Monday, 25 June 2007


This was my fifth visit to the Southern Hebrides Isles of Pabbay and Mingulay since 2002 so it's fair to say that I am an addict. There is something very unique about the islands that is hard to pin down, other than the sheer quality of the climbing: big steep lines on hard, sculpted, funky, crystalline gneiss that feels incomparable to any other rock type in the UK. But there is also the soothing ambiance of these islands: from waking up in the tent next to a white sandy beach; to the walk over the moors to the cliff; to racking up above a glittering sea. Above all though, is the inescapable feeling of isolation: there are no cars and roads to battle with; no Tescos or Morrisons to endure whilst grabbing some crag food; no parking tickets or petrol to pay for. Just you, your mates, the climbing and your beer at the end of a great day.

Racking up above the Sea, Pabbay (Hot Aches)

On the first day on Pabbay, Ali and me made a beeline for Banded Geo. I've had something of an affair with this Geo since my very first visit to the island, the Ship of Fools wall leers out like a galleon in full sail. Long and steep at 45m and 5m in the respective planes it offers fantastic climbing on incuts and scallop-sculpted walls. My attempt at repeating Ship of Fools E6 6b (first put up by the original pioneers of E5+ routes in the Isles, Paul "Stork" Thorburn and Rick Campbell) in 2002 proved problematic as I went horribly off route, cutting through the lower roof with an extremely difficult sequence and then rejoining the original route ten metres below the top. Tim Rankin, a few days later repeated it via the correct line at E5. The following year I returned and added an independent start and finish to my variation, naming it Geomancer E7 6b which turned out to be an optimistically high grade, more on that later...

Ali set off up SoF after I had pinpointed exactly where to climb through the roof dispatching this with ease and then forging into the sea of jugs on the headwall. My intention was to climb a line to the right of SoF, so when I seconded Ali, I was dismayed to see chalk highlighting the holds on this line: someone had beaten me to it! However, the chalk had suddenly veered into SoF at half height, at least I could finish it off with an independent finish. An hour later I sat on the top of this wall, pleasantly surprised at the amenability of the line, a three star E5 6a. The Hot Aches boys who were out filming for their new project, Committed, however were disappointed, they wanted something hard and dramatic, not this stroll in the park. My investigative work since getting back has revealed it was Jonny Clark who had climbed this line thinking it was SoF, thus Jonny Scuttlebutt was born .

Banded Geo, Ali (orange speck) seconding Jonny Scuttlebutt (Hot Aches)

A few days later I stood under the Ship of Fools roof again, waving my arms about and describing to Dan McManus where to go on Geomancer. Dan seemed nervous, muttering about hard boulder problems through the roof but then discovering a slightly easier and more natural solution by traversing left on the lip before cruising the next thirty metres to the top. I followed, surprised and embarrassed at how easy the climbing felt: oops, definitely not E7 then. I had to agree with Dan on a reassessment at E6 but thankfully retaining all of it's three stars.

Dan climbing Geomancer with ease (Hot Aches)

Eyeing up a line at the back of the Geo where there were no existing routes, a dark and gothic cave that severely undercuts at the base, only touching down in a few places for sixty metres. From one of those places, sprang an impressive stepped corner on good rock that led to an obvious rising traverse across the cave and into a choice of corner systems. I had pointed the line out to Ali a few days before who immediately baulked at the thought of doing the rising traverse on the admittedly awful looking rock. Luckily (and with Machiavellian timing), I had persuaded Dan to do Geomancer earlier that day: he was now indebted to me belay-wise...

Stepping off the boulder, the pristine texture of the rock, the sea crashing and roiling, the sun disappearing behind the overhangs; nothing but an inconsequential pinprick on the skin of this cliff. A microbe that has flickered,fleetingly, into it's geological existence. Suddenly, I am bought back to my own time, fighting on matchstick edges, heel hooked high and pulling into the bottom of the corner. The crack is wet! I throw in some gear, rest briefly and continue up the corner which is now leaning out alarmingly. After some hard, piston-like bridging, better gear is reached and then a vertical wall with a thin but positive crack-sheer bliss...The last of the sun hits me on the belay and Dan follows, confirming the difficulties of the first pitch.

Grooving up the first Pitch of Redemption Ark (Hot Aches)

Tentatively Dan starts out the next pitch, we both know it's going to be loose but seem to be choosing not to acknowledge that fact verbally. Dan's body language reveals his anxiety on this pitch: creeping, inching, testing, checking, doubling back, sussing and faltering he made his way along the blocky traverse. A hold rips and I am pulled forward from my hanging belay, Dan is now level with me swinging on the end of the ropes, a clattering below that will become a familiar sound over the next two hours. Curiously, the fall seems to have relaxed Dan and after he climbs back to the ledge, he completes the thirty metre traverse. I contribute further to accelerating the erosion process on the part of the cliff as more lumps rattle down to the back of the Geo.

Dan on the second pitch of Redemption Ark (Hot Aches)

The final pitch. A choice of three loose looking corners. Dan begs me not to take the one above the belay, I note for the first time that we are not wearing helmets, stupid...Stepping to the left and away from Dan, I find lots of gear but I don't trust any of it, the rock is wet and I keep pulling half of it off. Contrasting with the powerful and positive first pitch, this final pitch is draining me with the nervous tension. I keep my hands and feet tautly in position, stretched tight and responsive as another hold crumbles away. Cramp is creeping into my legs. Many options present themselves and then immediately discarded: the flake with my left, nope it moved; the jam with my right, the side of the crack falls off; move my foot onto that edge, it snaps. Really hating this now, why can't I do something nice and safe like watch football on the sofa (no, better make that golf, not as exciting as football) and drink beer and then go to the pub and then watch crap t.v? Finally, better rock is reached, relief washes over at the top. Dan comes up smiling, escaping into the amber light of the sunset.

Redemption Ark E6 6b XS, and where did the name come from? My favourite science fiction book of the same name, suitably dark and gothic: a very well thumbed book on my shelf.

Next Post: Mingulay


alpinedreamer said...

You paint a wonderful picture of peace and tranquility..... and then I hear your wimpers across the breeze as bits of rock fall off in your hands! Nice contrast!! Sounds like you had a wonderful time - I'd love to see the place for myself.


Niall said...

Aye, some contrast there...I need to point out that 99% of the climbing on the islands is bomber-solid- this looseness is an exception to the rule! Definitely reccommend the islands for tradding and chilling out...

Anonymous said...

Hi Niall,
sounds like your week was as sublime as ours the previous one,almost too hot!on SoF Jonny ended up on the rib below the roof but didnt cross it so any chalk on the upper wall must be someone else? when i was on SoF higher up noticed some chalk out right also.Steve Crowe etc were out before us so maybe there stuff.Back on the mainland sucks!
Cheers Iain Small

Niall said...

hmmnnn...bit of a miscommunication there then. Just want to find out who's chalk it was line just to acknowledge that they partially climbed the line before I did...