An Excursion in Scotland

Comparing the Varying Rock "Cultures"
By Royal Robbins
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The route was pleasant, but undistinguished—just the sort I wanted. Liz and I roped up at the bottom, while Tom soloed ahead, to show the way. He kept close by, relating how one climber had fallen off here, another there. I can remember little of the route except that it was enjoyable and just hard enough, considering we used no pegs. I was faced with a series of problems, none too fearful. Each problem had several solutions, but only one elegant one which, when I found it, gave a feeling of pleasure, when my body moved up—a feeling akin to the thrill of solving a chess problem with just the right balance of simplicity and complexity.

The possibilities were complex, but the solution, when found, was beautifully simple. Such climbing, abundant in the British Isles, is comparatively rare in my country. One needs a steep wall which is rough, textured with small ledges, knobs, holes, jam-cracks, rugosities, bulges, shelves, flakes horns, corners, ripples and overhangs, so the climber has something of a choice of whether to pull, push, wedge, cling, bridge straddle, or fall off. In the States, the free-climbing problems, though sometimes very hard, tend to be simpler in terms of intellectual problem-solving. This is particularly true of Yosemite.

There, the smoothness of the rock limits the possible ways one can get up a given section of rock. The holds which a cunning mind might ferret out on a British crag often just don't exist in the Valley. I have observed that British visitors to the Valley fare no better than the locals on such walls as the North Face of Sentinel Rock, which is 1,500 ft. of slippery jam-cracks. And even Don Whillans had to sweat on the super-smooth Crack of Despair. But on the Crack of Doom, regarded by Yosemite veterans as just as hard, he found a very Whillanesque solution, an ingenious but straightforward combination which enabled him to pop up a section where I, for one, passed half an hour in intense struggle and finally overcame by dint of brute force and determination.

While I am not the cleverest of American climbers, I believe this episode to be typical. And I believe it is at least partly a result of where the emphasis is placed in one's home training ground. In America, stress is on strength, gymnastic ability, and technique, in the sense of making movements (liebacks, jam-cracks, etc.). "Working things out" is less important partly because of the type of rock we have, and partly because we use a lot of free-climbing protection (mostly pitons). With good protection, a leader can afford to go all-out, whether he has worked out a solution or not. If his security is middling, then judgment and cunning become reliable assets.

Anyway, Agag's Groove made no exorbitant demands upon my physical capacity, but what with those long, pitonless runouts, to err might be human, but it would also be fatal. Yet it was refreshing to climb with just a rope, sans paraphernalia. And I was feeling a bit northwallish clinging to the cold rock which a drizzle was now wetting. Liz came up happily, without apparent effort. It was her sort of climbing, if not our sort of weather.

When we reached the top, the yellow rays of the lowering sun were bursting through new rents in the clouds and lighting the vast moor to the east. My first moor. A moor at last. I had long heard of the great Scottish moors, and here was one for real. It, and the surrounding mountains, seemed eerily desolate, and brought to my mind Jack London's tales of the Alaskan tundra. Patey had earlier described a frightful massacre that had occurred here. It seemed a fitting place for dark deeds and heroism.

The descent was a trifle dangerous, with the wet rock, and the lichen, moss, and grass which occasionally covered it. Tom saw us safely off the crag, and then, bursting with energy, ran cross-country to fetch the Red Blitz to meet us at the end of our more direct descent. We walked straight down and passed what I presumed was a climbers' hut. Some men were in front and one shouted something incomprehensible. But I sensed it was shouted not to us but at us. Anxious to avoid a situation in which I might be called upon to do something honorable, I light-stepped it, with Liz on my heels, from stone to stone quickly across a creek and reached the safety of the far side. And if you think that's easy, try it.

Later, Tom told us we were lucky they hadn't stoned us while we were crossing the creek. And at another time, another place, Davy Agnew, upon hearing me relate the story, told me exactly the same thing. Creagh Dhu boys, they were, and tough as they come. Jim McCarthy of Manhattan, no patsy himself, had first told me of this fabulous group and described them, much to my astonishment, as such a rough bunch that they made the New York vulgarians look like cream puffs in comparison. I didn't really believe this, at first. But now I have heard so many stories that I no longer doubt. Some of the best stories came from Agnew.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh

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