Frustration to Elation with The Old Man

I would like to start off by thanking John, Ben and Will for accepting the crazy lady from the beach.

Ever since I can remember The Old Man of Hoy has been on my tick list. It’s one of those routes that is so steeped in history and fame that just having the chance to climb it would satisfy me (Chris Bonnington climbed it in 1967 as part of live televised showing for the BBC). Standing at 137m tall it is not a ‘true’ sea stack, it is still connected to the land via a loose, bouldery causeway of rock. The Old Man is made from beautifully red Old Sandstone, 400 million years worth of sediment piled on top of each other and carved by the elements into what we see today. Although the stack as it is today has only been like it for 250 years. Here’s a drawing of what it looked like in 1817.


The Old Man in 1817.

When I was offered 3 weeks work on Hoy I jumped at the chance to go exploring on the remote Orkney Islands, and to finally have a brilliant excuse to climb The Old Man of Hoy. My plan to climb East Face Route /Original Route (E1 5b) did not evolve so easily though.

After being let down in week 1 by my colleagues wavering confidence, I found a new psyched partner but then again in week 2 my new plan was foiled by the first 3 days of bad weather in a fortnight. I had given up hope that in my 3 weeks I would ever get to set foot on the Old Man. I decided that soloing the first easy pitch and abseiling off was my best way to achieve some kind of success.

Luckily on day 17 of 20 I spied some climbers coming off the ferry at Moaness, while saying goodbye to my group on Friday evening. With an even greater stroke of luck saw them eating dinner on Rackwick beach after a walk to lock up some centre canoes. This was my chance for ticking a route that had been on my list of ‘must do’s’ for a decade. Stepping way out of comfort zone I approached the 3 chaps who were chowing down on steak baguette and asked to join them on their Old Man mission the next day.

Saturday morning came around at 10am I met with John, Ben and Will and stomped over the hill to the Old Man. We climbed as a 4 with 3 ropes, a massive rack and an extra rope was carried in case we wanted to split into pairs later on. After a quick rack up and snack John lead off on the first pitch. The first pitch was an easy amble up jugs and ledges to a wonderful alcove easily big enough for 4, nowhere near as hard as the 4b grade suggests. Pitch 2 holds the 5b crux of the entire route. After making a sandy and exposed down climb and traverse you have to climb up past roof number 1, no real problems there. The 2nd roof however proved somewhat more challenging for me. After ignoring advice to bridge across near the outside I took the more comforting option and crawled as deep into the chimney as possible, which then led to much swearing and contortion as I wriggled back out and over the second overhang. Pitch 3 is fondly known as ‘the fulmar pitch’ and although one vicious fulmar was encountered I managed to escape with just dry heaves, the chaps before me go a soaking in oily fish puke. At pitch 4 we split into the teams, I lead up after John…this was the real fulmar pitch. After deciding to climb off route to miss a particularly nasty bird I carried on leading up on fairly shite gear for 4b. I pulled over the next ledge to only duck straight back down again, 3 fulmars angered by our previous 2 climbers were sat on the ledge at head height. After planning my moves and speeding past them I managed to escape again, the chaps…not so much. Ben managed to get a wet willy from a fulmar, with vomit in his ear and hood he pulled into the final belay. Pitch 5 is a glorious fulmar free corner leading to the top!

After spending nearly an hour basking in the sunshine on the summit we made the 3 abseils back to the floor. The first is simple, but long. The second is short and gets you to the top of the crux pitch and the 3rd is a fully free hanging wonder as you’re spun around on the rope by the wind.

A few hints and tips if you’re thinking of climbing it:

  • Wear clothes you don’t mind getting soaked in stinky fulmar vomit. I was careful, but 75% of our party got a soaking.
  • Take a camera, you’re going to want memento’s of being on the top, it’s pretty awesome up there. Also take loads of layers. The route is in the shade and with the wind that is synonymous with Hoy it can get mighty chilly, even on a sunny summers day I was wearing 4 or 5 layers!
  • Bring really big gear…up to size 5 Camalots and the biggest Hexes you can get your hands on. They’ll come in handy on the crux, even if it is just to swing at the fulmars when they vom in your ear.
  • You can climb and abseil off it easily on 2 X 60m ropes, without having to faff about leaving a trailing rope on the traversing Pitch 2, but it will be 3 abseils if you’re sensible. Abseil 1 is from the summit to either the mid-point or the start of Pitch 3. Abseil 2 is from whichever point you stopped at to the end of Picth 2 (above the crux). The 3rd abseil is free hanging all the way back down to the boulder beach, which leaves a short scramble back up to the base of the route.

Photo : Ben Wolstenholme

The Old Man lived up to its reputation, it’s a fantastic route even with the sand and fulmar vomit, in fact it only adds to the route. Having gone from anger and frustration at being let down twice and realising that I wasn’t going to get to try climbing the Old Man, I was elated to make it to the top. All thanks to going out of my comfort zone and the kindness of 3 strangers.


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