Reach for the Skye
It seems like an age ago. A long drive north, through fearsome weather and mountain roads. An uncomfortable, sleepless night in a carpark. A swift RIB journey across Loch Scavaig.
Hauling gear between boat and bothy we unloaded our equipment and supplies to last us for the next seven days. The forecast was optimistic, the mood was positive, the psych was high. Salty sea air and a mountain breeze kissed us on both cheeks. Good morning, Loch Coruisk.
A few months earlier, I was asked by my good friend, Charlie Woodburn, if I would join a small team on a trip to Skye in August of 2014. I immediately said yes, even before hearing what the plan was (important note - I was asked under the influence of a significant amount of Dalmore 16yr). Sober and clear headed, I took note of the plan. Our objective was simple: the coveted second ascent of the Dave Birkett testpiece Skye Wall E8 6b on Coir'uisg Buttress.
Charlie Woodburn is one of the great 'dark horses' in British climbing. Mainly operating under the radar he has put up and repeated more hard trad routes on British soil than most could even dream of. How about first ascents of Harder Faster (E9 7a) at Black Rocks and Something's Burning (E9 7a)? Both infamous routes, both with a reputation as technical and most-definitely life threatening. Mr Woodburn, in short, is not shit.
I only knew of Skye Wall from the short film in Psyche by Posing Productions. Charlie, on the otherhand, was well acquainted. He and Tim Emmett had attempted to climb the route three years earlier but had been thwarted by awful conditions. We all know that few people can live with unfinished business, not least Charlie Woodburn.
Skye Wall, whilst it was our main objective, was not the sole reason for visiting Skye. On a recent sailing trip, Charlie and Gilly Macarthur (aka Mrs Woodburn, Scottish translator in residence & partner in crime to Charlie) had spotted a new cliff. A brand new wall, full of potential, with lines of all grades to pioneer ... one in particular looked like it could be a bobby dazzler - high E number, super techy, it had Charlies' name all over it. We (the team: Dom Bush, Leah Crane & I) were now doubley keen to get involved.
We arrived at Coruisk late in the morning, clouds peppered the sky but they were not threatening. We had a good few hours of daylight left and after our long joureny to get to basecamp, we were eager to get out on the rock as fast as possible. Duffles were unpacked. Crag bags were filled with trad racks, ropes and midge repellent. It was time to go climbing.
The hard new line, the one Charlie had his eye on, looked terrifying. When I say terrifying, I use no hyperbole whatsoever. None. This thing was shit-your-pants scary looking. Sparse holds and some thin cracks started the route off, a boulder problem above boulders with no gear - ankle breaking at best. After that, more moves to a half-decent horizontal break at just less than one third height. IF you make it that far (and that's a serious 'if'), there is another eighteen to twenty metres of desperation to contend with. As for the gear ... nothing. Absolutely nothing. Desperate edges, crystals and shallow, hollow flakes made a vague dot-to-dot towards the top of the wall. Charlie didn't seem too phased by what lay in front of him.
Two hours, an abseil, some cleaning and working of the moves, Charlie was back on the ground. Dejected. Looking me square in the eyes I will never forget Charlie's words, "it's a chop route mate". Certain death. Climbing so hard & technical that you would never be totally certain that you had it wired, all far too high above any worthwhile gear for survival to be a likely outcome. He looked for another line.
While Charlie, Gilly and Leah had been focussing on the now defunct 'chop route', Dom and I had sought out something a little less trouser-staining. The wall around the corner was just off vertical and was adorned with amazing quartzite bands in all directions. One particular line of weakness stood out the most. A perfect left to right, diagonal crack, with a shallow roof running above it all the way. A short while later, clean trousers intact and with huge grins on our faces, we topped out on the FA of an amazing two pitch route, "Rough and the Smooth" HVS 4c ***, a definite classic.
Charlie had spotted a line adjacent to his death route, a large, steep crack feature, shooting straight up the impedning wall. I offered to belay/second and after some grovelling in slimy, wet hand-jams, Charlie topped out on the pumptastic "Nose Lobe Smooth" E2 5c (when dry).
As the sun began to set, and the midges became unbearable, we packed our racks and headed back to the bothy. We needed to save our energy. The following day, we would do the first trek to the wall.
We started late. Much too late. Our intentions were good, we wanted to begin our long hike early, but sleep got the better of us. The previous afternoon of cragging had sapped our energy and now we were behind schedule. We were only on day two!
Charlie and I donned our packs (with help from the others - we reckon they were around 25-35kg each) and marched. Knee deep in bog, metres from the front door, we realised this wasn't going to be as easy as we had hoped.
Progress was slow as we bashed through bracken and waded through rivers. Almost three hours later, we arrived at the base of the wall. Dry rock. Result.
Aching from the approach we dumped our kit and started to unpack the bags. Simultaneoulsy stuffing our faces & checking the time, we calculated that we had enough daylight remaining to scramble/run around to the top of the cliff, rig the abseil and still (if everything went to plan) have enough time to try the route on a rope before we had to start the long walk back to the hut. The clock was ticking.
Holed up in the bothy, the tail end of hurricane Bertha battering us from every side: the roof groaning, the squalls pelting the windows, wind howling through the mountains, and echoing off the shutters ... we prayed for sunshine. We begged the weather gods for a break in the blitz, a short window of opportunity to get out and climb.
It had been three days since Charlie and I had made our initial trek to Skye Wall and it had rained, no, poured pretty much every minute since then. It wasn't looking good. We remained optimistic.
A fourth day passed. We were running low on batteries, running low on games to play and most importantly we were running low on whisky.
The gods forced a smile for us. Rather, they gave a teasing, intermittent grin. An hour here, forty minutes there. At every opportunity we flung open the door and got outside. We climbed new routes on the cliff behind the bothy. We swam in the Loch. We ran around the Loch. We filmed. We took pictures. We did everything we could to make the most of the crappy weather. Anything to take our mind off how wet Skye Wall would be getting. Distraction from the conditions and thoughts of the effects of savage wind and sharp rock on our fixed ropes.
A dot appeared on the horizon. The boat from Elgol made a surprise appearance and Gilly, a true Scot, mobbed the crew. Begging for chocolate and whisky, She handed over all the cash we had. They returned and were welcomed like Kings. With replenished supplies and total determination we were unshakeable ... this was going to be a productive trip. We weren't leaving empty handed.
What of the rest of the story? I will let Mr Bush take up the baton (Dom, not George W) ... click the image below to follow a link to his film about Charlie and the Skye Wall story. Enjoy, LL
Thanks to Marmot for their generous provision of gear for the team
Thanks to BMC TV for supporting the project
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