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Seven hours on Stac Lee: how Rob Woodall became the first complete Marilynbagger

Paul Reeve and Pete Ellis on Stac Lee west ridge (photo: Rob Woodall)Paul Reeve and Pete Ellis on Stac Lee west ridge (photo: Rob Woodall)
Rob Woodall and Pete Ellis rejoin boatman Seumas Morrison below Stac  Lee (photo: Mark Smith)                                                                                                                                                                                                      Rob Woodall and Pete Ellis rejoin boatman Seumas Morrison below Stac Lee (photo: Mark Smith)

It was the spring of 1992 when Alan Dawson’s The Relative Hills of Britain (RHB) was published, a book which included various categorisations of hills, of which the main and the most popular was the list of Marilyns – hills on the Ordnance Survey mapping grid with 150 metres of drop on all sides. There are currently 1556 Marilyns, and plenty of people have climbed 1000 or more of them. Until earlier this week, however, no one had climbed the full set.
     The list includes an impressive variety of hills big and small, sharp and spacious, airy and twiggy – but the real stoppers, the ones that prevented the Marilyns being completed for more than twice as long as it took anyone to climb all the Munros, were the island summits of St Kilda, away out in the far west of the Hebrides. Six of the St Kilda islands are Marilyns, five of them very tricky, and conservation politics, awkward landings, heavy seas, technical climbing, stormy weather and sheer far-away-ness all played a part in preventing anyone being able to claim that they had climbed them all and thus been to the top of the full set of Marilyns.
     Until now, that is – as on Monday 13 October 2014 a raiding party of determined climber-baggers saw several people make it to the top of the two most critical sea stacks, Stac an Armin (or Stac an Armainn) and Stac Lee (Stac Li), with Rob Woodall, a Cambridgeshire-based 54-year-old network modeller with Anglian Water, becoming the first to wrap up the list, followed around an hour later by Eddie Dealtry, aged 66 and from Cumbria.
     Now safely back in the east-of-England flatlands, Rob Woodall drew breath after a whistlestop week to answer a few questions about what it was like to finish this most tricky and time-consuming of British hill lists…

Congratulations on the ascents, and on being the first person to complete the list of Marilyns – a tremendous and remarkable achievement. In terms of the recent St Kilda trip, can you say a few things about the logistics? Where were you based for the raid – Harris? – and how long did it take to sail out to the stacks?

We were based at home! The weather was suddenly looking iffy on the Saturday, OK early Sunday, so we headed up, checking en route for the boatman’s verdict. Got the evening ferry across to Tarbert on Harris, bagged on Monday, early ferry Tuesday, work on Wednesday. You have to approach it like a bird twitcher, unless you have a lot of time on your hands.

There has been a fair bit of negotiation over the years with regard to access to St Kilda and not disturbing any bird colonies. When did the season start and end in terms of what was agreed to be acceptable?

Broadly mid-October through to mid-March, although reading the small print it is 11 October for the stacks, so we were in right at the beginning of the window.

How many St Kilda trips have you been on, and how many times had you gone with the intention or at least the hope of landing on the stacks only to be thwarted by sea conditions or the weather?

Six! A 2003 tourist trip to Hirta, April 2009 for Boreray, another April 2009 impromptu trip for Dun and September 2009 for Soay (that all sounds ridiculous in these days when folk get all four – or none – in a three-day September trip, but we were feeling our way). The first specific stacks attempt was November 2013, in poor conditions, but a useful recce. Then 13 October 2014 makes six. So only one serious attempt on the stacks: perhaps we got lucky.

Have you ever had problems with sea sickness? It would be a nuisance to go all the way out to St Kilda and then be unable to do anything because of illness.

Hardly ever. Felt queasy on the first-ever St Kilda trip and on the boat out to Lundy, but never sick, and nothing in recent years.

The weather and sea-state charts looked very promising for this trip – although two days before you climbed the stacks you wrote that the forecasts were “Not so good as was showing a couple of days ago but swell-wise is still remarkable for Oct … Becoming quite breezy though, will have to see what the boatman makes of it this a.m. for final call.” That sounded like optimism tempered with caution – were the landings still in doubt until you actually reached the stacks?

The boatman Seumas Morrison was downbeat Saturday but quite upbeat Sunday morning, so ultimately we were reasonably confident. The problem was the breeze was a bit too strong and not quite the right direction, so it could have gone either way. Stac an Armin turned out pretty easy, which gave us a sporting chance for the two, although we’d have been very happy with either one.

Neither stack is very high in normal hill terms – 196m and 172m respectively – but given the technical aspects did it take a while to climb and safely descend them?

Stac an Armin was about 90 minutes for the round trip, Stac Lee seven hours! Previous ascents have been unroped except for the one hard pitch. Both our lead climbers roped all except the top slope.

Was Stac an Armin the easier of the two? The fact that 11 people climbed that but only six made it up Stac Lee suggests it was.

Absolutely. With Stac an Armin, landing is the crux. Then it’s walking and scrambling, with just two sections where folks appreciated a rope.

What were the landings like? And what was it like in terms of technical difficulty once ashore? From the photographs, Stac Lee looks to have an awkward landing followed by a couple of sections of steep exposed scrambling with a pitched climb halfway up.

On Stac an Armin the usual south slabs landing was pretty marginal, but following Jon Warren’s 1994 ascent we checked out the west side / south-west corner and it went easily. On Stac Lee the boatman was quite pessimistic but agreed to land us – actually pretty simple, just have to jump for it, with an easy landing and wearing the trusty microspikes so confident of footing. We anticipated having to improvise a departure point a little further west, as the wind was forecast to move around to the east, but conditions stayed pretty much the same, as did the pickup point.

How hard are the stacks in terms of technical grades? Paul Reeve led the climbing team, but you’re a handy climber yourself – could you have led the stacks if required? And did the ways you went appear to be the easiest options?

Firstly I don’t lead, although I’m an OK scrambler. I’ve never done enough to master the ropework. On Stac an Armin there are choices with landing which are dictated by sea conditions, so we had little choice really. The initial climb was probably about Moderate, but as Paul fixed a rope we just used that.
     Stac Lee had a couple of bits around Easy/Moderate. The main pitch has just a couple of hard moves, I’d guess about Mild Severe. Richard Mclellan (the other leader) thought V Diff – so maybe “Scottish V Diff”! Initially I ran out of holds, then stopped and searched around, found a couple of little in-cut holds and got up OK. If I had to solo it to save my life, knowing the holds now I guess I could, but it’s not a scramble.

What’s the rock like? Presumably slimy and greasy lower down because of the swell, but is it better higher up? Eddie Dealtry – who was in the second successful summit party – described it as “harder and crappier than imagined”.

Nice grippy gabbro low down – so all that green doesn’t mean much, not in dry October conditions, although it looked pretty gruesome when we were there last November soon after a storm had watered the greenery. The guano makes things slippery once above the pitch, but there’s little exposure along that section.

What did you wear on your feet? From the pictures it looked to be boots of some kind, but did you consider climbing shoes or even fell-running shoes?

I went for boots as they have edge stiffness for small footholds, which fell shoes don’t. Rock shoes would have been better for the main pitch but I reckoned I’d be OK seconding in boots. Most of us wore Kahtoola microspikes over our boots / shoes for the landing – these worked well even in the much worse November 2013 conditions. Some used shortened sharpened crampons – two schools of thought.

Is there much vegetation? And did you encounter any birdlife?

Stac an Armin has plenty of grass and other vegetation. On Stac Lee I saw nothing except lichen/algae (which gives the stack its yellow-green coloration). Low down I guess the storms clear it; higher up the gannets will have long ago done for it. Both stacks still have gannets, but sparse enough to work round. Quite a few rock pipits, and the little group of turnstones around the Stac Lee landing point was a nice surprise.

From the pictures of Stac Lee, there looks to have been a point where you broke free from the difficulties and were suddenly on the lovely sloping rooftop of the west ridge. What did that feel like – did you then know that, barring some unexpected calamity, the stack was certain to be climbed and the Marilyns completed at last? Did you savour the moment?

It’s not really the end of the difficulties – like the long upper ledge it’s easy but exposed, and guano-slippery. The scenery is superb though, suddenly the north face below with Stac an Armin and Boreray in all their glory. Very special. I was confident we’d summit as soon as we landed, with good conditions and the afternoon ahead of us.

And what were your feelings on reaching the summit? Elation? A touch of sadness at the 1550-hill journey having been completed? Or just anxiety about getting back down safely into the boat?

Just satisfaction, really. And the feeling you get on a great summit in great weather. The end-of-list thing still hasn’t really sunk in – I’ve already been not bagging Marilyns for 11 years (except for the four in 2009). I’m very pleased I’ll no longer have to have the stacks hovering around my winter schedule – it’s great to be able to clear the decks and move on.

How long did you spend on top of each stack? Was there a sense of urgency on Stac an Armin in terms of getting to Stac Lee before the weather or sea conditions deteriorated?

Less than 10 minutes on each. Always we were conscious of time passing. There was no definite two-stack plan, but once Paul and/or I got the idea we might be able to get both, we were keen to get down. We agreed with the others that they would strip the fixed ropes and we would see if we could get established on Stac Lee.

Pete Ellis and Richard Mclellan were also in your party on Stac Lee, so were there three people in the second team, Eddie Dealtry, Paul Reeve again and one other?

Paul took me and Pete Ellis up (Pete incidentally got all six Kilda Marilyns within a month), as we (with Bill Forbes) were the first on and off Stac an Armin. Then the boat went back for the others, and the second team ended up being Richard and Denise Mclellan plus Eddie. Two others (Michael Earnshaw and Colin Crawford) also landed but returned to the boat leaderless. This was at the time really disappointing, as roughly half the team were capable of leading and I’d provisionally paired folks up, and teams of two would have made faster progress. Still, there’s a limit to how many it’s possible to get up Stac Lee in an afternoon, and 11 and six on the two stacks in a day is a great result, better than we’d dared hope, given that our two-day plan had compressed to one.

In terms of the higher success rate on Stac an Armin, how many different teams did that comprise?

No teaming on Armin except that we were landed in pairs. Paul and I were landed first as we knew more about how to tackle it. Then folks just landed and walked/scrambled up.

There were three people with Marilyns-minus-two status (M-2, also known as the Wall) who stayed on the boat – were they hoping to join you on the stacks only to find it too daunting come the time?

I don’t know what process led to just the five landing after our advance party. Partly I fear it might have been just the way things happened on the day – we just did what we could.

Were you scared, either on the approach or during the actual climbs?

Not really, perhaps a little on the pitch going up, and more so on the abseil back down it, which was an awkward off-vertical affair with a karabiner midway which had to be unclipped – not something I’ve done before. Three of us had trouble with it, and just how best to do that abseil still isn’t really clear. It’s down to the lack of good places to put in protection.

Both stacks have been climbed before – by ornithologists (for example Dick Balharry and the late John Morton Boyd in May 1969), by people from the military and of by course by native St Kildans – but there appear to have been few if any ascents in recent years. Did you study written accounts and videos of earlier ascents before you went, and have you ever met anyone else who has been up either of them?

Never met anyone, but Jon Warren climbed them both (Lee 1990, Armin 1994, bracketing the publication of RHB) and his usefully detailed route descriptions found their way on to the walkhighlands website. These, plus the accompanying videos, have been very helpful. Bob Kerr spotted them if I recall correctly. Before that, Stuart Benn spoke to quite a few folk and I built up a document of useful information over the years.

Remarkably there’s a bothy – built long ago by the St Kildans – part-way up Stac Lee. Did you visit this, and what’s it like?

Just a bit of drystane dyke under an overhang, with two openings. You’d not want to sleep in there. I doubt that it was ever any bigger, though. There’s a bothy on the way up Stac an Armin too, rather larger but roofless.

Did either hilltop (or, rather, stack-top) show any sign of earlier human visits – for example any cairns? And did you come across any old climbing tat during the ascents?

Stac Lee has a cairn of sorts; Stac an Armin has a detached block but natural I think. No climbing tat, just an alloy peg before the crux on Stac Lee. The gannets have an eye for plastic cord from fishing nets – none is climber-related, I think.

Once you got down from Stac an Armin, how confident were you that Stac Lee could now be climbed? How strong was the possibility that you would leave St Kilda with the job only half done?

Actually pretty confident, as we had plenty of time. In particular, once we landed on Stac Lee the summit seemed to be in the bag.

In terms of the overall list, your first Marilyn was Carnedd Llewelyn in 1976, long before the Relative Hills book was published. What was the first hill you climbed knowing it to be a Marilyn? How many had you climbed at that stage? And how early in the process did you start to think you could get round the full list?

I’m hazy about that. A friend mentioned the list in the 1990s soon after RHB came out, and I dismissed it as stupidly big. I then finished the Corbetts (1995) and went on to the Grahams, but likely won’t have targeted any lower Marilyns, not in Scotland anyway. I finished the Wainwrights in 1996 then the Deweys in late 1998. I’d have been working on the Marilyns straight after the Deweys and they then became the main England-and-Wales project. I guess I started taking in lower Marilyns in Scotland too at some point prior to my December 2002 Grahams completion.

Looking at old Marilyn Hall of Fame listings, you appear to have reached M-2 status around 2009 or 2010 – is that right? It’s been a long wait for the two stacks to be added to your tally – did you have doubts that it could be done?

Yes, the 2009 trips got me the four non-stack Kilda Marilyns. There was then quite a head of steam on the stacks project for a year or two. I think we missed 2012-13 then refocused in the last two years. I suppose we were confident it was doable. It was just a matter of whether I/we could be bothered to keep driving it. In the end it came quite easily, although we were pretty well prepared.

In personal terms, where does this rank on your very impressive hill CV? You’ve been round most of the other main British hill lists and have managed several major single-day achievements – the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley, Charlie Ramsay and Mark Rigby rounds, and the Great Cuillin Traverse on Skye. Is completing the Marilyns the cherry on the cake?

Cuillin Round, if you don’t mind! I am proud of that; the Marilyns is probably on a par with it although I wouldn’t have thought of comparing them. Having climbed 201 Ultras sounds like it should be impressive but it’s easy to pick and choose among a list of 1526 hills (interesting that the Ultras and Marilyns are numerically similar).

For all that you and the other climbers were at the sharp end of the operation, presumably several other people have played significant roles, from Alan Dawson who compiled the list and wrote the book, to the various boatmen involved in the nautical side of proceedings. This has been a great personal achievement for you, but do you feel like you’ve been part of a team?

Very much a team – lead climbers, boatman, boat and travel cost-sharers.

What did you do on that first post-stacks evening – was there celebratory food and drink before the start of the long journey home? Did you sleep well that night?

Sadly not – we were late back from St Kilda and had to leave soon after 4am for the early ferry from Stornoway. Four hours’ sleep on three consecutive nights. Perhaps oddly for such a significant milestone, I haven’t even thought about how to celebrate it.

What now? You’re known to be busy chipping away at various other hill-related lists, from the international Ultras (mountains with at least 1500m drop on all sides) to humble trig points in the UK. Is there likely to be any big new project in the pipeline, for instance completing the HuMPs (similar to Marilyns but with 100m drop), even though this would involve even more stacks? Would you like to land on Rockall?

Ultras, spliced with P600s [hills worldwide with 600 metres of all-round prominence or drop], are likely to remain my principal project for the next few years. The Ordnance Survey GB trig pillars and Haswell-Smith Scottish islands are drawing to a close. P30s (with eventually a Sims completion) are long-term projects – and there’s lots of other OS stuff out there (principally the Passive and Active stations). Can’t see me doing Rockall.

Given that others will in due course want to climb Stac an Armin and Stac Lee and thus complete the Marilyns, can you see yourself going back out there to lend a helping hand?

I’m keen to advise although I’ve already handed on the co-ordinator role. I suppose I wouldn’t mind going back sometime. Without the pressure of organising or the need to go, it’s a simple yes/no based on availability, and these trips are good fun. I wouldn’t mind a go at some of the other St Kilda P30s, but doubt if it will ever happen.

Rob Woodall was interviewed by Dave Hewitt

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