Bob Wightman

Pabbay

The Barra Isles from the ferry

As celebration of a significant birthday of Simon’s he had organised a summer trip out to the island. With the usual “Yes, I’ll go, No I won’t” crowd out of the way, it was down to five of us. Then with a bit of persuading and just two days before we were heading north, Duncan agreed to come along. So an early Saturday morning start picking up various sleepy bodies and a large number of worryingly large bags saw us Scotland bound.

With petrol being the price it is I was sticking to the speed limits, it looked like most people on the motorway were doing the same as I wasn’t being overtaken that many times. Glasgow came and went (with the obligatory shower) and then the only real route choice of the day - carry on up to Crianlarich on the main Loch Lomond road or turn left and head out to Inveraray. I’d never done the latter so that was the choice made.

Arriving in Oban with just 40 minutes to spare, it didn’t seem like such a good idea. We couldn’t see a supermarket for stocking up on food on our way through the town and I still had to drop the others off and find somewhere to park the car. The ferry was just coming into the harbour.

With the car now several hundred kilos lighter I managed to find somewhere that I thought may just be OK for the week - I abandoned my first choice when I noticed that the car behind had a police parking notice attached! Then it was just a case of running back to the ferry terminal. I’d have to get the grub out on Barra.

The ferry was unloading by the time I got to the terminal. Pete had been drastic with the plastic and bought the ferry tickets. Then it was just a case of waiting until we could get on board. Well we had to wait for Duncan as well, who’d been off to try and get some shopping and came back with some whisky!

The ferry journey went through the Sound of Mull so plenty to see for the first half of the crossing at least - then a couple of hours of receding shoreline before the southern Hebrides came into view. Fortunately the weather was really clear and the sea calm so it was all plain sailing really.

Vatersay from Castlebay.

Vatersay from Castlebay.

Eventually the ship pulled into Castlebay. There was quite a party going on as it was the weekend of the Barra Festival so pretty well every flat and not so flat piece of ground was covered in tents. The guy in the ferry office let us put our kit in there overnight, so with just tents and sleeping bags we set off to find somewhere to pitch for the night. A bigger worry was the fact that all the shops were shut. In fact they shut two hours before the ferry arrives! Once the tents were pitched it was time to mingle with the several hundred drunks.

The following morning saw several attempts to find somewhere to get food, but nowhere opened until after our departure time. Fortunately the others hadn’t taken my advice and had brought plenty so I was just going to have to do some borrowing.Eventually Pete asked at the hotel and we managed to get breakfast, only for the fisherman to turn up ready to take us to Pabbay! A bit of a rush downing the last crumbs, then running down to the quayside and we were away.

Again the sea was like a mill pond, which given just how exposed these islands and the sounds between them are was, well, odd. Just off Sandray (another previously inhabited island) he cut the power - Basking Sharks. First one then another and another, with the engine on idle we were able to get within a few metres of the second largest shark species while it fed.

The inflatable pulling up in the rocky geo with the rib moored further out.

The inflatable pulling up in the rocky geo with the rib moored further out.

Landing on Pabbay is not straight-forward. You tie up about 100m offshore then get into an inflatable which takes you into a rocky geo from where you step onto (hopefully) dry land. It took three trips to get us and all the stuff unloaded. Then with basic details about an alternative landing spot should the sea state not allow him to use the same spot he was off and we were alone. Well apart from the group of sea kayakers who had been camping on the island.

First things first: get the tents up. The obvious place to camp was near the sheep pens, but Simon reckoned that it would be very midgey since it was very well sheltered from any breeze so we set up camp on top of a spur overlooking the beach. To say that Simon had brought a big tent would be an understatement - Arab princes out in the desert get by with smaller than the edifice being erected. Fortunately Duncan and I both had small tents that could fit in to the corners of the patch.

Justin leading Third Groove, Small Boy's Geo.

Justin leading Third Groove, Small Boy's Geo.

With the camp set up and the weather fine, we headed over to the nearest crags to the campsite: Small Boy’s Geo and Evening Wall. Confusion reigned at first as we were trying to fit the descriptions from one crag to the other! Eventually we realised what was wrong and we settled on a couple of routes. I was climbing with Duncan who hadn’t climbed for some time plus I had only been clipping bolts for most of this year so we went for a Severe! And very pleasant it was too. The others were doing some VS grooves further down the crag so the right-hand one of these was our next choice, again pleasant climbing but a bit steeper on good rock.

Simon and Pete on Sand Flies, Evening Wall.

Simon and Pete on Sand Flies, Evening Wall.

So we knew where one crag was, but where was Evening Wall? Ten minutes of wandering around on top of the rocky peninsula and we had found nothing that matched the description until by chance I dropped down on to a ledge and noticed a larger wall. Dry and sunlit. A couple more easy routes getting Duncan back into things while Simon and Pete did a fine looking HVS down at the far end of the wall.

Somehow the day had slipped by so it was time to head back to camp. The weather was just amazing, almost too hot! It was certainly very humid, we just needed a breeze to keep the midges away. We’d been told that ticks were a problem on the island so began the evening ritual of checking for “guests”. I found one but I must have picked it up at Castlebay as it was well embedded. “All we need is a fishing boat to sail past with us lot with our trousers down checking for ticks!” someone said.

Justin had brought a couple of criels and along with a lobster pot that he had found on the shore set about baiting them (with cat food!) and choosing locations that might be suitable to capture extra food.

As for the evening meal, well I settled down to what was to become standard fare of pasta with curry sauce...

Simon on the top of Shag’s Geo.

Simon on the top of Shag’s Geo.

The next day was again fine and sunny, and hot, so our objective became the crags on the far side of the island near the Great Arch. Once breakfast (porridge with sugar) was done with, we set off across the island. There’re no real paths on Pabbay and given that much of the interior is bare rock they’d be quite difficult to follow anyway. However a series of small cairns guided us between what appeared to be no more than sheep trods. At some point we all decided that we needed to cut left, but we all did so at different points. The thing was, only Pete had a map and he was at the back! Consequently we all spent half an hour getting frustrated while Duncan went to find Pete, who as it turned out was only about 100m from where we needed to be when he got called back! Anyway, Simon and I found Shag’s Geo

Scurrying over the rocks on the peninsula, we struggled to make sense of about half of the descriptions of The Galley, it turned out that there has been some rockfall here altering things a bit. We weren’t doing very well! Simon had been scouting around and reckoned that The Poop Deck looked good but we would need to abseil into it.

Pete leading the headwall of Human Cargo.

Pete leading the headwall of Human Cargo.

It certainly did look good, but current nervousness and lack of confidence meant that once again we headed for the easy stuff. In the centre of the crag was a projecting block with a Hard Severe running up it - that’ll do! Interesting climbing up the face of the initial block was followed by a leaning headwall. This was no HS! A committing move onto the headwall then long reaches between jugs, it would have been good value at VS. After Duncan had followed, Pete and Simon did it. Meanwhile, Justin and Chris were battling on a fine looking E1 next door.

Duncan and I headed back down for another route, at which point the abseil rope headed back to the top of the crag. “Off to another crag!” Simon shouted down, “Allanish”. Our route done (another undergraded HS) we toiled back up to the top of the Great Arch and walked along the path that we should have taken in the first place.

By the time we got to Allanish, Justin and Simon were sussing out how to get down to Hoofer’s Geo (No, I don’t know where the name came from) as the bottom of the scramble was a bit dicey. While they were doing this they noticed an otter playing only a few metres from them. Apparently it wasn’t bothered about them being there and Justin managed to get a few shots and even some video footage of it.

Justin leading the variation headwall of The Ramp.

Justin leading the variation headwall of The Ramp.

Having abbed in and looked around, Justin eventually led up another HS but took in a variation finish on the left wall. By now it was getting late again - I felt tired despite only having done two supposedly HSs! We thought it was worth heading back to Allanish in the morning so left most of the gear stashed under suitable boulders and headed back to camp. This time we managed to find the right path!

Another day and still fine. Just how long would our luck hold? Back out to Allanish where Duncan and I headed down the scramble into Hoofer’s Geo to do the route that Justin and Simon had done the day before. Very pleasant climbing at the grade, stepping up to VS or so for the variation headwall. The others had abseiled into Box Geo so we headed back down for another route, Duncan’s lead this time and again the grade seemed a bit out. Just to the right was a fine looking arête: Justin had looked at it the day before and thought it was too bold, however a quick peek whilst seconding on Duncan’s route and I thought it looked OK. So back down again.

The midges were beginning to bite so I was keen to be off. Pleasant friction climbing up the lower rib led to a ledge. A bit of gear out right, it wouldn’t stop you hitting the ledge but at least you wouldn’t end up in the sea! Then the crux, pulling on small but positive flakes up onto the rib, it didn’t feel any harder than the supposed Hard Severes we had been doing! More gear then layaway moves on superb friction up the rib to another large ledge. Scrambling remained to the top.

I felt a bit short changed really, if that was what HVSs were like then I should have been doing them from the start rather than worrying myself on Severes - never mind. Duncan climbed up with his whole head covered in a scarf against the midges just in time to note the others heading over to Allanish wall.

Simon above Allanish Wall.

Simon above Allanish Wall.

The rock was a different colour here, dark brown or black rather than the grey we had been used to. This wall dropped straight into the sea but there looked to be a couple of tasty routes, in particular a VS called XXX. Duncan’s lead. We arranged the 100 metre abseil rope such that both parties (Simon & Pete and Duncan & myself) could ab down our prospective routes.

Simon and I got down to ledges about 6m above the sea and Duncan was just heading down when the heavens opened! Within moments the rock was like a slippy thing that had been taking slippy lessons! Whatever the black colour was, it wasn’t rock. The nearest level of friction I can compare it to is like trying to stick eels to a board covered in grease. There was no point in him descending further and with a bit of shouting we got Pete to top-rope Duncan out before he helped Simon leaving Duncan to assist me.

I can confidently state that the initial crack may be aided by alternating use of Rocks #7 and #5. Once above this, there were just enough patches of friction on which to haul up. Where the rock was steeper the friction was better but even so it was quite a battle to make progress. Simon was fareing little better on his route. Eventually we all got to the top of the crag. It was very fortunate that Pete hadn’t abseiled down at the same time as the rest of us otherwise we’d have been there a long time.

Justin showing a less than keen Pete his latest catch.

Justin showing a less than keen Pete his latest catch.

We trudged back to camp by which time the rain had stopped. Anyway there was good news: Justin had caught a couple of crabs in his criels. After various discussions as to what was edible or not we put the “Evil red-eyed” crabs back and headed back with the edible ones. Crab curry is certainly different! Note that once we were back on Barra we were told that the evil red-eyed crabs were Velvet Crabs and very tasty!

The wind began to increase during the night and by morning, the tranquil bay was a mass of breakers. This wouldn’t be good news if it continued as we’d need to use a different landing point to get off the island. It certainly wasn’t climbing weather, so we had a wander over to Roisinis peninsular on the other side of the bay to check the crags there out - small but OK being the verdict. By evening the wind had died down and the swell was going down as well.

With Wednesday being a washout, we needed to have a good Thursday otherwise we were going to run out of time. Unfortunately it was raining, however the weather did improve through the day and we could get out to Evening Wall for a quick session. We got five routes in before the rain came back which meant that Duncan and I had pretty well ticked the crag! Only the HVS that Simon had done the other day being left to do.

The burn cutting through the beach.

The burn cutting through the beach.

The rain actually got pretty heavy, so heavy in fact that our camp on a ridge was starting to become waterlogged. Nearly a third of the recommended site was under water so more kudos to Simon for not choosing it! There had been so much rain that the burn flowing past the old house had scoured out part of the beach, previously it had sunk under the sands, now there was a ten metre wide channel. It was interesting to watch sand banks collapse into the water, where a rock face such as the Dover cliffs might take several years for a section to collapse and be transported away, here it took a matter of minutes.

And so to our last day - wet and windy. Simon had rented a satellite phone and Pete had brought a Marine Band Radio, unfortunately both failed to work, just as well there had been no emergency. Our transport arrived on time and we had a slightly choppier return journey to Castlebay. Finally a stroke of luck, Chris had double booked at the Hostel so we wouldn’t have to camp out in all our wet gear. Even better, the weather was picking up and we had a pleasant afternoon sat outside the pub, soft drinks of course!

The lighthouse at Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the UK mainland.

The lighthouse at Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point on the UK mainland.