The Quest for Scottish 8c

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Dave Redpath - 26/02/2002



The very first time I saw a climbing video we were on a school climbing weekend at Benmore Centre. The video starred this guy called Jerry that made lots of noise when he climbed, and somebody with dreadlocks who went by the name of Moon. The guy with the hippy name was struggling on a route and kept falling off, and trying and falling... The commentator described the route as having a grade of 8c and that it was the hardest climb in the world. Needless to say I asked if we could go climbing there tomorrow thinking it was on the banks of Loch Eck! The answer was, to no surprise, "No, its in France".

Some Ten years on I find myself at the other end of the road having walked the path and been somewhat scorned by it. My main motivation has grown from this one event as a youngster, I kept asking questions and the answers led me to various places across Britain. To the Peak District where Ben Moon climbed 'Hubble' 8C+, and to North Wales where Jerry Moffat climbed Britain's first 8C 'Liquid Amber'. These places lead me to the ultimate question: why the hell was there nothing as hard in Scotland? At the age of Seventeen I was granted right of passage, I could drive and that I did. That summer I equipped two lines at Dumbuck Crag. This left the locals pissed off at the fact some Edinburgh lad was bolting their rock and declaring it a project. This trend however was to continue over the following years.

Time was spent, bolts were clipped and tips were split. The spring time sessions became an Annual event where some poor soul would wait in the cold as I dicked around on the end of the rope, up, up, down a bit, woh to far. Time marched onwards, I however did not succeed in going upwards! Due to a combination of injury and further commitments I was to relinquish interest in hard sport climbing for good after 6 years on my Dumbuck project!

It is these experiences that lead me to write about the challenges you will face over our southern counterparts if you are to succeed in climbing an new 8C in Scotland. 8C isn't that hard you may say - well maybe not now in a world standard, but whoever climbs an 8C in Scotland will be my number one.

The Past

The last time Scotland had the hardest route in Britain was when Dave Cuthbertson Freed Requeim E8 6b, this was unknown territory for its time and its influence spans two decades as it has only received a handful of ascents. In the early ninety's Scottish climbers started taking notice of the bolt revolt south of the border and started looking for our own venues.

Although the first bolt placed on Scottish rock was never intended for sport climbing, Historic Scotland didn't think that Dumbarton rock needed any more. Andy Gallagher's early efforts at Dumbarton were swiftly removed by a team of steeple jacks and consequently climbing was banned. The ban didn't last for long however since the castle ramparts were mobbed every Friday by angry mobs of Neds. In comparison the damage the climbers were inflicting paled in comparison to that of the locals.

Although the Ninety's didn't bring any numbers bigger than 8b a number of hard lines did surface. The most publicised Scottish project was Dave Cutbertson's at Steall Hut Crag, thought by Dave to be in the 8c+ Bracket. This wasn't without its own controversy (Cubby perhaps overestimating his own weight in the climbing scene) however, as immediate objections were made to the placement of the bolts in the heart of such a traditional area. The route itself climbed part of an existing traditional line (Leopold) before breaking out across a fierce headwall.

Young Guns at the time Smith and Pitcairn had each had brief 'shots' on the route with Smith thinking a grade of 8c being more appropriate. Pitcairns break down being along the lines: an 8a crack, straight through into an 8b headwall, then 8a to the belay - making a very hard lead indeed. Cubby battled on through the mid Nineties but a combination of poor conditions and eventual injury were to bring no results. Steall Hut crag is also home to Scotland's hardest route to date Steall Appeal, climbed by Malcolm in 1993, the route has never been repeated.

Also that year Stuart Cammeron completed his local project at Balmashanner, Merchant of Menace. Merchant has made little impact as such even though initial grades of 8b+ were later admitted by Stuart as being slightly exaggerated, perhaps due to the poor attempt on our part in keeping pace with events to the south. Merchant also awaits a second ascent but local knowledge on Stuart's part helped as no one else can remember when the initial 5m was completely dry. Local actions haven't improved matters recently when a hold was doubted to be present during Stuart's ascent. Subsequent actions left it dismissed, but only one man knows the truth. Sadly Stuart retired from the scene after a blistering career to the south in the early Ninety's which leaves history in no doubt of his ability.

The 'work' of Pitcairn and Stork in Newtyle Quarry (Birnam) highlights the younger generations feelings towards the search for difficulty. Ian's work graced the cover of High magazine, both activists being shaken from their experience headed their different directions, Ian to a move south and Stork to embrace his traditional climbing.

The Present

Changing Fashions: Recent years have seen sport climbing go out of fashion, mainly due to the increased popularity of bouldering. In passed years our 'ice cream twin' heros, Ben & Jerry, transition away from hard sport climbing has had an equal media impact. Many a hard man has swapped the harness and quick draws for a boulder mat and a chalk bucket. Where as those operating in the lower grades have dug out their racks and returned to the heartlands seeking 'true' adventure. Much of Scotland's national climbing reputation lies in its traditional lines; those of winter and to a lesser extent its summer ones. Those queuing in the Corries will be in no doubt that Scotland's prime winter import are English climbers.

Location: The average Sheffield or Leeds sport climber might expect to drive 20 miles to either Raven's Tor or Kilnsey, which are roadside. Scottish teams were traveling some 60-150 miles to reach sport venues from the major cities, to then spend some 20min (ave) getting to the crags. The local conditions differ some what - at Malham one might be sunbathing, complaining that it's too hot, where as in Scotland the humidity will be through the roof, the midges will be out and most of our sport crags face north so theres no hope of any winter sun.

Exposure: Much of the press coverage given during the Nineties was on the Sheffield scene, it wasn't any surprise that before long our Scottish stars were changing there postcodes to south of the border. Perhaps if this was not the case we would have seen a 8c on Scottish soil from Malcolm. The early development of Glen Ogle did bring our man to pick up a gun and bolt some rock, but it's a shame that the bug didn't catch as it did with the other developers (take for example the Project Crags at Glen Ogle). Perhaps if the mid-nineties had brought us one number higher, more would have followed in its path.

Conditions: Many a climber has been beaten by the weather, but just because the sun's out doesn't mean you're guaranteed an ascent. Inevitably Scotland's climate is not avorable for hard sport routes, although certain windows are available throughout the year, local knowledge is needed. It is entirely possible for you to be 1 move short of completing your project only to return days later to be greeted by significant seepage.

The Future

The completion of some hard projects looks imminent - look out for the names below.

  • Dave MacLeod: Man of the moment Dave's thirst for hard new lines is continuing. 2001 saw him add our first E9 to Dumbarton's main face, without doubt he'll do harder still.
  • Malcolm Smith: Shame we didn't have more rock, Malcolm would have given us an 8c years ago. His 8c track record still looks good in comparison to our euro buddies, no doubt if we can find him some rock he'd climb it, if he can be bothered to sacrifice a days training that is.
  • Paul Savage: His second name is a good measure of this mans finger strength. 2001 saw him add a font 8a to the cave at the Thirlstane, perhaps in the future we'll see more action from this man - if he doesn't do an 8c in Scotland he will south of the border, as shown by his hard limestone tick list to date.
  • Dave Cuthbertson: Never to be ruled out he might get that project done yet. Age and the numbers game is still new territory, Brit pack leaders Moon and Moffat continue to prove this by climbing harder than ever well into there late thirty's.
  • The up and coming: Glasgow and Edinburgh both hold their training guru's but the big problem is converting their skills from indoors to out. Going from big blue boulder mats and fluorescent handholds to a damp, midge infested Scottish crag is a big jump, and lets be honest, many don't make it.
  • Them down south: Routes left by Waddy and Dawes on Sron Ulladale go to show how far an Englishman's reach can infiltrate our borders. The list of many routes waits in the wings, come and get it!

Out there somewhere?

Without doubt Scotland's climbable rock has by no means reached saturation, thousands of crags remain to be found and given tolerance the hard sport lines will be out there also. Good Luck finding them!

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