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!

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