Old Men and the Sea - A Scottish Adventure
As the confidence of youth evaporates with the years, older climbers sometimes find it is less the actual route that takes its toll, than the relentless need to be on your guard. This is especially so on trad sea-cliffs – where even finding the start of the route can be a challenge. Dick Turnbull joins a team of veterans on the high seas in search of adventure and lost youth.
Climbing in Scotland is always special. Many of the greatest crags in the UK are north of the border and all of them have climbs whose pedigrees are unsurpassed and are top of the ‘must-do’ list for ambitious trad climbers. Most of these routes are venerable, well-known and extensively documented but now some of the most exciting and spectacular are more recent and precariously positioned on the savage Scottish periphery, far out to sea, practically in the middle of the wild North Atlantic.
These days most of my rock-climbing is done with a group of (maturing) friends known loosely as the ‘Grumpies’ The Grumpies are a varied group of climbing senior citizens based around the Peak and Sheffield who spend the winter climbing indoors at The Edge with occasional forays outside on ‘good’ days to remember what real climbing is all about before scurrying back again into the security of ‘plastic-land’.
Last year a select few from the Grumpies trad section teamed up with a similar group of anchorites from Scotland (Scrumpies?) to make a trip to the farthest periphery of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides to attempt some of the great new classics that have been developed over the last 20 years on the wild outlying islands of Pabbay and Mingulay. I couldn’t make that trip which eventually fizzled out in the face of northerly gales but this May I was deemed old enough to be included in the team for another attempt.
A long drive north saw the ageing motley team assembling in Oban before the gangway of the ‘Lord of the Isles’ ferry. The journey out was a fabulous voyage north in splendid high pressure sunshine and light winds through the Sound of Mull (endless lectures on the ‘great caldera’ from our amateur geologists) before turning left and pushing west across the Sea of Hebrides to the delightful haven of Castlebay on Barra, our hub for access to Pabbay and Mingulay. There we swapped a ship for a boat as we threw our tents, gear, and food aboard before carefully passing our much more valuable and clinking supplies across to be diligently stowed swaddled in sleeping bags and duvets.
Donald Macleod, with his family as crew, pushed off in our reassuringly robust transport, the ‘Boy James’, complete with eight of us and our mound of gear, food and other necessities. The inshore shipping forecast has several categories of ‘sea state’ from ‘slight’ to the scary ‘very rough’ culminating in the frankly terrifying ‘high’, ‘very high’ and finally ‘stupendous’! We were lucky, and happy to get away with ‘slight’. The hour-long trip south past the fabulous beaches of Vatersay, then Sandray, the peat island of Lingeigh and, finally, Pabbay took us into the spectacular white sands bay of Mingulay. There Donald had cunningly left a mooring buoy with a small tender complete with outboard as a landing craft.
The landing spot was straight onto the rocks to the south of the beach close under the steep bank leading up to the campsite. Perched on the rocks were gathered a group of young climbers ready for the transfer back to Pabbay or Castlebay. What followed was a melee of action as our gear was slung ashore (not the fragile cargo, of course) and theirs back into the ‘Boy James.’ We were carefully handed ashore, as befitting our age and appearance whilst those going the other way leapt down into the boat with youthful exuberance.
A steep slog followed as we moved all our expedition of gear and supplies up the tricky bank to the well-positioned camp site close by the old school house. This is now a hostel reserved for the RSPB volunteers staying on the island who carry out research on the myriad of seabirds thronging the cliffs ringing the island. These days it seems that a semi-permanent camp exists every summer as climbers have woken up to the possibility of the island’s great crags. As usual the potential for conflict between bird conservationists and climbers is ever present. So far so good as everyone has brought an unusual level of common sense to the issue. Now we were firmly ensconced on the island in brilliant weather and surrounded by a wealth of great routes all our excuses had run out. Time to go climbing.
Climbing on the islands requires a ‘plan of action’ – no simple ‘let’s go cragging’ mentality as you need an extensive extra array of gear just to get to the bottom of the climbs. Tide tables, 100m non-stretch abseil ropes, descenders, ascenders, shunts, prusik loops, rope protectors not to mention the extended rack you need just to fix your anchors at the top of your route. You have to remember/re-invent your abseiling skills as you never do on Stanage; do you put your security prusik above the brake or below it, where do you put the rope protectors; then you need faith.
Being ‘of a certain age’ suddenly exposes you in these situations. Your long experience sets you up nicely when you are fixing up the anchors and checking your rack but then the moment arrives – and suddenly you hesitate, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ Strangely this is often the crux. You realise that your commitment, which you have never doubted in the past is uncertain. It takes you by surprise and your initial reaction is to dismiss the doubts, clip on and get on with it. Now it becomes really important that all goes well as the simple self-confidence of youth has long since left the building and any problem can knock you back opening the taps that drain the confidence and certainty from your system.
Fortunately we hit the crag running. Well, more like ‘slowly progressing’. We were headed for Dun Mingulay and we were in the right place, (no thanks to the guidebook). The abseil anchors were solid, the weather was great, the sea calm enough and somewhere down there we’ve seen a good ledge above the sea. So off I go, focusing hard on getting it all right and desperately assessing where to put the rope protectors. Sliding slowly seawards (no soldier-boy antics for us) gives me a good chance to check out the rock and the holds as a bit of beta never did me any harm. Wow, this looks very promising –the rock is rough and solid and the holds look BIG but it’s steep, actually really steep and the gear looks a bit trick-some. Oh bugger, I’m at the ledge but it’s not my pitch next – phew!
Jonesy comes down, slowly like me, taking in the views, puffing out his cheeks, looking pretty impressed by the surroundings. He’s on the sharp end and seems composed – actually a bit too quiet. I can see him slyly checking the belay and being ‘cool man’, looking up, trying to visualise the pitch – I can see his body swaying as he anticipates the moves. ‘Go on, get on with it’ and off he goes climbing smoothly, powerful as usual, a bit of hesitation, a quick look down, and before I know it he’s on the belay. So much for nerves.
Then it’s my turn, Sula is supposed to be E2 5b but actually it feels okay, more like E1, great. Brilliant rock, good gear – wow, we’re actually enjoying it. My pitch is harder (of course) and the gear tricky to place in the bottoming, sea-worn cracks. It’s steep and intricate, no real line but up a bit, left a bit then edge back right along a thin break fiddling in small gear but at least it doesn’t look as hard as the beetling rock above the next stance. We’re cooking on gas here and from my snug little belay I can happily push John on up into the overhanging zone above. He’s trying not to look worried but from where I am it all looks pretty forbidding. He steps up and carefully rocks over to stretch past the blank bit just above the belay and then he’s into the steep stuff. I’m impressed he doesn’t look like he’s going to be 70 this year – how come he can still do it so effortlessly. Soon all I can see are his heels and then he disappears with occasional garbled shouts – is it fear or joy? Then my go. After the tricky blank bit I quickly see how the old bugger can do it, it’s covered in jugs, no wonder he looked so smooth. This is great – everything we came here for, committing, exhilarating and do-able. Fantastic. On top we realise with trepidation that we have a whole week of this ahead of us.
After that first route we upped the ante. E2 was okay so let’s get on an E3. We may have been deluded but the rock wasn’t and Silkie E3 6a was harder and not helped by the guidebook saying ‘step left’ at the crux when they really meant step right. Yet again the top pitch made up for everything – steep, solid but covered in jugs and again Jonesy romped up it not even stopping for photos. Then back to the fleshpots of Camp Mingulay despite there probably being time for another route. Let’s take it easy we say to each other – two great routes is fine blah, blah, blah. There was a time when we wouldn’t finish until it was dark but we are older and wiser (?) now.
This became the pattern for the week that followed. No early starts but no real hanging around dodging the issue. It didn’t take very long before we became somewhat jaded, losing what was left of that youthful push that gets you out early every day. Were we feeling our age? The weather started to crack up and threaten drizzle – a great excuse for being just a bit more careful than we might otherwise have been. We were getting tired with all the traipsing over rough ground, lugging 100m abseil ropes and searching for crags that were difficult to find from the top. The truth was, our nerves were stretched by the daily level of commitment required to find the crags; identify the routes, rig the ropes and then commit to going down into the unknown. After day two, one of the Scrumpies’ abseil ropes was knackered. The rough rock was lethal, even with low stretch ropes getting the protectors in the right place was really tricky. Were we getting just a bit too old for all this?
Looking back on the trip we probably didn’t do ourselves full justice but every day we managed to get on the routes we wanted – and got up them. The ‘island’ grading is such that if you can find and get on the routes you choose, you will probably get up them as the rock and the climbing are mostly very accommodating. To make the most of it, you mustn’t weaken.
After a couple of brilliant days on Mingulay it was time to get to grips with Pabbay. The ‘Boy James’ duly arrived after our radio summons. Bird watchers, bird counters and climbers were being ferried about on the Hebridean equivalent of the Circle Line. It was actually more like catching a bus than having a bespoke taxi as we were just a small part of the human traffic between the islands taking advantage of the short summer window of opportunity. Camping on Pabbay was just the same as on Mingulay – no midges, noisy corncrakes and snipe drumming but with a new set of companions this time a bunch of enthusiastic students from Edinburgh.
John and I had been on Pabbay 11 years earlier and climbed the great island classic of Prophecy of Drowning – now downgraded from E3 to E2 after we had done it. Gordon and the Scrumpies made a bee-line for it whilst John and I slipped off to see if the smaller Pabbay crags were any good. The Banded Wall only gives you two-pitch routes but was definitely ‘up-to-snuff’ with more brilliant rock, soaring overhanging pitches, great holds but still desperate to properly identify where to abseil from.
Our choice was the recommended Spring Squill E1 5b and we went down in trepidation as you can’t see the base of the crag from above and the sea was breathing heavily below. John swung in from the overhanging abseil to my sea-level perch only to swing out again as he set off up the overhanging traverse to start the first pitch. Somewhere, halfway up the pitch, he succumbed to an unusual fit of indecision. These crags do that to you as you have to make decisions to climb into areas that you think ‘I can’t do that’ or is it ‘I don’t want to do that – again’.
So he did the sensible thing and took a stance. As it happened the rest of the route was okay but after topping out we took the hint and went off to get photos of the others on the fantastic Prophecy of Drowning. Seeing the others dwarfed on the incredible rock architecture of the Great Arch galvanised us for one last push before we went home in two days' time. John and I had already done Prophecy so we knew the abseil and how to rig it. If it didn’t rain the next day we would do The Priest (E1 5b) as our last route on these fabulous crags.
For once we could see where we were going. Down, down, down right to the end of our 100m abseil rope to a tiny ledge just above a quietly menacing sea. It was drizzling and the rock was just-more-than-damp. If this was winter it would be the thinnest of verglas and that didn’t help our confidence. John led away up the steep right edge of the long slab of the first pitch. The ominous atmosphere and the surrounding, soaring rock architecture were oppressive but the holds were positive and the moves reasonable and in an instant John was calling down for me to get a move on. This place is extraordinary. It might be dark and dreich but the climbing was magnificent. The exposure formidable but the rock is so accommodating that you can actually enjoy it. Then, my turn. Quite where to go was the first problem as everything around me looked forbidding. This was the crux pitch mainly as the route now edged rightwards with no obvious line into the ever-steepening area of grooves and roofs.
Even though the rock was rough and grippy, the thin veneer of damp made the climbing tense and absorbing. A couple of false starts then bingo, it all fitted together and a couple more quick pulls had me onto a hanging slab beneath the final diagonal corner. This was sumptuous climbing; rough rock, incut holds leading up the right-facing ramp system ever stretching out over the zawn 200ft below. The overhangs above gave some protection from the clearing drizzle but barred the way to the top. Just as it looked desperate a kind of leftwards traverse side-stepped the roofs and with one awkward last pull I was sitting on the grass and sea-pink sward looking over the wild sea-scape towards America. Jonesy followed easily, of course, and that was that. Gordon and the Scrumpies returned from their abortive venture to the Pink Walls and slid down our rope for a quick ascent before it was time to get back to pack. They said it was no more than Hard Severe. Yeah, yeah! More like HVS 5a before the ‘Island Factor’ kicks in.
Our journey back was a relief. Time to go home – frankly we were tired but elated that we had had a brilliant trip to one of the great trad climbing destinations in the UK. If we had been 30 years younger we would have done twice as much but, of course, like wise old owls our purpose was quality not quantity – well, that’s our excuse.