Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sailing to St Kilda


Setting up for the crux of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b on Ruabhal, St Kilda. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Several years ago I was lucky enough to climb on the spectacular islands of St Kilda, which sit 50 miles out in the Atlantic to the west of the Outer Hebrides. We had just one day and did a fantastic three pitch E6 on perfect black gabbro, similar to the Cuillin of Skye. Ever since, I have wanted to return and do something a bit harder. So when the veteran sailor and explorer Bob Shepton asked if I’d like to sail there with him, I obviously had to grab the opportunity, despite having no sailing experience and not really being a ‘water person’.

It was probably a good thing that I had a very busy few weeks of film shooting before we were due to leave Oban on June 10th. I had no time to consider how the journey across would be. So I had no expectations at all, except to have an adventure. Sailors Bob and Stuart, climbers myself and Natalie Berry and filmmaker Chris Prescott hopped aboard and off we went down the Sound of Mull. Although we had chosen June for the probability of fine weather, the standard Scottish summer fronts were ruling the skies and so we had three short days of dodging unfavourable waves, wind and rain in the small isles and Outer Hebrides. Eagerness to finally get there helped us decide to set sail west from Harris into a forecast of possible Force 7. There was an occasional Force 8 forecast a little further north, and of course once committed to the big waves west of Harris, we discovered that was a slight underestimation.

Bob Shepton's boat, the Dodo's Delight on a very calm departure from the St Kilda islands.

Some new ropes to learn. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

For my part, I was happy with being in the storm. Knowing nothing about sailing in storms or the capabilities of the boat, I could only go by Bob, whom I could still hear laughing and joking below deck as the boat was being thrown all over the place by waves which rather dwarfed our boat. I also garnered a slight note of caution from the odd bit of chat, that it could get really bad. Therefore, I expected it to be horrendous - like hanging onto the boat and being half drowned by waves. This probably helped as by the time I clocked the jaggy islands of St Kilda through the driving rain, I’d still been waiting for it to get really bad. Nonetheless, I was certainly ready to get off the cramped space of the boat and be able to spread out a bit and exercise limbs.

It wasn’t until the middle of the next day that it was calm enough to get us ashore and we set up camp as the clouds finally parted. Desperate to get going, we hot-footed it over Hirta to the cliffs of Ruabhal and found the rock to be dry, despite some huge waves battering the bottom 50 feet of the walls. Chris and Nat were still feeling a bit wobbly and spaced from the journey, so I rigged a line and went over the edge to check out the two lines I had in mind to climb.

 Bob noting down the shipping forecast. A regular ritual on the boat. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

The forecast was none too good. 

I had a fantastic evening dangling about on the wall, sussing out new lines and watching the impressive show of breaking waves blasting huge plumes of water skyward. The combination of natural sights and sounds really makes sea-cliff climbing on St Kilda a sensory feast. The first line I looked at seemed to have roughly 7c climbing with decent gear although you do move a bit away from it on the crux traverse. The next morning we waited out another wet start and tried to hold back as long as possible before walking over to the cliff. In late afternoon we were in place on a hanging belay just above the waves, with the cliff above us now nicely dried out in the sun and strong northwesterly. The first pitch was a beautiful easy pitch of E2 5b on great rough holds and sinker gear. I was actually happy Chris asked me to climb it twice for different angles and stills. I could get warmed up a bit after getting chilled on the belay.

The climbing on the crux was just so good and exposed that it seemed crazy to waste time worrying about whether I could do it or not. I just launched through it and before I knew it was stretching for a nice finger lock on the slab above the lip of the roofs. The remaining pitch was great fun, especially when a curious guillemot flew up to my face and attempted to perch on my head. I’m not sure who got more of a fright. On top it was 9.30pm and would have been nice to just go back to the tent and eat some dinner, but we had one more day of climbing and the forecast was good. I was eager to climb something harder, and I knew this meant going straight back down to spent crucial hours scoping out another line.

Starting the difficulties on Making a Splash E7 5b, 6c, 5c. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media 

Just past the crux on Making a Splash. The Gabbro is perfect stuff. Made to be climbed. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Once over the edge again I was happy, and glad I’d decided to do it as it took me until after midnight to suss out the line of the second route I wanted to do. The plan was to breach a long roof in the middle of the cliff. I looked at it in two places, both of which were possible but far too hard for a single day of climbing. As I abseiled through a potential line, at first I wondered if it might only be another E7, but it quickly turned out to be far harder. A sequence of minuscule crimps and sidepulls round the roof worked out at Font 7c-ish. Actually pretty hard to pull off first try on a route in this situation, well for me at least.

However, the next day conditions were perfect. I knew I had an opportunity to take, so I had to calm myself down a bit and take my time to wait until the sun was going off the cliff in the afternoon. After arranging the gear I reversed back to the belay to ditch some of the rack ballast and generally sort myself out. Although I was a little worried about slamming into the wall below the roof should I fall, the conditions were just too good not to go for it with total commitment. As I set up for the crux slap, the holds felt unbelievably grippy and I knew I was going to do it. After another airy hanging belay the final E5 6b pitch was a total joy to lead. We shouldered our packs and headed off to village bay to sleep and look forward to the journey home.

Natalie seconding pitch 1 of Old Boy Racer, on perfect sea washed gabbro (like sea-washed up to 100 feet on a south west facing cliff such as this. Those winter atlantic storms must be some sight!).

The exit corners of Old Boy Racer E8 5b, 7a, 6b. Not too sure I'll find sea cliffs climbs much better than this. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

My strongest memory from the trip was walking back to Village bay after working on the E8 by myself. It was after midnight, but only half dark since it was just around summer solstice. Once over the crest of the hill and out of the wind, the silence of the late night was intense and very relaxing. As I walked I could pick out the calls of the handful of different birds still out and about, the seals on the shores of Dun. But mostly, there was just pure quiet. It was lovely.

Natalie on the 'Mistress Stone' at the top of Ruabhal. Photo: Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media