The Finest Crags in the UK & Ireland Neist Point Far away on the rugged dolerite sea-cliffs of western Skye is a place where trad climbers’ dreams come true. Mike Hutton recounts his experiences of this climber's retreat. in association with
Being situated on the most westerly point of Skye does not exactly make this the most accessible crag in the universe, but accessibility doesn’t always guarantee quality. If climbing virgin dolerite whilst taking in the views of the Outer Hebrides and the occasional Minke whale doesn’t float your boat, then stay at home with a brew and organise yet another trip in to Stanage. On the other hand, if you want an unforgettable experience, read this, fork out for biblical proportions of fuel and make sure you have packed 9 hours’ worth of driving tunes.
As with all good trips the journey to the crag is every bit as important as the climbing itself, and journeys don’t come much better than this one. As you drift over the sea to Skye you will be greeted by the controversial bridge that still encourages much debate as to its purpose some ten years after it was erected. The dominating views of the Cuillins shouldn’t fail to lift your mood as your destination is within grasp. Charming Dunvegan has a gorgeous atmosphere of its own. The town clings to the shores of the loch with the peculiar flat-topped peaks of McLeod’s Tables looming in the distance and a castle full to the brim with Clan family history.
As the delightful Duranish peninsula is left behind, the Lower Minch (also known as Skotlandsfjörð in old Norse) takes control. Separating Skye from the Outer Hebrides it is believed to be the site of the biggest meteorite ever to hit the British Isles. In 2010 Eilidh Macdonald became the first person to swim the Little Minch, taking just 9.5 hours to cross from Watternish point on skye to Rodel on Harris.
As our dilapidated fuel starved Mini freewheeled down the side of Loch Mor, the distinctive Wasterstein Arête (HS) came into view. First climbed back in 1980 by Mick Fowler, this is the longest basalt climb on the island at over 300m. A serious undertaking on 50-degree rotten and poorly protected rock may or may not float your boat. Rumour has it a lady named Mad Sonia Vietoris then soloed it alongside the roped-up Fowler!
Walking towards the pot of gold at Nesit Point.
Elsewhere the cliffs are composed of two parallel sills of excellent quality dolerite and picrite, which contain the majority of the routes. The higher sill is set back from the sea and yields a solid crag rising 40m in parts and over a mile in length. Unsurprisingly, this is where it all started in 1961 when the legendary Tom Patey chose to pay a visit and climb the distinctive pinnacle. He christened it “The Green Lady” (HS). Laying stranded on the summit and with not a belay in-sight, some very imaginative rope work had to be conjured for the escape.
In 1977 Noel Williams and Mike Geddes discovered the delights of the An t-Aigeach (Gaelic for stallion) situated in the vicinity of the famous Neist lighthouse. Noel being a geologist had utilised a special colour coded rock map to identify this area as one with the best dolerite. Elsewhere the routes are generally up to 30m in height, but in this particular spot the sill protrudes straight from the sea yielding a 90m cliff in a very menacing position above the ocean. It wasn’t till their ninth visit in 1981 that Williams, Grindley and Jeffrey decided to tick off the main line of the cliff. A full-on epic involved Grindley falling out of a kid’s plastic dinghy into the raging foam and Williams surviving a nightmare underwater tyrolean manoeuvre that only got them partially established on pitch one. Fortunately, Grindley was fitter than ever due to a recent trip to the Gunks and by nightfall the team had the beast in the bag.
Built in 1909, the Neist Point Lighthouse once delivered the light of half a million candles.
The ascent had its moments though; because as hideous TV sized blocks came hurtling down in spectacular fashion, up would come the screams from below. This stallion of a rock climb had been turned into a fine specimen for others to experience. The Super Charger (E3, 5b, 5a, 5c, 5a) was unleashed for future generations to battle with.
I remember my first visit to Neist vividly. Arriving in the early hours we struggled to find the key to our abode. Neither of us had the bottle to ring the owners at 5am to tell them of our predicament so chose instead to pass out in a heap on the ground outside. As we were bathed in the first rays of morning light, all thoughts of my troubled relationship back home had simply vanished. This was where I wanted to be and nothing else mattered. For me Neist has become a place to reinvigorate the soul. A place where friends reunite, far from their cluttered lives back home and find peace with the cliffs and the wildlife.
Aside from all this, there is some rather good climbing to be had. Turning my back on the big stallion of Neist (Super Charger), since it scared the hell out of me and was going to have to wait for another day, my attention was drawn to the vast array of stacked dolerite columns on the upper tier. Literally hundreds of these fine specimens protruded from the grassy slopes not too dissimilar from those at Kilt rock, but with wider expanses of blankness in between each crack. The cracks define the line for most, but not all of the routes. The Financial Sector may capture your attention first, just as it did for the likes of Noel Williams, Colin Moody, Emma Alsford and Paul Donnithorne to name a few, all having sampled a piece of the cake over the years. What’s nice is there’s plenty of the cake remaining for future generations. Wish You Were Here (E2 5b) ranks as one the best crack pitches of all time. It’s hard to sum up a route of such supreme quality in just a sentence. Reminiscent of a 5.10 American splitter, you might want to tape up for this baby. 30m of sustained finger locks and the kind of hand jams that do serious nerve damage lay in store if you want to tick this one off.
Like a kid in a sweetshop I pleaded to my partner Claire that it would be fine if she belayed our friend Geoff whilst I hung down the line of the route trying to photograph the escapade. Of course, it wasn’t fine, and I bloody knew it. There was a six-stone weight difference and my friend was well past his prime. The prospect of me witnessing some hideous climbing accident involving my girlfriend being propelled into the air whilst Geoff slammed into the deck wasn’t exactly enthralling. However, he was quick to point out to me that he had completed the north face of the Eiger and the Bob Graham, so I needn’t worry. This may sound dumb and somewhat irrelevant, but it was those very same character traits in his earlier mountaineering exploits that saw him up the thing. As his crumpled knuckles thrashed through the final jams he tilted his head towards me and the grin on his face said it all. Plenty of opportunities exist at the Financial Sector for these kinds of experiences, so be prepared for the time of your life.
Geoff Hibbert on Wish You Were Here (E3 5c) at the Financial Sector.
Wall Street (E2 5c) just around the corner packs a similar punch to Wish You Were Here, with an additional roof crack thrown in for good measure. I remember battling my way through the lower section, so absorbed with the movement that I hadn’t planned for what lay ahead. The cracks and fissures, delightful as they were, had taken their toll on my dwindling rack and reduced it to a pathetic collection of micro wires. Inappropriately armed I embarked on the final section of the route and learnt my lesson the hard way.
Once lured in by the charm of the Financial Sector you may never leave. The density of high quality routes in the HVS to E3 grade range is exceptional, as is the variety of climbing styles required to overcome them. From brutal fist cracks and offwidths, to sinuous finger cracks there should be something to suit all tastes. If you’re expecting pristine rock with well-chiselled nut placements then you’ve come to the wrong place. Neist is a place for the open-minded and adventurous. Be prepared for a bit of lichen and the odd loose flake and you will be rewarded with memories that last a lifetime. Bridging Interest (HVS 5a), Security Risk (E1 5b) and Gentleman’s Groove (E1 5b) represent some of the best-defined lines in the area and give a real taste for what is on offer.
Geoff Hibbert on Wish You Were Here (E3 5c) at the Financial Sector.
The following day we were curious as to what hidden delights the lower tidal cliffs had in stall for us. Rumours that a route of impeccable quality existed named “Sore Phalanges” (E2 5c) needed to be confirmed. There was dampness in the morning air as we slipped down the grassy slopes keen for more of Neist’s fine offerings. The lower sill of rock seemed to have a character of its own with lashings of vibrant yellow Caloplaca lichen, purple thrift and unfortunately copious quantities of evil smelling white guano thrown in to spice things up.
As the sun came around, the moisture seemed to lift leaving a glowing spectacle for our eager eyes. Hidden amongst the mosaic of textures and colours lay a blank looking wall that looked significantly compact than the upper cliffs. Instead of the usual cracks, vertical parallel seams that appeared devoid of any useful gear characterized this wall. The seams were occasionally interrupted by the odd edge here and there, which I presumed would constitute crucial footholds. It soon became evident that success would only be granted to those that took the time to fiddle in micro-wires whilst clinging to the knife-edge layaways that existed. An altogether enjoyable experience requiring precise footwork on rock with incredible frictional properties - sheer joy!
Claire Aspinall on Sore Phalanges (E2 5c) on Yellow Walls.
The secluded cliff at Destitution Point has several hidden treats in store for those willing to explore. It is easily reached by descending the expanse of grassy slopes beneath the prominent pinnacle of the Green Lady at the far end of the Financial Sector.
Man of Straw (VS 4c) has to be the line of the cliff and has everything you could want from a sea cliff experience. If the free hanging abseil doesn’t excite you, then belaying from the exposed tidal platform certainly will as you contemplate the impact of the next wave. Once firmly established, the positions are sensational for a route of this grade. The moves up the right-hand rib are as elegant and exposed as any on Neist, but with the security of the lichen infested gear crack to your left. A most memorable experience greatly enhanced by its proximity to the crashing sea horses below.
Roger Brown on Man of Straw (VS 4c) at Destitution Point.
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Just a stroll away you will encounter the delights of Poverty Point. A wonderful place to finish the day, as it’s westerly aspect ensures the rock is glowing right through until sun down. The prominent prow gives way to a tortuously steep head wall, which is home to some relatively late additions. The four star overhanging cracks of American Vampire (E4 6a) and Fight Club (E3 6a) were all snatched in 2001 by Pete Benson, whilst on a blitz of the area and represent the very best of the harder routes at Neist.
It’s fair to say that for those prepared to make the journey, a lifetime’s worth of climbing and adventure is just waiting to be discovered.
Lines join in faint discord
And the Stormwatch brews
A concert of kings
As the White Sea snaps
At the heels of a soft prayer whispered.
“Dun Ringill” Jethro Tull
Stocks and Stares HS 4b
One of the best amenable climbs at the Financial Sector. The meat of the route climbs a wide crack on the left edge of the buttress. This should be a pleasant experience providing you bring enough large gear for the upper section.
Man of Straw VS 4c
An atmospheric little route in a sensational position above the sea makes this a fine alternative to the routes at the better-known Financial Sector. Well-protected slab climbing on excellent rock.
Bridging Interest HVS 5a
A perfectly formed groove line requiring plenty of bridging, makes this less strenuous than the other HVS’s at the Financial Sector. Take plenty of small to medium wires.
An unknown climber on Stocks and Stares (HS 4b) at the Financial Sector.
Gentlemen’s Groove E1 5b
Completely different in character to many of the E1 cracks at the Financial Sector.
Situated at the adjacent Shimmering area, this route has some very interesting climbing through a perplexing roof that is much easier than it first appears.
Sore Phalanges E2 5c
A thoroughly enjoyable line up the eye catching thin cracked slab on the sea platforms of the Yellow Walls area. Take plenty of small wires on this hidden gem. An under rated climb in a magical location.
Wish You Were Here E3 5c
An unrelenting crack of the highest calibre that eats gear. The crux is passing the sustained thin hands jamming section in the lower half of the crack.
American Vampire E4 6a
A fine hand jamming test piece that saves its over-hanging crux for the very top.
This clan-destined location down by the partially tidal sea ledges is well worth searching out.
Claire Aspinall on Sore Phalanges (E2 5c) on Yellow Walls.
When to go
Neist is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream and experiences relatively small extremes in temperature making climbing a possibility all year round, even in the depths of winter. July and August are fine so long as a breeze is present to keep the midges at bay. It’s not uncommon for the sun to be shining at Neist when the Cuillins have disappeared in a veil of mist.
Where to stay
There is an excellent campsite at Dunvegan, which is just half an hour’s drive from Neist and has idyllic views. Two well stocked shops exist, as well a couple of hotels that do food and beer.
A standard sea cliff rack of friends (sizes 0-4) and a double set of wires should suffice. For access to several of the lower cliffs a 40m-abseil rope is essential. Some of the abseil stakes on the top path have been removed so it might be handy to bring one of your own, as rock belays can be scarce. A pair of Wellington boots is advised for the often-boggy cliff top path.
Parking is available at the end of the road at Neist point. It is possible to access all of the upper cliff routes on foot by leaving the parking and walking north along the coastal path. A couple of decent gullies exist but abseiling from stakes at the top is often more convenient. The lower sea cliffs of Poverty and Destitution Point require short abseils for some of the routes.
The Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Skye Sea-cliffs & Outcrops by Mark Hudson contains over 400 routes and is the only definitive guide to the area
Scottish Rock Volume 2 North by Gary Latter covers a selection of the routes only.
Mike Hutton is an Adventure and Travel Photographer based in the Peak District.
During the past decade Mike has travelled to 30 countries capturing images of climbers in the most serene landscapes. He has accumulated over 1500 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Rock and Ice, Climb, Climber, Climbing, Vertical, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Women's Adventure, Outdoor Photography, RockFax, The British Mountaineering Council, Derbyshire Life, Royal Geographical Society and The Outdoor Journal.
He’s worked with sponsored athletes from many of the top commercial outdoors brands such as Casio, Berghaus, Patagonia, Rab, Wild Country, Mammut, Boreal, Edelweis, Scarpa, Five Ten and Sherpa. Mike’s sporting background as a Climber, Runner and Cyclist has given him the edge to keep up with some of the best athletes.
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