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.


  1. Great write up Martin. Thought you made Lee sound easier than it was. My back still hasn't got over getting you up that wall pitch :-). And yes you could do with some more abseiling practice before I take you up the old man of hoy.

  2. Great story and photos Martin. Congrats on reaching 1500!