“Would it be the best new route you’ve put up?”
“Bloody hell, it would be”
Thus was the reasoning for trying a rather risky passage and I think it’s fair to say one of the ‘best’ bold wall climbs to be found in the UK. A route which belongs somewhere in the 1980s being technically pretty straight forward but having those classic 6b/c rockovers which become strangely tiring and where a fall leaves plenty for the imagination. I’d slept poorly for much of the trip and could empathise with Edward Nortons character suffering from Insomnia in Fight Club. There were a few thoughts which were reverberating around during the week leading up to and during the ascent of it:
‘Mind blowing, reasonably unjustifiable, somebody in the higher echelons of Equip is a patronising tool, tormented ejaculation, indian face, hellraiser, bolts, massive falls, danger, old age, death, life ‘crossroads’ and desire’
It’s admittedly hard to make one climb sound interesting, myself I enjoy sci-fi, fantasy (not s&m) but I thought I’d give this one a write up as it did give what felt like a fairly powerful experience and after all, this is my piece of the internet so I'll bore you for a minute.
In 2007 Dave Birkett and Alan Steele put up Skye Wall having been tipped off by Tom Walkington. The pictures of the climb showed it for what it is, one of the UKs great hard wall climbs on immaculate gabbro.
Dan Varian had mentioned he’d be keen to have a trip up to try it and in mid October last year we had the opportunity. Making camp at the far end of the Loch we walked on to the base of the cliff in the evening to size it up and stash some kit. The skies were clear and it felt very warm for mid October. We walked out in the twilight and a near full moon came up and shone a light across the loch. The venue was idyllic and after having finished the busiest month of work for the year it already felt a worthwhile trip just to hangout camping.
The following day was still clear but cooler. We did Skye Wall and a new route to the right which provided a great day out, one of those days where you feel you can’t put a foot wrong. A friend Ken Toms who passed away a few years ago once said that when you are climbing well it is one of the best feelings in the world.
Skye Wall tackles a seam and crack on the right hand side of the face. The big expanse of rock to the left was unclimbed and appeared more featured with grooves and scoops to aim for. We left the morning after but made plans to return to attempt a new line to the left.
Arriving at the base we geared up and Dan led up to a good ledge, I carried on through and after some prospecting a few metres above committed to some sloping ramp moves to gain a steep corner and a belay where this became a roof. This is where we were hoping we could go, the roof looked short and with good gear and would lead into the stunning white groove feature. Looking back down the ropes hung away from the rock and it dawned on me why the last pitch had been trickier than expected.
Two moves across the roof led to a tricky move to gain the white ‘groove feature’. There was more good gear and I was ecstatic with how well it was going, believing it would be slabbing off above and become easier. After climbing up to the next roof and booting a loose flake off I made my way onto the main feature allowing access to the upper wall, a long sloping shelf.
As soon as I gained it the fun feeling left and the nature of the climb changed. There was no gear on the ledge but worse still the wall above appeared steeper and more impregnable than we’d hoped for.
After attempting the 2 most obvious weaknesses I eventually set off up leftwards from the hooks thinking the weakness above would lead to a groove on the left and possible belay.
After getting into a pumpy position I prevaricated in this position to drain the rest of my energy before slapping into the scoop above. Once I was stood in this slight scoop I knew I was screwed and true fear set in for a minute as I realised I’d climbed myself into a cul de sac. It was one of those moments where you felt you haven’t just overcooked the chicken but the bugger is on fire, destroying the kitchen and scaring the neighbors.
After attempting to climb the ‘weakness’ a couple of times I eventually committed to the one of the more terrifying lower offs I’ve been party to, using a shit partially in wire, I was glad I’d been taking it easy on the cakes the month prior. I made it back to the safety of the hooks and lowered down to the belay. We abbed to the ground, I sighed with relief and Dan undoubtedly did the same after being sat at the belay for ages.
To say it wasn’t what we were looking for would be an understatement. Skye Wall had apart from one short section low on the 2nd pitch been full of good gear. We’d expected something similar on this. There appeared to be a few cul de sacs where you could get lured and climb yourself into a dead end.
I considered leaving our 1st effort as the highpoint as we’d got to there in a ‘good style’, much like the tormented ejaculation. The dirtiest most filthy word in the traditional British climbing sense is almost certainly ‘bolt’, those things that foreigners and yorkshiremen use. Obviously I’d never place one at my highpoint but did think it would have been a great laugh with all the grief Dave Turnbull and Nick would have gotten, I figured they’d had enough in the last half year or so.
Dan came back up and made his way out. I abbed once more to my highpoint for a last look and noticed a line of edges and sidepulls going almost straight up above where I’d been. Once out I told Dan that after one more abseil of the crux section I thought we could do it and suddenly felt a palpable pressure like a lead weight pressing on my mind. I really was getting too old for this shit, I’d come out for a fun holiday which had turned into some mental necessity to climb the ‘terror face’. I liked it less than that French climber with a name like a chocolate.
After returning from the ferry landing we piled up to the cliff, I abseiled in the wrong spot, the ropes snagged and feeling toasted I ‘lost it’ on the top and threw the ropes off cursing loudly down towards the loch. I cooled off and went and retrieved the ropes knowing the route was no place for a hot head. Finding the correct abseil spot I checked the steeper section and the pro post runout.
Walking back down with the route chalked it did look spectacular, the ‘shining mountain’. I was still unhappy with a few things about the climb, not least of which was that a 30 metre fall onto hooks might leave you looking like a distant cousin of the chap out of Hellraiser. Varian had kept busy soloing some new routes nearby very patiently. Ben and Adam had done a load of new routes the last 2 days and I’d effectively done 1 and a half pitches and some abseiling, it was bloody terrible.
Arriving back at the campsite the best bit of this day was Dan doing a brilliant new highball (which Ben and Adam had spent a good amount of the day trying). We left paradise the next morning.
The next 2 days passed far too quickly, an afternoon on Supercharger at Neist point, some drinks in the Slig, an explore for some boulders on Raasay and Friday morning arrived. The forecast was wrong, it rained and had some more possible in the updated forecast. Ben and Adam weren’t impressed and set off south to Glen Coe. We optimistically got the ferry in and the weather improved until we arrived at the base of the cliff where it pissed down for 20 minutes. When it stopped I abbed back down to the steep moves above the runout, dried some holds and cleaned a line of sidepulls which would breach the last blank section to easier ground and the top. Jugging back out I was optimistic but then it started to piss down again. Hiding beneath the overhang at the base waiting for the rain to stop felt rather draining.
The first 2 pitches are steep enough not to get wet and when the rain stopped Varian made short work of them, linking them together. I arrived at the belay and organised the gear which was mainly hooks and a few other bits of gear, it felt heavy and I was pretty sure I’d never carried more shit kit.
With the knowledge of what to expect I arrived at the skyhook shelf quickly and made a swathe of hooks, extended with slings. After 10-15 minutes to make sure the weather was holding and to amp up I left the ledge with boiling blood and proceeded to the previous highpoint, beyond which it’s worth turning your brain off for a reasonable distance of climbing. A frantic wire placement requires a lot of care to ensure it doesn’t flick out with drag, a wild layback to leave this led to bold moves up right to a hands off ledge but a still committing jump for jugs with a cam 4 on hand ready to chuck in. Although unlikely I’d thought it possible to end up on the deck from the last move of the pitch, having never trusted microcams.
After securing myself to the belay I felt like I’d used most chemicals in my body to reach that place and felt a very strong desire for some bad things. Looking down the face when chalked it appeared stunning, a crescent line of holds arcing down to the ‘skyhook ledge’ where the main mind play began. (2 weeks later walking out into the daylight from the Llanberis ‘rave cave’ with the few survivors had felt a similar experience, I think Alex Mason was the only person I remember assaulting. Big shout out to the burning hand and crew for setting it up, they deserve an MBE).
Dan came up and after a brief rest led through the last difficult moves to the central groove above leading to the top. Walking off we got supplied with the view of the new route which picked the easiest line up the main prow of the buttress. Three stunning pitches.
I felt blown for a good week afterwards, properly blown.
We hiked out to the campsite as darkness arrived had some amazing tasting grub and passed out soon after some wine. Dan had come up with the name at some point that evening with both of our trips having an extraordinary moon glow as well as the name referring to his favourite film. My only offerings weren’t too inspired with ‘Rab sucks’ for laying me off their team (I didn’t think Rab himself would appreciate it), The future is in the balance was another possible option but I’ve had enough of politics in the last year.
The morning after we headed back to the mainland, Dan drove us to Carlisle where me and Ray hopped into my car and enjoyed a few hours of the best 90s trance, as we arrived in Llanberis and Ray departed Zombie Nation was appropriately playing.
I was bolloxed enough when we were on the route to not really know how hard it was and we’d only abseiled down 20 metres or so on the top face so it might not be that bad but I felt it was one of the 2 most serious pitches I’d led. There was a mistake in a recent magazine saying it’s the hardest mutli-pitch in the UK which is both wrong and laughable but I think it could be a contender for the most serious. See what you think. Good one Dan and Ray.