The summer of ‘21 was a good one for mountain rock climbing as far as my rose tinted spectacles remember. Coinciding with uncertainty about travel and work abroad I found myself not in the alps for the first summer since the late ‘90s and making the most of a dry summer at home. My friend Keith suggested a trip to Scotland to climb late July and I was all ears.
My very first summer of proper rock climbing was in and around Glencoe whilst working nearby as a trainee outdoor instructor. Starting with a long weekend of total classics on the Buachaille, the nearby Etive slabs and the outcrops of Glen Nevis sowed the seed for a lifelong passion that hasn't slowed down too much since that summer in 1989! Visits since have been mostly guiding in the winter time but now and again early summer rock trips had made slow inroads into the long list of classics I’d read about during that first heady summer.
Our original plan to climb on the islands of Harris and Lewis were scuppered by lots of others with the same bright idea and no ferries available until the early autumn (no good for the tried and tested last minute weather check approach to planning). Literally as we drove by Glasgow wondering whether to turn right or left we chose left for the road towards Ben Nevis to capitalise on a hopefully dry Carn Dearg Buttress. That evening had us camped up in the Allt a'Mhuilinn as the sun dipped and the midges reminded us that in this part of the world and at this time of year they are the final arbiter of venue choice…
I’ve been itching to climb the heavily starred summer classics for such a long time since my one and only previous trip up the brilliant Torro whilst I was still a student in the early ‘90s. I’ve been lucky in the intervening years to have climbed many of its brilliant icy mixed routes, some of which rank with the best on Ben Nevis as well as being the first you reach on the long walk from the Glen below. Both of us are keen disciples of the Ken Wilson trilogy of books; Classic, Hard and Extreme Rock and this will always sway a decision on route choice, although not exclusively!
Keith Ball on The Bat and high up on King Kong.
Over a few days we found ourselves in awe of the quality (and challenge) of The Bat, King Kong and Bullroar (because of the iconic photo in the Ben Nevis guide of Jimmy Marshal). Our final day however was move after move of the finest mountain rock climbing on the best rock ever. It started with a rematch on Titan’s Wall. I’d backed off the main pitch early on on our first day, my excuse being (genuinely) damp and greasy jams. The nut I left as I retreated was very graciously returned and left on our stashed bags by non other than Dave MacLeod whilst he rope soloed Titan’s in the late evening in a huge single pitch as a means to get his rope up to inspect his latest project on the wall to the left of its final pitch. Not only one of the very best climbers but a true gent as well!
Titan's Wall, Ben Nevis
I digress! The final outing on this crag of Titan’s Wall ( snuff dry this time and no excuses thanks to Dave’s casual ascent) followed by Centurion will be hard to beat ever. We’d both climbed Centurion in winter many years previously and whilst that’s an incredible experience (and the fact the winter version doesn’t climb the whole line) climbing it on dry clean rock all the way to the top is the superior version. 2 routes and 8 well deserved Scottish stars.
The corner pitch of The Bat
The next morning we were trundling our way into the mighty Shelterstone in the heart of the Cairngorms. Dropping into the crag the roar of all the streams fed by remaining snow patches and the sandy beaches of Loch Avon is a sight to behold. My mind was imagining I’d been transported the some high Arctic tundra landscape. Perhaps technically I had. We climbed the Needle on that day then The Haystack and The Pin the next. The latter 2 being of the most excellent yet contrasting styles. The Pin could hold its own with any of the classics in the Grimsel and Furkha areas of Switzerland and Haystack, for me, the best. I’d also previously enjoyed The Steeple, but I think this one has the marginal edge.
The Shelterstone and Loch Avon, Cairngorms
With another day of guaranteed incredible weather that evening we found ourselves camped in Glen Torridon with our sights on Beinn Eighe the following day. Breakfast was rudely interrupted by the second most horrific midge cloud I’ve ever been unfortunate to bump into. One minute sitting calmly in the sun with a mug of coffee, the next due to some imperceptible change in the sunlight, humidity matrix was borderline panic. Keith stole a swift head start as I threw stuff in the car then legged it up the path in his wake waving my arms in a futile effort against the hungry swarm. Soon enough out of the Glen, calm returned and they were a distant memory. We took the scenic walk around rather than the slog over the top of the mountain. The heat was incredible and the inviting Loch below the majestic cliffs was the perfect antidote to my sweaty and midge tampered body. The water as crystal clear as any swimming pool I’ve ever seen.
We joined a few deer enjoying the welcome shade under the Far Eastern cliffs and our chosen climb called Angel Face. My friend Chris Forrest had made the first ascent with the legendary Andy Nisbet and was made up when I sent him a little photo of the wall live with the ease of modern technology. The climb was incredible, like being on a dolomitic wall and no pushover either! The steep quartzite being a fairly new experience, a little blind to read but favouring upward momentum. We topped out as the wall came into the sun and so on returning down the bags we followed the shade seeking deer over below the striking line of the Pale Diedre. Phenomenal finger locks lead up it on marble like compact rock for another true mountain classic. The body was starting to feel the pace of all the walking and climbing over the previous days.
Another swim on the way out to cool off, idyllic views to pointy Torridonian mountains and a long happy walk back down to the glen. Literally as I dropped my rucksack on the floor by the car the mornings midge swarm was easily surpassed by the single most horrific insect phenomenon I’ve ever briefly endured… In a Dukes of Hazard style manoeuvre we dived in the car and speed up the road with the windows open to escape as best we could. Keith asked where were we going? Anywhere but here. It’s impossible to articulate the horror of those moments…
We found a breezy spot to camp which heralded a slight break in the weather and the next morning our tired bodies didn’t seem to mind a slow drive with a few coffees and visits to old friends on our way towards Glencoe. The forecast suggested it’d clear up early on during the course of the next day. We pulled up in the campsite along from the Clachaig nervous of the dreaded midge yet they never materialised. I can only logically assume they’d all gone on holiday to Glen Torridon. Luckily for us.
The following morning Glencoe was filled with a huge wave of mist. We optimistically picked our way up the approach to the west face of Aonach Dubh aided by many winter approaches to Dinnertime Buttress. Whilst the grass and heather was soaking the rock somehow seemed tentatively dry and a slightly eroded patch of earth suggested we might be at the foot of the famed classic, Big Top. Climbing up into the dry ice fog the guidebook description seemed to fit with the limited visibility and after a few slow and careful pitches we popped out above the mist for the truly wild finishing pitches. Crazy jugs enable amazing climbing for the grade through improbable terrain, the spaced gear all the way reinforced it’s nick name with the local mountain rescue team as the Big Chop! As it was now fairly clear and mostly sunny we indulged our Hard Rock habit with a climb up Trapeze. Like Big Top it starts off being slightly suspect for its rating of stars but redeems itself in buckets towards the top.
The following 2 days required an optimistic approach given the drizzly weather forecast. We took the short ferry ride from Corran to see if the Ardnamurchan peninsula was the good bet suggested in the guidebook. Slow single track roads eventually led us out of the wet higher hills to the far coast and the gabbro crags in and around Meall an Fhir-Eoin.
A very different experience to the previous week with small buttresses packed with smart short routes on perfect rock. Grit like friction with limestone like positive crimps, abundant protection and possibly holiday grading gave a great relaxed vibe in the most beautiful setting with stunning views out to the islands. The following day saw us try a few venues before eventually getting in a few testing steep pitches at the most accessible yet secluded crag in Glencoe called “The Bendy”. It’s an amazing steep wall above a huge pool in the river Coe gained most easily by abseil and 2 minutes from the road. Good swimming and fingery mid extremes in an idyllic setting…whilst we remained on high alert to the high midge potential they all seemed to be conspicuous by their absence!
And so for the final 2 days the weather got good enough to get back on the bigger cliffs. Out trip over on the Corran ferry inspired the choice to visit Garbh Bheinn. The approach up the back is a bit of a shock to the legs truth be told. The lingering mist and a lack of map (either paper or on a phone) led to a very concerning few minutes dithering on the wrong summit. A quick Google of the mountain on an obscure Corbett walking website revealed a photo to suggest which way to walk. Luck was on our side as the mist cleared showing a more appropriate sized cairn for such a “not quite Munro" and its beautiful south facing cliffs just below. We did a trio of great routes on the gneiss of its Upper Tier with each route popping out again by the summit. The views improved to reveal an amazing vista south the the Paps of Jura and towards Glencoe making it appear more like a Norwegian fjord than the place I was more familiar with. I’d really recommend a visit up here as the rock is great to climb in a great setting even if the approach isn’t one you’d be doing on consecutive days.
Our final day and last climb we visited the ultra atmospheric Slime Wall on the big Buachaille at the head of Glencoe. I’d done a few routes here before including the mighty Shibboleth which I’d still recommend as one of the best multi pitch rock climbs I’ve done in the British Isles let alone Scotland. We had just enough energy to climb a parallel line called Apparition. Suffice to say it was brilliant as well and maintained the bold character of climbing on this cliff. As we scrambled back down the ridge opposite we had a grand view of some friends climbing the revered New Testament which weaves another wild line up this most impressive of all mountain walls.
We all have to head home eventually but here was another very good reason to head back whenever a motivated partner, good weather and a bit of free time coincide to allow another trip north to sample climbing in the most grand of settings. It seems a little superior that the guidebooks afford some of these climbs we did 4 stars but a year later on the memory of those routes seems they’re totally justified.