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Hammer and Spartan Slab, Etive Slabs, Glen Etive.

The Etive Slabs are described as “magnificent sheets of smooth granite” in my guide book and I can think of no better description. What I would add is just how much fun the climbing can be on the smooth granite sheets when the sun is shining and there is just enough of a breeze to blow away the midges.

The weather turned fair and promised to be settled for two days so we decided to visit Glen Etive. On the way we had a bit of a diversion to Binnein Shuas to climb The Keep before driving on down to Glen Etive for the night. Glen Etive has always been a favourite place of mine for wild camping but it has been a few years since I last stayed there. It was a pleasure to wake up that morning in such a beautiful setting with blue sky above and the sun sparkling on the river nearby.

I’d heard various comments about the Etive Slabs and the climbing had been described to me as everything from fantastic and balancey to downright frightening with no places for gear. Also, given that the easiest route is VS, this is not a place I could have really considered going to before now or at least, not if I wanted to enjoy the climbing rather than being scared out of my wits.


The walk in is pleasant, just forty minutes up grassy slopes from the car to the Coffin Stone, a huge block which sits at the bottom of the crag. There are two huge corners that run almost diagonally up the slab. The first one as you look leftwards along the crag is route called Agony (E2) and the second is Hammer, the route we wanted to climb. an easy and short walk in to the crag

the scoop

The first two sort-of-pitches went up through broken slabs and vegetation, lots of bushes and grassy tufts. I led the next pitch rightwards up a cracked slab to a ledge and a convenient tree belay. The next pitch looked interesting – a smooth scoop on the slab rose gradually leftwards towards the huge corner. The scoop is almost a slanting ledge that crosses the slab rising diagonally to the left except that it is slightly angled outwards and down and there is nothing specific to place either hands or feet on except for the smooth rock. Ron padded gently across and acknowledged that near the top was a tiny, little knobble of rock that made a perfect handhold. After having nothing at all, even the slightest, smallest, tiniest hold felt positive. He continued up the corner to a comfortable niche on the wall about halfway up.

My turn! I enjoyed climbing the scoop and it really is all in the mind as I kept telling myself that if I stood on the slab, my feet would stay put but if I leant forward, they  would slip. Hands were just for balance until I found the knobble of rock higher up. Then after reaching the safety of the corner, I began to move up using the crack at the back of the corner, hand over hand with my feet just walking up the slab, the soles of my rock boots just catching on the little ripples and bumps in the rock. The climbing was not strenuous and it felt like each move just flowed. I had to keep reminding myself to stop and take out the gear.

The niche belay was quite fun for me as second as I could lie back against the rock looking up the slab and watch as Ron led the next tricky pitch, a delicate traverse to the right then a pull up over an overlap. He made it look easy, traversing across the slab
I felt uncomfortable about it as I had to climb up to unclip an in-situ wire runner, then down climb a little before traversing across a smooth slab which had nothing for hands or feet, again! Inch by inch, encouraged by shouts to keep on my feet, I reached the better holds. I was relieved to get across, to begin climbing upwards again, upwards to the steep wall of the overlap and onto the slab above.

One pitch left and easier than the previous two. Ron went up the slab and pulled through the last overlap on rock that had a huge handle at the top! A meandering route through grass and heather brought us to the descent path, an interesting experience in itself with little scrambly bits and a huge amount of exposure as it runs along the top edge of the crag!

We drove back to Aviemore that night but the slab climbing bug had bitten and four days later, we were back, this time to climb Spartan Slab and The Pause if the weather allowed us two climbing days. We arrived in Glen Etive on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend. It was a bit busier and on Monday when we went to climb, we found there were a few more climbers than before and by the end of the day, most of the classic routes had been climbed by one or more parties. One thing that was more noticeable on this trip than our previous one and something that made me feel very sad was the lack of respect some people have for the countryside. As we drove along the road, we saw four wheel drive cars that had been driven off the road onto the grassy areas churning up the ground and causing lasting damage, rubbish, albeit tied up in bin bags, had been left lying in the lay-bys, toilet paper, bottle tops, cars parked in the designated turning area at the end of the glen and more.

Spartan Slab, the route has two stars and is featured in Bill Birkett’s Classic Rock so it is very popular. We were lucky in that we were first onto the route. Later in the day, we watched from above as two, maybe three parties started up the route and some even turned back from the crag as the climbs were so busy.

The first pitch, Ron’s, was a bit vegetated in places and the belay was tricky because three climbers on another route, The Long Reach, were there  sorting themselves out and preparing for the pitch above. This meant Ron had to belay further to the right than he would have preferred.

lovely slabs! I led up on a lovely, clean slab to a little overlap and a very obvious belay tree in the ideal position for watching out how Ron was going to tackle the tricky bit, the pull over another but bigger overlap.
First he traversed to the left along the lower slab to a notch in the slab above. These overlaps occur as one granite slab sits on top of another but the upper slabs are progressively shorter so the slabs appear to have occasional steps or walls which often give physically, the hardest moves of the routes. This notch had a good slot for gear so the move was protected from above but it is still awkward. Ron seemed to heave upwards, then somehow get his legs up the right and onto the upper slab. When it came to my turn, I could see what to do but wasn’t too sure about the hand jam in the crack on my left and the lurching move onto the slab above on my right. There are times when it is good to be the second! Getting my feet high up below the overlap seemed to be the key and gave me enough lift to gain the slab, phew! climbing the overlap

That wasn’t the difficulties finished for that pitch as above is a traverse which can be done either as a hand or toe traverse depending on one’s ability to place gear at their feet! We both traversed along placing our toes into the crack to reach a fairly good ledge and belay. Now this is where the guidebook gets a bit misleading as it describes the next bit of the route leading off from the right end of the ledge after the traverse. Following that description, Ron went up a slab only to find hard moves and no protection and not what he was expecting. something was definitely not right so he climbed back down and moved further right to find ground more like what he was looking for. It became apparent that there was another ledge quite a bit below where we were belayed and it was from there that the next pitch was described. Confusing!

Anyway, back onto more amenable ground and some more lovely slab to climb on until the top section which got a bit vegetated at the top. After the earlier, harder sections, it was just fun to climb. This penultimate pitch had a flake crack to the left which gave a couple of places for gear. One piece, a small wire which Ron thought was dodgy had become jammed in behind a tiny crystal. It came out eventually but only after a lot of fiddling. The last pitch was mine across the grass and up a blocky chimney but Ron was getting fidgety as I fixed gear before pulling up the blocks, so much so that I became unnerved and backed down to fix up an intermediate belay so he could climb the chimney quickly. That took us back onto the descent path and the scramble back down.

The climbing was very different to Hammer, in a way more varied as there are more flakes, lots of different cracks to follow for short sections rather than one huge one and the move up the overlap is great though I’d like to go back another time and try to get up it a bit more gracefully!

We went back to the tent for supper and to make plans for the next day but the weather took over the planning as it started to rain, not just in drops but in bucket loads. Everything was bundled into the car  so we could head back. Our other intended route, The Pause, remains to entice us back. 

The Pause, the one we've to go back for!

Route info - taken from SMC Guide to Glencoe

Hammer - HVS***, 150 metres, 5 pitches 4a, 4b, 5a, 5a, 4b

Spartan Slab - VS****, 190 metres, six pitches 4a, 4a, 5a, 4c, 4b, 3c.

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Copyright Fiona Chappell 2003-2012 (updated Wednesday, 10. October 2012)