Marhofn 196.11 - May 2009

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St Kilda, April 2009

Rob Woodall

Brent Lynam started the ball rolling with plans to look at a St Kilda trip in 2009. Then Andy Strangeway advertised some trips, albeit at a price most folk thought too high. Then Ken Whyte suggested we set something up ourselves this spring. He came back with the ok from NTS and some dates from Seatrek, then went off on holiday, leaving me to see if anyone else was interested. Within 24 hours I had a dozen people wanting to send deposits, crucially including two capable lead climbers. All we needed was for the forecast to improve. In a cruel twist of fate, just before departure Ken fractured his collar bone, ruling himself out of the trip. Full ferries led to a few problems getting to Lewis, but by Monday 6 April nine of us were assembled at Seatrek HQ looking at gear choices and weather forecast. Weather windows came and went. Lewis and Harris hills were bagged. A day trip on Sunday 12th became our only hope before most of the party had to head home. It was still blowy but we were all keen to give it a try...

At 6am off we go, in force 4 winds. There may be too much swell even for Dun, but we hope to get on Hirta and have a look around. Plenty of sick bags in use on the bumpy crossing, but after an eternity Boreray appears, then Stac an Armin. We head in close to check the landing site on the east side of Boreray. In the sheltered nook there is only a foot or two of swell, so I suggest we go for it. It is an impressive location, with gannet cliffs up left and vertiginous grass directly above us, leading to the north ridge. Ian Teasdale and Richard Mclellan are first ashore, neatly landed by Murray, the Seatrek skipper, making it look easy. I'm on the second boat. Step down into the little plastic tender, across 30 metres of calm water, stop beside a little staircase of barnacled rock protruding down into the water. Murray gives the ok, so I step across and clamber up slippery rock. Richard has rigged a rope up this. Easy slabs then lead up to a steeper section, dampish and a bit loose, with poor holds. Ian has a rope in place here and all eight of us are soon above the main difficulties, albeit now directly below a gannet colony and up to our ankles in guano. However, we are soon on the 40 grass slope above, which passes for easy ground on Boreray. A rising traverse gets us high on the spectacular north ridge, falling 300m vertically to the sea, with Stac an Armin thrusting implausibly from the sea. A few grassy pinnacles to circumvent, then we are at the neat grass summit, with Stac Lee directly below and Hirta beyond, flanked by Dun and Soay.

Boreray landing site (left) and ascent route (photo: Rob Woodall)

Boreray landing site (left) and ascent route (photo: Rob Woodall)

A few of us cross to the slightly lower west summit then assemble for a group photo before heading down. We abseil the awkward steep section, recover Ian's now-filthy rope then scramble down to the landing point. The wind has now come round to the SE and the swell is about six feet. It's a matter of perching on the rock while Murray manoeuvres the little boat, waiting while it lifts on the swell, then quickly hopping aboard. Time and sea state rule out Village Bay, so we spend the next hour or so studying the ascent routes for Soay and the two stacks, then shelter in the lee of Stac an Armin for a brew.

By now the wind is dropping and we enjoy a much calmer voyage back to Meabhaig, the sun setting as we thread the labyrinth of islands guarding the harbour entrance. We're all buzzing after a long but very successful day.

Stac an Armin from Boreray (photo: Rob Woodall)

Stac an Armin from Boreray (photo: Rob Woodall)

Wednesday morning. Ian Teasdale and I, last men standing, bag two spare places on a Kilda Cruises trip from Leverburgh, with the NTS warden primed for a Dun summit bid. Calm sea, smart boat, easy three-hour voyage. We anchor in Village Bay in bright sunshine which picks out the clean forms of the stone dykes and cleats arrayed across the slopes of Conachair. But our sights are set on the surreal form lying across the bay. Our skipper Angus Campbell ferries us all across to the village pier to meet the warden, who then joins us for the five-minute trip to Dun. Too much swell for the preferred landing spot, so we are dropped at the far right end, on a little rocky step below some slabs. The rock is green and the three of us climb carefully for a few metres to reach nice dry slabs. Ian the warden leads up an easy grassy (and Fulmar-free) gully, then we pass left of a rock tower and climb a steep puffin-burrowed slope to the grassy summit. We are lucky that the puffins haven't moved back yet; a few more days and the ascent may have been less feasible. From Bioda Mor summit the view back across Village Bay is captivating, while the rock architecture nearer to hand is highly impressive. Eventually we head back down and return to the little RIB. We have two hours on Hirta, then another tour of the stacks before returning to Leverburgh. Half an hour later Ian and I find ourselves in the Harris Hotel discussing sea stacks. Well, you never know your luck...

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