THE OLD MAN. BRITAIN’S GREATEST CLIMB?
Our man in Chamonix, mountain guide MARK SEATON, certainly reckons it is!
I first climbed the Old Man of Hoy in 1987 with my very good friend Jonathan Preston. At the time, we both agreed it was the best rock climb we had ever done. After 30 years, and both of us becoming professional mountain guides and therefore spending a lifetime climbing all over the world, the Old Man of Hoy still ranks as one of the best.
I returned in 2008, then again May 2017 with clients to guide the climb. I can report it is as magical as ever.
Nick Wilkinson and I had driven up from Luton; I had flown in from Chamonix that morning. After a day climbing the Great Ridge, Garb Bhienn on the Ardgour Peninsula and then climbing Scotland’s second most famous sea stack the Old Man of Stoer near Lochinver, we were en route to Thurso. Our route meant that we were now on The North Coast 500 road route - fantastic roads that have been hijacked and branded as the ultimate road trip (admittedly with some justification). We passed old classic cars, people on bikes, posers in supercars, serious looking Germans on BMW motorbikes and even a very determined-looking character who was walking the route.
We stopped for a coffee at a roadside cafe. The proprietor was not particularly happy with the economic boom of the North Coast 500. He grumbled that his septic tank could not cope with the increase in tourism. Next, we tried to stop for a bite of lunch. The next cafe car park was full of top-end Porche GT3s. No tables in the cafe. I had thought the whole point of having one of these cars was that they were exclusive. Generally, you don't pay upwards of £150k to find three of them in the same car park in the far north of Scotland. So, there had been some change in 30 years.
Anyway, we arrived in a very wet Thurso around two o'clock. The issue was the ferry to Stromness was not until seven o'clock in the evening. It was raining heavily. What to do? We parked up and I went to sleep in the car. Nick went for an explore; ten minutes later he was back.
Nick did then save the afternoon by finding the Tempest Cafe which was an oasis of pleasantness in what otherwise is a somewhat underwhelming town. The embarkation time could not come around soon enough at the ferry port of Scrabster.
Great fish and chips on the boat, and then we got our first glimpse of the Old Man of Hoy as the ferry passed by the cliffs before a magical arrival in Stromness as the weather started to clear. Half an hour’s drive and we arrived at our apartment, which we had pre-booked online. It was 10.30pm and the sun was only just setting over Kirkwall harbour.
The next morning we were not in a particular hurry because we needed the Old Man of Hoy to dry out after yesterday’s torrential rain. Climbing wet rock is never good; climbing wet sandstone is at best really difficult, at worst suicidal. Plus, with almost 24 hours daylight we could choose the optimum weather conditions to attempt the climb. So, after a full Scottish breakfast we drove the 20 minutes to the grandly-named Houton Ferry Terminal to join the queue of tractors waiting for the ferry to the Island of Hoy. We then drove the deserted single track road to park at Rackwick Bay. We packed our rucksacks and made final checks before heading off up the steep hillside to the top of the cliffs. These are the tallest sea cliffs in the UK at over 1,000ft high. As the path levels out you get your first view of the Old Man because it is higher than the surrounding cliffs; quite a sight.
The weather was utterly beautiful. We scrambled down to the base of the route. There were a couple of climbers ahead of us, and they had left their golden retriever at the foot of the route. This was a good effort on the part of the dog, because the scramble to the foot of the route is not without its ‘moments’.
We geared up, and just as I headed up the first pitch… it started to rain. I couldn’t believe it. I had absolutely no idea where the bad weather had come from. The Old Man is intimidating enough without rain to contend with.
I decided to gamble on it being a shower, and carried on. Mercifully It stopped raining. The second pitch is the crux; an exposed traverse, followed by a steep offwidth crack. 30 years ago. it was given the grade of HVS 5a. After some reappraisal, it is now given an ‘extreme’ grading at E1 5b. The third and fourth pitches are much more straightforward, although the objective danger of being projectile-vomited on by nesting fulmars is very real.
The final pitch is as good a pitch as you will find anywhere in the world. Straight up a right-angle corner, and as you get to the top there is a split in the rock which allows you to see right through the stack and out to sea. Nick led this final pitch.
We did not spend long on the summit, because it was very windy and cold. Plus, once on the summit there is the challenge of getting back down. Three or four abseils are necessary to get off the Old Man, and there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong so prior experience of multiple abseils is essential. It is a good idea to use two 60m ropes as this allows you to reach the ground in three sections, otherwise you’ll need to split the last one with an awkward traversing abseil. The last abseil is very scary because it starts from a plinth which overhangs the beach 59m below. The result is an exposed free-hanging descent, one that lasts in the memory a very long time.
Will I be able to come back in another 30 years’ time? This will depend if both me and the stack are still standing…