“Thy love of Nature, quiet contemplation,
In meadows where the world was left behind,
Still seeking with a blameless recreation,
In troubled times, to keep a quiet mind;
This, with thy simple utterance, imparts
A pleasure ever new to musing hearts”
It is Easter 1982, and I decide that I need to get away for a few weeks climbing as life is beginning to stifle my senses. After some deliberation, I settle on driving to Skye for a return visit but rather than go to the Cuillins to climb, I decide to go to Staffin where I knew there was great potential for much climbing.
Planning takes all of half an hour as I throw everything I think I will need for the fortnight, into the back and boot of the car before leaving home to drive north. The suspension springs are at full stretch and the tyres appear half inflated despite how much air is pumped into them. Turn left at the drive, on through Edinburgh city, bustling with ants hurrying and scurrying about their business, faces set in concrete as they live their lives within a well framed lifestyle of worrying about their mortgage, the cranky boss at work, mundane financial matters, what excuse to use this time for arriving at the office late again, and so on. I drive past without a care in the world knowing that two weeks well-earned holiday on the island of Skye, offers me so much rock to touch and get acquainted with. What a mind blowing thought.
As I drive through Edinburgh, the only two thoughts in my head are, would the trusty old banger make it there, and, would it make the return journey? Nothing else matters, not the weather, not the midges, not even the time of year, April, could dampen my spirits.
After a long but pleasant drive, I arrive at the Kyle of Lochalsh but having missed the last ferry for the night, settle down to sleep in the front seat which was not all that easy given the amount of climbing gear I had thrown on the back seats. I try as best I can to get comfortable in a small space under the steering wheel, but whichever position I get into, the damn thing just sticks out preventing me from doing so. I try sleeping in a sitting position but as the seat would not go back due to the gear stuffed behind it, I just toss and turn, huffing and puffing and moaning to myself as the slow passing of the night crawls agonisingly past.
Dawn finally starts to arrive as I wake from a half sleep, but am dismayed that it is another two hours before the first morning ferry is operational. ‘God I wish they would build a bloody bridge across’ I muse to myself, as I try once again to get comfortable in a space even a contortionist would find difficult. As the full morning sun finally pokes its nose above the murky horizon in a clear blue sky, the sound of the ferry, its diesel engine chugging merrily along, calls out to me: ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming’. Eventually it enters the small harbour, and the steel ramp scrapes along the concrete slope as if to say ‘I have arrived’.
At last, I am crossing over the sea to Skye, jubilation, excitement all mixed up with the weariness and aching bones, but at least I was moving. The shore gets closer and so the engine is revved in anticipation which does little to make the last few yards go any faster. Bump, the ferry slides into the far shore ramp and within seconds I am off down the road with the wind at my back.
The ten odd cars that accompanied me across, jockey for first pole position down the narrow road and I am no different. Race after the car in front. Overtake. Get overtaken. Drive faster to overtake the car that has just overtaken me and so the game of leap frog goes on until I get tired of it all and slow down enough to allow them to disappear into the distance, leaving me an empty road. Sods law was only taking a short nap, for when I rounded a sharp bend, there in front was a slow moving lorry.
Braking hard I become frustrated because the road is full of bends for the next few miles or so. A car comes up behind me, close, too close so I tap my brakes to give him a fright hoping that it will make him back off a bit but it doesn’t, it just makes him more determined to overtake me and the lorry at the first opportunity that is presented. Suddenly a straight stretch of road appears and so I signal to pull out, but the car behind has other ideas as he pulls out without signalling and forces his way past me and the lorry waving with two fingers as he passes.
I ignore his gesture and stop at Portree for breakfast before driving on to park in the lay by beside the Old Man of Storr, a magnificent obelisk of rock that stands proud inviting those interested, to come close to its base and admire the conical shape of the rugosities that adorn the surface. Standing around are an array of other odd shaped pinnacles, rugged, weathered and just as magnificent, pleasing to the eye and touch.
I put on my running shoes and with my soft soled climbing shoes slung around my neck, I trot over to the base of the Old Man eager to feel its surface under my fingers.
I remembered that Harold Raeburn a noted Scottish climber and mountaineer visited the Old Man back in 1898 with A. W. Russell who noted at the time, that “we will not venture to assert that the Old Man will never be ascended, but we were quite content to look at him without making an attempt”.
It was not until 1955 when three climbers, that the legendary Don Whillans with George Sutton and John Barber made the first recorded ascent of the Old Man, although it rarely gets repeated ascents due to its suspect rock and the difficulty of finding good protection. However, for the solo climber it is ideal and I was in no mood for thinking otherwise.
As I stand at its base, some 40 feet in diameter, I crane my neck upwards following its shape to the overhanging summit some 160 foot above, being thankful for the light warm breeze that caressed the air making the atmosphere both pleasant and reassuring to me. Donning my climbing shoes, I deliberate on where to start climbing. Should I follow the first ascent line carried out by Whillans, Sutton and Barber assuming I could find it, or should I seek out a route of my own? I chose the latter.
Finding some good hand holds just above head height, I place my right toe gently yet with conviction onto the rock surface and pull up. My fingers are soon playing sweet music on the many protruding rugosities that covered the rock keyboard and my feet dance gracefully to the tune of the tiny holds. Climbing is both ecstatic and friendly in its harmonious contact with me and I truly feel life is indeed, full of bliss and rewards. As soon as my fingers touch the rounded globules and intrusions, my feet follow contentedly, gripping snugly to the same holds that earlier had caressed my fingers.
Movement is ballerina like, tempered with the approach of a fine arts restorer repairing a priceless china vase, delicate, with precision and all with a flowing purpose to please.
My mind is devoid of all thoughts as I allow my senses to become one with the rock itself. Life in every sense of the word, at least right then and there at that moment in time had meaning but impossible to verbally describe. As I move across the angulated rock surface, I sense I was not climbing alone and at one point I was convinced I felt someone’s breath on my naked arms. However, I dismiss this as possibly being a gust of wind until I thought I felt their body touching mine, and so I suddenly stop moving for no apparent reason. I still feel safe so smile contentedly to myself and ‘welcome’ whoever or whatever it was and carry on my ever upwards flowing movement.
Up and up I climb until suddenly I become aware that the holds begin to become intrusive as fingers ache with the roughness of the rock. As I halt my upwards movement, I instinctively look down which is when I realize how far above the ground I am and that a slip would likely result in serious injury or death. In an instant, I relinquish the urge to continue upwards and start to climb back down the odd fifty feet I had gained.
Like Bentley Beetham, I am an ardent advocate of descending a climb, or down climbing as it is often referred to, believing that you should not climb anything you are not prepared to climb down, especially when soloing.
Once back on the ground, I move over to a smaller finger of rock, often referred to as The Old Women, and climb it several times by different routes. Clearly my body is receptive to climbing and so I indulged myself once more back on the Old Man by climbing up and around the circumference in an upwards spiral for approximately sixty feet, then back down using the same strategy.
After playing on some of the other rock pinnacles, I run back down to the car enjoying the tingling sensation in my toes that race upwards flooding all my body senses. I know that the rest of the holiday will be even better.
I had booked a small self-catering cottage in the tiny hamlet of Staffin, but lose no time once I had dumped all my gear inside, to set off to explore the Trotternish peninsula before the sun gave way to the rising moon which had already put in an appearance.
Over the next few days I thrill myself by making acquaintance with many of the odd looking rock pinnacles that surround the upper peninsula area. First there was the Needle, a 100ft pinnacle where I just could not resist the invitation to join the surface all the way to the top. Feeling fit and good with myself, I amble over to the Prison and found an exciting route to the top only to surprise a few local sheep busy munching the sweet green grass that adorn the top ledges. Later, I meet up with the Central Gully to make a hairy ascent inside its dark and dank interior, exiting onto a platform of crumbly schist.
Frank Grant: 2016- Previously unpublished.