The Old Man of Hoy

Thursday, 18th July 2013

We awake to the sound of the alarm ringing to remind us its 6am and time to leave the comfort of our sleeping bags. Sticking my head out the zip entrance, its good to see that no tractors had crushed any of the our tents setup up in the field the night before. Its a cold crisp morning with clear skies just outside Thurso. The boat to Stromness is due to leave in a few hours so we quickly pack up and head down to the harbor.

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Parking the car, we each take our one bag that is packed to the brim with climbing gear and enough supplies to see us the next 2 days. Not being able to afford an 80 liter rucksack, I had opted for the method of strapping tons of gear to the outside of my winter backpack.

Aboard the ferry we all sit down to have breakfast, the crossing is rough but we are all eager to get our first view of what we came here for, the Old Man of Hoy. 45 minutes in and we get the first proper view of Hoy, the large island south of the Orkney Mainland. As we get closer the faint outline of the Old Man begins to appear through the clouds, a small fishing boat in the waters below give scale to the great sea stack.

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As we sailed on the cliffs of St Johns Head, the largest sea cliffs in the UK, came into view with clouds rolling off the top. It was a surreal view and the thought that we would be on the stack that very same day seemed amazing.

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Taking the small boat from Stromness, we arrived on Hoy just after noon and were greeted by an old chap dressed in tweed with a small minibus. A short drive later we arrived at the Rackwick bothy where we dropped the excess gear off, repacked the bags for climbing and quickly set off for the Old Man.

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Eventually after an overnight drive, 2 ferrys, 1 minibus and a hoke we had arrived. Looking down from the top of the sea cliffs and over to the Old Man it looked daunting. I could now see the line the route followed up the east face including the crux pitch that involved some scary looking chimney climbing.

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Now at the base of the stack we were in full on climbing mode. As Luke and I geared up, Graham was leading up the first pitch to “The Gallery”, the end of pitch 1, a broad ledge that sits 70 meters above the sea and gives a spectacular view of the Hoy cliff line. When Graham began seconding Luke set off to lead the first pitch in our team.

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Seconding up the first pitch I could see Gordon on the crux pitch pulling through the first roof. It looked scary, and suddenly I began to wonder if I could actually lead this pitch. Reaching The Gallery, Graham was setting off to second the crux pitch. I watched as he slowly down climbed and shuffled his way over the sandy ledges to position himself under the roofs and chimneys. Leading this first section I could see would be serious, no gear was available for the first 10 meters and a fall would mean a swing back down into the pillar we had just climbed.

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As I began leading all thoughts of the exposure and fall potential seemed to vanish and I was in “the zone”. Making quick work of the first 15 meters I positioned myself in the chimney to attempt the crux moves. These reaching out the chimney and onto the east face to grab a small flake, from this you must pull yourself from the chimney and get your feet high onto some unnervingly sandy footholds, and begin the process of jamming your way up a wide crack. Once I had secured the next belay in the triangular recess at the top of the crack I knew we had the route in the bag, or so I thought.

Time was now pressing and we knew past 10pm it would be to dark to continue climbing. Setting off on pitch 4 at 8:30 we knew it was going to be tight, i ran most of the 40 meter pitch out placing only 3 cams in an attempt to make up time. Half way up this pitch I peaked my head over onto a small ledge to be confronted with a line of fulmars. They glared at me with their black beady eyes. I had heard about these birds and was dreading encountering them but there was no way around them. Pulling my hood over my head and shielding my face against my chest, I climbed through their perch while they spewed their bowel contents all over my new jumper. It was stinking!

Reaching the final belay before the top I quickly got ready to bring Luke up. Pulling through the excess rope suddenly one stopped, I knew there was no way that was Luke on the other end, what was going on I was wondering. I let out some slack and tried pulling through again but the same problem. After about 30 minutes I had realized something was wrong and was screaming down to Luke to try find out what was going on. Nothing…..

Another hour passed and darkness was drawing in. I had resigned myself to the fact that the rope was caught and being only 25 meters from the summit, I would not make it this year. Gordon and Graham abseiled down and we started the descent from the belay back down to find out what happened to Luke. When we arrived we found him wrapped in the ropes shivering. The rope had caught in a crack half way up the pitch and he had used the slack to attempt to stay warm.

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Continuing on down I was the last one to touch down at 1am. What an epic! Although we didn’t make it, it was still a fantastic day and with Torridon on the cards following day, we had plenty to look forward to!

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