Old men on the Old Man of Hoy

by Graham Dolman

(Original East Face Route E1 5b, 147m Andy (Birthday boy) Buckley, Graham Dolman, Charles Moreton.)

First climbed in 1966, with repeat ascents watched by over 15 million viewers in 1967, the Old Man of Hoy must be one of the most iconic pieces of rock in the UK. This is a brief account of our ascent this year via the original east face route (with 5 free ‘top tips’ as well).

After a day and a bit and 650 miles of driving we arrived at Scrabster only to be very nearly defeated at our first hurdle.

Top Tip #1: You will need photo ID to get a ferry ticket to Orkney.

Luckily, I found my work pass in the glove box which seemed to be acceptable so we packed bags and set off as foot passengers to Stromness to be met by Andy (who had flown up with his family). Next morning it was over to Hoy on the foot ferry with enough gear to siege the Eiger, the local ‘man in a van’ taxi ride to Rackwick bay and a leisurely hour stroll to the cliff overlooking the stack. The weather was holding dry but a strong, cold easterly wind was blowing (“climbers got benighted with their ropes stuck climbing in wind like this last month”, we were informed by the driver). At least the wind kept the notorious dive bombing Skuars grounded. Down the steep grassy slopes we went to survey the project. It was big. And steep. The tattered remains of old ropes streaming out from the rock bearing witness to past epics.

In fact, the rock is pretty sound and climbing is largely unrefined and straightforward up blocky corners and ledges for the most part. There is only one tricky section – pitch 2 – and Charles led it. At 5b it is by far the most technical pitch on the climb. It is also mainly out of sight of the belayer with a wet and muddy traverse at the bottom to get into the hidden crack system on the east face. One long leader fall later – neither seen nor heard by Andy or I – we just about made out the calls of “take in” above the wind as Charles resumed battle with the slime. Second time round he made it safely to the belay. Andy followed. What seemed like an age later it was my turn. The traverse on sloping, wet and muddy footholds with the prospect of a huge pendulum on a single thin rope made the whole prospect suddenly seem a lot more serious and it was a huge relief to reach the relative haven of the overhanging crack.

Top Tip #2: Do not carry a rucksack on this climb.

Stuck ! The overhanging chimney was just too restricting to get me and the bag into position to pull out over the crux bulge. After a couple of aborted attempts I decided that enough faff was enough and surreptitiously hauled on the much used tatty in situ sling and up to the belay. An impressive lead by Charles in those conditions in high wind and damp rock. I had the easiest pitch now so time to relax and get into the swing.

Top Tip #3: Know your enemy !

Fulmars – the occupants of the large flat ledges protect their territory by directing balls of vomit straight at your eyes. Luckily these were chicks with nearly empty and I ducked just in time. Charles was not so lucky and ended up with a fishy jacket for the rest of our stay. Apart from the Fulmars pitches 3 and 4 are largely without interest. Pitch 5 is the best quality climbing with the added spice of being able to see right through the corner crack to daylight in two totally different directions. The top, when it arrives, is big and flat and devoid of grass nowadays. It also now appears to be devoid of a summit book. Never mind, Andy had achieved his ambition to climb the Old Man by the age of 50 – in fact he was 50 on that day.

Top Tip #4: Use 60m ropes and be careful.

The only way off is to abseil in 3 pitches from the huge balls of old tat that festoon the stances. In high winds, lobbing the ropes down would have been a recipe for disaster so we had to carefully feed the rope down as we went. The bottom pitch is exactly 60m (apparently) with 45m of free hang. To test the rope length we tied off some heavy cams and lowered away. They blew 45degrees out to sea in a gentle arc. That meant we needed a seriously heavy weight on the rope – me ! 60m ropes turned out to be just long enough. With shorter ropes one has to back rope the traverse at the start of pitch 2 which looked as though it could be a real pain to manage.

Top Tip #5: Plan for a night on Hoy.

The sun was setting as we packed up 3 hours after the last ferry had left for the metropolis of Stromness. There is a bothie at Rackwick which was largely occupied by a party of Germans so we had the concrete floor to look forward to. Our foresight (and Eiger sized packs) meant we had sleeping bags with us and one bottle of beer but no stove, mats or much food. Still, after a memorable day like that a hungry night sleeping on flaked out climbing ropes seemed like a small price to pay.

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