After several months of lockdown it was late summer, and time for a holiday! We had been due to go climbing in Morocco again just after Easter, but obviously that was out. And despite quite a few days and weekends in the Lakes as lockdown eased, we were keen for a proper climbing holiday. The last couple of years we’ve been to the Bishop’s Isles (both of us to Pabbay twice, and Pippa to Mingulay once), and we were drawn once again by the wild beauty of the Outer Hebrides – this time to the Isle of Lewis
The rocks in Lewis have been formed over millions of years, thrown out as molten rock from the earth’s crust, and repeatedly folded, squashed, and torn apart. The Lewisian Gneiss is literally “nice” – often steep, usually with plenty of holds, beautiful swirls, and frequently intruded by veins of quartz.
The main focus of our climbing was on the sea cliffs. Mostly single pitch climbs. Access varies from easy scrambles down to large non-tidal platforms, to blind abseils into hanging belays on small pedestals washed by the waves at anything other than low tide. For a first trip and with everything to go at we mainly enjoyed more of the former easy approaches, and a few abs into obvious large platforms. Most of the walk-ins were short (often only 10-15 minutes) and in general the climbing is very accessible.
We went straight to work, getting in four quick routes on the afternoon we arrived, and after two more days were already feeling the strain. Lewis also offers mountain crags, and we figured an easier walk into the hills, and long multi-pitch slab climb could act as a substitute for a rest day.
That sort of worked. But the good weather didn’t let up (see below), so we carried on climbing every day, as our bodies gradually got weaker. By the end of the week I was struggling to hold on. Usually I reckon to be able to second most of what Pippa can lead up (~5c/6a) but was finding it all a bit too much, which resulted in various aiding manoeuvres (pulling on Pippa’s helpfully placed gear!), and requests for an early finish to some days’ climbing activities (always frowned upon by Pippa…).
But all in all the climbing was superb. I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking some more adventurous trad.
Lewis is a wild and beautiful place. The centre of the island is largely unpopulated, and gives way to expanses of heather moorland and peat bog, rising to rock strewn mountain tops in the south. Glaciers have helped shape the land, and moraines leave an undulating landscape of hills and small lochs.
The west coast, where the best climbing is to be found, is a complex mixture of rocky headlands and “geos”, interspersed with beautifully white sandy bays. Dotted around are the leftovers of a previously more vibrant crofting community – cottages each with their parcel of land to farm and graze. Nowadays a few more modern buildings are popping up, but in general the place retains its remote beauty and peacefulness.
Lewis is a long way north, and right out there at the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Outside the summer months it is battered by the most ferocious of storms, and it makes you pause for thought when you see huge boulders at cliffs 10 metres above the usual high tide, but which show signs of having been violently rocked when the storms arrive.
However, in the summer months it can be very fine, and so it was nearly the whole week we were there. Often the bad weather can pass over the islands, and for us it was dry nearly every day and often sunny (despite bad weather elsewhere in the UK). In fact it only showered for 30 minutes while Pippa was climbing the overhanging “Shadows in the Sun” (E2 5b), and so engrossed was she in her vertical gymnastics that she didn’t even realise it had been raining until she went for the finishing holds to find them sopping wet! It was windy a lot of the time, but, with the right choice of crag aspect with regard to the wind direction, it can be very sheltered down by the sea, plus a breeze keeps the pesky midges at bay!
We got the ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway, a 2.5 hour crossing, and it is less than an hour’s drive across the island (you can also take the ferry from Uig on Skye to Tarbert). We booked in advance, and I imagine it can get fully booked when busy (fortunately we were returning home on the English late August bank holiday, which isn’t a holiday in Scotland so probably quieter with tourist traffic).
We decided to go to Lewis at fairly short notice. Our default would have been to camp, and there would be beautiful camping to be had on the beaches. However, after a day’s climbing it is nice to chill out with some more luxuries (and even better if the weather stops play). So I searched around, and, while most places were booked up, I found a cabin at Carnish Bay available for four of our nights (assuming we’d camp the others). That seemed better than nothing. Then as luck would have it, the kind UK government slapped a quarantine on travellers arriving from various European countries, which forced the Dutch party staying before us to cancel, and we managed to get the whole week. Result! I can highly recommend this place – Carnish Flow Beach Cabin, right by a beautiful sandy bay, easy access to the Uig sea cliffs, and excellent hosts.
There is a well stocked shop on the “main” road at Uig, that doubles as a petrol station (15p / litre more than on the mainland – fortunately we managed to last on a single tank without needing to fill up) and post office. There are cafes dotted around, but all seemed to be closed due to Covid-19 when we were there. Many of the islanders are still quite religious and hardly anything is open on a Sunday.
Grades and stars are from the 2018 SMC “The Outer Hebrides” guide. These sometimes differ from those on UKC and in the earlier edition of the Gary Latter “Scottish Rock” selected guide
23 August – Orpheus Wall, Shawbost
10 mins walk from car. Easy scramble to non tidal platform below climbs. If you are happy at the grade then the two E2s were excellent, steep and juggy on great rock.
- Sirens of the Sea – HVS 4c ** (lead)
- Valhalla – E2 5b *** (second)
- Stolen Moments – HS 4b * (lead)
- Styx and Stones – E2 5c *** (second)
24 August – Magic Geo, Mangersta
10 mins walk from car. Abseil descent (from north side of geo for first two, from other side for the rest, hopping over boulders to get to Flannan Slab), mostly non tidal. Various climbing styles, rock ok.
- Flannan Crack – VS 4c ** (lead)
- Campa Crack – E1 5a ** (second)
- Flannan Slab Direct – E1 5b *** (second)
- Flannan Slab – VS 5a *** (lead)
- Island Fling – VS 5a ** (lead)
- The Black Crack – E1 5a ** (second)
- Last Orders – HVS 5a * (lead)
- Pomarine – E2 5b * (second)
25 August – Folded Wall, Labost
15 mins walk from car. Single abseil to non-tidal ledges for all climbs. Steep walls, excellent rock.
- Sleeping Dogs – VS 4b *** (lead)
- Snake Dyke – E2 5c *** (second)
- Left Edge – E1 5b *** (lead)
- Closer to the Edge – E1 5b *** (second)
- Le Slot – E1 5b ** (lead)
- Fifty fifty – E1 5b ** (second)
- Octopod – HS 4b ** (lead)
- Number 3 – S 4a *** (second)
26 August – Griomabhal
Multi-pitch mountain climb. 2km / 50 minutes approach. Good slabby rock. Mild wet streaks in places, but easily avoided today. Finish right at summit, easy walk off.
- Comes the Breanish – HVS 5a ** (alternating leads)
27 August – Rubh’ an Taoin, Uig South
10 mins walk from car. Easy scramble descent to non-tidal platform. Steep climbs on good rock. First two and last are great routes, perhaps low in their grades. Third is a tough and strenuous proposition.
- Neighbourhood Watch – E3 5c *** (second)
- Moac Wall – E1 5b **** (lead)
- Less Awkward Than The Principle – E3 6a *** (second)
- Twelve Years On – E2 5b *** (second)
27 August – Searraich Wall, Uig South
10 mins walk from car. Scramble descent to non-tidal ledges. Both good climbs (and plenty more here we didn’t have time for).
- Outer Limits – HVS 5a *** (lead)
- Atlantic Highway – E2 5b ** (second)
28 August – Boardwalk, Shawbost
15 mins walk from car. Scramble descent to non-tidal ledges. Variety of styles (steep walls, faces, corners, 3D bridging, etc.). Mostly solid routes at the grades, although the last is very tough.
- Black Sabbath – E1 5b *** (lead)
- Divided Fears – E3 5c ** (second)
- Bampot – HVS 5b ** (lead)
- Coloured Rain – E2 5b ** (second)
- Cracking-up – VS 5a ** (lead)
- Shadows in the Sun – E2 5b ** (second)
29 August – Veinous Wall, Mangersta
10 mins walk from car. Abseil to non-tidal ledge for first two, easy scramble to large sloping platform for last two (ok in mid/low tide, might get wet feet at high tide). Second somewhat harder than first, and last two both seemed tough for the grades, and some rock was a bit snappy.
- Veinous Trap – HVS 5a ** (lead)
- A Step in the Deep Blue – HVS 5a ** (lead)
- Mysteries of the Deep – E1 5b ** (second)
- Sea Shepherd – VS 4c ** (second)
30 August – Dalbeg Buttress
10 mins walk from car. Ab to large non-tidal platform. Very steep face / crack climbing. The climb is very sustained, but plenty of gear if you have lots of cams and the strength to hang on while placing them!
- Limpet Crack – E3 5c **** (second)
30 August – Small West Wall, Dalbeg
15 mins walk from car (5 mins beyond Dalbeg Buttress). Scramble down to various non-tidal ledges.
- Ruth’s Lazy Day – HS 4b * (lead)
- Midline – E1 5b ** (second)
- Black Slab Direct – HS 4b ** (lead)