On the ropes

A STEADY stream of motorbikes, classic cars, motor homes and camper vans flow past the village far below. Down on the main street they stop in their droves, peering at Nanny’s Café then going in to sample its famous food.

It’s a far cry from the last time I enjoyed a coffee in what was then the tin shed at Shieldaig but the friendly welcome is still the same, especially as we’re sitting with a real local who is back in the village having moved away recently.

“I’m working,” says Jim Sutherland in conversation with the café’s owner. “Aye, looks like it,” she retorts!

We finish our soup, coffee and cake, suitably defrosted from the chilling downpours of the morning, and make our way back to the crags behind the village, our training ground for a day of scrambling and climbing with Jim’s client for the weekend, Ronan Lowney.

Ronan is over from Ireland for a week in the Highlands and wants to refresh his mountaineering skills ahead of the winter, so Jim has invited me over to join them. It’s a chance for me to put some of my Mountain Leader (ML) training into practice and it gives Ronan the opportunity of having a partner on the rope as we put lessons learned into real-life situations.

Shieldaig offers the perfect training ground and we’re onto our first little crag before we’ve even left the village. Looking up, there are no end of crags to choose from but, having lived here for years and brought his children up in the village, Jim knows exactly where to go.

We work on our footwork, placing feet correctly and putting weight over each foot in turn, but on some surfaces in these squally conditions there is little to no grip. One of the best lessons is when to quit and we decide we wouldn’t want to be on an exposed ridge on wet rock like this.

Ronan soon shows he has spent time in the hills. We do some pacing – counting steps to measure distance – and clamber up and down a few crags. He is confident moving around on this terrain so we move onto the crux of the weekend’s learning – rope work.

This is where Jim hands over to me, introducing the rope through the basic principles outlined at ML level. The rules here are that the ML rope is for emergencies only and should never be needed but it’s vital to have the skills just in case.

As he explains, the principles here are fundamental to all rope work – finding a suitable anchor, belaying and communication.

I set up the rope, tying it round the huge boulder that acts as the perfect anchor and tie myself onto the rope near the anchor before getting Ronan tied on to the end. There are no harnesses for this procedure so it’s not the most comfortable set-up but, remember, this is for emergencies.

With the rope round my back and below my rucksack, I’m ready to belay Ronan down the small drop we are using for this exercise. Jim makes the final checks then down Ronan goes. I lower Jim down next then Jim takes a turn as the belayer for Ronan and myself.

We all agree that we don’t want to have to do that even in an emergency – a rope tied round your waist with all your weight on it is not a comfortable situation to be in.

After lunch, Jim takes over, introducing climbing equipment and more knots as we move on to climbing in short pitches, leading and seconding.

For Ronan and I this is refreshing dormant skills that we’ve not had time or opportunity to use for a number of years, so we quickly get to grips with setting up our anchors and belays as we move onto steeper ground.

With Jim heading up first on the unsettlingly-named “ghost rope”, Ronan and I take it in turns leading, clipping into protection on the way. We soon become adept at setting up the anchor then clipping into it using a karabiner and clove hitch, before belaying the other climber up the next pitch.

Just as we reach our high point for the day, the squally showers return and a drop in temperature to boot. Jim decides to finish the day with a retreating abseil in these fitting conditions.

He sets up the abseil using a tape anchor and we join our two ropes for a doubled descent. You have to trust your equipment as well as your ability to use it correctly, so once we’re all set up with our individual belay devices we unclip our safety karabiner from the tape and abseil one by one off the hillside.

With the wind blowing and the rain battering the side of our faces, it feels like a real-life situation, until we get to the bottom and plod the short distance back to the village and the continuing flow of North Coast 500 travellers.

Adventure on foot and by bike

Jim Sutherland runs outdoor adventure company nineonesix-guiding, which was founded in 2003 from its original base in Shieldaig in the heart of the Torridon mountains.

Jim now works at Grantown Grammar School teaching maths and outdoor learning, and through nineonesix-guiding continues to offer guided Munros, mountain biking and mountaineering in Torridon and the north-west Highlands, as well guided bikepacking, mountain biking and winter mountaineering from his new base in the Cairngorms.

The company is made up of a team of qualified and experienced mountaineering and bike leaders with great local knowledge. They will help you make the most of your aspirations and the prevailing conditions to give you an unforgettable experience.

For more information, see www.nineonesix.co.uk

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