Tuesday, 3 November 2015

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

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