Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sailing to St Kilda


  

Setting up for the crux of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b on Ruabhal, St Kilda. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Several years ago I was lucky enough to climb on the spectacular islands of St Kilda, which sit 50 miles out in the Atlantic to the west of the Outer Hebrides. We had just one day and did a fantastic three pitch E6 on perfect black gabbro, similar to the Cuillin of Skye. Ever since, I have wanted to return and do something a bit harder. So when the veteran sailor and explorer Bob Shepton asked if I’d like to sail there with him, I obviously had to grab the opportunity, despite having no sailing experience and not really being a ‘water person’.

It was probably a good thing that I had a very busy few weeks of film shooting before we were due to leave Oban on June 10th. I had no time to consider how the journey across would be. So I had no expectations at all, except to have an adventure. Sailors Bob and Stuart, climbers myself and Natalie Berry and filmmaker Chris Prescott hopped aboard and off we went down the Sound of Mull. Although we had chosen June for the probability of fine weather, the standard Scottish summer fronts were ruling the skies and so we had three short days of dodging unfavourable waves, wind and rain in the small isles and Outer Hebrides. Eagerness to finally get there helped us decide to set sail west from Harris into a forecast of possible Force 7. There was an occasional Force 8 forecast a little further north, and of course once committed to the big waves west of Harris, we discovered that was a slight underestimation.



Bob Shepton's boat, the Dodo's Delight on a very calm departure from the St Kilda islands.



Some new ropes to learn. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

For my part, I was happy with being in the storm. Knowing nothing about sailing in storms or the capabilities of the boat, I could only go by Bob, whom I could still hear laughing and joking below deck as the boat was being thrown all over the place by waves which rather dwarfed our boat. I also garnered a slight note of caution from the odd bit of chat, that it could get really bad. Therefore, I expected it to be horrendous - like hanging onto the boat and being half drowned by waves. This probably helped as by the time I clocked the jaggy islands of St Kilda through the driving rain, I’d still been waiting for it to get really bad. Nonetheless, I was certainly ready to get off the cramped space of the boat and be able to spread out a bit and exercise limbs.

It wasn’t until the middle of the next day that it was calm enough to get us ashore and we set up camp as the clouds finally parted. Desperate to get going, we hot-footed it over Hirta to the cliffs of Ruabhal and found the rock to be dry, despite some huge waves battering the bottom 50 feet of the walls. Chris and Nat were still feeling a bit wobbly and spaced from the journey, so I rigged a line and went over the edge to check out the two lines I had in mind to climb.




 Bob noting down the shipping forecast. A regular ritual on the boat. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media



The forecast was none too good. 

I had a fantastic evening dangling about on the wall, sussing out new lines and watching the impressive show of breaking waves blasting huge plumes of water skyward. The combination of natural sights and sounds really makes sea-cliff climbing on St Kilda a sensory feast. The first line I looked at seemed to have roughly 7c climbing with decent gear although you do move a bit away from it on the crux traverse. The next morning we waited out another wet start and tried to hold back as long as possible before walking over to the cliff. In late afternoon we were in place on a hanging belay just above the waves, with the cliff above us now nicely dried out in the sun and strong northwesterly. The first pitch was a beautiful easy pitch of E2 5b on great rough holds and sinker gear. I was actually happy Chris asked me to climb it twice for different angles and stills. I could get warmed up a bit after getting chilled on the belay.

The climbing on the crux was just so good and exposed that it seemed crazy to waste time worrying about whether I could do it or not. I just launched through it and before I knew it was stretching for a nice finger lock on the slab above the lip of the roofs. The remaining pitch was great fun, especially when a curious guillemot flew up to my face and attempted to perch on my head. I’m not sure who got more of a fright. On top it was 9.30pm and would have been nice to just go back to the tent and eat some dinner, but we had one more day of climbing and the forecast was good. I was eager to climb something harder, and I knew this meant going straight back down to spent crucial hours scoping out another line.



Starting the difficulties on Making a Splash E7 5b, 6c, 5c. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media 



Just past the crux on Making a Splash. The Gabbro is perfect stuff. Made to be climbed. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Once over the edge again I was happy, and glad I’d decided to do it as it took me until after midnight to suss out the line of the second route I wanted to do. The plan was to breach a long roof in the middle of the cliff. I looked at it in two places, both of which were possible but far too hard for a single day of climbing. As I abseiled through a potential line, at first I wondered if it might only be another E7, but it quickly turned out to be far harder. A sequence of minuscule crimps and sidepulls round the roof worked out at Font 7c-ish. Actually pretty hard to pull off first try on a route in this situation, well for me at least.

However, the next day conditions were perfect. I knew I had an opportunity to take, so I had to calm myself down a bit and take my time to wait until the sun was going off the cliff in the afternoon. After arranging the gear I reversed back to the belay to ditch some of the rack ballast and generally sort myself out. Although I was a little worried about slamming into the wall below the roof should I fall, the conditions were just too good not to go for it with total commitment. As I set up for the crux slap, the holds felt unbelievably grippy and I knew I was going to do it. After another airy hanging belay the final E5 6b pitch was a total joy to lead. We shouldered our packs and headed off to village bay to sleep and look forward to the journey home.



Natalie seconding pitch 1 of Old Boy Racer, on perfect sea washed gabbro (like sea-washed up to 100 feet on a south west facing cliff such as this. Those winter atlantic storms must be some sight!).




The exit corners of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b. Not too sure I'll find sea cliffs climbs much better than this. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

My strongest memory from the trip was walking back to Village bay after working on the E8 by myself. It was after midnight, but only half dark since it was just around summer solstice. Once over the crest of the hill and out of the wind, the silence of the late night was intense and very relaxing. As I walked I could pick out the calls of the handful of different birds still out and about, the seals on the shores of Dun. But mostly, there was just pure quiet. It was lovely.


Natalie on the 'Mistress Stone' at the top of Ruabhal. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media 


Monday, 5 June 2017

Healed


Repeating Iain Small's Siege Engine E7 6c yesterday. Amazingly carefree feeling just to have to worry about sending the route and not much else. The rope is hanging down another project which goes out left across the roof. Cant wait to get back on that one. Photo: Kevin Woods

Last September I broke my leg on Binnien Shuas. I didn’t really write much about it on this blog for a couple of reasons. First, because I was pretty upset with just how badly the whole climbing day went wrong and second, because the accident was only really the start of the story. I felt like I needed to try and recover before making any sort of sense of it.

Yesterday I was up at Binnien Shuas again and repeated Iain Small’s superb new E7 ‘Siege Engine’. On the way down I stopped at the nice beach by Lochan na h Earba and just took a moment to enjoy being there and not having a broken leg, and instead to be heading off for some dinner after a nice afternoon climbing.

What a contrast to when I stood by that beach for two or three horrible hours in September.

It started with a crap July and August with continuous rain in the west highlands. I’d bet on doing Scottish mountain trad for the summer instead of going to an alpine big wall. My gamble had fallen on its face. The best I managed was three days of mountain trad with two E8s and one E9. Instead I spent most of the summer on my board. So I was quite fit, but getting fed up waiting to actually climb some rock. So when a couple of dry days appeared, I cleaned and worked a great project though the roof on Binnien Shuas. It was around 8a climbing with enough gear and a brilliant line. If I could just salvage this project from the summer, I’d feel happy with that.

As August drew into September, the rain just kept coming. My friend Masa and I had made several arrangements to go into Shuas, only to bail at the last moment as the rain was worse than forecast. It was getting ridiculous. One morning we bailed again, but by 1pm it looked better and Masa texted to see if I still wanted to go in and look. I bit his hand off for the opportunity and next thing I was abbing down the project. It was just dry enough. Masa climbed first and tried Ardanfreaky (E3) but found the crux bulge wet and took a good whipper, before lowering off. He looked disappointed. It underlined the desperation of trying to trad climb when the weather is just not playing the game.


Abseiling down the line and drying holds. I should probably have just left it for another day! Photo: Masa Sakano

I racked up carefully ready to lead my project. I was really excited. It had literally been months since I’d tied in to start up a hard trad route and I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to go for it. I pulled onto the start and climbed up a couple of moves, reaching for a big flat undercut above my head. The next second, I was tumbling through the air. The side pull I’d been holding with my right hand had broken off. I shot off backwards without any warning and landed hard on my right foot on the sloping rock slab below, slammed into Masa and both of us stopped in a heap of tangled ropes in the heather slope below.


One minute later I had a broken leg. Enough said. Photo: Masa Sakano

I stood up in a little shock and disbelief as to why I was suddenly back on the ground. I felt okay but within seconds could feel my right ankle and leg beginning to hurt. It didn’t feel too bad, but I also felt a familiar feeling of adrenaline and shock from previous climbing accidents, killing the pain and giving me a peculiar buzz racing through my brain. I put my boots on and walked around a few steps. Within minutes I realised all was not well in my ankle. But this was not the time to consider feeling sorry for myself. I realised I needed to get myself out of a mountain crag situation rapidly, before I would need to bother a mountain rescue team. 

I agreed with Masa that I would start hobbling down the hill with my poles straight away and he would retrieve my static rope which was still hanging down from the top of the crag and meet me at our bikes by the beach.

Off I went, in more and more pain but determined just to get down to safety before letting myself worry about the future. Masa had the option of either walking to the top of the cliff, locating a scramble down to a terrace and getting down this to access the static, or soloing a V-Diff gully climb to arrive directly at the terrace; harder but much quicker. Just before I dipped down the hill out of sight of the crag, I looked back once to see Masa starting to climb the gully.

When I eventually reached the beach by the loch, I took off my boot, put my swollen ankle into the cold water and sat and felt sorry for myself. I’ve had three ankle surgeries in the past four years and spent over a year on crutches. I was finding it hard not to get miserable at the prospect of going through it all again. But what else could I do? 

Time passed, a lot of time. It started getting dark and midges bit me. Masa still hadn’t appeared. I’d  hobbled down the whole way on a broken leg and he still hadn’t caught me up. Shit. What could be delaying him. As it got dark, I went over possibilities in my mind and got more and more agitated and intensely worried. Realistically, a fall would be the most likely cause of delay and he was last seen soloing to the top of the cliff!

I could not sit still and hobbled round to the far side of the beach so I could see more of the approach path and the cliff. No sign. But the light was failing. I strained my eyes and kidded myself that distant rocks were in fact Masa walking down. There wasn’t much point in me hobbling back up on a broken leg to look for him. What would I achieve? But I was reluctant to raise alarm before I had any evidence of something going wrong. Trad climbing faff can suck up a lot of time. But at some point I’d have to make the decision. I stood for nearly an hour in full ‘fight or flight’ mode, my heart pounding in my chest, shaking and really upset. Finally, my eyes saw a spec of moving orange below the crag. Was it? Shit I’ve lost it again. Then I saw it again, a little lower. My heart dropped a little from my mouth. But it was basically dark now and as I looked lower again, I couldn't see anything else. For a further 20 minutes I cursed my eyes for showing me what I desperately wanted to see.

But then, there he was, appearing almost right in front of me out of the darkness. Masa was a marvellous sight despite looking pretty dishevelled, helmet lopped to one side on his head and generally looking muddy and messy. ‘Are you alright?’ was the only thing I could think of to say. I just wanted him to say something so I knew I wasn’t hallucinating. ‘Kind of’ came the answer back. As swarms of midges devoured us, Masa told me that he’d slipped near the top of the V-Diff and fallen the full length of the route. But that every time he’d hit ledges on the way down, he had landed on his back on the rucksack full of ropes and gear. After spending some time in a heap at the base, he’d gathered himself, apparently uninjured apart from lots of bumps and a staved thumb and tried to walk over the top, but failed to locate the descent in the failing light and eventually staggered off down the path. 


Masa Sakano starting up Ardanfreaky E3, Binnien Shuas

Like a pair of drunk old men, we struggled, moaning onto our bikes and cycled off down the track. I discovered that it is surprisingly difficult to get going on a bike with one leg broken. Back at the car, we agreed that it was at least good that we were still alive and headed off home. Masa later got an all clear from hospital in Inverness and after a few days in bed and a few weeks off climbing, he seemed fine. I went for a leg x-ray in the Belford hospital. I was also given an all clear, although I could not weight my foot at all. A nurse looked at my X-ray and said it looked normal. I also looked at it across the corridor and asked what the big line was that stretched down my tibia. “Oh that’s nothing - you can just see the bone behind”. Taking my own advice, I wanted another opinion so paid £350 for an MRI scan, which despite the cost still took a week to arrange and another week to report (the radiologist was on hols - lucky her/him!). While standing up a ladder setting routes at Three Wise Monkeys in Fort William, an email popped up on my phone from my surgeon, who had thankfully glanced at my MRI before the report and let me know that the ‘nothing’ line on my tibia was in fact a fracture and to urgently go and get a cast. Oh and I’d basically reversed my ankle surgery from the previous year. Great.

Despite my experience with getting through injuries, I will admit to being rather knocked back by all this. In other words, fucking depressed. I did my best to try and do something positive, and enrolled to start a part time masters degree in human nutrition at Glasgow University. But when I went, I was struggling to find my normal motivation. After Uni I’d drive across to TCA to do some training. But a couple of evenings I just sat outside staring at the entrance and couldn't face going in. Being self-employed also meant I couldn’t drop out of life. A particular low point was a drone flying job I had booked on the Cairngorm plateau in October. Going up there on my crutches and still being a delicate painful mess just made me feel very weak and vulnerable.

The consequence of neglecting to continue training properly only compounded my problems. I lost a huge amount of physical form and confidence. At the end of October, I left my crutches in the car at the airport and left for a long booked trip to Margalef to sport climb. My second route there was 8a and it felt desperate! I don’t think an 8a had felt so hard for over fifteen years. To be fair, walking to the crag also felt desperate at the time. I managed to get up to 8b+ redpoint in two weeks, but even that was a real struggle and I relied on experience far more than fitness to manage it. On the harder routes, I just got totally shut down. End of story.


Smiling after climbing Via Del Quim 8b+ at Margalef, two weeks off my crutches. It was great to be trying hard, but I still felt really awful.

It was a weird bittersweet experience. One one hand it was fantastic to still be able to just go out and climb rocks, but on the other I felt like a shadow of myself. But it does amaze me how these feelings eventually pass if you take good care of yourself (with basic things like sleep, nutrition, good friends, careful training etc). I have slowly regained some strength and fitness and feel quite good again now. Last month, I returned to the project I broke my leg on. After carefully cleaning the bottom section where the hold broke, and carrying a boulder pad up the hill, I sent it with ease. That was definitely a satisfying and hopeful moment. 


Sending the FA of Stronghold E8 6c a few weeks ago. A great feeling. Photo: Calum Muskett

I’d say the recovery is not quite over yet. But I just spotted an E9/10 project on Binnien Shuas. Something to drive forward the progress.


PS: Many people patiently helped me through my brokenness and recovery. Thank you, all of you.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Busy spring


FA of The Mighty Chondria E7 6c, 5c on Creag Mo, Isle of Harris. Pic by Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

It’s a good sign when you are too busy being outside climbing all the time to write a blog. Finally it is raining today after quite a few weeks or largely dry and fine weather in the highlands. I’ve been keen as mustard to get out after the general absence of climbing last season. After climbing my project at Arisaig in April, I spent a couple of weeks trying another 8B+ boulder and was ridiculously close for 5 sessions in a row. But for one reason or another, it didn’t work out and I’ve missed my window. It was a long shot anyway. I was losing fitness from being out on rock with lots of rest days and zero training, so you can only maintain a peak for so long in this pattern.

I've got to say, I will really miss the bouldering season. I really really enjoyed it and didn't want it to end. Maybe that's because I focused on it a bit more instead of trying to go mixed climbing in the rubbish winter for snow and ice? Either way, I'm already thinking of next season.

I’ve also been on the trad. First up I went to Harris with Masa, Chris and Nat. We were a bit early and it was baltic. I tried to climb anyway and on one day where it was slightly less windy and cold, I did a brilliant two pitch E7 on Creag Mo called The Mighty Chondria. The first pitch takes the same 35 foot horizontal roof I climbed further right on The Realm (E8) some years ago, this time via a big crack with lots of kneebarring and undercutting madness. That pitch is a fine 7c+ wrestle. Pitch two felt like a grade VIII winter route, and not just because it was almost cold enough to me mixed climbing. It was a highly traditional pitch, with some drips, some chimneying, some great rock, some turf and some darkness at the end. Masa followed me in the dark and we abbed off into the blackness below. 

That was pretty much it for the week, I cleaned another awesome four star E7, but on the last morning it was a waterfall pouring over the crag as the next front arrived and we just retrieved the gear and headed for the Calmac. 


Finishing the FA of Lucky Break E8 6c, Binnien Shuas. So happy with this route.

Since then I got back onto Binnien Shuas and led the E8 which I fell off and broke my leg last September. That was very satisfying and I shall write about that in a separate post as there is a bit to the story. I even got onto the Ben and repeated Trajan’s Column E6 6b with Calum. This felt surprisingly not too bad. Maybe I was just hyped up by the description that made it sound scary? I must admit that because I often do new routes, I sometimes get psyched out by guidebook descriptions. I’ve also been exploring some other new venues with massive potential. More of that later.


FA of The Circus 8a+ at Loch Maree Crag. Yes it is that big! The route is an extension to Hafgufa and was bolted by Ian Taylor who kindly let me climb it. It's an awesome climb, nearly 50 metres long and with great holds and climbing.

Last week I was up at the new sport sector on Loch Maree Crag. I’d seen a couple of pics of the place and it looked really big, steep and waterproof. And of course in a lovely setting as you would expect from a highland crag. It was even better than I expected. I repeated the great existing 8as and Ian Taylor kindly let me finish the huge extension to Hafgufa that he’d bolted which gave a monster 50m 8a+ called The Circus. This was an intensely enjoyable climb with brilliant exposure up the top arete, where the climbing is easier and you can just enjoy yourself. An absolute must-do for anyone climbing at the grade. I’ll be back here with my drill, soon.


Fingers crossed for some more mountain crags type weather coming up.


Cold hands on Trajan's Column E6 6b, Ben Nevis. This is a must do E6, people.



Move it or Park it E5 6c in Glen Nevis. Now without it's pegs but still a well protected route with a tricky move.


Calum Muskett eyeing up a huge arete. Many, many new routes to do here.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Lithium



A video still on the send of Lithium 8B+, Arisaig.

Yesterday, I sent my project in the Arisaig Cave. Nine years after Johan first told me about the cave, that’s me climbed all the good lines. Time to move on! I’ll really miss the place. I’ll miss driving west on the Road to The Isles, leaving behind torrential rain or snow in Fort William, to arrive into bright sunshine as you hit the coast at Lochailort. I’ll miss watching otters and sea eagles going about their business on the beachfront by the cave, as I went about mine. I’ll miss a pre-climb brew in the Arisaig caf, looking out to Eigg. And of course I’ll miss the superbly physical and technical climbs.

In many ways, my days at the cave have helped me to see just how much climbing helps me with life. Given that the climb is almost 50 moves long, in the past few weeks as I’ve reached the stage of redpoint attempts, I’ve needed to rest for the best part of an hour between tries. This experience took me back to doing the same, seven years ago on At Eternity’s Gate, which is similarly long.

On those long rests you walk the coast to stay warm and send lactate through the Cori Cycle. But more importantly, you reflect. There is not much time for that in modern life, even in many types of climbing. Going to the wall to train, for example, is not often a great reflective opportunity.

On both those long climbs with long walks in between, being there and doing them helped me get through some very bleak feelings I was having. It did not diminish them, or take them away. Just helped me to remain resilient. For that I am very grateful. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to live in a country full of places like this, and have the opportunity to spend time in them, so there should be no trouble having similar experiences elsewhere.

Why did I send it now? A huge list of things. I would say that first and foremost, my two primary changes I made to my training had the desired and dominant effect. Firstly, I basically cut 4 hours out of my work day and replaced it with winding down time and going to be early for around a month. Secondly and even more importantly, I dropped my CHO intake south of 50g per day again (on most but not all days), together with restricting the daily feeding window to 6-8 hours. This made my ass lighter and improved my recovery from training. NB I am skipping over a whole world of detail here! I also continued to make improvements in the sequence, right up to the successful try. On the last hard move, I consciously focused on arching and stiffening my back as I threw for the hold. In combination with a hefty power scream, this kept my feet on. I also continued to get more used to the upside-down rest position on the halfway kneebar, and could relax more, stay longer and breath deeper than on previous sessions. I also timed my sessions nicely with good conditions, for once. I also solved my ‘glassy skin’ issue by rubbing some thick skin off my hands on sharp rocks, and then washing them in water to get to the ideal balance of cold and dry vs soft and sticky. At last I could really apply my strength fully to those smooth undercuts. 

The psychological side of the attempts I usually find the most straightforward. I definitely feel that I have a good system in place for managing my level of effort and controlling any nerves or self-consciousness. However, On the successful try I was particularly lucky that I had to dry a couple of seepy wet footholds (the climb starts outside the cave, and is the only part of the venue to be exposed to seeps). After drying them I had only a few seconds to get started before the water ran back onto them. So there was no time to develop any sense of anticipation for the attempt ahead. In fact, I had to spend the moments on the first kneebar trying to dry the other kneepad which had caught some drips as I started. So I arrived at the crux with a fresh mind, unhindered by any sense of occasion, and was free just to be in the moment and give it everything. On that last try I was definitely climbing through the moves faster than ever before. So it made sense that I surpassed the previous highpoints.

***Warning: boring part below. Feel free to stop here***

I’ll call the climb Lithium, and grade it 8B+. I have gone round in circles with the grade for a day or two. 8B+ in the UK is pretty tough. I am not certain this is a grade harder than some of them, nor have I done enough of them to know. So since I am not sure, I’ll just go with 8B+. I also completed the project quicker than I expected, a sure sign that it is easier than my initial expectation. 

Going by Magic Wood, where I have done a lot of my boulder repeats in recent years, Lithium is definitely a grade harder than New Base Line 8B+, Shallow Water to Riverbed 8B+, Mystic Styles 8B+ and definitely harder than Practice of the Wild 8C. It feels similar in difficulty to In Search of Time Lost 8C which I tried for two sessions at the end of my last trip, and got good links on. But perhaps it is easier than The Understanding 8C which I tried for 30 mins but couldn’t do. By this logic perhaps it’s nearest easy 8C. But again, the UK perhaps has stiffer grading. Whether that is right or wrong is another argument. The bottom line is that it is very hard to reduce grading to an entirely rational calculation. I just don’t do enough bouldering to have a good handle on grades.

It’s also a very specific type of climb, in some ways it plays to my strengths (steep, with rests and technical). But I think I am really weak on the undercuts and pinches. So someone else might find them much easier than me. So, lets go with 8B+. 

Anyway, bring on the spring and more great climbs this year.

PS: In case anyone wonders about video of the send, it’ll be in a feature I’m doing with Chris Prescott this year which will hopefully include some great trad projects I’ll be pointing myself at in the coming few months.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Fort

The Fort from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

I’m delighted to share a film we shot last summer for the Nevis Landscape Partnership, and premiered at the Fort William Mountain Festival last month. It’s my first archaeology film! 

The Iron Age fort of Dun Deardail in Glen Nevis always caught my eye when walking off the summit of Ben Nevis after a winter climb. It’s striking ring-like remains on the summit of a conical hill across the glen always catches the late afternoon sun. I always resolved to find out more about the fort but never did. So it was great to hear that the Nevis Landscape Partnership had arranged a three-year project to excavate the fort for the first time, and that myself and Claire would be filming it this year.

I’m always fascinated to learn something about scientific disciplines I know little about and the archaeologists I interviewed during the excavation were great to listen to and really opened my mind to think about the themes of archaeology in general, and get a better vision of life in Glen Nevis thousands of years ago. Enjoy the film.


PS: If you liked it, maybe you have not yet seen the NLP films we made in the previous two years. Here they are:

Ben Nevis : The Hidden Side from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

Ben Nevis · Wild Times from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

Nineteen Projects from Nevis Landscape Partnership on Vimeo.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Arisaig Cave topo



Natalie Berry on The Original 7B, the classic of the cave. Pic: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

I've been meaning to prepare a topo of the Arisaig Cave for ages. I've also made a PDF version of it here if you want to print it and take it with you. Enjoy!

The cave offers a weatherproof medium-hard bouldering venue that is in good condition for at least 6 months of the year. In the dark Lochaber months from October until February, it can often be the only outdoor rock climbing on offer, at least on the wettest days.

There are not a huge humber of climbs, but the ones that are there are good quality, generally long and involved and so provide good entertainment. I opened the first problems in 2009 and still have not quite climbed all the obvious lines. Most of the problems were opened by me and have not had many repeats so the grades may still need adjustment.

The rock is quartzite, relatively kind on the skin, but the climbing is generally powerful and gives a good workout. All of the steep climbs are also sequency and reward a persistent approach, seeking out the crucial toe-hooks, kneebars etc. 

Although all the climbs in the cave are totally protected from the rain and there are almost no seeps either, the conditions can be affected by the weather sometimes. If the conditions have been cold and then warm up, the cave can be damp for a day or two with condensation. This is generally not too often, but watch the weather and just avoid going right after a warm front has passed through. Otherwise, you can climb there no matter how bad the weather. Several of the climbs have been done at night, during the worst of the December and January storms. Although the cave comes into it’s own as a place to climb in the winter, it does also remain relatively cool in summer and midges are rarely a problem. 




The approach takes around 20 minutes and crosses some boggy ground. Turn off the Road to the Isles into Arisaig Village and then turn left onto the B8008, signposted Rhu. After 1.6 miles, park next to a farmers gate at the back of an open bay, taking care not to block the gate. The drive takes around an hour from Fort William. Cross the gate and follow a feint path across fields, aiming for a holly tree on the skyline. Just beyond this, cross a stile beside the lochan and continue on a better defined path over the brow of the hill. You’ll now see the attractive pebble beach of Camas Leathann on the other side of the peninsula. The path leads down to the right edge of this (looking out to sea). The cave is 100m right (west) of the end of the pebble beach. scramble round some rocks at the right end of the beach and you’ll come across the obvious triangular entrance of the cave. You don’t see it until you are right on it.

The ‘landung’ is flat and consists of dry sheep poo. Once you get over this, it’s no problem and totally dry. But for those who like a clean boulder mat, take a tarp with you. The problems are described roughly left to right, starting with the leaning arete of the steep side.


1. West Wall Arete 6B. Sit Start and layback up the edge of the steep arete, pulling over on jugs. Step left and down climb the buggy slab to descend.

2. All The Small Things 8A. SS at the arete, at an undercut spike. Follow the obvious line of holds leading rightwards into the cave, finishing up Bone Broke, at the jug/hole in the apex. Sustained and superb climbing.

3. At Eternity’s Gate 8A+/8B. Follow All The Small Things along the line of holds but then reverse the first few moves of The Original and keep traversing right to a welcome but strenuous kneebar rest at a triangular hole. Continue right, avoiding the blocks coming out of the ground. Using tiny holds, gain a heel hook on the ramp of Barista School (crux). Once established on this, shake out at the jugs (bat-hang possible) and finish along Fruit Machine, hopefully without blowing it right at the end! Originally given 8B but that was before the kneebar was found (after the original resting jug broke off). So it may or may not only be 8A+ now? 

4. Good Drying. 8A+. Eternity’s Gate into Cowspiracy. 

5. Project 8C. Eternity’s Gate into 4th Wave. A very demanding piece of climbing.

6. Triangulation Stand 7A. Right of the arete is a thin crack. Start using a finger lock in this and protruding crimp. Powerful drop-knee moves lead to jugs over the lip.

7. Triangulation 8A. SS away down in the very base of the low cave below the crack, at an undercut and gaston. hard moves lead to the base of the crack, but the crux is gaining the finger lock of the stand start. Fortunately there are a couple of different methods to choose from.

8. The Original 7B. Locate a two-handed, sharp edged undercut at the back of the cave, feet on the steep wall underneath. undercut outwards to the good edge on the ramp feature and continue directly, past a huge sidepull, finishing on edges in the crack in the apex. An extended finish continuing out of the cave on the apex crack has not been done yet (probably 7B+ or 7C). A classic problem.


9. Bone Broke 7C. Extends the fun even more. Follow The Original most of the way, then go rightwards to gain the next undercut wave feature. Undercut this rightwards to a finish on a big jug/hole at the cave apex.

10. Cowspiracy 7C. SS below the kneebar hole. Climb direct with a tricky move to gain a weird finger lock slot. Use this to reach into the finishing moves of Bone Broke.

11. 4th Wave 8B. SS below the kneebar hole. Follow the undercut wave feature with technical and powerful weirdness, finishing on twin edges right up at the apex. Superb technical climbing.



Myself on 4th Wave 8B. Pic Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media



12. Fruit Machine 7B+. Start along the jugs as for Barista School but drop down and shuffle along the good undercuts to where they run out. Reach right for a good wobbly slot and then make a technical sequence to reach across the apex to finish on the big rounded nose on the other side.

13. Barista School 6A+. Start at the base of the huge jug-rail. Layback up this until it’s possible to rock over to spiky undercuts directly above. Slot the good kneebar in, and finish matching the twin slopers above, near the apex.

14. Barista School RH start 6B+. Start right of the jug rail, on the good undercuts. Reach a nice incut crimp above and lock this out to get the edge of the ramp, then the jugs, and a finish up Barista School.

15. Half Apex 7A. SS at the back of the cave at a poor triangular pinch. Make a tricky move up then go hard left, reversing the first part of Fruit Machine. Finish up Barista School.

16. Apex 7C. Start as for Half Apex. Use that good kneebar to rest, and instead of jumping down, continue on the apex and make tricky moves to gain the jug/hole at the end of Bone Broke. From here, use undercuts to drop down onto the Right Wall Traverse and finish along this. Epic!


17. Right Wall Traverse 7C. Start at the big rounded nose at the back of the cave and traverse the less steep side all the way to the slab outside the cave. The first few metres are the crux, powerful and technical on low crimpy sidepulls.

18. The Late Show 6C. Start easily up undercut jugs mid-way along the cave. Reach an L-shaped hold, match it and make a tricky press move to get the jug/hole at the end of Bone Broke. The last two moves are deceptively tricky.

19. After the Race 6A+. Further right is a groove with a shield of rock above. Start on flat holds on the left side of the groove and climb up and round the left side of the shield. Finish on the sloper rail.

20. Lend an Ear 6A. Climb the Groove and swing round the right side of the shield using a spiky sidepull. 6A+ if you continue rightwards and exit the cave.

21. Otter Watch 5. From a low start climb the featured wall just left of the arete of the cave and swing round onto the slab. Various eliminates possible as a warm-up for the harder things.







Dave MacLeod on "All The Small Things" font 8a, Arisaig from peter murray on Vimeo.

4th Wave, 8B first ascent from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

Good Drying, 8A+, Arisaig Cave from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.