Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Farrletter Debate

I heard through the jungle drums a few weeks ago that Farrletter Crag in Strathspey had been retro-bolted, or at least, some of it had been.  I went down for a look at the crag today, and it's true.  It's something that has been discussed over the years, not least on a couple of UKC threads, with strong feelings on both sides of the argument.  Now it's been done and the argument is pretty much over.

I'll start by saying I no longer live in Strathspey so accept that my opinions probably hold little weight, and that this post is just that - my opinion.  I don't want to implicate anyone else or piss anyone off, but I do think it's something that should be discussed and that people should know about - you might even want to go and do the routes yourself.

Farrletter is an odd little place - a steep, North-facing wall of very compact schist, similar to sections of nearby Creag Dubh.  It's very close to the road so easy to access for a summer evening's cragging (if the midges don't get you!).  It's got a handful of routes from E1 to E6, and the nature of the rock means they're often fairly bold (some rely on pegs) and pretty strenuous - again, similar to it's much more famous neighbour.  Some of the routes are fine though, including a very safe E4 crack.  The routes were developed in the 80s and 90s by locals, mainly from Glenmore Lodge.  Being short and close to the road, it seems it's always been treated as a training venue rather than a normal trad crag - as far as I'm aware most people top-rope the routes and they are rarely led, even rarer onsight. I guess this style of route isn't very popular nowadays, especially if you're just after a few laps to keep fit on a sunny evening.  As such, the idea of bolting it to create a sport crag has been mooted on more than one occasion.

As far as I'm aware, arguments put forward by others (taken from my own discussions and UKC 'discussions') in favour of bolting are:

  • To stop wear and tear to trees used as anchors for top-roping.
  • To provide a safe training venue for Strathspey climbers.
  • To make the crag more popular - it's a small, insignificant crag with only local interest as a harder trad venue, plus Creag Dubh, a haven for this style of climbing, is nearby.
  • The safety of old pegs is unknown - better to replace them with 100% safe bolts.

The right hand section of Farrletter, where 3 lines have been bolted. These are roughly the lines of Master Farrter (E5 6c), Yet so Farther (E5 6b), and The Art of Course Climbing (E5 6b).

When I first went there in 2009 I think I saw the crag quite differently to the locals.  Sure, there are some pretty bold looking E5s, a few E1s, E2s and E3s with spaced kit, and a smattering of dubious old pegs, but it just looked like a normal crag to me (all be it not a very pretty one).

Over the four years I lived in Aviemore I visited the crag a couple of times a year, onsighting most of the E1- E3s.  I attempted to onsight the very safe E4 Too Farr for the Bear but took the lob from the top and took it again on the second ground-up attempt a week or so later.  I've not been back on it.  I also dabbled in headpointing while it was briefly fashionable with a few locals in 2009, climbing the E5 The Art of Course Climbing after top-rope practice. A friend, who is a far better climber than me, then climbed this route ground-up after falling onto the peg on the onsight attempt.  During this time a new E6 start to one of the older E5s was climbed by Steve Johnston.  All these routes were spicy little challenges, requiring as much mental endeavor as physical to do them - the essence of trad climbing.   The point I'm trying to make is that to me, it's just another trad crag, with hard routes that I won't touch, and easier routes I'm happy to attempt onsight.  Just like Stanage, or the Shelterstone or Sheigra. There are hard or dangerous routes all over the place and if I don't feel up to leading them, I don't.  Perhaps I'm an ethical elitist, perhaps I'm an idiot.

Headpointing The Art of Course Climbing in 2009 - is that trad gear?

My rebuttlal to some of the points put forward above would be:

  • Fair enough, bolted anchors will put an end to damaging the trees at the top of the crag, but so will stopping top-roping!
  • It's not for nature to provide crags as safe training venues for local climbers.  To be honest, Farrletter would be a pretty crap training venue - between winter cold, summer midges and year round wetness you'd be better off a) building a board in your garage and buying a fingerboard,  b) going to the climbing wall, c) going to some of the reliable year-round sport venues we already have (Moy, The Camel, Am Fasgadh, Goat Crag etc, or d) go bouldering, there's some good stuff nearby, honest.
  • Trying to make a crag more popular by making routes safer is all well and good, if you find the crag and develop it yourself.  But if a crag is initially developed as a bold trad crag, that's what it is.  If people don't go there because they choose not to climb hard or bold routes, that's OK. A crag is just a lump of rock sticking out of the earth, it doesn't have to be popular.  Even if the people that first developed it are no longer as bold as they once were and would prefer to see it made safer, others might be up for the challenge   Should they have their scary routes denied them?  There's a reason we all go on holiday to Spain to sport climb, not Strathspey.  Spain has a prevailing ethic of bolted protection, Farrletter is (was) a trad crag.
  • I'll grant you the old pegs vs new bolts argument is a tricky one, but to my mind a peg is temporary and can easily be removed or replaced.  A bolt is permanent and instantly changes the nature of a route.  In this case I would rather all the pegs were removed, making it an even bolder trad crag, than it was bolted and turned into a safe sport crag.

So, personally, I think Farrletter is an already established trad climbing venue and shouldn't be retro-bolted. By not seeing it as a training venue but as a normal trad crag it has provided me with some great climbing experiences - spicy and serious but memorable and rewarding.  As a sport crag it will provide some pretty mediocre 10-15 metre long wall climbs on a north-facing, dark, dank crag.   But I guess that's pogress. 

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