Sunday, 22 July 2012

Reverting to Type

The distant chattering of a ring ouzel blends with the bubbling froth of the nearby burn.  The air is full with the sweet sun-warmed scent peculiar to the plants at this sub-montane habitat - matt grass, crowberry and blaeberry all dominating over the lower altitude heaths. I'm here at last. I've thought about this place a lot in the last year.  Ever since I first came here it's been nibbling away in the back of my mind as a place to return to, to explore.

Despite being a Cairngorms-based climber with a preference for slabs, I'd not been in the Cairngorms once yet in 2012, summer or winter, and not climbed any routes that I would describe as proper slabs. So after a few good days in the North West over the last weekends, including some steep crack grovelling at Ardmair and a redpoint of the mega-steep Snowflake at Goat Crag, it felt like time to change up and do something completely different. 
Not a slab: Abbing for a stuck wire on Space Monkeys, Ardmair. 
While working on the RSPB's Montane Bird Survey last summer I had the good  fortune to work on Beinn a' Bhuird, one of the more remote Cairngorm hills.  The size of the area we were surveying meant an overnight stay, but I couldn't be bothered to lug a tent up with me.  After a bit of research I found out about the Smith-Winram bivuac under Dividing Buttress in Coire an Dubh Lochan, and after a day's work dropped down into the coire to find it.  On approaching the crag I couldn't help but notice the smooth granite slabs set below the buttress itself and comparisons to the Lower Slab at Hell's Lum started to spring to mind.  Closer inspection provided all I needed to know - gently angled, compact, perfect Cairngorm granite, an obvious line of  blankness between two cracks.  Later I quizzed Julian Lines, the master of remote Cairngorm slabs, and he didn't know of any routes there.  I vowed to return with rock shoes.

Dividing Buttress, Coire an Dubh Lochan.
The slab is bottom centre, left  of the dark wet patch and above the boulders.
A year passed.  Winter came and went, then the rains arrived and the Cairngorms were out of bounds while the North West was in drought.  The slab remained in the back of my mind but other things got in the way - not the least finding someone else happy to bike and walk the 13km to indulge my twisted fantasy.  In the end I decided to go it alone and yesterday found myself under the slab at last.  Part of  me expected that over the year my memory would have changed the shape or angle or size of the slab - that on my return it wouldn't live up to my hopes.  Fortunetely, I'd remembered it about right.  

On my own, I wasn't really sure what I was going to acheive.  I didn't want to top-rope the route without a good try from the ground first, but could't really justify going for it without at least the vague knowledge that it might be climbable.  In the end I abbed the line, giving it a wee clean as I went.  Then I pulled up the rope (no jumping to safety!)  and after up-downing the start a few times to remind myself how slabs work, took a deep breath and committed.

A dodgy video still of the action.
I got it first try, which was great, but it did leave me feeling a bit puzzled.  It was definitely easier than I'd hoped it might be - I'd secretly been hoping for a new Firestone - and I couldn't work out if I had just pulled  an amazing climbing performance out of the bag (I'll admit, frictiony slabs are probably my strongest climbing area) or if the route just wasn't very hard.  I think the slab is a degree or two shallower than Firestone, and allied with slightly courser granite, there were more tiny edges and rugosities to play with.  Regardless, however, it was still a 17m solo flash of a beautiful piece of granite, which is more than I'd expected when I got out of bed yesterday.  I'm calling it Kissy Klub after everyone's favourite electro producer Kissy Sell Out, who's mixes have been keeping psyche levels high for the last few years (he was on the ipod on the way in and out yesterday), and, based on other routes I've done that are a bit like this, tentatively giving it E3 5b, but I'll be honest, I don't really know.  You could place a runner in one of the cracks right at the top, but am not sure if it would be worth it.
The Smith-Winram Slab.  Kissy Klub goes between the obvious cracks in the centre

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Barrathon and Beyond

Having lived in Scotland for almost 10 years and never been out to the Western Isles I'd started to feel that a trip was well overdue.  I've been out on climbing trips to Pabbay and Mingulay before, with quick overnight stops in Castlebay on Barra, but the full 130 mile trip up through the Uists, Harris and Lewis was still undone.  Sarah had heard about the half-marathon on Barra - the brilliantly named Barrathon - which seemed like a good starting point for an adventure, and luckily we managed to get an entry in the 45 minutes it took to fill up.  So, we booked ferry tickets, did some training, packed Sarah's battered old Ford Escort and headed west to Oban.  

Race-day dawned damp and breezy, and the prospect of leaving our cosy wee tent on the Vatersay machair in short shorts and skimpy vest wasn't all that appealing.  On the start line the cloud slowly started to lift and  drizzle dwindled as the local priest (local celeb from the BBC's An Island Parish, no less) fired the starting pistol and 1hr29minutes of angst and suffering began.  It was only my second half marathon (last one in 2004, that's how much road running I do) and although I'm probably much fitter now I only improved on my time by 10 minutes, but it earned me 8th place.  Also, it's a pretty hilly course, with a brilliantly long climb up the side of Heaval at 11miles, just when you don't want it.

Disciplined Sarah had stuck to a training plan and was aiming for sub-2hrs.  She was a bit miffed to miss it by 2 minutes, but given the hilly course I'd let her have it, especially given that it's the longest continual run she's done (mountain marathons don't count, it's all walking!).  I'm really proud of her dedication.
The next day we went to find Breaker Wall, a nice crag on Barra that's been fairly recently developed (info on Colin Moody's site here) and after some scary sheath-cutting abseiling (my fault) did a brilliant E2 called Druth's Groove and a nice aptly named Diff called Escape Route under the watchful eyes of a rather bemused grey seal.  

Druth's Groove, Breaker Wall, Barra
We laugh afterwards: 50m ab rope soon becomes 2x25m ab ropes.
From Barra to Eriskay, to South Uist, to Benbecula, to North Uist, to Berneray - big skies, empty spaces, sandy beaches, historic sites, museums, tea, cake, not much exercise.  These islands felt a bit like the land that time forgot, still following the seasonal crofting cycles - small houses dotted across the landscape, grey, pebble-dashed, functional.  Even the occasional nods to the modern world, like the military base and airfield on Benbecula, felt old and impoverished, like looking at archive footage of the 70s and 80s.

Sarah and the Sea
Eventually we docked at Leverburgh on South Harris, a much more familiar (and much preferred) landscape of hills and rock.  A quick run up Clisham the next day then off to the tiny island of Bernera off Lewis' west coast.  Here we found our favourite beach of the trip at Bostadh, where an Iron Age village had been hidden in the dunes for centuries, to be exposed to our inquisitive eyes by an Atlantic storm in 1993 then re-buried to preserve.  We found Creag Liam nearby and I mustered some psyche for my first ever deep water solo - Mini Tsunami, 4a, 20m, S2 (what ever that means), first done by the heroic Jules Lines.  Suffice to say, getting to the bottom of the route was far harder than 4a, and you really wouldn't want to fall off from much higher than the first 10 metres (the shaking started when a hold broke at about 15 metres).  An intense, deep experience, that will live on for a long time.
Part way up Mini-Tsunami at Creag Liam, Lewis.