Crag Notes: Shadowplay

As you pass Loch Tollaidh on the road heading north towards Poolewe, the landscape erupts into pale humps. This outbreak of dome and crag, more rock than earth, is endemic in the North West, where the push west of younger rocks has stuttered or eroded, and the rumpled foundations of gneiss are laid bare.

Crag Notes  © Tessa Lyons
© Tessa Lyons

From this spot, if you know where to look, you can also see the overlord of this ancient company, and the most remote of the great mountain crags on mainland Britain. Curiously, it doesn't look like much. This is a subtle beast, wearing like sheepskin a huge heather terrace that splits its upper and lower tiers, but get closer. Slowly, because you have no choice; the approach takes four hours on foot. By the time you reach the causeway that divides the pale and dark waters of lochs Fionn and Dubh, the great big claws and teeth are revealed; with huge overhangs and sheer walls, Carn Mòr leans in, gathered in vast abstraction of a breaking wave.

We had a deal, and a tight schedule. At Iain's wish I'd repeated Fionn Buttress; we still had Gob, Dragon and Orange Bow to climb before leaving tomorrow. At the top of the route, I set off to find the place where an abseil regains the upper tier, while Iain took himself off for a poo. Next up, the long diagonal line through monster roofs that is Gob, a timeless enactment of Robin Smith's audacity. I've wondered about the name; perhaps he spat from the final belay, and followed its mesmerising, uninterrupted fall.

When Iain reappeared, his expression announced that he would not be abseiling in with me. He was goosed. I had sensed this already, and had a solution. I had made the case to myself. Margins, experience, scarcity… It's fine. I know what I'm doing.

"That's all right, I'll solo it."

I am a spider on a lonely thread, twisting down into a vast and silent auditorium, stage-lit golden by the drowning sun. The Gods are the distant Torridon peaks, the upper circle the frowning battlements of Beinn Lair. The grand circle is the long ghostly slabs and hanging gardens that sweep down to Dubh Loch, and where the stalls should be, Fionn Loch reflects back the sky, an aperture to the infinite. All seats are empty, the stage set to perform.

The view from Carn Mor  © Andy Moles
The view from Carn Mor
© Andy Moles

I touch down and call up, and the ropes snake away. Beneath the overhangs, I am hopelessly small, fantastically alone.

It's fine.

I scuff toes on trouserleg, dab chalk; the orchestra tuned.

And now, the curtain drops. Is there a ripple of discontent? So be it. This part happens offstage. We must imagine, so let's imagine like this:

Backlit shadows move, hints of trope and form. A consuming frequency, somewhere between hearing and feeling, commences to fill body and mind. If it penetrates to seeing, then like the sun it colours golden.This begins imperceptibly and builds subtly, until it infuses everything. Thoughts flit through but they are birds, not expressions of you, just matter passing in mind. It builds and builds, with a sense of purpose and of progression, of enacting something more than the total of its parts. Until suddenly, you step out - and feel the absence of hum as sudden void, a rush of silence that is filled in an instant by the world rushing back in. As waking from hypnosis or an instantly forgotten dream - the genie now a lifeless lamp. There is only the relief of flat ground, and a relieved looking Iain Murray.

I went to the burn to fetch water, mind still floating somewhere above its quotidian ruts. As I walked back, eyes wet in the wind and in the face of the low sun, a hind crossed my path. She stopped and watched as I passed. I looked back at her, and unexpectedly, something that I had been holding out flooded back in. In that gaze, in some animal confluence of freedom and vulnerability, all my strident self-counselling about judgement and risk collapsed in doubt.

The next morning I cajoled Iain across the heather terrace and up Dragon, and then we had to leave.

When I pass Loch Tollaidh and the view opens on the mountains east, I remind myself to get back, across that hazy space. There is so much to do. The Orange Bow is still there, an improbable shape disrupting the air. There is a deer grazing by the causeway, that expanse of green grass tucked incongruously in Fisherfield's pocket. It will not be the same deer. The light will be different. The stage is set, but the script unwritten. Each performance is unique.

Dragon E1, Carn Mor (climber Iain Murray)  © Andy Moles
Dragon E1, Carn Mor (climber Iain Murray)
© Andy Moles

Andy Moles  © Ferdia Earle
Andy is a prolific all-round climber. He makes a living guiding and instructing as a freelance WMCI.


As a former literature student, he also has an eventful history with the written word, and writes an occasional blog.

He lives with his equally active partner Ferdia in North Wales.

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19 Nov, 2019

lame thought this was gonna be about gaskins

19 Nov, 2019

Read it and re-read it.

Strong writing, I thought. Thank you.

19 Nov, 2019

Nice article Andy, when we went, 3 oil executives invited us into the Hut just before our walk out, they plied us with smoked salmon and cheese and biscuits, and a lot of whiskey, we nearly never made it out we were that drunk

19 Nov, 2019

Brilliant, it hadn't occurred to me that the title was a surefire link to the holy of holies in bouldering mythology. The only false reference that crossed my mind was Joy Division.

19 Nov, 2019

Lovely writing Andy, and always nice to see Tessa's artwork. You've made me really want to visit this crag :-)

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