We moved to Gairloch from Aberdeen in 1979, and from the very first drive along the Loch Maree side road, any self respecting hillgoer, let alone a fixated climber, could not help but to be drawn to the outline of Slioch as it rises up solo & imperious on the far side of Loch Maree.
The old guide gave very little away except a quixotic note of a “Severe” climb on the right flank of the huge sandstone main buttress. Research came up with the beguiling story that this had been climbed by a WWII conscientious objector, who had been working in the forestry. On his day off he had made this ascent, the first up any ground on this west flank of Slioch. It must have been a steep & lonely climb, and whatever reason he had for objecting to active military service, lack of balls certainly wasn't one of them!
Once living in Gairloch I made local friends and one was a man who worked on the Letterewe estate for the then owner Colonel Whitbread. Once a day Charlie made the boat trip across Loch Maree to the 'Big House'. Would I like a lift – would I ever! So I have to say to my shame that I have never had the huge walk in from Kinlochewe that Roger Webb and partners must have faced so many times in their later forays. I did however always have to do the walk out, as I would never finish on the hill in time to catch Charlie's return trip.
The first few solo trips in 80 & 81 were spent exploring the flanks of what turned out to be a very complex mountain face. After a few abortive visits to try to find the wartime right flank severe and a couple of solo winter trips to climb easier right hand gullies, I decide help was needed.
Partners were always a problem in such a remote location. Our young locum Doctor was also a climber. He had not done much in winter, but he had the gear, could belay and hold the rope and that was enough for me. So another trip with Charlie took Andy Smailes and I over the Loch to Letterewe. It's still no slouch up from the big house to the base of Slioch, and as we crossed the outfall of Loch Garbhaig, we could gaze up & pick any main line on the face, none of which had been climbed in winter before. A whole virgin mountain face to choose from....!
Just left of the main buttress that we later named Atlantic wall, was a complex line of runnels - we headed for this. It turned out mostly grade 2 ground, with a long rightwards traverse at about one third height to gain the main chimney pitch of the climb. This gave good grade 3 sport & deposited us on the more open snows of the upper face, the climb and exit of which seemed to take forever at the end of a long day and with the walk out still to go.
Good conditions and more pleas for partners brought across some Eastern heavy guns from Aberdeen. Another boat trip saw Brian Findlay, Greg Strange and I heading up, this time for the left flank of the face. We chose a gully just right of a line of pinnacle that we assumed would cleave it's way to the top. To our surprise after three pitches, the route terminated at a coll after which dropped away to a further gulley that rose up from the left side of the pinnacles. Rather than drop down, I made an easy but exposed traverse rightwards for one rope length across the face, from where we climbed directly up the face. Hence the name “Surprise Gully”.
A new owner had moved in to the big house in the person of Peter Van Vlesingham, and Charley had retired – so new tactics were called for. Ian Davison, my long time climbing partner and I decided that water born deployment was still the way to go. We researched Aberdeen marine shops for a second hand inflatable and outboard engine. This done we launched our pre dawn assault craft from the visitors car park by start of the Loch Maree mountain trail. This was in the early Vlesingham days when he was viewed as a 'none to friendly' landowner. I have to say this attitude later changed.
Anyway, at the time we feared being seen, intercepted, & told to go back, even thinking that we might get a shotgun blast across our bows. So it was like Special Boat Service forces that we drove into the car park lights off. Pulled off the inflatable from the car roof, fixed the engine & phut phutted our way, too noisily for us, across the pre dawn grey loch. Once across, we hauled up the inflatable and covered it with branches and bracken so that it could not be found & sabotaged – so great was our phobia.
Another long haul up the hillside to the mountain face, this time I wanted to see the pinnacles that had caused Brian, Greg & I such route finding problems the previous winter.
What transpired was a lovely three pitch V' Diff of a route on delightful weathered sandstone. Finishing on top of the pinnacle to the left of our forced winter deviation of just a few months before. This time we abseiled down into the hidden gully and made our way up the easy though loose ground to the top. Always meaning to come back to climb the impressive left wall of the gully – we never did.
Two years of loneliness for the west face of Slioch, during which time day-by-day trips along the Loch Maree road still drew my eyes to the buttress of Atlantic wall. Another dawn raid in the summer of 1986 saw Ian & I again crossing the loch in our boat, still hauling it up the beach & hiding it. This time our sights were firmly set on the big wall. They say with sandstone that if it looks hard it will be desperate and if it looks easy it will still be hard, and thus it proved. We chose our line of weakness and built a cairn to mark the spot. Slioch was so little climbed on; we thought possibly no one would pass this way again and we wanted to let posterity know for sure where we left the ground to go up.
Ian always the excellent stylist led up and after placing a runner in the left of two crack at the bulge, climbed smoothly up and belayed. I followed and led through over the small bulge above the belay to easier ground. After that pitch followed pitch never reaching the same grade as the first two. One memorable pitch at about half height saw us climb a groove chocked with flakes sticking out like sharks fins. As we climbed we felt privileged to be there, the pair of us alone on a huge isolated mountain face. The view always stupendous, down across Loch Maree to the coast then the Isle of Skye and at the furthest distance the Outer Hebrides.
Slowly the route lay back and we began to meet startled and very smelly goats, who were used to having the place to themselves.
Slioch had the last laugh. On the way back we refilled the engine with fuel from a jerry can. Halfway across the loch the engine died. On checking, we found that in our pre dawn still half asleep fuddled state, instead of carrying the spare petrol can, we had taken a can of anti freeze. Ever tried rowing an inflatable for a mile across a wind swept loch? Not easy, the damn things catch every gust and skitters about.
We never did go back, other climbs beckoned, but every time I drive along the Loch Maree road and gaze across the loch to the silouet of Slioch I get a tingle. We were there; we climbed 'Skyline Highway'. It was a great, wild, lonely, Mountain day.