What if I live no more those kingly days?
their night sleeps with me still.
I dream my feet upon the starry way
my heart rests in the hill.
I may not grudge the little left undone;
I hold the heights - I keep the dreams I won.
(Last stanza from “I have not lost the magic of long days”)
Summer 1976, a year that was purgatory for river canoeists and fishermen, but one continual party for rock climbers and crag rats, and of course, I was proud to be both so it was a great opportunity for me to indulge my passion over the long summer break, before I finished at Uni and entered the rat race.
Sandy and I decided to go to Achiltibuie for three weeks before moving north to Cape Wrath for another few weeks, where she would pursue her passion – painting and sketching, and me mine – being alone in contact with rock as I moved up and across it.
I woke on the morning of the 23rd June (my 32nd birthday) and had a great breakfast sitting outside the lodge with binoculars in hand, seeking potential sea cliff routes on the Summer Isles, and noted some possible areas in my climbing log book for another year.
We had decided the previous evening to go for a long coastal walk northwards towards a point on the map called Rhu Coigach, as we were told by the local postman that otters were frequently seen among the kelp in that area. This was ideal, as Sandy was studying them with the intention of opening an otter rescue centre somewhere in Sutherland or Wester Ross when I finished my course at Durham.
We left the lodge expecting to have a long day out, hoping to be inundated with spectacular views along the way, and of course, to see some lutra lutra*.
As we approached the small hamlet of Reiff, just along the road from where we were staying, we met the local postman again, who when we told him where we were going, replied: “Old Tam MacPhearson, a local fisherman, was in the Am Fuaran Bar, near Altandhu last night, and said he saw a large family of otters, playing in the kelp just south of Rhu Coigach around 6pm” and suggested that we should time our arrival, mid to late afternoon.
We parted, feeling good that our day would a good one.
As the day was dry with a slight warm breeze blowing, the clear blue sky with its small fluffy clouds high above, added to the pleasure we got whilst walking northwards along the coast line. The waves were big and clearly took great delight in smashing into the rocks, sounding like a full orchestra tuning its instruments before a concert, no order, no synchronicity, just a jumbled yet pleasant thunderous noise.
After fifteen to twenty minutes of ambling along, Sandy sat on some rocks whilst I inched my way out as far as I could, so that I could play dodgem with the waves as they try hard to soak me and I tried hard to prevent them from doing so; I was happy that the little child in me was still alive and well!
Looking up stopped me in my tracks, when I saw a line of sea cliffs further on some of which were of considerable height. I knew that there were no recorded climbs in this area and with my little boy to the fore, I ran back to Sandy to hurry her up so that we could get to the cliffs I had seen.
The tide had just started to turn and the first cove we passed had some unusual blocks standing guard and were obviously resting sites for cormorants, shags, and a host of other sea birds by the look of white droppings that covered the rocks. Jelly fish were in abundance in all the coves although they all looked dead, but I had no wish to test out this theory so we walked on a little further until we came to a cove which definitely had great potential. I could not resist it so climbed down to the sea line and played around on the rocks, first climbing up then down several left ward slanting grooves, then ambling over to a large cliff face which sported a nice crack before moving around the cliff arête to find my birthday present. A large wall towering out of the sea and with the tide on the way out, it looked even bigger. This was rock to climb.
I talked it over with Sandy, and despite wearing an old pair of flared corduroy trousers and well-worn trainers, we agreed that as I was climbing at my best, it was well within my limits.
As I climbed down and across to the tidal area, noticing that at least ten to fifteen feet was covered in limpets and barnacles, Sandy sat down with a view of the cliff face and agreed to take photos of the climb for posterity.
The rock was firm to the touch and although the surface was rough on the fingers, I knew it would offer my trainers superb friction. As I slowly made my way to the high tide line, I looked up at the inviting rock face, and traced in my minds’ eye, the line I was going to follow up to the skyline and sensed that this was another moment in my life that I would remember all my days.
I put my left hand out and took hold of some small protruding rugosities, placed my right toe on a large barnacle and stood up. My gazelle like movement thrilled my senses as I slowly eased my body upright so as to gain a higher hold for my right hand. I braced my muscles as I brought up the other foot to meet the right one perched precariously on another small protuberance which thankfully took my weight. I stood at this position and listened to the sweet music of the waves as they met the rocks behind and below and I knew, no I believed that this was where I should be at this moment in my life. Synchronicity of life, movement, belief, desire and truth, what more could a mere insignificant human being ask for!
I searched above for the next hand hold and moved in a slow rhythmic movement in tune with my heart beat, as it pulsated nectar of life around my sinews and muscles that were being tested to their limits. I was now on clean rock, no more limpets or barnacles as footholds, just the rough texture of the rock and my own ability to remain in contact with it.
There can be no doubt that when a climber chooses to climb alone, he cannot afford to make the slightest error of judgement, for there is no climbing partner and no rope to assist or arrest any possible slip or fall, let alone have someone to offer encouragement to make a daring move when upward movement appears impossibly. In essence, the end result of such an error would almost certainly lead to severe bodily injury or even the forfeit of life itself.
I had already made the conscious decision to risk everything on this climb, and although I had no death wish, I knew I had to climb well, safe and within my own limits. The problem was, that I had no idea what those limits were, which is what made solo climbing so appealing to me in the first place - the unknown, the potential danger, the ability to experience being truly alive on all levels, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
As I passionately and purposefully moved upwards a little further, I saw above me a small scoop which had a sloping base, narrowing at the top. I made for it not knowing where I would go from there. This was exploration at its boundary limits of my human capability and it made me realise that right here, right now, I was doing what I was born to do, at least, this is what I convinced myself as I thought about my next upwards move.
As I rested in the scoop, I heard my heart beat as it increased to the sweet familiar adrenalin rush, as it coursed faster through my body. The temple muscles throbbed a delightful tune to the music being played within my veins, and I was loving every minute of it, especially when I felt that the crashing waves of the returning tide, were playing in tune with my very senses.
Trying to get up and past this scoop was both difficult and awkward, and at one stage I was spreadeagled in the shape of a crucifix, (which is what I eventually called the route). Whilst I was fleetingly enjoying being in that position, it became all too clear that I had no idea how I was going to extricate myself from such a precarious position. It felt like many minutes had passed before I came to a decision on what to do next, but in reality, I knew that it was only a few micro seconds as over the past twenty-three years of climbing, mostly alone, I had become attuned to be as one with the rock, so that movement came naturally, quickly and automatically as it had to do when soloing.
An awkward move using a knee, allowed me to gain another fault line leading off to the left and upwards and this gave me two choices of topping out. One route went direttissima that is taking a direct line straight up to the top and the other veered leftwards to some large angled steps then a short wall to the top. Both looked inviting although the direttissima route was without a doubt, a very severe undertaking.
I weighed up both routes and settled for the direttissima route which is what I expected my decision to be. However, when I saw Sandy across the cove taking pictures, I realised that sometimes being selfish and egocentric in my decision making, was not the right thing to do and that any error leading to my possible demise was not fair on her, so elected to do the easier finish.
Movement across to the steps on the left was done in a gazelle like fashion, as all my senses and my limbs became one unified movement of beauty, whilst a cacophony of nature’s sounds tried to sing in harmony with my movements. Upwards movement again, then a little more, a few grunts and groans, and I topped out to applause from Sandy. I felt chuffed at doing what I considered to be a first ascent on what I believed to be an unknown climbing area. Both Sandy and I were confident that I was climbing well and so I continued to climb another few routes nearby.
When this was done, I climbed back down to the water line and traversed around the small jutting headland to the left. Some good friction was available and I made good progress climbing up, then back down and then traversing a little. At one point I was out of sight of Sandy, and whilst I was negotiating an awkward archway, I felt a wave of nostalgia flood over me. The wind went silent. The waves made no noise as they crashed constantly onto the rocks all around me. The hairs on my arms stood on end and my fingers tingled. I stopped moving across the rock and waited for whatever was going to happen; to happen.
Nothing happened so I tried to start climbing again, but my movement was sluggish as if some force was pulling me back and although I was in contact with the rock, I could not feel it under my finger-tips or with my toes. It felt like I was just standing there in the air, free from all contact with the rock, cocooned in a pocket of total silence.
Suddenly there was a thunderous noise as a huge wave crashed into the base of the cliff face making me leap out of my cocoon. The noise echoed, deafening me for a few seconds and without thinking, I started to climb upwards, across the arch, up a short wall and topping out. I was pleased to see Sandy sitting nearby, gave a wave and walked over to give her a long embracing cuddle.
I was taken aback when she asked where I had been for the past hour. I said I had been nowhere and had only just left her to climb down the rock face to the archway, when a huge wave crashed into the cliff so hurried up and finished the climb. Sandy assured me that I had been away for over an hour and was starting to get worried as she could not see or hear me.
As this was not the first time I had experiences such situations whilst solo climbing, I shrugged it off as just being another unexplained occurrence, and so we moved on further northwards where more rock presented itself, so much so, that I was spoilt for choice and was unable to settle on any particular cliff face. I climbed around a few more coves on our way to Rhu Coigach, but I could see that Sandy was getting bored with me going off to climb continually, so gave up and we walked together in silence to our destination where as we had a break, we peered intently into the kelp beds for signs of otters searching for crabs and fish.
Sandy did some sketching whilst I played around on the small cliffs around the headland, and whilst they were not as big as those further back the way we came, they offered me plenty of sport for which I was most grateful.
Having to walk back to the lodge past the cliffs at Reiff was purgatory for me, but the sun was now hidden behind some dark clouds and the wind had turned cold and breezy and we wanted to get back before it started to rain. I asked Sandy how many photographs she had taken and was disappointed to find that after the first climb the film ran out and we had forgotten to take a replacement. Ah well, memories remain.
* Sea Otter
Frank Grant: 2016 (Previously unpublished)