It’s Wednesday night on the 7th October 2015. It’s rained all week so far and tomorrow is our ‘one’ forecasted sunny day of the week…… apparently!
Its hard to believe that tomorrow will be dry and sunny after days of grey skies and lashing rain, but we stay optimistic that by 11pm (as forecasted) the rain will stop, the skies will clear and we will sleep easy knowing that in the morning our battle with the ‘Old Man of Hoy’ will finally get underway.
The Old Man of Hoy
It’s been a tiring few days, I met Clem my climbing partner at Manchester airport on Sunday. The original plan was to set off straight to Hoy, however, as the weather was horrific and seen as though my ‘two day’ do-it-yourself van conversion was now into its second week with work still to be done, we decided to get it finished. It worked out to be very handy getting Clem involved as he was a carpenter in a previous life.
The Grand Opening
After we finished the van we had a ‘grand opening’ of the new camper and then hit the climbing wall for a last ditch attempt at shaping up after a busy summer of work and no personal climbing. I actually felt strong, I was quite surprised. It was 9pm before we finally set off to Scrabster.
We drove through the night; Clem actually managed to fill in a job application on the way. At the halfway point we swapped over and Clem took the wheel. Near the end of our epic all-night drive up to Scrabster I started drifting in and out of sleep only waking briefly to offer some moral support and then I would nod back off for a few minutes. One of those times I woke in a panic, sure we were out of control and about to crash; I shouted out in horror only to find we were stationary at a t-junction and I had dreamed the whole thing.
We arrive at the ferry port unscathed but very tired at 6am and we decided to brew up and wait for the ferry boarding. Once on board I could barely believe that this was happening. I only met Clem in March while we were on our MIA at Plas-y-Brenin. We spent a hilarious 8 days together as room-mates and agreed that Hoy would happen; and here we were 7 months later sailing off into a rising sun (obscured by rain clouds) bound for the Orkney’s.
Just to paint a picture of my chosen partner for the UK’s tallest sea stack; Clem is an Irishman who turned up on his MIA (the UK’s most prestigious summer mountaineering award) with his harness tied together with string and a pair of holed climbing shoes (you could actually see his feet through them). Excellent! Priceless!
One Way In No Way Out
Once aboard our ferry we were given a free coffee in return for filling in a survey; little did we know that the word FREE would feature a lot on this trip. Sitting with our coffee Clem plugged in all his devices in a nearby socket; I am realising this man likes full batteries – he spent the whole car journey with about 12 gadgets plugged into a nest of extensions, leads and car adapters on the epic all-night drive and here he was again a mere 8 minutes since we left the van. Once he was charging he opened up the complimentary on-board magazine and by chance opened it on a double page spread of Bonnington climbing our stack aged 80! We have no excuses.
Guinness & Whisky Chaser
We just about manage to get a glimpse of our stack through the mist and rain from the ferry. Once on dry land in Stromness we had a few hours to kill before our next ferry, so we headed to a cafe for a feed and then to the local library so that Clem could charge(!) more gadgets and mess with memory cards. I lay myself down on the beanbags in the quiet reading area and relaxed till he was finished. We had now been awake for over 24 hours. Once he was happy we headed for the local pool for a wash and then headed for our second ferry from Houton to Lyness. Once off the ferry on the island of Hoy we realised how remote this place was; we could only find one(!) pub. It was called the Royal Oak.
We found a flat spot behind the pub to park our accommodation, spruced ourselves up a bit and ran through the rain, dodging the puddles to the pub entrance. As we enter the 5 locals lower their pints and measure us up; all clad in overalls and wellies we felt a bit over-dressed. One of them rises from his seat and wanders behind the bar. We order a Guinness and sit ourselves down. The local twang is completely incoherent and we have no idea what is going on or what is being asked of us. A few grunts here and there with an occasional recognisable word every now and then like ‘feckin’ and ‘c*nt’. One guy at the bar has spent the whole time gurning at us. It’s a bit like the scene from Pat Cohan’s bar in the ‘Quiet Man’.
A Portrayal Of A Royal Oak Regular – By A Regular
There’s a sign above the bar that reads “Royal Oak – one way in and no way out”, we had a giggle about it but little did we know that this place would nearly finish us off over the coming days. The barman wastes no time introducing himself; his name is Alan. We quickly realise he is a real genuine man and very accepting of us “foreigners”. As we are ordering our second pint the question of our intentions on the island is raised. We tell Alan we intend to climb the ‘Old Man’, he tells the others and they all start laughing and grunting to each other. We understand no words but we do understand facial expressions and gestures; and it was clear they thought we were a bit stupid. We also got a translation from Alan and they had all unanimously agreed that it wouldn’t be possible or wise in this weather. We tell them that the sun is coming on Thursday and they nearly choke on their pints as they fell off their chairs laughing at us.
The Safety Briefing
By our 4th pint we were now locals and the hardy farmers had accepted these two foreign simple minded idiots. Over the next few hours Alan plied us with whiskey chasers and his signature drink; black sambuca – this was on fire as we drank it! During this time the wildly drunk gurner at the bar requests to leave with a grunt. Every one of the other 4 locals help him out of the bar and onto his mobility scooter. It was hilarious to see someone too pissed to walk but deemed fit enough to drive his scooter home.
We turned our attention back to our pint and then about 5 minutes later the most hilarious thing happened; Clem all of a sudden burst out laughing. I turned around to see that he was laughing at and the old gurner was going passed the window heading uphill on his scooter at a break neck speed of about 4 miles an hour as if on a stair lift. The fact he was driving in what looked like a monsoon just added to the comedy of it.
We later found out that this guy has a Magners for breakfast and shares a bottle of vodka with a lady friend in his street through the day. He is only 60 odd but he looks about 90 – I would much rather be like Bonnington in my older years.
The night rolls on and we realise we haven’t paid for anything for hours, Alan would just mutter those dreaded words every now and then “Lets drink to that” and then we would be handed another black sambuca or whiskey. At one point he asked Clem what drink he would like, he said he could have anything he wanted. Clem asked for a Guinness to which Alan replied “It’s too late for soft drinks, don’t bring your feminine ways in here. I thought the Irish could drink”. Clem then suggested a whiskey that wasn’t Glenmorangie to which Alan replied “Pish”. We soon realised that the menu of acceptable drinks consisted only of Glenmorangie or black sambuca.
The Massive Stack
At the end of the night Alan even offered us a bed, to which we declined, knowing that we would probably die of alcohol poisoning. We did however get a ‘free’ massive plate of chicken curry each. I was then carried back to the van. I learnt a valuable lesson that night; when you are a lightweight like me you should never attempt to out-drink an Irishman or a Scottish landlord – especially when you have been awake for 42 hours. You will fail…. massively!
In the morning I rose feeling great, however this never lasted and I progressively got worse as the day wore on. The monster hangover eventually put me back to bed but first we did manage a visit to the ‘free’ museum and got given ‘free’ soup, a bun and a cup of tea each! Everything seems to be free here, last night we worked out that it was ‘buy 1 get 3 free’.
After my nap in the van I was feeling much better and I was excited at the prospect that tomorrow we would be attempting the ‘Old Man’. Clem had been on a walk to see our stack and had arrived back at the van with a stray Australian vagabond called Chris who had been travelling the world for the last 2 years. We shared supper with him in the bothy on the beach and then said our farewells and headed to the van to sort through our kit and pack our bags for our attempt.
Clem Sporting The Team T-Shirts
So back to Wednesday night again; I remember lying in the van listening to the rain and wind lashing against the van. I could barely believe that it would stop as forecasted. I was planning on attempting it regardless but I was still praying that it would stop. Then suddenly as if someone had flicked a switch, the rain stopped. It was 11.15pm. I could barely believe it. “Clem it’s stopped raining…… it’s on!” Clem replied in his familiar way, “Deadly”.
We wake and busy ourselves with breakfast and getting dressed. It’s Thursday morning and the day of our long awaited adventure. The rain has held off but the skies look a bit moody. We set off on our way to the stack. Once we are up and over the hill the stack comes into view. It’s a sight I will never forget, it’s absolutely massive.
Tackling The First Overhang
We take lots of pictures of the stack and this beautiful place. The top of the stack is level with where we are standing on the mainland. It almost looks like you could run and jump onto it. The scramble down to its base was a scary affair. One slip on this wet vertical grass would send you 500ft straight to your death. The loose mud path would give way every now and then leaving you with your heart in your mouth and a handful of turf in your hands. I was gripped and very glad to reach the bottom. My excitement and happiness was soon replaced with apprehension as I gazed up at this monster stack of rock. It looks even bigger down here at its base than from above. It looks so fragile and top-heavy from here. Just to add to the worry it starts to drizzle.
Clem starts to unpack his gear and it’s nice to see he is taking things seriously as he pulls out his harness – still tied together with string; he has replaced his holed shoes though. We put our team t-shirts on and I look up at the fulmars circling above us. “Do you think they will cause us any issues Clem?” Clem replied with “I don’t think so, I think we’ll be alright”…………. then right on queue one of them shits on him. I nearly cried I was laughing so hard. It was perfect timing and it cut through the apprehension like a hot knife through butter. I always find humour a great tool when faced with fear. There’s nothing better than turning a serious situation into a hilarious one.
The First Overhang
We are finally ready to start climbing when Clem suddenly announces that this is his first climb since our MIA. That’s just what I wanted to hear! He sets off up the first pitch. It seems to take an age. It’s obviously ‘first pitch syndrome’. To make things worse for him it’s freezing and very windy. Eventually the ropes go tight and I run up to join him. It was a nice juggy pitch on sound rock. Glad to have finally got underway I waste no time getting the rack off Clem for my lead. It’s the crux pitch and 38m long consisting of a down climb, a traverse and then two giant roofs. I set off downwards towards the traversing ledge. My hands are numb with the cold and the rock is wet and sandy with no real holds to speak of for hands. It takes a while to trust the tiny holds that my hands are attached to, especially with the sandy layer that is acting as a slip plane. Eventually I just commit and it causes no real issues, I then climb over the first overhang with a bit of wiping excess sand off holds along the way. I remember thinking that if the second roof is anything like the first that this crux pitch is easily in the bag; how wrong I was. As I approached the second overhang I was very glad that Clem had brought the massive cams and that we were not using the wooden wedges I had made. I had never used size 4-5 cams before but would need them in abundance here.
Over The Crux Roof
I climbed up awkwardly to the back of the second roof and looked across to the lip of the overhang some 2 metres away. It looked huge… as did the drop. I have no idea how many times I climbed to the lip of the roof and then retreated back to the safety of the back of the overhang, but I was definitely taking longer than Clem had on his first pitch. The rock was wet and sandy from all the rain over the previous days making me doubt the friction at every move. I was now round the corner sheltered from the wind and in the full heat of the sun wearing far too many layers and the sweat was pouring from me. To make things worse a crowd had gathered on the mainland while I was having my ‘moment’. I must have looked like a right tit. At one point during the crux moves I heard Clem shout and I was worried that I had been stationary that long that he may have thought I was finished my pitch and that he had taken me off belay. I shouted in horror but fortunately he was just shouting hello to Chris. He had turned up and was taking photos of this pathetic climber.
It took me ages to find the right sequence and muster the courage to commit. I finally went for it and pulled myself over the overhang not knowing what to expect once I was over. I was now on the vertical wall above the roof and I was running out of ideas, so I just slapped blindly above me knowing if I didn’t find a hold soon I would just pop off and fall. Luckily I found a massive jug….. thank god! Life was good again! The terrain above me to the ledge turned out to be a lot easier than it looked and before I knew it I was standing on the ledge arranging my belay and removing my excess layers. I also removed my shoes to give my feet a respite. I attached my shoes to the belay not wanting to ruin my attempt by dropping them down the 180 foot void below.
Heading For Easier Ground
The weather was unbelievable now and the crux pitch was in the bag. I knew now that as long as we didn’t make any silly mistakes the route was now ours. Clem followed up and I took some great photos of him approaching the belay.
It was Clem’s turn at the sharp end again and he set off upwards. His pitch was green and damp so he had to be very surefooted and careful. He was up it in no time and I followed him up. The existing tat that formed the belay was almost laughable. Next was my turn again on another 38 metre monster. The route finding wasn’t completely straight forward and the rock was damp and green like Clem’s with no real gear to speak of. The climbing felt quite insecure and this slowed progress slightly as I just could not fall off… it wasn’t an option. I did not want to test the belay. I climbed on and came to another bit of horrendous tat and wondered if I had reached the belay, however I had only climbed 20 metres and I soon concluded that this must form part of the abseil retreat and so I pressed on. Eventually I came to five rusty pegs and I promised myself that if this was part of the abseil retreat that I wouldn’t use them. I clipped them and backed them up with two bomber placements and brought Clem up to me.
Clem Finishing The Crux Pitch
We now had just one final pitch left. This pitch looked amazing. I was a bit jealous that it was Clem’s turn in front. The route leads straight up an immaculate corner on dry, pristine rock. The only issue was that the corner had recently opened up and formed a 1m wide crack that runs 40 ft down from the top of the crag. Specialists that have surveyed the crack believe that the ‘Old Man’ will fall into the sea by 2025.
Relieved After The Crux
Clem made light work of this magnificent pitch and before long I was bridging up the corner with the end in sight. It was slightly un-nerving being able to see straight through the crack to the other side of the stack, but this just added to the excitement of this final pitch.
A few metres from the top I passed what would be the first abseil station; A mass of rusting karabiners & mallions held together with a nest of rotting cord & slings. This was not very confidence inspiring especially seen as though I had left the spare cord at the van.
Clem Finishing Pitch 4
Once on the top it was just sheer euphoria. We shook hands and screamed with joy. It was a real feeling of vertigo standing on this tiny summit with a huge drop all around you. I immediately started looking for the ‘summit logbook’, but to no avail. The top was made up of two summits split by the 1m crack. The one on the other side of the crack was actually higher and I thought would maybe have the logbook hid on it.
“We are obviously going over there to stand on the higher summit aren’t we Clem?”
“Aye, yeah…. (Clem looks around)….but how will we get over to it?”
“We’ll just jump, howay mate, you coming?”
“Errr I think I’ll just stay clipped in over here Craig hahaha”
Clem Cruising The Final Pitch
I untied and approached the crack. I tested the rocks either side of the crack and gingerly jumped across. It was a wasted journey as I couldn’t find the summit logbook over here either! I jumped back across and we got on with the task of abseiling back down. The first task is to get down to the nest of tat 2 metres below the summit. We lower ourselves down and clip the tat; there is a tiny 1 inch ledge to stand on. When we pull the ropes they get tangled on the summit. I really can’t be arsed to mess about so I untie and solo back up to free them and then solo back down to the ledge.
I really don’t trust the birds nest of tat so I back-up the abseil with two bomber placements on a slack equalised sling. The reason they are backed-up with a slack sling is so that I can abseil with all my weight on the tat testing its strength. If the tat doesn’t snap then Clem will remove the back-up gear and follow me down. The reason I am the tester is because I am the heaviest.
With my heart in my mouth I weight the tat and I am astonished that it holds my weight and I abseil down to the five rusty pegs. With renewed confidence I clip the pegs (the ones I had promised I would not abseil off). I backed them up and Clem abbed down to me. We pulled the ropes and repeated the process all the way down; clipping tat, backing it up, abseiling, removing the back-up, Clem abseiling, pulling the ropes. Clem actually said that on one of the abseils one nest of tat actually creaked as I was abseiling; it must have been un-nerving for him to then remove the back-up anchors and abseil down to me.
Me On The Actual Summit
At last we arrived at the final abseil; a monster 200ft free hanging abseil. To make things worse the anchor is at your feet so to weight it I had to lower myself and hang from my arms, dangling in space with a 200ft drop beneath me; I then had to let go and dynamically load the abseil station. Once it was loaded and realised I was stationary hanging on the rope as opposed to of falling to my death it was actually semi-enjoyable, however, I couldn’t wait to be on solid ground. I tried my hardest not to bounce on the ropes so that the rough rock wouldn’t saw through them. All the way down as the ground got closer thoughts of a snapped rope got more acceptable; “I will only seriously injure myself from here….. maybe only a broken leg from here now” and then….. touch down! Thank god!
Rusty & Rotten Tat
Clem arrived safely too and then a final scream of joy and more hugging and hand shaking followed before we pulled the ropes and scrambled up to our bags. We packed away our kit dreading getting back up the vertical grass to the mainland, however, it was much easier climbing back up. We arrived back on the mainland at dusk and took some pictures. The sky looked amazing and framed our pictures of the stack very well. What a great end to a great day.
The Monster 200ft Abseil
Once back at the van we found Chris waiting for us and we headed to the ‘Royal Oak Pub’ to see Alan and the locals to celebrate. We were treat like royalty. We couldn’t believe it. We got a ‘free’ shower, a massive ‘free’ pizza each with a separate massive plate each of ‘free’ chips and then TWO ‘free’ bowls each of ice cream, sorbet and Ferrero Rocher followed by a plate each of ‘free’ shortbread. Unbelievable.
Clem Reaching Solid Ground
We gave Alan a small stone from the top of the ‘Old Man’. I had took 4 so I could give my girls one each and one for myself. Clem had took about 100 stones, one for everyone in County Mayo I reckon. No wonder he was looking nervous on the abseils!
Clement Quinn – Ireland’s Finest
Dehydrated from the climb I asked Alan if I could purchase a glass of coke or water. He repeatedly point blank refused my request.
“We don’t sell stuff like that in here”
“Don’t bring your feminine ways in here lad”
“You know the rules of the house; you can have whisky or Sambuca and if you’re after a soft drink there’s always Guinness”
…. and so it all began again!
Celebrating Back In Cumbria With An ‘Old Man’ Ale
ALL of our drinks were ‘free’ ALL night! I can confidently say I will never meet such a generous man as Alan in all my life or the rest of the Islanders for that matter.
Thank you Hoy!