Archive for June, 2010

Big Stones, New Routes

June 24, 2010

Creagan Dubh Loch – crag of the black lake – a kilometre long and 300m high, surely the ultimate mecca of Scottish adventure climbing?  If “what have you done on grit?” is the calling card of the modern day Headpointer, then “what have you done on the Dubh Loch” should be likewise to the modern trad climber.  Many of the harder routes here have received very few if any clean, ground-up ascents.  And there are plenty of them; plenty.  And they’re nails.  The Shetlander.  Origin of the Species.  Fer de Lance. Devolution.  The Improbability Drive.  All merely E6, yet only one on-sight between the lot of them.  Did someone say that trad climbing was holding us back?  Or that sport climbing was moving us forward?  Well times change, for sure, and fingers seem to get stronger, but heads?  Some of these routes have been around for quite a while, and some of their creators are old enough to be your grandpa.

One of the factors underpinning the Big Stone Country project was a feeling that the mountains are becoming out of vogue.  So what you might say.  Move with the times boys, get focused on training, sport climbing and bouldering.  On physical difficulty rather than long days in the hills.  It’s the only way to get better, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?  And maybe you’d  be right, to a point.  But I wonder if all the obvious, radical talent now blooming in the Scottish climbing scene will one day be turned and applied to the great cliffs, and to devastating effect.  Will the tone of the blogs eventually shift from the current introspective of rehearsal, red points, nutrition and injury management back to embracing the stunning unclimbed challenges waiting high on the great mountain crags? Isn’t that ultimately what it’s all about?  It seems to be happening in sport climbing – moving from short and desparately hard, to long and desperately hard – so maybe it’s the next step to leave in the tiny holds and nasty angles but stop the clinical extraction of uncertainty and leave it all bare, vulnerable and…real?  I heard recently that Steve McLure had been out on the Islands.  Gulp.

Imagine a young climber – a genetic infusion of Malcom Smith’s arms, Jules Lines’ gonads, Andy Nisbet’s knowledge and Simon Richardson’s clinical organisational abilities – let loose on, say, the crags over the back of the Skye Ridge!  (Or maybe even the sea cliffs of Orkney?).  All the physical toil, sacrifice and mental stress of raising the bar to Olympian fitness levels, but with commitment to raw adventure and the tattered grit of uncertainty.  I’m talking about big new lines in the mountains, summer and winter – desperately hard, long, high, scary and committing routes, the ascents of which through their personal detail live long and proud as the very essence and flavour of our mountaineering history.  If we can capture just a wee smidgeon of this mountaineering spirit in the Big Stone Country book I’ll die a happy man. 

Anyway, for those of you that might be interested, the mighty Dubh Loch is bone dry….and we just had us a very tasty little treat.  A nice warm-up on a classic E3, a quick extended sideways shimmy, an abseil, a scrubbing brush, a face full of Haribo (and lichen), a bit of soul-searching and the Black Diamond was born.  A superb E5, up a strikingly obvious crack line on impeccable rock on one of Britain’s finest cliffs.  I can’t help feeling that we’re about to be found out; we’ll have to give all the lovely sweeties back (maybe I should keep my mouth shut!).  But somehow I doubt it.  Sales in Liquid Chalk are on the up.  Bothies are unfrequented.  And the buffeting shock waves of intimidation waiting high on the  slabs and overlaps of the Dubh Loch remain largely unchallenged….


Skye Magic

June 9, 2010

It’s not at all surprising the new book will include a variety of Big Stones on Skye.  It’s arguably the most impressively precipitous of all the inhabited Scottish Islands, with more than its fair share of great crags, classic hard routes and epic tales etched in the history books.  Perhaps centre stage amongst the crags on Skye that will be featured is The Great Prow on Bla Bheinn.  The name means something like blue / warm / sunny mountain and that certainly bears out my personal experiences climbing there. 

The weekend just past was no exception, when Tim “Snack Boy” Rankin and I went up and repeated the 1997 route Finger in the Dyke (E5) up the right edge of the Prow’s frontal face.  Blue skies and windless, parched rock, the only sound breaking our precious silence was the faint echo of a cuckoo’s call somewhere in the glen below.  Pure Skye magic. 

The route itself matched the quiet grandeur of the setting – never pumpy or desperate but very sustained and precarious, and often extremely runout.  Brushing dry lichen from the holds the pair of us pondered whether the route’s authors – Messrs Thorburn, Farquar and Latter – had entered their pioneering arena in the same swaggering fashion as Mick Fowler on his 1977 ground-up on-sight of the mighty Stairway To Heaven (E5) further left.  The mind boggles at the thought.

Perhaps the only dissappointment about this enormous, sheer (100m+) gabbro wall is that there are no ‘modern’ routes – i.e. of E6 and above.  It was only this winter past that the place saw its first hard winter addition with an ascent of the classic HVS (The Great Prow) up the right bounding edge.  The sheer scale, baldness and dizzying atmosphere of the place seems to warrant something special – it deserves more attention.  If that’s not a gauntlett thrown then I don’t know what is…

For some local info see –