Father Christmas delivered three inspiring books for Rockaroundtheworld this year – the new Costa Blanca guide and Chasing the Ephemeral are both on hold for future trips (for different reasons!) so we’ve cracked the spine on The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland instead.
What a fabulous edition – a coffee-table scale book with dozens of stunning photos and stories of the people and escapades behind the development of a couple of dozen amazing venues. In terms of trip-planning, it’s more about inspiration and context, rather than practicalities and detail. Some specific routes are mentioned, but there are no topos or access info, so it’s certainly no substitute for a guidebook, though it’s pretty unbeatable in terms of getting you psyched for exploration.
Sarclet had been on our radar since a trip up the east coast a few years ago, which culminated at Lathronwheel. I can’t remember whether it was the weather or other commitments that curtailed our northerly trajectory (and I suspect a Fulmar encounter had somewhat dampened seacliff enthusiasm) but it had the lingering feeling of “unfinished business”.
It’s the next crag north, about 5 miles south of Wick and therefore only about 20 miles before John O’Groats. It’s USP is that it is formed from a unique band of stunning pink conglomerate, which only emerges on the coast for a mile or so, in amongst the prevailing sandstone. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but regular readers will know that Rockaroundtheworlders like their “pudding” (as the French describe conglomerate rock) and have sampled some of the finest from Riglos to the Durance Valley and Rumney, as well as the local sports crags of Moy and Golspie. Coming fresh from a couple of days at Golspie, we’d hopefully retain the confidence of pulling on the sometimes unconvincing-looking pebbles, without the comfort of the bolts.
Arriving at the tiny parking area after a morning of rain it was encouraging to bump into another couple of climbers – good to have a bit of company when exploring. The first job is to navigate the peaty moorland to find the crag and then locate the various sectors. The Latter guide has quite a good overview map but here’s an extra bit of beta.
We thought we’d get acquainted with the rock at the most amenable sector – Tilted Ledge, at the south end of the developed area, is largely non-tidal, has scramble-in access and some gentler routes.
We weren’t hugely impressed with Blackcurrant, the first HVS we did, but The Ogee (VS up the obvious diagonal crack towards the LHS) and Pullin’ on Puddin’ (E2 up the arete and through the roof above, pulling hard on a couple of huge quartz lumps) were both excellent.
Here’s Helen topping out
… and the other team finishing The Ogee.
After a successful opening foray we returned a couple of days later after an educational but somewhat unproductive recce of Ellens Geo – though time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted, as they say (see later post), to salvage a route from the day. The much photographed Sarclet Pimpernel is the poster child of the crag, and gets the **** accolade in the guide, with a write up to match. The free-hanging 30m abseil is certainly a good pulse-raiser, as you gently spiral down hoping that you’ve judged it right and the rope does land on the ledge rather than in the sea (spoiler alert – it does! and a 50m rope just reaches from the stakes).
The grade E1 5a conjures up all sorts of worries, but the climbing is actually pretty steady – especially once you’ve summoned up enough faith in the sticking power of pebbles to swing across the initial unprotected few moves to reach the arete proper.
Beyond that, an ocean of holds opens up as you sail up the arete and the cracks to its left – there are even a couple of perched ledges where I was able to get these shots of the teams opposite – Pete & Phil on Djapana, and Crispin & Guy on Northern Alliance, both E3 (you can just about make out Helen in pink on the 2nd photo below on the belay ledge)
Here’s Helen powering up the arete.
With the classic of the crag in the bag, we headed back to the van for a brew and decided to stay the night for another helping of pudding the next day. It’s not a bad spot to park up.
Next day we were back on Big Buttress for the outstanding and improbable Groove Armada, the corner left of Sarclet Pimpernel, which more or less takes the line of the ab we made yesterday – unbelievable for a VS, but not even a sandbag at the grade. Jug-City and gear to match – a few people have suggested it’s the best single-pitch VS in the land, and I’m struggling to come up with a better one.
We’d scoped out Silver Surfer Buttress on our first visit
… with the eponymous route taking the obvious flaky crack/groove in the centre of the impressive wall. Rapping in to it’s right I spotted a bit of chalk and guessed it would be ## E1/2 taking the blank looking wall on what turn out to be decent holds. Excellent!
Silver Surfer, HVS, was just as good (another intimidating line made pretty straightforward by the profusion of pebbly holds)
A special place, and such a privilege to have it all to ourselves on the last day, apart from the non-stop antics of the Razorbills, Guillemots, Cormorants and Gulls, wheeling around the sky, dive bombing into the surf and squabbling over ledges. This lot looked to be on some interminable march up a never-ending, guano staircase out of a crazed Escher picture.
We even had a guest appearance from a couple of Puffins. Loads to come back for!