Ardnamurchan – The Gift of the Gabbro

Another fabulous climbing area that wasn’t really on our radar until the happy coincidence of a visit by Zoe and Dave and a possible weather window – all the excuse we needed to head from near the Eastern tip of Scotland to the most Western point in the UK mainland: Ardnamurchan.

After a damp-day drive and an overnight in a spectacular spot opposite Arisaig and overlooking Skye…

… we arrived in Ardnamurchan just in time for the start of the promised dry interlude. As a bonus we were blessed with some sunshine, though that didn’t do a lot to offset the 45mph winds – it was going to be chilly!

The big attraction from a climbing perspective is the Ardnamurchan Ring Complex – sounds like a Le Carre thriller but it’s actually a geological feature; quite a big one. The remnants of a huge volcanic crater, about 4km across can still be clearly seen in the ring of crags on the peninsula.

This image is from https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/GeositesArdnamurchan
A snip from the OS map with the ring clearly visible and the two crag approaches – more detailed maps below

The best thing about the volcanic origins of these crags is that they’re formed of Gabbro – the gold standard when it comes to rough, adherent rock.

With a late start, and the prevailing weather, we settled Achnaha Buttress – the most accessible of the crags in the “Ring”. You park immediately before a culvert which takes the burn under the road and take a fairly well-defined trod along the east bank of the burn until some stepping-stones allow a second burn to be crossed.

From just before the stepping stones (both pictures taken on the way back from the crag) you can just about make out Button Slab (covered in the SMC select guide but not the Latter one) and the top of Achnaha Buttress.

The path disappears after the stepping stones – we found the driest route was to head over the rocky hillocks rather than trying to skirt them.

The Buttress is a pretty impressive 20m high chunk of Gabbro but unfortunately it is split by a grassy terrace at half height meaning that most of the routes are only 10m or so. Not that that mattered much to us – despite the seemingly glorious conditions we were being blasted by “can-barely-stand-up” westerly winds, so we picked the only route that offered a modicum of shelter: Plocaig Walk, VDiff. Nothing to write home about, but at least we’d managed a YECTOYD and got to sample the incredible friction, without becoming airborne!

Button Slab is an attractive little lump just above Achnaha and about a 100m further east (not 400m as the OS Grid Reference in the SMC guide would have you believe). With a slightly more southerly orientation it was just getting a bit of shelter, so we tried our luck again and managed three  amenable routes. Probably Pash, Mickey and Ludo – all about Severe, 18m and thoroughly enjoyable.

Helen heading down from Button Slab

There’s seafront camping in the small village of Kilchoan, with a lovely view of the Sound of Mull (the ferry terminal is just up the road).

The following day wasn’t quite so sunny, but at least one forecast suggested it might not rain too much and whilst the winds were still mightily strong they’d at least shifted around to the north, meaning that the south-facing Creag Meall an Fhir-Eoin might be sheltered. It takes more than a bit of rain and wind to dampen Dave’s enthusiasm, so we set off to explore.

The crater was filled with drifting clag, so we didn’t have a clear view of the crag on the approach, but the first mile or so is obvious along a good Land Rover track to the abandoned settlement of Glendrian. From the main ruined farmhouse we found the best route to be through the gap in the wall behind the house then zigging right beneath some slabs before zagging back left to brow the hill from where the crag was now visible. A reasonable trod leads all the way to the foot of the buttress from here, and we were pleasantly surprised to arrive in less than 40 minutes (for a 50mins approach) and with dry feet!

With rain threatening it was an easy decision to start with the 3* VS, Yir, which runs the full height of the crag in two pitches which can be combined in a big 55m pitch (you’d probably get away with 50s). Overhanging groove, steep crack, leaning groove, teetery traverse and thin slab, all on immaculate super-sticky Gabbro – what a stupendous route! Here’s Dave exiting the traverse – wrapped up warm but with a big smile on his face.

There’s a handy rap point at the top of the first pitch which is a reasonably straightforward scramble down from the top, and we were soon contemplating another route – but not before sitting out a fairly heavy shower underneath a convenient boulder.

Meanwhile, over on the stunning white sands of Sanna beach, Helen and Zoe were also finding it quite blustery.

Happily it was short-lived and the driving wind and sticky rock meant it was almost immediately climbable. Dave set off up the first pitch of Volcano – a slanting 4c crack.

This leads to an airy stance beneath a steepening, breached by a diagonal ramp. A bouldery move onto this, protected by bomber gear, leads to a horizontal break and crucial small wire to protect the tenuous step up and rightwards onto the wall, and the rest is plain sailing. E1 5b seemed about right, and only 2* a bit mean. Another fab route.

Here’s Dave romping up the top of the second pitch

With more weather rolling in from the Atlantic it might have been prudent to call it a day, but it wasn’t actually raining so we elected to roll the dice again with Up Pompei, E1 5b and another 55m rope-stretcher if done in one pitch. The climbing is pretty straightforward but there are a couple of major 10m+ run-outs, so it’s worth making the most of the gear opportunities around the little roof which separates them. It was a relief that the rain held off until after the tricky bit!

Dave on the rap point as the weather rolled in – time to call it a day.

A memorable day snatched from a dodgy forecast, and what a superb crag!

In complete contrast, Saturday dawned “a splitter day” to coin an Americanism, and the rave reviews from Dave and me had Helen persuaded to trog up to Creag Meall an Fhir-Eoin.

Unsurprisingly we didn’t have the place to ourselves on this occasion, but enjoyed the company of just one other couple. They were just getting to grips with Yir as we arrived:

We picked another starred VS: Crater Comforts, and I ran the two 4c pitches together and just made it on the stretch of our 60s. Pleasant enough climbing, but a bit contrived and meandering. Fab views over to Skye from the top though.

Later we witnessed another would-be ascentionist…

… and also the other team on the first pitch of Volcane – contrast this with the shot of Dave from the previous day!

Helen led An Rathad Ard HS 4b over on the right of the crag – pleasant but heathery climbing and not too hard at the grade.

Another contender for “route of the crag” is Return of the Jedi, E1 or E2 5b, depending which book you read. It covers fairly easy ground up the steep buttress just left of the abseil gully before pulling around the arete where you are met with a very blank 5m or so. Good gear at your feet is all the comfort you get, and with your belayer out of sight and round the corner it would likely be a long and uncomfortable fall if you blew the smeary next few moves. Steady but exhilarating climbing follows for yet another tremendous big pitch – well worth 3* (and I’d give E2 the benefit of the doubt). Here’s Helen cruising the crux:

The main crag was starting to head into the shade by now, but with at least 3 hours of daylight we turned our attention to the adjacent Dome Buttress which was still enjoying full sun. Here’s Helen on Greta Gabbro, a really fine VS 4c with difficulties increasing as height is gained…

… to a tricky finale in the final groove:

Well past beer o’clock by now it was time to head down

The main crag going into the shade (left) and Dome Buttress (right) still catching the evening sun

How better to celebrate than a sunset sundowner at the westernmost point of the UK mainland

One response to “Ardnamurchan – The Gift of the Gabbro

  1. Hey guys, thank you for getting those pictures of out out there. It was really nice to meet you 🙂

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