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Scotlands Laboratory of Hard Grades - Alan Cassidy

Scotlands Laboratory of Hard Grades - Alan Cassidy
Scotlands Laboratory of Hard Grades - Alan Cassidy
September 07, 2013 -  Alan Cassidy    

Scotland is blessed with loads of rock and loads of rock types. Yet despite its wealth of rock Scotland has rarely been the testing ground of international rock climbing standards at least not by those looking on from the outside and is almost never on anyone's list of destinations.


Scotland's issues abound, it rains a lot for a start. But where the bulk of the rock is in the far North-West is often much drier than people think, even Scottish people, from their much more Southern location. You see most of Scotland live in a small strip of land in the South (the not so central, "central belt").

Living here you could be forgiven for thinking that there was almost no worthwhile rock-climbing in Scotland as you are constrained to abandoned quarries of dolerite in close proximity to Motorways or towns of delinquent kids determined to give you a hard time. Scotland's one and only limestone venue, Limekilns found a stone's throw from Edinburgh (famous for it's castle on top a rock) consists of 2, 10m, cuboid, blocks of bizarre rock offering only a passing interest to the desperate. Us central belters are pretty desperate and all think its "actually pretty good". I don't think I am alone in joking that EICA Ratho is "Scotland's best sport crag".

There is one place though, a rocky blemish on the landscape as the river Clyde is released from the industrial clutch of greater Glasgow and flirts with the beauty of Argyle, that deserves to be given more attention. (In more ways than one). A place that is easy to hate but that when you let yourself enjoy it reveals a true beauty.

Dumbarton Rock is the misunderstood aging punk (with a penchant for the classical) of international rock climbing. Occasionally she produces a tune that makes everyone sit up and notice. Dave Cuthbertson's 1983 Requiem (E8, 8a/+) was a challenger to Tony Yaniro's Grand Illusion (8a/+) for "world's hardest route'. Whether or not that moniker is deserved I cannot say, having only climbed one half of the equation but Requiem remains, to this day, very rarely climbed despite being one of the most outstanding lines up one of the most impenetrable looking of overhangs. Dave Macleod's Rhapsody (E11, 8c+) brought the world's attention again but only Sonnie Trotter and Steve McClure have risen to the challenge of repeating the more modern take on the "world's hardest trad route" and that title has long since flown off to nicer surroundings.

You see Dumbarton Rock is not without its issues and its location in a town, blighted by the long term lack of jobs since the demise of its shipbuilding heritage (the rotting wharves at the foot of the rock lay testament to this). Generations of disaffected youth have used the rock as drinking den. Graffiti of the less than artistic type tags the rocks and shards of glass abound in the dust below the boulder problems. Thankfully the local climbers have started to take the place back (as you can see from Chris Houston’s nice little video), and with the help of the local council the graffiti is gone. Dumby is starting to feel more like a destination worthy of its proud array of hard problems.

You will never find the crew at the foot of these problems, and rarely will the Sheffield mafia give the place a nod. But, among these boulders there lies testimony to the abilities of Scotland's best boulderers. Dave Macleod pointed the way into the modern era but Malcolm Smith's hardest creations would surely stop any travelling star from simply rampaging through the ticks. At a modest grade of 8B Fire Fight is unlikely to ever get a downgrade and there is currently no queue for a repeat and Gut Buster at 8B+ has all the flavour of an 8C. We Scot's are an understated bunch though and we wouldn't want any of that grade inflation here!

For many years now there have been to sport climbs bolted at Dumbarton that long before 9b had actually become reality were touted at that grade. It seemed so ridiculous that nobody ever tried them. But now in the era of Ondra the world has 9b+ and the Dumbarton routes started to look less ridiculous. I recently decided to be the first to put their cards on the table and successfully climbed the first half of one of these super-projects. Unfinished Symphony, at only 8b+, takes on the blank looking face at a surprisingly amenable grade but leads into a desperate blank looking boulder problem. (You can read about the first ascent on my blog). Having opened up the face to attempts at least in part I have now played on the boulder problem that guards the easier finish. It is exceptionally hard, too hard for me as it stands, but I think it is do-able. Maybe it wouldn’t even sum to more than 9a or maybe I’m wrong and its harder still, maybe Dumby has another contender for the world’s hardest route. Only Adam Ondra could tell us that. 

But the visiting superstars will never come and so, with a little more dedicated time learning the subtle art of basalt climbing on the boulders below, it may yet be me who finds a way through. If not me, the new generation of Scottish climbers have an obvious challenge to rise to. The closing chapters in the long history of Dumbarton rock are yet to be written.


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