|The dude across the table, suddenly
interested, looked up from his pint. “Oh you did it?” he asked.
“Did you enjoy it? What’s it like? I’ve always thought
about doing it.”
It’s one of those routes, Fantan B, a lot of people have thought about doing it though few have. Which is surprising because, bird restrictions aside, it is a totally classic adventure that covers some awesome ground and at HVS is amenable, though a grade or two in hand and plenty of experience are prerequisites.
The thing about this route is that you can’t see it. And not until you are thoroughly embroiled in its weaving line does it begin surrender its secrets. So on this chill August morning under a sagging, stratus, sky I’m feeling the sort of anticipation that comes from opening a Christmas present that you’re not sure you’re going to like. We, Luke and I, park the van by a gate that leads nowhere and turn towards the coast. The day doesn’t feel real all melancholy and quiet, but for sheep munching grass and our feet crunching gravel. An encounter with a gaggle of angry hissing geese feels real though. We reach the coast and slip over the edge, down a slightly arduous grassy abseil into a separate world.
From here, all we can see is a stack of narrow terraces snaking round a huge rib. This is the first pitch. Mobs of squawking gulls congregate on the terraces. Luke says they worry him. They do me, too. “Oh they’ll be no bother,” I say. He believes me and takes the lead. Sucker. Though, It turns out, I was telling the truth, as one by one they take wing ahead of us.
I follow the traverse with my backpack straps loosened, the sea lapping dully beneath my heels, and wearing a bandoleer for the gear: Makes it easier to ditch if you fall in the sea. I’d read that in a magazine. There’s hardly any gear though, so the bandoleer’s useless, because the rock’s all compact and etched with blind cracks and seams. It will be for the whole route. I find Luke on a pink ledge. I can feel the sun, just barely, through the dishwater sky and the atmosphere would be serene, but for the pungent ammonia stench of guano. Another pitch of similar climbing arcs to a stance on the skyline arête. A decaying peg is the only trace of any human passage. Luke leads through. I look out across the lonely sea and to the colonies of gulls on the adjacent cliffs whose cacophony of cacks and squawks fills the air.
The sea laps and babbles beneath me. Luke’s taking longer than I’d expect. I sit back and relax though I’m troubled by a pang of guilt when I’m hit by an irrefutable sense that this cliff belongs to the birds and the wildlife. A seal floats to the surface. It hangs for a while breathing, snorting and puffing then vanishes into the murky depths.
“Safe!” The rope comes tight and I start climbing. Luke said he got gripped. I’m not surprised the pitch skirted a tottering black pillar for a few meters and gear was sparse. Otherwise a steady pitch. Mine looks improbable, a labyrinth of either steep or guano plastered features. And things usually look easier from below. All I can do is climb, and hope. The short wall envelopes me in concentration as I scan every inch for a runner. My search yields a micro cam and slight solace so I press on to the base of a groove and a rotten peg. I engineer a runner that might hold a fall and edge away and glance round the corner and then recoil in dismay. For a moment I bury my head in the sand and vow to give up trad climbing. A deep breath and a tug on the runner, just to make sure, and I lurch right onto a steep hand traverse on dried gull shit and there’s fear, just for a fragment of a second, then concentration and I’m manteling into a nest, stepping right and I’m on the finest of belay ledges. A nose of rock the size of a car bonnet projects over the sea and offers a view of the vertiginous mass of this cliff as it pours towards the sea. Strange scuttling insects and fish skeletons litter the ledge creating a sense of otherworldliness. The belay is a complicated affair and I’m glad of my Scottish winter experience.
I bring Luke up. We swap gear and he vanishes up a steep groove. I look around for possible escape routes, just in case. A nightmare I decide and I watch a yellow fishing boat being tossed on the swell, it’s droning engine is just audible through the gulls’ cries and I realise I’m enjoying myself.
“On Belay” The
steep grove proves surprisingly juggy. A rising traverse and a series
of grassy mantelshelves lead to a stance below a short wall that’s
covered with mint green and yellow lichen. We exchange banter and I climb
the wall, laughing, and then scramble to a hanging meadow. I relax on
the long grass while I take in the ropes. The air smells earthy and the
grass rustles in the breeze. The squawking birds are muffled, but the
acrid stench of guano still lingers in my throat. The route ends along
an alpine style ridge along the top of an old quarry; quite a contrast
to the route we’re leaving behind. We teeter along, leaving the
cliff to the birds and by the time we’ve reached the end the noise
of the gulls and the stench and the adventure all seems another world