The Exploration Bug

I sometimes find it hard to get excited about climbing. This winter has felt pretty long, and I finished a bouldering room at the end of last summer to train and keep “psyched” through the winter. Truth is though that aiming for higher grades or a certain route isn’t enough to get me going and the bouldering room hasn’t been used as much as I thought.

This evening I was reminded of what does get me excited about climbing, and what’s made me start to look forward to the season, rather than be frustrated that it’s April and the weather refuses to let us out to play!

cragxTo sum it up, here’s a photo… I revisited this grotty-looking grassy slab (the photo just shows the top half). I left the house at 7.30pm – optimistic I could get to the crag and back before dark, which I did, despite my dog managing to get lost and spending 20 minutes trying to find her (that built-in whistle in my jacket turns out to be a handy feature!). The crag looks like it isn’t worth any time – the rock looks dirty and friable, there are grassy patches, possibly a bit damp and the top out is heather with no belays.

In 2013 we paddled under the crag and I took a few snaps. Other climbers I was with dismissed it as looking a bit rubbish. Last year I walked out there to help count seals on nearby beaches and stared at the crag from the top, trying to decide whether it was worth scrambling down – I didn’t bother. Then yesterday I was chatting about it and the reply was “yeah I’ve walked there and it didn’t really look worth it”. But without touching the rock and trying a few moves I couldn’t seem to dismiss it.

This weekend we’ll be having the climbing club AGM and the current forecast is force 6/7 westerly gales. Westerlies just ruin your chances of climbing in Shetland. The sandstone on the east side is climbable but likely to be wet and lethally slippy this early in the season. We really don’t have many choices in those conditions. So that’s why I’m persisting with this tiny thread of potential – it faces south-east, is completely sheltered and seems to be fairly dry even after wet weather.

After the dog-losing incident, the sun was now lingering on the horizon but I headed down to the crag anyway. You can walk down to it, albeit on very steep grass. The first thing that grabbed me was the crag was steeper than I thought – definitely not a scramble. Next thing was the scale of it – over 40m at it’s highest point. I then went to see how friable it was. Even up close it certainly looked it, but nothing came off. It seemed to be granite – but stained with peat giving it the dirty appearance. Lastly, despite being a windy evening there wasn’t a breath of wind at the bottom of the crag. Things were looking up.

What didn’t look so promising was the lack of gear – I could barely see any placements wandering along the bottom, and no obvious cracks that might take gear, so it will no doubt be a bold undertaking even if it didn’t look too challenging (probably 5a max). And back at the top of the crag you would need stakes, but the topouts did look fairly easy.

So have I found the next best crag in Shetland? Certainly not! What I’ve found, or more precisely, re-discovered as it’s not the first time, is that sense of exploring and getting excited to be the first person to climb a bit of rock. It might not be the case, but it’s new to me and that’s the excitement. There are rotten angled fence posts at the top of the crag suggesting this perhaps used to be a spot for collecting birds eggs in times past – making them the true first ascentionists.

There may of course not be any worthwhile climbing here; there could be a rotten band in the middle I haven’t spotted or the topouts could be horrendously loose. I’ll probably find out soon, and then, whichever way it goes, that sense of excitement will change to disappointment, or, I hope, the enjoyment of introducing others to the crag and trying the best lines.

So I thought I’d share the moment of the season starting for me, and why I feel very lucky to be living somewhere you can feel like the first person to discover a place. I’ve called the post the exploration bug, as in many ways the exploration can be the highlight. Many mediocre crags in Shetland were a great and exciting discovery for someone at some point.

In sharing this I’ve pretty much given away a new crag but I’m sure those who know where it is will respect that!

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