Rounding the crest of Quinag’s summit, the wind suddenly petered out, turning my buffeted swagger into a wonderful moment of calm contemplation. The great “flower pot” peaks of Assynt were laid bare to my south, their stark forms carved out in succession; a troop of Torridonian Red sentinels. To my north was that Land of the Lost – the vast and empty swathe of western Sutherland, not a sentinel in sight, just barren Gneiss and endless seascape. There’s only about twenty or so miles of coast from here to Cape Wrath, but amongst the myriad of kinks, curves and swirls in the rocky coastline is surely at least one lifetime’s worth of exploring.
This was my first exploratory mission to what I’d affectionately dubbed ‘Skull Buttress’. Adrian and I had spotted the crag when getting pictures for Great Mountain Crags a couple of years previously. You wouldn’t notice it without climbing on Barrell Buttress, which is exactly what we’d been doing. Predictably, Andy Nisbet had done a route somewhere nearby, but it was quite clear that with a grade of HVS his line didn’t tackle the cliff we had seen. It had been almost too much to take in at the time – a tapered 20m lower wall led to some broken grassy ledges and then this almighty sweep of seemingly blank overhanging rock. There’s no such thing as blank, of course, so I’d snapped a load of pictures knowing full well I’d return.
And return I did – half a dozen times over the course of the summer – first inspecting, cleaning, piecing together the most obvious lines, then eventually climbing a couple of them without incident. With temperatures mostly in the low teens and rarely a dry spell of more than one or two days it was probably the worst year in recent memory to decide to try and climb some hard new lines on a high north facing cliff. But hey, no reward without sacrifice. To finally lead the first two lines on this awe-inspiring wall was well worth all the long hours driving, carrying the 100m static up over the summit, hoofing turf off the ledges and generally committing to the cause.
I was fortunate enough to have my good friend and photographer Colin Threlfall make the pilgrimage up north from the southern tip of Skye (about the same distance as travelling from Aberdeen!!) so here’s some pictures and impressions of the first routes on Skull Buttress. If anyone fancies going up for a look give us a shout and I’ll give you the beta – I’ve cleaned another two lines (the obvious cracks left and right, which I’ve yet to find dry) and would appreciate getting a chance to try a climb them next season…
Jurassic Spark – E7 5c, 6b
I footered about at the top of the cliff, rigging the now-familiar anchors. Then all of a sudden Jason pipes up “Hey man, I’m really not feeling too clever you know”. “Aye, it’s a pretty spooky place eh?!” My response was, well, less-than-sympathetic. “Have a shit Jas, you’ll be fine”. Fortunately for the both of us, he did, and he was.
The first pitch went well, despite the steepness and the unfamiliar ground – maybe E3 or 4 or thereabouts. A few pulls led up to a dwindling foot traverse out onto the left side of the lower wall, where twin cracks grabbed the eye and afforded a plentiful supply of protection. Despite only being a few metres off the belay, the great slash of the gully opening out below the wall meant the exposure was already most breath taking. Jason followed, very ‘focused’ not pausing much to savour the atmosphere. Maybe my two previous visits had broken the ice, while he was still struggling with small talk. Or maybe that booming flake I had been forced to pull on had given him a bit of a fright.
The second pitch, however, provided the real meat – a super-direct voyage through the very heart of The Skull. Ten metres of poorly protected wall climbing led to the first break and the first respite, from where previous investigations had revealed the fight proper would likely commence. On this occasion, I’d spent a good twenty minutes on the way down using a spare T-shirt to mop wetness from the handholds, but already as I craned my neck upwards I could see the deadly weeps were re-appearing. No matter, these are the breaks, and another visit without a route to show for it wasn’t high on my agenda. Tiny laybacks, a big span to a tiny edge with the right hand, match left hand and foot, swap feet and cross back through left onto micro crozzles and…hopefully….yes! Good flake. It was more luck than strong fingers that saw me moving up to the second break.
More wetness there, and a lot more uncertainty, as I struggled to find recovery before the second and longest of the three hard sections. I tried in vain to dry wet boots, wishing I’d taken more time to figure out the protection. Could I climb up and place gear, then climb back down to rest? Or would that be self-defeating? And what size of RP did that little crack take again?? Far too many questions this late in the day….But as the crack peters out there’s no room for questions anyway – stopping will surely mean falling, as forearms start to burn…
A rush of blood, a torrid hand swap and a huge lunge up and right to a sloper brings a decent Camelot and the sanctuary of the third and final break. Those ledges ten metres or so along the break to my left are looking appealing but it’s maybe only twenty feet or so to the top now, and a good line never goes sideways. All that remains is this weird ‘sandstone tufa’ feature – like a little white egg timer – slightly hollow, but essentially sound. Up this gingerly, little crimps on either side, to where more protection leads to a final technical kick in the teeth. Forty metres of rope hangs heavy below. Cross through again, right toe tapping hopefully along the blank rock, searching for purchase. Then “Slap!”. There we go! The reassuring sound and puff of white chalk as tight skin connects with rough flat sandstone.
Land of the Lost and Found – E7 6a, 6b/c
I’d not been too optimistic after rapping the smooth right side of the wall. First off, Phil had nabbed all the cleaning kit, so I was left looking and feeling but not really understanding the lie of the land. One or two big flakes wedged into horizontal breaks would need to be excavated and provide protection if the line was to be made vaguely safe. On that first day it was also barely above freezing, and the crag was wet – very wet. But another visit on my own – complete with Powerstretch sallopettes and down jacket – yielded just enough gear and holds to make the Lost become Found. The start would be dangerous, but then protection it seemed would gradually improve with height – fortuitously, as so did the difficulty! What was clear was that the underlying rock and the climbing looked immaculate – crozzly crimps, micro edges, slots, layaways and wonderfully rough big flatties carved into the blankness. This was ancient sandstone, but none of your typical rounded breaks, and not a single jam in sight.
A return visit with The Jack was again thwarted by a number of persistent seeps, particularly on the lower crag which had never really dried out all summer. The occasion was put to good use, however, with a link on the shunt after chalking up the holds. Hmmmm – maybe F7c-ish climbing, not as pumpy as the central line but with some harder moves high up. Perfect!
Finally in early September the long-awaited ‘dry spell’ materialised. All five days of it. The temperature didn’t break twenty degrees but the lack of rain was enough to have me gunning for a midweek partner and make the long drive north again. Adam Russell duly obliged. I’d met Adam on a trip to Pabbay and Mingulay the previous summer, one of a talented but very down to earth tribe of climbing youth from in and around Dundee. I was immediately drawn to their uncomplicated drive and enthusiasm and their ‘give it a go’ attitude. I figured if I fluffed it high on the second pitch (a possibility) Adam might at least give it a go. I’d probably rather that than go home empty-handed. Anyway, there was also the not insignificant issue of the steep first pitch.
Nothing short of a gale blew us up over the summit, and it still managed to catch us as we abseiled down the line. No 100m static this time, just two half ropes and a monster rack. A quick sniff revealed that the bottom pitch was indeed dry – the first time I’d seen it so. The rock felt cold and sharp, but also rough and sticky. I watched Adam closely as he picked his way into and up the stepped overhanging groove, a short length of rope with his wire brush dangling out behind him showing the angle. The gear looked good, but the noises he was making and the increasing rapidity of his movement suggested the holds maybe weren’t. As I arrived at his belay below the headwall my fingers flushed through with burning hot aches.
So this was it. Thirty five metres of climbing, all hard, but with the crux right at the top. I knew I’d only get one chance, certainly this season. But what do I do if I fall at the last hurdle? I couldn’t afford to let that happen. Pulling onto the tenuous opening moves and soon leaving a solitary Peenut behind, within a few carefully executed moments I’m onto the No Fall Zone. Then two good pieces and everything’s a bit more relaxed.
At the first break, cheeks pressed against the cold, dry rock, I can feel the cold wind whipping up from the gully below. I open my eyes and contrast the cold with the warm and golden sunshine caressing the mossy bog in the glen below. It looks so beautiful and stress-free down there; soft, warm and comfortable Pressing hard up right from a heel hook in a jug to a small damp gaston, knee on for balance, then up onto a side-pull and a tiny brass offset out right. It feels solid, I think. Then slow and steady edging on tiny crozzles and notches to a long stretch up and right to the next good holds and proper protection. Those big flat holds, poor feet, long reaches – just brilliant, utterly brilliant climbing.
And there I am at the final break, kissing the rock again, dropping the weight onto my heels to squeeze the juice back into my forearms. Breathing, relaxing. There’s that soft, warm and welcoming view away down in the glen again, set starkly against the sharp reality of the moment. But it’s a great feeling, worth waiting for, and worth savouring.