The Old Men of Hoy
“So while we’re climbing, you’ll be over at the top of the cliffs taking the photos?” Wanita was clarifying with Cammy the details of their cunning plan. We’d had this conversation on numerous occasions over a number of years and, once again, it was taking place in a pub after about six or seven pints. “Yes” I assured Cammy, “most of the climb faces the land which should be ideal for some good shots”. I too was now happily ignoring the fading voice of reason at the back of my mind and getting embroiled in this wildly over-ambitious scheme.
The trouble was, every time I perused the guidebook a couple of days after one of these little chats, the harsh realities were impossible to avoid. “Original East Face Route, E1. Technically HVS but graded E1 due to the large number of experienced parties undergoing epics on this route”. “Ach well”, I would say to myself, closing the book once again, “fuck that then”.
The problem was, this large void between what seems like a good idea when under the influence and when sober resulted in the spectre of this route never going away. Now that the seed had been sown, it just kept rearing it’s ugly head. It did slip off the radar for a reasonable spell while various other schemes came and went. I’m not quite sure how it happened but in early 2007 we had started to talk about this again and the really scary thing was that sometimes this was now happening while relatively sober. I found myself getting into that area of self-delusion whereby, with a combination of detailed analysis of each individual pitch and very wishful thinking, you can start to convince yourself that a route well beyond your capabilities is somehow just within the realms of possibility. In this particular instance, the individual pitch grades are 4a, 5b, 4a, 4b, 4c. Hmm, I began to think, only one ridiculously hard pitch. Plus there were lots of rumours about handily placed in-situ gear for a spot of assistance (not very purist but then again, needs must and all that). If Wanita or Geoff can lead that one hard pitch then maybe, just maybe………. I was getting sucked in.
The weeks went by and plans started to get firmed up. A weekend was picked and ferries were booked. Even the taxi to the bothy on Hoy had been arranged. The only problem was that I was starting to have serious doubts again about the likelihood of us actually getting up the thing. There’s an iconic photograph in the old Hamish McInnes rock climbing guide (the first (and worst) guide I ever owned) of one of the top climbers of the day during an early ascent hanging way out in mid-air over the sea. He has an expression on his face that could best be described as smiling through the tears. This situation occurs during one of the abseils which is down overhanging rock. Safety, in theory, is then achieved by a long sideways pull on a separate rope previously left in place. On top of the concerns about the technical difficulties of the climb, performing this abseiling manoeuvre was beginning to prey on my mind.
The fact that this was now a definite plan rather than a vague notion in no way altered the contrast between the enthusiasm of the ongoing drunken conversations about the trip and the sober reflections afterwards. This was an unusual outing for us in that, aswell as simply attempting the route, there was the additional aspect of having Cammy, our resident photographer, also involved. I began to notice that chats with Cammy always instilled a positive outlook. It sometimes felt like there was no question about whether we could do it or not. It was a done deal. I put this down to Cammy’s generally positive attitude but may also of course have been something to do with the fact that he had no intention of actually climbing it. Conversations with Geoff and Wanita were usually of a different nature. Geoff in particular has a well honed ability to explore the not so positive possible outcomes of any particular scenario. I found myself also thinking along these lines.
Finally the big day arrived. Needless to say our preparation had been less than perfect. With the usual consummate timing, we’d managed to arrange one of the hardest climbs of our lives in the middle of the wettest summer in living memory. We had done about one VS route between the three of us so far that season and a smattering of easier routes. We were heading up the A9, full of the joys engendered by the prospect of a long weekend away with the lads in a classic, beautifully situated bothy with a taxi almost to the door. We were making quite a good job of forgetting about the real reason we were going. By this stage I was so convinced that the climb was beyond us that I was approaching the weekend purely on those terms. It seemed like a long way to go just to get pissed and enjoy the scenery but somehow this was the situation in which we now found ourselves. I felt a bit guilty towards Cammy since his whole raison d’etre depended on us completing the route. Of course we’d give it our best shot but at the end of the day, you can only do what you can do.
We continued to enjoy the moment. First the bar on the big ferry to Orkney Mainland, then a cosy pub in Stromness whilst awaiting the little ferry to Hoy. We started to get that familiar drink induced positive feeling about the outcome of the climb again. We continued with the inevitable joshing about who was going to lead the hard pitch. This had started months before but was now getting quite intense. Wanita was looking like the fall guy. Well the whole scheme was his idea (wasn’t it?). He was playing hard to get however and refused to succumb to the pressure. As we were leaving, we overheard a very drunken conversation between two locals one of whom, it gradually became clear, was a Hoy taxi driver. Was this our taxi driver we wondered?
On the wee ferry to Hoy, it began to don on me that having booked the taxi weeks before, I’d forgotten to phone again to confirm the booking. On arrival at the pier however, we spotted a dilapidated rust bucket doing a fairly poor imitation of a minibus. Standing next to it was a man with a crazed far away expression with more gaps in his mouth than teeth. He bore more than a passing resemblance to the duelling banjo player in “Deliverance”. Was this our man? Well no as it turned out, he was just there to pick up his octogenarian mother. His minibus was also a taxi however (though not the one I’d booked) and he agreed to take us to the bothy. Between Geoff’s Portadown drawl and the taxi driver’s broad Hoy lilt, communications were a little tricky to say the least although we all seemed to spend most of the journey laughing so something must have been getting across. We arranged to be picked up in time to catch the ferry three days later and hoped this bit was understood.
The bothy was excellent, arguably even better than expected. A big open fire, plenty of wood and coal, even a flushing toilet and running water. There was some kit lying around so we assumed people must have arrived and gone for a walk. Just as we were getting fully ensconced, surrounded as we were with absurd amounts of food and drink (no point in not taking advantage of a drive-in bothy), two young lads came bursting in, obviously feeling quite pleased with themselves. It turned out they had left Edinburgh that morning (very very early), got the first ferry over, dropped in to the bothy at about 2pm then gone straight out and climbed the Old Man!!! It was now about 8pm. They’d got up and down in less than four hours. We were impressed and just a little overawed.
In the previous few weeks we had become aware that there was to be a televised rock climbing spectacular to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the live outside broadcast from The Old Man of Hoy, which took place one year after the first ascent. The fact that we were going to the Old Man on the same weekend was purely coincidental. Although the main part of this year’s T.V. show was to be in the Cairngorms, for a while it looked as though there may be something going on in Hoy aswell. That was all we needed, our remote idyll destroyed by hordes of TV crew and hotshot climbers. However, fortunately, we needn’t have worried as all was quiet.
The next morning dawned still and clear but with an ominous darkness in the sky to the south. The forecast for almost the whole of Scotland was horrendous with a huge low pressure system centred over the country. We were just on the edge of this and our weather would depend on just a small movement of this system either way. Somehow spirits were still quite high. I’d figured by now that we would climb the first pitch, have a sniff at the second pitch, abseil off, head back to the bothy and carry on with the other more enjoyable aspects of the trip. Unlike the Old Man of Stoer which is hidden by the adjacent cliffs until reaching the edge, the Old Man of Hoy sticks up above the adjacent coastline. This means the top part is visible for a mile or so before it is reached. You would imagine that this would prepare you for the sight of its entire height on reaching the cliff edge. WRONG!!!
This first close-up view of the whole sea stack was one of the greatest trouser-filling moments in all my years of climbing. Part of the problem is that you’re looking down on most of the route and another part of the problem is that the crux pitch is the most obviously visible and tends to draw the eye. It looked awfully hard. We quickly took some photos and got on with the task of finding the descent route, on the basis that the longer we looked at the Old Man from the cliff top, the more likely we were to abandon the whole scheme.
Fairly soon we were ensconced at the top of the first pitch. The sky had turned a worrying steely grey colour, and the odd tiny drop of rain could be felt. I was wearing two fleeces, a pair of gloves and a balaclava. Sun kissed rock it was not. Wanita was edging across the traverse at the start of the scary looking crux pitch. Somehow we’d persuaded him to go for it. This stance was very palatial however was on the corner between the west and south faces. Geoff was belaying Wanita but was located such that he couldn’t see him whereas I was positioned at the edge of the platform and able to watch our courageous leader until he was past the first overhang (the second overhang was the crux). This was clearly going to be a pitch that required a bold confident and direct approach. Conversely, Wanita was looking timid, nervous and tentative.
He delicately edged round the first overhang and out of sight. Because of the traverse at the start, friction on the rope was potentially going to be a problem so Geoff and I evolved a system whereby I was keeping a very close eye on the movement of the rope and issuing instructions to Geoff to let out or take in the rope as required to maintain the correct tension. “D’you think he’ll manage it?” Geoff queried, after an hour had passed. “Not a fucking chance” I replied. The rope continued to go out slightly then come back in slightly and any upward movement was almost imperceptible. I was concentrating quite intently on my task and trying not to think too much about what the final outcome was going to be. Suddenly I heard in the distance, quietly but unmistakeably, what had become over the years our exclamation of success “g-u-a-r-a-n-g-a-!-!-!”. “Jesus Christ, he’s up!!!”, I said. We wondered if he was just over the crux or at the stance. Soon it was confirmed as the latter and Geoff’s rope was being hauled in. “Fuck, now we’re going to have to climb it” laughed Geoff, only half joking.
It was an incredible pitch and a great lead. Fortunately the rumours about in-situ gear at the crux turned out to be true. Needless to say, later discussions revealed that we had all availed ourselves of this handy assistance. Having passed the crux, I was still completely engrossed in the climbing being as it was still very steep and exposed. Near the top of the pitch I glanced up to see Geoff and Wanita perched together and was slightly shocked to realise they were completely soaked!!! This was real rain now. The pitch was steep enough and angled such that it was sheltered slightly from where the rain was coming from. Unfortunately the rest of the route was angled directly towards where the rain was coming from.
A short debate ensued – up or down? The rain eased off slightly. We resolved to carry on given that the next two pitches should be a lot easier and escape shouldn’t be too tricky. What we failed to take into account was the fact that these pitches were more akin to the hanging gardens of Babylon than a rock climb. The Old Man is a bizarre combination of some of the best climbing and some of the worst climbing you’ve ever done. The greenery, combined with the dampness and the odd spot of guano courtesy of the resident fulmars resulted in everything; ropes, climbing gear, fleece, camera bag, trousers and rock boots, becoming coated in a light green very smelly slime by the time we had finished the next two pitches. Nice. The last pitch was clean rock again – a welcome sight. However although the rain had now ceased, the rock was still pretty wet. It did look like a classic piece of climbing right enough, a steep open book corner.
We had noticed a very slight change in the light. It began to don that there may be an issue about getting back down before dark. Our only timepiece was Wanita’s phone which was buried deep in a pocket somewhere. While he was locating it and getting it powered up we agreed that if it was 8pm or later, we would give up our attempt and head down. Finally the phone was found and we all stared intently at the screen as it went through it’s wee opening up routine. At last the time flashed up – it was 7.30pm. Shite. We were in that hinterland of indecision. Geoff wanted to go down (clever man), I wanted to keep going (summit fever) and Wanita was kind of sitting on the fence. A compromise was reached whereby I would have a go at the last pitch and if I was really slow or struggling badly, we would chuck it.
Initially things went well. Despite the wet rock I felt that I was making reasonable progress. The holds were fairly big and the protection was good. Gradually it became slightly more tricky. The holds were smaller and the dampness was really beginning to make it’s presence felt. However the gear was still good and I realised I was now only about twenty feet from the top. Not only that, but I was only a couple of moves away from easier looking climbing, big holds leading up the last fifteen feet or so. These couple of moves were the problem. One of my feet slipped off and the next thing I knew I was dangling off the rope a few feet below my high point. “BASTARD” I said under my breath. Soon, I was up again with a cunning plan to aid the trickiest part. Unfortunately this wasn’t an option as I was wedged into the corner and couldn’t access the required gear. Fortunately I managed this time without aid and without falling off. The last few feet were total pleasure. “G-U-A-R-A-N-G-A-!-!-!” I yelled at the top of my voice as I stepped on to the top. I heard the call coming back, like an echo. It was Cammy, shouting and waving. He sounded almost as happy as I felt.
Eventually, after all getting to the top, the three of us were securely clipped in to the stance a few feet below. The wind had gone round to the west and a howling gale was blasting at us through a gap in the rock where the whole sea stack is split in two. I’d read about this phenomenon and assumed the accounts were exaggerated. They weren’t – it was bloody freezing. As well as this I started to notice an increasing pain in my right ankle. I realised that I must have bashed my foot during the fall but hadn’t noticed at the time presumably due to the adrenalin surge. I decided to put it to the back of my mind. We had a fairly major job to get on with and a fully functioning ankle wasn’t all that critical for abseiling purposes. It did occur to me that the walk out might be interesting though. By now the light was beginning to fade quite rapidly.
Two abseils brought us down to a huge ledge which was also nicely sheltered from the wind. There was still a bit of light but we were beginning to realise that we were cutting it really fine for getting down before darkness fell. Geoff suggested that the big ledge might be a good place to spend the night (clever man again). I, on the other hand, stupidly consumed by the notion that we should keep moving for as long as it was possible to do so, suggested continuing on down. Just to add to the confusion, Cammy by this time was shining his headtorch at us and trying to offer assistance. “A-R-E Y-O-U O-K-A-Y ? ” he yelled “ D-O Y-O-U N-E-E-D H-E-L-P ? ” He meant well and must have been cold and bored shitless by this time but all his attempt did was to further muddle three already tired brains trying desperately to concentrate on the serious business of abseiling in the near dark “ F-U-C-K O-F-F !!! ” we yelled back in unison. Not very charitable you might think but for some reason at the time it seemed appropriate. We could barely hear him anyway and knew he probably couldn’t hear us either. After a bit more discussion, we set up the third abseil and continued down.
As the last man down, by the time I was reaching the end of the ropes it was basically pitch dark. I knew we were going no further tonight. “Over here”. A voice out of the darkness to my left. I edged over and eased myself round a prow of rock to find the guys wedged together on a tiny ledge. It was quickly agreed that this small alcove was going to have to be our home for the night. We’d cunningly ended up on the smallest and windiest belay ledge on the route.
It was a long night. Things started quite well under the circumstances with all of us remaining very stoical. We chatted for a bit then sang a few songs just to keep the spirits up. A fairly bizarre situation to be in as you can imagine. Gradually the singing tailed off. Then the conversation. It was ludicrously cramped. Every time anybody moved slightly we all had to shuffle about a bit to accommodate the movement. Wanita nodded off and started snoring. I was jealous. You know that feeling you get in bed sometimes when you’re drifting off to sleep and you wake up with a start, feeling as though you’re falling – well that’s what kept happening to myself and Geoff. There was a good reason for it on this occasion of course perched as we were about two hundred feet up vertical rock above the crashing waves. The night dragged on. Luckily the weather gods were now on our side and the sky cleared up from time to time giving us a great view of the stars. Well let’s face it, there wasn’t much else to do.
At last a faint glimmer of light began to appear in the sky. We had no idea what time it was as we were trying to preserve Wanita’s fading batteries in case there was a more pressing need later. Wanita snored on. Geoff and I were trying to figure out if this really was the dawn arriving or just distant moonlight. Just as we convinced ourselves of the former, it got darker again. Bastard. Eventually it did actually begin to get lighter. Little by little various features began to reappear. We had heard the crashing waves far below all night and one of the first things to reappear through the gloom were the great plumes of white froth they were creating. A fulmar swooped around for a while then glided in really close to us, hovered about three feet away for what felt like a long time staring at us as if to say “What the fuck are you doing here?!?” then swooped away again. It was a strange encounter.
At last the time had come to continue our descent. I had been concerned that after a night on this tiny ledge our brains would be in an even more fuddled state than they were towards the tail end of the previous evening’s activities but strangely enough we had all somehow gained some kind of rest and were thinking and communicating well. As had become the established routine Geoff went first. This was it – the crunch abseil into space with the long haul sideways to safety at the end. I watched as Geoff descended into the half light. It felt good to be moving again and the gradually increasing light also boosted spirits. There was however a certain tension in the air due to this tricky abseil. It felt like a barrier we had to get through before certain success on the other side. Geoff was now hanging in space a long way below. I could just see him through a notch in the vertical sweep of rocks. It looked like a really wild situation, especially first thing in the morning before breakfast!!! He disappeared from sight as he began the sideways haul. I was watching and listening quite intensely now waiting for the tell-tale release of tension in the ropes and the always welcome shout indicating that the next stance has been reached and tied on to.
Suddenly he came swinging back into view, out in mid-air again. “Jesus Christ!!” I thought, “What the fuck’s going on”. I hoped he was OK. This same thing happened a couple more times. I was starting to get a bit worried but consoled myself with the fact that he looked pretty relaxed and in control. Finally the call came – he was on the stance. Yee-Hah!!! Shit. Now my turn. Before long I too was hanging a long way out in space. I could see Geoff now about thirty feet across and down from me, camera in hand snapping away merrily with a huge grin on his face. He was clearly in a happy place. I was looking forward to being there too. I began to pull myself across and quickly understood what his problem had been. There is an instinctive desire to not go too far down the abseil rope before the sideways haul for fear of overshooting the stance. This inevitably leads to trying to go across without being low enough to reach the stance. It took me three attempts aswell to get it right. Geoff helped me on to the stance. “G-U-A-R-A-N-G-A-!-!-!” Yet another guaranga moment. With only one short straightforward abseil to the bottom from here, we were basically home and dry. It was fully light now and the sun was shining. Just at that moment Cammy arrived at the top of the cliffs opposite. “Good morning” we shouted across. “Morning” he replied as if it was all perfectly normal to be descending a sea stack at the crack of dawn. It was good to see Cammy again and further enhanced the growing sense of wellbeing. However it was not over yet and I was mindful of the classic scenario whereby you start to relax too soon and let your guard down. It was now Wanita’s turn and he duly came sliding into view. Now it was my turn to feel smug from the safety of the large stance. Just at his most exposed moment, Wanita started to go into a rapid spin, as can sometimes happen on a free abseil. It must have been really disconcerting but he remained reasonably cool, at least on the outside.
Stepping onto terra firma after the final short abseil felt brilliant. Level ground (well almost) at last. Within a few seconds of coming off the ropes however the bit of my brain that was shutting out the pain from my ankle injury switched off – the real pain level became apparent. The scramble back up to the cliff top seemed interminable. In their usual sympathetic manner the guys had long since disappeared into the distance ahead. I had to admit to myself that if the situation had been reversed and one of them was injured I probably wouldn’t be hanging around too much either what with the lure of Cammy bearing gifts of food and drink at the top of the cliff. I was reduced to a pathetic hopping motion combined with hanging on with both hands given the steep and slippery nature of the terrain. The irony of falling off at this point having successfully scaled the Old Man wasn’t lost on me.
Cammy helped me up the last few feet of steep ground then I slumped on to the level ground at the top. It was fantastic to lie there gorging on cake and coffee – we had eaten almost nothing for the last 24 hours. I was trying my best to ignore the looks of utter disdain being occasionally fired in our direction from Cammy. He had a look in his eye that said “You guys are completely insane”. He was probably right.
The final task was to somehow get across the three miles of bleak moorland back to the bothy. Firstly I tried to limp but it was just too painful. My next tactic was to crawl. This worked to an extent but was really slow – it would be a long three miles on hands and knees. The guys then took it in turns to support my weight while I used the good foot only. This was okay for a few hundred yards but became a real strain on my arms and their shoulders. I went back to limping again but this time developed a weird technique involving keeping the damaged foot well out in front at all times. Somehow this worked although felt very strange and certainly produced some odd looks from the various tourists we met on the path. Finally we reached the bothy. It was sheer bliss sitting in the sun, can of beer in hand watching the big Atlantic rollers breaking on the nearby beach. Cammy appeared from the bothy with a huge plateful of rolls and squary. God, life was good!!!