Tuesday, 3 November 2015

St Kilda part 2 - Impossible stacs on the edge of the world

17-18 October 2015

There are many versions of an old blues song called Stack o Lee - here is Dr John's version or try this one by Woody Guthrie
There are I am busy trying to finish off the Strathfarrar Marilyns before the only people who are allowed to drive up the glen are members of MCoS. At the end of the week I was due to join a bunch of baggers for a week near Balmoral and wondering what to do it fill the short gap if all went to plan. I had suggested to Rick Salter that the next week might be an opportunity to practice abseiling in the highly unlikely event that the weather/sea conditions might be good enough to get to the  Kilda stacs within my lifetime
Fledgling gannets - probably too late in the season for them to survive the winter
Then the email arrived - the forecast for two/three days hence was looking good. Oh no - what do I do?  For a start what about Strathfarrar? What about Balmoral? What about the abseil practice? What if I end up like one of those passengers on the earlier trip to St Kilda who paid to get there then just watched the A-team disappear into the mist on Boreray and join the seal audience on Soay?

As it happened, the best forecasts were put back a day - by now Seamus the skipper of the sea Harris boat, Enchanted Isles, was sending out revised forecasts every few hours. Meant I got Strathfarrar ticked and dusted. Balmoral could wait. It was on - gulp. I would just have to practice abseiling on Stac an Armin before tackling Stac Lee - I had not reckoned on them being done the other way round.

Stac Lee - looking impossible to climb
Stac Lee - looking even more impossible

I am there. It would be rude to not, at least, land on the rocks. The forecast was spot on - the sea was as calm as my garden fishpond. Stepping off the tender was fine, the rocks though covered in slime were quite dry and the first scramble was, well, relatively easy. There was a group ahead of us busy setting up ropes - meant that we spent a while sitting around waiting and looking at the route ahead. Of what we could see as we waited it looked like a steep tranversing rake rather than vertical rock. It was obvious that the St Kildans had modified the terrain to make it 'easier' to get up there. 

We used the ropes in place as a handrail and the A-team of Rick, Jen, Richard and myself ascended alpine style when there were no ropes.
Richard is pointing out that there is guano in his sandwich
Alpine style walk up the rake
Stac Lee summiteers - me Jen, Rick (Richard took the picture)

Richard, me, Jen and Rick self-lee
Stac Lee 166m P166 - Britain's second highest stack

So, we made it to the top of Stac Lee. Not many people alive on the planet can say that. As for the descent - we just went down the same way we ascended. And then it was my chance to practice abseiling - not perfect, but improving. 
Disappearing over the edge

That night slept in the featherstore on Hirta. Thankfully the feathers did not tickle. Shouldn't have drunk the malt though. The next morning I did not feel 100% and, although calm for the time of the year there was a little bit of swell. A rope had been rigged in a place that required almost immediate ascent up very steep rock. By the time I got to the belay point I felt dizzy and sweaty. Thankfully, a drink of water and a rest helped.
Unlike Stac Lee, Stac an Armin was not rock all the way. There was tufty grass and more guano (most of it quite dry - I can imagine the conditions being much tougher if there had been recent rain).

On top of Britain's highest sea-stack

Stac an Armin from Stac Lee

Picking a way down through the rocks, guano and bird nests

The final abseil - it was a long way
The descent finished with a long abseil - plenty of chance to practice, then - and, for me, a mystery what happens at the bottom of the rope. I was soon to find out - you fall back inelegantly and ungainly straight into the tender - to the obvious amusement of  Seamus the boatman. 
The man in the Terry Jones story only found one castle - in the space of five weeks we had bagged six out of six St Kilda Marilyns. And, just in time, the weather started to deteriorate and the swell increased as we headed back to Harris.
Special thanks to Rick, Jen, Richard and, of course, Seamus

Bob Kerr about to fall into the tender - for the amusement of Seamus and myself.

St Kilda part 1 - a long journey

16-18 September 2015
Sheep on Hirta - no idea what that is in the background :-)
A long journey?
In September 2013, two days before we were due to sail from Lewis to St Kilda I fell off a large and remotely situated rock and badly hurt my back - however, I was not deterred - I had to get to St Kilda. Thankfully, in retrospect, the boat broke down just as it was possible to view the islands on the horizon. The other boat got there.
Never mind, I was booked on the second boat in September 2014. It never even set sail because the swell was too bad. I did not even bother to leave the mainland. The other boat got there.
September 2015. Only one boat booked and for a while it looked like the weather was going to be against us, again. Even though the forecast was uncertain I took the risk and crossed over to Harris.
However, I decided this would be my last bid - if this boat was cancelled or broke down I would simply book myself on a tourist boat to Hirta, bag Conachair and be satisfied with a future final Marilyn total of 1551 (assuming no tampering).
There is a story by Terry Jones about a man who sets off to visit a castle and after months of trying to get there, gives up. The next morning he sets off home, turns the corner and finds himself at the gate of the castle. The boat I was on, the Enchanted Isle, got there.
Conachair from The Gap, Hirta - the highest sea cliffs in Britain

Mullach Bi
Mistress Stone - Ruabhal, Hirta
 We arrived in time to give Hirta a good exploration on the first day of our day to Britain's only dual World Heritage Site. I was happy - I had bagged my 1499th Marilyn, Conachair and I could see the other islands through gaps in the mist. I was on my way to 1551.
Pete Milne and I got as far as the most northerly summit of Hirta - An Campar, where there was a fine view of Soay and the summit Cnoc Glas - we looked across and decided that the landing place could not possibly be on this side of the island (shows how much attention I had paid, despite the long wait).
Looking across to Soay from An Campar - and, yes, that is the landing point to the left of the giant rockfall.

The next morning the cloud was obscuring the island tops and there was a bit of a swell - although the forecast promised better conditions later on. We sailed around to the 'normal' landing point on Boreray. The swell was too high - so the boatman, Seamus Morrison, suggested we have a look at the stacs and come back later. As we were returning I was aware of conversations but was not really concentrating. There was going to be a landing party on a different point of Boreray. Rick Salter was saying something about being quick as the swell might get worse, not better, later. I did not have a chance to explain, I do not do quick when it comes to descents - both times I have injured myself in a fall has been when descending and trying to keep up with other people. Also, the route was untried and soon disappeared into thick mist.
Was I going to join the landing party? It was unease about the unknown/moving quickly on steep rock versus summit fever/I had expended a lot of time and money getting to this point. Seamus asked 'are you going?' and before I could really answer had pushed the boat up onto the barnacled rocks. Despite landing with one leg in the water I was on Boreray and scrambling up the steep rock when I realised that only four out of the twelve people on board the Enchanted Isle were going for it. What did the other eight know that I did not?
Very steep grassy slope of Boreray
As it happened once off the initial rocks the route was grass most of the way and wearing micro-spikes it was possible to reach the summit ridge - we just had to be sure that we came down the same way, otherwise we might get into difficulties. And I reached 1500 Marilyns in the clouds on Mullach an Eilein
1500 today
Left to right - Jenny Hatfield, Richard Tibbetts, me and Rick Salter - the A-team

Using a rope to scramble down the rocks on the shoreline - Boreray

The pointy end of Boreray
Our route on Boreray
Dun across the bay from The Village, Hirta
So after dinner, Dun's Bioda Mor was the destination. As the landing on Dun is more straightforward the numbers of people swelled and the majority summitted.

Dun's summit 

On the third day, it was time to visit Soay and bag what would be my fourth and final St Kilda Marilyn. We landed on the rock that I had overlooked the first evening and with an audience consisting of  the rest of the Enchanted Island passengers, the crew and half a dozen common seals. Unfortunately, I left my camera on the boat.
The team that ascended was the same as for Boreray. My memory of the ascent is that it started with a rope assisted climb on the initial cliff - thanks to Rick Salter for that. Then there was a complicated and steep route across the grain of the land that was at times rocky and at others slippery grass. Eventually we broke out on to the summit pastures reminiscent of the English Peak District with a flock of feral Soay sheep.
The descent was fine until we got back to the roped pitch. It is a while since I have abseiled and I made the mistake of leaving on my microspikes which just resulted in skittering across the rock faces. I fell in a heap at the bottom of the rope - much to the amusement of the seals.
The Soay landing point
Then it was back to Hirta to collect our belongings and for a final look at the 'impossible- to-ascend' Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. Rick was heard to say I reckon that they were not impossible to ascend as I thought. I accepted that Stac an Armin might go for me - but not Stac Lee.This was just brave talk, after all the necessary sea-swell conditions only came along once in a decade - I was hardly likely to need to walk the talk. And, anyway, I would have to practice abseiling first.

The Kilda website

NTS Kilda website

The National Trust for Scotland - a place for everyone

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

South-west Australia and its mountains

Note the name mirrored in the number-plate
Although not the most mountainous of areas there are a few prominent hills worth exploring. So whilst Joe and Sophie were working I hired a car for a few days and went to explore the Stirling Ranges national park and some other national parks in the region. Managed to get to the southernmost tip of west Australia, too.

Bluff Knoll 1085m P850 - highest point in south-west Australia


Toolbrunup Peak 1023m P708

Not true - unless you count the anthills

Shelley beach - West Cape Howe

Torbay Head - the southernmost point in Western Australia


Cape Naturaliste


There is a lot of forest - and a lot of it has been on fire.