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***
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.