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.
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.