Thursday, 14 June 2012

Your own desert island paradise... It's closer than you realise...

And the name of your new favourite place??

Pabbay and Mingulay, two uninhabited islands on the Southern end of the Outer Hebrides off the West Coast of bonnie Scotland. Ok so maybe they won't be yours, but they have certainly earnt themselves a solid place in my list of favourite climbing destinations. And it seems they have this effect upon most people who go there, even without weather as good as we were lucky to have.

A group of 11 fun-loving trad crushers loosely based around having attended Bangor University (with a couple of exceptions) were assembled by Jimmy Marjot, and after various people saying yes then no, and some organisational fuck-ups, we all finally merged in Oban, Scotland on May the 26th.

After a late and long ferry journey from Oban to Barra, we hopped over a fence into a grassy field and eventually fell asleep despite the insistence of the Corncrakes that we stay awake. Soon enough, sunlight and the morning came and we packed up and giddily boarded the 'Boy James' in which, Donald and his crew took us off to our home for the next 7 days, Pabbay.

Leaving Oban

Mark, George and Mason all show their psyche in different ways...

Off to Pabbay!!
As we turned towards our landing spot, I could hardly believe my eyes; a beauitful, pristine beach of white sand leading into the clearest, blue-est sea I had ever seen. It was like something out of a holiday brochure to the Caribbean! After boarding the scarily small landing boat, we were soon back on dry land... and what a place! A ruined house sat a few hundred metres away, the beach a few hundred metres to the North, and with any luck a metric fuck-load of perfect, juggy gneiss to the South-West. We had some grub and after a while everyone left to go and sample our first taste of Pabbay climbing.

"Oooh, Heaven is a place on Earth"
Pabbay Campsite
From now on life would be beautifully simple; eat, sleep, drink and climb, until we got picked up and taken to Mingulay for the remaining 3 and a half days of the trip. A real adventure, we even had to buy all our food in Tesco's before we got there, I sure as hell hoped we had enough, or we'd be experiencing those stories about pirates being left on desert Islands to starve. Bad times.

I won't bore you with a day-by-day, jug-by-humungous, grippy jug account of the climbing, I'll give you the top 5 highlights and boy is this going to be tricky!

  • Onsighting Sugar Cane Country (E4 6a), was the highlight of the trip for me. It has been a route I have wanted to do for years, ever since I saw a picture of a steep wall of perfect gneiss with a line of crimps weaving up it. As soon as I saw the picture, I knew that one day I had to climb it. But after 2 days of climbing I felt tired and wasn't sure I could pull a lead like that out of the bag. After a quick warm up I racked up and just took it move by move and after a good fight topped out elated! 
  • Spit in Paradise (E4 6a) was another moment where I doubted my ability, except this route was much more of a team effort. Ben, Fingers and I had all been recommended the route by everyone who had done it, "Three E4 pitches going through some amazing ground, and a wild abseil in!". It was steep that much was certain, but would we be able to do it? The ab in didn't help, right down the line of the route except the further you slid down the rope the further away the route got. Luckily Ben crushed the first, bird-infested pitch, I got the the next slightly sandy pitch, and Fingers the short, but wild corner to top out!
  • Spring Squill (E1 5b), pitch one of this route is absolutely amazing - HUGE jugs blasting up some great overhanging territory! Just great fun and confidence inspiring so you just run it out between the obvious bomber placements. Big smiles on this one.
  • Corncrakes for Breakfast (E2 5c) did this on a very hot day and thought I was going to melt onto the rock. The crux felt desperate on the small holds (for Pabbay). Upon abbing back down it became apparent how steep the wall is!
  • Voyage of Faith (E3 5c) climbed as a three with Gwen and Fingers, great fun a real nice route, though we did get a bit lost due to the lack of topos for Mingulay and the vague route descriptions caused us to do a completely horizontal traverse pitch! By chance I got pitch 2, (the best one!) which involves a brilliant rising traverse above the lip of a massive sea-cave. Belay penguin chocolate bars and jokes made it a real fun, sociable route! 
Callum crushing Sugar Cane Country (E4 6a)
(c) Gwen Lancashire

Gwen and Al roasting on our first route on Pabbay;
The 4 star classic Prophecy of Drowning

Gwen cruising Corncrakes for Breakfast (E2 5c)

Ben on the epic ab-in to Spit in Paradise (E4 6a)

Me bridging wide on pitch 2 of Spit in Paradise

Fingers starting up the wild last pitch of
Spit in Paradise whilst Ben and I enjoy the situation

Mark Almack crushing The Herbrudean (E5 6a)

Dun Mingulay and Yours Truly

Belay buddies! Voyage of Faith (E3 5c)

Finally after having Faith in my convictions, we are back on route!
I begin the traverse over the lip of the Sea Cave!

Gwen as chilled as ever pitch 3 Voyage of Faith
However, for me at least, Pabbay and Mingulay were so much more than just climbing destinations. Pabbay was a perfect island, we were the only inhabitants and it felt like a million miles from the hassles of normal civilisation. Mingulay felt slightly different, the other team of climbers, team of scientists carrying out research on the bird life of the island and the daily groups of tourists dropped off for day trips made it feel a lot less wild and closer to civilisation. However, the bird-life there was absolutely amazing, with Puffins and Bonxies present, whereas they weren't on Pabbay. The Bonxies were my favourite, massive brown sea-gulls that once you ventured into their territory they would 'Bonx' you. This involves flying right at your face before turning up at the very last minute! I have never experienced birds so comfortable with human presence, they were totally chilled and I got to see many birds very close-up. Bonxies (obviously) but I also had some close encounters with Razorbills, who despite looking threatening, are actually wimps, I climbed right past one on The Arch Deacon (A 4-star HVS) and it didn't do owt. Fulmars aren't wimps however, and if you get too close they'll puke on you, luckily I never got hit, but it was a constant fear...

Fingers getting Bonxed!
Overall, Pabbay was the better island (I think most of us agreed on this), but both islands are worth a visit. Our 7 - 3 days split between Pabbay and Mingulay was perfect, we spent the majority of our time, on our own island of adventure, but still experienced the best of Mingulay too. 

Mingulay from Pabbay

The Great Arch
Late evening Sun on Pabbay 
A nice photo on Pabbay
Pabbay Sunset
Looking North towards the beach on Pabbay
Pabbay from Mingulay
Mingulay's Beach
It was a sad day when Donald came to pick us up, but it had started raining so it wasn't too bad! At the last minute Scooby made a dash for island freedom, and Al nearly forgot her!

What a great trip, thanks to Fingers for organising the boat and getting a brilliant group of people together, and thanks to all those great people for coming along and making it such a good trip. I'll remember it for a long time with a big old smile on my face.

Fingers, the beautiful man!

The people I went with were real MEN. No messing.
Team photo on the ruined house, Pabbay. (c) Will Nicholls

If you are a climber, or even someone in search of cool, quiet, beautiful places, Scotland is the place for you! As long as the weather is good it is a really amazing place to go. Pabbay and Mingulay potentially being two of the most amazing places.

Top Tips for potential Pabbay and Mingulay visitors:

  • Take lots of TASTY food. More than you think you'll need. Big days equal big appetites. Me and Al didn't really bring enough food, our evening meals were good and big, but never big enough to save for lunch and a third of a Soreen and a chocolate bar aren't enough for during the day. Niether is one bag of porridge oats. Schoolboy error. 
  • Get fit. In every sense of the word. You want to be climbing fit for these islands as the style is steep, juggy and sustained. You want to feel fine at having to use your arms everyday for the whole trip, there are no slabs here. If you aren't into walking/running, get into it. Due to a lack of time I haven't been running or fell-running for a long time and the big, hard walk-ins on the islands leave you feeling pretty tired before you even grab your first jug. Mingulay's walk-ins are bigger but on the most part have better paths making them easier than the grass/rock yomps found on Pabbay.
  • Don't drop your big blue camalot into the sea or plug your little blue metolius cam into a crack and expect Ballsford to get it out. He's a punter. It really sucks losing £100 worth of kit on a trip.
  • Take and use sunscreen. Just 'cos you are in Scotland doesn't mean you won't get savagely burnt when it is hot. It does get hot in Scotland sometimes, honest.  
  • Take a camera and a spare battery. You'll want to remember every second of it.
  • Photocopy the guide so you can take the topo and description down without having to rely on your camera's battery. The guide is too big to take down, a piece of paper is perfect, as the leader can carry it no bother. Gwen and Mark did this which was perfect, I considered it but was too lazy to do so.
  • Enjoy it, hunt out the 4-star classics and you won't go far wrong.