Tuesday 22 May 2018

Ultima Thule

For about 15 years I’ve been exploring the Scottish Islands and opening many trad routes on all sorts of cliffs, big and small. I’ve often focused on the Hebrides and also had a great time visiting Orkney to free the Longhope Route (E9) on St John’s Head on Hoy. But I’ve never been to the Shetland Isles.

Top of the list for the archipelago had to be the huge cliffs on Foula, Shetland’s most remote island. Foula has one of the highest sea cliffs in the UK, Da Kame (370m). However, it is the adjacent and almost as high Nebbifeld (290m) which was the obvious target, since it looked much steeper and harder to climb. I’d seen a small picture of it years ago and it looked quite terrifying - bands of overhanging sandstone, of god only knows what quality, towering for hundreds of metres. It might not be climbable at all, it might be amazing. There is only one way to find out. I’d made a plan with Calum Muskett to make a visit in late May. 

Foula is quite the place. Things in the islands are ‘more relaxed’ in general but Foula definitely takes it to another level. The locals are however not relaxed about helping visitors. Everyone bends over backwards to look after people coming to visit the island. There is no shop on the island and aside from worrying about how to carry 440m of rope and a huge rack of gear, I wondered how we would carry food for an entire trip as well. I asked around if any of the local crofters had any meat or eggs they could sell and in one email there were to be preplaced local lamb and eggs at our accommodation. Eggcellent.

Arriving off the wee ferry, we were met by the locals, offering unexpected lifts, advice and arrangements to sort us out with whatever we needed. By the following morning we were also provided with several iron stakes to make anchors at the top of the cliff. It’s great to see the tradition of being kind to visitors extends to yet another island I hadn’t been to.

On the first evening, we walked round the island and inspected all the cliffs. It was raining and blowy, as you might expect. And so the cliffs looked extra huge, intimidating and rather uninviting. However, the next day, a period of good weather arrived and I used the drone to locate the top of a line we had spied on Nebbifield. The stakes were hammered in with large rocks and we abseiled over the edge, extra 100m static ropes tied to our harnesses to advance further down the cliff.

In a couple of sessions we’d done a lot of work to clean and stabilise the top half of the wall, but the lower part, at least in the line of the rope, had a long open wall of pretty soft sandstone. The line to take looked much further right, making a long traverse to gain a corner system, and another 70m traverse back left, above it. The only way to get to it was from the bottom, climbing onsight. 

Spot the climber

I was a little tired after a few days of cleaning, but the forecast was only good for one more day, so off we went down the rope to commit to an attempt. At the base I attempted to pin the static rope to the ground with a wire and a rock, so that it would resist blowing off in the wind (and stranding us, should we fail on the route) but allow us to pull it up from above should we succeed.

A soft traverse on pitch 2 to reach the corner system with relief.

Calum set off up an off width, lobbing loose blocks off at regular intervals. My second pitch got fully into the Foula climbing vibe. I balanced over some huge death flakes and dug out a ledge for an essential runner to justify further progress. I eventually unearthed a crack that took some gear and inspected a horizontal traverse along a honeycomb band of softness with the consistency of stale bread. Just about hard enough to convince you to pull on it, and then snap! But amongst the flakiness there were some fingery pockets that were more solid and I made it to a fine belay ledge at the base of the huge roofed corner. Hurdle one complete.

Calum burled round the roofs above which looked incredible and continued out of sight above. I reached him at a hanging belay with a blank looking section just above. The rock here was really good - washed by a waterfall coming over the top of the cliff, it had hardened and cleaned it perfectly. The blank bit went with one committing rockover and I made it to a fantastic ledge in the middle of the cliff. This made a great spot to relax for a minute and enjoy the setting. Next up was a 70m traverse pitch along a diagonal break, starting with fulmar fighting and ending with a long stretch of pumpy laybacking, using up out large rack of cams. Calum worked steadily along it, running out of cams after 50m and switching to fiddly wires as well as brief stop for some gardening as well.

Although this only took us to the start of the hard pitches, at least we were back in line with our static rope, so we if we failed on the hard climbing, we wouldn’t have a complex abseil back to the foot of the cliff, followed by a 250m jumar! We had a comedy moment with Calum pulling up the lowest 100m static to tie it off and complaining about it feeling heavy or his arms feeling weak. When the end finally appeared, it still had the large rock I’d pinned it with attached!

Kind of hard to fathom that this is a 300m cliff.

I dispatched a short E6 pitch on which I was very glad I’d cleaned it carefully. I think it might feel more like E7 if you didn’t know exactly which holds were strong enough to pull on and every rubbish cam that would fit in the chossy breaks. Calum followed and then asked if I might lead the next pitch as we was feeling the effects of a winter’s skiing in his arms. I’d just been sport climbing for a month and even then I was pumped on the next pitch and had to give a bit of a shout on a fingery snatch at the end of it. Next up was another E6/7 pitch. A sparsely protected wall with long reaches. Calum started up it but felt pumped and it was too dangerous to commit to the crux section, so he lowered down and I tried. I was shivering quite badly in the ever increasing wind and although a serious pitch was not so appealing right at that moment, I was happy to take the opportunity to get some blood flowing. I achieved that goal, and could indeed feel my heart going a bit, right at the end of the pitch, a long way out from the gear and doing a little bit of a ‘move’ to the final hold.

Pitch 7, another 6b pitch, and the hardest ones are still to come.

One more E6 pitch remained, but a long and varied one. First, more of the same bold wall climbing with no runners, then a sandy groove with collapsing footholds, culminating in a fulmar ledge, followed by a stomach crawl leftwards along the break, processing fulmars along the way and avoiding dropping loose stuff directly onto Calum. And then a bouldery 6b section through the capping roofs. I was quite wide eyed on this section, with the wind blasting up into my face and the knowledge that a second try would be highly unlikely at this point in the day. It wasn’t needed.

Calum opted to follow this pitch on the static rope rather than second such a weaving pitch in a very cold and tired state. So he arrived in no time and led off up the final corner, roaring at fulmars and scaring them off very effectively. 

The next day I could hardly move. 

We called our route Ultima Thule; apparently the name the Romans had for Foula, meaning the farthest land. Overall it goes at E7 5c, 5c, 6a, 6b, 6a, 6b, 6b, 6b, 6b, 5a.

The superb Nebbifeld. It's easy to see from this angle why we chose the line we did. The small waterfall coming over the top of the cliff has blown all over the upper part of the wall, hardening the otherwise slightly soft sandstone, and turning it the bright rust colour.

Da Kame and Nebbifeld from my drone.


  1. Really good to see someone climbing here! Its an amazing wall.

  2. Excellent! And lots of Shetland left to explore, we've got amazing weather just now ;)

  3. Many congratulations. I was part of a team of 2 who did the first BASE jump off Nebbifield. It's such a beautiful place and it looks like your route was in the same place that we jumped.