Scotland has a long and illustrious climbing history. From the early pioneers of the 20th century to the invention of the modern ice axe in the 1960s, Scotland is steeped in climbing tradition and folklore. Some of the world’s most famous climbers cut their teeth (probably literally) on Glencoe’s rocky crags and unforgiving gullies, and their legacy lives on as the sport continues to thrive and grow.
Outdoor climbing remains popular in this country, despite our frankly terrible weather conditions and the remoteness of many routes. While most climbers starting out today hone their skills on an indoor wall, getting out into the mountains remains the ultimate goal. It almost goes without saying that the real advantage of getting outside in Scotland is the locations and views it offers.
John Fowler is Honorary Secretary of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. “Being in the open air amongst beautiful scenery is the pinnacle of climbing for me. I started my climbing outside and consider indoor climbing as a means to an end – just a way of getting some practice in and keeping fit.”
Tackling your first outdoor climb requires some serious investment. Not only do you require extensive kit, but some military-like planning will be in order too. First you have to decide what type of climb you want to do; sport or trad. Trad (short for traditional) climbing remains the most popular form of the sport in the UK. It involves placing the gear in the rock as you climb – one wrong fixing is all that stands between you and a very unhappy ending. It’s not for the faint hearted, and if it’s your first time you should ensure you’re with somebody who really knows what they’re doing, or even better, hire an instructor or guide.
Sport climbing is an easier, less terror-inducing way to take your climbing outside. Sport climbing is essentially the same as leading indoors – you clip into bolts already fixed in the rock. Although hugely popular on the continent, sport climbing is less common in the UK, largely due to the strong ethics that run deep in British climbers. In this country, trad climbing is seen as the ‘purest’ form of the sport.
John explains: “There has always been a strong bias towards traditional climbing in Scotland, possibly because there is such a strong connection between climbing and mountaineering in this country. Sport climbing is growing in popularity though, there are new routes appearing. Although trad climbing will always be the choice for most Scottish climbers.”
However, that’s not to say there are no sport routes in Scotland; in fact according to UK Climb, there are now over 1400 to choose from. But whichever style you decide upon, outdoor climbing is all about the location. From exposed sea stacks to mountains and crags, there is no shortage of options. The Highlands, and Glencoe in particular, are amongst the most famous destinations and home to many classic routes.
Paul Diffley is the founder of Hot Aches Productions, an award winning Edinburgh based film company, specialising in climbing and mountaineering features. “The best part of climbing outside is the places it takes you – you find yourself in these incredibly remote and wild environments. Often the best routes are in hard to reach areas; there’s little better than climbing in some beautiful, isolated glen with no one else around you. For me, the biggest enjoyment often comes from the location rather than the route I’m climbing.”
However, if you’re short on time, or you’d like to be closer to a major Accident and Emergency department, there are also plenty of options closer to home. North Berwick, Dunbar and Dumbarton all boast routes that can be accessed in an hour or less from Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively. In fact, one of the hardest climbs in the world was set on Dumbarton rock. Scottish climbing legend Dave MacLeod trained for two years solidly to complete the E11 Rhapsody route, and all within a stone’s throw of Glasgow city centre.
Few places offer the breadth and diversity of climbs found in Scotland. There are even fewer sports that allow a more exhilarating way to experience your environment. Nowhere do you get a stronger sense of your insignificance than scaling a 20-metre crag in a deserted glen. And that’s what makes outdoor climbing so special – the different perspective it offers. Walking or cycling through a landscape is fleeting in comparison to attaching yourself to it and clawing your way up, one move at a time.