Gazing through the sheets of torrential rain, I gazed up at the impressive rock mass of The Shelterstone crag. I was a young keen teenager out bagging the Munro Beinn Mheadhoin on a horrible wet Saturday in July. A bit like today. I can still vividly remember that day. No visibility, pissing rain and soaked to the skin. I loved it. At this point in my life, I had barely started rock climbing. For some reason I owned a copy of 'Highland Outcrops' and ‘The Cairngorms Volume 1’. In my mind, I knew it all, in reality, I knew nothing. That picture of Murray Hamilton questing across the second pitch Missing Link was (and still is), one of the most inspiring things I had ever seen. At the grade of E4, that was way beyond me. In fact, untouchable. At the time, I was still lobbing off VS. ‘V Diff’s’ and ‘Severe’ were more my standard. However, another route known as Realm of the Senses E7 6c was imprinted in my mind. I don’t know why, it just was. The thought of a route at E7 standard was even further beyond my mental capacity.
|The Shelterstone. Unfortunately not the best view of the slabs|
Time moved on and my hill walking days out declined. These days were replaced by rock climbing. As I became a bit more familiar with rock climbing and grading, that fantasy of the Missing Link and Realm of the Senses just seemed even more distant… This rock climbing malarkey was hard. I aspired to E1 and realised if I reached that point in my life, I would be content.
Anyway, I won’t bore you with my rock climbing apprenticeship story. The Central Slabs in the Cairngorms is one of the best crags we have in Scotland. I think so. Many would disagree, probably because they have no actual knowledge or experience on them. I have had the privilege of working my way through the routes in ascending grade order, each with their own story. The Pin E2 with Robin Thomas, a fine second route after a quick ascent of The Steeple E2. The Harp E3 with Danny Laing. It was due to rain from late morning, so one Saturday night we walked in, bivied at the base and started the route just after first light. It was magic. The wind was howling whilst the whole crag basked morning sunshine. A sight rarely seen by the day visitor due to its easterly aspect We were in the Mountain Café in Aviemore by 11am. The Missing Link E4 5c with Robin Thomas. This went with no problem. The danger was I developed a hunger for more. Then there was Thor E5 6b with Guy Robertosn. I can still feel the relief of grabbing the belay flake. My mouth has never been so dry! Cleaning on lead was new to me. How I never fell off, I will never know. That day, Guy awarded me my Cairngorm Granite Technicians Badge. I woke the next day broken.
|Guy Robertson following pitch 2 on Thor|
Cupids Bow E5 6a with Gaz Marshall was a less intense day out. I then thought, enough was enough. The routes became a different ball game after that. Harder with much more serious run outs. But Run of the Arrow E6 6b burned in my mind. Julien Lines said to me it was fine. So Andy Ingils came in for ‘one more outing on the slabs’. This was hard and the gear was terrible. The guide mentions a 'large wedge shaped runner'. For the inexperienced eye, I could not see this. With the blinkers on, I did the crux traverse. It was a relief to not be testing the gear. Caff writes a good story. I’m glad this route slowed the UK s finest trad climber down ;-).
" The last one on a recent trip to Scotland made me think about the history of the climb and was more testing than I would have expected, no offence to Murdo. Setting off on the main pitch on Run of the Arrow I had my trainers on my harness and was expecting a quick run up a classic e6, not quite as cocky as it sounds as I’ve done a few 100 of this grade and normally get up them first go although I’ve found an easy way of finding fear is to set off on them when very tired or hungover.Dinwoodie had onsighted to the high flake on it on a 1st ascent effort and then managed to scrape in a wire somehow and make an epic retreat. Later on Pete Whillance abseiled the climb and then did it.
My guidebook said many wires in the cracks on the face, I got 2 ok RPs next to each other which and the sequence above felt E6 leading to easier climbing and the end of the good feet. I did ponder for a few minutes there. I knew Pete Whillance would have had a fag where I was and carry on regardless of facing a fall which I thought you’d be very luck to survive. I was pretty impressed Dinwoodie had got to this point without knowing anything about the level of climbing or gear he faced which must have been one of the pushiest efforts of the time.I eventually climbed higher to get in an RP and reversed back to make the grim move to get gear in the lower bit of the flake where I didn’t actually get anything useful in. I extended the top RP miles to stop it coming out with rope drag and eventually committed to the 6b moves up left. I spoke with Tony Stone later who said I’d missed some key sideways stopper but either way I didn’t clock it and as a lead without the bashed in wires it felt more dangerous than many E7s I’d done, quite like the routes found on north stack. Dan Vajzovic got off lightly as he was close to getting guided up it the week before but his boots looked a bit too crap." (James McHaffie, September 2016)
Enough was enough. Realm still burned at the back of my mind…. But 6c on those slabs is nails. Aphrodite E7 6b began to play havoc with my mind. Iain Small and I summoned the courage to do this. A 3 day affair saw us bagging this bad boy in 2014. I actually wrote an article about this. It can be found in the SMC journal Vol 2016. But, if folk were interested, I will publish it here.
|Gaz Following pitch 2 on Cupids Bow|
|Iain Snapping a peg on Aphrodite|
You must be bored by now?
October 2016, I found myself starting up Realm of the Senses E7 6c. The forecast was for rain to arrive in the afternoon. Instead it arrived later morning. That was the end of the mountain trad for summer 2016.
|Me starting up Realm of the Senses 2016 (Photo: Iain Small)|
Tuesday 23rd May 2017, I receive this from Gaz Marshall “ Just for info, I asked a mate in Aviemore about the Shelterstone Connie. He said: ‘Hola! Hardly any snow left I think. I looked over to the Shelterstone today and saw no snow at the top of the crag. Can’t vouch for seepage situation but with these warm temps forecast, should be lovely’.” That was enough to send me into a world of pain. I messed up my working pattern and was missing the bone dry conditions. However, with some careful negotiation, I scored the Friday off. Iain was obviously committed to the cause 100%. There was no route name or venue mentioned. We both knew where we were heading.
Pitch 1 warms the feet up nicely. Iain quested off up the main pitch. It starts easy then ramps itself up with difficulty. A hands off rest is gained. Iain unlocked the starting groove and reached the point where the overlap turns horizontal. He raved about the fact he could actually hang on some crimps and rest his calves! He eventually committed left, but was quickly ejected.
|Iain following pitch 1 of Realm|
|Iain working his way up the groove.|
|Iain at the 'good rest'....still strenuous!|
I was up next. Starting up the groove, I felt rather tense and uneasy. Not a good start. So a lot of upping and downing. Eventually I committed and gained the no hands rest. The first desperate move of the route (for me anyway) was leaving this rest. Pasting my left foot on slippery granite and lay backing up the blunt overlap using a pinch grip. I reached the resting crimps and let my calves depump. Looking left looked desperate. There was nothing. Slab and overlap. The guide even says "Move left on non-existent holds..." I delicately moved out the rest made a few moves, then was ejected too.
|Me looking left. (Photo: Iain Small)|
Hmm, this was not going to be an easy day! Iain was up next and took the lob. (We are falling onto a good cluster of gear off to the right). But this time he took the time to try again and again. Eventually he made it across the overlap. It was good to see Iain try! Then there was the Missing Link section followed by the most tenuous, heart breaker of a move left to the Thor Belay. Fixing a belay he rapped the pitch, cleaning the kit out and scrubbing holds. It was me next. By this point, I was cold. Starting up the pitch I was tense again. That first tricky move spat me off. I lost it! I'm sure Gaz and Mhairi on The Steeple heard my tantrum. Back at the belay I was feeling frustrated and annoyed. Anyway, maybe that was good. A bit warmer now, I went again. Somehow, I managed to get over that move and reach the crimps. I had no expectation any more. Glaring left, I could see dabs of chalk… marking nothing. But in fact marking something. I guess it depends on ones perception of what is a hold and not a hold. Anyway, I went for it. Loving my big hands, I managed to just pinch my way across the overlap left. Matching feet on nothing, eyeballing a good side pull, I launched. Fuck! I caught it, I was still on.
|Me on the traverse (Photo: Martin Mackenna)|
|Oh bugger, I just got through the crux (Photo: Iain Small)|
That woke me up. Taking a moment, I worked the sequence out. I had to match it, and press off it, smear on nothing and reach to the good flake out left. Closing my eyes (well not literally) and taking a deep breath I made the move. Blooming heck! I felt totally committed. Arranging the gear, I took some time to chill out. The crux was done. I just had to keep my head together for the Missing Link crux. So up I went, treating the 5c moves with as much respect for 6c moves. Then I arrived at the move out to the Thor Belay. This looked hard. Annoyingly hard. Just give me some overhanging crimps to pull on! Please! But no, just a committing move left. It basically involves a span left, releasing your right hand smearing just your left foot to reach an out of reach (crap) hold. Then spanning above me with my right, I pinched a little arête, pasting my right foot up, some more moves, I can’t recall then a reach into the juggy flake of Thor. Mouth dry, I clipped the belay and sagged back. Flipping heck, I still can’t believe it. What a pitch!
Iain was up next. For him, it was a bit more stressful. Traversing the overlap spat him off several times. I could feel the stress and frustration. These routes rely on just subtle irregularities in the rock. You can’t pull harder. To work the move is impossible without a top rope. Last attempt, He got it, got to the side pull. There was still that move to the flake. Even I was holding my breath and closing my eyes for him. He did it. And off he went, cruising like he does. Walking out that night was unreal. That pitch of Realm of the Senses was done!
|Iain on the Missing Link part.|
Dinner at 12.30am, followed by a crap sleep; I was broken the next day. My whole body was cramping, especially my calves. Normally after a route on the slabs, I have no more interest. However, Athene is burning in me. However, that would involve the Realm pitch again. Folk keep asking me about Icon of Lust. That’s a different ball game. So I’m afraid the line will be drawn soon. Well I’ll draw it in pencil ;-)