King of the Swing
This blog is sponsored by Niall and Finn McCann without whom this entire adventure wouldn’t have been possible. Thanks for a great weekend guys!
Make sure to check out their websites by clicking on their name here:
King of the Swing Film (Best in HD on Vimeo)
“Good morning sunshine!”
In my warm bed with a steaming mug of tea it felt good to be home. For the first time in my life I was mid-expedition but in my own bed!
The Machair to Munro project has always been about experiencing Scotland to its fullest potential so when almost half a year ago the whispered idea of a swing crept across the radar I immediately accepted a detour.
So here I was, detoured from my expedition and about to do something which went against every natural instinct I possessed.
Today I would jump from a perfectly good bridge and into a gorge.
The brainchild of the infamous McCann brothers the idea had been conceived during their visit to Ullapool for new years in 2012, true to their word they had returned to turn that dream to reality. Niall and Finn had not arrived alone, two more thrill seekers had arrived, Tom Williams and Dave Stanton.
Although technically legal as part of the 2003 land reform act the definition of “Responsible behaviour” when considering a canyon swing is largely debatable. With this in mind and not wanting to cause a great scene Finn and Niall scouted the gorge and set up most of the swing in the late evening the previous night.
6am…we returned to the gorge. It was just the five of us and 10 billion midges.
Tom retrieved a small package of tin foil from what I am fairly sure is the bottomless pocket of bushcraft supplies on his cargo pants. Inside was some Amadou (horseshoe) fungi which had been carefully cut into thin flakes and boiled with charcoal. This is a simple trick which allows the mushroom to be lit with a single spark from a flint and knife (both again produced from Tom’s bushcraft pocket), the smouldering fungi provided at least some relief to the swarms of midges.
All that was left to do was to test the swing and go. Our plan was to leap from the bridge and into the gorge.
Finn who between himself and Niall had orchestrated the set up to the safest and most astounding degree of professionalism proceeded to throw his rucksack from the suspension bridge. We all watched in anticipation as it plummeted into the abyss. My heart was in my mouth watching it go, were we really going to do that too?? The rope swished through the air and the bag jerked outward into a huge arc missing a large rocky outcrop by only a few meters. That was definitely not as safe as we would like! Time for plan B.
Plan B was actually Finn’s original idea, Instead of leaping from the bridge he would cast a second rope across the canyon. Individually we would have to climb 5m up a pine tree, attach a carabiner to the new rope and pull ourselves out over the gorge. Upon reaching the middle each jumper would then have to remove the caribiner themselves and hang free on the rope….3.2.1 and drop deep into the depths.
With harnesses on and ropes anchored Finn and Niall clambered into a tree which teetered precariously over the edge of the gorge, 60m below water rushed through the narrow channel which at its narrowest is just 10m wide, where we would jump it was closer to 40m in width.
The mighty gorge at Corrieshalloch was carved by glacial meltwaters which cut a deep slot canyon 1.25km long through Moine schists on its way from glacier to sea at Loch Broom. As Finn dangled from 13mm of rope over the 60m drop a low roar echoed upward from the tremendous falls of Measach.
Fighting clouds of midges we were all desperate to jump, at the very least we would escape their torment. It was already 8am, the morning bird song echoed through the canyon which was starting to lighten in the rising sun. We would not have long before tourists started to arrive.
With a weighted line it took three attempts to cast the second rope across the gorge, approximately 30-40m wide at the point we would jump it was a difficult throw between the thick forest lining the edge. Niall re-tied the rope onto the swing, Finn, Tom, Dave and I shouted “Higher” or “Lower!” at Niall who dangled unfazed of the drop beneath. Finally the swing was set…we could jump!
Casually hanging around over a 60m drop.
Finn volunteered first eager to test his creation, we had not tested the swing with the bag this time. Relying on his own sound judgement Finn jumared up the pine tree, clipped into the rope and pulled himself out over the gorge. With baited breath I watched, waiting for the drop.
THREE! TWO! ONE!
For a moment there was complete silence, even the roar of the falls seemed to drop. From my vantage point on the platform at the head of the gorge I watched with a stomach lurching gasp as a tiny figure plummeted from the rope. It was but a few seconds but to watch the fall seemed be eternal, with an enormous “whoop!” the rope came tight and Finn swung high and gracefully along the canyon. Finns delighted shout echoed across the canyon walls, that looked fun!
Dangling in space Finn attached the jumars and begun to ascend the rope back up the canyon. This is normally the hard part however having just scaled a wall on El Capitan Finn made it look tremendously easy. I was sure I would take a lot longer to ascend the rope once at the bottom.
It was barely half an hour between Finn scrambling up the rope and Niall climbing out into the gorge, it was obvious and very comforting to see how at easy they both seemed. As Niall crept out onto the rope over the gorge a small bus load of tourists trampled onto the bridge. They pointed and with exited murmurs muttered in anticipation. One man loudly said “They are mad! This is so dangerous” to a murmur of admiration and approval, I pointed out that he was one of 20 on a bridge which sported a large sign saying NO MORE THAN 6 AT ONE TIME….he quickly silenced.
I rushed back to the platform 100m along the gorge, a few tourists already crowded the small steel structure. One pointed asking what “that man” was doing…at that exact moment Niall let go. The poor tourist gasped in shock, as the rope grew tight and Niall swung out into space the realisation on what was going on dawned. The gasp became a cheer. Another perfect jump, another person less in the que until I had to do the same.
As Niall climbed back up the rope again making it appear deceptively effortless I returned to find Tom crouched beside a flaming trangia stove. The smell of crispy bacon and fried sausages filled what gaps in the air the midges had left spare. The breakfast of champions awaited, although I wasn’t entirely sure how well it would sit after I let go of the rope.
Dave was next, he seemed to show no fear as he clipped into the rope and pulled himself out across the gorge. In-front of the crowd of tourists now gathering on the bridge Dave hung free on the rope. FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE!….a pause…the rope swished through the air flossing the sky like a whip. Dave plummeted in Silence.
The fall seemed to last forever before the rope came taught and with a tremendous whoop Dave bellowed into life along the gorge. We all watched exited and exhilarated as he swing backward and forth far below the bridge.
The first of us to have jumped having never performed a canyon swing Dave took his time in returning up the rope. Instead he sat in the harness and gazed at the utterly unique perspective half way down the gorge. Down here only ferns and the occasional raven shared this vantage.
It was just Tom and I left to go. Nervously Tom volunteered. He seemed torn between two conflicting thoughts, the primal instinct which screamed at every fibre in his body saying “this isn’t a good idea” and the adrenaline junkie shouting back “Do it man! it’ll be awesome.” The adrenaline junkie won. “YIPPIE KI YAY”...he let go.
Another swish of rope…another exited scream… Tom swung into the canyon.
Niall fastened the ropes to my harness, with two ropes secured with two bowlines I felt safe. With a click I snapped the jumar onto the rope and lifted my leg. With a lurch I swung out over the gorge, 60m of air lay between I and the ground. A buzz of adrenaline rushed through every vein in my body, “I’m bricking myself now” I stammered nervously to Niall who laughed. Would I really be able to do this?
I left the others to the mercy of the midges and started to climb.
Sliding the jumars up the rope I felt more at ease, there was no going back now. With the initial lurch over the gorge over I felt a little more comfortable, the adrenaline had started to calm and I could enjoy the unique view of the gorge. Squeezing and pushing I brushed through the trees branches.
Arriving at the branch with the rope tied around I hauled upside down and clipped in a caribiner. With a slight lurch of fear I unclipped the jumars. Now all that held me above the gorge was a small metal clip. Flicking my leg over the rope I pulled myself out toward the middle of the gorge. Emerging from the branches with a flurry of dislodged leaves I could see a crowd gathered in wait on the bridge, ahead a small white line of tape signalled the drop position…this was it.
I was surprised how unfazed the height was once out on the rope, with an acute fear of heights I had assumed I would be in panic stage but wasn’t, I wanted this and was ready! Raising my arm into the air I signalled the all clear to the others who manned the cameras, lifting my weight up on the leg I went to unclip the caribiner….it was stuck fast.
For a minute I hung upside down struggling as hard as I could, it wouldn’t budge. Niall called out “Is everything ok?” from the bridge. I replied “I’m stuck!” All I wanted was to unclip and drop, each time I tried to unclip my arms pumped up and I lost strength to work the mechanism. I was at a loss of what to do. At first I assumed it was because I was so filled with adrenaline that I couldn’t grip the caribiner enough to release it but once back at the bank and having had a go with some pliers I realised I was truly stuck.
With Niall’s pen knife in hand I attached a second caribiner, this allowed me to take off the weight from the other and fight to undo it with the knifes pliers. 10 minutes past, no luck. Niall explained the only other option, to cling to the tree, untie the rope and thread it through. There was no part of me what so ever which liked that idea, I kept fighting to release the clip.
It moved! Just by a millimetre it had begun to unscrew. “I GOT IT!!!” I shouted exhausted and delighted. This time I could drop for real. Relieved and pumped it was a relief to hear the satisfying click of the second caribiner as I unclipped myself. I was dangling free at last.
Looking up along the gorge and hanging from the rope I shouted THREE….TWO…ONE! Looking along the rope it seemed a long way to swing, an endless line of slack to fall free through the air…with an intake of breath I let go.
The sound of my thumping heart was lost in a deafening roar of air, the walls shot past seemingly meters away. My stomach was in my mouth as my entire body was consumed with adrenaline, I was falling! Time seemed to slow, I could see the bridge above become smaller, the ferns and waterfall rocket past my sides, surly I should stop falling soon! With an enormous “Whoooooooop” I yelled with excitement as I felt the rope tighten. Suddenly I was rising back upward caught in the pendulum of a perfect swing. The rush was past and now I could enjoy the sheer spectacle of hanging, spinning and swinging to and fro along the incredible rock face. The falls of Measach seemed close enough to touch, water dripped from luscious ferns and jagged rocky outcrops beside me, hanging in space I imagined this is a view only the local ravens have enjoyed.
Hanging for a few minutes I started to feel the strain of the harness gripping my legs, with a click I attached the jumar devices and started to slowly ascend. From the end of the rope it was hard to pull through the ascender, it was too light at first and I had to bounce my way up with far less finesse than the McCann brothers. My forearms still burned from fighting with the caribiner which already felt an age ago, slowly and steadily I rose up the canyon.
After what seemed an age of pulling myself up the rope I lifted my leg, with whatever strength I could summon out of adrenaline buzzed muscles I lifted my leg over the line and clipped on. Relieved to be back at the top I pulled along the rope and into the tree.
With a click I attached the ATC and abseiled from the tree back to land. It felt so good to be back on solid earth, every part of me was still shaking with the rush of the fall, I had rarely felt so alive.
We had all survived the jump….but it wasn’t quite over.
Looking at each other both Finn and Niall suddenly said “LETS MAKE IT BIGGER!! “
Still quivering after my jump I was back on the platform behind the lens, Finn dropped once again. This time the free fall was enough to make my stomach lurch just watching it. For a split second I thought the rope would snap….from the end of the canyon a distant wail of excitement pierced the air…that was HUGE!
No longer worried if we were caught there was no feeling of urgency to jump. Relaxed and effortlessly Niall shimmied out to the middle of the rope. After a quick moments composure and a last deep breath he let go.
All back on the safety of land and buzzing with excitement we took little time in packing the ropes away. The day had been a resounding success, no injuries, no accidents and no one had told us to leave. Back in the car there was a fantastic atmosphere, we had achieved a dream, now to the pub!
It was a gorgeous sunny day in Ullapool. With the clouds gone the morning was bathed in a glorious golden light, it felt good to be home. Over breakfast Niall, Finn, Dave and I discussed options for the day, Tom had disappeared to pick up his remote camera which we had set up near an otter run the night before. After tea and toast we had settled on an adventure for the day. We would set out and climb one of my favourite little mountains, Stac Pollaidh.
Tom returned almost skipping with delight, the camera trap was a success! He had filmed a real wild otter!
Before long we were winding along the narrow and scenic road to Achiltibuie, the unique and incredible mountains of Inver Pollaidh dominated the mountain each standing rising from the peatlands. With the windows down and good music blaring from the car stereo it felt like a boys own road trip, it felt weird to think just a few days ago I was kayaking alone in Loch Hourn.
Lazing in the grass by the car park we watched pearl borders fritillarys flutter past between flowers, packing light bags and eating snickers bars we set off up to track.
It was tremendously hot and hiking up the hill at a relaxed but fast pace we had to stop on several occasion to drink. At only 612m high with a superb 2ft wide trail to the col it took little time to wind up to the crest of the mountain. Upon rounding the back of the hill the impressive lumps of Cul Mor, Canisp and Suilven rose into view, under the sunshine they dominated the horizon. Puffing and sweating profusely we carried on up the hundreds of steps.
Emerging onto the ridge we dropped packs and hopping from boulder to boulder scrambled to the eastern peak. Far below the cars glinted in the sunshine beside the invitingly cool Loch Lurgainn. From here the ascent was almost over, instead exiting scrambling which can be made as easy or as difficult as each person desires. Needless to say Finn and Niall disappeared over the harder sections of the scramble. The rest of us clambered across the intermediate route between craggy gullies and incredible stone pillars.
It became a game to scramble onto each pillar we past, the dry rock was grippy underfoot and made for great climbing.
As the western summit rose into view we made an effort to all clamber onto a single pillar, with a 2ft leap over a short drop we were all soon sat atop. A friendly hiker helped to snap a photograph from my already set up tripod.
At the summit itself we all relaxed, ate lunch and wandered around the rocks. Soaking in the splendid view it was so hot that we were all still too warm topless. In every direction individual mountains rose from Coigach to Assynt as Niall put it they were “Scotlands Uluru’s.” Behind the hills Ben Mor Assynt rose on the skyline. Two of the last few munro’s I would summit it was a strange concept to think that the next time I would see this view would be in the depths of winter.
Descending from the hill we packed our bags and decided to run. With the good track we moved fast, it was fantastic to feel the rush of wind through my hair as we bounced from steep gully to peatland. Ahead the lochan was getting closer, the thought of a refreshing swim drove me to run faster. Ahead Finn, Tom, Niall and Dave seemed to have had the same idea.
Dropping packs at the car there was no hesitation in running down to the waters edge, stripping off we ran into the wonderfully cold water with a splash. It was the perfect way to end an adventurous weekend. Tomorrow we would part ways and I would return back to the kayak.
At last butt not least – a skinny dip (Photo: Niall McCann)
Tom William’s excellent take on the Wild Highlands