Recently Scarpa Athlete Guy Robertson made the second ascent of Wailing Wall (IX,9) on the Hayfork Wall on An Teallach in the Northwest Highlands.
In this blog Guy takes us through his climb of Martin Moran’s legendary route.
Martin Moran’s Scottish winter climbing legacy is a treasure for us all to enjoy. His own first ascents, his guiding company’s exploits and, of course, his writings on the subject, will undoubtedly continue to inspire us all for generations to come. So when he told me that a certain cliff, and a certain route, were in his view amongst the very best on offer, I just had to go and investigate. And so it was, six years or so ago, Martin’s words encouraged an exploratory visit to An Teallach’s magnificent Hayfork Wall, and the love affair commenced.
With a crag base of around 3000 feet, and little reliance on snow and ice for upward progress, this place sits firmly in the modern idiom. If it was made of clean granite, it would be the preserve of the Extreme rock climber. Fortunately for winter climbers, it’s not made of granite, but an exceptionally steep, compact and wonderfully filthy Torridonian Red (sandstone). The lines are strong, the climbing hard and sustained, and the positions are truly sensational. There’s also something uniquely Scottish about mixed climbing up out and onto the side wall of a gully – one only has to think of West Central Gully Wall, on Beinn Eighe, or Central Gully Wall on the Dubh Loch to draw parallels in terms of style and stature.
A lot of work has been put in to date to bring this cliff to life, but for sure a lot remains to be done. Martin’s prediction that this would become one of the country’s best modern mixed climbing venues is coming close to full realisation. Personally, I’ve had seven trips up there now, so I can lay claim to some familiarity. As is so often the case in the Northwest Highlands, my penchant for localism has been triggered by the promise of untapped potential for new climbs. The fact that I’ve only completed four routes to date perhaps provides an indication as to what to expect. This is an adventurous place, with no summer lines and exclusively hard routes, which until now have seen very few if any repeats. Reputations of routes remain to be built.
The line Martin spoke most highly of in terms of both quality and difficulty was Wailing Wall – the first route to breach the frighteningly sheer, smooth and compact area of rock on the upper right side of the cliff. At grade IX,9, he had suggested that this was his hardest (as well as one of his best) routes to date. I was immediately intrigued – I knew from bitter experience that this man didn’t hand out big numbers easily, and a route at such a high standard effectively finding the easiest way up a large area of cliff is a rare thing indeed.
So last weekend Adam Russell and I teamed up to go take a look. With the early seeds of the next book in the “Great Scottish” series having recently been sown, Hamish Frost and Ryan Balharry came along for the craic and to try to get some photos. On the approach, the two of them were told in no uncertain terms that there was a good chance our climb would end somewhere around half an hour or so after it started. Due to the pandemic, neither Adam nor I had climbed anything hard for two years previous, and so reaching straight for the top shelf on an unrepeated grade IX was inevitably a bit of a big ask. There was a feeling, however, that this particular climb was something special, and that – and I paraphrase our banter on the approach – “the intoxicating effects of quality would win out over the numbing reality of difficulty”!
And that’s exactly how the day unfolded. A lazy 6am start. An easy approach. Great company. Topped off by perfect weather and conditions. As we uncoiled the ropes and sorted the rack below the short turfy promontory that marks the start of the route, I had a few quiet words to myself. Something along the lines that it was mostly a slab; not a patch on those forearm-pumping repeater circuits on the 40 degree board. If Martin was psyched enough to forge through the initial steepness and get involved in the main wall, then so should I be. The fact that he was a much more accomplished, experienced, cunning and consummate mountaineer than I’ll ever be was a minor detail I chose to ignore!
Wailing Wall is a route for the true winter connoisseur. Any easy start up turf soon leads to an 8m horizontal ledge shuffle to the start of the main difficulties. A crack in the smooth wall some 10m above sports some vague sloping snow patches and discernible turf, but the wall barring access overhangs considerably. The gear isn’t perfect, and as with all Northwest sandstone routes on big ‘winter only’ cliffs, the threat of detachable rock is always lurking menacingly. An assured and powerful approach is required. There are no footholds worth mentioning, only shallow vertical mossy seams. A series of deep and committing lock-offs on poor torques is effected to eventually reach the crack above. The considerable horizontal separation distance from the belay at this point undoubtedly heightens the anxiety. Above this bulging crux section, established above the lip, sinker axe placements and good protection soon arrive and allow the spectacular exposure to be savoured at last – the sweep of the gully yawning below, nothing but smooth and compact rock above. It’s a lonely place, with an atmosphere more commonly associated with hard rock climbing than winter scratching.
The rest of the first pitch goes like a dream – never easy, but mostly positive, and with the way not entirely obvious until the main soaring crack line on the left side of the wall is reached. This itself provides a more conventional tussle with poor feet but good hooks and even the odd Thank God hand jam. Protection is close to perfect.
Adam took over on the reigns for an unlikely looking second pitch. Above the belay block, some more strenuous lock-offs lead to a sustained and tenuous series of thin flakes and cracked grooves, always trending leftwards above the lip of a great overhung niche. The exposure here is once again quite stupendous, building slowly with every move, and with protection again thankfully remaining in plentiful supply. Another position to be savoured. Looking out across the gully and the vast bowl of the coire below, the eye is drawn beyond to the great bulk of Beinn Dearg and the noble Coigach hills to the North. With the last of the light fading, a particularly awkward and precarious finish up a series of steep and slightly flared torquing cracks soon leads to easier ground.
Days like this are relatively few and far between; enjoying a relatively comfortable ride on a hard and mystical route. Good people, good form, good conditions and good choices align in a way that suggests certain forces beyond our control may be at work. Or maybe we’re just plain lucky. There’s a sense of magic in the bright, frigid air and stark moon shadows that dance around us up on the ridge, as we laugh and coil the ropes. It’s a wonderful reminder of what we’ve all been missing over the past couple of winters, and the fantastic legacy the great pioneers like Martin leave behind.