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.