There are lines that are obvious, then there are lines formed by the absence of a line. Dan Varian’s recent first ascent of the blank wall between Malc’s Arete and The Mission on the Ship Boulder in Torridon represents a ground-breaking step in Scottish bouldering, being the most difficult steep slab/vertical wall in the country, and armchair boulderers are mooting even the hardest in the world. This wall is The Magna Strata, 8B+. We asked Dan for a reflection of the process of developing the line, and he kindly provided us with the below précis. Photos accompanying the article are from a 2018 session, captured by Chris Houston.
Well, something happened last week. I did a climb and I don’t really know why. Perhaps failure times out, error 404, now people want slab news from the slab dad to stuff in a sporadically updated corner of the internet.
I don’t really want to be in slab club, don’t get me wrong some of the members are cool. But slabs also have that niche appeal that attracts enthusiasts who are just kinda, well, they just toot toot in their corner with the crackers and the jumpers don’t they! Where as for me all the niches are even, it’s the quality that gets me out the door. If I see a good challenge on a nice bit of rock, I’ll try and climb it. Slabs are a solid part of that. Beggars can’t be choosers, and these days I’m very much a beggar. Beggar club now that’s a quieter place to be, no beggars in the Scotland are there! Just damp footed midge bitten royalty. If you live in Scotland, you might not think it sometimes, but when it comes to the outdoors, you’re truly blessed.
Now for beggars looking for hard challenges, hard slabs, mantles or dynos are the true unicorn finds. In March 2013 I first took a close look at the big old gap between Malc’s Arête and The Mission on the Ship Boulder in Torridon. At the time I didn’t have a great slab ticklist but I’d done some 7C+ slabs in the peak and 7Cs in Northumberland, not quite the 8B+ roofs or overhangs I’d done elsewhere in the UK but they were tricky enough to have given me some foresight. As it turned out it looked alright actually. I quickly pieced a sequence together that lanked up to a pebble off a good foot and then did a really cool cross under move to another pebble. As you pulled on the second pebble it unweighted the first one as the right arm pushed the wrist angle out on the left hand. This meant you had to do a cross handed flick up to the final edge as the left hand came off. It was a really cool move and the whole slab/wall would’ve been a total classic 8A/+ but it had been a typically Scottish trip and Scotland was to play its trump card once again. It started to sleet and I jugged out on the rope hastily as everything turned to gop. I glanced down and rashly stood on the lower pebble and it popped off. Shit! What a muppet. Now for anyone in Strathnairn I know what you’re thinking, what’s the problem! And yeah, it could’ve been fixed. Its just in over 200 new font 8’s I’ve never glued a hold back on and back in 2013 I felt pretty bad about this pebble leaving its friends, I still do as it was a great balanced challenge and I feel lucky to have done that old section on a rope back then. The next day Katie and I went to Reiff and I did the first ascent of Helicoidal Flow and Rubha Dubh, followed by dinner on the beach with a spring blue sky overhead contrasting the red Gairloch peaks. This is still one of my favourite days/trips ever in my memories, no matter where I’ve travelled and those days were so simple and care free in my early 20s.
I ignored Torridon for a while after that, mostly as I probably didn’t want to look at the Ship face in all its beauty (it really is a pretty face of rock) and know I wrecked the big gap. Fast forward to 2015 and we decided to have a family holiday in the valley as we had a 3 month old baby and Torridon ticks a lot of boxes. I was climbing well that year. Earlier in the year I’d put up twelve 8’s in a month including two 8B+ ish boulders, surely I can just strong it out? I got the rope on it and set the brain away. I remember that session, sat there puzzling away for hours, it’s still a bizarre thought nowadays, I’ve never spent quite so long on a move and found such a technical solution that only just works, I had two sequences that just didn’t work together, then half a 5p pebble saved me. Still until the day I climbed it I would hop on the rope to practice that section and laugh at A: my inability to find another way and B: just how mental that top section is. I could go in depth about transferring between frictional, gravitational and muscular oppositions in smooth transitional vectors but I’ll spare you the Dawes. It was a once in a lifetime experience to understand and figure out the challenge now the big pebble was gone and I felt a bit redeemed by it all, sitting there staring out over to Maol Chean-Dearg as it caught the last of the gold light capped with a dusting of snow. The burden was firmly on me now all I had to do was connect it up! Normally I’m not quite so lax, as time drifted on through kids, work, DIY and pandemics. I nearly always came for a visit and some peace and quiet. Bad skin, wrong skin, wrong temps, wrong shoes, somehow it all seemed to stack up and just steal that last few % away. This year I’d come off the granite and had really tough skin which was almost too dry for training on wood. I paid lots of attention to the shoes, the left foot getting the sensitivity and softer rubber with a brand new Furia Air and right foot getting the stiffest shoe I could find (Boostic). The stretching had helped. The shoulder lock felt good. Somehow I was maybe only 80% on the 55˚ at home but I finally felt like 101% on this thing. So on a cold February day in 2023, 10 years after first looking at the Ship face, I just nipped up it and to be honest it felt alright, like slabs always do, I might’ve done a little power scream nipple crippling the final pebble whilst flicking to the top edge, which is a first for slabs for me. Slabs should feel easy when you do them as that’s part of the magic of the walk through. I guess i had finally absorbed the rocks teachings.
I can finally look back at it all. Success is a death too, the real gold was that flow through the face. My word that’s a beautiful bit of rock, I think I’ll always be glad to look at that face as an old fart. The strata looking like a clinker built hull guiding the eye off down to Malc’s Arête, undoubtedly a world class problem in itself. The Mission with its bow shaped rail and that floaty French start move. The pebbles and the ripples of strata echoing a frozen shore. Finally it’s a challenge for boulderers as well, we can be the dancers on the frozen shore.
-Dan Varian, March 2023
Dan also added a number of other new problems on the same trip, including a right-hand variant on Malc’s, rocking out right onto the face after the first move, a new low left-hand sit start to Maelstrom (the stand-up of which was recently retroclaimed by Nige Callender from 2016), a sitter to East Face Face, and a left-hand link from Tia Maria into Thumb Tack. Details can be found on UKC.