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Sloping ledges, guano nightmares and a podium finish: Eddie Dealtry talks about the St Kilda stacks and climbing all the Marilyns

‘This new boat can nearly fly’ - the MV Enchanted Isle before an  Alpine start to St Kilda (photo: Eddie Dealtry)‘This new boat can nearly fly’ - the MV Enchanted Isle before an Alpine start to St Kilda (photo: Eddie Dealtry)
Next stop the summit: Eddie Dealtry lands on Stac Lee (photo:  Mark Smith)                                                                                                                                                                                                     Next stop the summit: Eddie Dealtry lands on Stac Lee (photo: Mark Smith)

Having completed the Marilyns on the same recent St Kilda trip as Rob Woodall, but an hour or so later, Eddie Dealtry – a 66-year-old retired software freelancer based in Kendal – is forever destined to be seen as Buzz Aldrin to Woodall’s Neil Armstrong. Dealtry is very much his own man, however, and has his own set of experiences and emotions from St Kilda to relate…

Rob Woodall had climbed all the Marilyns apart from the stacks five years ago, and all bar St Kilda by 2003, but it was only last year when you got your last dozen or so mainland ones sorted out. When you reached M-2 status – everything bar Stac an Armin and Stac Lee – with Pen y Fan on 5 October 2013, did you think that might well be that, or did the stacks always seem feasible given good organisation and some luck with the weather?

I did wonder if “the Wall” was as far as anybody would ever get. If it had stopped Rob and Ken Whyte, it must surely stop us all. There was a possibility that it could be feasible, with luck and weather – but then the negotiations and organisation would stop me dead. After a September 2009 visit, the gannet disturbance ruled out a summer raid for me, personally. The gannets are impressive, but an abandoned gannetry is something else.
     With Rob’s persistent expeditions, I did wonder if he would eventually pull it off and possibly pave the way for others. Of course, there was also the second possibility: that there would be one of the M-2 people with Rob if he broke through the Wall.
     Always, though, niggling away, was the thought that if I’m going to do it then it had better be within the next few years. If there is an opportunity, it’ll likely be my one and only chance. On the other hand, looking at the average age of some of the hard climbers around Kendal on a weekday afternoon, there was no need to worry – just start proper training.

When did you climb the four non-stack St Kilda Marilyns?

On the 2009 trip I climbed all four. I have been extremely fortunate, compared to others to say the least – fortunate finance-wise – to climb four Kilda Marilyns on the first attempt and the remaining two on the second.

Are you able to say how much the two St Kilda trips cost – what was the approximate rate per Marilyn?

The trip this time was £190 each person for Sea Harris, so £95 per Marilyn which is not much more than a few others all-in-all I suppose. The 2009 trip was about £160 for four Marilyns, not sure exactly. Ruari [Beaton] is charging £22.50 per night at the bunkhouse, then there’s travel to the Hebrides – but I would have gone anyway sometime between now and spring.

Your online photostream includes a nice picture of the St Kilda boat at sunset in Leverburgh the evening before the attempt on the stacks. Were you nervous that night, or excited? Did you get much sleep?

I like that photo too, especially now that’s the boat.
     Two nights before, I’m camped out on a headland in the Hebrides, under the hills, all ready to attempt something really daft the day after tomorrow. Excited like a little child and as happy as a pig in a sty, or whatever pigs are happy in. I slept well. Then, in the early hours, rain hit the tent: Hell fire. What are we going to do, what are we going to do…? Now, I’m nervous.
     The night before, in Am Bothan bunkhouse, I was disappointed to learn that the window was down from two days to just one. On the other hand, we were all up for an Alpine start. Looked like it could be M-1 – not so sad as M-2, but nowhere near the success of a completion. A really interesting Chinese journalist shared my dorm. We nattered away till quite late. Yeah, fitful sleep all the same.

Rob replied “Hardly ever” when asked if he had problems with sea sickness. Is that the same for you?

Same here, no problems – a bit queasy in 2009, but this new boat can nearly fly. I possessed a “steering certificate” for vessels greater than 500 tons in 1971 – one of my short-lived trades before working in IT.

The party split into pairs for the landings on the stacks. What was it like watching the first boatload – including Rob – jump ashore and start up Stac Lee?

Michael [Earnshaw] and I were in the last but one landing boat on Stac an Armin, by which time Paul [Reeve] had pioneered the route. From the top of the roped scramble up from the landing, we’re all but on M-1 – not much doubt about it. The Wall’s been breached. We saw the boat take the first party over, but never saw the landing on Stac Lee.
     I was last off Stac an Armin, comically shouting to Seumas [Morrison, the boatman] for a second rope so that I could double my final abseil down to the landing point. Seumas quickly fetched a rope from the boat. He must have thought me nuts – we had three ropes between us from the stripped abseils including, I realised, a rope in the bag on my shoulders.

Was there ever scope for you to be on the first boat?

Rob met us on his descent from Stac an Armin, asked if I would strip the three abseils and suggested the first few pairs get off, away over to Stac Lee. Now we’re talking business, as far as I’m concerned. Rob needed my rope from the bag, which is what he really wanted to ask, I bet.
     At this point I caught a glimmer of us all climbing both stacks, including five Marilyn completions. Everybody was animated and flat out, none of the queues I feared. On the boat, we needed Seumas’s agreement – but I shouldn’t have worried, he’s made of stern stuff and kept our show on the road. We could all be bringing this insurmountable Wall down big-time.

How far behind the first party were you in terms of getting established on Stac Lee? From the photographs, there appears to have been a point where the first party heading down squeezed past your party heading up – where on the stack was that?

As the boat came around Stac Lee with our second batch of landing parties, my heart missed a few beats. I could see Paul reversing down the crux pitch. Rob and Pete [Ellis] were immobile. I imagined they would be higher by now, running up galleries trying to catch Rob.
     I was totally confident that Paul would sort out a route, but just how hard was this thing? I was in Corporal Jones mode to get off the boat and get up there – some kind of reaction to throw as many people as possible at what seemed a problem.
     Quickly, it became evident that all was under complete control. Having roped-up the crux, Paul was presumably descending to get a straight belay to Rob and Pete at the far end of a long ledge. Catching up shouldn’t be a problem. The strategy proved to be the right strategy.
     Michael and I were the last to land on Stac Lee.

It’s been reported that you reached the summit about an hour after Rob, Paul and co – what time of day was this?

Denise [Mclellan] said 3:50pm when I asked. Why I couldn’t look at my own watch on the summit, that must say something. In retrospect, Rob was probably more than an hour in front, from when we heard the boat’s hooter. He descended past us at the bothy, just under the summit ridge. The good news from Rob was we could dump the rope at the bothy. The bad news was that the top was a guano nightmare. By the way, it’s not a cosy bothy, no chimney – more like a small Cumbrian sheep bield.

What did you wear on your feet? – were you among those who opted to put on Kahtoola microspikes for the landings?

Microspikes are a real success, discovered on previous attempts: when jumping and landing they handle the barnacles and slime (although there wasn’t much of that after the September dry weather). We also donned spikes for the patches of guano on the top. They did start to ball up with stinking muck, though, whereas Denise and Richard’s crampons dealt better – I think they shortened the teeth.

What was the actual climbing like?

Stac an Armin would go as a moderate scramble. You don’t want to be sliding off the sloping ledges to get across to the south-east corner – but, when I asked, nobody wanted a rope ahead of me. Steep gullies higher up were roped, but on descent we all avoided the worst by keeping right (that is keep left, towards the ridge, on the climb). Even clumps of grass manage to grow on slabs and in the gullies. After the mild exposure lower down, the precariousness of guano over loose rock keeps the grade all the way up.
     Stac Lee was as I expected to begin with: a scramble up to the crux pitch and no more than a Severe (in the opinion of a second) on the crux. After the pitch, progress was more precarious than I imagined, with the loose rock and sliding about on guano patches. We roped nearly all of it.

What were your thoughts when you reached the top of Stac Lee and so completed the Marilyns? Did you stay there for long, or even at that stage was it a race against fading daylight?

Funnily enough, on the climb, Richard [Mclellan] quoted Chris Bonington’s reply on the radio when once asked about summit thoughts: “How the heck do we get off here?” Except Bonington didn’t say “heck”. Nor did I.
     I wanted off, even though, as far as I’m concerned, the sun’s plenty high. Nearer the bottom, I studied the low, red sun. It had half an hour to hit the horizon, leaving a further half-hour of light. Tell me about what happened – I’m first down with the end of the rope and it’s nearly dark!

Colin Crawford and Michael Earnshaw were in your boat and landed on Stac Lee, but got no higher than the initial scrambly grooves. Was there some kind of a mix-up that led to them not being able to climb the stack?

I was Michael’s intended leader. When we arrived in the second boat, the Stac Lee crags looked ominous, not helped by some precipitation accompanied by a cooling breeze and a seeming lack of progress by just a single party of three. A few preferred to stay on the boat, which was sensible. The pleading of a “headbanger”, as one of my climbing partners once called me, changed nobody’s mind. Too right.
     Michael and I were going as far as we could get, even if it was just the landing. Colin was already on the landing when we arrived and made it clear that was him done. Denise and Richard, the first off the second boatload, were now roping-up a scramble close by a platform to the first gallery for us to jumar, with my rope, left by Rob.
     Once or twice Michael emphasised he wasn’t going all the way and would be happy in the groove up at the anchor point. That’s my story, anyway. Given more time, Michael may have found confidence. He may well feel a bit short-changed. I waited at the top of the rope, but not for long.
     The gallery beckoned, an easy Skye-type scramble over dry, solid rock. I think we exchanged a few words. I ran upwards until the rope anchor was nearly out of sight and waited again. No Michael. I took off, hoping to either catch up with somebody or get as far as I could solo.
     I was alone and not sure how far I was going to get with all this. I caught up with Denise, who asked where Michael was. I replied he’s not coming. Denise asked if I had a rope in the bag. I had. Denise then said something along the lines of “Come with us”. I could have collapsed on my knees in gratitude. But I kept my head. I followed to the “hairy corner”, looked down, and requested to go on a rope.
     I imagine not many people, if any, are granted the privilege – and it is a privilege – of climbing with Richard and Denise. As I tied in, I distinctly remember looking at the knot and formulating the words in my head: With Richard leading, you’re going to the top. You’ve bloody well done it, lad.
     The rest, as far as I’m concerned, you could have scripted – except for the sliding about on guano. So I joined as the last member of the second party of three. Six in all summited.

As well as having climbed all the Marilyns, one thing you share with Rob Woodall is having done a lot of hill running. But whereas Rob has focused on the long-distance challenges, you appear to have been more of a racer. Can you say a bit about that side of your hill career – what clubs have you been a member of, and have you done much on the long-distance side of things as well?

Me, a “racer”! You’ll have Kendal AAC and Ochil Hill Runners falling about in stitches before we’ve finished this interview.
     Rob is famous in fell running circles for rarely accomplished, even unique, long-distance achievements. I’m more one of the many also-rans. I confess to entering races, more than a dozen a year, always targeting the two longs, Jura and Borrowdale. “Targeting” is a euphemism for “not proper training” and “long days on your feet”, as they say in Cumbria – wandering around fells and hills for a few months and a lot of “tapering” towards the target race. “Also-ran” in hill running implies a challenge or two. Many of us are suckers when fed a long-established story as to how the challenge came about.
     I got along the Skye Ridge five times – with one memorable Greater Traverse, centred on Camasunary bothy – but neither my mate Steff nor I can understand why, every time we reach the In Pinn, yet again it’s going to take us four times as long as the record.

When did you start hill running, and what’s been your best performance?

First fell race in my diary: Blisco Dash, 13 November 1982. How did I start? Well, I often say that when we drove up the M6 in 1981, with a few walks marked up around Kendal, I really didn’t realise what was coming. I was already mixed up with the 1980s marathon craze. I saw a neighbour, Dave Bayliss, bless his memory, running up Benson Knott and thought: That’s daft. I’m not doing that.
     Best performance – I’m running faster than I’ve ever run. There’s something wrong with everybody’s watch as far as I’m concerned.
     I also once thought ticking was daft, bothies were dark, dank horrible places and questioned bikes in the hills. Jen my wife bought me the bike. I really must get out more and visit that road to Damascus.

Like Rob, your first Marilyn was in Wales – Snowdon in 1968. Can you remember much about that? (Rob officially started with Carnedd Llewelyn in 1976, but coincidentally the first time he ever stood on a Marilyn summit was also Snowdon, in 1970 – having got there by train.)

I remember a lot. With the future Mrs Dealtry, my mate Derek (future brother-in-law, still my mate) and a late school friend, Ginger, I travelled from Leamington to the Llanberis Pass. We took turns: one chooses next week’s walk and navigates, one drives. I drove. I knew we had entered Wales but otherwise had no idea where we were. At a “bad step” en route to Crib Goch, we all kicked it into touch, opting for a lazy session in the sun reclining, changing films and such.
     Until, that is, Derek mentioned the word “Snowdon”. I woke up to where we were and took off, alone. Jen says the rest is history, repeated over and over, again and again.

One difference from Rob is that you’ve developed a fondness for cumulative repeats of certain hills – especially Dumgoyne in the Campsies (1700 ascents), but elsewhere too. Has that mainly been part of the training for your running, or do you like repeating for its own sake?

The only repeat for repeat’s own sake I can think of is 1699 to 1700 on Dumgoyne before we came back to Kendal. Training – maybe, but not proper training. As my great friend Dave Bayliss once said: “You can see the world from Benson Knott”. I’ll add Arthur’s Seat, Dumgoyne and many others when the weather’s rough or your head’s full of rubbish at the end of the day.

You started relatively late – what alternative pastimes did you amuse yourself with during your student years?

“Student years” consisted of just nine months at Moreton Morrell farm institute near Stratford when 17, after two years full-time on a farm. The rest is all Open University. So I’ve been a student since 1975, still am a student – and, if I cease to be a student, please switch me off.
     Mind you, lately, “live and learn” is becoming “stay alive and re-learn”. I’m currently resurrecting astronomy and joined Kendal’s Eddington Astronomical Society. The OU was a family commitment where they all have to put up with a missing member. A bit like hill-bagging, really.
     After Snowdon, there was nothing until Jen and I entered the Lakes from Penrith to Ullswater in the early 1970s. I can only remember the sensations – it’s like I jumped across the lake and ran up Place Fell.

What was the first Marilyn you climbed as a Marilyn?

Back to those diaries, hold on. Right … Munro, Corbett, Marilyn in pencil, Graham, V Diff, proposed new Munro top – ah, “Marilyn” in ink, so it could be Conic Hill, 14 August 1997. But that ink’s not the same as the entry, so it could have been labelled later. Binnean nan Gobhar on 20 September 1997 was definitely targeted as a Marilyn, a diversion on a “training” run up Ben Lomond.
     No bagging geek me, mate.

You’ve got a reputation for finishing lists of hills on what are, to put it mildly, poor weather days – your combined Corbett/Graham completion day in August 2001 was impressively wet, for instance. Did it make a nice change to have good weather for the last Marilyn – and would the stacks have been climbable in even moderate amounts of wind and rain?

Those images look a tad unreal for many people’s completion photographs, a blue background for once. In poor weather Stac Lee would go, but I’ve no idea about landing. You need stable weather, otherwise you’ll not get off from the stack.
     Everything, evidently, comes to those who wait for the right opportunity. Everything being just: good stable weather, low swell, a boat crew who know what they are about landing on stacks in the Kilda archipelago, an E7 “adversity junkie” pioneering the route, Denise offering you a rope to Richard Mclellan, Michael transporting your heavy gear to the Hebrides, Rob putting the lot together and ScotRail just happening to suddenly offer a dirt-cheap Club 55 ticket from Carlisle to Kyle of Lochalsh.
     You get that feeling setting off with folk wishing you well, lending you wetsuits and the like. Pleased to meet you, my name is Lucky, Lucky Good-Luck.

You’ve lived in a variety of places – born in Leamington Spa with spells in Killearn and currently in Kendal. Has this helped with the Marilyn-accumulation, given that different groups of hills have been relatively local at different times?

The sequence is Midlands, Kendal 1981, Scotland 1995, Kendal 2009 and for ever. Living in Scotland with the majority of Marilyns must be an advantage. Most were bagged on monthly long weekends. Somehow, people do them all from Peterborough. Kendal’s good and bad: in north-west England not far from Scotland and Wales, but there are a lot of distractions keeping me here in the Lake District. I missed the Langdale fell race last week!
     Leamington Spa is in Warwickshire which has no Marilyns at all. We did live on the Campion Hills though.

There has been some confusion about a piece of climbing kit encountered on Stac Lee, just below the main pitch. Rob initially described it as a bolt, then admitted to “terminological inexactitude” and said it was actually a peg. Given that this matters quite a lot on climbing circles, where a bolt in such a place would be frowned upon, can you say what you saw and what you thought it was?

I saw a piece of metal with a hole in it sticking out.

Also on the climbing side of things, there was a problem on the Stac Lee descent with an abseil rope becoming snagged and having to be left. How did that happen, and how long did you spend trying to free it?

That’s my rope. It was always a pig for kinking up and it jammed on the last person down. I was in the boat and a crewman shouted: “Eddie, do you want your rope?” We all wanted everybody off that rock in the dark. There’s only one answer.
     I had wondered what the delay was about, but I’m not sure how long was spent. Another half an hour in daylight would retrieve it.

Do you think that a rope having been left on the stack might cause problems in terms of future arrangements with the National Trust for Scotland? Might other stack-climbing requests be met with a requirement for someone to retrieve or at least cut it?

We used to preach “Leave the world better than you found it”. Now we’re less arrogant: we try, and good people work to help, to remove our traces from visiting hills and bothies. Initially, it was comically ironic, after retrieving all the abseils from Stac an Armin. Now, the fact that my rope hangs from a stack out in the Atlantic, it makes me feel sick in the stomach.
     Harris people and others reckon that if nobody retrieves the rope in the next few weeks, salt and sea will see to it. I think they’re just being the nice people they are. At least it’s below the gannet line – about 30m above the sea.
     That hasn’t answered your question on future actions of authorities. I, evidently, find guano hard to address. Hey, I’m a taggy old fell and hill runner. Nonetheless, even our race organisers got hit with 17 pages of contradictory safety directives early this year – that in a sport about which the late Bish McAra, of Westerlands Cross Country Club, said he liked “because of the lack of bullshit”.

With the delay caused by the rope, what time was it when you finally got back aboard the boat? What was the mood like – in terms of the skipper and the rest of the team – with regard to the lateness of the hour?

I descended to the landing drowned in Seumas’s giant spotlight. It was late. Denise and Richard were behind at the previous abseil.
     In the nicest possible way, Seumas was not happy with folk being on the stack in the dark. We could stay on the rock all night. I imagine that had Seumas needed to call for assistance to get us off next day, he and the crew could lose a good reputation and with it a good part of their livelihood.

How worried was Jen about the risks of St Kilda?

She was encouraging on both trips. After I returned she admitted to anxiety – I was a bit surprised but not on reflection. When I had a big prang on Skye in 2007 I pretended all was normal on the phone from hospital. Rang from around the corner to warn her I had bandages around my nut, then limped round to the front door and presented. That may have had repercussions, but I think she knows I’d not do that twice.

Any more hill lists for you – or is that it?

No more. I’ll complete the sub-Marilyns, to guard against any promotions (although, having completed in 2014, I don’t think I have to keep up-to-date, like the M-1s), and I’ll do Wainwright’s Outlying Fells by bus pass and bike. That’s it. I need to start proper training – definitely before I join the over-70s.

If this was the Olympics, you would have been presented with the silver medal for Marilynbagging. Any thoughts on how long it might be before the bronze-medal step on the podium is occupied? Fairly soon, now that the trail has been blazed, or several years away given the complex logistics in terms of access, weather etc?

There are those four other summiteers through the Wall who can now complete their remaining Marilyns. I think Richard Mclellan just needs to bag a couple of dozen.
     The next completion on Stac Lee will be soon. He’s joined a mountaineering club and is climbing at a local wall this week. He really wants to do it. Put your money on Michael Earnshaw.

Eddie Dealtry was interviewed by Dave Hewitt

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