Thursday 3 September 2009

Rollercoaster time again

Michael enjoying the St John’s head experience

It’s been another journey of big ups and downs on Orkney over the past few days with Micheal. But every time I have a fantastic trip, regardless of results. Duly, the wind prevented us from even getting to the edge of the cliff when we arrived, but spending the day soaking up the atlantic ferocity provided much amazement at the forces of nature on display on this island.

St john’s looking nearly as big and mean as it actually is.

So with conditions near the top of the wall too extreme, we tried playing on the bottom, and between the rain, we sussed out some of the lower pitches. We had a good day climbing about halfway up the wall, but fairly cumbersomely, equipped with big wet boots to get through pitches of soaking off-vertical grass pitches and wearing our Gore-Tex’s to keep out the rain and fulmar hurl.

This was the ferry on the way there! (must’ve been the training…)

I felt pretty down about the whole thing one morning. On the one day we could go on the crux pitch from the top, the dampness in the sandstone meant I pulled three small but important holds off the crux pitch. It was all seeming a bit too tenuous a goal to climb such a hard pitch here, with conditions against us and soft, rock, angry wildlife and without the previous 17 pitches using up precious energy for the big pitch. At these times, realising it’s not going to ‘go’ this trip, or even next trip, it’s hard not to let frustration reach the surface. Frustration with myself that is. On one hand I understand that I am not here for an easy route. In fact, if it just happened and was an E10 I’d probably be even a little disappointed it wasn’t harder. But on the other, I’m here to climb and to chase after that feeling of a hard climb feeling effortless. But all I seem to be doing is walking back and forth across that heather bog day after day in the rain and gale. I found myself if the messed up position of being on a climbing trip to an amazing place, but dreaming of my three metre high board at home. Thankfully such madness was only temporary.

Michael descending the jurassic park slopes to the base of the cliff. I decided to use a highly dynamic technique for the last 30 feet of this, shredding my Gore-Tex nicely.

Just to have been to the outstandingly beautiful place that lies remote from the reach of most people at the base of St John’s Head made this trip worth it.

The fulmar chicks are just getting to flying school age now, and we witnessed several amusing ‘baptism of fire’ first flights and semi-falling descents of St John’s Head from young flyers. Not all of them learned quickly enough as the above demonstrates.

1200 feet of air beneath the feet. Doesn’t seem real.

The best part about trying something completely different like this climb is realising how completely rubbish you are at the weak areas of your game. I always get climbing logistics quite spectacularly wrong. This trip was not different, with some impressive errors that seem so silly in hindsight, and a few I’ll forgive myself for needing to learn the hard way. But they are learned, and I have knowledge for next time, whenever that will be?


  1. I was checking the weather on Hoy over the last week and realised you would be having a hard time. Perhaps you should look back thru the weather records for Orkneys and see when the best time of the year is on average., presumably low wind. Possibly June, July andAugust, but maybe February?

    On your King Lines theme, when I look at the photos of the climb and face I am struck by how majestic the rock architecture is from a climbing perspective., the Upper Wall that is.
    When I was sat at the Crow’s Nest belay the view was outside of my previous experience.
    When I got lowered over the top it was similarly extra-experiential, like maybe observing a battle before being dumped into the middle.

    How much do you experience the above points? Just a day’s work? One overhanging cliff is just like another?

    I was struck by how solid the Upper Wall was, almost quartzite like. Maybe I am just remembering the big holds. Unfortunatley 8c may use some smaller brittle ones.
    A solution we have down here on southern sandstone, is to paint furniture polish on worn sandstone. This effectively cements the sandstone and changes it from frictionless ball bearings to good rough solid friction. Without this all our crags would be just one worn foothold and pile of sand. Whilst this is a bit extreme for an adventure route it does make sense for any worked pitch. It is not the same at all as cutting holds or adding holds. It preserves the rock and makes it much more pleasant for all future climbers. More logistics, paint brush, bottle and 24 hours for it to dry out

  2. I agree the cliff is one of the most spectacular pieces of rock architecture I've seen, very inspiring (one of several inspiring things about it). Obviously I've seen bigger cliffs, and cliffs with nicer rock. But every cliff is different and has it's own attractions. It's the combination of aesthetic attributes that count.

    The upper wall is indeed much better with only the odd soft bit