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Explore Scotland: Sail & Climb the Outer Hebrides – Part 6 “Mingulay”

The next morning the sun rose behind a thick porridge of clouds. Drizzling rain covered the slate-grey sea with goosebumps, our anoraks spread garishly functional optimism. Mel pulled up the traps we had lowered the night before and found two huge lobsters on board – so much self-sufficiency!

Because the wind had turned, we boated over to Mingulay and went ashore. An old path led west between the ruins of an abandoned village. We passed dilapidated stone houses, millennia-old witnesses of the settlement’s history. People here didn’t live off fishing – the sea was too rough – but rather from the seabirds that they caught with long rods in the cliffs: climbing was for cragsmen – the men’s professional title, not a recreational sport, but hard work. Bird catching was the livelihood of the settlers. Even today cleits – turf covered stone domes where the catch was dried – characterize the landscape of the island. Increasing contact with the outside world in the 19th century alienated the islanders from their largely self-sufficient way of life and the boys increasingly tried their luck in Canada or Australia. The last settlers were evacuated at their own request, in the 30s of the last millennium.

From Dun Mingulay, a promontory on the west side of the island, the black rock plunged dizzyingly downward, swarmed by thousands seabirds. Hitchcock’s feathered extras produced a cacophony of screaming, croaking and plaintive voices; some birds flew low over our heads. Below us we saw the rock gate that we had taken the dinghy through the day before, now a seething cauldron of frothy Atlantic water. 300 yards behind it, said the guidebook, was the abseil. I felt my throat tighten as I searched between the blocks for useful sites for the construction of a belay. Finally I found two cracks (and two Friends) that allowed me to fashion a useful fixed point. Hopefully we were in the right place. But if my interpretation of the guidebook was wrong, it might be impossible to climb back up because the tide would come back in leaving the cut-off climbers to become food for the crabs.

…100 meters of free hanging rope

I hurled down the 100-meter rope and could just barely see how it swung back and forth in the wind. Then I tied myself in. I had already abseiled over many routes in my life: in Scotland’s winters on glassy Abalakov threads, in Patagonia by storm, in the Dolomites on whatever doubtful rusty pitons happened to be there. Nothing was as exciting as on Scotland’s coast, approaching the pounding surf with 100 meters of free hanging rope. The wall was overhanging and the rope ended on a wave-cut platform which lay underwater at high tide. I swallowed hard as I dangled, oscillating back and forth in the wind, lowering myself down. But at least I kept my feet dry, only the last meters of the rope were in the water. Fritz was the only one who followed, for the others it was too cold and they wanted to take part in the action again tomorrow (or so they said.) The most exciting part followed: taking in the rope!

The tide was coming in, with waves that had had 4.000 km to refuel with energy…

That made it official – we needed to go up, no matter what. Fritz led the first pitch. He slowly crept upward, crossed a little to the left, then to the right. It felt like an eternity but he was on the move. After 30 meters we had discussed that he should make a belay – but, he didn’t. A crash behind me reminded me of my exposed position. The tide was coming in, with waves that had had 4.000 kilometres to refuel with energy. Stay calm Ralf, was my mantra – he’dmake his belay any second. But still, he didn’t… he just climbed on. “Fritz – make a belay!” I bellowed into the wind, my agitation growing by the minute. But it was futile, my outcry was drowned out by the surf and my climbing shoes were splashed by a surge of water. “For heaven’s sake – Fritz, make a belay!” Fritz traversed as calmly as ever, almost 50 meters of rope had been let out. He’s got to end it, I thought – he has to build something NOW. And sure enough, Fritz paused and took a look at the protection that was left. “The tide is coming in!” I roared – still no answer. The next breaker rolled in and I leapt up onto a narrow ledge. That was close. They say that every seventh wave is uncommonly large. I had begun to count when a seal poked his head out of the water. Incredible, did he expect to find food here? Me? When I looked back up, Fritz had made an discernable belay – finally! I dove into my climbing shoes, away from the water and up into the vertical.

It never fails to amaze me, the fantastic coefficient of friction that rock has – even when it’s wet. This gneiss, Europe’s oldest rock with a history of 2.6 billion years, ostensibly knows what climbers want: in addition to its strength and excellent friction values, above all, it has plenty of cracks for climber-friendly protection. “A wall like this in Chamonix would be a pilgrimage site,” said Fritz, when I arrived at his position on the belay. It was drizzling lightly – authentic Scottish conditions had finally arrived after the sunny weather we had been having.It was my turn with the second pitch. There was a strong overhang and I wondered where a passageway would be. “Everywhere” came the answer. Like a climbing hall, it was one jug after the next. Despite the impressive slope, the vertical section definitely had the more technically difficult climbing.

When we got up to the edge, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. Sunbeams were migrating across the sea and conjuring up theatrical lighting over the countryside that couldn’t be captured on film. The islands lay before us like a string of pearls stretched over the silvery sea, our hearts overflowing by the magnificent scene of tranquillity and harmony. We just sat there and couldn’t think of a word to say. Then we slowly made our way back toward the beach and Eda.

Part VI of the journey
To be continued…


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