Thursday, June 24, 2021

Britain's finest climb: The Old Man of Hoy.

The BBC 1967 outside broadcast put the Old Man of Hoy on many climbers bucket list. Rather like the Falklands before the 1982 Falklands War,   most people in the UK did not know where Orkney was, let alone the remote island of Hoy. In those days Hoy had no electricity and no scheduled ferry. It was difficult to get to. For completely different reasons it proved difficult to get to once again. My journey started in Chamonix with a visit to the hospital for a PCR test. Next I drove to Calais where I had to prove I had already booked two further Covid tests in the UK on day 2 and day 8. This was followed by the idiotic Brexit passport stamp and then the questions about how much tobacco and alcohol I was carrying. [Anyone who thought Brexit was a good idea should get them selves down to a ferry port to see what a mess they have contributed to. I was the only car on the ferry.] I then drove to North Wales where I had to quarantine for 10 days. I stayed with my father who I hadn't seen for nearly two years. After which I was free to travel. I drove to Fort William where I met up with John Young and the long awaited adventure could finally start. Everything was falling into place - not least a stellar weather forecast. We started with a shakedown climb in Glen Nevis, a modest Severe named Flying Dutchman and then another route called Pinnacle ridge. Both climbs were midge free. [Just.]
Flying Dutchman Glen Nevis
The next day we left Fort William early and drove to Lochinver with the plan to climb the beautiful Old Man of Stoer. Despite the early start we arrived too late to comfortably attempt the route. Instead we contented our selves with a stroll over to have a look at the stack and ascertain if there was a fixed rope between the shore and the base of the stack. There was not, which meant one of us would have to swim. That someone would be me. Therefore I needed to pack my swimming trunks.
Old Man Of Store
We stayed at the wonderful Inverlodge Hotel. It is spectacularly situated above the beautiful fishing port of Lochinver and its dinning room commands a view overlooking the port and out to sea.
View from Inverlodge dinnng room
We were a little disappointed not to be able to make a full attack on the comprehensive breakfast menu, but judged we needed to get going. We arrived at the car park at the lighthouse to find two other teams with the same plan as us. I am always keen to have climbs to ourselves, but having others around meant I did not  have to swim to the base of the stack. Instead I asked one of the other party if they might swim over with our rope as well as theirs? They were more than keen believing this was an integral part of the expedition.
Young & Keen the rope swimmers
With the rope safely in place and tensioned up we made our way across to the base of the stack.
The Tyrolean
The weather was more Mediterranean than northern Atlantic and so we were content to wait behind the other climbers. The rock is hard sandstone , not unlike Peak district gritstone.
John on the final pitch
Once we arrived on the top a single 55 meter rappel put us back down at the start of the route.
We then reversed the tyrolean, collected our rope and strolled back to the car along the headland, returning mid afternoon to the hotel and later dinner. Our plan for the next day was to drive to Scrabster and take the ferry to Stromness. We were able to have a leisurely start, and this time take advantage of the considerable breakfast. Instead of taking the coast road - The North Coast 500 route which has become almost un navigable because of its popularity, we took a route through central Sutherland before joining the the coastal route. You could count the amount of cars we passed all day on one hand. With time to kill before the ferry we took a trip up to John O Groats , which is somewhat underwhelming.
Plus we discovered it is not the most northerly point on mainland Britain. Its Dunnet Head. So we went there as well.
The ferry ride out to Orkney is always fantastic, not least because you pass right by the Old Man of Hoy.
Arrival in Sromness port was beautiful and it was straight into the pub for Lobster and chips.
22hrs coming out of the Pub.
The next day was the real reason for the trip. It would prove to be a big day. We caught the 8.00hrs ferry to Hoy crossing the Scapa Flow in thick cold mist.
Houton ferry harbour
John had some how produced two flasks of coffee and sandwiches for our breakfast. The ferry takes about an hour because it is not direct but seems to visit lots of other places en route. We arrived in Lyness , still in thick fog. yet as we drove across the vast remoteness of Hoy Island the mist began to clear. The reason the mist had cleared was because of a very strong wind which would be our companion all day. We parked the car at Ratwick bay and headed off over the head land towards the Old Man of Hoy.
leaving Ratwick Bay
This took us about an hour. From the headland which over looks the Old Man we followed the steep and tricky path down to the foot of the route. There were 3 climbers ahead of us, well up the first pitch and so we thought we would in effect have the route to ourselves. We geared up and I headed off up the first pitch.
1st pitch
I immediately caught the party up. Their leader was having a lot of trouble climbing the crux pitch. I brought John up to the belay ledge. We had to share this ledge with the other climbers and a nesting Fulmar, which was decidedly  pissed off with us and gave us the full Old Man of Hoy vomiting experience. I have to say it wasn't great waiting on this ledge. I could deal with the Fulmar , but the wind was cold. Eventually the last climber set off. I waited a while longer in an attempt to give them a bit of space. Yet when I eventually set off I passed around the corner and into the crack, to find them stuck. Eventually they unstuck them selves. I arrived at the belay and a call on the radio and John could finally climb. He raced up the pitch and arrived before the other team had sorted them selves out and so the belay stance was a little cramped and John was obliged to sit in his harness suspended in space. At least we were now out of the wind. It was then that John produced a couple of very welcome Pork Pies.
John storming up the crux pitch
The next two pitches are straight forward apart from avoiding the Fulmars. At least the climbers in front of us took the full barrage of vomit, so when I passed they had expended all their "ammunition"
The final corner pitch is as good as VS climbing as you will find.
The final corner
I arrived on the top just as the team in front were setting up their ropes for the rappel. John arrived to join me on a very windy summit. Then John signed the "Visiters book" which lives under a slab of rock. Generally the names of the climbing team are entered, but probably over come by the magnitude of the situation he forgot about me. So anyone who looks in the book in the future will assume that John Young made a solo ascent.
John signing the visiters book
Climbing the Old Man of Hoy is one thing, but there is the challenge of getting off it, and this is where experience of alpine style climbing is invaluable if you are not going to get your ropes stuck. Needless to say the party in front of us got theirs repeatedly stuck. Fortunately for them they had us following and we could un hook their rope and continuously throw it down to them.
1 st rappel
We choose to keep each rappel short , thus reducing the danger of getting the ropes caught. The final rappel is however not short . It goes the full 60 meters to the beach  for 50 of those meters its free and utterly spectacular in a jaw dropping setting.
John launches off the final rappel
Once we were safely on the beach , we retrieved and coiled  the ropes and then headed back up to the top of the cliff and immediatly into a viscious gale.  The walk back across the headland was shattering, because we were continuiosly buffeted by the wind.  
Due to the hold ups on the route we had missed the last ferry back to Orkney. Any thought of camping was literally blown away - there was no way we wanted to erect a tent in this wind. We drove over to the Ratwick Bay Youth Hostel, but everything on Hoy was seemingly closed due to Covid.  There was however a sash window open and I squeezed my self through it only for it to drop shut behind me.  Then it refused to open leaving me trapped inside and John still on the out side. It was like a scene from the Chuckle Brothers.  After some not inconsiderable effort we tugged it open, I escaped and we both thought that may be it wasn't such a good to get caught for "breaking and entry."

At a bit of a loss to know what to do next, we drove around to the other Youth Hostel which was also closed.  We sat in the car which was being rocked by the incessant wind.  All I could think to do was crack open the beer that John had carefully packed.  John had a better idea  he noticed a sign for a number to call the hostel warden . Yes! He got us a result. 15 minutes later the warden turned up and opened the Hostel just for us.  It was spotless , we had hot showers , clean sheets, John had food for us , wine and a bottle of Talisker.  Everything was finally perfect.  The end of a big day.