At this point, now I’ve got your attention, I have to point out that there was an intervening period of over thirty years since I had attempted to teach Craig English. By one of life’s strange synchronicities, Craig had turned up at The Peak Climbing Wall in Stirling last year looking to get back into climbing after a long absence imposed by injury. As he works offshore, he was able to join the auld gits (aka veteran athletes) who go along during the day, and soon brought his father along with him. His father had been the climbing partner of the late, legendary Geordie Skelton, who had given me one of my first climbing lessons (Aye, you’re climbing fine, son. Lead on, here’s the rack). Craig had taken to it like a duck returning to water, from leading a V Diff last autumn to pushing E2 this spring.
Craig was full of enthusiasm for doing as many brilliant mountain routes as possible and had ticked off Bludger’s Revelation on the Buachaille with one of the younger and more talented retirees the previous week. Now it was my turn to partner him (rather older and less talented) and the route was to be South Ridge Direct on Cir Mhor, Arran. After considerable consultation at the wall we’d learned: 1) we’d be really pushed to do it in a day between ferries; 2) the Y Crack pitch was hard, probably 5b, and had been talked about by Craig’s dad since he was a child; 3) taking bikes would speed the process of traveling to the route. We only had a very short window of opportunity: there was only one forecast day of dry weather, Wednesday; and we had to be back on the last ferry on Wednesday night, as we both had early morning appointments for general election duties on Thursday.
So, despite high winds and rain on Tuesday afternoon, we’d set off hoping to catch the 6:00 pm ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick, buoyed up by the forecast of it being dry the following day. We were equipped with bikes, a tent and camping gear, as well as our climbing kit. The ferry was running late (which was just as well as the last one was cancelled) and Arran began to emerge from the cloud which had been hiding it. Soon we were ashore and heading north along Brodick seafront, with Craig expanding on his honeymoon there twenty-one years ago. We’d decided to go to the pub to put in an hour or so rather than be cooped up in a tent in Glen Rosa hiding from the midges. We’d rather enjoyed helping out some of the locals in the pub quiz, overseen by a compere in a gold lame jacket, when we realised it was ten o’clock. Time to go.
My lack of mountain bike skills is well known, but even I found the bike helpful on the good track up into Glen Rosa, despite the wind. We dumped the bikes at the end of the track, and headed onwards on foot for about an hour on the excellent path until a likely flat patch materialised. It was now pitch black, and around midnight. The burns were still roaring in spate, but there was no more rain. The wind, however, was blustering and buffeting, changing direction every so often and catching the tent side-on. As I tried to sleep, I was aware of tent poles bending, and the side of the tent would bellow in and nudge me awake. Our sleep was fitful.
Once it was light, the wind had abated somewhat. Craig, who’d been "a bit cold" in his new £12 Lidl sleeping bag, got up to answer a call of nature, and we decided just to get on all our warm clothing and get up. After the luxury of a cup of real coffee and assorted cereal, we sorted out our climbing gear, left everything else in the tent (after weighting the rear guys with large rocks as security against the wind) and headed off up the glen. Craig was very much in glass half-full mode, but I was rather more pessimistic: it was very cold, it was still blowing a hoolie and we couldn’t even see the bottom of the route below the cloud base. Craig blethered on irrepressibly.
When we arrived at the saddle between Glen Rosa and Glen Sannox, he pointed out the scenic view over the far side, and how he’d been there on honeymoon. There was one of those cartoon-like, penny-dropping moments. “We shouldn’t be here. We’ve gone much too far.” I took out my phone with the Anquet mapping software on it (the one I’d been carrying all the way here) and with some ill-natured remarks traversed the steep rocky hillside, wading through waist-deep heather. As we rounded the corner we could see that the cloud had lifted out of the Fionn Choire and base of the south ridge was visible. We’d lost a bit of time, but we now believed we had a chance of doing the route.
We geared up at a superb bivvy spot by a huge boulder below the lowest tongue of slab. We were still wrapped up in warm gear and waterproofs, and I’d had to squeeze my rock shoes over my socks to avoid getting frozen feet.
Somewhere around here there was an easy but tremendously exposed walk horizontally rightwards along the top of a sharp flake, then eventually I was at the base of the S Crack. The climbing was pretty positive, and I admit I had no compunctions about clipping into ancient tat in-situ in the crack at the steepest section. Soon I was belaying on a huge triangular spike at the base of the infamous Y Crack. The fact that very recent abseil tat adorned the spike, and the stem of what appeared to be a new cam was protruding from the rightmost of the two cracks above spoke volumes of some recent would-be ascensionist’s ignominious retreat. I was, I must admit, glad it was Craig’s lead.
But he’s a big strong boy. Without too much fuss he went up, got some gear, clipped the in-situ cam and powered up to get an edge on the top arête with his left hand. Some determined pulling and scrabbling saw him home and dry. I’d like to report that I followed cleanly, more stylishly and recovered the jammed cam. None of these three things happened. I do recall getting my left foot jammed in the crack and being unable to free it, and I remember instructing Craig to pull in no uncertain terms, but the rest is a blur of exhaustion and adrenaline. I floundered beside him like an exhausted kelt dragged from a river by a poacher.
You’d imagine that now we were over the main difficulties, with only one more VS pitch to go, that all would be plain sailing. But after another easy pitch, I realised I was very tired- Big Winter Route tired- and that getting my blood sugar up was a priority. The bag of jelly sweets was nowhere to be found, and the sandwiches I forced into my face were glutinous indigestible mush. To continue the poaching imagery, I was jiggered.
Then the ropes got jammed on the next easy pitch (it had already happened below the S Crack) and Craig had to take an intermediate belay. I led through to the bottom of the Layback Crack taking only the gear I’d retrieved on the pitch, and wished I’d had more as setting up the belay was awkward. I had begun to think through how we could explain not getting back to the mainland tonight, as time was frittering away. We were both sensible enough to realise that hurrying when very tired is a recipe for disaster; and Craig suggested abseiling off. It didn’t appear that we could reach easy ground in a single abseil, and given the possible difficulties, we decided it would probably be both safer, and just as quick, to continue.
Craig led the pitch with some aplomb with a delicate foot traverse leading away from the gear onto a vein leading rightwards across a holdless wall. It was a lovely pitch to follow, but I was very aware of the gusting wind, strong enough to have dislodged a climber without the security of a stout rope coming from his midriff.
Beyond here, according to the guidebook, lay only the Three Tier Chimney, between us and easy ground to the escape terrace. I scrambled round for a look to the left hand line.
I couldn’t get up it.
I descended and scrambled to the right hand line.
I couldn’t get up it.
Sometimes it is good to have a young bold leader. “Craig... “ I inquired, “do you think you could...?”
Craig did some more inelegant but powerful scrabbling on the first section; then had what seemed a very long struggle to get any meaningful gear near the top; but at last he was up. He’d saved our bacon.
I didn’t think there was any realistic prospect of catching the ferry, but I attempted to show willing and ran out another full rope length to the terrace below the upper pinnacle. I was so knackered that we kept the rope on and moved together even for the walk on turf to the summit ridge and the descent path. It was 4.40 pm. The boat sailed at 7:20, last boarding 7:10. It seemed impossible that we could catch it.
But Craig loaded up with both ropes and hared off downhill to strike camp; I followed as quickly as I could. By the time I arrived at the tent the contents were out and the flysheet off. Together we somehow crammed our gear into our rucksacks, with Craig also heading off carrying an Asda bag in one hand like a particularly tired and disheveled late night shopper. Despite his extra load, I again struggled to keep up.
He’d sorted the bikes and panniers by the time I again caught him. “The boat was late yesterday. We might catch it,” he said. We headed down the glen as fast as my limited skills would allow. At one point I had a headfirst somersault off the bike, but at least it was into soft bog. “You can say now you fell off in Arran,” Craig sympathised.
There was much sweating and blowing, but soon we were on tarmac, making relatively speedy progress, past the campsite, down the String Road and onto Brodick Main Street.
My heart sank. Although we’d made good progress, the ferry was nowhere to be seen. I slowed down and pedaled disconsolately towards the ferry terminal. Craig was speaking to the man at the kiosk.
Beyond it stood rows of vehicles.
“It’s only quarter to seven! And the ferry’s running late. We’ve about thirty-five minutes to wait!”
And that was really the end of our story: the ferry crossing and long drive home were simply a postscript to our madcap Arran adventure.