The weekend began with Chris deftly repeating my highball problem The Merlin on a beautifully sunny Friday evening - good going after five and a half hours behind the wheel from Edinburgh, and a pleasant introduction to some of the quality to be had.
Chris making light work of The Merlin (E1 5c)
The Merlin again, this time I gurn my way up in the twilight
Chris seconding Flow Country Scene in the sun
Chris on the F.A. of his Prickly Pear (Severe)
Next up we headed to the steep Central Wall – the most extensive area of rock at Culfern, but also the least helpful. Where it looks protect-able it’s covered in ‘Gogarth Sea Grass’, and where it’s really clean it’s overhanging and appears totally gearless. One exception to this is at the right end of the wall, where the steepness is split by two vertical cracks leading into a small hanging corner, and because it’s still pretty steep it’s very clean. The prospect of good gear was enough to spur me into tying-in and having a look, and by golly gosh, I’m glad I did. After placing good wires at full stretch from a ledge at two metres I took an age to puzzle out the next moves. A boulder-problem crux was then followed by sustained, well protected, steep climbing on incredible jugs and flakes all the way to the top. As I sat at the top, pumped and grinning, huge skeins of migrating pink-footed geese flew overhead in their characteristic ‘V’ formations, honking encouragement to Chris on second. His gurn as he pulled over onto the final slab said it all.
Steep'n'Juggy: Eka Be (E1 5c)
Neither of us could quite believe how good it had been. Despite it’s small stature (about 12 metres), it’s one of the most rewarding routes I’ve done; steep, pretty safe, a hard(ish) crux, pumpy, excellent rock (the kind of gneiss where flakes look like they’ve been glued on), but all mingled with the uncertainty of not knowing if it would continue. Awesome. Mind you, I would say that, it’s my route (I hope). It’s called Eka Be, which means ‘big yes’ in Malagasy (Madagascan), in honour of Jones. After all, it was her birthday. Grade-wise, we thought that E1 5c was fair, but if you were a lanky bastard the crux would be a bit easier. The setting sun brought the day to a close, and as we drove back to mine we were already excited about what tomorrow would bring.
Sunday dawned with the climber’s least favourite weather: sunshine and showers, and continued that way for much of its length. By midday we made it to the crag and Chris started us off with a route in the Southern Sector. Flakes up a slab led to an airy wee arête, which was sadly escapable, but if you stuck to it it was good fun. Chris dubbed it Turtle Head Ridge (VDiff), due to what he called “environmental factors”. I fear that the environment he referred to was in his underpants, and had nothing to do with exotic marine macro-fauna. Shame.
I then geared up beneath a very gritstone-esque blunt slabby arête, also in the Southern Sector: a very obvious feature to climb.
After stepping on and clipping the first gear, a heavy shower passed over, so I down-climbed and untied and we legged-it to shelter. Twenty minutes later the sun was out once more, the rock was dry(ing) and I was back in the metaphorical saddle. Some lichen removal and a fair bit of faith in finding better holds above allowed me to gain the arête where it steepens and reach good holds and wires in a crack to its right. More scrubbing, some balancey rock-overs and a woop of delight saw me at the finishing jugs and setting up a belay, whereby another, heavier squall arrived, so we untied and high-tailed it to the car. A good while later it was dry enough for Chris to tie in for the second, which he sailed up despite the greasy conditions. Taking all into consideration (not much useful gear until a fair way above the crux) we gave it HVS 5a and I’m calling it Run For Cover. At this point, another shower soaked us again, so we gave up and ran away.
Me on the prominent 'gritty' arete of Run For Cover (HVS 5a)
And there you have it, including my previous offering of The Merlin, 6 new routes climbed at Culfern Crag, between VDiff and E1 (I’ve decided that E2 6a is a bit high for The Merlin and am settling on E1 5c). For those who are after an adventure, there are still a load more to do, from easy-looking lines that will require a bit of brushing, to clean, steep, bold routes that will require a cool head and steely fingers. Most routes will only be around 10 metres long, but will pack a fair punch. If anyone does come up here to climb new routes, make sure you do Eka Be too, it’s fooking excellent! Saying that, do all the routes we did, they all follow obvious lines or features, and the more mileage they get, the cleaner they’ll be.
In all honesty, it’s a mystery to me why this crag isn’t covered in Northern Highlands North when other minor (crap sounding) crags in the same vicinity are. Culfern is South and West facing so gets all the sun going, it’s obvious from the road, it’s beautifully situated, with views to the sea and across the Flow Country, the rock is, without exception, superb (not a single hold snapped on either of us) and it’s a friendly kind of place (no death landings or dank corners here). If climbers have been willing to develop the few good bits of rock on the North Coast within 20 miles of Culfern, why haven’t they been to Culfern?
However, knowing my luck with claiming new routes, the place was probably cleaned up years ago by ‘hard men with beards’. We’ll see.