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Returning to Trad Climb Classic Sport Routes in Scotland

Robbie Phillips  /  Oct 18, 2016  /  5 Min Read  /  Climbing

Nine years after first climbing it as a sport route, Robbie Phillips returns to Dunkeld for a trad ascent of Marlene. Photo: Euan Ryan/Finalcrux Films

One of my earliest outdoor climbing experiences was at the crags around the quaint countryside village of Dunkeld. An escarpment of Schist can be seen escaping from the deep forest high on the hill just beyond the village. It was here that I would spend many a day for ten years.

The climbing here is unique. Sloping ramps allow sustained climbing between crystals bursting out of fissures in the wall, and perfect little pockets that fit one or two fingers make it seem as though the rock was created just for climbers. There are maybe fifty or more traditional climbs at Dunkeld, but only two, true bolted lines with enough variations to create a handful of sport routes.

In Scotland, we have a very proud history of traditional climbing. Bolts aren’t allowed in the mountains and a wall has to feel sporty for it to be bolted. We don’t really have a lot of sport climbing in Scotland but that which we do have is treasured.

At 16, my goal was to climb the classic sport routes of Dunkeld:

  • Hamish Teddie’s Excellent Adventure (7b+, 5.12c)
  • Marlene (7c, 5.12d)
  • Silk Teddies (7c, 5.12d)
  • Silk Purse (7c+, 5.13a)

For a young climber in Scotland who was brought up hearing these names it was a huge accomplishment. It was like joining an elite club for only those who had climbed the routes.

Years passed and my relationship with the sport climbing at Dunkeld evolved. The climbs never changed but I did. I became a climbing coach, working with the next generation of young climbers in Scotland. Young boys and girls would come and repeat these climbs and they too would get that same feeling of accomplishment I had all those years before. Even though I wasn’t climbing the routes for the first time, I was getting something else from them. I was using those climbs to instill the same passion for climbing I have, in the next generation, and it was fulfilling!

Introduction to Greenpointing

I had been asked to come out to Frankenjura, Germany, for a Patagonia event and the 25th anniversary of Action Directe festival. Pete Whittaker and I were running around the forest climbing the classic Frankenjura routes from Wolfgang Gullich, Kurt Albert and Jerry Moffatt. I don’t think we had a single day of rest!

One conversation with some locals brought up The Peacemaker (7c+, 5.13a), an old-school sport climb that some had been trying to free climb in a clean style (without the bolts using trad gear). Pete and I decided to check it out.

We were excited to find out that, despite what the locals had said, the crux was actually really well protected by about half a dozen small wires fiddled into the shallow limestone pockets. After about a days’ work, we were both happy with the gear and decided to go for it on the last day of the trip.

Pete was nervous. I, admittedly, was quite glad about this as I was also really nervous. Pete is a much better trad climber than me and has a stack of impressive leads to his name. It made me feel strangely comforted that somebody like Pete also gets nerves.

“What do you think? I’m not sure,” Pete said.

“Yeah dude! Just go for it,” I said. “It’ll be fine. Loads of gear aye!”

I figured it would be better to send the trad machine up first just in case it wasn’t fine. I’m a master of negotiation.

Hesitantly, Pete replied, “Yeah… it’ll be fine… yeah…”

Pete went for the lead and despite the hot, humid and muggy conditions, managed to make an impressive first greenpoint ascent of The Peacemaker. I followed suit shortly after, making the second greenpoint ascent.

The ethic of greenpointing was what stuck with me more than anything on that trip, namely that you climb a sport route using trad gear but you don’t chop the bolts.

It’s not always the case that a sport climb that can be done without bolts needs to be chopped. The reason The Peacemaker is bolted is because doing it without them makes it pretty darn bold (E8 6c?). And how many 7c+/5.13a climbers would be interested in doing it now? Not a lot, sadly.

Artwork: Simon Charrière

This picture was drawn by fellow Patagonia ambassador Simon Charrière for Pete and I after our successful greenpoint of The Peacemaker. Artwork: Simon Charrière

Return to Scotland

I flew home from the trip with an idea in my head. Could the classic Dunkeld sport routes be climbed clean?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the best line at the crag, Marlene (7c, 5.12d), was quite well protected when you took the time to fiddle in small wires. I climbed the first section slowly—it’s a bit of a bold start where a slip on the first ten meters could be a ground fall. I placed a good cam and committed to the pumpy traverse. Here, I had to stop and place some fiddly wires where you really don’t want to stop. You slowly feel the pump building until you really do have to stop fiddling and start moving. The wires protected the next long section up to a huge gaping hole where I placed a solid #2 Camalot. From here to the top it’s still another ten meters of gradually rising, leftwards traversing.

The remaining traverse is the redpoint crux of Marlene, but I was hanging around to place some small cams for peace of mind. Interestingly, I had never been pumped at this point on the climb since first doing the route, but I was feeling it a bit now. I made the final few moves tentatively trying to avoid looking back at the long runout.

As I stood atop the wall, an immense wave of satisfaction washed over me. It was the same feeling I’d had nine years previous when I climbed Marlene the first time.

Watch Robbie make his greenpoint ascent of Marlene. Dunkeld, Scotland. Video: Finalcrux Films

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