4 October 2011

Old Man of Hoy - Sam Johnson

I'm always keen on a bit of adventure climbing, in fact its a major factor in choosing my rock climbing destinations. Weather its driving to Switzerland to experience the fantastic wild bouldering of Magic Wood or searching out the local chalk cliffs looking for a line that shows a little promise of not falling down as you climb it. But climbing adventures are very much a personal experience, with everyone having their own favourite climbing destinations or climbs. And then you find a climb that smacks you in the face, a must do route, a special climb. For me, this climb was the Old Man of Hoy in the Orkneys.

The Old Man of Hoy is possibly the most famous route in the UK first climbed in 1966 by Chris Bonnington, Rusty Ballie and Tom Patey. The following July, an all star cast of Joe Brown, Ian McNaught-Davis, Peter Crew, Dougal Haston, Tom Patey and Chris Bonnington subsequently repeated the route for a live BBC broadcast. They were backed up by climbing camera teams comprising Hamish Macinnes, Ian Clough, John Cleare and Rusty Ballie along with a dozen climbing sherpas, around fifty camera technicians and a platoon of Scots Guards!! The show was a huge success and the climbing teams gave the Old Man of Hoy the lot. Over the broadcast, a new route up the South face was climbed by Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis, artificial climbing and bolting happened on the South East Route by Dougal Haston and Peter Crew and Tom Patey and Chris Bonnington performed high trapeze acrobatics as well as a bivouac half way up the Old Man!

In my early days of climbing back in the middle nineties, The Old Man of Hoy was quickly ingrained in my head as a route with almost mythical status. Now iconic photos of Tom Patey, cigarette in mouth, doing the crux moves on the second pitch filled me with fear and a strange attraction to the route. Situated on the Isle of Hoy, the second largest of the seventy Orkney Islands and quite possibly the most beautiful, the Old Man stands on the West coast of the Island, close to Britain's third highest sea cliff, St John's Head.

For me the adventure began the moment I left the front door of my cottage in Broadstairs, Kent. Its a full 875 miles, or 15 hours worth of driving, from my home town to John O Groats, the most northernly point in the UK. After driving throughout the night we arrived at Gills Head just West of John O'Groats to catch the ferry over to mainland Orkney. From here its a twenty minute drive around the Island to catch another, smaller ferry, over to the Isle of Hoy. As the little blue ferry makes its way across Scarpa Flow and then the Hoy Sound, it navigates its way around the wrecks of hundreds of warships before bumping up against the small concrete jetty at Hoy. Following the German defeat in WW1 Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter sunk 50 German ships in this area to prevent them from falling into British Hands. Stepping off the ferry onto the Isle of Hoy itself is like stepping back into time, a time when community spirit came first with everyone helping their neighbours. The large majority of the 300 population live on the sheltered East side of the island, with the exception being our destination of Ratwick. In the 1900's there were 80 residents but today only seven people live here all year round. Ratwick is just a tiny scattering of stone crofts overlooking as stunning beach littered with the most amazing coloured boulders and stones.

Our home for the week was a stone bothy owned by the Hoy National Trust who permit free use to climbers, walkers and adventures alike. It sits right on the shore line and has stood the test of time , its stone covered roof bearing testament to just how stormy the area can be. The bothy has running water, albeit pumped straight from the river behind and requires boiling to make it safe, a sit down loo and plenty of room to sleep and cook. It easily caters for all of your basic needs but if the wind stops and your treated to a still day be prepared for the hoards of midges that will descend!!

The first evening we were treated to a beautiful sunset over Ratwick Bay with a still, calm night and an impressive display from the millions of stars above your head. Spirits were high as we thought we might of hit the jackpot with the weather as calm sunning days are a bit of rarity during September. We slept well that night with our alarms waking us at 6.00am to check the weather and to see if it was game on for the climb. Unfortunately not! The wind had rose dramatically during the night and the full force coming off of the sea was now bearing down on Ratwick Bay. We decided we would head over anyway, even if it was just to check out the 3 mile walk in and to get our first real glance of the Old Man of Hoy itself. The path to the Hoy climbs steadliy up the hill on the North side of Ratwick Bay, joining onto a recently revamped path that runs along the coast. You don’t get to see the Old Man of Hoy until you round the bend at the top of the hill, its full stature not apparent until your looking at it from the cliffs. Its summit is a good deal higher than the mainland cliffs but it was only in the early 19thcentury did it become a sea stack. The stack itself is only 400 years old and many people have pointed at the fact that it may not get much older. It seems the only reason it is still standing is because it sits on a granite plinth which takes the full force of the extreme weather that rolls in off of the sea.

On maps drawn between 1600-1750 the area is shown as a headland, with the painter William Daniell sketching it as a sea stack in 1817, with a wider column and a smaller top section with an arch at its base from which it gains its name. At some point in the early 19th century, a storm battered the area and washed away one of legs, collapsing the arch and leaving the stack detached from the land.  The remains of the arch are still there today and its a good job too. Thanks to the massive boulders at the base of the cliffs the sea is kept at bay and the Old Man can be reach during any state in the tide, meaning no need to get your feet wet.

Descent to the base of cliffs is via a treacherous, steep and narrow grass track, an adventure in its own right. Take extreme care here, a slip in the wrong place could sea you end up with the seal's below.  At the bottom of the descent your faced with the remains of the old arch which leads to the start of the first pitch. By this point the winds had got even stronger and the rain had begun. We huddled under a large boulder and contemplated what to do next. Im not quite sure what happened, but the next thing I remember is leading up the first pitch in what must have been the worst climbing conditions I have ever encountered in the UK. This lead was by far the hardest 4b id ever done. The climbing was easy with the crux being just trying to stay on the damn rock. As winds of over 60 miles an hour stormed round the stack I knew in my heart that today we weren’t going to get much further than the first pitch. Huddled on the first large ledge that marks the end of pitch one, I brought Mark up and we decided that enough was enough for today. The weather had beaten us but as we abbed off in the driving rain I knew that it wouldn’t be long before we were back for more, weather permitting. 

The next day dawned miserable and moody, grey skies flooding in off the sea. I spent the day propped up in the window bay of the bothy reading my book, watching the rain drenching everything outside. Its not very often that I get to just do nothing. In fact I cant remember the last time id sat down and read a book. Normal life is just too damn busy for small pleasures like this and although I  knew I couldn’t climb today, I was secretly quite happy to just do nothing. We'd managed to get word from one of the locals to say that tomorrow was looking better for climbing, with winds dropping and only the chance of showers. That night we sat down to fresh sea trout, caught from the river 50 yards behind the bothy, and slept content, alarms ready to wake us at 6am.

True enough to our local weatherman, the morning dawned clear of clouds, save for a few low lying   ones covering the hill tops surrounding Ratwick Bay. We set off, hopeful that today might just be the day that we get a long enough window in the weather to get to the top. It soon became apparent though when we rounded the cliff top looking over to the Old Man that the winds had been hiding from us during our walk over. As we descended the steep grassy track down to the Old Man the winds grew in strength until, huddling under one of the huge boulders at the base of the Old Man, we could barely talk to each other over the wind gusts. As we sat there wondering what to do and contemplating walking back out, we got a break in the weather. We decided it was on! Unfortunately that break lasted till the top of pitch one. The wind had now got back to full strength and the sky threatened rain. We decided to see if we could climb the crux pitch, with the plan being to leave a rope in place so should the weather improve, we could shoot back up through the harder parts in no time.

I settled myself down on the ledge in the best position I could to enable me to see Mark for as long as possible. I watched him disconcertingly disappear down the start of pitch two and start the traverse across to the main crack thats leads the way through the overhangs above. This first section is hard to protect and is best down with a deep breath and cool head. The climbing is relatively easy save for one move mid way along the traverse but safety is found at the end where a small cam comes in handy. Just remember to place a long sling on any runners here to avoid the killer rope drag was you pass the crux above. The last I saw of Mark he was making the fantastic moves rightwards onto a wall that teeters above the sea. After these moves a dark and damp chimney is gained and ascended by using the trusted 'back and footing' method leading you into the crux moves on the bottomless off width baring down above your head. The next moves out of the chimney is the crux and not for the faint hearted. A single good hold can be found just round the roof and then its a wild move out from the safety of the chimney onto a flat wall with precarious smears for your feet. At this point your fully committed to the above sequence, the sound of the booming waves 140ft under your feet trying to distract you but a cool head and a long reach up to a small ledge will bring you to safety and good cam placements. From here is another 50ft romp to the belay. If the crux moves prove to hard it would be quite easy to aid this section using size three and four cams.

While Mark lead the pitch the weather had quickly got worse and by the time mark clipped the belay at the top of pitch two I was truly soaked to the skin. Rain pored down the back of my coat and quite literary out of the arms. We decided that we had done enough for today and retreated in increasing gales to the relative safety of the boulders below.

Undeterred we awoke a 4am the next morning and had made the walk in and descent to the base of the Old Man by 6.30am. At just gone seven I started up the first pitch quickly gaining the large belay ledge. We decided that I shouldn’t wait for Mark but just get on and start up the ropes from yesterday up pitch two. Shunt fixed I made the moves across the traverse and into the crack system. By 9am both Mark and myself were sitting at the top of pitch two with the main climbing difficulties behind us. The next lead was mine. The route wanders over easy ledges, covered in guano and slime. The climbing is easy but care is needed due to the continual slippery nature of this pitch. Your also need to keep your eyes out for Fulmers who regularly nest here. Get too close and they project a foul smelling vomit as a defence mechanism, aiming for the eyes. Luckily we didn’t see any but I'm told that it smells worse than anything on earth! The next pitch is easy but on better rock, this is a pitch to enjoy your surroundings on and appreciate the climbing. It ends on a good ledge below the final corner crack. This is a superb pitch and maybe even one of the best pitches in Scotland, were good bridging technique will come in handy. 

We arrived on the top around 1pm to a round of applause from a group of walkers on the mainland. We spent over an hour on top, relaxing in the sun that had just broken through the clouds. The view stretches over miles of open sea, as as I sat their admiring the view of the seals and birds below I finally realised that all the hard work was worth it. It must be one of most beautiful and inaccessible summits anywhere in the UK. The I remember, the challenge is only half finished, as everyone knows, what goes up must come down. The abseil descents to the ground require care and concentration as the anchors are often rotten, albeit plentiful. Taking your time here pay dividends as stuck ropes are common, especially on the abseil down the crux pitch thanks to an ominous looking crack.

As we walked back full of excitement at what we had achieved, I realised that a personal long standing adventure had been completed. The Old Man had been ticked and boy did it feel good. The climb is often dirty, full of old tat at the belays and discarded ropes, most of the climbing is easy and you run the risk of birds vomiting on you. But if you get the chance or you been thinking of doing it – you wont regret it. The Old Man of Hoy stands proud and speaks for itself, just like all adventurous climbs in remote places should do.

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