OVER THE SEA TO SKYE - Climb Magazine Oct 2011
Lines join in faint discord
And the Stormwatch brews
A concert of kings
As the White Sea snaps
At the heals of a soft prayer whispered.
Words from the song “Dun Ringill” by Jethro Tull former Skye resident.
Being situated on the most westerly point of Skye does not exactly make this the most accessible crag in the universe. (Is a bit of an understatement). But when did accessibility always guarantee quality. If climbing virgin dolerite whilst taking in the views of the outer Hebrides and the occasional Minky whale popping up for a breather doesn’t float your boat then stay at home put on the kettle and ring your mates to organise another trip in to the Peak. On the other hand if you want an un-forgettable experience, read this article, fork out for biblical proportions of fuel and make sure you have packed 9 hours worth of drive tunes.
As with all good trips the journey to the crag is every bit important as the climbing itself. Journeys don’t come much better than this one. As you drift over the sea to skye you will be greeted by the controversial bridge that still springs many a debate as to its purpose some 10 years after it was erected. The dominating views of the Cuillins shouldn’t fail to up lift your mood as your destination point is soon within grasp. Charming Dunvegan is soon reached with an atmosphere of it’s own. Clinging to the shores of the loch with the odd flat-topped peaks of the McLeod’s Tables looming in the distance and a castle full to the brim with Clan family history.
As the delightful Duranish peninsula is left behind the Lower Minch (also known as Skotlandsfjörð or Scotland’s fjord in old Norse) takes control. Separating skye from the outer-hebrides it is believed to be the site of the biggest meteorite ever to hit the British Isles. In 2010 Eilidh Macdonald became the first person to swim the Little Minch taking 9.5 hours to cross from Watternish point on skye to Rodel on Harris. As our dilapidated fuel starved mini freewheeled down the side of Loch Mor the distinctive Wasterstein Arête (HS) came into view. First climbed back in 1980 by Mick Fowler this is the longest basalt climb on the island at 300m. A serious undertaking on 50-degree rotten and poorly protected rock may or may not float your boat! Rumour has it that a lady named Mad Sonia Vietoris then soloed it alongside the roped up Fowler!
Elsewhere the cliffs are composed of two parallel sills of excellent quality dolerite and picrite, which contain the majority of the routes. The higher sill is set back from the sea and yields a crag rising some 40m in parts and over a mile in length. Un-surprisingly this is where it all started in 1961 when the legendary Tom Patey chose to pay a visit and climb the distinctive pinnacle, aptly christened “The Green Lady” HS. Escaping from the summit still has its moments as a complete lack of a belay means some imaginative rope work is the only option.
Tom’s passion for the area seemed to lure no takers until 1977 when Noel Williams and Mike Geddes discovered the delights of the An t-Aigeach (Gaelic for Stallion) situated on the lower sill that protrudes straight from the sea and closely located to the famous Neist light house built in 1909 that delivered the light of half a million candles. The routes are generally up to 30m in height, but in this particular spot the cliff soars to a mighty 90m in a very menacing position above the ocean. It wasn’t till their ninth visit in 1981 that Williams, Grindley and Jeffrey decided to crack off the main line of the cliff. A full on epic involving Grindley falling out of their kid’s plastic dinghy into the raging foam and Williams surviving an underwater tyro lean manoeuvre got them only partially established on pitch one. Grinley’s trip to the Gunks saw him fitter than ever and by round eleven the team had the beast in the bag.
The ascent had it’s moments though as hideous TV sized blocks came hurtling down in spectacular fashion up would come the screams from below. The stallion had only been partially defaced, rather chiselled into an even finer specimen for others to experience. The Super Charger E3, 5a, 5b, 5c, 5a had been un-leashed for future generations to do battle with.
I remember by first visit to Neist quite vividly. Arriving in the early hours we struggled to find the key to our abode. Neither of us had the bottle to ring the owners at 5am to tell them of our predicament so chose instead to pass out in a heap on the ground outside. As the first rays of morning light glanced across my cheekbones all the bad thoughts about my relationship back home just vanished into thin air. This was where I wanted to be and nothing else mattered. For me Neist has become a place to re-kindle the sole. A place where friends re-unite, far from their cluttered lives back home and find peace with the cliffs and the wildlife. Apart from all of this, there is some rather good climbing to be had. Turning my back on the big stallion of Neist (Super-Charger), it scared the hell out of me and was going to have to wait for another day, my attention was drawn to the vast array of stacked dolerite columns on the upper tear. Literally hundreds of these fine specimens protruded from the grassy slopes not to dissimilar to those at Kilt rock but with wider expanses of blankness in between each crack. The Cracks defining the line for most but not all of the routes. The Financial sector may capture your attention first just like it did for the likes of Noel Williams, Colin Moody, Emma Alsford, Paul Donnithorne, Garry Latter to name but a few all seem to have sampled a piece of the cake over the years. What’s nice is plenty of the cake still remains for future generations. Wish you were here E2 5b ranks as one the best crack pitches of all time. It’s hard to sum up a route of such supreme quality in just a sentence. Reminiscent of an American splitter 5.10.c you very nearly might want to tape up for this baby.30m of sustained finger locks and the kind of hand jams that do serious nerve damage lay install if you want to crack this one off. Like a kid in a sweetshop I pleaded to my partner Claire that it would be fine if she belayed our friend Geoff (also known as the big friendly giant) whilst I hung down the line of the route trying to photograph the escapade. Of course it wasn’t fine and I bloody knew it, there was a seven stone weight difference and my friend was past his prime. The prospect of me witnessing some hideous climbing accident involving my girlfriend being propelled into the air whilst Geoff slammed into the deck wasn’t exactly enthralling.
He was quick to point out to me that he done the north face of the Eiger and the Bob Graham so I need not worry. This may sound dumb and a somewhat irrelevant point to make but it was those very same character traits employed in his earlier mountaineering exploits that saw him up the thing. As his crumpled knuckles thrashed through the final jams he tilted his head towards me and the grin on his face said it all. Plenty of opportunities exist at the financial sector for these kinds of experiences, so be prepared for the time of your life.
Wall Street E2 5c just round the corner packs a similar punch to the former route with an additional roof crack thrown in for good measure I remember vividly battling my way through the lower section so absorbed with the movement that I hadn’t planned for what lay a head. The cracks and fissures delightful as they were had taken their toll on my rack reducing it to a pathetic collection of micro wires. In appropriately armed I embarked on stage two and learnt my lesson the hard way.
Once lured in by the charm of the financial sector you may never leave. The density of high quality routes in the HVS to E3 grade range is exceptional as is the variety of climbing styles required to overcome them. From brutal fist sized off widths to sinuous finger cracks there should be something to suit all tastes. If you’re expecting pristine rock with well-chiselled nut placements then you’ve come to the wrong place. Neist is a place for the open-minded and adventurous. Be prepared for a bit of lichen and the odd loose flake and you will be rewarded with memories that last a lifetime.
Bridging Interest HVS 5a, Security Risk E1 5b and Gentleman’s groove E1 5b represent some of the best-defined lines in the area and give a real taste for what is on offer.
The following day we were curious as to what hidden delights the lower tidal cliffs had in stall for us. Rumours that a route of impeccable quality named “Sore Phalanges” E2 5c existed needed to be confirmed. There was dampness in the morning air as we sped down the grassy slopes keen for more of Neist’s fine offerings. The lower sill of rock seemed to have a character of it’s own with lashings of vibrant yellow Caloplaca lichen, purple thrift and unfortunately copious quantities of evil smelling white guano thrown in to spice things up a bit. As the sun veered round all moisture seemed to lift leaving a glowing spectacle for our eager eyes. Hidden amongst the mosaic of textures and colours lay a rather blank looking wall of significantly more compact nature than the upper cliffs. Instea d of cracks vertical parallel seams that appeared devoid of any useful gear characterized the wall. The seams were occasionally interrupted by the odd edge here and there, which I presumed would constitute crucial footholds. It soon became evident that success would only be granted to those that took the time to fiddle in a wrath of micro-wires whilst clinging to the knife-edge layaways. An altogether enjoyable experience requiring precise footwork on the rock with incredible frictional properties, sheer joy!
The secluded Destitution Point has a several hidden treats in store for those willing to hunt them out. Easily reached by descending the expanse of grassy slopes beneath the prominent pinnacle of the Green Lady at the far end of the financial sector.
Man of Straw VS 4c has to be the line of the cliff with everything you could want from a seas cliff experience. If the free hanging abseil doesn’t excite then belaying from the exposed tidal platform most certainly will as you contemplate the fate of the next incoming wave. Once firmly established the positions are sensational for a route of this grade. The moves up the right hand rib are elegant and exposed as any on Neist but all with the security of the lichen infested gear crack out to your left. A most memorable experience greatly enhanced by its proximity to the crashing sea horses below.
Just a stroll away you will encounter the aptly named Poverty Point. A great place to finish the day, as it’s westerly aspect ensures the rock is glowing right through till sun down. The prominent prow gives way to a tortuously steep head wall, which is home to some relatively late additions. The four star overhanging cracks of American Vampire E4 6a and Fight Club E3 6a were all snatched in the foot and mouth year of 2001 by Pete Benson whilst on a blitz of the area and the represent the best of the harder routes.
Neist is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream and experiences relatively small extremes in temperature meaning climbing is possible all year round even in the depths winter. July and August are fine so long as a breeze is present to keep the midges at bay. It’s not un-common for the sun to be shining at Neist when the Cuillins have disappeared from site.
A standard sea cliff rack of friends and a double set of wires should suffice. A 40 meter piece of static will be handy for quick access and
Currently two guides are available.
Skye and the Hebrides, Rock and Ice Climbs Volume one published by the Scottish Mountaineering Trust is the only definitive guide to Neist but contained just a fraction of the routes. Luckily the new SMC Skye Sea-cliffs & Outcrops by Mark Hudson is due out late 2011 and contained over 400 routes
Scottish Rock Volume 2 North by Gary Latter.