The Grey Cairns of Camster

Footfalls echo in the memory, Down the passage we did not take.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.

Crawling along a dark, narrow passage on your knees is not a typical ending to a day spent climbing. Afterwards, walking from the cairns back to the car, we are both quiet, as if speaking would somehow displease time past and needlessly allow time present to pass. Breaking the silence, I’m relieved when my companion mentions he too is pondering how momentary it makes life (let alone climbing rocks) feel, being cocooned in something built by people, for reasons unknown, around 5000 years ago.

These igloo-shaped mounds sit unassumingly by a roadside, a few miles inland from the sandstone sea cliffs of Caithness we had spent the afternoon exploring. This is a peaceful, seemingly forgotten coastline of layered black and yellow rock. Upon arrival we encounter a pod of dolphins weaving their way beneath the crags. Further out to sea, a massive array of wind turbines offer the only reminder of civilisation.

Above the cliffs, we are surprised to meet a puzzled young couple studying a climbing guide and trying to work out from where to abseil to the sea platforms below. Luckily, Simon has visited before, and they accept the offer to use the abseil line he will shortly be setting up a few hundred metres along the coast. Later, he is unsure how to respond when the couple reappear at sea level to tell him they have replaced a hex and carabiner in his abseil because they were both ‘a little loose’. Trying to hide his irritation, I suggest he should have mentioned he holds the single-pitch climbing instructor award. He keeps quiet however, and I am reassured that today we will only be climbing single pitch routes, as he traverses the base of the cliff in search of a new climb.

Quiet descends as I pay out the rope, sensing words are unnecessary and trusting the right thing will flow into place as it usually does. I wish to myself I could exhibit such languid, unhurried ease in my own climbing, yet I sense this is something that would take much unlearning to never quite achieve.

When my time comes to follow the route, I balance into the snappy, dark groove above, agreeing it would have been a good idea to inspect the line before climbing it! ‘That was probably 6a I think’ comes the observation from above. I’m determined not to fall off seconding the route, despite knowing it will likely go, or already has been, forgotten.