The Finest Crags in the UK & Ireland Lewis, Outer Hebrides Mike Hutton in association with
Far, far away on the rugged coastline of Western Lewis stand some of the wildest sea cliffs in Britain. Lifetimes worth of new routing opportunities lie just waiting to be discovered in one of the most unspoiled locations in Scotland.
Landing at the port of Tarbert on Harris and making the longer journey to Lewis isn’t compulsory but comes highly recommended. A lunar landscape of fjords and mountains fills your vision as you venture north on the famous Golden Road. Built in 1940, this was the first road to connect all the tiny hamlets that have Viking or Gaelic names and cost a small sum of gold. Eagles soar across the peaks and seals bathe in lochs lit by dramatic light. Glimpses of the mountains that encircle the famous Sron Uladail may catch your attention, but they may have to wait for another trip to reveal themselves. The landscape soon softens and gives way to one of peat and heather. This is the very same peat that buried the legendary Lewisian stone circles of Calanais for thousands of years until they were un-covered by English antiquarians in 1857. The tell-tale signs of Nordic ancestry are still clearly visible in the friendly faces of some of the blue eyed and fair-haired locals. That and the remains of traditional thatched Norwegian black house dwellings are a sign of how engrained the Viking culture is to this present day.
On a previous trip, the skies had remained grey and the wretched midge was plentiful, creating a forbidding mood. My memories were of good company but not great climbing. Fast-forward to this trip and spirits were soaring. The contrast of the dazzling white sand against the inky blue sea literally left us speechless.
We quested for new crags decorated with lavish swirls of pink quartz intrusions, embedded in the most perfect of Lewisian Gneiss. Many of the routes themselves were works of art to the human eye. To climb them and enjoy the exquisite colours and textures not seen anywhere before was a privilege. These routes weren’t just climbed; they were savoured like a very tasty sweet, so nice in fact you didn’t want the experience to end. As each day drew to a close we would make our way back to camp enjoying the sweet smells of burning peat, slumping into our pits, our bodies tired from whiskey and a long day’s adventure. The extended daylight can do strange things to the soul and the cumulative lack of sleep sought only to enhance our moods and thirst for exploration.
If you get the time to explore this Celtic wonderland you will encounter magical geos (Gaelic for inlet or zawn) with sparkling turquoise waters, isolated stacks, abandoned islands and incredible natural arches just waiting to be climbed. Although gritty in texture, the mighty power of the Atlantic has transformed the majority of rock into something that is a joy to handle. It may be the oldest rock in the universe but it’s also the sharpest and will take no prisoners as it can slice through ropes or exposed flesh.
Not until quite late did Lewis start to get the attention it deserved when in 1974 certain members of the Lochaber MC, in particular Mick Tighe, began to slowly unravel some of the best sea cliff climbing in the country. If you’re ever fortunate enough to get on some of his routes you may wonder why this place is so devoid of climbers.
It’s a fair question, but I believe Lewis may not be the answer to everyone’s dreams and let’s hope it stays that way. By the 80s the place had lured Dave Cuthbertson and Gary Latter to create Painted Wall (E4 5c), one of the greatest routes on Lewis to this day. Dave soon returned with some roughnecks from Berwick to put up The Screaming Abdabs (E6 6b), which climbs through some jaw-dropping terrain in one of the most spectacular seas caves you are likely to encounter. Throughout the 90s Lewis seemed to attract only those that craved adventure. Names like Steve Mayers, Ricky Campbell, Glenda Huxter, Kath Pyke and Grant Farquhar were some of the ones getting in on the action.
Rachel Batt on Painted Wall (E4 5c).
Aird Uig Area
Our predicament was that we had landed right in the middle of a heat wave and were in danger of being fried alive on the scorching black rock that was losing its appeal at a rate of knots. The closely situated Traigh Uige sands are best known as the site of the most significant archaeological discovery in Scotland. The iconic Lewis Chessmen artifacts were unearthed here in 1830 and although the circumstances of their creation remain unknown it is believed they were carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth then buried in a stone chamber beneath the beach in 1200.
Pulling away from the call of the sea we eventually found shade on the west facing walls of The Boardwalk. One of Mick Tighe and Rab Anderson’s discoveries; this is an excellent introduction to Lewis when you’re not quite ready for an abseil into the depths of the raging foam below. A cluster of HVS’s on a delightful non-tidal black wall above the sea was enough to keep us out of trouble for the entire day. That was until Andy Turner got the bug and started to bosh his way up the testing E3 6a finger crack of Anxiety Nervosa. As clouds of chalk filled the air, illuminated by the blinding sunlight that was obscuring his vision, it soon became clear that as an ice climber and cyclist he could put up a valiant fight on the rock too!
Andy Turner on Anxiety Nervosa (E3 6a) at Aird Uig.
In danger of getting sunstroke, we retreated to the tranquillity of the northwest facing Gallan Beag Geo. Suddenly the mood improved, we were now in a much nicer place. A place where the sun was softer and serene water twinkled beneath as we took in the glorious views out to the island of Gallan Beag. Further Adventures in Paradise (E2 5c) follows a stepped corner on immaculate rock and was just the ticket for some low-stress cranking. Of course, that wasn’t enough for the Andy Turner-Martin Kocsis dynamic duo who had been lured onto the spectacular black wall of Seven (E2 5b) just next door. The line was certainly as bold as it was unobvious, and the unusual charcoal coloured rock certainly played havoc with Martin’s route finding. Very soon the route resembled a chalk-marked classroom blackboard and future visitors would still be none the wiser as to the true line. Like children we abandoned our lesson for the delights of the Traigh Uige beach, painting comical shadows in the whitest of sand that was to become home till the end of our trip.
Martin Kocsis on Seven (E2 5b) at Aird Uig
Aird Mhor Bhragair
As we stumbled out of the car at the delightful settlement of Siabost, spirits were high from the previous days’ antics but so were expectations, as there were rumours that this area was home to a 4-star mega classic. Passing miniature lochs, peat stacks and abandoned ruins we emerged at Folded Wall that was to provide a taster of what was on offer.
An abundance of quirky ripples and folds in the best of rock has created some very amenable climbing around the HVS grade. Mick Tighe has climbed just about every route possible here and most of his efforts deserve a thumbs up. The unmistakable diagonal cracks of Snake Dyke (E2 5c) are hard to miss and have “climb me!” written all over them. Routes like Sleeping Dogs (VS 4c) and Le Slot (HVS 5a) are all worth seeking out. So abundant are holds in this region you could climb anywhere at no more than HVS.
Andy Turner on Snake Dyke (E2 5c) at Aird Mhor Bhragair.
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Quote from Martin Kocsis:
When a route is paraded across the page as “Worth coming all the way to Lewis for” it sets certain expectations. There was a degree of healthy scepticism in the air as Andy Turner & I abseiled down the cliff to lash our selves to a small ledge above a broiling sea. Just about everything else was perfect that day: 25 degrees, a good sea breeze and some fine company. The Scottish islands in May can be a small slice of personal heaven and when you find it, hang onto it. The same can be said about the traverse holds on Children of the Sea (E2 5b). The penalty of muffing the first dozen moves might have been a hilarious dunking and so were not to be taken lightly. However, the reality of the route, the crag & the island is that those moves on perfect Lewisian Gneiss were never really in danger of spitting me off into the drink. They were just too gorgeous for me to ever want to let go of them and so the rising traverse came and went in a series of perfect moves and enjoyably spaced gear. There was a mandatory grovel onto a guano covered ledge below the bulging crux headwall, which was a relief as it was a chance to get my boots off and try to cool down in the (by now) blistering heat. Once sorted, the headwall gave way in great big handfuls of holds, which led to a glorious, breezy perch and some shade. As it happens, the route probably is that good, but then so were about ten others we did that week.
Martin Kocsis on Children of the Sea (E2 5b) at Arch Wall.
Martin Kocsis on Children of the Sea (E2 5b) at Arch Wall.
After an incredible journey past blue bays and a charming white beach, we reached what can only be described as the jewel of all sea cliffs. I am usually quite sceptical when a crag claims to host two 4-star routes, but this place pretty much ticked all the boxes.
The unrelenting and colourful groove line of Neptune (E2 5c) comes highly rated, as does the bold and beautiful Tweetie Pie Slalom (E5 6a), but our prize was to be the 40-metre soaring quartz weakness of Limpet Crack (E3 5c).
As a lone seagull soared through the air casting a shadow on the route, there was a surreal moment when Andy’s body became lost in a collage of pastel hues, picked out by the soft evening light. An artist couldn’t have wished for a better composition. It was a very special moment when form, texture and beautiful flowing movement all merged into one. Andy’s words: “There’s no way your fingers can fall out of this crack, it’s just whether you've got the arms to keep them there" sum up the experience well.
Andy Turner on Limpet Crack (E3 5c) at Dalbeg.
Painted and Toras Geos
When Dave Cuthbertson and Gary Latter paid a visit back in 1985 they created what is regarded today as some of the best E4-E5 climbing in the area. The approach is just minutes and the non-tidal setting above the enticing deep pool is as exotic as the climbing. I remember on my first visit being memorised by the colours as I gazed across from the opposite side of the geo. The very amenable overhanging hand crack of Gravity Man (E2 5b) went down a treat, but Painted Wall (E4 5c) was to be my challenge. A whopping 25m long pink and white band of quartz defines a huge diagonal line of the highest standard. The line is never too hard, but unobvious moves and tricky to place gear soon take their toll on your gradually fading arms. The same arms that you’re going to need for the enormous steep pull at the top.
The recent efforts of Emma Alsford and Paul Donnithorne around the corner in Toras Geo have produced some gigantic sea cliff adventures at much more amenable grades. Argonaut (HVS 5a) is a very fine outing up the red quartz seam in a sensational position for the grade. Palace of Colchis (E1 5b) is a massive 80 m rising traverse that tours the whole cliff. The ground covered is impressive, but thankfully it manages to avoid all the steepest terrain.
Andy Turner on Painted Wall (E4 5c).
A trip to Lewis just wouldn’t be complete without an adventure on the terrifying sea cave at Mangersta.
Whilst climbing the cracks of Suffering Bastard (E4 6a) and Killer Fingers (E5 6a) Cubby, Lee Clegg and Callum Henderson had eyed up the sea cave, but little did they know what was in store for them the next day! As the sun dipped below the horizon an epic performance took place as they aided the 6b roof in the dark. Returning the next day, a monster of lines was freed and appropriately named The Screaming Ab Dabs (E6 6b).
It still took till 1996 for Glenda Huxter and Howard Jones to discover a more amenable exit to the sea cave and create The Prozac Link (E4 5c). Unsurprisingly, the Andy Turner/Martin Kocsis duo chose this option in favour of aiding through the roof. Capturing the events on film was going to be a spicy affair. Dangling in free space, my ropes rubbing over the sharpest rock on the planet, with a 100m drop to the swirling turquoise ocean beneath me was mind blowing. Hanging beneath the roofs of Screaming Ab Dabs for several hours was playing havoc with my head and I had to struggle to stop myself rotating. A passing trawler caught my attention as it strung out a beautiful line of lobster pots which sank gracefully to the sea floor to catch some crusty creatures unaware. Soon my eyes focussed on Martin as he started to weave his way through this crystal maze of holds above the very lip of the cave. 5c climbing in a non-retreat able situation like this easily merits E4 and the severity of the situation was clearly reflected in his facial expression. As Andy ventured out onto the final wall of orange pegmatite with the inky black ocean thundering below, an amazing spectacle of sea cliff climbing appeared through my lens; captured forever and for all to see.
Andy Turner on Pitch 4 of Prozac Link (E4 5c).
New Routing and Deep Water
I was chilling at Toras Geo when Andy re-appeared with a grin on his face. Tales of new cliffs and deep water soloing needed to be checked out. Like kids, we gallivanted around the headland to check out what treasures could be unearthed. A particularly aesthetic fat band of quartz marked the way for a remarkable journey across the sea. Initial attempts to solo this were soon abandoned as we fathomed that should the large piece of quartz detach itself, then we didn’t fancy plunging down into the drink with it. Traversing out above the ocean into a sensational position on monstrous jugs of scrittly pink stuff, I was still non-the wiser as to what was gluing it to the cliff. The miniature classic was christened, Miffed by the Thrift (HVS 4c) and set the standard for the rest of the cliff. Hidden gems unveiled themselves over the coming days and we felt pleased we had left our mark on this fantastic new venue.
Andy Turner new routing at Eilean Geo. Crack with a View (6a).
The news was even enough to attract the attention of Mr. Kocsis who had gone into permanent hibernation following his Prozac experience and a very rough boat ride to St Kilda. The next zawn round contained a beautiful sweep of jet black Gneiss that is now home to Wish You Were Here (VS 4b) an improbable 3-star line on rock more reminiscent of slate. Andy’s final addition of A Crackwork Orange (E2 5b) was utterly superb. A perfect finger crack on a stunning orange wall at the seaward end of the zawn led out to an exposed finale up a blank looking arête. As for the deep water soloing I shall say it offered more than enough for the aspirant among us and shall leave you to make up your own mind.
And so, the time did come for the team to depart. Taking away many fine memories but also leaving behind just a small mark on what is possibly one of the best sea cliff climbing venues in Britain…
Andy Turner on A Crackwork Orange (E2 5b).
Caledonian MacBrayne sails between Ullapool and Stornoway on Lewis twice daily.
The other option is to take the ferry from Uig on Skye that will land you at Tarbert on North Harris. Both these options involve a beautiful couple of hours driving at the other end. The drive north must be seen to be believed.
When to go
May through to September are best, though the midgies could be an issue in July-August unless there is an off-shore wind. Take plenty of midge’s repellent.
Where to stay
The best option is to stay half way up the west coast at the camping spot by the stunning Traigh Uige beach. The last time I stayed there were toilets and water. Payment was made to an honesty box up the road. This has the advantage of being situated midway between the climbing areas and access to a local shop that serves as a café.
Martin Kocsis on The Swan (E1 5b) at Eala Sheadha.
A very large trad rack is recommended, as some of the routes are over 40m. Micro wires and cams can be handy in the minute slots created where two rock types meet. Many of the routes can be scrambled into, however, some will require a 70m abseil rope with several rope protectors, as Lewisian Gneiss is extremely sharp and will destroy your ropes.
Scottish Rock Volume 2 (North) 2nd edition 2014 by Gary Latter contains a selection of the best routes.
A comprehensive guide to the Outer Hebrides, which includes Lewis, is due to be published by the SMC towards the end of July 2018.
Martin Kocsis on Pitch 3 of Prozak Link.
Mike Hutton is an Adventure Photographer and Writer working for the Outdoor Industry.
During the past decade, Mike has travelled to over 30 countries capturing images of climbers in places rarely visited by people. He has accumulated over 2000 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books and on national television. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Geographical Magazine, GQ Italia, Red Bulletin, Rock and Ice, Women's Adventure, The Outdoor Journal, Rockfax, Climbing, Derbyshire Life, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Vertical, Climax, Climber, Summitt, Outdoor Photography and Rock and Snow.
Mike has worked with sponsored athletes from many of the top commercial outdoors brands such as Casio, Berghaus, Patagonia, Rab, Wild Country, Mammut, Boreal, Edelweis, Scarpa, Five Ten, Sherpa and Sterling. His sporting background as a Climber, Runner and Cyclist has given him the edge to keep up with some of the best athletes.
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