Friday, 24 August 2012

Questing In The Midge-Ridden Wilderness - Part II

After the sunshine at Reiff the forecast was a bit dodgier, with gale force winds promised, but we reasoned that might keep the midges at bay at least and headed for Diabaig. I'd heard nothing but good things about the place, and once we'd negotiated the tortuous windy road from Torridon we were rewarded with a view of The Pillar looking all ace. We were both dead keen to lead this, but there was somebody on it so we wandered past to the Main Wall, where there was a four star HVS to warm up on. There were no gales, but there was just enough breeze rolling around to keep us safe, and the climbing was outstanding; long pitches on beautiful rough Gneiss, with brilliant gear and cool moves. Route Two was amazing, as was The Black Streak, so we wandered back down to the foot of The Pillar, which looked even acer at close quarters. James ran off to get some water from the car, and the second he left the breeze dropped and the midges swarmed. I spent some of the least pleasant minutes of my life lying in the long grass with my trousers tucked into my socks and a waterproof on, sweating like I was in a Turkish bath and feeling generally miserable about the unfairness of it all. Guttingly the wind didn't return, so as soon as James got back we ran away.

Contemplating the crux of The Black Streak
 We had plans to meet Matt (the erstwhile Mr Fiend) in Gairloch that evening, so we managed a quick evening hit on a weird little crag of partially-metamorphosed sandstone (kind of conglomerate-y) called Aztec Tower. We tossed a coin again for the rights to the crag classic HVS, which I won, but was let down by the route being a) not very hard b) not very good and c) not very well protected. James' neighbouring VS was altogether more enjoyable.

After rendezvousing with Matt and spending a night in the ridiculously expensive campsite in Poolewe we had a slow start and needed some caffeine and a giant scone in the frankly awesome Mountain Cafe in Gairloch to get us going. We then decided to brave the gales and pay the craglets around Loch Tollaidh a visit. They were ace (actually I'd been before, but I'd forgotten my rock shoes that time and had to lead a couple of VDiffs in Alistair's giant clown shoes) and much fun was had by all. James in particular had a good day, leading Buena Vista a brilliant E2 slab.

Some pleasant HVS at Loch Tollaidh
That evening we drove down to Skye and set up base camp at Sligachan for a few days. The forecast was still windy and a bit showery, but we took a punt in the morning on Kilt Rock, and we arrived to find it sunny and lapped by a gentle breeze. Perfect. There were a few other climbers around, so I thought it best to get on with the main event as soon as possible before I had time to talk myself out of it, or somebody else got on it. Grey Panther is the easiest route in Extreme Rock, so it was a possibly unique chance for me to get a tick in the book. It had also been top of my mental wishlist for a long time, so I was a bit apprehensive, but a peer down the line from the top reassured me that it looked totally awesome. The route didn't disappoint, with 45m of continuously great climbing, bridging between two jamming cracks. None of the moves felt particularly tricky, and the crux for me was probably trying to conserve my hand-width cams for when I would really need them. I managed this so successfully that I got to the top with them all still on my harness. I even only placed 16 runners, which was very sparing by my usual standards (I'd taken 21 quickdraws). The climbing was actually very reminiscent of routes on The Prow at Fairhead. Mmm, must go back there some time soon.

Afterwards, whilst bathing in the warm glow of self-awesomeness, I tried to egg Oswald into tackling one of the other major E1/2 cracks, but he was afraid. Instead we ticked off a pair of three star routes in the descent gully, an HVS and a VS, which were both pretty stout at their respective grades. This wasn't the spur that the youth needed to get on harder things, so we left and paid a visit to Flodigarry. After hacking over the tedious heather for an age we reached the top of the crag. James had idea that he might try an E2, but we couldn't pick out the line, so we agreed that he should lead the three star HVS I'd been keen on, and then we could run away for a cup of tea, dinner, and the pint that he owed me. The route, Lucy In The Sky, was a little gem, taking a slabby crack with sustained mild interest right to the top.

The forecast the next day seemed more stable, with clear skies in prospect, so we took a gamble on being able to find something out of the wind in Coire Lagan. Our first objective, The Klondyker, seemed to be just about out of the gusts, so we set off. James lucked out and got the two good pitches, whilst I had the easy link pitches, but the route was ace. The crux pitch was a long, sustained 5a wall, with a touch of rather 5b-ish spice thrown in pulling round a small roof. The gear was excellent, but it felt worthy of an E-point. This was later confirmed when we bumped into Mike Lates, who literally wrote the guide but admitted to never having done the route, and he told us he'd heard from reliable sources it was worth an upgrade. The route wasn't over after the second pitch though, with the fourth offering "Space walking on buckets". We had harboured ideas of climbing Vulcan Wall afterwards, but by the time we'd made it back to our bags we were pooped, so we scuttled off to the Sligachan in time for a few (very incompetent) games of pool.
The spacewalk on The Klondyker
The next day brought another dodgy forecast, but I put my faith in the magical microclimate of Neist, and lo, we were rewarded with more sunshine. I led a lovely VS called Midas Touch, and silly E1 direct start to a classic HVS which involved a couple of sketchy moves with only one good RP2 between me and the ground. James led the classic E0 Security Risk, and then set off up a really good looking E2 - Wall Street. He took ages, which was unfortunate as the base of the route was out of the wind, so I started to get quite badly midged. I had a windproof and a midge net, but my ankles were taking a beating, so I improvised some socks by coiling the rope around my legs. I can't recommend this as a course of action. I ended up with slightly numb, but still midge-destroyed feet. Boo. Anyway, the route was brilliant, up until the capping roof, where things went all wrong and overhanging. I managed to get as far as lurching at a jug, but then couldn't find the arms to pull up into the final groove. So I rested on the rope. Except I was in an awkward position whereby I couldn't actually take much weight off my arms without taking a swing and smacking into a wall. Fail. Eventually I got sufficiently uncomfortable that I laid one on and pulled some heinous manoeuvres to reach the finishing holds. A fine lead by Mr Oswald.

After that I couldn't take any more, and it was getting on a bit, so we jumped in the car and motored over to the CC hut in Roybridge, where we availed ourselves of the delights of an oven, and comfy beds. Whoop. The next day was showery, so we took a punt on the "Lethal when wet" but allegedly quick drying Creag Dubh (also known, ominously, as Crag Death). Sitting at the bottom of it eating our lunch it was clearly going to need a bit more time to dry off, so I persuaded James that a visit to the distillery at Dalwhinnie was in order. On our return to the crag it was actually dry, so I racked up to have a bash at Inbred, a steep HVS and apparently Dougal Haston's finest new route. It didn't take too many brief ventures onto the holds to decide that there was the potential to get myself into a dangerous position, as the moves were steep and the gear fiddly, so I handed the baton over and belayed James. He made it look fairly easy, and the moves were OK on second. Not that I regretted backing off for a second, especially since as I was part way up the pitch a rain shower started looming ominously. I just managed to beach myself on the belay ledge when the heavens opened and the rock turned to soap. So we sacrificed my sling of irritating shortness and beat a hasty retreat.

The next day found us climbing at Dunkeld. I did a spot of VS bambering and James led another E2 through some roofs. The climbing wasn't too hard, but the gear for the first roof was pumpy to place, and for the second was a bit weird and uninspiring, so it was just about worth E2. After enjoying my Aunt's hospitality we spent the last day of the holiday climbing at Auchinstarry - Scotland's answer to a Lancashire quarry. It wasn't actually that bad, although my three star VS was a bit underwhelming, and the 2 star VS 4b arete I soloed was quite terrifyingly sandy. And then after one more route it was over and we had to drive back south again. In the rain. Bah. Still, it was an awesome fortnight, we got loads done, and saw loads more that I want to go back for (especially The Pillar). Next on the agenda is Lundy in September. Bring it on...
Promontory Direct at Auchinstarry - A refugee from Wilton in the central belt

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Questing In The Midge-Ridden Wilderness - Part I

After a hard week visiting the many and varied distillery-shaped delights of Islay and Jura (and a bonus brewery for good measure) I needed some kind of holiday. Fortuitously the youth had secured the use of his parents' car, and I had a fortnight off work. So we did the only sensible thing and drove 500 miles north (via a couple of quick routes at Loudoun Hill, including the spectacular but bold The Edge) to near Wick. After wild camping by the beach at Latheronwheel we had planned to climb a few routes before catching the lunchtime ferry over to Orkney, but it was raining, so we checked out the sea stack and cool arch at Wick and went shopping in Tesco instead.

I hadn't realised how close to the mainland Orkney is - you can see the Old Man from the ferry port at Scrabster, but the ferry still takes an hour and a half to pootle its way round Hoy (passing the Old Man and the impressive precipitous vegetation of St John's Head) and into Stromness. Confusingly the main island on Orkney is called Mainland, as is the case on Shetland, so it is possible to get a ferry from Mainland to Mainland without going anywhere near the actual mainland. Strange. Anyway, we hung around on the quayside for an hour or so until the little passenger ferry chugged us over to Hoy, where we walked the 5 miles past the northernmost woods in Britain (more of a copse really) to the well-appointed and beautifully situated bothy at Rackwick. There we spent an entertaining evening in the company of an elderly Australian who was en route from The Hague to London via Bergen on his bike, a Canadian magician, a Czech artist who lived on Shetland (and hat the comedy red woollen hat to prove it), a drug-dealing farmer from Portstmouth and an Orcadian fisherman.

We got up unreasonably early the next morning and trekked up to the cliffs opposite the Old Man, then picked our way delicately down the Gogarthian approach path to the base of the stack. The crux pitch looked hard and wide and pitches 3 and 4 looked very green. I was suitably intimidated. I nearly just ceded the crux to James, but managed to man up enough to toss a coin for it. I was secretly slightly relieved to lose, racked up and bambered up the first pitch. James led through, traversing over into the main crack and was soon out of sight round an overhang, leaving me to guess how he was getting on. He took quite a while, but eventually I heard some muffled shouts and the rope came tight, so I set off. I had heard that the rock was softer than the Torridonian sandstone on the west coast, so I was expecting scrittly rock. I was rather surprised, therefore, to find perfectly good, solid rock that somebody had tipped a sandpit down. Excavating the holds took a while, but the climbing was amenable up to a large roof, where James had abandoned his belay jacket on the understanding that he would buy me a pint by way of recompense for my bringing it up with me. Getting through the roof involved a hilarious sequence of contortions (including spending a long time waving a foot at a crucial ledge that I couldn't see but knew was somewhere behind me) and some quality udging, but the sand wasn't really an issue.

James starting up the crux pitch of the Old Man
Pitch 3 was easy until I ran into the fulmars. I had naively hoped they might have buggered off by August, but they hadn't, and they had lovely smelling fishy vomit saved up especially to project at my face. Words cannot express how unpleasant the experience of racing past the fat little bastards, with each new ledge bringing a new feathery bag of stink, was, but I made it (although I was certain I would have to burn my clothes once we'd got down). Pitch 4 was wandering but ledgier than it had looked from below, and mercifully fulmar-free, and pitch 5 was 30m of brilliant, steep VS jug-hauling up a corner to deposit you on the summit. On joining me the youth complained that the summit wasn't as flat and grassy as he'd imagined (there's no pleasing some people), but there was a bottle of beer and a logbook to sign. The abseil back down was faffy, but we took an ethical decision not to add any tat to the huge quantity already there (I'd neglected to bring a knife to clean it up) and just ran the gauntlet of trusting 5 vintage krabs and 15 bits of fraying old rope for each anchor. The final 60m free-hanging abseil back to the ground was exciting (especially for James who wasn't sure whether the ropes would reach or not), and we got back to the bags just in time to race back to the bothy, and then speed back over the hill to catch the last ferry back to Stromness. Sadly this conveniently just missed the last ferry back to the (real) mainland, but we befriended a cheery local on the ferry who we joined for a pint in the pub later. It turned out he had been friends with Mr Crofton of Cumming-Crofton route fame, and had some good tales to tell.

The next morning we high-tailed it off Orkney on the 6:30am ferry and paid the conglomerate weirdness of Sarclet a visit. It was pretty awesome. I led a brilliant VS called Groove Armada, which must be up there with the best single pitch routes at its grade in the country, and then the wonderfully titled Sarclet Pimpernel, a classic E0 romp. James' 3 star E1 lead then turned out to be a bit midgy and not very hard, so we ran away, but I'd be keen for a return visit. The first time I've climbed on conglomerate without spending the whole time worrying about the temporaryness of all of the holds.

Sarclet - The Sarclet Pimpernel takes the right arete
After a long drive south and west, we awoke in the campsite at Ardmair and decided to pay Stac Pollaidh a visit. A certain Jon Stewart had raved about the aceness of Jack The Ripper, an E1 on the west buttress, although he also claimed the walk in to be a mere 20 minutes. Given that you start at basically sea level and the buttress is at 550m that seemed improbable, and it was. A very steep and sweaty hour later we collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the route. It was James' lead, so he raced up the first pitch, and I did the same up the slightly trickier second, but the route is really all about the beautiful groove line on the top pitch. It's a sensational pitch, and well worth the walk up to it, especially when you have the crag to yourselves, top out directly on the summit of the mountain, and have incredible views. Bo. After lunch we nipped up another route before midges drove us to run away. We still had some beans left, so we found some midge-repelling breeze and went to check out the slightly obscure sea cliffs at Rhue. They were quite cool, especially in the evening light. Oswald managed to make a hash of leading an E1 through a roof, resulting in some entertaining diagonal abseils and horizontal dynoing to retrieve the gear, before I led us out up a smart little Hard Severe.

The marvellous top pitch of Jack The Ripper
The next day was sunny and breezy so we went west to check out the Stanage-by-the-sea ambiance of Reiff. I had a little solo-fest and led a VS arete that Oli and I hadn't fancied the look of on my only previous visit. I then took a shine to the E1 next to it, a fun looking crack in a slab. It turned out to be less slabby where it mattered, but after much upping and downing between the crux and a good rest ledge I gave it the beans and managed to reach the top in a state of only mild panic. After that we decided to move on and wandered past a beautiful white sandy beach which looked very appealing in the heat, so we had a quick restorative swim in the sea. The youth the got ideas above his station and set off up a disgustingly overhanging E2 corner. I decided to punish him for this stupidity by making him abseil for his gear. We finished the day with some pootling around on a few weird routes including a bizarre sandbaggy VS and a butch HVS on which I managed to place, but not actually clip, a crucial runner. Oops.