Midsummer Madness, June 2015:
Scottish Cliff Climbs and The South Downs Way
To celebrate the second anniversary of reaching the summit of The Old Man of Hoy and having bagged The Old Man of Stoer in April 2014, I decided to go for the hat-trick and attempt Am Buachaille – the third and, according to legendary climber Hamish MacInnes, “the most serious of the big three Scottish sea stacks.”
This 65 m tall sandstone pinnacle, lies 100m off shore at the lower end of Sandwood Bay, in the far North West corner of Scotland near Cape Wrath. It requires at least one climber to swim across a 30m channel at slack tide, rig up a Tyrolean traverse to get the gear and the rest of the team to the base of the stack and then you’ve got about three and a half hours to climb and ab off before the tide gets too high for you to get back ashore. At least two teams have had to spend a chilly night on Am Buachaille for being to slow.
What’s not to like.
Andres and I flew up from a beautifully sunny and warm London into gale force winds and driving rain in the Highlands. Hardly typical June weather even for the West Coast.
Over the next three days with Nick Carter as our guide we sought out sheltered sea cliffs at Reiff and Sheegra and shivered and slid our way up and down a nice collection of VDiffs, VSs and a couple of HVSs – although Jug Lust at Sheegra in the pelting rain is not a route I wish to remember.
On our final morning with the weather looking a little brighter (you could see the sky for a change) we set out across the bog to check the lie of the sea.
Horrendous. Metre high waves crashed over the 70m platform making even getting to the 30m channel perilous. And the gusting South Westerly nearly blew us off the top of the cliff.
We backed off and instead bagged a couple of 35m routes (including Marram, a cracking VD***) on the gneiss cliffs at the other end of the long golden sweep of Sandwood Bay; Am Buachaille sticking its finger up behind our backs as we did so.
Feeling a little cheated I returned to London for 40 hours, used the facilities at home and headed off to Petersfield. With Matthew ordered to rest his damaged shoulder for at least six weeks I’d be attempting to tandem the South Downs Way with Matthew’s friend Simon Russell (an avid mountain biker who’d been nursing the tandem through a series of brake replacements and unforeseen mechanical issues) and his friend Mark Angela.
Both were familiar with the area having lived there for years but I’d only met Simon a couple of times and Mark never, far less cycled with them! We had some fast learning to do.
Over a lovely dinner cooked by Simon’s wife Selina and Mark’s wife Vicky we got started. Outside a violent thunderstorm ensured that our path next day would be more slippery than we might have hoped.
Still it was a good excuse for getting up an hour later than originally planned the next morning. And it was still cold and damp as we set off from Chilcomb just outside Winchester. Simon and I had got a bit of practice in the previous afternoon and found we cycled easily together. He’d also persuaded his teenage son Louie to have a test run along a section of the South Downs Way the weekend before. Consequently we made good progress on the first 6 mile leg before Mark swapped into the front saddle. He owns a road tandem which he rides with his teenage daughter. But he’s rather less familiar with off-road terrain and with me, so it took us a bit longer to get in-sync and we were still doing so at a steady 6mph when the bike came to a sudden halt.
The tandem is fitted with disc brakes, like those on a motorbike, and the rear calliper had worked loose and swung through the back wheel. One fixing bolt was lost, one bent. Fortunately we were near a main road and had mobile reception, so Selina came to our rescue, via Cycleworks in Petersfield, with spares that Simon fitted while the rest of us had a coffee in the conveniently positioned Shoe pub in Exton.
Having lost two hours we knew we’d be hard pushed to get to our halfway point of Worthing by 7pm – which was when Selina’s parents who were putting us up, had told us the BBQ would be ready.
With growing confidence we ate up the miles past Harting and Cocking and Amberley, ignoring the gradients as we toiled up them and rvelling in them as we sped down their rocky paths. We made it for dinner having put 54 miles and 6000ft of hill climbs behind us.
The three of us ate, drank and slept very well!
From the moment the next morning that three girls on a Three Peaks training weekend pointed up a long steep hill and told us they’d been amusing themselves watching all the cyclists dismount and push up it, Mark and I were on a mission. We blatted up that and pretty much everything in our path finding the rhythm that had eluded us the previous day. Lunch at The Abergaveny in Rodmell was a very tasty carb-stop but we were on a roll and with Simon resuming the pilot’s duties our downhill speeds increased too – hitting 40mph when the surface allowed. The ride just got better and better so that the hurtle down the bridleway from Beachy Head to Eastbourne ended too quickly and it was rather a surprise and almost a disappointment to pop out opposite The Kiosk café and find that our 100 mile ride was over and 11,000 feet of ascent and descent done.
But what an amazing trip – I guess I’ll just have to do it all again when Matthew is fully recovered…can’t have him missing out on the fun!
My wife Kate was waiting with the van for the bikes and two train tickets back to London. I settled down into my seat a little saddle-sore and achy after ten days of ups and Downs!