Warning: On-sighters might consider some of the details a spoiler.
I had my first experience of climbing in Scotland on Arran in May 2002.
After saving frequent flier miles for a long time, I had enough to take my wife to Scotland. I had been once before and got a look at the peaks of Arran from across the Firth of Clyde, deciding that if I ever made it back I'd bring my climbing gear.
This time I was able to arrange two days on Arran before rejoining my non-climbing wife and the rest of our group. A few months before, I posted an inquiry on a couple of UK climbing boards and was contacted by Russell, who had lived on Arran for several years and still had friends there. He arranged a family holiday to coincide with my visit.
It was the first time I'd set up a partner on the Internet, but occasional e-mail exchanges indicated we'd be pretty compatible in terms of climbing interest.
Arran lies in the Firth of Clyde between the mainland port of Ardrossan (less than an hour's train ride from Glasgow) and the Kintyre Peninsula. Craggy granite peaks dominate the northern half of the island. While a little under 3,000 feet in height, they top out only a couple of miles from the water, and are very alpine in character.
I arrived by ferry on Saturday afternoon in the town of Brodick, where Russell's wife, Elspeth, and the youngest of their three daughters (ages 2 to 5) met me at the dock. After going to the house where they were staying that weekend for much-needed coffee, she drove me to the northwest tip of the island near Lochranza, where the other girls were spending the afternoon with a friend, Grace, whose husband, Graeme, and their friend Kenny were paragliding off one of the hills. Russell was off climbing with Neil, who would climb the next day with Kenny, while Russell and I shared another rope.
Everyone reunited back at the house for dinner. It was a great group of people, all of whom made me welcome from the start. The friendliness I'd picked up in the e-mails - Russell had told me to bring only my personal gear, he'd take care of the rest, providing a place to stay, etc. - was for real. My friends and family consider me pretty easy-going, but compared to this group I was a raging Type-A lunatic. The relaxed atmosphere and the weather forecast for clear skies and mild temperatures in the high 50s during the day, made me feel very lucky about the whole venture. Russell told me you could come to Arran for a week and never see the peaks for the rain.
We left the house around 7 a.m. Sunday morning and hiked about four or five miles up Glen Rosa to the base of the South Ridge Direct on Cir Mhor. The complete route totals more than 900 feet and is rated Very Severe, with the crux VS pitches at about 5.7, one with maybe a 5.8 move, on the Yosemite scale, and a couple of others at about 5.5 or 5.6.
Kenny and Graeme took the original start, which has two or three pitches of five-easy scrambling, while Russell led a variation rated Severe (about 5.6) that joined the South Ridge route below the two VS pitches.
Following Russell gave me a chance to acquaint myself with the rock, which forced a combination of balance and grunt work that had me a little wigged until I realized how incredible the friction was on the rough rock. Note: If you ever see "chimney" in an Arran guide book, it often as not means "off-width." Just have to trust the foot friction and forge along.
We had a wait at the base of the next pitch, the S-Crack, which while not as technically difficult as the following pitch, Y-Crack, is more sustained. I hadn't felt at the top of my game following the first pitch, so I was a little nervous, but chatting with the couple getting ready for S-Crack, and enjoying the views and the warm sun, I relaxed and even felt on the verge of a jet-lag induced nap. Neil and Kenny arrived at the belay, where we were spread out along an alcove and the top of a large flake beside the base of the pitch.
S-Crack was fun - plenty of gear opportunities and progress through stemming and handholds along the sides of the crack. There's a famous surprise hold near the top, and even though I knew it was there somewhere, it's so different from the nature of the rest of the climb and comes at such an opportune moment that I still let out a little whoop - "Hello!"
Russell led the Y-Crack, a short pitch with the crux bulge right at the top where you move onto the belay ledge.
After following the Russell’s lead, I left my camera with Russell and set off up a VS-rated variation. Russell told me about what happened when Neil's head popped up into view at the crux. The route was at Neil's gear-leading limit, and when Russell said, "Well done, you're almost there," Neil responded with, "I think I'm coming off!" Russell told him to hold on a moment more, poked my camera toward him and snapped a picture. Then Neil pulled through the crux just fine.
Our variation had a crux 15- or 20-foot chimney - i.e. off-width - above a short, fairly steep slab, with the same 5a technical rating as Y-Crack. I scrambled up to the slab and to the crack, and placed two solid pieces near the start of my introduction to Scottish sand-bagging.
The crack overhung in two directions and was about 6- to 9-inches wide, widening as you went up. A climber below called up, "Looks meaty!" - a bit of foreshadowing I'd learn about all too well. I did some of the most difficult, insecure climbing I'd experienced to that point on lead, and actually got my head and shoulders above the rim only to find the angles all wrong for mantling out. There was no place on the slab above to anchor, and after calling down an inquiry to Russell, I was afraid I might not have enough rope to get to a good place for setting a belay. In retrospect, Russell could have simuled the start had I figured out the move.
Anyway, I backed down to a good stance, went back up and considered a belly flop onto the slab, but again, the angles didn't seem right, and I was too high above the gear to keep me from hitting slab below if I blew the move. I said "XXX it", and down-climbed to about 10 feet above the slab. Just when I was thinking it would be as easy to go back up, I fell, hitting the slab feet first and sliding down a few feet before the rope caught me.
A look at my right hand and arm, which had been barred inside the crack, told me the other side of Arran granite's friction story – bloody gobies all over the back of my hand and a few on the other side, even a few cuts on my finger tips. My fleece sweater left tufts inside the crack.
I set an anchor and brought up Russell. He leads Hard Very Severe and has some E routes under his belt, and wanted to give the crack a go. He went up, managed to sling a stone I hadn't been able to get a hand free to use, and dinked in piece a few feet below the top of the crack. After trying to figure the moves, he decided to back off as well. As he was down-climbing, he weighted the top piece, which popped, throwing him off balance. I yanked in a little more slack as I hit the brake, the rope caught Russell, and he touched the slab on rope stretch.
He looked up, said, "Cheers then, Myles," and we sat for a minute, both of us to settle down from the adrenaline, and me to clean up my cuts a little more. Russell commented, "That is not a 5a." Guess it was Arran's version of a 5.8 flare in Yosemite.
By the time I reached the next belay on the regular route, Kenny and Neil were already there, waiting to do the Layback Pitch, the last VS part. Above here, the South Ridge Direct shares the 5.5-ish Triple Chimneys finish with a bunch of other routes, so things can pile up.
At the belay, Kenny told me he'd felt a little wigged the whole time on the route. I told him I'd get wigged jumping off a mountain on what amounts to a big kite like he does, and that cheered him up.
Russell led the layback before moving out to some weirdly shaped face holds that were like a tiny Snake Dike for a rising traverse to the belay. Another party there had climbed the variation we'd attempted and said a knee-bar near the top was the key. Have to climb more off-width I guess.
The Triple Chimneys seemed a little hard for the grade, but maybe that's because my hands were stinging like crazy. Before starting, I looked up and saw the exact view (foreshortened a little) as a picture from the forties or fifties of two climbers on the pitch with ropes tied around their waist and big boots, no gear between the leader and his belayer. Didn't stop me from placing a couple of pieces, and reinforced the respect I have for the old-schoolers.
We did the long walk off/scramble in our rock shoes, and by the time we got back to the packs my feet were killing me. We'd started climbing around 12:30 and started back to town at 8 p.m. but rather than frustrate, the wait near the end of the route had given me a chance to enjoy the surroundings, the new people I'd met, and my incredible luck with the Scottish weather, which especially on Arran is a real craps-shoot.
The walk back down Glen Rosa was insect free and a lot easier of course than the other way. Graeme had come out to give us a ride down the last of the approach, which starts on a road. Due to the season and northern latitudes, it was still almost full light when we met him at 9:30.
Back to the house for dinner and bed, then up with Russell for a ramble up Glen Sannox on the other side of Cir Mhor from the South Ridge. With Liz and my sister arriving with a rental car via the Lochranza ferry at 2 p.m., we didn't have enough time for a route, but it was a fine day all the same.
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