A long weekend in Arran

At Easter 1976, I visited Arran for a week’s field course in geology, during which I had one morning free to explore the fells. On this brief jaunt up Goat Fell, I resolved to return to climb the other peaks and perhaps to do some rock climbing.

A mere nine years later, Mayday weekend saw a mainly Pennine party driving north for a long weekend and my resolution was finally fulfilled. Phone enquiries had suggested that the ferry was fully booked, so we made a bivouac on the quayside at Ardrossan to ensure we would be first in the “Unbooked” queue for the 7 am ferry on Friday. We were a little surprised to find the car deck less than half full ! Our early start however ensured that we had time to set up camp in Glen Sannox and have breakfast and still get onto the fells at an hour unheard of in Greenclose.

Andy and Wiggy were intent on climbing, while Doug and Sarah went ridge walking above them on Cioch na h’Oige. The climbers’ first route was a “recommended” VS: ‘Midnight ridge direct’. As an introduction to remote Scottish climbing, it may be fair enough, but as a climb it left much to be desired. The first 250′ led up crumbly rotting granite and rampant heather, offering no protection and few real holds, to the base of some real rock. Here the guide book, true to Scottish form, was no help at all, so Wiggy led up the only practical route we could find, to get back to the ridge above the supposed “quality” pitch. There is some good rock hereabouts, which might go at Hard VS, but is hardly worth the approach. Above, Andy led off up the ridge, which was now mere scrambling.

Tidemark, a route high on the crag, and visible from several miles away, was the real object of the mission. Having found it, however, 50% of the party thought that it must be some kind of sick joke. It was obviously at least E2 ! A delicate traverse across a steep, holdless wall led out over the sort of exposure that only big Scottish crags can support, to continue up a ridiculous ramp girdling the buttress. While the 50% that was wittering refused to go anywhere near the route, the other 50% decided that it would be OK once we got closer to it and scrambled up to the start:

“Look ! Its easy, there’s a hold.”
“OK, so its not as steep as it looked, and there is a hold, but its wet ! Can we go home now ?”
“Tie on here, hold this rope, and stop whingeing !”
“But I’m too young to die.”
“There’s lots of ‘pro’, and loads of friction, and..” (faintly) “I’m at the stance… Taking in !”

I teetered delicately across the slab, finding that I was too high to use the only ‘hold’. Luckily, the friction approached Skye Gabbro standards and I soon joined the grinning Wigglesworth on the stance. The next pitch looked more sensible, but was the sort of place where you could drop a krab, bivouac overnight, and wake to hear it crash to the ground next morning.

“Exposure city, Arizona !”
“Yeah, go for it Wiggy !”

A flake, which would have made a better belay than the one I had, hung out over the drop, beyond the reach of small, frightened animals. Wiggy used it for a runner. Round the corner, Wiggy frantically searched for somewhere to stuff a small ‘Friend’, but found only conventional nut placements, and plenty of them. So much for gear-freaks. Out of sight, he soon reached a good stance, and advised me not to wear my glasses. My turn to climb, and the pitch flowed like poetry. Small but positive holds and superb friction, with the Devil’s Punchbowl yawning only inches away to the left. Why can’t all routes be like this ? Confidence restored, I led through onto the final, short pitch, Wiggy neglecting to remind me that I still had the rucksack. I soon found out when I tried to sit back after discovering that my last runner was merely hooked on a tiny heather root. The next move was a sensational step over a gap which plunged almost to the sea. Beyond it, all difficulties ended and I found a nice perch to photograph Wiggy. He soon reached my ‘interesting’ runner and made the step across:

“You led this on that ?!”

Sometimes I think Wiggy likes gear more than rock.

We had lost the sun earlier, and there was food and beer on the coast, so we skirted our next route to reach the top via a heathery ledge, then a rapid descent to the camp.

Saturday brought more members to the expedition, and another split into walking and climbing parties. The climbers (six of us this time) headed up Glen Sannox to the col and over into Glen Rosa where we contoured to the bottom of Cir Mhor’s South ridge. Six people should have worked out nicely at three ropes of two, but even the best laid plans… Wiggy decided to solo Sou’wester slabs, leaving Doug and Clive to climb “Caliban’s creep”, a fine, exposed ridge route. This left a team of three with two rucksacks to climb Sou’wester slabs, a recipe for disaster ?

Gail led the first three guidebook pitches as one run-out, to reach the stance at the bottom of the fourth pitch of “Fourth Wall”. Sarah followed, and then Andy, who had some difficulty on the crux with Sarah’s frame rucksack (!) Now, the first three pitches come to 160 feet in the guide, so assuming we had only done two, Andy led straight up, to be greeted by a party who corrected his error. While reversing the fifty foot run out (which he hadn’t bothered to protect), a rope of two overtook, and then four solo climbers arrived. They were obviously moving fast, so we felt we should let them pass. Eventually, Andy started to lead the superb “parallel cracks pitch”, which must be one of the finest V.Diff. pitches around (especially since it is only about Diff. at this point). Half-way up the next pitch, the rope ran out, so a stance was taken back at the corner, where, at least, sack-hauling should be easier. So much easier, in fact, that we had all three bodies and two sacks up this second pitch less than three hours after starting the route. Inefficiency was the order of the day, with everyone getting a little cold, and Andy soloing the next pitch with a sack to avoid boredom (and the dark). We followed Sarah’s lead up the final chimney to finish the 340 foot route in under four and a half hours (just). We even got back to camp before dark. Luckily, Scottish hotels don’t close till midnight.

The weather on Sunday didn’t look fit for climbing, so two teams set off from Sannox and Brodick to do the long ridge walk over Cir Mhor and A’Chir. The ‘A’ team, (Andies Waddington and Nichols, Jill and Sally) left Sannox and burnt (or at least smouldered) up Suidhe Fhearghas at the north of the ridge. On top, the wind howled in from the east, and eventually even Andy Nichols had to admit that shirt sleeves were a little inadequate. The pinnacle of Ceum na Caillich looks out onto a steep 150 foot drop into the Witches Step, and we were easily able to descend all the way… to the abseil sling. A reascent soon established us on the skulkers’ route to the West side. The pitch didn’t look so bad from below. The only difficulties now encountered on the way to Caisteal Abhail were the driving sleet, and the gusts of wind screaming out of the mist, a pleasant Scottish summer afternoon.

On the summit of Caisteal Abhail, the view ahead cleared, and we could see the ridge sweeping over a long col to Cir Mhor, a fine summit. From here the ridge dropped to another long col, and then started the increasingly technical reascent to A’Chir. This ridge has a lot in common with parts of the Cuillin in Skye: its rough granite is far less polished than the Aonach Eagach ridge above Glencoe and the whole ridge is longer and wilder. The summit of A’Chir is an improbable boulder perched atop an exposed and windswept platform. It is gained by a jump and mantleshelf, which was only accomplished by Andy Nichols from the ‘A’ team, though the ‘B’ team, whom we met on A’Chir, claimed some success. There are fewer technicalities south of A’Chir, but interest is maintained for some way, before the long drag up to Beinn Tarsuinn. This was relieved primarily by AN looking for the Old Man of Tarsuinn, so he could photograph it. He found it at last, and got his photograph from the conventional angle, while Jill found a view which gave the name ‘Old man’ a different slant !

South from Beinn Tarsuinn, the path meanders gently to Beinn Nuis and the end of the ridge. The descent to Glen Rosa was less boggy than expected, but the Rosa path was long and hard back into Brodick and the car, and beer…

Monday was spent dropping people onto ferries and generally touring round the island, dodging showers. On Tuesday, since we were leaving, the weather improved miraculously, giving clear views of the island from the ferry back.