4 - 12th June - Pabbay is an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides
Nine months planning, numbers varying from an initial twelve to a peak of twenty four plus four on a waiting list then back down to sixteen who were in for the long haul. Then the Boatman seemed to be refusing to take us unless we were at least 20 in number. Finally the satellite phone rental company forgot that there was a four day bank holiday weekend for the Jubilee and didn’t send the phone out in time. In short no shortage of stress for the organiser. However as the day drew nearer good weather was promised and we got off to a glorious start. Result – Two days climbing on Pabbay then evacuated because of the weather. Well it was never going to be easy. It’s fair to say we had a cracking time however and lots of climbing took place, just not where we had planned.
The brave sixteen met in the salubrious environs of Tesco carpark in Oban to pack three VW camper vans to the limit with as much
climbing and camping gear, food and drink as we could manage. The ferry trip to Castlebay on Barra felt like a tropical cruise with clear
blue skies, mirror smooth sea and visibility for miles. Sightings of dolphins, basking sharks and Minke Whales kept us entertained. Arriving on Barra we met Francis the boatman who, together with his very able daughter, was able to pack all of our gear into his boat and transfer us across to Pabbay in two loads.
After meeting a group of sea kayakers who had already set up camp we spread ourselves around the area just above the beach and
planned the climbing for the next few days.
The weather forecast was generally positive for the week with a hint that there may be a change towards the end with more wind – ‘That’ll keep the midges at bay’ we thought. For two days we explored the various incredible sea cliffs that Pabbay has to offer with the parties of “the two Andys” and Sophie and Ed determined to tick off as many classics on the first day as possible. In separate groups we climbed at all the major areas and some ticked off the “four star” classics such as Prophecy of Drowning, Endolphin rush and Sugar Cane country. For me the ‘highlight’ was the teeth-gritting and sphincter-tightening 90m free-hanging abseil into Grey wall recess to climb U-Ei, one of the first routes climbed on the island by a group of German visitors in 1995. I think we felt that all the routes done deserved several stars at least; the quality of the rock and the situations were superb.
By the end of the second day we had heard via various reports that the forecast might be turning worse than originally forecast. We
attempted to contact the Boatman via text that evening – it turns out that there is intermittent EE mobile reception on Pabbay, worth buying a PAYG SIM card if you’re planning a trip. We also had two VHF radios. The text managed to send itself sometime overnight but no reply had been received as we headed off climbing that morning. A few of us stayed at camp until 10am to try and contact the Boatman via the radio as he passed. He was spotted and we made contact but we were not really prepared for the response; “I need to get you off the island today otherwise you’ll be there until next Tuesday at the earliest. I’ll pick the first group up in an hour and a half”. Well we had no choice really. The day was again glorious with blue skies and only the hint of a bit more wind though the direction had changed bringing a bit more swell onto the beach.
So we packed gear and tents as fast as we could and sent runners to retrieve abseil ropes and the other climbing parties (who had by now received the text reply saying the same). By that evening we were sitting in the sun in Castlebay eating fresh scallops overlooking the harbour and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Overnight it rained, and it continued raining most of the trip back to Oban on the ferry. We later heard that the sea swell reached five
metres by the end of the week when we had been planning to be picked up – The Boatman knew what he was doing, but it was galling
Not to be downhearted we changed plans via the usual large climbing group democratic process of everybody coming up with conflicting ideas and eventually deciding to put off decision making until later. We headed north to the Climbers Club Hut in Roybridge just north of Fort William. We had the place to ourselves and were able to make a final decision for the rest of the week; we would head even further north, almost to John ‘o’ Groats in fact!
So the next day we climbed at Creagh Dubh near Newtonmore and then headed up the A9 to Caithness where there are a variety of sea cliffs, partly developed but with scope almost certainly for lots of new routing. Other than a few showers and a fair amount of wind the weather was much kinder to us than the west coast was currently experiencing and we enjoyed routes at areas known as Sarclet and Mid Clyth and had the places to ourselves. Finally we headed back via a night at Dunkeld, climbing the next day at Polney crag in the sunshine before driving back home.
In all we had a fantastic trip seeing much more of Scotland and a greater variety of Scottish climbing than planned but there is a lot of
unfinished business on Pabbay. It’s just that I’m not organising it next time!