What the gabbro gave
Updated: May 7, 2020
We had been on Skye, in the neverdark of midsummer.
On the first night we parked at the Fairy Pools, too late to be charged for the privilege, and walked the deserted path past the worn banks as far as the meadow beneath Coire a’ Mhadaidh and slept. In the morning cool sun, we crossed the ridge and picked our way down the untramped boulders and screes of Glac Mhor, then cut rightwards crossing grassy terraces and whalebacks of glinting gabbro. We reached a promontory directly in line with the head of Loch Coruisk. From an outcrop below, a golden eagle left its perch.
We pitched in a grassy recess on the promontory, delighted to find a tent-size patch of flatness, and pleased also to have found a small burn running only a stone’s throw east. It was even better than we hoped.
Down to one side of this spot, the glaciers’ work has been of extraordinary efficacy in plucking stone from the lower slopes of the quartet of peaks collectively named Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh. It has left a two hundred foot wall of drop-vertical dark gabbro, seamed by a crazy cobweb of intersecting dykes and splintery bands of quartz. Though there are many walls on this island, and though from a distance this one appears as only a detail of a mountainside, its name is a bold statement of eminence. This is Skye Wall.
Or rather, the central line of weakness, a delicately traced succession of thin cracks, is Skye Wall. There are other routes here, now: Caff’s E9 Moonrise Kingdom quests somewhere through the acres of dead-end sloping ramps and marooned flakes on the wall to the left. Two leaning corners on the right side of the face are linked by an E6, Skye Fall, and Ben Bransby and Adam Long somehow found a way to cross Skye Wall at its first belay to reach the upper of those corners at only E3. The original is the queen line, though. Cuillin rock is rarely so generous. On the comparably impressive front face of the Great Prow of Bla Bheinn, Stairway to Heaven weaves all over the wall to find a way up, and no other routes exist between the corner of Jib and the wall’s outer edge - not that it would be impossible to climb boldly elsewhere, but no appealing natural lines exist. Other sheer walls of rock in the Cuillin offer no weaknesses at all.
Dave Birkett climbed Skye Wall first, and there was a film about it. Charlie Woodburn repeated it, and there was also a film. Usual Scottish trad suspects Murdoch and Iain Small and Jules Lines have climbed it. Calum persuaded Niels to walk all the way from Kilmarie for a one-day hit, and to ‘wear his pallid thighs like earmuffs’ while fording the river at Camasunary. I never pressed why. Caff on-sighted it, obviously.
The previous ascensionists of Skye Wall were all known wads, but where others have strong fingers and nerves, we have tactics, and in this case, my logistical familiarity with the Cuillin. In any case, I had a finger injury, so my role was support. Ferdia was the racing driver. I was the pitstop mechanic.
We made coffee, and I made myself useful. I had asked Murdoch about the practicalities of practicing the route, knowing it would not be simple to identify where the line fell from the sea of convex slabs above. Mostly he could only remember that he had had a pair of ‘logistics wads’ in Guy and Donald. I was here as logistics wad, ready to deploy ‘guide skills’; specifically, a willingness to scramble around in sketchy terrain, and get ropes attached efficiently where they needed to be.
The problem with abseiling a line is that you see there are holds, and you think, “I could hold that hold”, and you say to yourself “that gear is good actually”, and you start to tell yourself things like “this doesn’t look too bad”. This has happened before - when I brushed the holds on Primal Scream at Fair Head for Ferdia’s flash attempt, I ended up leading it first. The finger injury; well, maybe I could do my bit and lead the first pitch, which was supposed to be soft-ish E6. Maybe.
Ferdia sat patiently on the promontory while I abseiled, brushing and chalking and testing gear placements. Birkett graded the route E8 because he didn’t trust the pro, and I could see why: on the gabbro’s prickly surface, an apparently well-seated small nut could rip an inch when tugged. Much of the rock’s virgin crozzle has been taken off where it matters by subsequent ascents, and the consensus for the route’s grade was now duly E7, but the first pitch still seemed to rely on some less-than-ideal placements. Hm, I thought. Maybe not.
When my fluffing was done, the finished picture was a scaled-up SPA session. We had ourselves a nice springy 55-metre bottom-rope on the best wall in Britain.
Ferdia got behind the wheel.
In the evening, we brushed our teeth, looking down Coir’ Uisg, narrowly raised from the sea among the Cuillin like Britain’s best effort at a Norwegian fjord. As it had been all day, not a soul or a sign of humanity, not on this side of the mountain, though perhaps someone on a ridge attempt was bivied up there among the jaggy dark peaks, as the scattered lights of Skye and the mainland and small isles winked on below them in the slow gloaming. There is no better place than this to appreciate time in the low frequencies: undisrupted by overlay of earth or human workings, the slow violence of glaciers, and the deep violence of volcanism, are naked here, in the cavity of the Cuillin’s bone-picked chest.
On the wall, our ropes hung a plumbline through a dashed script of chalked edges, Ferdia’s temporary shorthand at home amidst the intrusions of quartz. We went to bed.
In the early morning, the mountain air unzips from filtered tentlight and the the wall is there, miraculous in the plainness of its presence, like a gift under the tree.
On my phone, Ferdia has saved a draft text message. #3, #8, #2, #1, Yellow + Green (outside lobes away), IMP 2, IMP 4, #5. #1, C3 Red, #4…#2, C3 Green, OS 4, #1, #10, #5, OS 6, #11, Green, Purple, #3, Silver, OS 7.
She could have had a go last night. Conditions today are marginally less good - a little warmer, a little more humid. The decision circuitry has many inputs, but the squeezing of soft tissue on small gabbro edges for two hundred feet makes fingertip skin the most likely fuse.
She spends two hours on a top-rope, warming up, managing abrasion, racking nuts in order, meticulous. I have accepted that leading the first pitch is a bad idea, and feel more at ease having calmed the itch of possibility, happy to hold ropes and be present.
Finally I lower her, slowly, as she gives holds a final brush and memorises sequences. Then it’s time to pull the ropes, the sweet decisive act. They sizzle down, and the wall is clean and waiting, the aura of its sheerness restored.
Our trusty duct-taped Quechua Cliff 20 is packed with water, snacks, belay jacket and trainers. We are fond believers in pulling a bag up the wall on a capture pulley, allowing both uninhibited movement while climbing, and all the comforts.
The route wastes no space on easing in. A pull off a keyed-in wedge and you are straightaway immersed in side-pulling torsion up thin cracks, laying away and toes trusted on nuggety nodules protruding from the cracks’ edges. Fifteen metres up, the wall steepens slightly, and a committing deadpoint above gear initiates a pumpy and inobvious extended sequence through an undercut overlap of a rock scar, where gear is hard to place. Because none of the protection in this section of climbing is beyond question, Ferdia has said she is more concerned about this pitch than the harder one above. She moves through it with assertion.
I watch her doing this, and the audacity is a thrill. Too many things cause the self-doubter in Andrew Moles to tell himself a discouraging story. Big grades. Better climbers. I can’t do that. I’m not that good. Ferdia is wiser and more objective. She knows that the most important thing is only to want to be there, and to make safe decisions, and see what happens, and enjoy it all the same.
I second the pitch clean by the skin of my teeth, and my finger aches and I curse my stupidity and wonder what I’m trying to prove. The belay ledge is another generosity of this wall. The line would go as a 55 metre mega-pitch, and perhaps some cruising beast will do it that way, but most will be grateful, and take stock for what comes next.
Not far above the ledge, the section of climbing that is hardest coincides with the section of climbing that is worst protected. The cracks fizzle out at a bulge, forcing a hook to the right, and more inobvious moves on small edges and sidepulls to work up and back left. Ferdia thinks a fall from the crux would probably not be too bad, that the cleanness of the wall would mean a swing back beneath the ledge without much to hit. Picturing her execute the moves from my perch with uncluttered freedom of the imagination, I am not so sure.
But Ferdia is exceptionally good at open wall climbing on small holds, and not fazed by a run-out. She moves with sureness and accuracy, soon back in line above me, and with each improving piece of gear I relax a little more about the consequence of a fall, and worry a little more about the chances of a successful rematch if she runs out of steam. A few metres above the crux, a slanting overlap gives a shakeout and springs a crack, which takes bombproof gear and is followed for the rest of the pitch. From here the climbing is relatively steady, but never easy; it keeps coming, unrelenting and pumpy, all the way to the second belay.
Looking up the wall from my position on its plane, all detail is lost in the foreshortening, and Ferdia appears as a growth of limbs improbably fastened there. Shakeout, chalk, move a little further. A lone mover in the landscape, dwarfed by the rock and by the vast arena of Coir’ Uisg and the Cuillin’s circling peaks. Ferdia has the art of never looking stretched, but I know subtle tells of tiredness. Milking a tensed shake for longer than I could. I keep paying rope, losing sense of how far she has to go, until the ropes’ mid-marks appear in my hands, and I know she must be close. And then, two metres quickly out, a signal of the finishing jugs, and a happy call from above to let me know, it’s done.
I half-climb on a bar tight rope to strip the gear, and give Ferdia, tired but happy, a high-five. I lead the strangely spooky final pitch, which is E2 at most but wandering and blind and sucked-at by the emptiness radiating from the wall below. Somehow the day has got on, and we have to walk back over the ridge and back through the Fairy Pool crowds, the weirdest of contrasts to the ambience of Coir’ Uisg, then drive to the Borders this evening for Fran and Jane’s wedding.
My mind skips ahead, but I try not to hurry, not to fast-forward through the final minutes here, taking down the tent in the wall’s presence and the presence of the mountains and the loch and all the mountains beyond.
On Monday I'll be back on the Cuillin. Sometimes clients ask me, does your girlfriend climb too?