Earlier this month, we asked the question - what is the world's hardest slab boulder? The question was inspired by Dan Varian's ascent of The Magna Strata (f8B+), about which there was little information beyond the route description he added to UKC in late February.
The Magna Strata ☆☆☆ f8B+
4m. Starting with the french start move on the mission. Head 2m left and then up the beautiful rippled wall of the ship boulder via some thin and technical moves on slopey edges and pebbles. Grade is a guess due to lack of comparables. Quality is up there with the best there is anywhere.
We got in touch with Dan to get some more details about The Magna Strata, to see how it compares to some of his other hard boulders, and to ask what else he's been up to recently.
When did you first start trying this particular line? How many sessions have you had on this boulder?
I've been visiting Torridon since 2008 and I've always looked at the wall as I think it's a really striking bit of geology. I first tried the line in 2012 with Richie Betts and Gaz Marshall, and it would have been about 8A/+ but on my very first session I got rained off it and then got frustrated topping out and stupidly stood on the key pebble. It popped off and I felt pretty guilty. I wasn't that good at slabs/wall ultimate tekkers back then and I couldn't really comprehend how to climb it, so I just sort of shrugged and felt guilty but vowed to never say never on it.
I didn't return until 2015 on a family holiday and I decided to ab it and take another look at the face to see if I could solve the section I broke. I remember solving that section on that trip and being relieved that the face still was possible, but being frustrated that the level of difficulty was something I'd prefer on my doorstep rather than six hours away on an oft wet, south facing, ice scoured billion year old boulder.
Over the next few years I was usually passing or on a family holiday in the area once a year to call in. Life drifted by but the face stayed the same. I got close in 2019 as I did a lot of slabs (The Doppler Effect (f8A), Pebble Dash (f8A) ground up, and Your Majesty (f7C)) when recovering from a broken wrist, and that year I made two trips up but I just couldn't get through the last hard section.
This year Katie had a tummy bug and Dylan, an old friend from Sheffield, was at the crag for the first time with a non-climbing friend. They had no idea [about The Magna Strata] obviously, and Katie came out and just sat in the kiddy tent quite understandably not wanting to be there, so it was hardly trumpets and sirens, which was quite nice really, after all it is just a rock. I did it first try of the day after getting close earlier in the weekend and that was that, I think the ship boulder was just sick of the sight of an Englishman trying to board it.
Can you describe the sequence of the boulder? What is the crux?
It's pretty techy, hard bit is at the top.
Were there any breakthrough moments?
Yeah when I sat on the rope for four hours one day wondering how to move my right hand four inches to the left. That was the key breakthrough, solved by trusting half a 5p pebble. Sequence divination on FA's can be a right pain sometimes, but satisfying.
Did you do any specific training for the boulder?
Yep I made sure I ordered a toastie every time I went near the Torridon cafe, to help keep the weight on my feet.
You said the grade is a bit of a guess due to 'lack of comparables', what is it about this boulder that sets it apart from other others/makes it incomparable to others?
I've only really graded it on my 'took me a while without changing my sequence' Gradar. Those usually end up hard, but I could've missed something, and it's six hours from my house so not the easiest thing to project. There are so few hard slabs/just off vertical walls in the 8th grade to compare it to, so it's not easy.
It's a strange face in that it's got a slight bow to it so the feet slab climb and the hips can get close enough to almost unweight the hands, but the upper body has to feel its way across all the slopey strata ripples and the pebbles. So it's not a cut and dried slab but nor is it a vert wall.
Slabs break down into sub groups like frictionless slate, pure friction padding, and technical sequential types, this one is in the latter. Torridonian sandstone also forms no hard slabs en masse, it's not like hepburn or somewhere which has more than ten 7th grade slab problems in a few hundred metres, this face really is a special fluke in the valley. Alot of the other 8's I've developed in Torridon are steep physical things, like board climbing outside.
I really appreciate how people can just look at a picture of the ship boulder and the face to the right of Malc's Arete (f7B) without a climber on and be inspired. That, to me, is proof enough that bouldering can be something special sometimes. It's a privilege just to look at such old bits of planetary history, never mind climb on them. That boulder was millions of years in the making and, for once, it shows it quite well with the perfect interlocking strata and slight refractions showing its years.
How does The Magna Strata compare to other hard slabs you've done like The Doppler Effect at Caley?
It's in the technical bracket, annoying and conditionsy was my take away. It faces due south and if it's cloudy it's probably going to rain soon. Dec-Jan is best as the sun barely scrapes over Beinn Damph, notoriously dry calm months.
But it's also a world class challenge on immaculate billion year old rock, and a bit steeper than Doppler. I think the UK is growing a really nice collection of hard boulder slabs. Tsar Pushka (f8B) at Kyloe out, The Doppler Effect (f8A) Caley, Hard Knocks (f8A) Bowden, Soft Play (f8A) Bowden, Serious Sauntering (8A), Pebble Dash (f8A), Wade in the Water (f8A). I've not done Wade in the Water but the others are all good fun.
I've done a lot of the notable hard slabs in Font and have flashed upto 7C on them (Cosa Nostra, Plein Vol, La Super Prestat (White 17) (f7B+)). Duel I did in three tries on a 20+ degree day with no warm up except for the arete to the right.
I think the UK holds its own on hard slabs anywhere, but they're just a bit more spread out. My favourites are Magna Strata, Doppler Effect, Your Majesty, The Governor (f7C) and Half Smiling (f7B+), if you tick those you can have a nod.
How do the limiting factors change when you compare F8B+ slab climbing to F8B+ climbing on steeper terrain? Not many people (in fact, perhaps nobody else) can claim to have done both!
Well grades don't exist but rocks do, each challenge is unique, but in terms of climbing a really annoying just off vertical wall at my limit and steeper stuff I found the following stuff to help:
Slabs tend to be receptive to detailed algorithymic thought so sequence retention is helpful, especially when trying stuff once or twice a year! After that I found that skin and conditions have quite a big effect. Ultimately [on The Magna Strata] it came down to just not caring much and climbing well on it, moving through positions fluidly, transferring from pebble to smear etc. This also applies in some ways to steeper stuff but the main difference is that slight errors in movement really punish you on slabs as you can't squeeze to correct. So basically your center of gravity awareness just needs to be very dialled in. Knowing your shoes helps too.
I'd also like to think I'm a genuine slab fan. I like all styles of climbing but a worldclass hard slab, dyno, or mantle is something I always try to really appreciate as they're so rare to find.
After climbing The Rail, 8B+, you said this:
'If it's the best climb I ever do I'll retire a happy man, if it's the hardest, likewise. All I know is that it was a joy seeing through the process. This to me is why I boulder, for the difficulty and intricacy that can only be felt without distractions, to climb up lines like this'.
How do these words resonate with your experience on The Magna Strata?
It's still a sentiment that holds true for that face. Except the rock is better and the mountains and scenery are spectacular. I like to imagine how the pebbles were formed in lifeless rivers and got washed down into meanders and braids in a world without plants and soil. When you climb in Torridon on the sandstone there that's part of what makes it special for me.
That, and the cafes.
What else have you been up to recently?
I did another similarly hard problem a few weeks ago in Eskdale thats a bit steeper but fun and techy. It's in a lovely setting looking down the valley, I was happy with that one as it's got a cool backstory amongst us locals. It's called Right Here Right Now 8B (+).
Any other projects on the go?
Always. When you're as slow as me and take up to eleven years to get through them they build up.
I'd like to say a huge thank you to the locals Richie, Gaz, Anne, and Nigel for the sessions over the years, and of course Katie and my parents for the great trips in the rain. I'd thank my kids but they won't read this, actually Rhona unblocked the drainage channel that drains the ship bog so she was a big help, but to be honest I think she just liked the challenge rather than the altruism.
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Superlatives describing just how brilliant this sheet of rock is aside, it shouldn't be understated just what a significant addition Dan's ascent is in the development of climbing in the Highlands. A big and brilliant deal for those that care. Really inspiring.
Dan kindly also wrote a piece for Scottish Bloc, which can be found here: https://scottishbloc.com/2023/03/09/news-the-magna-strata/?fbclid=PAAaZKOAnGxzLvhMeMhoZB7lfme25wEuDkVDKTReEr6vECodmPbJCgwEFtQqM
This is exactly the kind of feature I'd love to see more of on UKC. Great stuff (and well done Dan, of course).
Great article and interview. Interesting choice of shoe, the Stix V2. Not known as a slab slipper, but a fabulous shoe nonetheless. Such a pity Scarpa don't make them any more.