Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Guest Contributor - Rob Woodall


I have approached a number of people to write articles, but if readers would like to contribute an article please contact me. The only two stipulations I make are that the article has to be hill related and that I don't end up in court through its publication! Otherwise the choice of subject matter is down to the Guest Contributor.

Guest Contributor – Rob Woodall 

Rob Woodall is one of the country's leading hill baggers with first completions for the Deweys, Clem-Yeamans, Irish 50 Most Prominent, Thousanders, The Fours, Y Pedwarau and the SubMarilyns of England, Wales and Scotland.  His bagging exploits are now taking him farther afield bagging the world Ultras.

Over the Wall – Success on the St Kilda Stacs, 13 Oct 2014

The two big St Kilda sea stacks are monstrous – rising straight out of the sea to heights of 170m+. The St Kilda archipelago, 45 miles west of the Western Isles, is like nowhere else in Britain - and Stac Lee and Stac an Armin are its boldest most audacious members.

Stac Lee from the east.  Photo: Richard Mclellan
The trouble with the stacs, however, is not so much their technical climbing, which by the easiest route is modest. The trouble with the stacs is that they are covered in gannets in summer and difficult to land on and climb in winter. The only ascents previously documented have all been in summer – the St Kildans would collect young gannets (guga) for food; more recent ascents have been in May when the birds are on eggs. Such visits have not been allowed for two decades and it was not known whether either had been climbed in winter or how feasible such an ascent would be.

St Kilda stac-watching has become something of an annual late-autumn ritual: seeing who's up for it, watching for - and mostly not finding - a suitable window in the usually uncooperative Atlantic weather outwith the breeding season for the gannets which nest in large numbers on both Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, the two 150m-plus sea stacks which have eluded Marilyn baggers since Alan Dawson published Relative Hills of Britain in 1992.

The most recent recorded ascents of the two stacs seem to have been in 1990 and 1994 respectively, neatly bracketing the publication of the book for whose adherents the two monster stacs have become notorious as the St Kilda Wall barring access to Marilyn List Completion status for an increasing number of summit baggers.

The process of watching weather forecasts for a suitable window and liaising with boat operators and prospective summitteers to put a trip together at a few days’ notice has continued most winters since 2009. The main requirements are a swell of around 1.5 metres or less, and winds of force 4 or less with no southerly component.

In November 2013 a trip was mounted, albeit with a marginal forecast and the sight of the two slime covered stacs in a surging two metre swell was pretty intimidating. However, useful information was gathered, and resolve not entirely dampened, although the nature of the challenge was brought into sharper focus.

2014 was an excellent year for St Kilda Marilyn bagging. A trip was mounted in mid-September, involving boat operators Seaharris and Seatrek, with all four non-stac Marilyns being summitted i.e the summits of Hirta, Dun, Boreray and the hard-to-land-on Soay.

October sometimes has opportunities, and a window was identified around 13 October with swell around 0.9 - 1.1 metre, unusually low for October, coupled with light winds from the NE. Recent research commissioned by the site owners National Trust for Scotland has found that the majority of gannets on the stacs had fledged by 10 October and their advice was that access should be possible by our proposed date, although fledging will vary between years and there may be some birds still present which should be avoided.

Seaharris who had transported the November 2013 "recce", confirmed that the Enchanted Isle was available; a boatload of 12 would-be summitters was available including a good mix of climbing expertise, so a plan was developed over a couple of days for a 2-day trip with the night of Mon 13 Oct to be spent on the main island of Hirta. To cover all eventualities, we assembled a range of gear including jumars, a caving ladder and a few wetsuits, in addition to standard rock climbing gear.

Stac an Armin south face from Boreray.  Photo: Rob Woodall
A nervous two days ensued with the forecast wind strengthening towards Force 5 meaning a day trip at best - and very nearly cancellation. However by Sunday morning the forecast had settled back to around Force 4 with swell holding around 1 metre so the team left home for various Sunday ferries for a Monday day trip. I met Paul Reeve early morning at Sheffield and he drove us up to Uig, collecting Colin at Glasgow en route, speaking to Seumas Morrison en route to check he was happy with the improved forecast. A spare half hour was spent climbing Craig Liath above Uig: a nice wee hill with a view across to the hills of Harris. A beautiful afternoon, boding well for tomorrow. Late evening we all converged on Am Bothan bunkhouse in Leverburgh for a few hours sleep.

Monday 0500 we boarded Enchanted Isle and Seumas negotiated the complicated navigation lane west out of Leverburgh then opened up to 20 knots for an atmospheric moonlit 45 mile crossing which was completed in a brisk 2 hours 30.

Stac an Armin

An hour away, at first light the familiar bulk of Boreray appeared and by 0800 we were nosing around the south side of its angular neighbour Stac an Armin looking for a landing spot. Given the NE wind, the SE corner wasn't feasible, and the southern slabs appeared challenging. The 1994 report used a landing on the steep west shore at the SW corner and Paul reckoned it was doable, so the two small tenders were deployed (a tough plastic boat for landing, additionally a small inflatable to act as a safety boat).

Stac an Armin south-west landing.  Photo: Rob Woodall
Paul and I were landed first, in a small recess a couple of metres south of an obvious basalt dyke. We scuttled up to a ledge on what turned out to be nice grippy gabbro (despite its very green appearance) angled at about 50 degrees. Paul took a rope up and fixed it at the top of the slab and I quickly followed, with a jumar which I didn't really need.  Meanwhile, Seumas started landing the others in pairs.

Landing on Stac an Armin.  Photo: Richard Mclellan
Above the steep slab is a long mostly level traverse of easy-angled slabs above the south shore. We crossed these keeping mostly to the top edge.  Initially we were wearing Kahtoola microspikes which are more or less compulsory kit for stac landings (some used old crampons with shortened sharpened spikes). However with no recent storms the rock was dry and grippy, and on reaching finer grained slabs we took the spikes off (I didn’t use mine again on Armin).

Crossing Stac an Armin south slabs.  Photo: Rob Woodall
Rounding the SE corner (short 2-foot ledge) we scrambled a short section which was steep enough to justify leaving another fixed rope marking the route. Above was a route choice. Keeping left near the cliff edge following a line of cleits, an intermittent trail leads to the main gannet colony. Keeping right of the colony provides the easiest way up once the birds have gone.

Stac an Armin's grassy east slopes and cleits.  Photo: Richard Mclellan
Instead keeping right and heading for an old roofless bothy then once past it cutting back left, leads via a grassy scramble onto the crest. Here the routes converge before a final scramble (where Paul fixed another rope) leads to the summit area, with the summit reached along an easy blocky crest. Most of us ascended the more scrambly right-hand route, but Paul reported that the left hand cliff top route was easier and largely bird free so we decided we would descend that way.

Paul summitted first; Pete Ellis and I summitted together and photographed each other. The summit has a couple of rocky tops a few metres apart, the northerly slabby outcrop probably higher, with a fine view of the magnificent north and west faces of Boreray, then Stac Lee with Hirta and its satellite islands laid out beyond to the southwest.

Rob Woodall at Stac an Armin summit.  Photo: Pete Ellis

Stac Lee

With the early start and the excellent conditions we were keen to make an attempt on Stac Lee, so we agreed with the others following us that they would strip out the fixed ropes while the first four would get established if possible on the second stac.

The return to the landing spot was easy, with the fixed rope barely needed. We jumped back into the boat, having spent about 1 hour 30 on the stac. Seumas was agreeable to the plan and in a few minutes we were back in the plastic tender, exploring Stac Lee's south face. Seumas wasn't too impressed with the usual landing spot immediately left (west) of Geo Lee; the climbers weren't too impressed with the prospect of landing further left in quieter water. As a compromise we agreed we'd try the usual spot but if necessary on our return would board the boat in the quieter water, if as forecast the wind came round to the east and the wave motion increased.

Again Paul and I went first. Seumas nosed the little boat in; Paul with microspikes fitted and rubber matting on the prow to facilitate jumping off, landed on gabbro slabs, I threw him the coiled rope, he threw the rope-end back, I tied on the dry-bag with the rest of the climbing gear and this was hauled ashore. I then jumped ashore - it had all happened quickly and we were established on our second stac of the day, hardest part over and half a day left to get up and down - all very doable. Bill decided Lee wasn't for him but Pete was quickly landed and we agree to climb as a three – not quite the original plan. Seumas headed back to Armin to retrieve the others while we got busy.

Stac Lee south face showing route.  Photo: Colin Crawford
The Stac Lee ascent route is well described in Jon Warren's 1990 report and there were no real surprises. Paul scuttled up the first easy 10m 50-degree gabbro slab and belayed us up the nice clean rock, climbing together on a rope each. Another 50m rope length took us to the corner. It was nice to have a rope for a short exposed narrow section before the corner and for the short step-up immediately above the right hand zig. The remaining ledge to the foot of the Pitch was easy with little exposure. Vertically below, we could see the next party: Richard, Denise and three others whom we assumed would climb as two teams. However, a short while later there was just a party of three climbing, the third being Eddie. We later learned that Michael and Colin had turned back as it hadn’t proved possible to put together a third rope. As it turned out, there wouldn’t have been time for a third party to summit and return.

Paul Reeve leading the lower slab on Stac Lee.  Photo: Rob Woodall

Ascending leftward groove on Stac Lee.  Photo: Richard Mclellan
Paul led the 8 metre climbing pitch and brought Pete and me up. Initially it was a scramble, but suddenly I found the holds had run out. Searching around I found a couple of small incut holds and was soon up. Around Mild Severe it seems to me. Just below the crux move an alloy peg has been installed – origin unknown. Above the pitch we climbed the big mostly-wide upper ledge leading left, Paul belaying us until we reach the old bothy which nestles below the overhang. It’s a superb situation, mostly not feeling very exposed - although the Atlantic is a hundred metres more or less vertically below. From here a slope of rubble and gannet droppings led to the summit slope. Initially we were almost wading through manure-like gannet droppings. In summer, this slope will have been packed with gannets, but today there are very few birds, easily avoided. The west ridge itself was mostly guano-free, and with the vertical north face immediately to our left this made a highly impressive route to the summit.

Pete Ellis below the crux move on Stac Lee.  Photo: Rob Woodall
Ascending the upper ledge on Stac Lee.  Photo: Rob Woodall
Paul and Pete decided I should summit first, given how long I’d waited for this summit, and I wasn’t going to argue! Stac Lee summit itself was just a few rocks, nothing special. But of course a superb situation, with fantastic views especially of Boreray’s massive west face. Being here in the warm October sunshine was very special. 172 metres below, Seumas saw us summit and sounded the ship’s horn – a great moment. However we realised it was a long way down, and headed off after a few minutes. Paul and Pete fitted their microspikes on account of the guano, although I preferred to do without. Either way, careful footwork was needed.

Ascending Stac Lee summit ridge.  Photo: Rob Woodall
Back at the old bothy, we roped up and climbed back down the ledge, soon passing Richard, Denise and Eddie on their way up. A little later we heard the ship’s horn again – Richard’s team had summitted. Reaching the top of the Pitch, some time was spent finding a trustworthy anchor for an abseil. Eventually we abseiled from a rockpile which had some good gear placements. However this involved abseiling diagonally across the fall line, and Pete and I (and later Denise) found this difficult. An alternative might be to use a spike 10 metres further uphill, for a vertical abseil direct to the foot of the climbing pitch. Reaching the foot of the pitch, two more rope lengths took us along the last ledge and down the big groove. Then a simple abseil and we were ready to leave. Seumas directed us to scramble a few metres further east across the barnacle covered rocks to a better pick-up point. Despite our earlier fears, the sea conditions weren’t significantly more difficult than when we had landed, and the three of us were soon back on the Enchanted Isle, receiving a round of applause from the others, and also a coffee – both very welcome!

Denise Mclellan and Eddie Dealtry at Stac Lee summit.  Photo: Richard Mclellan
We had taken about 7 hours, as a consequence of pitching the whole route. Whilst parties have in the past done all except the Pitch unroped, our lead climbers feel that teams of two would be best, each roped but mostly moving together, placing protection as necessary. This approach should save several hours. The Pitch would need belaying; the short section immediately before the first zig (off-balance ledge) and after it (1.5 metre scrambly step) would likely also need protection. The upper ledge has very few difficulties.

Pete Ellis leaving Stac Lee.  Photo: Rob Woodall
A nervous wait ensued as we watch Richard’s team descend. They finished in the dark by head torch and were safely retrieved by Seumas. We left at 2015 and were back at Leverburgh just before 2300.

It had been an unforgettable day, with 11 of us summitting Stac an Armin and 6 summitting Stac Lee, more successful than we had dared hope. This is possibly the first non-summer ascent, at least since the 1930s evacuation. I wondered whether Denise Mclellan had made the first female ascent of Lee and/or Armin, but it seems there have been several on Stac Lee, including Norman Heathcote’s sister in 1900, two before her, and the intrepid 1970s/80s archaeologist Mary Harman who likely summitted both.

Best of all, Eddie Dealtry and I have finished the Marilyns list – we have summited all 1556 peaks, fully 22 years after Alan Dawson’s ground-breaking Relative Hills of Britain was published.

Stac Lee climbing pitch and abseil detail

Photo: Mark Smith


Stac an Armin: 11 summitted: Paul Reeve, Rob Woodall, Pete Ellis, Bill Forbes, Richard and Denise Mclellan, Michael Earnshaw, Alan Whatley, Colin Crawford, Mark Smith, Eddie Dealtry.
Stac Lee: 6 summitted in 2 parties: Rob Woodall, Paul Reeve (lead), Pete Ellis;
Richard (lead) and Denise Mclellan, Eddie Dealtry
2 landed, climbed above the high water mark then returned to boat: Michael Earnshaw, Colin Crawford.
Jonathan de Ferranti was the 12th member of the party.
Enchanted Isle: Seaharris skipper Seumas Morrison, with crew members Chris and Darren.


In addition to standard rock climbing gear, each climber had either microspikes or crampons with shortened sharpened spikes - for grip on slimy rock. Most had jumars or ropeman ascenders. A caving ladder and a few wetsuits were taken but not used for either stac.


The swell was around 1 metre all day with wind around Force 4, NE forecast to move round to E during the day. The Armin landing (W side, just N of SW corner) was sheltered and the landing quite easy by St Kilda standards. The Lee landing (S face, just W of Geo Lee) was less sheltered and a little more difficult, but quite doable in a 1m swell.

Summit Coordinates

Richard Mclellan recorded the following summit co-ordinates (GPS, not survey grade):
Stac an Armin   NA 15127, 06422    208m
Stac Lee   NA 14211, 04923    174m


Oct 2014 photos :
Jon Warren’s 1990s ascents (same routes as ours, with videos):

Monday 13th October 2014 and Rob Woodall completes the Marilyns

On Monday 13th October 2014 Rob Woodall became the first person to complete the Marilyns with an ascent of the two St Kilda sea stacks; Stac an Armin and Stac Lee. An hour later and Eddie Dealtry became the second Marilyn completer as he also stood atop Stac Lee. I took the opportunity to interview Rob and talk about the organisation behind the expedition and the day of completion. 

1 comment:

Douglas Law said...

Stunning. Love the route up Stac Lee. Hopefully we wont need to wait another 20 years for the next group to summit.