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16 October 2014

The Great Climb


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The Climb
The Savage Arena: Shelter Stone Crag and Hell's Lum

In many ways climbing in the deep Cairngorms is more akin to alpinism than conventional British climbing. Undertaking an overnight bivouac prior to an ‘alpine start’ can often prove to be wise idea before embarking on the range’s longer and more challenging climbs, such is the effort required merely to reach the base of many cliffs, let alone climb them. Hence the ‘Shelter Stone’; a name which actually refers to a natural cavity formed by the jumble of massive boulders below the imposing crag which shares its name. The biggest rock, sometimes referred to as the ‘Shelter Stone’ itself, is a huge block, 44 feet long, 21 feet broad, and 22 feet high, and calculated to weigh 1700 tons, which fell from the parent crag above at the end of the ice age and came to rest on two other stones in such a way as to form this natural outdoor stone shelter, or ‘howff’ as it is known in Scots. The rough chamber, sufficiently large to accommodate about half a dozen people, has been used by generations of climbers as a mini base camp from which to launch their climbs on the savage arena of cliffs surrounding the head of the Loch A’an basin. And what draws them here, to one of the wildest parts of the British Isles in the very heart of the Cairngorms, are some of the most remote – and challenging – climbs in the country.

Shelter Stone crag
Photograph courtesy of Triple Echo Productions

The Shelter Stone Crag
Situated high in the Cairngorms at 600m above sea level, the square-topped Shelter Stone crag rises a breathtaking 270m directly above rough boulder-strewn ground and scree in a sheer sweep of granite slabs, walls, grooves and overhangs. Originally known as The Sticil (from the Gaelic An Sticil, meaning ‘the kiln rafter, or beam’), it is one of the most impressive cliffs in the Cairngorms, exuding an alpine ambience. The climbing here, on the austere north-east facing cliffs can feel forbidding, even in the best of weather. The sheer size of the cliffs, together with the high-angled nature of the granite, which is often blank of features or opportunities to protect the leader for long stretches, can test the nerve as well as the skill of the coolest climber. Only the best can make a mark here. Despite this, the ‘Proudest Crag in the Northern Cairngorms’ boasts a select collection of much sought-after classic and extreme rock climbs. They include The Needle (E1), The Pin (E2), Steeple (E2) and Run of the Arrow (E5), as well as more modern, but rarely-repeated, cutting edge routes such as Realm of the Senses (E7) and L’Elisir d’Amore (E7). In addition there are many demanding, but rarely-forming winter climbs such as the famous Sticil Face (VI) and The Citadel (VI). Despite this legacy of climbing exploration, the scale of the rock architecture here is so great that there is still plenty of scope for exploration of new lines of ascent, especially at the harder grades.

Hell’s Lum
Photograph courtesy of Triple Echo Productions

Hell’s Lum
The apocalyptic-sounding Hell’s Lum incorporates the Scots word for chimney, the cliff taking its name from a feature up its left-hand side in the form of a deep chimney- or ‘lum’- like cleft to the plateaux above. The ‘Lum’ from which the crag takes its name is, ironically, rather atypical of the crag as a whole however, for this is classic mountain slab terrain. Most of Hell’s Lum crag forms a magnificent sweep of smooth, polished granite up to 200m in height. Although it has a southerly aspect, this is still very much an arctic/alpine climbing ground, situated as it is a full 850m above sea level. Despite this, the less shadowed terrain and the generally less steep rock angles encountered on many routes mean that on a fine summer’s day the climbing here can feel less intimidating than on the often brooding, menacing Shelter Stone Crag. Nevertheless, it remains a serious place, full of pitfalls for the unwary, and a long way from help if an accident occurs. In winter the crag can become almost encased in dazzling boiler plates of ice. Indeed, snow patches and drainage can dampen the rock well into the summer.  Over thirty rock and ice climbs have been made to date and they include many internationally renowned classics such as the rock climbs Clean Sweep and Hellfire Corner, and the winter climbs Deep Cut Chimney as well as Hell’s Lum itself.



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