Neil Gresham is a professional climber and climbing coach. He has his own website: www.neilgresham.com. He is sponsored by Mountain Hardware and this trip report first featured on the Mountain Hardwear Blog.
'THE MAD MINGULAYANS'
...or so we were called by Patrick, our skipper, whose unenviable task was to sail us to the island of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides in June 08. My regular climbing partner Mark Garthwaite had been trying to get a team to Mingulay for the last four years, but every year we made our excuses. The amount of effort involved seemed disproportionate to the rewards. We had heard tales of teams who were stranded in their tents for a fortnight having managed no climbing whatsoever. But with Garth's persuasion we finally agreed to take our chances on what the Climbers Club website describes as 'the best sea cliff in the UK'. We can put up with a few days of rain with a claim like that.
We set sail from Ardfern and took turns to help Patrick sail throughout the night. Our main tasks were to make him tea and keep watch for lobster pots which might tangle with the propeller - God forbid that he would trust a bunch of sleep deprived climbers with anything more serious. My shift came at 4am as we turned past Mull and headed out into the open water and I was awe struck as the sun turned the ocean crimson beneath the etched silhouettes of Rum and Coll.
The boat was getting tossed around a little and with none of us being familiar with nautical travel, I was starting to feel a little out of my depth. The others were clearly failing to sleep in their cabins and soon appeared on deck looking worse for wear. To Patrick our host, it was all just a pleasure cruise but Garth had turned a shade of grey and Dave Pickford was trying his best to conceal the fact that he was vomiting over the side, much to Simon Tapin's delight. Least scathed from the turbulence was our final crew member, Charlie Woodburn, who even managed to out-class Patrick by preparing and consuming a greasy-spoon-style fried breakfast down in the galley.
After eleven hours of being thrown around under Patrick's supervision, the uninhabited island of Mingulay came into view. The plan was for Patrick to drop us off and collect us a week later, but we would be out of phone contact and would need to be entirely self-sufficient. Apparently, Mingulay is well known for being inaccessible by boat, so with nowhere to moor, we were forced to ferry our kit ashore using a small dingy. After a brief check to see that the river was running we waved goodbye to Patrick and in-so doing, cut all ties with the outside world.
We found the perfect place to pitch our 'Stronghold' Basecamp tent overlooking the beach, and then set off for a recce of the island. After a frantic slog up the hillside the first thing that struck us as we peered over the edge of the cliffs on the north side of the island was how high they were. We had brought 100m static ropes for the abseils but I had never seen precipices like these. A damp zawn dropped away into total darkness and you could just about pick out the sound of the waves crashing in, miles below. Without daring to admit it, I'm sure we were all hoping for something a little more friendly looking than this! We made our way over to a nearby headland only to be dive-bombed by an angry flock of skuas. These are large and very aggressive sea birds whose beaks imply that they are about to live up to their name. Having dodged these, we managed to find some smaller, more amenable cliffs and bagged some pleasant single-pitch mid-grade routes in the fading twilight. The first thing we all remarked was that we had never touched rock like this before. The metamorphosed gneiss had the friction of gritstone, yet with an abundance of positive edges to choose from. If this was the warm-up cliff then it was evident that we were in for a treat.
The next day brought rain so more exploring ensued. We were quick to learn that we had taken up residence in an extraordinary wildlife park and were unable to make it across the beach before viewing the first of many spectacles. A herd of seals and a colony of puffins were entirely oblivious to our activities, as if they had never encountered predators before, and at one point I thought I was going to be able to touch a puffin on the beak with the lens of my camera. We dragged ourselves away and circumnavigated the east side of the island. It was a day of getting blasted by wind, squelching through bog and viewing more awe-inspiring unclimbed zawns than a new-route hungry group of British trad climbers could ever dream of. There was so much to see that we ran out of time and retired to basecamp without having yet paid homage to the jewel in the crown that lies on the west side of the island.
The perfect dawn arrived the next morning. After caffeine injections and huge amounts of fried food we charged up the hill, heading west as fast as our legs could carry us. Garth strode out in front, feverishly following the directions in our print-out and soon we were all peering over the edge into the shady depths of a cliff known as Dun Mingulay. We couldn't uncoil the abseil rope fast enough, but just as we were about to descend, a storm came rolling in from nowhere, forcing us to take shelter in a nearby cave. It didn't last for long and soon we were sampling the delights of the best sea cliff I have ever climbed on. The bottom half was just-off vertical and covered in tiny flakes and crimps and the top was an overhanging bucket fest - and all of it immaculately solid. The topo describes four 25m pitches for most routes, but we chose to string them together into two giant 50m run-outs. Our first route was a mere E3 called 'the Silkie', but I was first off the blocks and have to confess to feeling pretty intimidated by my surroundings. The thought of making a mistake in a place like this couldn't really be contemplated. We soon got into our flow and Garth and I swapped routes with the others and bagged the neighbouring E3 that they had just climbed. There were constant exclaims as we made our way upwards and we re-convened on the cliff top in sheer disbelief. Then to top it all, as we sat in the meadow gazing out to sea, a whale burst above the surface less than 200 metres away, circled for a few minutes and then disappeared.
It was getting late in the day, but we had to go back for more, and so a group decision was made to drop into a steeper part of the cliff known as 'The Arch'. The easiest routes out of here would be E4, and some of these had been awarded an unorthodox four-star rating. When we landed at the base and gazed up, we were soon able to see what all the fuss was about. The only thing I couldn't work out was how you could possibly get an E4 on a cliff like this? The E6s and 7s were pretty evident but the improbable terrain that towered above our heads just seemed like no place for the middle grades. In the end, Garth and I traced out the intricate line of a Crispin Waddy and Andy Cave route called Ray of Light. This ended up climbing through some of the most mind-boggling rock architecture I've ever experienced. The last pitch was an overhanging space-walk with big run-outs above bomber runners and the grand finale was a leap of faith onto a giant sharks tooth that was hung suspended from the final bulge. We topped out in the dusk and stomped up to the summit to watch the sun slip away behind the isle of Barra. Far in the distance we could just about make out St. Kilda, the most remote of the Hebridean islands. We joked that we should savour the moment while it lasted and little did we know how true this would be.
In the night came the storms. They arrived from the West and then swung round to the South East, leaving us with little choice but to sit and wait as our Stronghold was battered by force 9 gales. During the first two days we lamented every second of lost climbing time, but as the storms persisted, the issue of getting off the island became a more pressing concern. Another two days elapsed and on our sixth night on the island, things were starting to get a little more serious - food and humour were still in good supply, but we had run out of coffee and booze and I predicted a 'Lord of the Flies' scenario if we had to listen to Dave quoting Shakespeare any longer! We prayed there would be a long enough gap in the weather for Patrick to sneak in and snatch us. As the light faded, Simon peered out of the tent for the customary weather check and was bowled over by what he saw. Over a hundred seals had gathered on the beach for what was surely our farewell party?
The next morning was thick with cloud and the heavens looked set to burst, but the wind had dropped and the sea was as calm as a mirror. Surely he would be able to make it? Then bang on-cue at 9am, a sail appeared on the horizon and Patrick's cheery voice came into range on the radio. I later learned that Patrick's surname was 'Trust' - which couldn't have been more appropriate. We scrambled to pack-up camp and an hour later we were sailing away. Spirits were high as we cracked open a beer. In spite of our lack of climbing prowess, we were all so relieved to be back on the boat. Mingulay faded away into the mist behind us, and not one of us thought to look back. Then all of a sudden, a school of Dolphins sprung up on either side of the boat. The more we whooped with joy, the more they flipped and darted in and out of the water. We were escorted for over half an hour until they U-turned and went on their way. It seemed like a parting gesture from an island that was shrouded in both cloud and mystery. Who knows if we will chance another attempt to re-discover it's hidden treasures. Mull could just about be seen in the distance and for now, it was time to head for home.