The Nose, Nebbifield, Foula

The Island of Foula lies twenty miles west of Shetland mainland in the North Atlantic. It is the most remote permanently inhabited island in the British Isles. The population of 30 crofters are separated from the delights of mainland Britain by a three hour boat crossing to Walls and a further twelve hour ferry journey from Lerwick to Aberdeen.

What Foula may lack in accessibility it makes up for in huge cliffs.

The epic challenge of Foula first muscled its way into my consciousness in the form of Johnny Dawes. At a small art gallery opening in Llanberis, I mentioned my recent climb up St Johns Head on the Isle of Hoy to him. His eyes lit up and he began eulogising about an island he’d once visited. There were tales of immense cliffs at the edge of the world with eccentric locals and wild climbing.

“If you liked St John’s Head, you want to get yourself there” said Johnny.

The idea was incubated throughout a three-month trip to the west coast of the States. Having tasted the exotic drug of Scottish Sea Cliff (mini) Big Wall Climbing I found I craved more. Other venues just couldn’t provide the same kick. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, famed for its ticks, poison ivy, loose rock and epics failed to subdue the subtle yearn for the Scottish wilds.

The biggest problem with a venture such as Foula was always going to be finding someone else who wanted to go. I gave my friends the hard sell but they knew me too well; had been dragged to enough of my favourite crags to consider risking two weeks of their holiday on a wild goose chase to the edge of the world. Fortuitously I ran into Reeve, he seemed interested and could climb. With those two boxes ticked he could have had three heads for all I cared. Not only was he strong and psyched but was also a mental health nurse. This proved to be a bonus as most people consider a trip to Foula as sectionable behaviour. We agreed to climb Nebbifield on Foula the following year. I headed off to Huceo Tanks, Texas, figuring a winter bouldering was the best training for three hundred meter sea cliffs.

Nebbifield is probably the most impressive cliff in Scotland. It rises almost vertically, terminating abruptly three hundred meters above the crashing Atlantic waves. Its neighbour The Kame although a sixty five meters higher, provides a far less appealing climbing target being vegetated, slabby, and broken at half height. The Nebbifield cliff however swooped up from the comparatively small (150m) cliffs of the Waster Hovedi to form a clean prow facing west. The arête of this cliff formed the line of The Nose, first climbed by Dave Turnball and C. Jones in 2001.

Our research had informed us that a two hundred meter free-hanging abseil gained a narrow grassy rake at one-third height. A second, hundred meter abseil gained the beach. Alternatively we could swim in. One look at the swell dispelled this notion.

This explained why we were slogging up to the cliff top on the Wednesday morning with three hundred and fifty meters of static rope. Our hearts sank somewhat when we reached the cliff edge. We knew that Dave had abseiled from a prominent grassy niche and had naively assumed it would have gear to rig our abseil from. We scrambled up and down the back wall of the niche. All that confronted us was blank rotting sandstone. Reluctantly we examined some large rocks embedded in the scree that flowed towards the edge of the cliff. Initially we had dismissed these potential anchor points as a joke. After an hour digging with our bare hands we had three passable attachment points. The fifty-meter rope was used to equalise these somewhat pathetic offerings to produce a single “good” anchor.

The following day saw us portering an enormous rack of cams back up to the cliff top. After a brief bite to eat I was first over the edge, rigging rope protectors as I went. My mind brooded on the idea of the rope sawing across an edge. I feared a forced retreat, epic failure or accident, compelling us, or one of us to jummar back up this fragile rope in the dark. Dave had said that having left the ropes in situ one night they returned to find them half cut through.

Hanging free I discovered that using a 9mm rope with an old Petzl Stop was an un-nerving experience. Using a caving descender had seemed more sensible than abseiling 300m using a belay plate. However, Pezil Stops are designed for use with 10mm ropes and provide much less friction when used with thinner ropes. The weight of 200m of rope hanging below stretched the rope even thinner. This stretching combined with the worn out Stop turned it into a “for fuck sake stop”. With the rope wrapped around me as well as through the descender, I slid down in the manner of a classic abseil, controlling the speed with my legs.

Passing the knot I stopped to photograph the situation. Behind me lay a 100m gently overhanging wall, reminiscent of Honeycomb Wall at High Rocks. A myriad of tiny pockets led up the wall, possibly providing enough purchase for fingers but not for gear. It would take an incredibly bold climber to take on that challenge.

We stopped on the beach to compose ourselves a little. Above us rose the cliff. It was 10am. It got too dark to climb at about 1130pm. We had thirteen and a half hours to climb 11 pitches. Our bivy kit consisted solely of one balaclava so benightment was not to be considered. By taking one balaclava I reasoned that if the worst came to the worst, we would keep warm by fighting over who got to wear it.

The first few pitches were on loan from the shale cliffs of the Culm Coast. Exfoliating, sloping ledges, with creaking holds were teetered across before better rock was gained.

We measured our progress by looking across at the Hovedi, watching anxiously as we gained height. I had cunningly offered to lead the first pitch, ensuring Reeve would have to lead pitch 7, The Crux. He deviously retaliated by running two pitches together, leaving me out-manoeuvred. A shale band blocked progress onto the steep upper wall but some cracks led through it, offering gear and encouragement. We realised that we had perhaps taken a little too much comfort in this gear, as we heard much of this pitch tumbling into the sea in the subsequent half-hour. The offwidth crux followed shortly after, a crack widening into a squeeze chimney that terminated at a roof. The massive cams we had brought with us especially for this pitch slotted in and buoyed me upwards until I found myself gazing down at the last size 6 from the depths of the squeeze chimney. At least I was wedged in so tight that I could not have fallen out.

Reeve demonstrated the awesome power of his biceps whilst seconding, pulling off a large flake. He offers his apologies to future teams because it provided excellent holds and gear! Its presence will be sorely missed.

Above this pitch we basked on the belay in the late afternoon sun, swinging from creaking flakes and cams and almost enjoying ourselves. Two pitches later I was worried. The behaviour of the birds had changed. They were defiantly starting to come in to roost. The sun was dropping and it was colder. Reeve was somewhere up above, and in my mind the rope was inching out terribly slowly. I began to time the intervals between his movements, counting the seconds in my mind. Eventually after an eternity the ropes were taken in and I followed.

My fears evaporated as I got the lead. The route led diagonally upwards and I climbed in a cavalier manner, using the ‘one good point of contact’ philosophy. Having the ledge you’re standing on fall off was ok, provided your hand hold held and there was something within campusing distance. I tested this philosophy on numerous occasions during the final pitch. Rocks rained down and I proceeded up, slowing as rope drag took its toll on my mobility. I was almost forced to halt below the final boulder problem roof, unable to climb against the rope but my desire to top out was overriding. Straining against the drag I got within a meter of the top. Here the ropes would let me go no further. Close enough. I set up a final belay leaving Reeve the final mantle onto the grass cliff top.

We lazed around for most of the following day before deciding to recover our gear. Reeve lost again at paper-scissor-stone so would be going down the first abseil to pull the bottom rope up. I took photos as he jummared back up.

Despite the huge quantities of unclimbed cliffs on the island we climbed nothing else. We were absolutely shattered. The apparent ease of our success hid the huge mental and physical effort we had put in. If anything had gone wrong we were a long way from an efficient mountain rescue team.

We hadn’t been entirely without back up; Magnus the Laird of Foula had offered some emergency services.

“If you get stuck on a ledge you can trust us. We know what to do. Occasionally our sheep get stuck on ledges. We’ll use a .22 rifle to put you out of your misery. It’ll be more humane than letting you stave”

Written by Dave Brown and originally posted on his blog on 12 August 2011. You can check out Dave’s blog at Text and images © Dave Brown.

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