After the October holidays it was very nice to come back to some snowy mountains in Scotland. It turned cold on Friday morning and we were treated to a light cover of snow on the tops above 600m. It has stayed cold and we had further snow yesterday but today stayed mostly dry and it was less windy. Sunshine burst through the clouds and lit up the brilliant colours of the mountain sides, topped with a bright white sprinkling of snow. It was a beautiful day today and I got to enjoy it with Hannah, Katie and Katie on the Pink Rib of Beinn a'Chrualaste.
This lovely little scramble was perfect for little legs today. The two Katies are quite young so this was a perfect size of objective. We just went up the scramble without going to the summit of the corbett so we had time for a hot chocolate in the Kingshouse Hotel afterwards. The autumn is such a good time of year on crisp, bright days like today. Scrambling is a fantastic way to enjoy these days too. And getting our young people out spending quality time in nature and the big wild landscape is super important.
There’s a book I’d like you to read. It’s called “In Praise of Walking” by Shane O’Mara. Don’t be put off by the evangelical sounding title; it’s a fascinating read, very well referenced and backed up by scientific research, all about the astounding benefits of going for a walk.
For example, it describes a study on an Italian man who walked 1300km of the Via Alpina, along the line of the Alps, over three months. Along the way he recorded a wide range of physiological markers through taking blood and other means. There were positive changes in virtually every single measured area of his functioning including a drop on body mass index of 10%, a reduction of measured body fat as a percentage of total weight of about one quarter, a 75% decrease in triglycerides thought to underlie some forms of heart and cardiovascular disease and an increase in production in heart loving fats called high-density lipoproteins. Other studies have shown that this was not a one-off case, it works for everyone. The message is, if you need to lose weight, go for a really, really long walk, over a few weeks, ideally through nature.
To me, this was no surprise, but one other thing really jumped out at me from this book. It’s 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 every day 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, especially through projects such as The North Face Survey on Ben Nevis. 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.
This is why I am passionate about spending time on our mountains. It maintains our physical health, it restores our mental health and it can have a profound influence on our spiritual well-being. It can counter the self-centred focus that modern day life has on us all. In these days of global climate change, an obesity epidemic, mental ill health and disconnectedness from nature, one solution is simple.
Go for a walk, preferably a long one and immerse yourself in nature!
Last week Sally and I had the pleasure of passing five new Summer Mountain Leaders, qualifying them to lead people in the mountains of the UK, to inspire them, educate them and to look after them. Dan, Holly, Andrew, Isla and Jamie did a great job all week of demonstrating all the skills required by Mountain Training to become mountain leaders. We're delighted to have this new crop of leaders and we know they will carry on to do a brilliant job.
The first day was all about managing accidents and incidents, mountain rescue and improvised rescue, medical conditions, hypothermia and water hazards. It was a nice day and we were very happy to go for a wade in the river Nevis after a few hours of walking! The water is quite warm at this time of year so it was not too uncomfortable at all. There are skills you need to cross streams safely and you can give a lot of support to your group as well.
Next up we had a leadership day in Glencoe on which we covered leadership in many different types of terrain, including route choice and safeguarding people in steep and broken ground. We went in towards Coire nan Lochan but crossed the stream to go up underneath Barn Wall and into the small coire between Barn Wall and Far Eastern Buttress. Here we got a rope out for the candidates to demonstrate their emergency ropework to safeguard people down a longer section of steep, scrambling type terrain. Afterwards we went to the summit of Aonach Dubh before heading back to the path and back to base to prepare for the expedition.
These five day assessments have a three day expedition in them. It's so nice to spend three days out in wild places, walking up beautiful peaks, especially at this time of year with the autumn colours coming out. This time we went to the two Easain munros next tio Loch Treig. We started from Fersit and walked over both peaks before going down to find a nice camp site bove the Lairig Leacach bothy. After dinner we spent some hours walking around in heavy rain and mist, on a very dark night, finding small contour features by pacing and following compass bearings. It was quite intense!
Next day we took down the tents and went to walk up Meall Mor, Meall a'Bhuiridh and Stob Ban before returning to the bothy to cook dinner and to camp close by. This area feels so far away from anywhere! There is no sign of anything man made at all, just seemingly endless mountains filled with the sound of the stags roaring at each other in the rut.
The candidates planned the final day of walking to get us back to the van at a set time and to include a nioce route to get there. We went over Cnap Cruin, a lovely wee hill, and got back right on time. Well done to all five new mountain leaders, Sally and I had a lovely week with you all and we wish you every success in the futre.
It's been a bit wet recently and tricky to work out which the drier days will be. Today I think Justin and I got it right. We were due to try Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis yesterday but the forecast for today was slightly better. Then the forecast changed for the worse and it looked like we would get a wet day today. As it turned out, we got really quite a nice day. You just have to give it go anyway and hope for the best sometimes.
We put on waterproofs right at the start but the walk in along the Allt a'Mhuilinn was quite dry and we had some great views of the clouds lifting off the summit. The ridge was sparkling in a little sunshine as we climbed out of Douglas Gap and there was blue sky above. A bank of cloud rolled up into Coire na Ciste as we climbed The Little Tower and this marked the start of the change of wind direction from south westerly to northerly. By the time we got to the top the temperature was dropping and the north wind was picking up quickly.
So, of course, we got sunshine on the way down! We were ready for anything though, including snow, and we got a whole mixture. Tower Ridge is always great though and we had a fantastic climb, Justin's first time on Ben Nevis and a brilliant way to reach the top.
It's strange how big lumps of rock and ice can generate such strong emotions within us. The Matterhorn is a world icon, a mountain that inspires, dominates and entices us despite its threatening scale and presence towering over Zermatt and the Hornli Hut. It's a real mountain but still just a lump of rock and ice. Climbing it will no longer mark you down in history but the personal journey that takes you there is an emotional roller coaster, full of highs and lows of equal scale to the mountain. This is exactly how it was for Marc and I am delighted to have been able to help him achieve one of his big ambitions.
Marc and his wife Helen climbed Mont Blanc many years ago with me. We had pretty tough weather on the day and they both did a great job of reaching the summit. Marc has been to many adventurous parts of the world and is an experienced trekker. Climbing the Matterhron was a step up from what he normally takes on though and we needed to do some training and acclimatisation before the big climb.
Our first day out of Zermatt was up to the Kleine Matterhorn. We walked across the south side of the Breithorn to the foot of the SW Ridge of Pollux. We were both feeling great, despite the sudden exposure to the altitude of 3800m. Often this is really quite a big impact on people but we were both getting on fine so we decided to climb Pollux. The scrambling on the SW Ridge is really nice and there is a short section with fixed chains to get round a steep tower. A narrow snow crest leads up to the summit, a snowy top surounded by the giant Zermatt peaks. With one 4000m peak done on the first day we were very happy when we got down to the wonderful Guides d'Ayas Hut for the night.
For our second day we went for Castor, a slightly higher peak, this time climbed all on snow and ice with a beautiful narrow crest at the top. An early start got us to the top before the sun got round to our side to soften the snow. There was an icy section on the way up that was quite delicate on the way back down and we were grateful to be past this before the snow got soggy in the afternoon heat. It has been a very warm summer in the Alps and the glaciers and faces are showing little snow cover left now at the end of the summer season. Walking around the glaciers, even at this high altitude, was nerve wracking going over narrow and thin snow bridges over enormous crevasses.
The icy conditions heled us to decide to take on the full Breithorn Traverse for our last day of training. It is possible to start the traverse half way along but it looked easier to get on to the end of the ridge at Roccia Nera. Doing the first half of the traverse adds another 2 hours to the day but we'd had a nice early start and the weather was perfect. Narrow snow crests are interspersed with interesting rocky peaks with steep abseils along the ridge. Once we got to the more popular half traverse it was all on rock for a long way with beautiful scrambling on great rock in a super spectacular place. We got to the top of the Breithorn feeling great and feeling ready for The Matterhorn.
It's important to build in rest days to your Alpine programme. Marc and I went down to Zermatt for lots of food and a very good night's sleep at the Youth Hostel. If you want to find clean and simple accommodation with all the facilities you need and a very good breakfast, plus an amazing view of The Matterhorn, the Youth Hostel is hard to beat. After a night here and a gentle amble up to the Hornli Hut we were in the right place at the right time for our climb.
The hut was only half full so it was not too busy at the start of the climb. There was also a staggered start so the Zermatt Guides could get ahead and the rest of us were not left standing at the first steep section waiting for 10 or 15 minutes. Even so, Marc and I felt the pressure and headed off a bit too fast in the first hour. It's so easy to get caught up in the rush and push too hard. We settled to a nice pace for us and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise just before we got to the Solvay Hut for a rest and a bite to eat.
We put on our crampons at the foot of the fixed ropes and managed to get past all the racing snakes already on their way down without too much fuss. The snow cover was just right and the weather was perfect with no wind at all and a little warm sunshine through the high level cloud to keep us warm but not too hot. We got to the summit and shared the moment with a group of French guides and climbers who were just as delighted to be there as we were. Sometimes everything does come together very nicely and this is how it was for Marc and me this time. The weather, climbing conditions, training and acclimatisation all came together at the same time to give us a brilliant climb and a very important summit for us. Well done Marc, great climbing.
It's never too soon to start thinking about the winter in Scotland! After many years of climbing Tower Ridge, I’m convinced that it is a one ice axe route. Most of it is relatively straight forward and long sections of it are really quite simple. You might need two ice axes in certain snow conditions on the Great Tower but you can always borrow your partner’s axe for that one move. This is the conclusion I’ve reached after many ascents in all sorts of conditions. But when I look back on my first ascent of Tower Ridge in winter it’s an odd conclusion to come to.
My friend Richard was up staying with me soon after I moved to Fort William in 1995. Before I moved here I thought it would be very easy to find climbing partners but that’s not how it was. In the days before the internet was there to help like minded people come together I spent a lot of time out soloing routes, walking the Munro’s and getting to know the hills and crags. When Richard came up for a visit he came predominantly for a skiing trip. I had other plans though and I wanted to make use of having a climbing partner.
Tower Ridge is a climb I had done in summer not too long before. It’s not hard and the route finding is quite simple on a relaxed, warm and dry summer’s day. In winter I had been climbing routes at harder grades than Tower Ridge and they had all gone well. One of my solo climbs had been Point Five Gully which felt great. I did not realise at the time that the Spring of ’95 was to go down as one of the best for a decade and Point Five Gully was probably more like grade IV than the benchmark V it is more commonly. Still, for my third ice climb I was quite chuffed.
So I was full of confidence as we walked in and I even felt slightly aggrieved at having to bring the grade down to a lowly III (as it was then) to give Richard a chance at being able to climb it. He was a skier after all. It was an average day with good snow cover. We got to Douglas Gap fine and up the awkward groove onto the crest of the ridge. The ridge looks completely different in winter and the best route is not always obvious. There was no trail to follow so I just followed my nose. Since we were climbing a ridge it made sense to stick to the crest of the ridge so off I went.
After the first horizontal section the usual route in winter follows a snow ramp out right to avoid a steep section of the ridge and up simple enough ground back onto the crest from the end of the ramp. If you follow the crest this steep section is quite tricky and draws you left up steepening grooves. After a look up one of these and a bit of head scratching I thought I spied a way forward but not with just my one ice axe. I would like to say I scurried back to Richard but it was a lot slower and more precarious than that. I teetered back down, got his axe and carried on up the pitch with a good deal of swearing. Richard now needed the ice axes and a bit of time to follow the pitch. It was certainly ground that required two ice axes. So after a few more, thankfully easier, pitches we got to a level section of the ridge.
Time wasn’t marching on as much as leapfrogging forward. A check of the watch at one point would reassure me that we were doing OK. The next time I checked, the time had taken a great leap forward and we were well behind schedule. It seemed like we had done a significant amount of climbing already so I convinced myself that we had climbed the Little Tower and the steep section ahead must be The Great Tower. If this was right, the time of day was OK but we still needed to crack on, so we did.
What we thought was The Great Tower went much more smoothly even though we did not find anything much like an Eastern Traverse. At the top of this tower our hearts sank. Not only was the light starting to leave the mountain but what was obviously The Great Tower was standing high above us still. We found the Eastern Traverse, blindingly obvious when we got there, and successfully traversed along to the foot of the Fallen Block Chimney just as it was about to get dark. With all of my confidence from the start of the day chipped away by the relentless ridge it was me that suggested extending the Eastern Traverse and making our escape. I had heard of many enforced bivouacs at Tower Gap and I was determined not to make it another one. So we went across to the foot of Tower Gully and kept going to make the long descent of Observatory Gully and back home in the dark. My drive for the summit had been completely broken so even the thought of climbing the grade I gully of Tower Gully was too much. My tail was firmly between my legs.
Seventeen years and perhaps a hundred ascents later, I climbed Tower Ridge with Martin and Chris in April of 2013. The ice climbing conditions were spectacular that spring and we had long periods of settled weather to enjoy them. The guys had booked just one day with me, specifically to climb Tower Ridge. We were very lucky to have a day of perfect weather and brilliant snow on the route. Not only was the climbing brilliant on the squeaky solid snow and occasional bits of dry rock but we were surrounded by the best climbs in Scotland perfectly iced and glistening in the sunshine. We watched the black dots of climbers on Orion Face pick their way up, dwarfed by the scale of the face.
Chris and Martin had been on a winter climbing course at Glenmore Lodge. They wanted to experience the next level in their climbing progression and to enjoy a classic at the same time. They were both competent and secure climbers and they had no problem with the level of climbing. Had they known that the conditions would be so good they might have decided to tackle the climb by themselves. However, they were just as happy to enjoy the experience without the extra pressure of having to make route choice decisions and find the belays. They got to enjoy an amazing day on an amazing route and to soak up every detail of the experience.
It’s easy to think that hiring a guide takes away all the challenge and satisfaction of climbing. But winter climbing is a team game. I depend on my clients to do their bit just as much as they depend on me to do mine. I try to make sure they realise the seriousness of the climb and to include them in the decisions we make on the day. Hopefully, my clients feel like they are climbing with another of their regular climbing partners, one who is quite keen to do most of the leading.
I dread the day that someone on my rope takes a tumble off the Eastern Traverse. It is a drop of a couple of hundred metres below your feet and the protection is quite spaced. A slip would result in quite a swing across this void, leaving you dangling on very steep ground and probably unable to climb back up to the traverse ledge, especially with just one ice axe. It would be a tricky situation to resolve and in a very intimidating place. I coach people in what to do on the traverse and try to make sure they are doing it right but at the end of the day I just have to hope there is no slip or stumble. Similarly at Tower Gap, I need my clients to make themselves secure after they climb down into the gap and to belay me as I climb down. If I slip I rely on them to hold the rope properly and that the anchor they have tied in to is secure.
So as Martin and Chris climbed out into the sunshine at the top of the route to see the view from the Paps of Jura to Ben Wyvis and the Skye Cullin to Schiehallion they knew they’d had one of the best climbs of their lives. Tower Ridge is always a brilliant experience however you climb it and whatever kind of weather you get. But on days like this, there is nothing better in Scotland and, therefore, the world.
Is there anything more satisfying than exploring the Scottish mountains on a winters day? Staring out into a sea of snow-blanketed mountains? Solving the puzzle of which climb is the best option in Scotland's ever-changing conditions? Taking on the elements to stand at the top of the UK's highest mountain? Returning home exhausted but already looking forward to what the next day's adventure might bring?
We don't think so, and that's why we want to share this incredible season with you! Join us this winter! https://www.abacusmountainguides.com/winter-guiding.html
We've been enjoying some warm and mostly dry weather here in the Outdoor Capital of the UK. Yesterday I was lucky enough to enjoy the company of Jim, Keith and George on a climb of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis. The mist came and went a bit on the summit during the day but we got it clear at The Great Tower and Tower Gap, the best bits of the ridge near the top. The rock was dry and grippy and we had a great time.
We saw very few other people on the North Face of Ben Nevis which is normal for this time of year. It's a shame that not more people are enjoying the classic ridges of Ben Nevis or even the amazing rock climbs. All the ridges were mostly dry and many of the rock climbs looked pretty good as well. It was a different story once we were on the summit. Last year 160,000 went up Ben Nevis and this year looks likely to be the same or more. In fact the number of people on Ben Nevis has doubled in the last ten years, making the environmental management of the Nevis area a real challenge. Thankfully we have Nevis Landscape Partnership doing this work for us but it could do with all the support it can get right now.
Very well done to Jim, George and Keith. You all did really well on the climb and I had a great time climbing with you.
Today I enjoyed the company of Lisa and Oliver in Glen Coe. These guys have walked up about 50 Munros and want to explore some of the more technical routes now. So we went for Curved Ridge on Buachaille Etive Mor to get them into the swing of scrambling. It was another warm and dry day with lots of sunshine, and it went very well.
Curved Ridge in the sunshine is so nice! The scrambling on clean rhyolite with nice positive holds goes on and on. The views are expansive, the exposure immense and it leads directly to the Munro, Stob Dearg. On Buachaille Etive Mor there are four stobs. Stob Dearg is the northerly Munro, Stob na Doire is next, then Stob Choire Altruim with Stob na Broige at the southern end, the second Munro. We walked over all four peaks after climbing Curved Ridge for full effect and it is highly recommended, especially when the views are as good as they were today!
As they go on to other Munros, Lisa and Oliver will have to tackle Aonach Eagach, An Teallach, Liathach and all the Cuillin Munros on Skye. All of these involve some scrambling, narrow ridges, airy positions and demand a hands on approach. Have fun!
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.
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.