The evidence of craggers not seen

Agassiz Rock by bike

Under lockdown, I’ve followed my renewed interest in climbing outdoors by visiting my local crags in southern Edinburgh. We are exceptionally lucky, as Blackford Hill contains two cragging sites, as well as the bouldering problems associated with Agassiz Rock. Even better is that, as a geologist, this all falls within one of the Edinburgh Local Geodiversity Sites (LGSs). Without variations in geology and geomorphology, none of this cragging fun would exist and it is a great example of the use by the wider community. Edinburgh is well-served with indoor climbing venues, which offer a different, but no less enjoyable, experience. Climbing, in all its forms, is a participation sport and having the most fun is a viable route to a ‘win’. 

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog article and not related to services offered by Hills of Hame. I have NO qualification to advise on climbing. Any form of climbing carries an element of risk that it is up to every participant to assess. The risk may be managed in a variety of ways and I do use a CE- or UIAA-certified climbing-specific helmet any time I know I am going into steep ground, even if I am not expecting to climb. 

If you’d like to try outdoor climbing but are a novice, there are a number of ways to do so. Learning from a qualified instructor who holds a valid Rock Climbing Instructor (formerly SPA), or a Mountaineering Instructor Award (MIA) or a Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor (formerly MIC) is the route I would recommend.

Agassiz Rock

Agassiz Rock is of sufficient importance within the overall LGS that it has been a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Swiss geologist and palaeontologist Louis Agassiz came to visit Scotland to study fossil fish and also went on a tour to discuss evidence of past glaciation in Scotland. He found it in numerous places but Agassiz Rock is the site that bears his name and provides a talking point for geologists and climber alike.

Blackford Quarry

Blackford Quarry is a venue that has something for (nearly) everyone. On the eastern wall there are anchor bolts at the top of many of the climbs and some of the climbs are short enough to offer some ‘highball’ bouldering problems. Here are some photos of Napier Rock Climbing Club in action with ropes deployed. The rocky ridge where the bolts are offers a bit of a scramble up to the higher parts of the hill.

Corbies Crag

This is the hidden gem of this group of crags for me. Although I knew about the portion of the crag that is on the northern side but I had no really idea of the sun-drenched (well yesterday at least) long exposures of rock on the southern side. I first explored the crag as a scramble with Carnethy on Wednesday night training runs but as I started to read guidebooks and the indispensable UK Climbing (UKC) site, I became aware of the southern side and what lay round the far side.

Corbies is also the place that our younger daughter refers to as the place where I slipped and cut my leg while we were scrambling on the shortish western face. I did indeed do this and the fact that she was unfazed when it happened and went to get the first-aid kit out my pack for me was encouraging. The cut was not bad but does serve as a reminder that outdoor climbing does tend to result in more cuts, grazes and other minor first-aid issues that an indoor wall. 

We were up there for another explore this month and I noticed that the path round to the side of the crag was much more open than it had been. I took the opportunity to go and have a look and found the slab and could see a long continuation of the path that would need me to downclimb a bit. I had my ‘big boots’ on that afternoon, so that section needed to be left for a future expedition when I had my rock shoes, helmet and only myself to consider.

The opportunity arose on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Dry, warm rock and a need to head that way with the car to deal with some things at the garage were enough. After car was dealt with I headed up to the Observatory car park and wandered over to the crag. The crag can also be approached from Blackford Glen paths from below and I’ll have a look at that option too in future.

The actual climbing performance was secondary to the enjoyment of the sense of going into a hidden, quiet space by just going round the back of the crag. The one other time I can think of a similar experience was descending from Yr-Wyddfa/Snowdon. I’d crossed Crib Goch and then descended onto the main path network and the sheer volume of people and infrastructure was a bit odd after the scramble. I set off down the Llanberis Path but quickly sought a off-path descent through steeper ground and had the bonus of coming out near the Pen-Y-Gwyrd hotel. Having a post-walk pint within walls heaving with photographs and objects relating to mountaineering both locally and far out in the ‘Greater Ranges’ was really welcome.

Back in Edinburgh in the present, after slipping round the corner into rock Narnia, I first had a go at the friction-based slab problem Slab Eliminate. Of course, I struggled and had to use the ‘out-of-bounds’ holds but it was a salutary reminder that climbing outdoors demands different skills and approaches from indoors.

After warming up a bit on the slab, I made my way down towards the Sunny Scoop area, so that I could locate Retromingent Ridge, a rocky rib that offers the easiest graded climbs.  A big thank you to the folks who posted on UKC , especially the photo of this area. Being confident you have found the right place for the base of a climb provides great reassurance. I also found lots of gorse and have the tiny puncture wounds to prove it. Hill-running experience does confer a certain resignation to gorse in the legs, so I explored the rib and was able to top out. Once the ground eases off, there are multiple choices to top out or traverse a bit more to the right. After this, I went back to the Eliminate Slab area and carried on working at the skills of friction, balance and using small footholds before calling it a day and headed back.

On the way back I got to thinking about the evidence of the other climbers not seen but whose presence was marked in various ways. The changes in the path round the back of Corbies was one clue on the ground. No chalk visible at Corbies but loads on Agassiz with the difficult bouldering problems. Blackford Quarry has the bolts and the side ‘trod’ used by a mixture of hill-runners and people heading up to the anchors to tie in to offer the security of a rope to people climbing on the eastern slab. I’ve also noticed a couple of activity provider vehicles in the times before Covid when I was running, cycling or walking along the road that leads to the track.

On returning to write up my Digital Logbook (DLOG) that most Mountain Training candidates and award holders maintain, I started having a look around the web for search results for Corbies Crag.

A nice find was that Davy Virdee,  a Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor based in Edinburgh, who studied Geology & Geophysics at Glasgow at the same time I was doing my Geology & Applied Geology degree gives these venues a mention and some photos on Mountain Active. As a WMCI, Davy covers all aspects from a mini-adventure for wee ones roped up on the side ‘trod’ of Blackford Quarry to the harder multi-pitch climbs at the eastern end of Corbies.

Beyond that, there are the resources such as the Scottish Climbs Wiki (‘Geek climbers on Irn-Bru’) and the chat on boards about crags and routes, often going back 15–20 year. Although we may be socially-distanced in time and space, the outdoor community remains out there as a ‘community of interest’.

Corbies Crag is on the right of this shot of Blackford Hill from across the valley.

I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.

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Posted in Climbing, Edinburgh, Geodiversity

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