Classic Crags: The Old Man of Hoy


A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to climb the Old Man of Hoy, via the classic route. I wrote an article that was butchered in Gravity magazine as well as made a short video. If any of you read the gravity article you might not have realised they inadvertently cut out half the text from the middle, I also have a topo, video and pictures.

Stacked Up

Years ago I saw an old film about some crazy rock climbers who took it upon themselves to climbing a thin needle of rock reaching into the sky. I captured me for the entire show, watching them move further and further up this slender skyscraper of rock. For years I remembered the outline of this lonely finger of rock set against the backdrop of the see.

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It is over twenty years since I saw that programme on the BBC, I am a climber now and for years I have dreamt of a the Old Man of Hoy, Pictures, stories and films have all added to the mistique of the place. The thing is it has always been too far, would cost too much or the weather would be too bad. It was a pipe dream I suppose, a flight of fancy.

That was until someone pressed me for the routes that I would like to do this year. Not the cragging routes but the wish list to end all wish lists and it just fell out of my mouth, before Right Wall, before Positron, it was almost the first thing I said after the words Cerro Torre, but that is a dream!

A week or two later I was surfing the interweb, something that is a bit of a novelty,as I have only just got broadband at the house, and I came across a article by Chris Mellor, in which he had a selection of files that were essentially a complete guide to sea stack climbing in the UK. So now I had a dream route and the guide to climbing it, all I needed now was the time off and a partner to climb it with.

The problem was that as a freelance instructor my time is money, and I don’t get paid for holidays. So time off that conicides with a friend to climb with is a rare thing indeed, so rare I assume the dream would stay just that. Fortunately the work at the end of june dried up, and I had the time off.

It was only the week before my time off that the thought of scotland crossed my mind again as a possibility for the four days I had off. Fortunately one of the instructors I was working with also thought the idea was a good one, so at 9am Monday morning we decide to head up that evening.

Rapid packing and an understanding boss who let Sam escape early meant we were on the road by 5 o’clock that evening. Now from North Wales the Northern tip of Scotland is a very long way away. It took 15 hours of constant driving to finally arrive at Scrabster the port were the ferry to Orkney Mainalnd departs. We arrived at 3.30am just as the sun was rising, and managed a few hours of sleep, as some workmen drove back and forth in a dumper truck.

We got on the first ferry and headed to Stromness, the ferry takes you right past the Old Man of Hoy, and is an amazing site, set against St John’s head, the third highest sea cliff in the UK. As we steamed pass, the stack just gets bigger and bigger as the excitement of being so close grows.

From stromness we had a quick drive to Houton, where the earliest ferry was leaving for Hoy, It was after one in the afternoon that we arrived on Hoy, and 2pm when the taxi dropped us off in Rackwick Bay. A beautifully secluded sandy bay traped by towering sandstone cliffs that rear right out of the sea turquiose blue waters. This would be my dessert island.

By two thirty I was bored of waiting for tomorrow, to climb the Old Man, the skies had cleared and the crystal blue sea was merging with the sky. I simply had to go, and Sam once the idea was implanted suitably subtly was keen, so we set off. We were at the base of the stack by 3.30, looking up at one of the most intimidating climbs I have ever looked at. 5 long pitches as well as a complex abseil descent meant that the clock was going to be ticking, so there was no time for nerves.


Sam Moore climbing Pitch 1 Old Man of Hoy 

Sam climbed the first pitch which for a Kayaking instructor, was perhaps the most adventurous pitch he has ever lead. With some predictable looseness that was more than avoidable. The next pitch is the crux, everything is hanging on me climbing it quickly and at the same time protecting sam on the descending traverse into the overhanging corner.

As I start the pitch I start to think that Sam may find this a bit intimidating, as I run it out on damp sandy rock so that sam can’t take a nasty pedulum into space. I cruse up an over a small overlap, and wide crack and tell Sam I have done the hard bit and it is not too bad, just as I look up an see the bombay chimney above. A deep slot, capped by a roof, with an offwidth above, I am in my element, but sam? Surely he would perfer to be sea kayaking around it!

The rock was no longer damp and sandy, just sandy. The slopers of the breaks in the sandstone only made the position more tenuous, and looking up the detritus of the first ascent make entincing hand and foot holds, but I am trying to freeclimb it and avoiding them is the hardest part of the route. Although clipping these antique wood wedges as runners makes the need for all the wide cams that are swinging from my harness less important, but still necessary.

As I start to bring sam up I feel for him, a VS climber stepping out on one of the most out their E1 pitches I have ever climbed. Because whilst not being too difficult the climbing takes in some territory, but the breaks despite make poor hand holds, make great footholds so most of the pitch is easily bridged.

Sam arrived at the belay look like he had put a lot into that pitch, but he had climbed it in a reasonable style and good speed. It was as we were changing racks over Sam announces that it was the hardest pitch he has ever climbed, and what a place to do it.

The next three pitches where mainly ledge shuffling, although the biggest risk was falling off as a Fulmar surprised you with a face full of oily puke. I had to stop at one belay that I was intending on by passing as a fulmar got me full in the face. Trying to wipe my face with the sleeves of my T-shirt and spitting out the bilious yellow fliud from my mouth, I had to take a moment to retch, but I have gipped whilst watch the bush tucker trails on I’m a celebrity.

The final pitch would be a classic anywhere, a 90ft plum verticle corner more than reminence of Cenotaph Corner on perfect sandstone. Jugs appear everywhere you need them and then the icing on the cake, half way up you start to see the daylight coming through the stack. If you look hard enough you can make out scotland on the Horizion.


The Author of the Blog Mark Reeves on the Summit of the Old Man

The summit is disapointingly large enough to walk around, but for the first time in a long time I celebrated an ascent in a world cup style, arms in the air shouting. A long standing ambition finally achieved. It was only as I started to turn round and take in the views that I realised that there were people watching from the cliff top.

The time had been flying by and when sam looked at his watch it was 6.30pm. A little later than 24 hours after we had left North Wales we were stood on the summit of the Old Man of Hoy. Now there are 1440 minutes or 86400 seconds in a day, how do you fill your time?

Hoy is achieveable in a weekend from anywhere in the UK, if you have the skills and desire to climb it. The question is whether you want it enough.

Post Script

After Hoy we left for the scottish mainland and made the 5 hour drive to the Old man of Stoer the following day, climbing that stack that evening. Meaning that in a very busy 48 hour period we had climb two classic Scottish Sea Stacks.

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How to Climb the Old Man of Hoy in a day

Getting There

You have several options the most expensive but quickest is air the slowest is by road. It is possible to combine the two.

Driving
Drive to Scrabster and catch the ferry. It is possible to go as a foot passanger and leave the car at the port, as there is a taxi service from the right outside the port in Stromness to get to Houton and then onto Lyness, although over the summer there are ferries from stromness to Moaness on Hoy. It is possible to get a taxi on Hoy to Rackwick bay.

Fly – Drive 

Fly to inverness and hire a car from the airport, and drive the remaining 3-4 hours to Scrabster.

Flying all the way

Fly to inverness with easyjet from London gatwick, Luton, Bristol or Belfast and then onto Orkney. All details of the various options including direct flights from london can be found at www.visitorkney.com. It will be possible to get a taxi to the ferry crossing to get to hoy

Staying There

There are a few options when you reach Rackwick Bay. There is a free Bothy, that has very basic facilities, as well as a hostel which at around £10 a night.

Food and drink

It is best to treat the stay on Hoy as a camping trip as the only shops are at the far end of the island. Although it is possible to get a taxi to the closes pub the Hoy Inn which serves lunch and dinner.

Approach

The aprroach to the Old Man of Hoy could be simpler, from the Hostel and the warning sign, follow the obvious well worn path up the hillside and over the cliffs to the Stack. About 3km or 45 minutes. From the view point, head further along the cliff top towards the impressive St Johns head, the highest cliffs on this island. After about 150 metres you reach a gully, descend the obvious descent path that weaves a divious line down to the base of the stack.

Route Description

The quintisencial sea stack climb has caputred the imagination of British and Foreign climber for decades. Beware of the Fulmars on all but the steep second pitch as they can surprise you! With 60 metres ropes the following pitches can be climbed. Without split the last pitch below the obvious final corner. It would also be a very good idea to take as many large cams as you can, the cracks takes up to a friend 5

1. 70 feet. 4b. A relatively easy pitch up sound, juggy, easy-angled rock. Ascend the shattered pillar rising from the boulder bridge up to a large ledge known as The Gallery.
2. 120 feet. 5b. The big pitch. After downclimbing a short way (there is at times a short rope for the second to safe guard the initial descent from belay) traverse right onto the east face for 30 feet to a big corner crack. Go up this passing through some steep ground by bridging ,jamming and Chimney upwards until a small ledge and belay can be reached on the right. If the going gets too tough the ancient wooden wedges can be used for aid and protection, which reduces the grade to HVS.(Leaving a rope on this pitch tied to the belays at either end is necessary if you do not have 60 metres ropes as it is necessary for the abseil descent.)
3. 80 feet. 4b. Go right and then move back to the left over ledges to regain the crackline. Follow it to another large ledge. Beware of the fulmars from here to the top.
4. 180 feet. 4b. Ascend the wall on the right then go straight up to the bottom of the final corner which is like some Orcadian version of Cenotaph Corner but not nearly so tough. Climb the corner. Towards the top where the stack is split right through a seeming gale can issue from the crack in the corner.

Descent: Two or three abseils down the face up which you have just climbed get you to the top of the big overhanging section – pitch 2. The next abseil involves descending below the overhangs and then swinging back in to a relatively small ledge, that is unless you have 60 metre ropes, in which case you can go from the top of the big pitch to the ground in one very long and out there abseil. Otherwise use the rope you left behind on that pitch (clip it into your harness) and thus pull yourself to the belay ledge. The last one down has the most fun as this guide rope has to be untied from the top belay leading to a real ‘out-in-space’ ab experience. Now abseil to the bottom of the stack.


Sam Moore make the final and exciting 60 metre abseil, from the top of the second pitch, without 60 metre ropes, some complex rope antics are required.

Guided Trips to the Old Man of Hoy

The author is a highly experience Mountaineering instructor and climbing coach. He offers guided trips to the Old Man of Hoy. The ratio he works on is a Maximum of 1 to 2. His rate is £200 a day however in the case of this trip there will be some shared expenses.

However Snowdonia Mountain Guides has a camper van and we can meet you anywhere north of Manchester on the M6 and share a lift up and split the fuel. We will also charge the ferry fees and whilst you can stay in a hostel at rackwick bay there is also a great bothy. We will share catering cost, as mark is not only a great climber but quite a reasonable chef as well.

So the plan would be to drive up and climb the Old Man of Hoy over 5 days and try and get ascents of Yeansby Castle on Orkney Main and The Old Man of Stoer over those days.

For two people this would be around £750 each. To find out more eMail us here.

The Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy
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