Scotland – there’s no place better (terms and conditions apply)

Sunset over the Hebrides
Sunset over the Hebrides

Looking back on the sunset reminded me that when the sun shines in Scotland there really is no place better…

The outer isles of Lewis and Harris are places that I have always dreamed of going and after visiting Pabbay and Mingulay in 2011 the draw to further explore the Hebrides was strong – a return trip was in order (and soon!!). Unfortunately a couple of unexpected events got in the way: in 2012 I dislocated my thumb and had to pass on a trip that I had organised, then in 2013 the dates planned coincided with my getting a new job. So another year had passed me by – or so I thought – and it seemed inevitable that I would have to wait until 2014 before I would get to make my long awaited return.

However, a few months in and it seemed like a holiday was in order…

Now I’m not into exhaustive planning, I prefer ideas – lots of them (fuelled by years obsessive guidebook reading). The British climate usually tends to spurn planners due to the frequently fickle nature of the weather, but rather fortunately 2013 seems to have been something of an anomaly having had such an extended spell of good weather. Whilst I’m not quite sure if it has completely made up for the disastrous two years we have just had, I feel it it is nice to at least receive a gesture that Mother Nature feels a bit of remorse…I think…

So, it was only a week before we left when the ‘plan’ came together: go to Scotland and aim for the Hebrides. I had to do a talk at the North East Climbing and Walking Festival on the Friday night, then after a weekends climbing in Northumberland would head to North (perfectly rested from how soft the grading is up that neck of the woods) – how could anything go possibly wrong?

Freak Out on Aonach Dubh's East Face
Freak Out on Aonach Dubh’s East Face

We started out climbing on the East Face of Aonach Dubh. Eternally paranoid of midges it was our original idea to bypass the mountains in favour of a nice sea breeze, but driving down Glen Coe it was apparent that the safety net of wind was on our side. Freak Out and Spacewalk both ranked high on my list of priorities, both being classic mountain routes and also Extreme Rock ‘ticks’. Sad though it might seem their inclusion within a book would guide my decision, having not done a great deal of rock climbing in Scotland I felt that I had to start somewhere, and this seemed as good as place to start as any (or at least that’s my justification for it anyway). The routes were superb, midges non-existent, and levels of pump magnificent – a great start to the trip.

Next up, we headed for Glen Nevis. Probably not the first place many would choose with high mountain crags like Creag an Dubh Loch, Shelterstone, and the Ben in mint condition, but somewhere that I had always wanted to go. This desire was largely influenced by a picture in On the Edge of Ed Grindley’s classic arete – Edgehog. It looked immaculate, featureless, and blank, but most importantly it looked like the sort of thing I would like to climb. Back when I saw that picture I was just about pushing E1, so Edgehog at E3 was way above me. Back home in Wales years went by and I guess had Glen Nevis have been on my doorstep this would have been one of the routes I would have aspired to cut my teeth on and climb as soon as I possibly could. Instead it lay miles away, waiting, until the day came where it acted as a nice warm-up – how times change. I enjoy it when this happens. After that we moved on to Crackattack, then On the Beach. It was wonderful. The rock was immaculate, the weather was perfect, and we were blessed with three star classic after three star classic in a place we had never been before. It’s always nice climbing new places, there is so much to do.

Wave Buttress, Glen Nevis
Wave Buttress, Glen Nevis

The following day we began our journey towards the port at Uig on Skye where we would catch the ferry to Harris. Along the way it seemed sensible to make a stop off at yet another ultra-classic destination (I mean why not?!), this time the picturesque Kilt Rock. Onceagain, this was a crag I had seen in climbing guidebooks for years and always wanted to visit. The uniformity of the lines, like pleats in a kilt, looked stunning and the climbing/rock was – from all I had heard – also of the highest quality. Furthermore, the two routes we set out to do (Grey Panther and Internationale) feature in a certain book… Am I starting to develop a problem?

Grey Panther, Kilt Rock
Grey Panther, Kilt Rock – not a bad line!

Soon after we boarded the ferry and started our journey across to the Hebrides. The decision was made that our first port of call was to be the Screaming Geo on Lewis (which rather confusingly is just the North of Harris, but they’re the same island – don’t ask me why) to climb Glenda Huxter’s Prozac Link. Once-again it was a photograph that guided my desire to climb this route – a front cover shot on Climber Magazine featuring Dave MacLeod on the second pitch – the big traverse. At the time he was repeating Dave ‘Cubby’ Cuthberton’s E6 The Screaming Ab-Dabs and the shot made the pitch look every bit of the grade. However, appearances can be deceiving and this actually turns out to rate as one of the easiest pitches on the route not only on the E6 but on the E4 too. Unlikely to say the least, the route crosses the huge arch in four three star pitches, each with a different character and feel to the last. Brilliant.

Panoramic shot of the Screaming Geo, Mangersta
Panoramic shot of the Screaming Geo, Mangersta
The Screaming Geo at Mangersta
The Prozac Link takes the rather improbable line across the arch

The following day we drove further up the island to Dalbeg. The Lewisian Gneiss there is of the finest quality, rivalling that of Pabbay/Mingulay, and looks absolutely perfect. Cherry had mooted the idea of climbing something hard the night before so warmed up on the Dave MacLeod E5 Tweetie Pie Slalom (eek!), I seconded it rapidly warming up and out. It was a day-breaker, but I was too keen to admit it and getting on Glenda Huxter’s Blessed are the Weak was pretty much the final straw…well…we nipped down for one last route (the 4 star Limpet Crack – it seemed rude not to…

A rest day was in order and we did what any good athlete would do: devour as many chips and cans of Irn Bru as we could get our hands on. Tomorrow after all was going to be a big day…

Dalbeg, with Tweetie Pie Slalom taking a line up the centre and Limpet Crack taking the line on the left
Dalbeg, with Tweetie Pie Slalom taking a line up the centre and Limpet Crack taking the line on the left

Strone Ulladale. Probably the most impressive cliff of the holiday (and I forgot my camera). I am running out of things to say and superlatives to offer, it would suffice to say that it was a memorable day. With thunderstorms the day before, mist through the night, and midges in the morning it seemed unlikely that we were even going to get on the route. But as always persevering pays dividends and we boarded the ferry after climbing Stone feeling pretty content with our lot.

Thank you Scotland.

If you ever have problems making a decision where to go, bake a cake in the shape of all the guidebooks and go wherever tastes best
If you ever have problems making a decision where to go, bake a cake in the shape of all the guidebooks and go wherever tastes best
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