Climbing on Mull

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Tom Charles-Edwards - 25/07/2001

Over the years the Isle of Mull has, like some other climbing areas in the north-west, received scant attention from the majority of Scottish rock climbers, who have been happy to concentrate their energies on the mountain crags that Scotland is famous for. Indeed, it may be that the absence of good crags and the awful rock in the area around Ben More (the only Munro on Mull) has convinced many Munro-bagging visitors that the island has little rock climbing potential and isn't worth a return visit.

In fact the best crags on Mull are all on the coast, and the majority of them are hidden away at the western end of the Ross. As for the rock itself, this is actually the main attraction of the island, both for rock climbers and for geologists, who come from universities all over Britain to study it. Around 50 million years ago the area that is now Mull and Ardnamurchan was the location of a series of volcanic eruptions that left the area with a huge variety of rock types, offering a wide variety of climbing styles.

Over the course of a weekend on Mull you can scare yourself on 600 ft rhyolite cliffs right next to the sea, with views across the Firth of Lorne to Jura, or explore the seemingly endless granite domes that protrude from a sea of grass at the end of the Ross. If your climbing tastes deviate towards the masochistic abuse of cracks, you will be glad to know that Mull's 'climber-in-residence' Colin Moody is also a jamming fiend, and has developed the crags of the Ardtun peninsula to provide for your pleasure and pain. Imagine 500 metres of 20 metre high crag with a jamming crack every 2 metres! Oooooh! Stop, stop!!! Boulderers who are willing to explore will find a huge amount of stuff to go at almost everywhere they look, though the limited amount of bouldering that has already been done is on the granite around Fionnphort and on the gabbro next to the beach at Loch Buie. Adventurous Peakies feeling homesick for the limestone should head to Balmeanach, which has an initial 5 metres of wierd granite conglomerate, and the best view of any crag that I've climbed at. If you're there on a clear day the prospect of simply sitting at the top looking out at the sea and the islands and the sky may well prove irresistible. Climbers who like to do as much sunbathing and swimming as climbing should head to Scoor, where they will find a handful of excellent and varied mica-schist crags scattered around a beach, with an island connected to it by a narrow strip of sand. In fact everywhere you look on Mull there are rocks that draw your eye, and with so many of them being untouched (and therefore not in the Skye and the Hebrides Guide), the best way to get good climbing is to go out and find it yourself.

You have to be warned, though, that some of the most visually impressive crags on Mull, particularly the basalt crags like Gribun and those on the end of the Ardmeanach peninsula, are chossy death-traps (fair game if you like that kind of thing...but I'm assuming you don't! One of the routes on Gribun is called Loosey Simmons, and the guide claims that it should cure anyone of the desire to climb on basalt). Last summer I went to the trouble of sailing across Loch Scridain to get a closer look at the obvious steep crag down by the shore before the start of the Ardmeanach cliffs, only to find that it was totally rotten....arse! On the other hand, your explorations will frequently uncover brilliant boulder problems, routes and even crags hidden away in the middle of nowhere. This also happened to me last summer when I walked along the north coast between Fionnphort and Bunessan (a beautiful walk, if you're not a climber). There are at least three good crags along this coast that have hardly been touched, and I also found an absolutely perfect boulder problem that I didn't get round to doing.

Until recently climbing was a sporting counter-culture which supposedly placed no real value on anything except doing your own thing, having a good time, and getting away from the pressures of life. But its recent sharp increase in popularity and assimilation into mainstrean sporting culture have, inevitably, brought with them the macho posing, competitiveness, self-consciousness, and judging of yourself and others that afflict almost all other mainstream 'social' sports.The lack of any of these drawbacks of modern climbing culture is what makes Mull so appealing - especially after you've experienced somewhere like Stanage on a bank-holiday Sunday! Mull has no legacy of legendary historic routes to attract tickers from other parts of Britain with a 'been there, done that' approach to climbing. It has no climbing scene, no climbers pubs, and only one active climber living on the island. Your usual criteria for chosing where to go, what to do and what to climb tend to change somewhat, and you're far less likely to find yourself asking "how many routes at my grade are there on this crag?" than exclaiming "that looks cool - lets climb that!", before rushing off to explore promising nearby rocks, hills and hummocks, splash about in the sea and sit relaxing as you stare out at Staffa and the Treshnish islands. Even on developed crags it sometimes hardly seems relevant what grade a route is, whether it has actually been done before, or indeed whether you are still on route at all...

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