Sunday, 13 January 2019

A saunter on the Souter

For the last two seasons winter climbing in Scotland has kicked off as early as October. A conveyor  of bombarding icy blasts from the North Atlantic heralded the arrival of conditions perfect for snowed-up-rock and super high mixed routes. Unlike 2018, dreams of such a promising start were quickly quashed this year by a blocking high pressure bringing a continued spell of unseasonably warm air across our mountains, striping many of the peaks right back to their summer attire. I've no doubt that the old hands of Scottish winter climbing contingent will be laughing at such an optimistic outlook, as for them winter doesn't usually kick off until mid February! Anyway, to avoid upsetting them or myself by lingering on "the January that could have been", I'll instead share with you the adventure of last weekend where instead of a hopeless walk in to a soggy mountain crag, we headed for the coast in search of sun and dry rock.

Sitting eating my breakfast watching the first wisps of dawn appear through the beads of rainwater trickling down the kitchen window, the idea of a successful days rock climbing started to feel like an overoptimistic objective. Thankfully as we piled down the M80, then the Edinburgh by-pass, then the A1, the skies cleared and the ground grew drier and we started to think we might just be that lucky. Which it turns out we were!  

The Souter is a sea stack situated 30 miles east of Edinburgh on the chaotic and rugged coast around St Abbs Head. The slender sandstone stack has several routes up it with the most popular being "Ordinary Route" which climbs the seaward edge at HVS 5a. As far as routes on sea stacks go, Ordinary Route is an absorbing and entertaining line with some great (albeit a little bold) moves on mostly solid rock. The route is split by a small ledge about half height, with crux being the short corner just below, which is probably somewhere between tech 5a and 5b. Although the tricky move is protected by an old peg (which can also be backed-up by a reasonable nut) there isn't much scope for any other gear in the corner (BETA ALERT! - you can actually get reasonable yellow [size 4] BD cam in a flared slot just right of the base of the crack). Above the ledge there is another technical move past a peg but the difficulties there are short lived and its more like tech 5a. We abseiled down the seaward side because of the wind, but you'd be fine lowering off either side.

Overall its a great adventure and well worth the effort of seeking out.

The Souter sea stack near St Abbs Head

Moving up below the short corner on Ordinary Route (HVS 5a) on the seaward arete of The Souter (photo Rob Steer)

Rob pulling on the hanging slab just below the top

What goes up must come down (photo Rob Steer)

A panoramic view up the line of the seaward side of the Souter stack. Ordinary Route climbs the obvious corner to half height before moving up and left and pulling through a small overlap onto the final hanging slab. 

Friday, 28 December 2018

Top routes of 2018

I know what you're thinking, another year, another annual round-up blog post! Well you'd be right, however this time around I thought i'd put a new spin on things by including WINTER routes as well as the normal list of trad climbs. I mean its still mainly summer trad, as winter climbing is deeply unpleasant and generally only any fun on the calmest of bluebird days (which basically never happen and even then you're probably still freezing your ass off)! Anyway, without further adieu here are my top 10 favorite climbs of 2018!

10) Landward Face (HVS 4c) - Am Buachaille, NW Highlands

The remote sandstone sea stack of Am Buachaille situated about 10 miles south of Cape Wrath 

Am Bucachaille must be one of the most stunning climbing venues in Britain and the most awkward to boot. As always, the easy bit is driving, all 5 hours of it (assuming you're starting from the central belt!) with most of it being on tiny single track lanes on rally style roads (great as long as you're not the passenger). Once you've arrived you then have to contend with a 5 mile walk over a boggy moorland to the edge of a crumbling sandstone cliff, which you then have to somehow scramble down with impossibly heavy bags without killing yourself or anybody silly enough to come with you. Now you're at the bottom of the cliff, hopefully you've done your homework and checked the tide times and you can walk/scramble under some massive precipices to the channel that separates the stack from the mainland.

Now the hard bit.

The channel is permanent, regardless of tide and therefore its time to don the speedos and (in our case) the mini inflatable boat. Once everyone is across the climbing can begin! The classic route (Landward Face) is unsurprisingly sandy and quite limited on gear too (maybe the bag doesn't need to be that heavy after all) but its got some fun moves and you get to top out on a pretty amazing summit.

Myself and Gregor ferrying everything across the sea channel to the base of the stack (photo credit Iain)
This place is all about the adventure, if the climbing was good it would be a lot further up the list! This stack was also the last of the classic 'Scottish trio' i'd yet to tick with the others being Stoer and Hoy which were ticked last year.

9) Tower Ridge (III,3) - Ben Nevis

Tower Ridge needs no introduction. One of the best and longest winter climbs in the UK. So good I did it twice last season! Worth the effort and the hype. We were also spoilt with an excellent ice pitch just after the climbing out of the Douglas Gap as well as a suitably buried Tower Gap.

Looking down Tower Ridge just after completing the steep ice pitch a short way above the Douglas Boulder
Some climbers just topping out on the top section of Tower Ridge on a perfect bluebird day
8) Clachaig Gully (Severe) - Glen Coe

What's not to like about vertical moss walls and freezing water running down your arms and your front? Even if you go on a dry day, you'll still go home soaked to the skin.

A 'classic rock tick' that climbs perhaps Glen Coe's most infamous watercourse over a couple of hundred meters. Although there is a lot of wading, scrambling, filth and other general discomfort, there is a surprising amount of quality climbing (Jericho Wall being especially good). The route itself is pretty hard to read and considering how linear it is, the route finding is far from simple and the guidebook description only making things more confusing. None the less, its a brilliant adventure, just make sure you put the car keys in a waterproof bag!

Although its one of the longest climbs in Glen Coe, Clachaig Gully has one of the shortest walk-ins! 

Mike negotiating the one of the main waterfall pitches and trying to avoid a soaking
7) Jezabel (E1 5b) - North Third, Stirling

Esoteric central belt crack climbing at its best. Hard to find and even harder to climb, but its still well worth making the effort to seek out. Maybe one of the purest hand jamming cracks I've climbed anywhere. The crux is moving through a bulge at about 10 meters up, but be sure to save some gas in the tank for the top!

Approaching the crux of Jezabel on an unusually warm day up at Costa del North Third

Ben giving it the 'double fist' treatment on the crux bulge of Jezabel
6) Savage Slit (V,6) - Coire an Lochain, Cairngorms

Its all in the name! Savage! A route of great character with a bit of everything. Situated high in the Cairngorms its a reliable venue for some early season antics and thankfully this reputation was upheld this year with the onset of the first winter storms.

The route climbs a humongous crack up a hanging buttress with climbing on the inside as well as out! The corner may well be the main event here but don't underestimate that start, it nearly caught me out that's for sure!

Connor enjoying the challenging nature of early season conditions on the main corner of Savage Slit
5) Fionn Buttress (VS 5a) - Carnmore, NW Highlands

I spammed the hell out of my facebook and instagram this year after my visit to Carnmore with Rafe in June so I'll keep this short. If you want to know a bit more you can check out my blog post about that trip here or you can wait a few months and you can read about it in the Climbers Club Journal.

Fionn Buttress is the classic of the crag and is perhaps one of the best big mountain VSs I've done anywhere. Although not the purest of lines, its a clever climb with lots of contrasting pitches, which gradually build in exposure and difficulty until about half way up (maybe 100 m or so) where there is an exposure explosion and all of a sudden you feel like a very small piece of this vast and empty wilderness that surrounds you.

People talk about 'bucket lists' of things to do before you die. This route is absolutely one of those things for anybody that loves climbing mountains in the UK.

The long road to Carnmore. Rafe walking across the causeway the military constructed and trained on during the early 20th Century. The battle scars and rusting Czech hedgehogs still evident and are a humbling remainder of the freedom we have today.  
A photo of Rafe and myself on pitch 7 of Fionn Buttress taken by Barry, who was down at the bothy watching our antics

Rafe following the sensational pitch 6 traverse on Fionn Buttress deep in the wilds of the Fisherfield Forest

4) The Indy 500 (E1 5b) - Lundy Island

Perhaps one of the most sustained routes I've led on one of the UK's most remote climbing venues. Yes, Lundy may well be closer to London than all of the north of England, however if the ferry isn't running that day you may as well be in Shetland. As with most climbers that have been there, Lundy will forever hold a special place in my heart so perhaps I'm looking at the routes there through rose tinted glasses when I say this, but there literally is nowhere better in the world to climb than Lundy.

The Indy 500 is a steep wall and crack climb with some very smart and technical moves and quite sustained at 5b. One of the best routes I've done on the island and one of the best single pitches I've done anywhere. If you like steep sustained crack and face climbing, get this route on your bucket list!  

Ed on the steep upper wall of The Indy 500

Another route from the same trip. Ed following the exposed fin of Shark (E1 5a)
3) The South Ridge Direct (VS 5a) - Rosa Pinnacle, Isle of Arran

Another Scottish big mountain classic! Over 300 meters of beautifully grey speckled granite ridge situated on one of Scotland's most stunning Hebridean islands. The South Ridge has been high on my hit list ever since I first read about this route in Dan Bailey's Scottish Mountain Ridges but in the past have had attempts thwarted by bad weather or other circumstance. This summer Caelan and I finally managed a weekend warrior mission up into Glen Rosa to tick the ridge and a few other classics while we were there. 

You can read more about our trip here.

All good Scottish adventures start with a ferry ride! 
Looking up The South Ridge Direct from the first pitch. The technical and thrutchy 'S' and 'Y' cracks clearly visible higher up the route (photo credit Caelan)

2) North East Buttress (IV,5/6) - Ben Nevis

Climbing this route felt like the culmination of a lot of things. Until this year winter climbing was a big taboo for me as previously I had favored walking and mountaineering whilst I was doing my winter mountain leader qualification. This was because I knew if I got a taste for winter climbing, I'd not have the mental resilience to log QMDs when there were prime climbing conditions abound! With the qualification done and a fabulously well endowed winter season between 2017 and 2018 providing ample opportunity, I made the most of every chance I could working my way through IIIs, IVs and even the odd V. North East Buttress felt like one of the biggest undertakings of the season, and was a testing ground for all of the skills and techniques I'd learned and absorbed over the previous few months. The route took Connor and I all day to climb, with the final and most testing sections saved for the last bit of the 500 meter high buttress of the Ben we scaled.

I enjoyed writing the post about this adventure almost as much as climbing it! You can read more about that day here.   

The north face of Ben Nevis in all its Glory. North East Buttress climbs the left hand skyline all the way to the summit
The well iced '40 foot corner'
1) Dragon (E1 5b) - Carnmore, NW Highlands

Contrasting, committing, brutal but ever so slightly stylish climbing through what feels like some of the biggest roofs in Scotland! Dragon climbs the plumb line of Carnmore, surmounting the talon of the beast, stealing both your breath and your biceps! Its another odd route like Gob, in that it actually starts half way up the face from the central terrace, with the approach across a sea of partially detached vertical heather from the base of Carnmore Corner being awkward and harrowing in equal measure. Once you're on the route though all is forgiven, with a steep wall and bold slab on the first pitch giving way to even steeper (and similarly bold) wall climbing on the upper pitches.

After a bit of a stint away from harder adventurous trad in recent years, this pitch for me felt like a significant turning point both mentally and physically and I'll never forgot being wedged under the lip of the overhang after the crux and looking down with all of Fisherfield far beneath my feet.  

The first belay of Dragon with the third pitch roof looming dauntingly overhead (photo credit Rafe)
Rafe moving towards to the belay on the delicate traverse after the roof
Well that's your lot. Other routes that were amazing but didn't quite make the shortlist include; 

  • Elgins Crack (E2) and Dead Ringer (E1) at Limekilns;
  • The Cuilin Ridge Traverse with Laura and Sol;
  • Agags Groove (VDiff) with Emma;
  • Last Exit to Torquay (HVS) and almost Gargantua (E1) with Adam; and
  • Basically everything else at Carnmore (Gob [HVS], Carnmore Corner [E2], Balaton [HVS], Abomination [HVS] etc).
Thanks again and see you in 2019!

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Out with the Old

The pervasive dampness and the progressively earlier darkening of the evening sky is a sure sign that Autumn is upon us. In reality with the three named storms we've already had since September reducing the trees to nothing more than wooden skeletons, it feels like we've skipped Autumn and gone straight to winter. Thankfully there have been a few good days to get out and enjoy a few final routes before the trad rack takes its annual hibernation in the bottom of the wardrobe.

Ever since moving to southern Scotland it never ceases to amaze me both the level of diversity and the volume of shy climbing venues right on my doorstep. Perhaps its on the fringes of what is considered southern as its just north of Perth, but an example of the splendor of some of these crags is exemplified perfectly by the unrivaled beauty and tranquility of the crags around Dunkeld. Set within an ancient wooded forest on the steep flanks of valleys carved by water and ice and on a south facing slope too, Craig a Barns is a great place for late season exploits with the best bit being that the walk-in is less than 10 minutes! The crag plays host to a plethora of mid-grade single and multi pitch classics including Kestral Crack (S), The Groove (VS) and The End (VS). The nature of the metamorphosed sandstone is very compact with the majority of the more accessible routes following cracks and weaknesses however even these can sometimes be quite a bold affair which definitely felt the case of The End which has gear where you need it but perhaps not always where you want it!

Just round the corner, Cave Crag also provides some serious sporting endevour of a more challenging variety, offering some of the best sport climbing in Scotland. Its also got a few notable trad routes, one of which even features on the front cover of the new SMC Highland Outcrops South Guidebook! The rock here is similar to Craig a Barns except its slightly less compact and perhaps a bit more disjointed which is why quite large sections of the crag have been bolted. None the less, the crag had a great outlook and i can't wait to get back there next year and maybe try some of the harder lines.

Another recently discovered gem is the Reid Craigs area of Glen Clova. Like Dunkeld, Glen Clova is situated in the extreme south of the Cairngorms massive and is also a product of its icey past with perfectly flat valley bottoms guarded by steep sided valleys rising straight up onto wild and heathery moors. The criss-crossing of dry stone walls and endless miles windy rural roads make it almost reminiscent of the dales of the Lake District, with the picture completed by the presence of a series of fantastic micro granite crags situated just up the hill sides. Perhaps even more so than Craig a Barns, the Reid Crags are a paradise for the mid-grade climber with a whole series of quality lines ranging from VS to E2, with the pick of the bunch being Proud Corner (VS), Wandered (HVS), Red Wall (E1) and Zig Zag Double Direct (E2).

2018 has been a great year for trad and finishing the season with trips to these venues has been a really great way of topping it all off.

Fingers crossed this winter was as good as the last. I've put some pictures from the last few weeks below.

Just after the crux on the second pitch of The End (VS 5a) at Craig a Barns (photo Credit Iain).

Nicholas seconding The Groove (VS 5a) at Craig a Barns on a perfect autumn day

The brilliant and wide jamming crack of Coffin Corner (HVS 5a) at Cave Crag near Dunkeld (photo credit Iain)

Ben seconding the first pitch of Red Wall (E1 5b) at Reid Crags, Glen Clova (photo credit Gregor)

Gregor on the second pitch traverse of High Level Traverse and Direct Finish (HS 4b) at Reid Crags

Ben finishing the final few tough moves on Wandered (HVS 5a) at Reid Crags

Another shot of Red Wall with Ben leading the second pitch (photo credit Gregor)

Ben leading Proud Corner (VS 4c). Definitely not very corner like but totally brilliant none the less.. 
Embracing the changing seasons over to sea to Skye 


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

God's Own Granite

Although I've been to Lundy a few times now, it wasn't until our trip in 2014 that I began to appreciate how much of a paradise the island really is. Its staggering just how much adventure can be packed into a place that's only half a mile wide and 3 or 4 miles long! The overwhelming feeling of remoteness and isolation is also way beyond its true geographical location, perhaps compounded by the fact that signal is rubbish, there's no WiFi and no roads either. These factors combined with careful and sustainable management by the Landmark Trust for nearly 40 years means the islands rich cultural heritage really shines through, ensuring any any trip there feels a world apart.

The islands landscape is a character of two halves with the rugged and Atlantic storm battered west coast contrasting dramatically with the more sheltered lush and green eastern side. For climbers, it is this wild west coast of pristine golden granite extending for mile after mile, that will keep you coming back. 

The northern light on Lundy Island. With Cardiff and Bristol both less than 50 miles away, its hard to find somewhere so isolated so close to 'civilization' 
Our trip this time round was as part of a stag-do christian union convention hosted by the right and honorable Morgan contingent, with the communion comprising of swimmers, climbers and alcoholics alike. Although climbing was clearly not the main objective of a trip like this, me and Ed were asked to bring some rock stuff to run a group session on one of the more accessible cliffs. Lundy being Lundy however there aren't many (if any) cliffs that have a simple approach, easy climbing and are non-tidal so it was after much guidebook thumbing that we eventually settled on Picnic Bay Cliff at the northern end of Jenny's Cove. The group session actually turned out quite well, giving nearly 20 people an abseil and a climb, some of whom had never done an outside climbing before let alone an abseil (pretty good place to break your rock climbing virginity if you ask me!). Plans for more climbing with people in the group were drawn up, however most people were to preoccupied with suffering the consequences of regularly saving the queen to fulfill any such ambitions. This was especially the case for the communion leader himself, who after drinking his own body weight in Aldi champagne and Korev spent much of the trip avoiding sunlight where possible.  

All terrain christian communion leader. Good thing drink driving isn't a thing on Lundy... (E.T. collection)
Optimizing on a few early morning opportunities myself and Ed did manage to get some personal climbing in too. We had a bit of a warm up on the mainland in the days prior to the trip on the Culm coast. Renowned for its poor rock and looseness, we figured getting some mileage in there would be a great way of getting our heads back into the 'adventurous trad' mindset needed for Lundy. Having climbed there a little in the past we both had an idea of what venues would work given the weather and tides and in the end settled on Lower Sharpnose. For those that haven't been, Sharpnose is a truly unique crag comprising of a series of narrow 'fins' which jut vertically out from the cliff. The first route we did was the 'middle fin' and was called Lunakhod. At HVS 5a and reputedly one of the best routes on the coast it was an obvious choice, climbing a long and sustained corner crack for 40 m to the top of the narrow fin. The gear was great and the moves equally so, easy to see how its a classic! The next route climbed was on the prow of the upper fin and was a touch more on the esoteric side of things. Hatchet (HVS 4c) climbed a big wide crack before moving up into a squeeze chimney right at the top, what could be more enticing I hear you ask! Compared to the other routes at Sharpnose this route is relatively little traveled and doesn't appear as a fully listed climb in any of the regional select guide books. In the end it was a quality climb with very little loose rock, although not the same class  as Lunakhod, it was (arguably) just as entertaining. 

Ed following up the amazing corner crack of Lunakhod (HVS 5a)

The lesser-known line of Hatchet (HVS 4c) with the author in the squeeze chimney at the top. (E.T. collection)

The squeeze chimney of Hatchet. He loves it really...

One of the 'fins' at Lower Sharpnose
Our first session on Lundy was down at Battery Cliff, with a hope of ticking a stunning line we'd spotted on our previous trip when we climbed Diamond Solitaire (VS 4c). Double Diamond (HVS 5b) takes a direct line through the overhangs and pulls rightwards onto the DS slab before climbing directly to the top, independently of the corner. Unfortunately having pulled through the crux to find the slab and cracks greasy and wet, it was all to easy to make the traverse into the DS cracks which was the end of that endevour. We still finished up DS, which in itself is a classic and super enjoyable none the less.   
Checking out the line of Double Diamond (HVS 5b) below Battery Cliff. (E.T. collection)

Ed on the exposed traverse pitch of Diamond Solitaire (VS 4c)
The next few routes we did were thankfully more successful, the first being Shark (E1 5a) situated precariously on the soaring arete that overlooks the Devil's Slide. The rock is loose in places and a bit grassy, but that doesn't detract from the absorbing position you find yourself in, teetering up the narrow arete with the drop below biting at your heels. An esoteric classic that definitely deserves more stars and traffic. 

Our final day saw more of an extended outing, ticking The Indy 500! (E1 5b) and the mini sea stack of Integrity (HS 4b). The former, situated over in Landing Craft Bay was a superb finger crack and face climb which ascends a steep wall to the right of the sadly demised Formula One (HVS 5a). The moves were far from simple, but the gear just kept coming! Integrity was also a brilliant route and a great lead by Ed, packing in a huge variety of climbing considering its a single pitch sea stack. Once at the top we also did the honorable thing and cut-off the mountain of rotting tat around the abseil spike, replacing it with some new cordelette and a krab. 

The communion leader himself working his way up the Devil's Slide (HS 4b) with Nick (E.T. collection)

Teetering up the crux pitch of Shark (E1 5a). (E.T. collection)

An exposure explosion on Shark (E1 5a), note the celebratory Hooters vest! 

Ed moving through the crux with exposure biting at the heels

Ed following up The Indy 500! (E1 5b)

Needle Rock on Lundy. A mini sea stack that packs in a pile of adventure considering its size. Integrity (HS 4b) climbs the soaring left arete. 

Ed leading the final steep wall section of Integrity (HS 4b)

(E.T. collection)

The assortment of rotting krabs we removed from the top of Needle Rock
Sat aboard the ferry with Ed and the other boys watching the sun set behind the island through the rise and fall of the ocean, you really get a sense of just how magical Lundy is. Its hard not to be all sentimental about a trip there, I mean you make so many amazing memories in such a short space of time. For the brief moment aboard the island as a Lundy-ludite, you cant help but be totally immersed by the people and the place, living in that little bubble with no rush hour, no news updates, just blissful isolation. Once again its another ferry ride with my head in the clouds but my heart in my stomach, although at least I had something in my stomach as the aforementioned rise and fall of the boat was doing a great job at keeping many other people's empty! 
The sun sets on another amazing adventure (E.T. collection)