Marhofn 280.16 - May 2014

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St Kilda Expedition - September 2013

Phil Cooper and Chris Watson

Alan Holmes did a great job organising vessels throughout the two weeks designated for the trip but he could not do anything about the weather. Gales on the first Sunday of the fortnight meant that the first week's two St Kilda trips were cancelled and the second week's trip was delayed until the Wednesday at the earliest. Our chances of emulating the success of the 2009 trips were already in the balance.

Baggers are not that easily put off and a dozen stayed on to make up a boat from Miavaig during the second week. This boat and Seumas Morrison's Sea Harris boat 'Enchanted Isle' from Leverburgh eventually set off early on Thursday 26 September with only a moderate weather forecast to encourage us. We headed first for a rendezvous off Boreray with the following guidance on the summit route:

Boreray east face - in favourable conditions, an easy landing is at NA 15804 05380. Land on rock and ascend the slabs (barely a scramble, on nice clean rock) to reach the steep grass above.

The 'barely a scramble' was attributed to Rob Woodall so was treated with a hefty pinch of salt. We had a good three-hour run in fairly calm seas and good visibility and hove to off the landing place with no sign yet of the Miavaig boat.

Steve Gillions: 'Someone had said to me that I should be prepared for a shock if the Boreray cliffs were the first thing I saw of St Kilda. They were spot on: one look at the alleged landing point - a narrow, damp line running just above the Atlantic - was enough to make me think there was no way on this earth I was ever going to get onto that one. Iain Brown was booted, suited, helmeted and raring to go but nobody else looked particularly interested as we bobbed around in the swell.'

Boreray east landing (photo: Andy Sutton)

Boreray east landing (photo: Andy Sutton)

The exposed rising traverse appeared very thin as it got up towards the grass and looked difficult to protect on the descent. However, there was too much swell to allow a landing so we spent an hour circum-navigating Boreray and viewing Stac Lee and Stac an Armin before returning to the fray. The close-up views of the rock tower features of Boreray and the stacs were superb, and Stac an Armin certainly looked climbable by experienced climbers, if only a party could land on it.

Unfortunately, the tide and swell still precluded a landing, so Seumas decided to take us to Hirta and leave Boreray for another day. We did not know it then but our chance had gone. During the journey across to Village Bay, we heard on the radio that the Miavaig boat had broken down and was returning to base. This was very bad news for those on board and also for us. Several only needed the St Kilda Marilyns and were much hungrier baggers than our team. They also had Everest summiteer Pete Ellis on board (he had unluckily changed boats the day before) and we felt he was our main climber. Marhofn editor Martin Richardson also missed out.

Andy Sutton: 'Lowlight of the trip was the initial sight of an ugly military base above the pier on Hirta. How this fits with a World Heritage Site I do not know.'

We were greeted on Hirta by Kevin, the NTS archaeologist, who was extremely helpful - none of the jobsworth approach experienced in 2009 - and showed us straight to the campsite so we could pitch our tents. The wardens also provided us with mouse-proof containers to keep our food safe from the dreaded St Kilda mice.

Andy Sutton: 'Highlight was the circuit of Hirta Humps in perfect afternoon sunshine and walking back down the old street as the sun set on the stone buildings and walls'.

Virtually everybody bagged the Humps plus a few Tumps and that evening we gathered in the nice warm NTS museum. Kevin gave us a briefing and produced snippets of guga meat from the licensed annual cull of 2000 almost fully-grown gannet chicks on Sula Sgeir. Most were not too keen but two or three liked its strong kipperish taste and could have made a meal of it.

Chris Watson: 'Yuk'

Friday started with cloud down to about 10m so we waited to see if it would improve for an attempt on Dun. Soay and Boreray were considered impracticable in high swell and low cloud. We eventually got away at 11am having taken advantage of some retail therapy in the shop - books, clothes, touristen trashen but no food.

Dun - in low swell, land on easy-angled slabs at NF102978 and scramble NW for a hundred metres or so between sea and vegetation until you can climb up an easy ramp.

Landing was OK but Iain Brown took the non-preferred route and slipped about 30cm, ending up splayed into an X-shape. We waited for him to slide slowly down the slippery rock and into the bay but he did not oblige. The rock was very wet and slimy, however the group progressively landed and made their way without much difficulty up Bioda Mor over countless unoccupied puffin burrows. The view towards Mullach Bi was spectacular as the cloud rolled back.

Everybody, even Iain, got back on board safely and we then boated round to Soay to look at the route followed successfully in 2009.

Soay east landing at NA 06921 01112 - involves a significant rock climb followed by exposed traverse across very steep grass-covered slopes, then a steep zigzagging climb up to the summit plateau.

We already knew that this was the crux of the trip and could quickly see that excellent climbing skills would be essential to progress up the lower greasy rock and install some protection for the party. Ian Teasdale, possibly the best rock climber in the RHB family, had said that leading the tricky pitch on Soay in greasy conditions was the best moment of the trip for him in 2009. For our team, it was simply out of the question. We had the gear but no lead climber and no experienced rope men. Even if we could have got up this 10m crag, the traverse was dreadfully exposed and virtually impossible to protect. The adjacent rockfall area looked a more realistic option but Seumas was not prepared to land us there as he reckoned it is still very lively.

However, we enjoyed the close-up views of Stac Biorach and threading between Mina Stac and the Conachair cliffs en route back to Hirta. The rain started as we arrived and the rest of the day was spent chatting in the museum and cooking in a variety of locations.

Bob Taylor: 'the poor weather on Friday afternoon was brightened up by the ablutions block being turned into a kitchen'

Jessica Bartlett: 'I did not like trying to use the toilets while eight beardy old blokes were trying to cook their dinner inside to escape a little bit of rain'.

Meanwhile, Smudge and Steve ended up 'cooking like troglodytes in the nearest cleit'.

We had our own version of the Kilda Parliament in the museum that evening and agreed that we would at least attempt to land on Soay the following morning before heading off for a final attempt on Boreray.

The 'Kilda Parliament' (photo: Alan Holmes)

The 'Kilda Parliament' (photo: Alan Holmes)

Left to right: Richard Tibbetts, Iain Brown, Phil Cooper, Chris Watson, Jonathan Whitehead, Jo Whitehead, Jessica Bartlett, Andy Sutton, Steve Gillions, Bob Taylor, Alex Cameron, Mark (Smudge) Smith.

The mist was 'below sea level' on Saturday morning but we broke camp and headed around to Soay. The swell seemed to rise a few feet as we arrived and we had a nervous few minutes whilst Seumas, his crewman John and three of our group disappeared around a rib of rock in the tender, leaving the rest of us in charge of the boat. To our relief they reappeared safely but it had proved impossible to land anybody.

We therefore headed over to Boreray to investigate the south landing point that we understood would give us a relatively easy landing and ascent onto the steep grass.

Boreray south tip - when flat calm it is easiest to land on slabs at NA 1540 0456, due south of summit. From here it is said to be an easy walk (barely a scramble) up onto grassy slopes, which lead to the summit. In slightly less favourable conditions a landing can be made a few metres further south-east. However, it is necessary to cross the bad step (an exposed step across a chasm) before reaching safe ground.

Seumas hove to just off shore. We looked at him, we looked at Alan. Was this the right island? Where was the easy bit? The rock was far too greasy and steep for us to contemplate an unaided ascent onto the grass above and, to the right, the bad step looked very bad indeed.

Boreray south tip landing: just an easy walk (photo: Chris Watson)

Boreray south tip landing: just an easy walk (photo: Chris Watson)

The swell prohibited a landing, as did common sense, so we returned to Thursday's landing point on the east face where most of the team (even Steve Gillions) got ashore in the minimal swell on a small flat ledge. However, in the continuing low cloud, we had no intentions of climbing up the greasy rock and grass which had streams running down it from the overnight rain. In 2009, Bob Kerr reckoned the steep grass would be lethal in wet conditions, and we knew that the summit area was too complex to attempt in mist. Seumas told us he had never known it so wet.

So we ended up defeated on Boreray, unwilling to take risks in such conditions. With time in hand we headed for Leverburgh, leaping dolphins accompanying the boat for a few minutes. We passed an hour or so on Shillay and Shillay Beag. On the former, the highlight was the sight of seal mothers and pups resting some 200 metres from the beach on a low-lying grassy area full of pools.

Overall, the St Kilda experience we had was truly memorable, especially the tops of Hirta, the camping in such a world-heritage environment, and the numerous spectacles of nature. As expected, Seumas, John and the boats performed faultlessly throughout - lucky us. Many thanks to Alan Holmes for organising the boats throughout the fortnight and getting the necessary permissions for St Kilda - another excellent piece of organisation.

Lessons learned?

Well, very similar to those learned during the 2009 trips:

  1. Take climbing gear and make sure you are familiar with it before arriving in St Kilda.
  2. Do not set off from Harris/Lewis if rain is forecast. The steep grass on Soay and Boreray may stay wet for some time.
  3. Only take one boat-load at a time. The campsite and museum would have been severely overcrowded if the other boat had arrived.
  4. Most critically, lead climbers with recent hard rock experience must be on board to lead the way, fix ropes and supervise the amateurs. Climbers' names to Alan Holmes, please.

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