The last days of a Scottish Summer

As I sprinted towards my leaving Scotland date I kept waiting for things to hit a mellow patch. As is the usual pattern of my life where really good things punctuate the norm, but where the momentum of adventures seems to slow down in between a lot, be it weather, injury, work or just ‘life’ getting in the way. With all the great weekends already reported on, I kept thinking, “that one must be it now, I’ve had my fill of amazing weather and amazing trips and to come now is just a lull before I leave”. The funny thing is, I think I would have been satisfied if it had. I’d banked soo many fun adventures over the last few months that, although always hungry for more, it would have been awesome to just take away those memories.

Thankfully Scotland and my awesome friends that live in it were not done. Ross and I still had our eye on the Needle on Shelterstone Crag in the Cairngorms. Back when I first got inspired to do a long route on the Shelterstone years ago, ‘The needle, E1’ was the apple of my eye. Nine pitches over 260m to the backdrop of Loch A’an, it looked spectacular but it was at my grade limit and would be a very challenging outing.

We had been discussing when we might be able to attempt the route at TCA one evening when some friends suggested how much of a better line ‘Steeple’ was. Sitting relatively adjacent to The Needle but at E2 it covered 250m over 7 pitches and the climbing was apparently much more sustained and took a much more direct line up the Shelterstone Crag. I had only really recently broken into the E2 grade and it wasn’t consolidated, but I had secretly flirted with the idea that maybe we should try that instead of The Needle. It was a notch harder than the needle but I was confident I could have a good go at the crux pitch and especially with Ross as a partner, having lead more E2’s than me, there was no reason why we shouldn’t raise the bar in-line with the improvements in our climbing and seek out the better line. Psyche was high!

The weekend before my last week in work was giving a confusing weather forecast, one that encouraged me to go drinking on the Friday night since Saturday’s rain meant it wasn’t a likely day to head to the Cairngorms, although Sunday still held some promise. Unfortunately the drinking ’til the early hours on top of a week or more of late nights and little rest sent me over the edge and I got ill. My physical health put a stopper to the Sunday plans but thankfully the rain that came down made it easier to stay in bed with the Albas Oil knowing I wasn’t missing out on any climbing at least.

We had to make it happen the week after then. Luckily Monday’s forecast, my first day off after finishing work, was a continuation of the weekends fabulous sun and I headed over to Edinburgh on the Sunday, huge hangover and epic tiredness after awesome leaving party all in tow.

Due to the imminent tiredness and inevitable post-party blues we had made the savvy but luxurious decision to stay in a hostel that night so as to make sure we had the best chance at a goods night sleep. An early start for the anticipated 12 hour day to ensue.

We got up at 6am, knowing that both Ross and I would need some time for imperative faff-age in the morning hoping to set off from the Corrie Chais Carpark at 7.30. This worked perfectly.

(Sunny walk in, Ross a-top the plateau before dropping in to Shelterstone Crag)

The Gary Latter guide book suggests a 2.5hr walk-in for to the base of the route, we which assumed was about right even though we were taking a different route in than he suggests. Our approach, an amalgamation of suggestions from friends, lead into Corrie an T-Sneachda and then steeply climbed the goat track at the back of the Corrie, a quicker but more arduous route than Gary suggests. Then from the plateau we headed out toward Ben Macdui but dropping off east toward the base of the Shelterstone. We left or bags near the south edge of the slabs before we had dropped too much in height so that it would be easy to collect them on the way out from the top of the route.

This worked pretty well and we managed to find the base of the route pretty easily by its obvious initial corner pitches. I think by the time I left the ground on the lead of the first corner pitch it was about 10.45. It had taken us just under 3 hours I guess to do the walk in (stopping to rack up and ditch our sacks) and a bit of time to get ready to climb.

The first pitch was really enjoyable climbing. Loads of gear and nice and long gaining a couple of overlaps. The first being the crux of the 5a pitch I guess.

(Initial corner pitch of Steeple, 5a)

Next Ross had another 5a pitch. It was significantly shorter but packed a punch giving insecure feeling footwork to a slabby ramp corner with a cracked feature running up the perpendicular wall, throwing you off balance. The climbing was technical but so far nicely sustained.

(Ross on intricate second corner pitch of Steeple, 5a)

Pitch 3 gave me an easy long scramble to the base of the intimidatingly steep curving crux pitch. I was happy to let Ross lead this as I felt confident that I would have been able to step up to the challenge had it been necessary but that I would enjoy climbing the 5b corner pitch higher up more. Plus I was confident in Ross’s abilities to get us up the pitch!

Ross dispatched the crux with confidence and ease (and maybe just a couple of huff’s and puff’s) whilst I sat intimidated at the prospect of seconding with a pack and doing his valiant lead justice by not falling off. Although the pitch was tough I got through it carrying a pack and had gained an uber pump. We both agreed that whilst there were no stopper moves, the climbing required you to be able to repeatedly pull on flattish or small holds on steep terrain. Very pumpy indeed!

(Ross-cool as a cucumber-Mathers on the steep and pumpy crux pitch, 5c)

Next came an easy but interesting 4c/5a pitch which I lead with some fun moves through a hanging corner. I felt the guide didn’t describe very clearly that below a steep roof capping the corner the route heads right along an easy ledge to climb another corner crack at its very right end, which then leads to a belay ledge below the imposing 5b corner pitch.

Because Ross had lead the crux it was then my turn to lead again. Looking up, the steep corner seemed to go on for miles and although I was slightly intimidated I was thrilled to have this awesome looking pitch as my lead. The start was a fairly thrutchy but positive lay-back given by the crack in the corner and only smeary friction features for your feet. It was tiring placing gear and I was hoping that the cam-tastic parallel sided crack would help this. Unfortunately however the crack opened up by at least a cam size inside making it hard to place the right sized good runner without careful, energy consuming adjustment. I could see a niche higher up beyond two pieces of fixed and after getting pumped trying to place half my rack in marginal mid-sized camelots in the opening crack I decided to go for broke and use my energy to get to the niche, a rest hold and better feet awaited. It took a bit of huffing and puffing but I got there. I was able to de-pump a little on this hold and was pleased to see that the climbing got easier, with footholds which allowed me to bridge out and get some weight off my arms. Also, thankfully, the gear got smaller and I was able to finish the pitch on mid-sized nuts, which was lucky, since I had another 20 metres of climbing to do and had placed every size of cam on my harness from 0.5 – 3, some doubles!! Props to Ross for getting all this gear out without having to rest on second. Thanks matey!

(managing to stem above the niche on some easier climbing as part of the penultimate 5b corner)

We only had one pitch to go and were feeling relatively fresh. It was down to Ross to lead the final short 5a crack and get us off. After my enduro-pitch I thought this would be a doddle as Ross made it look so. However I actually struggled to make a move from a crack on the left over to the right because my span wasn’t quite as big as Ross’ and I thought I was gonna come off. Luckily I managed to stay on and make it up without blowing it and falling. The Steeple was still giving us a kick right up until the very end! Later we read that the SMC guide gives this pitch 5b too which I think is possibly more realistic, especially for the short armed.

A short celebration on the top before a swift walk to collect the bags and back up and out of Sneachda to the car park. We were pretty tired as we approached the car at about 8pm but managed a pint on the way out of Aviemore to celebrate and muse over how great the route had been and how smoothly it had gone. This route was possibly the biggest ‘before I go to Canada tick’ I could get done. Well pleased!!

(pleased to have topped out on such a brilliant route)

Since I’m now unemployed I had nothing critical to do on Tuesday until the evening and since the weather was still going to be brilliant Ross suggested we have another days climbing somewhere more local. Not sure what my body would be up to with an increasingly imposing shoulder injury and after a 12 hour day the one before I was happy with a relaxed plan to head to a single pitch crag in the county for some chilled out bimbling.

In our relatively lethargic state, we made a terrible crag choice based on getting somewhere after a late start and getting back in time to make it for a long awaited meal at the Rosaleaf with Jules that evening.

We headed to Bowden doors in the County for the hottest cragging experience I’d ever had. A south facing crag with little wind who’s characteristically round and sandy holds generally require good friction for any kind of success. Our sweaty efforts were laughable, finding it too hot to put on a harness without being uncomfortably boiling. Hell, I even broke a sweat trying to eat some lunch!

Nonetheless Ross encouraged me to mop up my previous efforts on Canada crack (apt!) as a second years ago by leading it. Which I was pleased to do so, but not – I will happily admit – with any style or dignity. Next up was my re-match with Lorraine, the hardest VS I have ever tried. Hoping to fall off the baking hot and slimy smear essential for your right foot, meaning a game over situation and a trip to the nearest cold water for a swim, I was both disappointed and pleased in the same measure to stick it and continue up the lay-back crack. With the same lack of grace and style I topped out Lorraine too and Ross and I giggled knowingly at how bad I was climbing in these ridiculous conditions. Wisely Ross saved himself from similar embarrassment by offering to belay me so I could get stuff done before I left Scotland – wise guy! Chuffed to have even got those two routes done, we left, defeated by the heat.

So in my last week in Scotland and new life as an unemployed bum I managed to explore the Cathkin Braes Commonwealth mountain bike trails, party until 6am with some great friends in a Canadian tuxedo, venture to Aviemore to climb and send The Steeple, mop up some sloppy seconds despite the heat at Bowden, have a fantastic meal at the Rosaleaf followed by a lesson in good drinking at the Whiskey society, breakfast with Cass in her lovely new flat, lunch with Frazer, pint with Ian and ultimate Frisbee and barbecue with the Portobello crew on the beach before heading back to Glasgow to pack all my belongings into a Van and move on.

(Mountain biking at Cathkin Braes)

An utterly brilliant ending to a fantastic chapter. Thanks to everyone for making it happen.

(Worryingly some pulled off the Canadian Tuxedo a little too well!)

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