Shelter Stone Crag – The Needle, Steeple and Haystack

With tricky access to anywhere Alpine, Paul and Andy had pencilled in a short week away somewhere in the UK, and were happy to have me along as a third wheel – Destination to be decided based on the pre-departure weather forecast. I happily signed up for the magical mystery tour, and awaited plans with interest…

Grand beau temps in Scotland, with a tolerable (?) midge forecast had us speeding north, with Shelter Stone Crag the first stop on our itinerary.

Starting from the Cairngorm carpark at around 600m is a bonus, but it’s still quite a slog (500m of ascent) via the Goat Track from Coire an t’Sneachda and up on to the head of Corrie Domhain before dropping down into the Loch Avon basin. Stunning scenery to distract from the effort.

Coire an t’Sneachda
head of Corrie Domhain

It’s an impressive lump of rock! Sadly you lose almost all that hard-won altitude as you drop down to the eponymous Shelter Stone boulder.

We dumped bivvy gear near the boulder and headed up to the crag, only to find a team just setting off on our planned objective – the Hard Rock tick of The Needle, E1 5b

That left the choice of tagging along afterwards or opting for Plan B: Haystack, E3 5c. We rolled the dice and decided to up our game for an Extreme Rock tick. Here’s Paul running the first couple of pitches together.

A linking pitch brought Andy into action for the crux pitch

Then Paul got the airy traverse and arete, and we bumped into The Needle team, as the various routes on the face weave about finding lines of weakness…

This left me with the second 5c pitch up the “spectacular overhanging wide crack”. This wasn’t actually as bad as it’s daunting countenance; the trick being not to get too sucked into the depths of the crack!

Andy lead us off the face with the final steep crack,

… and we topped out after about 5 hours.

There’s a decent trod down, providing you find it (the trick being to head almost over to the stream), but here’s a track to help

Back at the bivvy spot it was time to kick back, relax and soak up the evening rays

Meanwhile, the Needle team had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the upper reaches of the crag (easily done with complicated territory and quite vague route descriptions) so we were able to watch them “threading the needle” (you need to look quite closely!)

Our palatial bivvy started to lose its appeal as the sun disappeared, the wind dropped and the midges descended. Discomfort was enhanced by the gentle slope of the rock which prompted a poor night’s “sleep” interrupted by efforts to scrabble back up from the edge. Come the morning we’d reached “peak midge” and the buggers were everywhere, and only the combined countermeasures of Smidge, antihistamines and a midge-net saved us from oblivion.

However, the sun was breaking through,

… and with absolutely no incentive to linger over breakfast we were at the foot of The Needle by 7.30am and ready to go.

If the midges hadn’t been reason enough, we’d been spurred into an early start by the appearance of another team, and hadn’t wanted to be at the back of the queue for a second day running. We needn’t have worried – these lads had their eye on Haystack and anyway, they were moving pretty swiftly! (It later emerged that they (Huw and David) went on to complete “The Triple” of The Needle, Steeple and Haystack in the day, including the walk in and out! Impressive!) You can just about make out the leader towards the top of the initial corners in the shot above and the one below.

Meanwhile, we were motoring ourselves on The Needle, delighted to find that we’d left the wee beasties behind at the bivvy, but not wanting to risk the chances of them catching us up!

Andy and Paul following the “easy” slabby opening pitches

Paul ended up with the crux pitch, with committing moves above quite a runout.

Andy got the complicated traverse pitch above,

… and was back on lead by the time we came to the huge corner cum crack of the needle finale.

Topped out in 4 1/2 hours, and before lunchtime, (thanks to the midge-inspired early-start!) we had half a day to play with, so turned our attention to Steeple and another Extreme Rock tick. No peace for the wicked…

Andy ran the initial two corner pitches together, and Paul got us up to the point at which Haystack and Steeple merge briefly, beneath the crux of both. Steeple takes the lower of two ramp lines, and I was relieved to complete the precarious and slightly daunting step rightwards above the void and subsequent stiff, awkward pull to gain the sanctuary of a ledge and continuation ramp.

This set things up nicely for Paul to get the plumb penultimate corner – absolutely magnificent!

.. and me to repeat the shared final Haystack pitch

We were obviously honing our three-on-a-rope system, or tuning-in to the rock, as we completed the third part of the Trilogy in about 4 hours, leaving plenty of daylight for the flog back up to the head of Corrie Domhain, a swift paddle in the lochan beneath Coire an t’Sneachda,

and beers at the van by about 7ish. Not a bad day and a half (and chapeau to the boys for completing it inside a day!)

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