I have been up to H0y before and climb classic route on the Old Man of Hoy, the east Face route. Why then would I return? Well, unfortunately my main climbing partners haven’t climbed it. So why not repeat it! On top of this we offered an open invite to all my friends, and I even put a post up on this blog to see if anyone wanted to be guided up this uber classic route.
One man, a great friend Huw wanted to come, he had just finished his job and was taking a month off. Huw’s only problem was that he was not a climb but also to be fair to him dragging around a few extra pounds. When I mentioned to other friends they thought me absolutely mad, and felt that he would never summit it, they didn’t say but there was a tone to there reply, ‘Oh Really!’.
So last week we made the long drive up to Hoy, I had primed huw with photos and video’s, and explained the route and the challenges in detail. His mission was to get up the second crux pitch, after that it was all easy and we were home and dry. Huw had another problem vertigo, yes it sounds even more ridiculous now doesn’t it, but Huw hates exposure.
I know this as he has told me about been frozen almost unable to walk approaching via ferratas in Italy. I had tried to play down the approach, and the whole exprience of climbing this, the tallest, most exposed and one of the most remote sea stacks in the UK. At 137m tall, and four pitches long, it is a full on climbing experience.
As we got on the ferry for the mainland, I knew that the whole team was going to be buzzing. As sighting your goal for the first time puts a very real slant on it. No pictures can really do the Old Man of Hoy justice, and as you pass it look steeper than any image can convey. A formidable opponent is born.
We spent the night in Stromness, and Huw had already dragged us kicking and screaming to the pub. So the next day we missed the first ferry, and went to get on the second, only to be told that we’d had to wait until 2.20pm. An hour later and the ferry company phone me back and ask why we weren’t on the last ferry. ‘Well, because you said we couldn’t get on until 2.20pm’, ‘Oh sorry we meant you couldn’t get back of Hoy until then’.
We eventually arrived at car park in Ratwick Bay at 2.40pm, and threw on packs and made a dash for the Stack. In my head I had a cut off time, a time that would make an attempt even more foolhardy than it already was. that time was 4pm. I hadn’t told anyone yet, but for me to get Huw up there I was expecting that I was going to take at least four hours up and then an hour down plus another hour to get back to the path at the top of the crag, plus an hour for luck
I wanted to be at the path by darkness, although there isn’t much of that on the Orkney Isle in June. But working back from 11pm I came up with a 4pm cut off time. I had to be off the ground leading by 4pm, by 4pm, by 4pm.
This figure rattled through my head as we approached, it was a little after 3 as we reach the headland where you can overlook the Old Man of Hoy in all its splendor. We still had a long and difficult approach along an exposed and scary path. I knew that this was going to be a crux of its own for Huw, so as Llion and Katie forge towards the base, I spotted and encouraged Huw down. I had been prime that I was to know when he had reached his limit when every other word was the F word.
Half way down he was at about 1 in 4 words beginning with F, shortly before the bottom we hit the 1 to 1 ratio, he kept it together with mine and llion’s help. We were at the bottom at 3.40pm. Tick-tock tick-tock.
I rushed to get racked up and tried to hurry Huw along giving him one last chance to back out. He sounded determined, and that’s all I needed to hear. My plan was about to go one of two ways, we were about to pull off and audacious ascent, or it was very shortly going to turn into and epic of well epic proportions. I tried to sound confident as I tied huw into the ropes and shot up the first pitch.
As I left the ground the clock turned to 4pm, we had made my mental cut off, now to make the top! First though Huw had to climb the first pitch, he thankfully found it easy (my second mental cut off was that if he found the first pitch hard he was going down!) and as I tied him to the belay, I got him to sit and look out at where we were going, it was a steep and intimidating place.
As I left the belay, I looked back at Huw, knowing the next hour was going to be a challenge for him and me, ‘you still up for it’, the resounding yes told me all I needed to know, this man was ready for a fight.
Heading up this pitch is fine if you are with a fellow climber you just lace it with gear, with a friend and non-climber it requires greater thought. The initial descending traverse means that you really have to climb a long way with any protection to reduce any pendulum, and essentially leave one rope free of gear for at least 50ft of the pitch, which is about where the crack opens up and eats you.
Turning the lip of the chimney I look down and wonder just how he will fair. Further up and using technique the climbing is OK, I remember my first time here and it felt a lot harder, I wonder how hard Huw would find it?!
At the belay the piece are all in place, I am ready to belay on a very tight rope and Llion and Katie are with Huw now ready to belay him down to the crack. Suddenly it is happening, huw ropes start to come in, and although I am blind to his efforts I can see the progress he is making through the inches of rope that come through the belay plate. As I take in occasional armfuls I shout down bucket loads of encouragement and then I see a hand appear over the roof. ‘Go on Huw!’
In my mind is one thought, if he makes it to the top groove its all over, his only gone and body done it. Then I see his face, he is trying like a man possessed to turn the roof, so I shout where the holds are and he’s then above the roof, exhausted and knackered he takes a few rests but eventually reaches me at the belay.
The rest of the route goes easier, and Huw is enjoying every pitch, he even notices that every pitch is different, the first easy, the second a steep crack the third steep and juggy and the fourth an amazing and steep corner. Then we are there at the top sitting enjoy the top with the puffins, watching the world go by.
Huw hugs me and I hug him back, we text, tweet and facebook as we wait for Llion and Katie who are just behind us, and then make the three long abseils back down. I lose my temper with llion for dropping a rope too early and nearly getting it caught, for which I apologise later, as I was only bothered as it was a rope I had only brought a week ago. He managed to free it.
It was 8pm when we got back to the base. Not bad four of us up and down the stack in four hours. Ahead was the scramble back to the path. Huw was exhausted, although I think we all were, the last food we had was two cheese rolls 8 hours ago. As we got to the car the beers were opened and the celebrations started as we went to the Bothy on the beach.