Tuesday 20 July 2010

Sron Uladail 1, Dave nil

I’ve just done my first climbing session in 8 days after a week long trip to Sron Ulladale. The session was back home on my board! There’s nothing worse than moany blogs and I do try not to post too often about the many many failures I have trying to make Scottish new routes come into existence. But as Claire and I agreed the other day (day 4 of sitting in the car watching the horizontal rain), people often don’t know what goes into opening new hard trad routes in the mountains.
I’ve been to the outer Hebrides nearly every year for a decade, on most of those trips, climbing in the mountains of Harris, namely Sron Uladail, has been ‘plan A’. On all but one trip, plan A has lasted less than 10 minutes off the Harris ferry and we left the Harris mountains to their lashing by wind and rain and headed for the relative shelter of the Lewis  sea cliffs. Although serendipitous, I’ve found many of my favourite places to climb there and the sea cliffs never felt like a plan B once I was there.
This time it was the Sron or nothing - I had a job to do. The brief: find a good, preferably hard and unclimbed route on Sron Uladail that myself and Tim Emmett can climb in under 6 hours on live television and get it cleaned. Easier said than done.
Having studied my crag shots, I did the big load carry from Ahmunsuidhe and abseiled over the big drop armed with a 600 foot rope, brush and a lot of hardware, just before the rain started. My first choice line was seeping copious drools of water from the back of the roof and was out of the question from the word go. Hmmm, what now? I hauled up the line, fed it all back into the bag, moved 30m left and repeat. Option 2 had no protection and being 35 degrees overhanging for a couple of pitches would be nearly impossible to clean and inspect. By day 3 I was at option 5 and still at square 1. 
The live TV issue kind of dictates having at least a fighting chance of getting to the top on the chosen route. For me, anything harder than about E9/10 always involves a remote chance of success for any given attempt. Sure, the ultimate chances of success across many days and weeks of attempts rise to something sporting, but on this occasion we have 1 day, 6 hours to make it happen. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if the crag wasn’t so overhanging or so ravaged by the elements. I could absorb more of the potential problems through preparation. 

I was determined not to leave Harris no further forward, so after two days of torrential rain and wind I jogged in as fast as I could in a brief lull in the storm to check out another potential line, some grossly overhanging blank grooves left of the Scoop. As soon as I’d dropped the ropes and headed off down over the first overhangs I found to my dismay that the brief lull was just as the storm readjusted to a westerly, blowing straight across the crag. Pretty soon I was having a right gripper. The tail ends of 3 or 400 feet of my two static ropes that had been hanging below me were now blowing in great arcs horizontally in space despite being sodden from the rain and very heavy.  As the wind rose and rose I realised it could get dangerous to be on the wall quite rapidly switched to ‘escape’ mode. Plan A was to continue back-aiding down through the roofs until I could be sure the ropes would reach the slopes far below and then bail to the cliff base. But it became obvious that even with my weight on them in a free abseil the ropes and me would be blown out away from the slope and If I attempted to go down the rope I’d probably suffer a very spinny-dizzy death being tossed around on the rope ends. So I went back up.
I was terrified the wind would get so strong that things would start to get out of hand - being thrown around on ropes running across crystal sharp rock edges. Every time I released a piece of gear I was thrown sideways into space by the wind, with the sickening sound of ropes scraping along overlaps above. I learned to jumar up rope a lot faster! As the pro-golfers over at St-Andrews bailed back to the clubhouse for a beer due to the high winds, I flopped over onto ledges in a waterfall and hauled up the sodden ropes, cursing the Scottish weather as I staggered off along the ridge to Ullaval into the gale.
The rest of the week alternated between long hours in the car watching the rain, or long hours of the above dangling in it. The upshot was that I have still to settle on an ideal line to attempt. Here’s to the next trip going a little better!
In the meantime, I’ll be trying to gain back the fitness lost on my ‘climbing’ trip...

The lovely outlook from the Sron on the good day - It’s amazing how transformed the Hebrides are in nice weather. More so than other parts of Scotland I think.

An ancient wire battered in by aid climbers 40 odd years ago. I removed this relic (it practically turned to dust in my hands). There wasn’t really a placement for in the seam - I think that fear, a strong arm and a good hammer had a lot to do with it!

4 days of the same view

I thought I was being paranoid about the sharp overlaps of sheared quartz and gneiss until the slightest glance of my hand along one gave me a 4cm gash.


  1. Interesting as always to hear the details from the hard end of climbing. Sure puts my epic up an HS 4c into perspective! We're all on the same journey, though. Hopefully there are a few more possibilities on the Sron for your TV show. Good luck!

  2. Keep at it Dave, be worth it when it comes good. Jealous of you being up there even if the weather is crap!

  3. About the bottom image of the finger, I gained 10-ish parallel scars on my left leg on Uisgneabhal Mor a few weeks ago thanks to that rock. Slices skin like butter. Watch those ropes!