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 and 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, we 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. As expected the wall was steep, juggy, pumpy and restless. None the less Rafe cruised up the pitch, placing almost the entire rack! Perhaps it was just the afternoon heat or the fact we'd been on the go for 4 days, but the route felt a real challenge and is a total testament to the brass and brute strength of the 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.    

No comments:

Post a Comment