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TR: Canadian Lassies in the Land of Scots: NMAG Trip Report

December 13, 2017

By Cora Skaien and Nicole Barrette

 

Pre-amble: In late 2016, we decided to apply for the Neil Mackenzie Adventure Grant (NMAG, Link 1, Link 2). We were looking for an angle that could be considered unique and exciting, and that is when we came across the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club. In 1908, the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club (LSCC) was established and its purpose was and is “to bring together women who are committed to mountaineering in Scotland and to encourage an interest in all aspects of mountaineering at home and abroad”. It is the oldest all-women’s mountaineering club that still exists today and they published a centennial book in 2008 to highlight their journey (“Rising to the Challenge: 100 Years of the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club”). We purchased this book and read about their exploits, and planned an entire climbing trip centered around the idea of repeating many of the first all-female ascents outlined by the club in their early days, including January Jigsaw (5.6, 5 pitches, Glencoe area, first female ascent 1940 by Esmé Speakman), Eagle Ridge (5.6, Cairngorms area, climbed by Nancy Forsyth in 1941 as the first female to lead pitches), and Mount Suilven (North Scotland, class 4 scramble). We reached out to the club directly and arranged to join one of their weekend outings while we were in Scotland, and also received advice on good objectives and places to explore. We also gained intel from a friend of Cora’s, Martin, who had done his undergrad at Glasgow University, and he connected us with a community of climbers in Scotland for information and opportunistic meetups. To demonstrate how small the climbing world is, one of the people in the group named Carol was the person we had chatted with the most from the LSCC. Additionally, our friend Jake Jones (VOC member, friend and avid outdoors-person) had returned to Manchester and was going to join us for the first part of our journey, after him and I travelled in Italy and Slovenia. We were all set with valuable information and connections and planned our trip for August 2017. What we did not know at the time, is that we would experience only 4 days with any amount of sunshine and even fewer days that had no rain during our three week trip…

 

Inverness, Reiff and the Cairngorms (Cora): As Jake and I left Manchester in our rental car to meet Nicole in Glasgow, we received news of an unfortunate surprise: Nicole’s bag had not made it to Scotland with her. This meant that she did not have any of her climbing gear or camping gear. I reached out to the group of friends that Martin had connected us with to inquire if anyone had any climbing gear or sleeping gear that we could borrow for a few days while we waited for Nicole’s bag to arrive. Unbelievably, one of the people, Jonnie, offered his entire house in Inverness to us even though (1) he had never met us and (2) him and Carol (the woman from the LSCC) were not there that week. Even more amazing, Carol had the exact same (tiny) shoe size as Nicole and wears the exact same climbing shoes, which they left out for us to use! Our entire initial plans changed and we re-routed to Inverness to enjoy the amazing kindness of the outdoor community and wait for Nicole’s bag.

 

On our way to Inverness, we passed by the Scottish town of Striling, which I had to see because I grew up in a small village called Stirling, Alberta! I had to see the original. We drove around town, walked to a beautiful castle and saw a placed called "Cora's Snacks"! I kid you not!

 

 

 

 

 Me pointing at Cora's Snacks.

A blurry close-up of Cora's Snacks. 

 

The forecast was calling for rain the next day, but we were eager to get out and see the Scottish beauty. Jake had recently taken his hiking club to an objective near by and suggested we go up Sgor Goaith (14 km, pronounced Score Goo-ee?). It rained gently off and on all day, but was beautiful!

 

Classic Scottish landscape. 

 

 

 We found a dog! Photo credit: Jake Jones

 Photo credit: Nicole Barrette

 

The next day, Jonnie was returning and was keen to climb with us. We waited for him and departed at 5:30 PM, to drive nearly 3 hours north to climb the sandstone sea cliffs of Reiff. Reiff offers a wide variety of short climbs (~8 m) at various difficulty, all trad. Because we were so far north (58 degrees North), we still had many hours of sunlight left and managed to get in many climbs. This area was beautiful and the rock felt very secure and grippy! The only thing we had to watch for was the tide coming up. We were amazed at how stoked Jonnie was to get out to Reiff so late after work, especially considering the drive, and we would soon realize that the “sunny” weather we were experiencing was a rare sight...

 

Cora at the height of fashion. Photo credit: Jake Jones 

 Photo credit: Jake Jones

 

 Jake on his warm-up climb. Photo credit: Jonnie Bgud

 

 Cora awkwardly getting through a roof. Photo credit: Nicole Barrette.

 

The airport indicated that Nicole’s bag was going to be delivered the next day, so Nicole stayed behind while Jake and I went to do the 5-pitch, 4-star (highest rating in the guidebooks) Ardverickie Wall (5.7, trad). We arrived quite late after a 3.5 hour drive and an hour hike in, where we were greeted with a long line at the base. We did not begin our climb until mid to late afternoon, at which point we had realized that we did not take enough warm layers. The wind was howling (70 km/hr, with 100 km/hr gusts) and it was definitely below 5 degrees Celsius. Jake led the first pitch and had to wait below the anchor station for half an hour before the party ahead of us cleared out and he could build an anchor, where I found that all we had to build an anchor was one small cam and a very shallow flake. One hour down! The next pitch was my lead, and I was so cold that all I could think about was avoiding vomiting. I climbed the crack and face features, not super happily as I avoided being blown off the rock, and then struggled to find where the anchor station was suppose to be. Because of the wind, Jake and I could not hear each other and (after an impossibly long time) I finally built an anchor where I had the best pro and it looked like the route forward would be the easiest. At this stage, I had come to realize how spoiled I was with the rock in Squamish for anchor-building… in Scotland, you really did the best that you could with very little it seemed. Jake joined me, and another hour was down. We sat there very cold, noses sniffling, hands cramped shut and we ate snacks. We were very much questioning our decisions in life. I can honestly say that this moment was the lowest moment I have ever had mentally in the mountains. I could not understand why I would possibly be doing this to myself on purpose. Why did we choose this? Why did I ever go climbing? I knew in my heart in that moment, that despite everything that led up to that moment, I hated climbing and was re-considering if I ever wanted to do it again. All I wanted to do, was get the next three pitches done and go back to Inverness as quickly as possible.

 

We were also undeniably off route. We read the description and determined that the left facing ramp was in fact about 10 meters above us, but that the described route to get to it was way over to our right and was unquestionably at least a 5.10a. Instead, Jake made his own path which was a lot easier and a lot of fun, and we finished this pitch quickly. I then began leading my next pitch, which had an unfortunate waterfall going down the left side of it where many of my placements and hand holds were. For some reason though, something had switched in my mind and suddenly I was feeling confident and having fun. I had learned to trust the gritty rock to smear on, and whenever it felt slippery from water, I pushed on instead of trying to force a gear placement. I finally put to practice the idea that if I felt less secure than I wanted, that I should push on until I felt comfortable to place a piece instead of forcing an exhausting gear placement lower down. I belayed Jake up and he marvelled at how different my mindset was between my first and second pitch. Luckily, I realized that I loved climbing again, even if this experience very much needed to end. Jake and I were still cold beyond reason and wanted to get off that rock face quickly, especially because now we were racing against sunset. Jake then lead his final, easy pitch, I seconded and we embraced in relief at the top, cranky as hell!

 

Instead of taking the descent path down, we took Jonnie’s advice and hiked straight off the back of the mountain which would get us closer to our car. The wind was at its full force and we were fighting to stay upright. We also quickly became acquainted with the bog, and at least once to twice a minute, one of us would go down with our leg ankle- to knee-deep in a bog hole. Instead of letting this turn our spirits even worse, after Jake’s tenth fall or so, we began laughing hysterically and making each of our falls increasingly theatric. After one minorly sprained ankle each, and sore abs from laughter, we made it to the base of the mountain in much better spirits and a sense of accomplishment just as the sun set. We returned to the car and had a nice note from the party in front of us, apologizing for slowing us down and asking us to message them when we made it out safe. What lovely people!

 

 Cora preparing for the climb, surprisingly not with Pomm Bear... Photo credit: Jake Jones

 Jake leading up the first pitch.

 

 

 Jake looking extremely happy to be here.

 Vaguely how we felt at some point on the route.

 

When we returned well after midnight, we found Nicole, Jonnie and Carol (who returned from her work trip) at the table and we discovered that Nicole’s bag had not in fact come in. We would need to spend another day waiting. Carol kindly offered to stay in the next day (while she worked) to accept the bag while Jonnie, Jake, Nicole and I went to climb.

 

When we woke up the next day after a much needed sleep in, we were greeted by gentle rain. We changed plans and decided to check out a local crag, “Aspen Crag”, that Jonnie had never been to before. The guidebook said such wonderful things about the crag saying things like “little known crag of top quality”, “beautiful rock”, that had a roof above it so was “ideal when it rained”, etc. and we had to check it out. When we arrived, we were greeted by our first onslaught of midges (no wind to keep them away here!) and an extremely mossy crag. Jonnie, a very brave and skilled climber, quickly backed off his objective after reaching the super slippery moss. Nicole then backed down from her lead, which began with utilizing a tree. Jonnie and I went to rap off our line to collect gear, where we then discovered that the last third of the climb was also a rock slope completely covered in leaves and needles, then the middle third of slippery moss and only the bottom third of the crag was climbable rock. This crag had clearly not been maintained for a long time… we cut our losses as the sky rained down on us and headed out. Luckily, Nicole’s bag arrived, just in time for us to leave and meet the LSCC at Black Rock! Unfortunately, we were not able to do any of the objectives in the Cairngorms region that we wanted to that were LSCC related, but hoped that we would get a few of our other objectives shortly.

 

 

 

 

Black Rock, Kilchoan and Ring Crags (Nicole): After saying goodbye and thanking Jonnie and Carol, we hopped into our fully-loaded rental car and took off from Beauly. It was great to finally have access to things like a sleeping bag, rain jacket, and spare clothes again!

 

The drive to Black Rock cabin was about 2 hours, but we stopped for groceries in Fort William along the way. The drive was very scenic, passing along many lakes and through valleys. When we arrived at the Black Rock cabin, the meetup of the Ladies Scottish Climbing club was already underway. We stepped inside the cabin and were immediately shown great hospitality and welcomed into a toasty common room where other women were sitting around a fire drinking wine and sharing stories. Many women were interested in hearing our story and asking us questions about Canada.

 

We set up our sleeping bags in the upstairs loft and had a room all to ourselves! The kitchen was also pretty well equipped and included a sink, stove, and microwave so we were easily able to prepare our dinners for the evening.

 

After dinner, we returned to the common room to share a bottle of wine with our newfound friends and we spent several hours learning about the club history, Scotland itself, and getting ideas on where we should head next. We also talked to many women who were planning trips to BC and gave them advice on places to check out. The weather was looking pretty bad for the Glencoe area sadly, so while we were invited to come along on a group trip the following day along the Aonach Eagach, we decided to continue on instead to the seaside town of Kilchoan, a place that was recommended to us by both Jonnie and a few women of the LSCC, as it seemed to have the best looking weather over the next couple days.

 

 

 Photo credit: Jake Jones

 

The next morning we were up early to continue driving onwards towards Kilchoan. From what we’d heard from the women the night before, the road was singletrack for a large part of it and could be pretty slow going. That proved to be the case. As the most experienced person with manual transmissions in the group, I did the driving and it definitely kept me on my toes! There were lots of blind corners with oncoming cars and last minute veering into pullouts to let them pass as well as some tactical reversing on narrow strips of concrete. I was thankful to have a small maneuverable car as opposed to the bigger SUVs I’m used to driving back home!

 

Despite the white-knuckle driving, the countryside was absolutely stunning. We drove by many beautiful seaside towns and a few castles too. The vegetation was very lush here and reminded Cora and I of home a little bit. It rained off and on throughout the drive and we were beginning to wonder whether or not the forecast had lied again after all, but when we arrived the weather was turning for the better and we were feeling pretty good about our decision to drive out to this little-known locale.

 

We found a nice campsite right by the sea with access to washrooms, showers, and a food prep area. It was only L10/night per tent so with Jake’s 3-person tent this worked out to be very reasonable! After setting up camp, we did a bit of exploring around the small town: it was quaint, and there were barely any other tourists to be seen, and certainly none of the others were climbers. We stopped for tea at a café that had the only internet in town to check for a weather update, then drove the quick 20 minutes to the other side of the peninsula where there was a large beautiful white-sand beach and some crags that are part of an old volcanic caldera called the “Ring Crags” or “Ardnamurchan”. It took us a little while to figure out where to park as there was no obvious signage or trail leading to any of the crags.


We eventually decided on a tiny pullout near a bridge and just started setting off in the general direction of the cliffs we could see in the distance. We found out the hard way that what looked like wide open grassy fields ended up being mostly bog and most of us had wet feet almost immediately. Despite the fact that we could see our destination in the distance at all times, navigating was surprisingly difficult as there was no trail to follow, and the landscape was crisscrossed by drainage ditches, some of which were quite wide and required confident leaps to get over.


About an hour of wandering brought us to the base of the crag (I think called Achnaha Buttress). We had originally intended to make it to a farther one, but based on our slow progress, we decided that this closer one looked great and would do just fine. The weather was beautiful and sunny and the rock was perfectly dry. True to its description, the rock type was volcanic and extremely grippy (and sharp!). We started out on some mellow 5.6 - 5.7 routes (Pash S 4b, Soul Searching VS 4c, Coal Mining VS 5a) and the protection was pretty good as there were plenty of cracks for gear, however the placements were a little trickier than Squamish because the cracks are more undulating and less straight. After warming up, we went down and around the corner to some of the longer and more difficult routes. All three of us took turns leading a nicely exposed 5.7 / 5.8 ish level route on the far left and afterwards I led a more technical crack climb just to the right. I’m not sure what the grade was for that one as it didn’t look like it was in the guidebook but I would say it was probably mostly 5.8 with a short cruxy section of 5.9+. As I was finishing the climb, a large storm was rolling in so we decided to call it a day and pack up and head back to the car. As we were hiking back along the bog, we had to cross a drainage ditch at a fairly wide section. Jake and Cora jumped across, but when I jumped across I slipped on the wet rocks on the other side and fell backwards almost into the stream haha. Jake and Cora had a good laugh (after an initial panicked scream).      

 Photo credit: Jake Jones

 Photo credit: Jake Jones

 Photo credit: Jake Jones

 

 

 

 Photo credit: Jake Jones

 
 

 Nicole slipping into the river, while Jake and Cora screamed and then laughed.

 

Upon returning to the car, we decided to make a detour to Sanna beach to have dinner before returning to camp. The storm had passed over us by that point without any rain and we were treated to a beautiful sunset as we sat on the sand, it was hard to believe that this was actually Scotland!

 

 

 Photo credit: Nicole Barette


The following day the weather looked iffy again and the forecast was calling for periods of rain, so we decided to see if we could scramble the volcanic ring in its entirety as a long traverse as it didn’t look like it would be stable enough conditions for rock climbing. We parked near Sanna beach and explored the sea cliffs and coves for a bit as we skirted around sheep pastures, eventually making our way to the far northwestern end of the ridge. We hoped that by following the ridge we would be able to stay on better-draining terrain and avoid the worst of the bog. However, the going was much slower than we expected as we were beginning to learn that the bogginess is EVERYWHERE in Scotland, not just in the low-lying areas. (Cora and Jake may have already learned this on their Ardverikie wall climb, for me however, it was new).

Following up and down the ridge was still fun and made for a good adventure. We saw some beautiful cliffs and sweeping panoramic vistas of the sea. At one point we came across a small lake that was reminiscent of an alpine tarn in BC. While we were enjoying the journey, we were beginning to realize that completing the entire ridge in a day was looking a bit unattainable for us due to our pace. In close to four hours we’d only covered 4 km! (Of an approximate 14 km total length, as the crow flies) Much of our time was being lost to the vertical gain/loss of each pinnacle along the ridge, lack of clear path, and the unrelenting sogginess of the terrain.

By midafternoon we reached one of the climbing areas described in our guide. We were sad to not have climbing gear with us as this was probably the most stunning crag we’d come across yet! It was beautiful, clean, and dry rock with what looked like very high quality crack systems running up in many places. The right hand side even looked tall enough for some multi-pitch potential! It looked pristine and untouched, probably due to its remoteness – a crag of this quality would be swarming with climbers if it were located somewhere like the Squamish Smoke Bluffs. To make matters worse, it was like the weather was playing a cruel joke on us. Despite all predictions to the contrary, the weather was fantastic, sunny and warm at this stage (after windy and wet in the morning). I couldn’t help but kick myself for having left the rope and gear back in the car.