Northern Mountain Sport / Blog / Mingulay and Pabbay 2014

Mingulay and Pabbay 2014

The inter season between alpine seasons seems to me to be getting shorter, so this year I've made a concerted effort to get away and make the most of it. I'm more and more drawn to the north west highlands of Scotland where for me, the wilderness experience is unique and on a par with anything I've experienced in Europe. Dan and James flew up to Inverness and then on to Lochinver where I met them - the plan was to attempt the Old Man of Stoer.

The Old Man of Stoer is probably the best sea stack in Britain (in terms of quality of rock and climbing) and is a great adventure being a true tidal stack cut off from the main land. After a bit of a grotty scramble down the cliff facing the stack (you are almost on a level with the summit of the Old Man) you then have the dilemma of who gets wet. I went last time so this time it was Tamsin's turn though sensibly she had bought her wet suit with her. In no time we were all swinging across on a Tyrolean traverse and climbing the Old Man. Suffice to say we had a superb time. The weather 'just' let us get away with it and it is an intimidating place to be but both Dan and James enjoyed it (although their normal summit antics were much reduced I noticed).

For the third time I've visited the Outer Hebrides to rock climb, specifically Mingulay and Pabbay. They are the southernmost isles below Barra and are known as the 'Bishop's Isles' (the religion is Catholic here rather than Church of Scotland). The whole experience of getting here and then living on uninhabited islands is a unique one and not to be missed. First a ferry is taken from Oban (about 5 hours) to Barra where we met Donald who was to take us on to the Islands. He owns the 'Boy James' which takes tourists and birdwatchers out and is a Gaelic speaker.

He dropped us on Pabbay first which was to be our home for the first part of the week. Pabbay is the smaller of the two isles but with superb rock and a nice beach. The water is a little 'peaty' but fine. Things blend a bit as to what we did when but I know we got off to a good start down on the 'Poop Deck' which is a friendly venue with solid rock; I climbed 'Corncrakes for Breakfast' and Nick the 'Notorious BIG'. We then whizzed over to one of the landmarks of the Hebrides, the Great Arch and set off up the classic 'Prophecy of Drowning' (after a 90m abseil). We didn't quite beat the rain and finished pretty wet but were well pleased all the same. The weather was mixed this week and we lost at least one (I think) day to it and were pretty much tent bound but when it was good it was excellent and we made hay. Another memorable day was firstly climbing 'Endolphin Rush' (I think probably the best route of the trip) on Banded Wall, 'U-th' and U-Ei' on Grey Wall Recess and finishing on 'Immaculate Conception' on the Bog Block Sloc.

Donald came and got us again mid week and we made our second land fall, Mingulay. I actually prefer this Island as the wildlife is slightly better though there's not much in it. There is something special however going to sleep at midnight to the sounds of haunting seals on the beach and it must have been an incredible place to live (though how it supported 145 is beyond me).

Again Nick and I whizzed off and made the most of this day heading to perhaps one of Britain's best sea cliffs, Dun Mingulay. Between us we've done a fair bit here (at our grades) so we agreed to climb Voyage of Faith again doing the pitches we hadn't done before. I think (!) we got this right (though my memory is definitely getting worse) and it is a spectacular outing no doubt. We abbed straight back in again and climbed out by the classic 'Sula' which is perhaps the juggiest route I've climbed and highly recommended. it does go to show though that a transfer day needn't impact too much on the climbing.

Again I think we lost one day to weather (though I got out and caught fresh Pollock for the second time that week which is one of the delights of island life) but had a last good day. We started at the Boulevard which is Mingulay's answer to the Poop Deck I guess and Nick kicked off with a 'Word with the Bill'. I climbed 'Crystal Haze' taking a fall but making an ok job of it. This meant Nick had to up his game and finish on 'Lost Souls'. We then headed over to Creag Dhearg (or as Blair calls it the 'Scary Cliff') and set forth on 'Fulmar Squaw'. My hackles were up on landing on the belay ledge as immediately the rock wasn't the excellent stuff we had been on for the last week or so. Nick was feeling good however and set off up the steep ground plugging runners in here and there. Suddenly we locked eyes as a jug came off in his hand and he seemed to hang in space for an eternity. Gravity won however and off he went as I reacted by locking off and tensing for the inevitable. After a while the inevitable still hadn't happened so I looked up and in an instant took in the following: Nick was still falling and going miles (and I mean miles), his initial spike runner whilst still attached to the rope was no longer attached to the cliff (that had broken also), the next runner down was a nut extended by a thin tape and as he came onto that it moved across the rock edge and severed (failure number two) and so he carried on down, past my belay ledge and way below me. Finally his weight came on and I was pulled a little but could hear him below me which was a relief. I was also convinced that at least one of the ropes would have been shredded but in fact they were fine. All this as the sun was setting of course. A quick check that all was ok and Nick set forth again in a better frame of mind that I was and made light work of the pitch - a good effort to end the week on.

So another great islands trip and as ever the more you go the more you realise there's stuff to do next time. Interestingly the previous week had seen a total of 43 people on Pabbay which isn't ideal; perhaps the word is well and truly out. For me though it's the whole experience rather than the cragging alone which will bring me back.

Many thanks to all the guys and girls on this trip and in particular Nick Carter.

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