Tuesday, 7 August 2018

An Eye on Arran

When people think of the Inner Hebrides it usually evokes images of wild and remote peat clad islands, shrouded thickly in mist and superstition alike. Thrust far off Scotland's rugged north west coast, you’d be forgiven for thinking a visit would require hours of stomach churning driving down endless miles of windy roads (and that's before you've even get on the ferry)! Although this may be the case for some such as Mull, Islay or Jura it’s easy to forget that one of the biggest and most accessible islands actually lies further south than the centre of Glasgow. It’s because of this accessibility in combination with its wild and untamed beauty that ensures the Isle of Arran is the perfect choice for the adventurous weekend warrior.

With a reasonable forecast and a late evening sailing time on the Friday, myself and Caelan set off with bikes, climbing gear and a whole lot of tinned tuna and couscous from Ardrossan on a course to the Isle of Arran’s capital Brodick. The mission was simple, get into the islands mountainous interior and go climbing!

A few hours later, with the ferry crossing done and the bumpy cycle up Glen Rosa towards Garbh Allt bridge also behind us, we scuttled along the remainder of the Glen chasing the moonlit shadow of Goatfell as we went and pitching camp below Fionn Choire. By the time we turned in, the summits were shrouded in dense banks cloud which in hindsight was a telling sign perhaps. No matter though, the forecast for the weekend was good, so we both slept soundly.
The majestic granite spire of Cir Mhor situated at the head of Glen Rosa on the Isle of Arran 
The next morning we woke to the sound of light rain patting the outside of the tent. A quick glance outside through bleary eyes confirmed our worst fears. Everything was soaking. Worse still there was a cloud of midges so big it would make even the hardiest highland inhabitants go weak at the knees and run for cover. Since there was nothing else for it, we decided to stay put to see if the weather passed but by lunchtime it was apparent that the torrential rain had arrived, and it was here to stay. Such conditions wouldn’t usually be conducive to rock climbing in the UK, especially in the mountains, however Arran’s hills are not exactly typical mountain rock architecture. The gigantic magmatic batholith that intruded the Dalradian meta-sediments around 58 million years ago that dominates much of the islands northern mountains exhibits some of the most intriguing granite formations with vast and compact sheets of grey igneous rock. The lack of anywhere for weathering processes to get a proper grip means that towers, slabs and spires are in abundance and where the few fractures have occurred, all this focused destructive energy has formed humongous fissures and cracks that can be seen from miles away. What I’m trying to say is that from a geological perspective Arran is the lesser-known home of off-width and chimney crack climbing. Perfect for rainy days!

Adventure time! Boarding the ferry at Ardrossan bound for Brodick on Arran

Plans changed and waterproofs donned, we headed for Cir Mhor to see what we could get inside. By the time we climbed the lower heather clad approach slopes the cloud had thickened, but at least the rain had stopped. After a bit of uming and ahing we settled on Caliban’s Creep, a three star VDiff with an enticing description particularly for pitch four, where apparently subterranean passage is ‘mandatory’.  Although quite disjointed, the route was quite entertaining, especially on the ‘through route’ bit and provided suitable slimy challenge up the short but sharp chimney sections too.

Classic mountain clag. We woke on Saturday morning to rain on the tent. Ambitions curbed we opted for some chimney climbing on Caliban's Creep (VDiff). This Caelan on the second pitch making a thin traverse around to the first of the chimneys.

The entertaining fourth pitch of Calban's Creep, which required some pretty unique chimney climbing through the mountain! 
Caelan loving the chimneys, made all the better for the wet and the slime
Next up was Labyrinth. Situated over on the upper north east buttress of Cir Mhor, this ‘Classic Rock’ route had a reputation for requiring a stiff upper lip and an ability to deal with vast quantities of filth. Having now done the route, I’d completely agree. Every pitch was covered in grime and required at least half of ones body to be in contact with two sides of fissure at any one time. If quality climbing is your bag and you’ve got an irrepressible fear of veg and mud, then stay well clear. In short this probably isn’t a route to do with the missus. None the less, watching one of your mates squirm and squeeze through a variety of crud filled cavities is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed and on that basis I can’t recommend this route enough. Best save it for when its soaking like we did, at least that way your clothes might stand a chance at surviving the shredding effect of those granite cracks.

The upper east buttress of Cir Mhor. Labyrinth (VDiff) climbs the obvious crack system running the height of the crag. By this time the weather had improved a bit, but everything was still pretty damp! 

The minotaur of the Labyrinth? 
The main chimney pitch of Labyrinth. More body contact than a six nations rugby fixture! 
Caelan on the 'inside' pitch of Labyrinth
Thankfully the next day we woke to almost clear skies and a fresh breeze. Without wasting a moment we grabbed the gear and headed straight back up to Cir Mhor. Released from our wet weather enchainment to chimney climbing, our attentions swiftly turned to perhaps the most obvious line on the mountain, the South Ridge Direct. Shaped like an upside down raindrop, broad like a barrel at its base becoming gradually more defined with height, it looks almost like a famous French Aiguille and is every bit as alluring. Being almost 200 m in length from bottom to top and with a grade of VS 5a, it’s a big undertaking and probably dispels its fair share of suitors on a regular basis. This especially so one some of the many named pitches such as the infamous ‘S’, ‘Y’ or ‘Layback’ crack pitches. However with an early start and some good weather (well at least dry weather..) we’d dispatched the climb by late lunchtime, with the named pitches all going without a hitch. The ‘Layback’ pitch was especially notable for its quality and although short, was perhaps one of the most exhilarating pitches I’ve done this year. After these sections the difficulties ease considerably, but none the less upper climb was equally as atmospheric, although this might be been related to the lowering of the cloud bank enveloping us and the view!
The compelling South Ridge Direct (VS 5a) takes a direct line up the lower buttress following the crest all the way to the top of Cir Mhor
All great things start with a chimney (at least they do on Arran..)
The 'Y' cracks crux pitch, fantastically steep and overhanging jamming. A quality pitch! 
Looking down from above the crux. The 'S' crack pitch is just below.

The 'Layback' pitch. The route follows the steep crack before breaking out along a line of flakes above the void. A superb pitch
Caelan on the upper section and yes! Its another chimney pitch! 

Conditions remained fairly 'atmospheric' all the way to top. At least it made the exposure more bearable. 

With the route in the bag and the weather hardly worth an extended stay, we headed back down to our tent before plodding down the last bit of the Glen towards the bikes. As we rounded the corner by the Garbb Allt bridge the clouds parted and the sky started to brighten up a bit. We even saw a couple taking a swim in their undies in the river. Don't get me wrong it was nicer weather, but it wasn't that nice... Perhaps they were from further north than we were?

The Isle of Arran really is an amazing place to visit, with Glen Rosa and Cir Mhor specifically being utterly spectacular (even in the wet). It was only a short trip over, but it was so good to finally get some climbing done after the disappointment of previous attempts on the island. To be honest it was hardly all roses this time round either, especially considering the soaking we had on Saturday morning, which combined with the knuckle skinning we had in those chimneys in the afternoon might be enough to put you off the place for life! None the less, I couldn't help thinking whilst stood in the que of cyclists waiting to board the ferry to Ardrossan, that I knew my intrigue for this place had only intensified as a result of the last few days and that I'd be back again soon.  

It was sad to be leaving such an amazing place, but that fact in itself means I know I'll be back.
Some of the photos on here are Caelan's too, thanks for letting me use them! 

Tuesday, 10 July 2018


Evenings out are pretty barny at the moment. Hot hot hot never ending hot hot hot. Even the most obscure and shaded bits are thoroughly baked making adventures a plenty. Organizing an evening out a week in advance is to easy. No need to check the forecast. It's gonna be grand!

Limekilns, Cambusbarron and North Third have received plenty of after work attention. Having taken some time off from climbing to train (eat, sleep, swim-bike-run, repeat), its been good to get back out.

The rock round here really is so diverse. Limekilns provides some great (and steep) thin crack and face climbing, with the camby quarries and north third proving some great (and steep) jamming. 

Highlights have been Jezebel at North Third, Elgin's Crack at Limekilns and Stonefall Crack at Dumbarton.

I'm really starting to love this place. Long may the drought continue.  
Halfway up Elgin's Crack (E2 5c) at Limekilns

Berny seconding Dead Ringer at Limekilns (E1 5b)

Nicholas soloing at Limekilns
Berny enjoying the superb jamming up at North Third

Jezebel (E1 5b)

Stonefall Crack at Dumbarton (HVS 5a)

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Five days in the Fisherfield Forest

Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. Advancements in technology and the gradual rise of social media means we're all constantly online, tethered to our digital domain for work as well as play. The never ending hustle and bustle of our modern lives can sometimes be unknowingly overwhelming... Thankfully a place still exist where all these things become a mere memory. A place still influenced by the hand of man, but only by being kept in a state plagioclimax. Frozen in technological time and stranding you in blissful isolation (depending on your view of such things i guess). Along with Knoydart and the Wester Ross, the Fisherfield Forest is considered by many as one of the UK’s last wildernesses. Hemmed in by Beinn Lair and Slioch to the South and the mighty An Teallach to the North. Its a landscape dominated by bogs, lochs, mountains and midges and at the heart of all of this empty space, is Carnmore Crag. Being over 20 km from the nearest road yet hosting an abundance of climbs ranging from Moderate to E8 6c, Carnmore is a one of the most remote mountain crags around and perhaps one of the finest to boot. Ever since reading about it in Adrian Crofton's and Guy Robertson's The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland a trip to this amazing mass of rock was inevitable, all that was needed was opportunity.

For the last few years a week long Scottish trad adventure has become a firm fixture in mine and Rafe's calendars, with the timing of trip usually in July/August. Following a recent run of mixed weather, we opted this year to go during the spring/early summer to try and avoid the usual rainy season deluge we've suffered previously.

On the run up to this trip we really struggled to agree on a venue. Scotland has some fantastic mountain crags, sea cliffs and outcrops, all of which can be found in pretty much ever region. There really were endless possibilities, but as always, it all really depended on the forecast. Fortunately for us, a pre-summer heat wave has been dominating the weather for much of May and June in Scotland, rendering many of the mountain crags dry as a bone. With this in mind and a knowledge that thunderstorms and fog were plaguing eastern mountains, we decided west was best and settled on Carnmore.
The long road into Carnmore. Starting from Poolewe the trail starts initially on 4x4 tracks in the Kernsary Estate before getting gradually smaller and smaller as the mountains grew bigger and bigger.

Crossing the causeway between the Fionn and Dubh Lochs into the Fisherfield Estate. 

The final approach to Estate House with Carnmore looming above. Our home for the next five days.
Being so wild and remote, a trip to this crag would be very different to our recent yearly car-camping style campaigns as everything would need to be hauled in. Although there is a shooting house at the base of the crag owned by the Letterewe Estate, its kept firmly locked with access for shooting parties only. According to various guidebooks, the Estate are happy for climbers and walkers to use the old 'barn' sat about 100m from the main house offering at least a little luxury. However being unsure of the state of the 'barn' and also whether we'd find it full of other people or not, we still opted to take a tent, just in case.

We'd need to carry everything we need to survive for the week including camping stuff, climbing equipment and of course a massive bag of food. Meticulous nutritional planning and preparation was going to be key to our success to keep the weight down. As it turns out, this is neither mine nor Rafe's strong point meant our food supply basically comprised of pasta, porridge, fruit, nuts and jam, all of which in the end weighed a tonne! Not to be dismayed and with the heaviest bags in the world, we set off from Poolewe on the long winding path and 4 and half hours later arrived at the crag.

Upon first acquaintance with Carnmore, the crag is split into three obvious sections; two very distinct upper and lower tiers which are separated by a swath of heathery slabs along with a large, imposing buttress on the western flank which runs the full height of the cliff. However, the most striking feature of Carnmore is the upper buttress. This section of the crag is adorned with a plethora of soaring corners and steep overhangs which from the valley floor looks almost impenetrable. With all these features combined, the cliff makes for quite an imposing sight being nearly 300m high and 500m wide.

After a lengthy spell of staring up and at the cliff and tracing the plum lines we decided to check out the 'barn', which as it turned out was pretty basic, containing little more than a few dust sheets and the odd rotting mattress. I was hardly expecting 5 star accommodation but it was pretty scrappy even by bothy standards. None the less, it provided a roof for cooking under with some shelter from the midges and would be home for the next few days.

Ignoring tired and heavy legs and made a beeline for one of the great classics of the upper tier, Gob (HVS 4c). With much of the day taken up by the monster walk from Poolewe, we opted to walk to the top of the crag and make an intimidating abseil down and into the heather terrace, from which we could traverse across and access the start of the route. First climbed in 1960 by none other than the legendary Robin Smith and Dougal Haston, Gob takes a devious line under and then through the main central overhangs. With more exposure than you can shake a stick at combined with holds bigger than the starship enterprise, its no wonder people often compare this route to Dream of White Horses at Gogarth. Ironically the first pitch, which makes a short traverse before climbing a groove up to below the main overhang, was probably the crux, but apart from that short bit most of the route was more or less VS in standard, assuming you don'd mind a lot of air beneath your feet!
Carnmore crag, up close and personnel. Above can be seen the main line of overhangs and grooves, harboring some really amazing lines.

Rafe on the magnificent traverse on pitch 2 of Gob (HVS 4c)

The bottomless groove of pitch 3 on Gob. By the time we'd climbed the first two pitches the glen had filled with cloud with the finish just breaching into the sunshine.

Met at the top by one of the best views I've ever seen. 
The next few days went like a whirlwind, taking in as many of the classic lines as we could in the limited time we had including Balaton (HVS/E1 5b), Dragon (E1 5b) and Fionn Buttress (VS 5a). One of the most memorable excursions was Abomination (HVS 5b), which takes a humongous hanging groove line on the upper tier next to Dragon. Having probably had only a handful of ascents since it was first climbed by Jonny McLean in 1966, it turned out to be a route of real character with lots of 'traditional' climbing up a series of steep cracks and chimneys all of which was completely buried in rubble and dried black slime, the latter of which we were both scratching out of our eyes for days.
On the lower pitches of Fionn Buttress (VS 5a). This 11 pitch monster VS has loose rock and vegetation in equal measure with quality climbing and superb exposure. It encapsulates all that's best about big mountain craggin' in the UK.

Rafe of the wild traverse on pitch 6 high above Fionn Loch
A photo taken by Barry Wright of me and Rafe high on Pitch 7 of Fionn Buttress. This pitch follows after the traverse climbing through some surprisingly steep ground for VS. 

Another shot from Fionn Buttress  this time on a thin slab on pitch 8

The first steep pitch of Balaton (HVS/E1 5b), the only route we managed to do on the lower tier. Being over 100m long, it makes a great prequel to a route on the upper tier. 

Rafe following the second pitch of Balaton. The first part of this pitch negotiated an amazing 5b traverse followed by an equally satisfying 4c crack. Perhaps one of the best quality pitches of the trip.

Looking down the crux pitch of Abomination (HVS 5b). The wide hanging groove quickly narrowed turning into a pretty strenuous finger crack. The only downer was the amount of grass bombs and loose rock Rafe had to throw down at me whilst he lead it! (Photo credit Rafe)
Rafe following the top 4c chimney pitch of Abomination (HVS 5b).

Rafe following the airy traverse line on the 3rd pitch of Dragon (E1 5b). The pitch climbs a superb groove before making outrageous moves through an overhanging roof. With the whole of the crag below you its a wild place, especially when you get the knee bar rest on the steepest bit and get a chance to properly take stock! 
Looking down the crux pitch of Carnmore Corner (E2 5b). (Photo credit Rafe).

On our last day, we climbed the mind blowing Dragon (E1 5b) which meant we'd now climbed the majority of notable routes at Carnmore graded between HVS and E1. It was then that Rafe then upped the anti by suggesting we take on Carnmore Corner (E2 5b). Having abbed down the line a few times over the previous days (free hanging in front of it as the cliff is so steep here!) we both knew it was going to be tough. Since it was his idea I gladly handed him the sharp end of the rope for this one. Steep and juggy but pumpy and almost restless, none the less Rafe cruised up placing almost the entire rack! The main pitch was a real challenge and a total testament to the brass and brute strength first ascensionist in 1968(!).

With the route ticked and our time at the crag drawing to a close, we walked back to the barn one last time watching the sun set behind the Western Isles. The next day we shouldered our (slightly lighter) bags and headed back for Poolewe.

Sad to be leaving, but to happy to have came. Carnmore in all its glory. 
Climbing at Carnmore in that vast wilderness was truly an unforgettable experience. The days were dominated by chatting, eating, climbing and some more eating. Social media had become a distant memory in Fisherfield's land of GPRS signal allowing your mind to completely disconnect. There are many places in the UK that hold mythical status and are often considered bucket list venues. Although Carnmore is probably one such place for a few, its isolation, remoteness and  sheer scale are likely to prevent this place ever becoming popular. Until that changes this crag will forever remain a bastion of adventure for only those that know.    

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Climbing Am Buachaille

Sea stacks are funny old things. These distinct and dramatic features often provide a focal point for our coastal scenery with people traveling from far and wide to stare at their majesty and mystery, yet are nothing more than a creation of coincidence, where more competent rock was subject to slightly less erosive force than everything around it. None the less, seas stacks have captivated the imagination of onlookers for centuries past, usually being at the centre of myths and legends, whether through being personified as a result of their shape or form or even being fantasied, perhaps representing the action of a god or deity, each one is unique and has its own story to tell.  

Putting aside their rich mythical history, sea stacks are also a window into the past, being the only trace of a lost landscape devoured by the relentless force of the ocean. Perhaps its this temporal intermittency, knowing they are just a brief blip in a never ending destructive process, notwithstanding their typically inaccessible demine, which makes them such an alluring challenge for the rock climber.

Am Buachialle is a 50m high sandstone sea stack situated a few miles south of Sandwood Bay near Cape Wrath. The stack is one of the 'classic 3' Scottish stacks and is often considered the most serious on account of its approach and its isolation.
For me it all started back on the Island of Lundy in 2014. My first stack, the Devils Chimney, was definitely a great introduction to the delights of this esoteric sub-sport with both a remote situation and equally complex approach, requiring a 100m abseil onto the wild western facing and cliff rimmed Jenny’s Cove. Loose rock, puking sea birds and an ever-shortening tide window were the order of the day and all added to the adventure. I’m not sure whether it was the incoming sea or perhaps our soon to depart ferry which ensured rapid ascension back up the cliff after our ascent!
The Devil's Chimney, which is the biggest stack on Lundy, is a ~40m stack situated on the islands west coast in the Bristol Channel and was my first ever sea stack climb. (Source)

The main route (HVS 5b) is the most popular route up the stack and comprises some quite steep and in places, loose rock.  
Last weekend was another milestone for me having now ticked the much famed Am Buachille (meaning ‘the Shepherd’) sea stack, completing my trio of ‘classic’ Scottish Sea Stacks (with the others being The Old Man of Hoy and Stoer). I’ve often read that the former, Am Bucahille, is the most committing of the three on account of its inaccessibility. I guess this is because it requires a long walk in and also a sea swim to access the base of the stack, whereas the others can be accessed in any tidal state with Hoy being completely non-tidal. Having ticked the stack, i'd agree it’s the most committing, but the climbing (assuming you don’t mind a bit of loose rock) is actually very straight forward, taking a wondering line up the stepped landward face and out-flanking most of the difficulties posed by any overhanging sections. That said, the route is very enjoyable but is indeed in a very very remote location, being a 5 mile walk from one of the most isolated communities in the UK, so having a balls up is really not an option! In reality this day is all about the adventure, having a great time with some great company. 

The approach to the stack requires a long walk across the moors south of Sandwood Bay before descending a large broken cliff and finally scrambling along the rocky shoreline.

To get to the base of the stack you also have to negotiate a permanent sea channel which must be swum (as there are no suitable anchors for a tyrolean). We took a small blow up boat and a spare rope to ferry our gear across to the base of the stack. (Photo credit Iain).

The climbing on the stack is steep to start and a bit loose, but has okay gear and gets more interesting the higher you get up. We opted to climb the Landward Face route (VS/HVS) which comprised of three pitches, the first two of which were the technical pitches. (Photo credit Iain) 
Abseiling from the top can be done in one go with 60m ropes, although 50m ropes may also be fine with a bit of stretch. The tat at the top was in okay condition and looked like some of it had been recently replaced. 

Iain coming down the final section on a perfect spring day.

The team (from left to right) comprising of Iain, Berny, Gregor and the author (Photo credit Iain)

Beautiful Scotland. (Photo credit Iain)
In terms of beta, everything you need to know already exists in guidebooks and the various blogs you'll find on the internet, plus its nice to have a few things to discover for yourself. The only thing I would add is that for us the tide constraint isn't actually at the base of the stack and was in fact a short section of the approach along the cliff base just before you reach the stack. It would be worth making sure when you're moving off the stack that the tide hasn't engulfed this short stretch as you'd be pretty stuck for options if that was the case! The again, if you've got a blow up boat you can all just hop aboard and set sail for Sandwood!