The Grind – Nature’s Playground

Winter Storm at the Grind

Winter Storm at the Grind

It is winter! The voice of the tempest is heard – no other sound. The sea birds are cowering in their rocky homes – the fisherman has sought the shelter of his hut – the cattle have fled inland. The blinding spray is sent far over the Villions – the waves of the might Atlantic are hurrying towards the iron-bound coast. See that tall billow! It rises to the skies – now the noise of thunder it falls upon the Grind, uptearing and upheaving vast masses of rock, which it carries like so many pebbles, to the savage shore behind, where they rest with the spoils of other storms, a shapeless heap thrown together by the hands of Titans.Andrew McCrae, 1860

I was trying to describe the Grind of the Navir to a friend a while back, and the first thing that came to mind was “a big kid’s playground”. That’s certainly what it’s become to me – seemingly endless possibilities, dodging storm waves that tear out huge rocks in Winter, a stunning and atmospheric walk on calmer days, and then from May to September it becomes one of Shetland’s climbing gems. From a relaxed evening soloing easy routes, to introducing new climbers on juggy Severes; shunting up a potential new route at the edge of your ability with seemingly no gear or holds, or simply chilling out perched on top of the North Nose watching the endless flights of the sea birds – I’ve never had a trip to the Grind that’s ever disappointed.

The End of a Session

Al at the end of a midsummer session

Of course it helps when you live less than 10 minutes walk from a crag! For 6 years a stroll to the Grind was a normal walk for me and the dog three or four times a week.

Sunset over the Grind

Sunset over the Grind

One summer it became a real focus for me, attempting to push my grade and head game by trying to headpoint a handful of superb low E-grade lines still to go there. It’d become an obsession – I barely climbed anywhere else. After a day at the office I’d get back, grab my gear and run to the crag, swing around on a shunt for a few hours, sometimes on easier routes, sometimes on projects way out of reach, chill out with a beer as the sun dips below the horizon then head back and rustle together some dinner, usually getting on for midnight. It doesn’t get dark in midsummer and the light and peacefulness of the Simmer Dim just makes you want to stay there all night (which I did one night, sleeping on the 2m wide North Nose buttress, tied into a cam just in case!)

FA of Groove of the Navir (VS), one of the Grind's finest

Andy Long described the crag in the first guide to feature Shetland, SMC Highlands Vol.2, as “a superb venue, of equal quality to any of its size in the UK.” Yet because of its relative remoteness, there are many good lines still to go, and probably no more than 100 people have ever climbed there! The rock is a very compact Ignimbrite, great friction in the warm sun, impossible when damp, with micro-thin cracks and pockets providing bomber gear on easier routes, but not so much once you enter the E-grades. There are delicate slabs, overhanging jamming cracks and perfect corners abound crammed into a complex layout of buttresses and walls. The sea is always raging around you adding a real atmosphere that can be intimidating initially, but in Summer its rare for it to deny you access to most of the routes.

The Grind in 1900 &copy Shetland Museum

The Grind in 1900 © Shetland Museum

The proper Shetland name “Da Grind o da Navir” loosely means “The Gateway of the Borer” and it’s not hard to see why with the twin towers launching upwards out of the Atlantic. A Winter storm at the crag is a truly mesmerising and humbling experience. After a few days of strong Westerly gales the sea thunders through the gateway helped along by the natural launch ramp hidden under the sea, with the resulting waves clearing the crag often by 25m, tearing huge boulders from the bedrock and cliffs and hurling them like pebbles back onto the storm beaches some 80m beyond! Needless to say it’s easy to get a bit too close without realising it on these occasions! It’s always a highlight of the year if you catch one right, and the effort of donning thermals, flotation suit and any other warm and waterproof clothing you can find then walking directly into 70mph winds to reach the crag is more than repaid when you see the force of nature at work!

The crag has been visited by locals and visitors for hundreds of years, so no doubt ascents of routes such as the Grindstone pillar were done long before climbers set foot there.

Tommy on Trysht

Tommy on “Trysht” (Severe)

It was in the 80’s though when the crag got some real attention, having been sussed out by a few locals and visiting climbers. Many of the obvious lines were done, and then in the 2000’s myself and my brother Paul really started exploring possibilities there with other locals too. There were soon 40 more routes added, taking the total to over 60.

Al on First Ascent of "Ponder" (E4)

Al on First Ascent of “Ponder” (E4)

It’s slowed down in terms of development now, but the range of grades, non-tidal routes and beautiful location has meant it’s had more traffic in the last 5 years than ever before. The club organise an annual weekender to the crag, camping out at a loch nearby, usually accompanied by a barbecue, camp fire, some bad guitar playing, slackline and fishing – you get the idea! (Oh, did I mention the whisky?!)

For me, I’ve had a few years away from Shetland working abroad and climbing all over, but I’d lost that real drive and passion for climbing. Queuing on loose multi-pitch mountain routes and crowds of folk at polished sport crags just didn’t do it for me. It took returning to Shetland and particularly returning to the Grind last May to realise why I started climbing in the first place. It all makes sense here – no one around, the roar of nature in this amphitheatre of rock, and a personal tick list that will never be complete, I’d be content if it was the only crag up here! I’ve moved a few miles away now so it’s no longer a short stroll, but still visited plenty of times last summer, managing one more of my project lines.

Read more at the crag database page for the Grind of the Navir.

One Comment

  1. Les hewitt says:

    That looks like heaven! Brings back memories of climbing 50 years ago. There are still places where you have the crag to yourself down here in Northern England if you are prepared to walk a bit.
    Also thank goodness for indoor walls it keeps all the real pillocks away from the crags!!

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