'really, this climb is what I have been looking for most of my life'.
Yet, as impressive as these ascents are, both in terms of the quality of the routes and their grades, it appears that Robbie has his eyes on even bigger prizes.
After climbing Le Voyage, Robbie mentioned 'big plans back home', whilst his announcement of Valinor teased: 'now to get stuck into the really hard projects...'
We got in touch with Robbie to ask about Valinor (read on for a healthy amount of Lord of the Rings references), his approach to opening new routes, and his next big project - the route he's been looking for for most of his life.
Congratulations on an impressive start to your season of trad! How does it feel to have climbed two hard - and visually stunning - routes right at the beginning of the season?
Cheers! I'm definitely chuffed to have done a few really quality trad lines such as Le Voyage and Valinor, as well as my latest additions to Ben Loyal, Òran na Cloiche (E7 7a) and Windwaker (f7B).
Le Voyage went surprisingly quick, which I wasn't expecting. I was hoping to have a really hard trad project to get my mind into shape ahead of the trad season. But on the flipside, it was nice to feel like I could tick a hard trad route like that quickly.
Valinor was far less about the challenge and more about the experience of climbing a new beautiful line on what must be one of Scotland's finest mountain crags.
Having spoken to a few people about Valinor, and looked at the comments on our news report, everyone seems very taken by the beauty of the route and its surroundings - for those of us who haven't been there, can you describe Ben Loyal and the scenery around it?
Ben Loyal is a stunning mountain situated just south of the Kyle of Tongue. It looks strangely mystical from afar... like something out of Lord of the Rings. Granite tendrils wrap around the grassy slopes, and on the summit, rocky granite outcrops strewn with massive boulders and crags lay between rolling green plains that remind me of the lands of Rohan. You half expect to see Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas chasing orcs with the Riders of Rohan on their tail.
When I first saw Ben Loyal on the drive across the kyle last year, I was instantly drawn to it... I felt like it was calling to me and I just knew deep down that something really special lay hidden up there on the summit. Turns out that a few climbers had already been up there, but for some reason it had remained largely untouched for many years.
Rab Anderson put up one route a long time ago, but Simon Nadin is probably the guy who's had most to do with it, climbing some truly outstanding routes in the E2-5 range with visiting friends from across the UK. He's also just done another E6 which I got the 2nd ascent of shortly after.
How about the route itself, it looks incredible and sounds like it's got a bit of everything! Can you break it down for us?
Valinor is one of the most obvious lines on Sgor a' bhatain. It starts up a pillar following a thin but easy crack feature which, as it steepens, leads you into a massive hollow undercut flake trending rightwards like a crescent moon.
This flake is a massive jug and takes big cams, but it flexes and always gave me a bit of the heebie jeebies, e.g. when removing the gear, one cam got stuck, so I prized the flake apart and easily removed the cam! Until this point it's not harder than french 6c climbing, but does get you a little bit tired.
You then have the crux - a tough F7B/+ boulder problem! The style of the problem is actually what makes it quite challenging, as there are several quite low percentage moves in a row... a reach up to a sloping undercut pinch, moving your feet onto some sloping tiny feet, stabbing into a flared crack that you can't jam, and repeatedly slapping up into the crack with both hands like your desperately trying to prize open the lift doors!
I have wondered a lot whether repeaters will use the same beta, or figure something else out? I honestly tried so many ways to make it easier, but nothing worked!
Straight after this you get a moment of respite with a handjam, but then have to contend with a much easier, albeit quite technical sequence up twin cracks. After this there is a final offwidth that you shouldn't fall from, but it is a little bit thrutchy.
All in I think it breaks down to being a hard french 8a+ which usually I would give E8 7a if it was super safe. However I was really hesitant to sandbag the next person to come along as the rock quality was a little dubious lower down, and the gear that protects the crux really does need to be placed pretty accurately to avoid touching the bad stuff, which I don't think could be achieved onsight. I opted to give it the E9 and take the ego hit later on if it gets downgraded :P
It seems like you're on a bit of a new route mission at the moment, what is it about opening new routes that excites you so much?
I have always enjoyed new routing, but it takes a lot out of you so I pick my moments. It's a bit of an art form for me... having the creativity and vision to see what lies beneath the moss and lichen, and to see the potential in an amazing future climbing experience. I really enjoy the process of cleaning a line, unearthing the holds and realising whether or not it's possible...
I get very giggly, like a kid who discovered a treasure that nobody knows about. I imagine if someone filmed me doing this they'd find it hilarious as I giggle my way abseiling down climbs on my own, scrubbing furiously talking to myself and occasionally cackling with glee... actually thinking about it, it might look more like Gollum with his precious!
But I don't climb just anything, it has to be really good! If I'm going to go to all the effort to clean and prepare a line, then it just has to inspire me. Usually I like to do harder stuff, but Ben Loyal is one of these places where I see loads of easier lines I'd like to climb too. However, I think I'd rather leave those for others to come along and have the experience of new routing. There's so much to do up there and I quite like the idea of encouraging more climbers across the spectrum of grades to go out and have these new routing experiences, as it is incredibly fulfilling.
Speaking of that, opening new routes can seem like a bit of a mystery at times, almost like it's something that's reserved for those operating at the top end - what would you suggest to someone who's never established a route or a boulder before, but is interested in trying to?
Well first you need a climb... The easiest way is to go to existing crags and boulder fields and to look between the lines that have already been done, but in popular areas it's really unlikely there will be much left that's not either really hard or on poor rock. It's not easy to find good climbs in well documented areas which is why Scotland is pretty good as there is so much undocumented rock... most of it is quite remote, but I quite enjoy that part.
If you're wanting to potentially find new stuff then you should check out OS Maps (satelite) and FATMAPS - I use these apps a lot when trying to find new crags and boulder fields. In popular climbing areas this can be challenging, but sometimes you can be surprised looking at less travelled areas and find hidden boulders a bit further away from the crag that have gone unnoticed. I always love scouring mountain slopes for big boulders (they often have a big shadow which give them away).
If you do find something you want to climb, you then need to have the skills to clean it safely. A good understanding of belay building and building re-belays is vital so you can work your way down the climb safely on your static rope (always use loads of rope protectors and re-belay with solid anchors!) Its just as important knowing this for boulders because even smaller boulders will often need to be cleaned from a rope. For the cleaning part, a key bit of gear is a good wire brush (SPID - cheers Dan Varian for that knowledge!) I use my nut key to scrape out thin seams or to cut away thicker chunks of mud that gunge up cracks.
One very important point I'd like to iterate is to be very selective with what you clean - there is no need to scrub the rock raw of all life. Lichen, moss, and plants need somewhere to grow. I do think in general that the act of climbing brings us closer to nature, and so I accept that there is always going to be a some unavoidable destruction in the name of climbing, so we should do all we can to mitigate our impact by only cleaning what we intend to touch with our hands and feet and leave everything else.
Lastly, don't be afraid to just go out for a walk and look around - that's the key to finding new potential climbs. Whenever I go rock hunting I spend hours wandering, often to little avail for what I desire, but actually I almost always find dozens if not hundreds of amazing climbs suitable for other people. Just yesterday I went to a potentially amazing new bouldering venue that hasn't been developed... I didn't find the king line I was looking for, but I think it would be the motherlode for countless others.
When you climbed Le Voyage, you said that you were motivated to try 'a hard trad line early in the season to hopefully prepare [you] for some big plans back home' in Scotland - and then after climbing Valinor, you said 'Now to get stuck into the really hard projects'. Are you able to tell us anything about some of the hard projects you've got planned/put time into already?
Of course! Last year I abbed two lines in Ben Loyal that I think will be amongst the hardest trad climbs in the UK. My plan this season was to put time into them and see which one I wanted to commit to trying...
The trip went a little different than I expected as I got sidetracked by Valinor (but it was worth it). I then started looking at a potential third line, but sadly that one just didn't quite work. Then I spent a bit of time on what I think is the better protected of the original two.
I think I want to commit to trying this project as I have now climbed every sequence on it, but with projects like these you can't rush them. They take so much out of you physically and mentally, and there has been a constant battle in my mind trying to come to terms with whether I want to commit to something that feels so bold and so hard - it's hard enough imagining climbing a bold E9, but then imagine sticking an E10 on top of that! It's also on top of a mountain, and conditions can be fickle... I spent many days up there in -7° wind chill, sideways rain, cloud inversions, and poor visibility getting very little climbing done.
The last day of the trip felt like a bit of a turning point as I successfully linked the crux and realised the whole thing is possible for me. Cubby (Dave Cuthbertson) and Simon (Nadin) had been with me earlier that day, and showing the crag to Cubby for the first time was really special as he was totally blown away by it. Seeing the glint in his eyes made me realise again how special this place is, and that, really, this climb is what I have been looking for most of my life.
What is it about climbing that inspires you the most at the moment?
Right now I'd say new routing in Scotland. I just love it! There's nothing better than spending all day at an amazing crag in the mountains or on a sea cliff, and ending the day with the orange glow of the setting sun casting beams across the landscape, the cool breeze shaking the bog cotton, painting the picture of little fairies dancing amongst the heather.
It's moments like these I realise, I love what I do!
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