It sat without a repeat for a decade: ‘The Wailing Wall’ (Scottish mixed grade IX 9, 295 feet) on the formidable mountain An Teallach. A recent report of the first repeat goes a long way to reveal why.
The late first ascensionist Martin Moran knew Hayfork Wall would produce classic routes. The steep, several-hundred-foot wall already hosted a few testpieces when Moran and Murdoch Jamieson arrived in December 2010.
Seeking a first ascent, they ended up forging one of Scotland’s most challenging mixed routes on sight. “The Wailing Wall” clocks in a tick below the top of the Scottish mixed-grade scale.
Twelve years later, Guy Robertson and Adam Russell secured the route’s first repeat.
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And it didn’t come easily. The two reported they hadn’t climbed hard in quite some time due to COVID-19. Also, Moran’s legendary reputation meant that the route would be serious. From Moran’s descriptions, Robertson knew the climbing would push his abilities to the breaking point.
“At grade IX,9, [Moran] had suggested that this was his hardest (as well as one of his best) routes to date. I was immediately intrigued — I knew from bitter experience that this man didn’t hand out big numbers easily, and a route at such a high standard, effectively finding the easiest way up a large area of cliff, is a rare thing indeed,” Robertson told UK Climbing.
Like the British trad scale, the two-part Scottish winter grade expresses both objective danger and technical difficulty. The Roman numeral indicates the seriousness of the lead; the number represents how hard the movement is. The scale tops out at XI 11.
‘The Wailing Wall’ Second Ascent Story
Getting to the base of “The Wailing Wall” is more than trivial. Though Robertson and Russell encountered little snow and ice, the approach does cover 2,500 vertical feet.
Climbing on the Hayfork Wall is only possible during winter. Snow and ice help knit the unconsolidated sandstone together, enabling ascents. But due to its sheer texture and steep angle, axe and crampon placements tend to be marginal.
The crux hits climbers almost right off the deck. Some easy turf climbing leads to a 25-foot shuffle across a ledge. There, the terrain gets prohibitive.
Reading Robertson’s description of the crux, it’s worth keeping in mind that he appears to draw on Moran’s example of humility (“… this man didn’t hand out big numbers easily”). Downplaying elements like danger and difficulty has long been the attitude of hard people.
A crack in the smooth wall some 10 meters above sports some vague sloping snow patches and discernible turf, but the wall barring access overhangs considerably.
The gear isn’t perfect, and as with all northwest sandstone routes on big “winter only” cliffs, the threat of detachable rock is always lurking menacingly. An assured and powerful approach is required.
There are no footholds worth mentioning, only shallow vertical mossy seams. A series of deep and committing lock-offs on poor torques is effected to eventually reach the crack above. The considerable horizontal separation distance from the belay at this point undoubtedly heightens the anxiety.
The rest of the route, though easier, still offered quality climbing and exposure that Robertson called “stupendous” as the wall swept away below. He and Russell summited late in the afternoon.
Training for Serious Mixed Climbing … on Wood?
Interestingly, Robertson reported that his de facto training for “The Wailing Wall” amounted to climbing indoor wooden boards. With minimal recent experience on hard rock and ice climbs, he said he channeled Moran’s example into psyching himself up before he swung onto the route.
“I had a few quiet words to myself. Something along the lines that it was mostly a slab, not a patch on those forearm-pumping repeater circuits on the 40-degree board. If Martin was psyched enough to forge through the initial steepness and get involved in the main wall, then so should I be.”
However, he didn’t pull on without a flourish of characteristic hard man self-deprecation.
“The fact that he was a much more accomplished, experienced, cunning, and consummate mountaineer than I’ll ever be was a minor detail I chose to ignore!”