, just at the right time.
So I got new running shoes and dialled it down a little. I was a bit more measured in what I took on and reminded myself that I am not in my early twenties still (far from it). The achiness in my legs after a run started to diminish each time and I started to enjoy the experience at the time, not just after I had finished each run. I started to feel strong, fluid and as if I could keep going for a bit longer. Sharing these experiences with friends of mine raised the notion of a suitable objective to train towards. Compared with all the huge routes and records that have been taken on and achieved by many people, Tranters Round is quite modest. But it was a big deal for me and the perfect test of my new found running legs.
Tranter's Round is effectively the Glen Nevis skyline. I can see it from my bedroom window and it is a very aesthetic route. It is about 60km with 6000m of ascent, links 18 Munros and includes Ben Nevis, Carn Mor Dearg, Aonach Mor and Beag, The Grey Corries and all the Mamores. To do it properly you start at the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis, but I thought it would be nice to start at my house since I live so close.
It was proper Alpine start with the alarm going off at 2.15am and setting off at 3am. The weather was set to be hot and sunny so an early start to avoid the worst of the heat was a good idea. Also, it's a really long way and it would be nice to finish before it gets dark! Somehow starting in the dark seems better and I got the timing right to arive on Ben Nevis as it got light enough to see without a torch. Mist on the summit made the rocks wet so the CMD Arete was a little slippery in my running shoes but as I got to Carn Mor Dearg I turned round to see the most wonderful cloud formations. The mist I had been inside was a flow of clouds pouring through the cols and into the coires.
The Grey Corries in the early morning were home to red deer and me, trotting along the ridge, enjoying the experience of moving fast and light. Under the few clouds and in occasional mist the temperature stayed low enough, but I made sure to stay hydrated even so. As the sun rose it shone down into the mist and created some brilliant brochenspectres. For the first half of the day I had a huge smile on my face, just because the beauty of the place and the feeling of running along these beautiful ridges. I was smiling during the second half o fthe run as well, but only on the inside.
To get across to the Mamores, you have to drop down to 400m, into the heat, tussocks and peat hags, just as the distance covered started to make itself known in the feeling of my legs. It is a big dip in altitude and the climb back up to The Mamores was a real dip in energy levels. To give me a boost, I saw an owl fly up out of a patch of heather in a peat hag. I was so close to it when it took off I saw every detail of its plumage. It was as surprised to see me as I was to see it. I have not often seen owls so close, especially out in the wilds like this.
There are two peaks at the end of the Mamores that sit separate to the main ridge. So, the first big climb is followed by two more only slightly less big climbs before you arrive at the end of the main ridge line of the Mamores. Mercifully, a gentle breeze and a few clouds kept the temperature down enough and regular water stops kept me going. Plus, you get to see how far you've come. Looking across Glen Nevis, Ben Nevis is a massive hulk of a mountain and you can see all the way along the Grey Corries past the Aonachs. It's a very rewarding thought, seeing all these peaks and knowing you have covered all that distance.
Inevitably I slowed down towards the end. Sore feet from being wet (take dry socks next time) and heavy legs made the ascents slower, the stops more frequent and the steep downs a walk instead of a run. I could still manage to run along the wonderful bit of ridge to the last Munro, Mullach nan Coirean, and down into Glen Nevis. However, the last bit of flat track reduced me to half walking, half running. I returned to the road near the Youth Hostel to a wonderful greeting from Louise and Katie, a wee tear and a gratefully received lift down the tarmac back home.
At 17.5 hours for my Tranter's Round, Finlay Wild can rest assured that I will not be taking his record off him any time soon. He recently beat his own record, setting a new fastest known time of about 9 hours. For us mortals, anything less that double Finlay's time is good.
So, mission accomplished. I am now a runner.
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.