I suppose what I like about British climbing is the history, the reputation, the adventure, the exploration. The related stories always seem to involve some obscure climbing personality, a location that's not usually frequented by the crowds, and typically with information not so readily available. These are normally the right ingredients to something exciting.
Maybe it's not so special for someone born and bred in the British climbing culture, to find oneself exploring sea-cliffs, boarding a fishing boat to some island or questing upward in a sea of lichen-spotted rock. But for me it's still a novelty. Trad climbing is not hardwired in me, I have to fight the fear, question the gear, and thinking that it was all perhaps a bad idea. But boy I love it.
My apprenticeship is still ongoing. But what I know is that I'm allured to the remote, the quirky and often times esoteric character of British trad. Sport climbing will remain what it is, a sport, and a fun one at that. But this other dimension to climbing has opened up to me in the last few years is a bit like a treasure hunting or stamp collection. Travelling up and down the country searching for these gospel routes.
And we found ourselves in Lewis & Harris. Hunting for two routes with an aura, Prozak Link and Stone. Prozak Link has been staring me in the eye every time I pick up my Scottish Rock guidebook. It's on its front cover. I know it's a Glenda Huxter route, an almost mythical climbing figure. I also know it's in many people's list as UK best E4. As for Stone, as similar dialogue can be established. In many people's top E5's in the country, free'd by another mythical figure as Mick Fowler and in an intimidating crag such as Sron of Ulladale. Those who have read Ben Moon's, Paul Pritchard or Johnny Dawes adventure will know about "Strone".
These two routes were the backbone for the reason to come here, but many other routes and crags were also high targets. Crags like The Painted Wall, Dalbeg and Mangersta showcased some strong-looking lines. We set off exploring first the bay of Dalbeg, a beautiful sandy beach as a backdrop to the amazing climbing. The climbing didn't start auspiciously as Jon took a lob on Limpet Crack (E3) and I failed to get up Tweetie Pie Slalom (E5). Still, a refreshing swim in the sea washed all the ego-bashing away and remind us how lucky we were to be in such a beautiful corner of the world. We moved on to Painted Wall for the second day, where we seemed to be more in tune with the climbing. I did an interesting E5 called Dauntless and Jon smashed his first E5, Goodbye Ruby Tuesday, not an easy one at 6B. With complemented the day with two other E4's including the eponymous Painted Wall.
*Jon Leighton on Goodbye Ruby Tuesday E5 6b, The Painted Wall.*Italic text
With high spirits we decided to tackle one of the big ones, the Prozak Link. After getting to the crag a bit early, we lounged and did an HVS quest waiting for the sun to hit the face and burn the smeg. Suitably psyched we dropped down and got involved in this 4-pitch horizontal journey across improvable terrain. I went up the first pitch battling the grease, to find that it wasn't too bad and offered some excellent climbing on what seemed something like perfect smooth granite crack. The second pitch changed character completely, Jon did a good job at gingerly traversing across what looked like a band of Torridoninan Sandstone. Perched on a superbly positioned little ledge, I set off tackling some more wild climbing. The rock changed again, making me realised that the timing of splitting the pitches must have been deliberate. Good old Glenda. I was now in some funky, wavy, Lewisan Gneiss that took me to an exposed hanging belay with a lot of air and the sea raging under my feet. Jon set off to dispatch the last pitch, and again, to our amusement, the rock again to magnificent pink Pegmatite. The route turned out to be more like E2 climbing in an E4 situation. Suitably satisfied with ourselves we retired to the van to celebrate life with a few cold beers.
A very nervous laugh. Prozak Link does intimidate at first sight. (Photo Jon Leighton)
But soon it all good fun and the climbing never hard.
Jon dispatching the second pitch
Seconding the second pitch of Prozak Link (Photo Jon Leighton)
Things were about to change again when we visited Magic Geo. I set off to with The Magician (E5) in mind, just to be stopped on my tracks by a bold and hard start with a terrible landing. Deciding it was too much for breakfast, I went for a lovely steep and juggy E4 called Am Burach, definately worth more than the one star it gets in the guidebook. Jon then decided that breaking through that gnarly start of The Magician would yield some good climbing above. He did get through it, and for the next two hours he battled on the route, better explained in his own words here.
Our favourite doss sport was Dalbeg, mainly because the beach is right there.
Rest days were spend exploring the coast. We found some pretty amazing cliffs that were not in the guidebook
And of course, loads of swimming. I wish I brought a surfboard, some decent swells were going on.
After a rest day it was time to tackle the big one for us, Stone. I didn't know much about this route, other than it was perhaps one of the best E5's in the country and that it was in an intimidating cliff with a lot of history embedded to it. Jon didn't know anything about the route, but I just said it would be an epic day in the mountains and that seemed to be all he needed to get psyched. We did the walk up the beautiful glen in immaculate weather. Soon the Sron (the nose in Gaelic) appeared, big, steep and imposing. The first three pitches went without a hitch and we moved leisurely and enjoying the day, waiting for the sun to come around and hit the face. I was soon posed under the crux, the main groove pitch that goes on for 40mts. It did look steep, hard and long. But a friend had mentioned it was soft for the grade, so I quested up without further ado. Following the books description, it seemed to say to leave the comforts of teh offwith crack to transfer right to gain another crag an avoid the overhanging groove. I did that, but soon I found myself in no mans land, trying to execute 6b moves up this blunt arete to gain the right crack. After trying up and down many a time it became apparent I was off route. I slumped on the gear and came down suitably disappointed to blow the onsight. All sorts of doubts were going through my mind by now. Why am I such a shit trad climber? Down back at the belay I had five minutes to de-pump, had another look at the description, and still not clear with what it meant I decided to ignore it altogether to follow my instinct, which was to follow the offwidth pass the overhang. Refusing any more rest suggested byJon, I got back up to my high point and got involved with the offwidth. For the next hour or so, I got grossly involved in some deeply exhausting vertical journey, but topped the pitch out elated to have got it done. More importantly, I had this sense of relief that my gut instinct in route finding was right and that I can deal with offwidths with composure. Jon came up behind me, power-screaming his way right up to the belay. With the hardest pitch now behind us, we relaxed a little, but not soon after we found ourselves baffled again at the route description. We ignore it and followed our noses all the way to the top. Back at the bags by 10pm, dinner by 00.30 and bedtime at 1.30am. A thoroughly good day up in the Scottish hills.
Jon seconding the second pitch of Stone
Jon leading the 5c pitch
On the crux pitch of Stone
Midge panic. It wasn't that bad
A nice way to top out
Another team enjoying the views on Sron
Following a well deserved rest day, went back to Mangersta cliffs where Prozak Link is, to do some of the single pitch routes there that looked quality. We both did Killer Fingers E5 6a an Jon did an pumpy E4 called Suffering Barstards. I tried to get off the ground on another E5 but my arms said no, so we packed it to the van an savour the cold beers.
Jon on Suffering Bastards E4
Epic sunsets were the norm
On our last day of trying hard, we went back to Dalbeg to chase two routes that caught our attention. One was Blessed are the weak E5 6a and The Storm also E5 6a, both Glenda Huxter's routes. I choose to get on the 40mts pumper that is Blessed are the weak. It turned out to be an mentally exhausting exercise, the route keeps coming at you, not real rest and gear that you have to fight for the get in. About half way up, I lost my momentum and just simply gave up, I could keep up with the intensity. Yet another failure it made me think that my success rate in this trip wasn't very high. But again, if I wanted guaranteed success I would be in Pembroke instead. I stripped the route as I jummar out and made a move to The Storm, it was now Jon's showtime.
We seek out this route more that anything because it was another Glenda's pumpfest, being 50mts, and it seem quite remote, the only route on the cliff and no beta whatsoever on UKC logbooks. For the next 3hrs Jon spend his existence clinging on to this route. A very impressive lead, even if it was grounded up after a fall. You can read his account here. I had trouble enough not to fall off on second, trying really hard for most of the 50mts I couldn't believe how sustained it was. It made feel like an E2 climber out of my depth. Anyhow, I reached Jon at the belay, who was in a slight trance, and I lead us out of the chossy top. Another class day having our arses handed out to us, brilliant stuff.
Me about to get scared and shut down on Blessed are the weak E5 6a. Big fail!
Jon about to get involved in the trad lead of his life
The reminders of the Salmon industry
The coolest bothy ever
The Mangersta mystery man
I'll be back!
Scotland delivered for us again. I seem to have a now long running affair with the place. I find it hard to justify to travel half way around the world where there's so much good adventure at our doorstep. I hope we are as lucky same time next year, the search for the next Scottish destination has begun!