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.

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