Friday, 27 April 2012

A visit to Crag X


This was a climb I had long admired and aspired to, ever since I slipped away from the family on a holiday to South Wales and scrambled round the headland to discover it. It was really just one buttress but there seemed to be at least 20 lines on it – many of them beyond me. The overhang on the left hand side looked particularly challenging but no doubt the Littlejohns of this world would sail up it. But Pat doesn’t know about its existence, though how he can have missed it I don’t know.

But the time is right for its first ascent. After a week of climbing with my daughter on the Gower I agree to let her in on the secret and feeling suitably prepared we embarked on the scramble to reach it. It is a warm June day and the sea rolls in onto the beach opposite Crag X dispersing its white wave tops on the bright warm sand. We need to wait a little longer to get to the platform below it by crossing the bay so we stretch out on the beach head and have some lunch. Unusually we have come prepared with rolls, cheese, pickle, pork pie and tomatoes that slide easily down the throat and fill the body with that contentment that can only come from a full stomach. The effort of digestion is great and I lie down to study the lines. I imagine myself powering over the big overhang or delicately tackling the open face in the middle of the main buttress but I cannot ignore the Central Grooves that I have come here to climb. I hope that a better name evolves as we attempt the route.

One of the best names ever is from that great poet Ed Drummond - Dream of White Horses. I was fortunate enough to climb it when the second stance was still occupied by a small white plastic horse left by an early ascentionist. The climb’s reputation gripped me, as did the abseil into its base but the climbing absorbed rather than terrified me and I regard it as a high point in my climbing activity (Career is not an appropriate word). That is until now, because today I was going to attempt a first ascent on an unknown crag.

So we are at the base of the climb – waves breaking gently on the beach but they are receding with the tide so no worries there. A real bonus is the pile of pebbles at the base of the climb to allow dry & sand less feet from the start. No teetering on small holds just off a wet sandy beach trying to dry my old EBs. A point of clarification is needed here. The younger reader will not appreciate the great advance of the 1960s that were the EB Gratton Rock Shoe. I wore out three pairs in the six years I was climbing extensively and bought two pairs for £11.95 each in 1978 at a closing down sale from Centresport in London. One pair had lasted me from then until three years ago when the second pair were brought out of cold storage for a resurgence in my interest in climbing driven by my youngest daughters growing interest. She overtook me on the wall but real rock allowed the wily old rocker to keep up. An interesting point here is that I could look at a cliff and see the lines jump out at me instantly but it takes her longer – is this the indoor wall climbing by numbers effect?

The rope uncoils tidily onto the stones and we tie on. A perfect thread round a huge rock secures her 7 stone to hold my 11 stone – if anything should go wrong. But today I know it won’t, I’m unstoppable. I take a leisurely step back to review the entire climb – the first flake, the left trending corner then the three connected grooves to the top all with small overlaps to tax the imagination. It should go in one run out but there seem to be two possible breaks if required.

Off we go then. The first flake takes a few easy jams that cause those woodlouse-like sea creatures to scuttle deeper into the crack for cover and a solid spike takes a sling for my first protection.  For years I only started to put in protection when things got difficult – sometimes ending up with all my gear unused at the top of a pitch but exposure to the fall factor school of thinking had made me a more cautious climber and I now always played the safety game.

The first few moves up from the spike are on really good jams or a nice layback – if I can see choices I must be climbing well – I go for the latter and reach the horizontal break where I find a placement for one of my new Wallnuts that I recently purchased to update my gear. Good jams and adequate footholds lead to a beautiful move using a high hidden handhold and I pass the break into the first groove. A rest and ingenious nut placement boost the confidence. Holds on the left wall and right arête allow a few bridging moves that take me to the next overlap. I stand in balance to place a bomb-proof hex and calmly survey the passing manoeuvre I am about to make. It is actually three short moves using jams for hands and wide bridging with the right foot then changing to foot jams and back to a bridge, but it flows smoothly and with another stonking runner I swarm up the steepening jamming crack to the next overlap.



Just before I get there the jams run out and the brain has to kick in. A small but solid wire protects me and I call down to H to watch me (Code for “Its getting hard”). Time seems to stop as I puzzle out the problem. Why aren’t I panicking – the holds are thin – the angle is beyond vertical but it seems so natural to just stand there and work it out. This really is heaven, I must be on top form. A tiny foothold way out left comes into view and I try it – it works so I retreat to scan for handholds. After many tries I adopt a strange overhand grip on the edge above my head and stretch out left to the foothold. Perversely as I lean left the grip intensifies like a magnetic field holding me on and my right foot follows up and out to find a small hold on the small hanging arete on the right. I am back in balance and a slot appears before my eyes that sinks a perfect Chouinard wedge that I have had for 30 years and recently restrung. I ignore an easy crack to the left and jam and bridge the final groove to the top, slotting in two more runners just for the hell of it. A small steepening near the top is no match for this old rocker and with a final mauling jam I explode over the top.

Whoops of delight embarrass my daughter though there is no audience for this outburst. Nor indeed is there any for the perfect 10:10 performance given by the climber. It is only in the minds of the protagonists. A minor irritation is the lack of a good belay until a long trek back reveals two good cracks and with ingenious use of slings and economical use of the rope there are a few inches of slack for the second to tie on.

Funnily enough I don’t remember her ascent of the climb – she must be on form as well – or perhaps my euphoria takes over.

“So what do you think? 40 metres sustained 4c with a couple of 5a moves must make it HVS and I led it”. My first new route but what to call it?

We return to our beach head and finish the lunch – malt loaf, cheese and some crisps with a can of Lucozade. I lie back and the warmth overtakes me and I doze off.

I wake with a start – got it – Feeling Groovy – the perfect name paying homage to other namers before me. It seemed so perfect that I am loath to share it with anyone other than H who fully understands the need for secrecy. Lets just go away and let others find it for themselves – I never was a new router. Or am I keeping it to myself until I can tackle that big overhang and really make a name for myself …… In your dreams!


Keith Ratcliffe 

Friday, 20 April 2012

A day out on Woubits


Stand above the steep precipice, and cry out into the rift:
She is the peal of thunder in the stillness, the clamour in the cold void;

 though the fugitives keep a tight grip on their fraying ropes,
she is the one who saves us from falling into the vast silence.


From 'The Welsh Language' by Alan Llwyd.

Like many climbers, I have to admit to a particular fascination with the wonderful cliffs that make up Clogwyn Du'r Arddu: I first climbed there some thirty five years ago and my delight in revisiting this mysterious and atmospheric place has not diminished at all in that time. Such feelings are not of course unusual and to many of us in the climbing community it remains the absolute centrepiece of traditional climbing not only in Wales but in the whole of Britain. Many fine words have been written about Cloggy over the years, and it was even the subject of an entire book, The Black Cliff. in 1971. The last two guide books to the crag, both excellent, were produced by the late Paul Williams and by Nick Dixon and are hugely enjoyable reads. Both succeed in clearly demonstrating a deep love for the place, recalling great times there with good mates and a clear appreciation of the crag's complex history.

One of my favourite pieces about Cloggy was written almost fifty years ago and was published in the Fell & Rock C.C. Journal. Jack Soper's "Still More of Arfon" is highly evocative and the concluding comments succeed in capturing the atmosphere of the place and something of the rhythm of its history:

'And although Arddu is, after all, only an unfeeling piece of rhyolite and the scratchings of the last few decades irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, there is an air of tradition about the place- of great deeds wrought in the past. On silent days when the cwm is deserted and the crags loom strangely through the mist it is easy to imagine the Abrahams peering in amazement down Shrike wall, or one of the great teams of the nineteen thirties at work with the grass up on the west, or a young man from Manchester uncoiling his hemp rope below Vember.'


One of the best things about Cloggy is of course that it is really a collection of six different crags each with its own character and each with a different play of sunlight at various times of the day. The Pinnacle for instance has a totally different feel to The Boulder; the atmosphere of the East Buttress could not be more different to that of the Great Slabs of the West. Many of us have treasured memories of particular parts of the crag and the great classics of all levels of difficulty are highly desired for good reason. Some of my recent memories of the place are as dear to me as any; just making it to the top of the superb Silhouette as a huge storm broke over us and a winter ascent of the Eastern Terrace in deep snow when the air was utterly still in the bitter cold, lending the setting a particular majesty. We saw nobody there all day and later watched the sun set from Snowdon summit as the temperature plummeted.

Having been fortunate enough to have climbed all over the crag, there was nonetheless one notable exception. I had never been up to the Far East. Somehow, whenever we visited the place, there always seemed to be something more pressing to do on the more accessible parts of the crag. Woubits and Mostest got mentioned from time to time but somehow we'd never get round to making the extra effort to get up there. The relative inaccessibility of the Far East, tucked away high up to the left of the rest of the crag meant that only a few people made their way up there. During one particularly dry period Mick Wrigley and myself finally decided to go up and find out what Woubits was all about.

Getting to the Far East is somewhat more tiring than the normal approach to Cloggy from Halfway House and involves going almost to the top of Snowdon and then traversing across grassy slopes to the top of the crag. We were there midweek and the weather was pleasant enough if a little overcast. Having sorted out the gear and the ropes we descended the Far Eastern Terrace which ends abruptly above a huge drop. The position is impressive, already very exposed and this forms the starting point for Woubits and Mostest. The crag loomed above us, dark and unwelcoming. and we were not a little intimidated. The Far East is certainly no place for the faint hearted.

Woubits starts very abruptly, there is no gentle introduction. You are immediately confronted by a mean little overhang that has to be tackled on slippery holds with only mediocre protection. It is one of those situations that call for a bold, focused approach when the last thing you feel is bold. The rock is dark and unfriendly, and it is with some relief that you arrive at the foot of a groove. Much of the rock is dirty with the odd snappy hold; clean Tremadog dolerite this is not! The situation in the groove is impressive and the climbing steep, but better holds arrive and lead over a bulge to a stance and good belays, and a good place to get your breath back! Mick and I re-grouped at the stance and were well impressed by the somewhat oppressive nature of our surroundings. We did however agree on the quality of the first pitch, a sleep and exciting piece of climbing. Mick sorted cult, the gear and got ready lead to the second pitch. I watched as he moved up the steep groove to our left, muttering about the difficulty and awkwardness of the moves but managing to place some solid runners. After a rest he moved quickly up to the left and after a few rapid moves he was out of sight.

Now the stance on Woubits is an impressive spot and once Mick was out of sight, a lonely one. I could see or hear no-one else, and the outlook was wild and austere. It brought to mind the words of the Welsh poet Idris Davies:And I praised the unknown Artist Of crag and fern and stream For the sunshine on the mountains And the wonder of a dream.

Gradually I worked the ropes through the belay plate as Mick steadily worked his way up the pitch. Looking down from the stance, I realised just how steep the first pitch had been and acknowledged Joe Brown's bold determination in forcing that loose initial overhang on- sight back in 1955. After a while the ropes went tight, I heard Mick call out and it was my turn to get moving. As I stood on the stance I thought of the first ascent photo that Joe took of Don Whillans starting the second pitch. It appeared in "The Black Cliff' and always seemed to me to grasp the sinister atmosphere of this remote part of the crag. Jim Perrin describes it particularly well in "The Villain": :

"There is a photograph taken by Joe of Don as he contemplates the start of the sequence. A thin line runs out to him through a messy runner. In breeches and knee-length stockings, black rubber pumps on his feet, he's dark-clad, white balaclava, peering up into the groove above with his left knee dropped for balance. There is a suggestion of mist, the rock sombre and steep, without obvious holds. It has a certain chill and a certain mystery about it."

It is one of the most atmospheric images I know of climbing in Wales and it was on my mind as I started the pitch. Needless to say, the big pitch on Woubits was one I had particularly wanted to climb for years, and I wanted to climb it well. Alas, it was not to be. Having cruised up the first pitch without much trouble, I moved up with some confidence but soon struggled to remove a couple of awkward runners and once the steep and sustained nature of the pitch kicked in, I soon found that I was well pumped. The situation is very fine but on the day I was glad to have a rope above me and I was highly impressed by the bold nature of the climbing. Woubits retained a great reputation for a long time and for 1955 was impressive. Of the ten routes Joe and Don put up together on Cloggy between 1951 and 1956, it is to my mind the finest. As I struggled somewhat on the crux moves and then felt some relief as the difficulties eased, I thought of our mate, Richard McHardy, climbing the route solo in 1970    a lonelier spot in Wales Richard could not have chosen and it was an extraordinarily bold ascent. On the same day Al Rouse soloed The Boldest and emerged as one of the outstanding performers of his generation. Halcyon days indeed!


Mick was sitting at the top wearing a huge grin and we were both delighted to have bagged an absolute classic, although in my case it had been something of a struggle and it had certainly felt tough for E2 5b, as well as seeming neglected and dirty in places. Certainly this was not the clean rock of the East Buttress. As we coiled the ropes and sorted the gear out. I thought of Joe and Don on the first ascent more than fifty years ago. They were young men in their early twenties absolutely at the top of their game, Joe had just returned from making the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas while Don had earlier that year made the first ascent of the very serious Slanting Slab on the West buttress of Cloggy. I felt a huge gratitude for the great changes in attitude and the improvements in footwear and equipment over the years that now enabled Mick and myself to enjoy such an excellent climb when we were both aged almost sixty.

The ascent of Woubits opened up this huge area of rock and Joe was obviously drawn to its powerful atmosphere. He later returned to make first ascents of Mostest, Woubits Left Hand, The Key and Sinistra. Mostest probably still has some regular ascents, but I wonder how often these other routes see traffic these days as fashions in climbing tastes alter. Years ago in the dark, grim depths of The Bull in Deiniolen through the customary haze of WEM bitter and fag smoke, I remember two of the Burnley lads recounting in detail their day on Sinistra and saying what an excellent route it was. The modern additions either side of Woubits, Archaeopteryx and Hazy Days look superb (and extremely hard) but again I wonder how often people take the long walk up there to do them.

It was good to laze in the sun on the flat grass at the top of the crag. In an indolent mood, the idea of a second route was swiftly dispatched and we packed the sacs and set off down towards Clogwyn station and the path. By now it was a warm, hazy late afternoon and there was little desire to hurry. As we ambled along I thought back over the day's activities. In a strange way, notwithstanding that Woubits had always been a route I'd hugely desired, today had been for me at least, not so much about the actual climbing as about the almost overpowering atmosphere of the place itself. There had been a sense of loneliness, isolation and neglect about the Far East and a strong awareness that nature is rapidly claiming it back in its dark, shadowy setting. For some reason my mind drifted back to the chapters in Herbert Carr and George Lister's wonderful book "The Mountains of Snowdonia" describing the profusion of alpine flora and fauna to be found in the more remote parts of the area. In truth, places like the Far East on Cloggy would be an entomologists and botanist's paradise were so much of it not so inaccessible. It is indeed the haunt of the Raven, the Buzzard and the Peregrine Falcon and long may it remain so.

The sense of neglect I felt on the Far East set me thinking about the seeming shift away from the higher crags in recent years, an indication of how the sport is developing. Perhaps I'm there at the wrong times, but these days Cloggy always seems to be quiet, The Boulder and The Pinnacle particularly so. Go up to Cym Las and chances are the only climbers there (if any) will be on Main Wall or The Grooves. The two wings of Dinas Mot and Craig y Rhaeadr seem rarely visited these days and a few people seem to take the lovely walk along the Afon Llafar to the Gothic splendour of Llech Ddu. That crag in particular was the subject of an epic amount of cleaning by the Holliwell brothers back in the late sixties to produce a number of bold extreme routes. I wonder how often, if ever, those routes see much traffic as vegetation slowly claims them back. Don't get me wrong, this is in no way a criticism, more an observation of how things seem to have evolved. I suppose the real problem is that unless the routes on the remote high crags continue to be used by climbers, they will continue to fall into poor condition and warmer weather conditions certainly don't help. In time many fine routes may be lost to us, and looking back on the day, I'd been astonished at the poor condition of Woubits and how dirty much of the climb was.

As we walked down the hillside next to the railway track, I glanced back at the crag and up to the Far East and the striking upper groove of Woubits. Joe Brown once described it as "one of the finest lines on Cloggy" and I would agree wholeheartedly. We paused awhile on the ridge by the railway as cloud billowed down from the top of Snowdon. I have to admit over the years to having grown rather fond of the Snowdon Railway. Like most climbers, I have never travelled on it, but it does form an integral part of the climbing experience on Cloggy. The regular chuff chuff of the train echoing across Cwm Clogwyn, the sound fading then returning on the wind is something that most climbers will remember about the place. The railway opened in 1896 and was well established long before climbers turned their attention to the mysteries of Cloggy. I like the fact that when Fred Pigott, Jack Longland and Colin Kirkus put up the first major routes on the crag in the period 1927-1932, they too would have heard the trains chugging along less than a mile away. Some things have changed little to the present day.

I took a last look at the crag and then we crossed over the railway and dropped off the ridge straight down the hillside to Nant Peris. Of all our crags Cloggy is perhaps our greatest treasure and it has touched many lives deeply. I even know of people whose ashes are scattered there. Mick romped off down the hill ahead of me, while I nursed a sore knee and gradually dropped behind, Away to the west the sun was going down in a blaze of red and orange; it looked like the following day would be fine as well. Today had been a strange one. I had set off from Llanberis that morning with little on my mind but the likely technicalities of a much desired climb, yet the day had given us far more to remember than simply the physical act of climbing. To be honest I hadn't carried that out particularly well, but it didn't matter. Weather permitting, I have always been attracted to the higher mountain crags partly to avoid the crowds, but also to experience the sense of loneliness and otherness of these secretive places. To my mind, what sets the hills and crags in Snowdonia apart is a wonderful sense of mystery or as the Welsh say dirgelwch. Today up on the Far East Mick and I certainly sensed something of the mystery of the place and the way in which nature is steadily claiming parts of it back. Good Old Wales, a constant source of delight and surprise even after a lifetime of climbing there.

I looked on down the hillside to where Mick had already reached the fields at the bottom of the valley. I felt a cool breeze on my face, as the sun in the west pushed through the cloud and bathed the hillside opposite in low ochre light that picked out every boulder, tree and crag with startling clarity. I thought of the gentle words of R.S.Thomas in his poem "The Small Window":
In Wales there are jewels To gather, 
but with the eye Only.
A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles 
With colour and goes out 
In its turn;in one day 
You can witness the extent 
of the spectrum and grow rich

With looking. Have a care; 

This wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd 

A small window dirty it
With their breathing though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.


I caught up with Mick and we walked across the fields to the road and Nant Peris. That first pint of Double Hop in the Vaynol was going to taste good.



Steve Dean 2012

Original crag photos:Al Leary

Monday, 16 April 2012

Johnny Dawes/The Hope Project: More tales from the wild wild West!

JD Photo:Karen Robinson

Following the wide publicity surrounding the racially aggravated arson attack on the Cornish based Hope Project- To Hatch a Crow article/ Footless Crow article -rock maestro Johnny Dawes called in on project leader Sam Farmer and his partner Carla while on a sojourn in nearby Falmouth and was given the low down on developments since the attack. After Sam had guided Johnny to some striking local virgin cliffs which apparently offered several possible new lines,Johnny was impressed enough to file them in his 'things to do' drawer and says he intends to return to give the cliff the once over. One of the more amenable lines-which could prove popular- has already had 'The Hope Project' pencilled in as a route name.

While staying on Sam's land above the cliffs and enjoying a pleasant evening soiree with his hosts, the local police arrived and asked Johnny to move his van. According to both Sam and JD, the police then continued to cruise the lane above the land. In a statement to Footless Crow, Johnny said 'I wouldn't go as far as to call it police harassment but it certainly felt uncomfortable....if this is an example of what Sam and his family have to put up with then I too would find it intimidating.'

Months after the attack and the police are still no further on with finding out who committed the crime.

For the time being the Dawes camp has moved across the Tamar. However,an improvement in the weather will hopefully see Johnny getting to grips those Cornish projects and come summer,he may well return and offer climbing courses at the project. Watch this space....

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Simon Yates' The Wild Within-Review


It is generally accepted within the mountaineering writers union that anyone writing about Simon Yates has to begin by using 'best known as the climber who cut the rope' in the opening sentence.There.....I've done it; obligation fulfilled; but isn't that like describing a brilliant footballer like Roberto Baggio as someone who is 'best known for missing a penalty in a world cup final' !

Truth is, Simon has quietly spent the last 25 years making his own mark on the mountaineering scene with a series of accomplished achievements spanning the globe. Simon's latest book 'The Wild Within' chronicles the last 10 ten years of a multi faceted career which increasingly, has taken him to the the furthest flung mountain ranges on the planet.From Patagonia at one end of the Americas to to the Wrangell St Elias range at the other....from the Scottish Highlands to Karakorum....Simon has followed the call of the wild and consistently made impressive Alpine ascents in both in a Professional and recreational capacity.

Eschewing the traditional 'big is beautiful' approach,the author-often accompanied by climber artist Andy Parkins and old friend Paul Schweizer- has made a series of bold sorties upon remote virgin peaks and established hard new lines on 'conquered' mountains without fuss and without the rigmarole which is generally the lot of the big  team climber. In terms of climbing style, Simon's approach is just about as pure and ethically sound as you can get. In fact, at risk of overworking sporting analogies ,his style might be likened to a mountaineering Muhammad Ali as opposed to a barnstormer like Mike Tyson...floating like a butterfly but stinging like a bee!

For the average UK climber whose main logistical problem on a climbing expedition is where to park the Skoda at the Roaches, a sobering perspective is quickly applied when you read the author's opening account of the complexities of climbing a virgin peak in Patagonia.
A challenge which involves chartered yachts in the unpredictable South Atlantic waters; horseback treks with a Gaucho guide and a desperate gorge ascent to reach a glacier upon which no human foot has trod before. And that's before he and Andy Parkin have even begun to lay down the supply trail and actually climb the mountain they eventually name Mount Ada. The elaborate preparation which underpins even these small scale Alpine expeditions highlights just how small a part of an expedition the actual act of climbing often is.

Early in the book there is a fascinating insight into the making of the film version of Touching the Void which was directed by Kevin McDonald. Without going into too much detail, it is fair to suggest that Joe and Simon are not at the top of the director's Christmas card list and I can't imagine there's an open invitation for him to stay in Sheffield or Penrith either ! Goes to show; Despite TTV being generally well received by the public, the main protagonists perhaps take a different view. A view which might almost surreally have preferred to see the film made by Tom Cruise who was rumoured to be interested. OK...it might have turned out like Vertical Limit but maybe Joe and Simon would have had more fun making it than they obviously did with the director of The Last King of Scotland !

Interspersed with the mountaineering sections, Simon offers an honest account of his relationship with his partner and family. A role which quite naturally can burden the 'have rucksack will travel' mountaineer with a fair amount of guilt when they frequently choose to take their leave and put their life on the line in some remote and inhospitable mountain range. It is a fine balancing act which those who operate at Simon's rarefied level, must go through countless times throughout a long climbing career.
However, there is genuine warmth in his detailing of his life and times with his family,which includes simple family holidays, often just cycling around a remote Scottish island and sleeping under canvas or meeting up with them on his way back from leading a trek in Pakistan.

Another aspect of his mountaineering life which appears to give the author a measure of satisfaction and pleasure-apart from bringing in some hard earned capital-comes through his well rehearsed role as a mountaineering lecturer. For a long time now,Simon has gigged around the UK and beyond these shores, often to packed houses. It is a measure of his success as a mountaineer that the climbing public are only to keen to turn out on a cold rainy night in places like Stockport or Ayr, to enjoy the vicarious delights of these games without frontiers.

Simon's overall mountaineering philosophy these days is overwhelmingly to seek out the last remaining wild places on this tiny, crowded planet and to avoid as far as possible, the commercial over-kill which has rendered-even in the last ten years- certain mountain areas as as wild and untrammelled as Blackpool Pier!  However, there are, as Simon keeps discovering, still relative backwaters in  places like Greenland or in South America where new challenges await. Where virgin peaks are still without a first ascent-glaciers remain untrodden- gorges unexplored and caves yet to be discovered.

Even in the world's honeypot mountain venues,Simon postulates that there are still adventures to be found and new horizons to explore but ends by cautioning us that 'more than ever the mountains are what you make of them or want them to be.

The Wild Within takes the reader to the outer limits of mountaineering experience and frames the journey in all its elemental power and mystery. The author's first book for Vertebrate can be considered a success. It can only further cement his reputation as a romantic wanderer and wilderness narrator.


John Appleby

The Wild Within is published by Vertebrate Publishing.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The rocks of home


I was heading north now, and always most at ease when doing so, for Wester Ross, my summer paradise over forty years. Up there many of the mountains are so separate from their neighbours that they are as salient and single as Uluru or Gibraltar, Kata Tjuta or Square Butte or Masada.

So much so that Jim Crumley, most thoughtful of our wilder­ness writers, calls Suilven in Sutherland 'The Rock'. The best single Rock in all Scotland, the Soloist. . . ' The chief mountains of Wester Ross are virtually ranges, with multiple peaks — Beinn Eighe, Lia­thach, An Teallach — great saurians, or saurian families huddled against each other in their Precambrian sleep.


Beinn Eighe, a gathering of quartzite so blinding white it looks like permanent snow, is on such a scale that the three mighty rocks which gird its western face, the triple buttresses of Coire Mhic Fhearchair, are only a fraction of the massif. Their white snouts are like a range of kilns from the Potteries in their heyday. The hulks of Torridonian sandstone on which they are built are the dull red of furness embers. Layered lumps of it litter the corried floor — loaves and buns from the giant's bakery.


Corries always look to me as if they should cradle cultures. In Coire Ardair under Creag Meagaidh in north-west Perthshire, or in Birkness Combe above Buttermere, I find myself looking at each prone tablet of rock or ridge in the moor and wanting them to be doorsteps or lintels of old cottages, turf dykes round crofting townships. If red deer trot through, they are the cattle of the place. The lower lip of the corrie makes a threshold. As I cross it, it rises up behind me and peace encloses me. I have come home.

Since the last Ice Age the peace of Coire Mhic Fhearchair has been shattered once. In March 1951 a Lancaster bomber hit the face. Alloy shards still litter the scree. Pieces of fuselage shiver and chatter in the breeze. A wheel complete with tyre lies among the blaeberry and heather. In the burn an engine sits, seized solid, half-damming the flow.



Fifty years before, the first climb on Central Buttress had been led by the most magisterial of late-Victorian mountaineers — Norman Collie, a scientist of Aberdeen stock, who discovered neon and was the first person to take x-ray photographs. In those days people preferred the secure feeling inside a gully, however slimy, to the exposure out there on the rockface. Collie and his friends climbed the West Gully in snow, then traversed out left on to Central Buttress and stared up its steeps.

It struck Collie as 'A.P.' — Absolutely Perpendicular. They were so appalled that they sat down to finish off their sandwiches ('full of mustard and delightfully dry'), their prunes ('encrusted with all kinds of additional nutriment from the bottom of someone's pocket'), and their sweets ('a much-worn stick of chocolate and perhaps an acidu­lated drop'). Then they went home. They were not too appalled to come back next day and downclimb from the summit, to the cairn they had built to commemorate their lunch, before escaping into the gully.

Since that time ways have been found up the terraced labyrinth of the sandstone. For years I'd been toiling up and down the grating white screes above, swinging along the great loops of the skyline above the Golgotha of waterless corries to the north, even psyching myself to climb alone up the easiest line on Central Buttress one balmy July in the late 'seventies. Thunderous rains set in just in time to spare me the mortification of finding out that I had not the bottle to take on that 350-metre precipice by my own little self. Today, climbing it with Bill Birkett from Little Langdale on a day of Mediterranean warmth, I was comfortable, almost at home inside this maze of ramps and grooves. The huge quietude of the corrie, the air-space expanding away unbroken between Liathach and Beinn Dearg towards the blue berg of Harris beyond the Minch — it was all fusing into a tranquillity that brimmed up from the footsoles to the mind like water from the aquifer filling a well.

The sandstone is fine-grained, so old (about 750 million years) that it doesn't rub off as dust. As for the polar reaches above, the great blanched citadel, that was still not real, still a tract of some further continent refracted inside our present horizon like a mirage. The pio­neers here, very aptly, were Yorkshire gritstone climbers called Pigott and Wood. They climbed it in rain and 'longed ardently for sunshine. rubbers [gymshoes], and a stout heart, for the prospect of, say, six consecutive gritstone "almost impossibles" ' was almost too much for them. They felt at home, though, and the shapes of the rock kept reminding me too of Yorkshire. One airy stride-and-sidle on to a ramp up a ten-metre face was the image of a climb with the perfect name of Fishladder on Earl Crag near Bingley.

The sandstone foundation at last gave way to the quartzite super­structure. We strolled along a narrow garden ankle-deep in dewy grasses and clumps of thrift. The joint between brown rock and white was so distinct I could lay my finger along it and touch both simul­taneously, spanning the Paleozoic and the Proterozoic. Why ever leave this pleasance? Why not loll here as the sun moves out over the ocean and feast on this mountainscape, on its colossal volumes that arrange and rearrange themselves in my mind, or rearrange my mind, like fundamental sculpture? Yet again the upward imperative asserts itself. We must reach, reach. Up there, always, contentment waits.


Right here, a large ice-coloured shield — like some piece left untouched in the marble quarry at Altissimo near Forte dei Marmi used by Michelangelo and Moore — asks to be laybacked. Followed by another, and another and another. After seven of these I'm thirty metres above the terrace and not one foot of support below me is integral. 'The blocks hereabouts seem to rely mainly on mutual under­standing for their support' (Fred Pigott). Ahh well — each piece weighs, what, half a ton? We couldn't lever them off if we tried. Or so I tell myself, and at the tenth or fifteenth telling it has sunk in, helped by the exact horizontals of the strata, which mean that each piece has a dead-level foot set on the dead-level top of the one below.


Original photo: Al Leary

Nothing can go wrong. After these hours of inhabiting the air, or the edge of the air, climbing has become slow-motion flying. When Bill joins me at a stance, he instantly sets off upwards, quartzite fragments and fibres of dried moss scudding under his feet. `Don't you want the gear, Bill?' I call after him. `Too heavy,' and up he goes. Soon the rope's red stem is the only sign that human life exists in the upper reaches of this narrowing tapering buttress.

This face should never end. There seems to be the entire passage of the sun's day in it, or the complete sequence of the year's benign half from equinox to equinox. At the finish I'm so thirsty and weary I lie flat on my back and let my vision lose itself in the fading blue above. To replace the sweat that day I drank a gallon of burn-water, still cold in its runnels of peat and stone beneath the heather.

Fifteen kilometres west-south-west lies Diabaig, my favourite place, a village whose harbour is ringed with rock, backed by glowing crags three hundred metres high, mouth facing out to the northern end of Skye with the Old Man of Storr erect on his mountainside. The Diabaig crofts, on slopes of Alpine steepness, are no longer worked and the village almost died. Then it renewed itself with money hard-earned at the Kishorn oil-rig dock and the salmon farm between the harbour and a deserted headland called Araid. From here I can't see those dear places, but I know they are there, the ways across to them and back through time to my family's seasons there feel as tangible as the sequences of footholds and handholds which have brought me to this spot.
David Craig