Coastal Cragging Season Begins

It seems that summer has moved on in the north east of Scotland, some might wonder if it was ever here at all, but I know it happened. It may not get real hot, or real dry, but the super long days and the many weekends of traveling far and wide testify to the summer’s existence. A friend of mine made the recent comment “it’s time for sunsets again.” Too right. Sunrises as well for that matter. In the height of Aberdeen summer the sun goes down after ten with gloaming almost until midnight only to have the sun rise again at 4:30 a.m. The days are much shorter now and fall is here and that means no more long days in the mountains. But that’s ok, because we can return to our local sea cliffs!

I love the coastal climbing around Aberdeen. So many crags, all beautifully situated on the north sea, and the variety! Bullet hard granite, swirly schist, soft and compact sandstone and everything else in between makes the coastal cragging here a lot of fun. I also like it for the fact that routes tend to be on the shorter side. I’m less intimidated by them and find I can commit to climbing harder routes more often. Just a couple weekends ago we got out with Pete and Anna and the coastal climbing didn’t disappoint.

We picked them up on a fine Saturday morning. Anna had been up all night working and somehow Pete had talked her into coming out with us today or maybe she was just keen to not waste a beautiful day. Either way, bravo!

We decided to head north of Aberdeen and discussed a few options along the way. We came to agree on Harper’s Wall, a crag Amelia and I had never been to. Even though Pete had been there a few years ago he was keen to go back. I think he had a rematch pending.

Harper’s Wall has a unique feature. The base of the wall is steeply overhanging for the first 2 meters which makes the start of almost all the routes the hardest part. Not only that, but the base is also home a number of very green and nasty looking pools of standing water. Climbers and belayers both have to be careful not to fall in.

Pete and Anna warmed up on the aptly named 1, 2, 3 Go! (HVS 5b). The route is so-named because of that steep start I was mentioning. Meme and I did it after our warm up, the less gymnastic Renegade (VS 4c) which traverses in from the right to left and then climbs up the highest part of the wall. 1, 2, 3, Go! begins by reaching as high as you can to grab the first hold and pulling up onto the climb as best you can. It’s basically a chin up followed by a throw to the next good hold, a stop to fiddle in some gear and then another long reach to the next good hold and only then does one get their feet on the climb proper. The rest of the route maintains interest by negotiating a bulge and then climbing up a groove. It’s excellent climbing. We had to get a little crafty with gear so Amelia could follow it, but it all worked out well.

Pete and Anna then moved on to the more serious Silent Partner (E2 5b). We’ve got pictures of Pete on the lead in the gallery below. It looked hard! Nice one Pete. Amelia and I, not to be outdone, upped our game as well and got on Che (E2 5c). Ok, I actually thought I was on the neighboring route Rock Mushroom (E1 5b) as they both share the same start, but it seems I missed the turn off and ended up in thin cracks high on the wall. I remember thinking it felt quite hard and sustained for E1 and that’s when Anna, with guidebook in hand, called the error in route finding up to me. That’s great! I’m not weak, this is hard, I’m climbing at my limit. I continued on higher and higher above my last bits of gear with a slight quiver in my legs expecting to fall off at any moment, but thankfully just enough holds were there and I made it to the top without taking the fall. Climbing hard is often fun, but the jury’s out on that one. No stars for you Che.

By this point the incoming tide was encroaching fast so we headed to the nearby non-tidal favorite Meikle Partans. We’ve climbed at this crag quite a bit, but there’s still a few challenges within my abilities and one of those is Boardman’s Crack (E2 5b). It’s not a long climb, but it’s deceptive in difficulty. I watched a friend of mine fall off this route on his birthday earlier this year (he got it clean on his second go). It starts off steep and awkward but there is good gear and the crux is short lived. Slam in good nut, grab the next hold and lean far out to the left while moving the feet up and before you know it, it’s all over. There’s no gear for the next few meters but the climbing is not hard. Felt more like a boulder problem really. Good though. Glad to have that one done.

The reason for the crag’s popularity is the abundance of high quality climbs in the lower grades. Down at the left end of the wall is a favorite lead of Amelia’s. Constellation (Severe) climbs a beautiful corner of immaculate rock. The climbing is quite easy all the way to just before the top where a nice little crux awaits. There’s also the crag classic, Strawclutcher’s Wall (E1 5b) which Anna cruised despite having been up for more than 20 hours straight. Nice one Anna! Pics are in the gallery below.

Pete’s last climb of the day was Comedy of Errors (E2 6a). I’ve not done this one yet, but it’s there for the next time. A friend of mine did the first ascent in 1996 so that’s reason enough to try.

It’s worth noting that we had barbeque’d bananas with melted chocolate there courtesy of Pete and Anna. That’s now 3 times we’ve had bbq at this crag! Brilliant. Thanks guys!

Wow, coastal cragging at it’s finest. A short drive, 2 crags, 5 routes and a bbq all before sunset. Bring on the fall I say, the season suits me just fine.

The Struggle for Pretty Permalinks

A major, major, MAJOR source of WordPress frustration for me lately has been my efforts to change the permalinks structure of the posts that get generated.

When I first installed WordPress each of my posts would get a permalink url that looked like this Not very informative eh? Not to worry WordPress has a handy setting that allows for more descriptive urls that are generated based on your post time, date and/or title etc. I check the appropriate box in the settings>permalinks tab and it tells me that WordPress doesn’t have permission to write to the .htaccess file and that I should paste some code into that file for the update to take effect. Ok, easy enough, a bit more reading and research ensues and as it turns out I have no .htaccess file, hidden or otherwise. So a bit more reading/research and I learn how to create one and it brings my entire site down with a 500 error. Swell.

I’ve spent no less than about ten hours reading forum posts and blog posts on how to fix the problem of getting pretty permalinks to work on my WordPress site. There are many posts out there from many frustrated people with this problem. Some get the easy fix, others a little more complicated, and many variations abound. None of these solutions worked for me. Frankly I was getting a little tired of reading dozens of “thank you!!” posts for solutions that did not work for me. ARGH!

Dotster is my host and I did write them outlining my problem. The first reply I received told me to overwrite my .htaccess file with a new one. But, there isn’t one in the root of my site. There is one a level up, outside the httpdocs folder but I don’t have permission to do anything with it. I thought that this file was somehow overriding my file. I wrote back but received no response.

I also emailed Dotster on a separate issue asking for them to install PHP 5 on the server. This was related to me installing a photo gallery plug-in that wouldn’t work properly because my server runs PHP 4 (it told me that, I don’t just know these things). I received an auto-response on this from Dotster that the issue was being looked into, but I didn’t get a confirmation that anything had been done.

I let the matter sit a couple weeks and emailed them again yesterday regarding the .htaccess issue. I decided to drop the gallery plug-in altogether, opting for the built-in WordPress  gallery function which is cool enough. The response today was better but still did not solve my problem. They did mention that the PHP upgrade went through, but I thought nothing of it since I abandoned that other gallery. I messed around some more with .htaccess, and I did some more reading. I posted variations of code into an .htaccess file—even posted a blank one—and all of these permutations brought the entire site down with a 500 error. I delete the .htaccess file off the server and the site is back up.

On a whim I went to the control panel, set the permalinks structure to what I wanted and lo-and-behold it tells me the settings are saved! I check the site and all of my posts now have semantic permalink structures. I check the directory using FileZilla, there’s no .htaccess file!

What does this mean? What happened? I have no idea, but I can speculate.

  1. The PHP upgrade allowed for WordPress to make the necessary changes.
  2. Dotster, the host, did something else (and didn’t tell me) to the server to allow WordPress to make the necessary changes
  3. I’ve had more than my fair share of computer related problems this month and the gods took pity on me and ended their cruel joke

It was supposed to be such a simple little thing, a minor detail, a five second click-this-box-and-be-done-with-it scenario but no, it turned into a ten-hour-over-two-week-epic. Wow. Problem now solved. I am ecstatic. To celebrate I am adding this post to the masses of posts on the subject and then will finally, be done with it.

West Coast Summer Finale Part 2: Coastal Cragging at Reiff

We all got a good night’s sleep at the excellent “hut” and were up bright and early the next day for more climbing, this time at the coastal area Reiff. Reiff is a small coastal town some ways north and west of Ullapool. It’s almost on the very tip of one of those large west coast peninsulas.

The drive from Elphin to Reiff is 20 miles of single lane road that weaves its way in and around some of the most wild and beautiful scenery I have ever seen. 45 minutes later we arrive at the coastal village of Reiff. We get intermittent cell phone reception and a text comes in from some friends of ours who are in the area. Stuart and Amanda are at an area quite close to the car park so after finding suitable parking and some quick gearing up, we head on over to say hi. We find them soloing (climbing sans rope) a huge fin of rock that juts proudly from a low level platform just above the sea. The coast here is stunning and it seems to go on forever. Here’s Amanda looking solid on Moon Jelly (V.Diff).

We exchange plans for the day and leave them to it. Our plans lay an hour further north. Try as we may we cannot find the path that leads north from a sheiling and we end up on the wrong end of some bog. Not only that, but there seems to be a wall of rain heading our way from the east. No matter, we continue north to the tip of the peninsula and just catch the edge of the rain shower. We locate our crag, The Leaning Block Cliffs, fairly easily because a friend of mine is there climbing on it! It’s always a pleasant surprise to see a friendly face at a remote crag. Partner introductions are made all around and some route recommendations are made. Matthew (aka Fiend) demonstrates fine form by charging up the aptly named Brave Heart (E2 5b).

The line he’s recommended lies further down the crag on a proud corner of the wall. Cyclops (E2 5c) really does look amazing. This grade is the upper limit of my trad climbing ability and not what I’d normally choose as a warm up, but the line looks really good and it’s already chalked up from Matthew’s ascent so it’s quite clear where to go. Dan and I stand under the climb for some time scrutinizing it, pointing out holds and possible gear placements. It looks like there’s a good rest at two-thirds height at a large sandstone thread that gives the climb it’s namesake. Better get on it, the tide is coming in and the base will be under water soon!

The climbing is excellent. Steady progress up a steepening wall on good horizontal breaks that offer solid gear placements. A technical crossover move and a shuffle left is rewards the climber with the massive eye of the cyclops. My entire arm goes in up to the shoulder as my other arms works on threading a sling through the eye and clipping the rope in. I spend a bit of time there milking the rest while I ponder the final five meters. I spot the holds and climb up a bit to a break and try to wiggle in some gear. It’s not good so I pull it out and climb back down a bit to reassess. I have a conversation with myself and figure I just have to climb it out to the top. It’s not far, it doesn’t look hard and the gear through the eye is bomber. Sure enough, the holds are all there, it’s not too hard and there’s even a bit of gear before making the exit moves. Success!

Dan follows up after me and we talk about the quality of the line and the accuracy of the grade. We can’t resist.

Next up is Dan’s lead. He’s wisely chosen Blind Bandit (HVS 5a) as a more sensible warm-up to the day. It’s Amelia’s turn to belay so scramble to the top of the cliff to see if I can get some good pictures. The climbing is similar to the previous route with good vertical climbing on well protected horizontal breaks. The wall is vertical to start and looks tricky as it surpasses a bulge but afterward the angle eases off and Dan makes it all look rather easy. Amelia ties in to second the climb and I scramble to the top of the crag to see if I can get some good pictures.

Next up is Amelia’s lead! Unfortunately the tide has come in and cut off access to the route she was looking at. We could have squeezed ourselves through the dank chimney to the other side of the pillar to belay off a sea washed platform but for some reason that didn’t appeal so we had a wee bite to eat and pondered other nearby venues.

The Platform Walls area was a short walk south from Leaning Blocks. We said our goodbyes to Fiend and headed over. Amelia had her sights set on Mars Crack (Severe 4a) which turned out to be an excellent climb with a fine steep start and an adventurous start on a small platform above the incoming tide. We traversed in a few meters to the belay platform. Amelia built the belay anchor and got her gear in order while I organized ropes. A few words of encouragement, a nervous smile and she was off. After placing some gear she quickly disappeared from my view leaving me to watch the sun-sparkled water for seals or porpoises. After a time Amelia called down safe and I followed in her footsteps to retrieve gear.

Dan was up for his challenge of the day. Thumper (E2 5c) is described as a fierce crack and a committing climb. After setting off he quickly recognized the committing part by the lack of gear in the first five meters. Still, he boldly charged up to the next break hopeful for  opportunities to place protection. He managed to get a couple of pieces in just as the angle steepens. A quick shuffle to the right and he’s bridging wildly under a roof in order to wiggle in a shallow nut. The nut goes in eventually but it doesn’t seem like enough so a large cam is swallowed by the deep cleft under the roof. Apparently it’s not sitting right. And the holds under the roof are wet. The next move looks quite hard and committing involving a powerful lock off and a throw to the next break. Dan’s using a lot of chalk to combat the wet holds under the roof. The wall is steep and his position looks strenuous. I tighten my grip on the ropes.

The next thing I know, he’s pulling the gear out and climbing down. I breathe a little sigh of relief. Hard moves above marginal gear on wet holds can ruin the day. I think he made the right decision to back off. Climbing can be a risky pastime and taking risks is part of the fun. Sometimes it’s best to retreat and have a go at something else. Thumper will be there for the rematch. I’m sure we’ll be back.

Just down the wall is the compelling line of Submarine Badlands (VS 4b) and since Dan was already racked up and ready to go, he immediately jumped on. I relinquished belay and seconding to Meme and took over with photos and seal spotting.

I also took that time scoping out my next lead. The day has a habit of getting behind you when trad climbing and since we still had an hour’s hike back to the car followed by a four hour drive we’d best think about going soon. Still, I figured there was time for one more.

For some reason The Irish Agreement (E2 5c) compelled me. Like many of the routes here it follows a line of horizontal breaks up a steepening wall. The crux of the climb is described as a long reach at mid-height. Why not, I’ll give that a go. Turns out this bit of 5c climbing was much harder than the 5c climbing on the first route of the day. In fact, it felt more like 6a to me, but maybe I was doing it wrong. The climb begins boldly by climbing straight up on rounded breaks to some good-ish gear placements. Next comes the move. It’s a long way to the next break and there’s only a couple of tiny sloping side pulls to work with. One of them has two glassy pebbles in the middle of it. I stood there for what seemed like ages chalking my hands, trying to get the best angle on those tiny holds, and feeling around for … aha! A bigger sloping side pull! It feels huge by comparison and gives me confidence to stand around for a bit more. I make a little testing move by bearing down on those holds and working my feet up. My feet are in the same slot as my gear and I’m eyeing up the next break. I just have to let go with one hand and windmill my arm up as I stand up to catch the break. But what is it like? Is it positive? Does it suck? Will there be gear? If not can I keep going? Bloody hell this is hard!! I reverse the moves to my stance. Another one of those internal conversations ensues. I yank test the two shallow cams which are my only protection between me and the ground, the next piece being too low down. They seem fine. I can do this, and if not, I fall off. So what. I don’t like to fall, that’s what. Fuck it. Let’s do this. More chalk and internal dialog stops. I bear down, step up, focus and … go!

My right hand just catches the next break. It’s sloping, but I’m holding it. My other hand comes up and I’m in! Woot! There’s even gear, sort of. Turns out all the breaks are quite shallow and a bit crystally which isn’t confidence inspiring, but it will have to do. The rest of the climb is far less technical but quite pumpy now that the wall is getting steeper. I put in too much gear on the way up and almost fall off because my arms are so tired, but somehow I manage to reach good holds at the top and after a brief rest, top out into sunshine. Two E2s in a day! I’m psyched. It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to climb at that level. Must be the excellent weather or the inspiring nature of the climbing here. Reiff is certainly a special place.

At the top I hunt around for suitable placements for gear to build a bomb proof anchor with. Finding some, I settle in at the top making sure I can see Dan do the moves as I belay him up. He’s stopped at the crux move for a bit. Not as long as I, but a bit. He does the move successfully the first time. It’s a cool move and he’s smiling at its quality. The rest of the climb is easy for him and he quickly joins me on top for the great grade debate. We both feel it’s hard 5c, maybe even 6a but it’s hard to be sure about that grade since neither one of us have much experience with it. My handy chart here says British 6a trad is equivalent to French 6c+ sport or U.S. 5.11c. I don’t think it was that hard. 6b+ or 5.11 b, so hard 5c it is. It’s so hard to put a number on it, especially when on-sight trad climbing. The main thing is, it was a great challenge and we had fun doing it.

Amelia has now joined us at the top with ALL of the remaining gear. She’s a star. Now for the long hike out. It proves to be a shorter hour out than in and we get some lovely views in the setting sun. We catch up with Matthew at the sheiling and spend the rest of the walk catching up. Lucky guy is camped here for a week next to the pub and a stone’s throw from all these amazing sea cliffs. We on the other hand have a 4 hour drive ahead of us. We say our farewells and off we go. We took a lot of photos there, here are the best ones below.

West Coast Summer Finale: Multi-pitch on Stac Pollaidh

The first weekend of September proved to be one of the best weekends of the summer. We made plans to go climbing with our friend Dan the previous Wednesday. For some reason Scotland had been enjoying a few days of consistently excellent weather and for once the long range forecast promised more of the same. We looked at the forecast for Ullapool and lo-and-behold, wall to wall sun and warm temps.

The basic plan was to do some climbing at Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Stack Polly, which means Stack of the Bog/Pools) and Reiff. Stac Pollaidh is multi-pitch climbing while Reiff is coastal cragging which would make for quite a good contrast and both have an excellent assortment of routes to have a go at. Not only that, but the area is reported to be quite beautiful. Reports confirmed!

The only real trouble we had was looking for accommodations. The area is also notoriously midge-y so we were reluctant to camp for fear of being eaten alive. I hunted around for some hostel action but there wasn’t much choice and reviews were a bit conflicted. There are campsites we could stay at no problem, but then Dan mentioned something about a caving group hut in Elphin that he’d stayed at before.

The hut had two large bedrooms with enough bunk space for ten to twelve people. The kitchen was large and well appointed, there was a cozy living room with stone fireplace and a large conservatory for a dining area. The walls were adorned with cave schematics, caving photos and road signs. It was perfect.  There were only three other people staying at the hut that weekend. A really nice couple who were over from Ireland doing some hillwalking and a student up from Edinburgh University doing some kind of surveying. Turns out none of them were there for the caving, but all were involved with geology in some way or another.

We drove out Friday night after work in about 4 hours and amazingly we found the hut in the dark. Saturday morning was surprisingly dreary with very low cloud and cool temps. Not at all like what was forecast! As soon as we left Elphin the weather cleared right up and by the time we got to the car park it was bright and there was a slight warm breeze blowing which was just enough to keep the midges away. It felt like the start to a great day!

It was a 45 minute hike up a steep slope getting up to the base of the rock. Our first objective was the popular 3 pitch, 3 star Jack the Ripper (E1 5b). I won the crux pitch, which is also the last, so Dan led up the first two pitches, Meme went second and I brought up the rear. The first pitch went easy, the second a little harder with a tricky high step move not far off the belay. The third pitch was the hard one, and the best one. Some easy moves lead to the base of a short steep groove with a finger crack. With feet smearing and fingers in the crack, climb up above good gear to a small roof, find more good gear and then up and over into another groove following this to an awkward mantel onto a large block. A short wide crack leads to a niche under a roof which is easily passed on the left and then the top. A superb pitch. After belaying Amelia and Dan up we had lunch next to a large colony of flying ants.

We had time to do some more climbing so we chose a shorter route on the next buttress over. A quick scramble down a gully and we were gaping up at the compelling line of Vlad the Impaler (HVS 5a), which is a long and excellent crack and corner that runs the full height of the buttress. Dan made short work of this one despite the ominously large crack in the second half of the climb. Turns out the start which looked easy was hard and the finish which looked hard was easy! We topped out and walked a short distance to the second pitch which was easier (VS 4b?) and shorter but very enjoyable just the same. The line followed a crack to a horizontal break and then another crack to the top.

We thought we might want to scramble to the summit and walk down via the path but it turned out to be much more difficult than expected. We somehow got split up on the way down and when we got to the car, Dan was nowhere to be seen. Meme found a couple of ticks on her on the way down so I decided to take my trousers off for a quick inspection. That’s when the midges swarmed in. Now we’re both running around the carpark, me with no trousers on, calling for Dan. Good thing we were the last ones to leave. I got dressed and Dan eventually showed up (he went for a swim) and we got the heck outta there, back to our amazing hut for dinner and chat. Below are a few photos of that day.

The Smuggler’s Waltz

Today was quite the day! I had the pleasure of climbing with my good friend Johannes, which, sadly, is a rare thing these days. We’d made plans to go climbing this morning weeks ago, and luckily the weather cooperated. I didn’t have any particular goals in mind, but Johannes has a few so today we set off to Collieston to have a look at The Smuggler’s Waltz, a 2 pitch, 50 meter traverse at HVS 5a (safe 5.9). Collieston is about 40 minutes north of Aberdeen and is the first cliff in long series of excellent sea cliffs that make up the “north of Aberdeen” stretch of coastal climbing.

We arrived fairly early in the morning. The tide was on its way out and the North Sea was very calm. There was hardly any wind at all and it was quite mild. The approach is an easy walk along clifftop for 200 meters which is followed by a grassy descent made slippery by morning dew. A quick scramble up onto a tidal platform and we were looking up at the Smuggler’s Cliff. First impression? Nasty! The cliff band appeared to be almost entirely covered in old bird nests and bird shit — I mean it was everywhere.

The cliff itself isn’t all that tall, maybe 15 meters at the highest point. It’s probably 75 meters from end to end in length, and Smuggler’s Waltz begins low on the right and rises along a natural fault to high on it’s left. While the base of the cliff is quite undercut (in fact there is a large cave at the left end) many ledges and blocks form the upper half, which is why the birds like it so much. The right end looked very dirty, but the left end looked clean-ish with only two large nests. Pitch two on the left end looked like it had the best climbing with an obvious exposed section almost at the very end.

I was not keen. Johannes was. He made me an offer. He offered me the second, better pitch if I would agree to the climb. I declined. I took the first pitch. I thought he needed this more than I did. He was so excited to finally be out climbing, even on this disgusting cliff, that I just felt compelled to give him the better lead. Besides, I occasionally take a perverse sort of pleasure in getting dirty.

We had to walk back up the slippery bank and over the top of the cliff to get to the start of the route. We talked about the nice weather and the apparent quality of the line we were about to do while I racked up and we got set. It started off easy enough, but after about ten meters I noticed a distinct lack of nut placements. I mentioned that and Johannes offered to tie me off at the belay and retrieve the second set of cams for me. I agreed and waited on a lonely bird poop covered ledge several meters above the sea for Johannes to fetch me more gear. A couple minutes later a few extra cams were lowered down to me and I felt better about the next 15 meters. Sure enough, it was protected entirely with horizontal cam placements.

The climbing was quite easy. Large hand and footholds everywhere. It was steady at about 4b without any real change in the grade. The only thought required was to which ledge had less poop on it, or which nest to pull off, or can I go around it. Nesting season was long past so it was no crime to toss nests off into the sea. The coming winter storms would give the cliff a good clean before next season anyway. So, why were we here now instead of in March? Hmmm.

Despite the rank bird debris the climbing was quite fun and adventurous. The hard part for me was at the end where I had to climb down a bit to reach the large, sloping belay ledge at a little over half way. I finally made it and before putting Johannes on belay took the photo below.

The Smugglers Waltz

Traversing of the poo.

I put Johannes on belay and he made short work of the pitch, although I relished some of the discomfort that was apparent as he grabbed some of the nastier guano-covered holds. It was quite dry so it had a tendency to flake off, getting in one’s eyes, nose and mouth even. It was quite gross but he was loving it. The adventure that is.

After a quick re-rack at the belay Johannes set off for the cleaner, better climbing of pitch two. Some fairly straightforward climbing brought him to the crux of the climb. The big holds stopped about a meter or so before the cliff makes a sharp left turn out over the sea. The climbing there was quite thin and exposed. Falling off would leave a climber dangling in space some 8 meters above the sea with no option to get back on to the rock. This was the area of the cliff that climbed over the giant cave. Johannes was up to the task and after getting in some good gear allowed me to quickly take his photo.


Traversing over the sea cave

The climb is quickly over after this part. An anchor is made and the second (me) is belayed over, retrieving gear along the way. The music stopped, and the waltz was over.