Sunday, 14 September 2008

Culfern Crag, Part 1

The North sector of Culfern Crag, Strath Halladale, Sutherland.
The only bit that I have touched (so far) is to the far left of this photo, and looks tiny from here.

Turns out, this is the place to come to find the beating heart of the Flow Country new-routing scene. Perhaps. So, this crag I mentioned:

Culfern gets a short paragraph in Northern Highlands North, basically acknowledging its presence and location (though it gets the latter slightly wrong), but there is no mention of specific routes. So, on a day off last weekend I went for a stroll with some shoes and a chalk-bag and ended up coming home with soar tips and pumped arms. What I had found was far better than the guidebook description. For a start, the rock is very good gneiss, although, unsurprisingly, it's pretty dirty in places. There are two main sectors, both of which are no more than 15 metres in height and vary from a couple of degrees overhanging to pleasantly slabby. Both look like they will provide some nice trad lines, although the highest and steepest sections look pretty gearless. There are also another few slabs and walls that will provide routes and good bouldering separate to the main crags.

On my three trips up there since last Sunday I’ve identified at least five obvious lines that will muster gear and look do-able by myself (i.e. maybe between Severe and E2), but there are lots more that look a fair bit harder/bolder/dirtier. Most of my attention has been spent on the bouldering at the south of the southern sector, and at the small steep wall at the north of the northern sector.

The northern-most wall of the north sector.
My line climbs the intermittent thin crack on the left.

This latter wall gently leans for a few metres then kicks back to plum vertical and varies between about 8 and10 metres in height. Two thin vertical cracks snake upwards at each end, and it was the left-most of these that I climbed on Thursday evening. To begin with I worked on bouldering up the start then jumping off, hoping to come back on another day with a belayer, since there would be good gear in the crack above. However, with the slim likelihood of a belay and a good grassy landing below, I decided that it would be OK to treat like a highball boulder problem, so came back a few days later with the pad and surprised myself by doing it on the first go. Turns out that it’s a perfect candidate for such treatment, and after a couple of very busy weeks at work, was just the tonic that I needed.

A video still (hence low quality) of me on The Merlin.
The top quarter is hidden behind the tree.

It’s hard to say whether it’s a route or a boulder problem (what’s the difference nowadays?), but it’s very much in the style of things like Pinup at Back Bowden; a stiff start followed by easier bold climbing at a height that you wouldn’t want to deck from.

Should it turn out to be a new route, I'm deciding to call it The Merlin, in honour of a surreal episode that occurred last week when a juvenile merlin (a small falcon, for those not of the ornithological bent) landed on my head. I was collecting vegetation structure data out on the bog, so was hunched over a wooden measuring pole, recording plant heights. Incidentally (thankfully) I was wearing a baseball cap. All of a sudden, I heard a whirring, and then felt a slight heaviness on my head. I automatically flinched and the heaviness ceased and the whirring got louder, before quickly receeding. I looked up, and rapidly heading off into the distance was a rather embarrassed merlin. I couldn’t quite believe it.

With a spot of luck, this won’t be the last route that I do there, but I suspect that it’s the only one that I’d be happy soloing, so it may be a while….

So, the full shebang:

The Merlin, E2 6a, 8m
Start beneath the left hand crack in the northern-most wall: a distinctive pink stripe rises from right to left. Use edges to reach holds in the rising pink stripe, then gain and follow the crack to the top. Protectable.

This video shows me on the route again, shortly after my (the?) F.A.

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