Old Man of Hoy

Height: 137m

Location: Orkney, Scotland

The Old Man of Hoy is probably one of the most photographed sea stacks in the UK. It is not the tallest sea stack in the UK (this is out at St Kilda). The Old Man of Hoy is 137m high and only about 30m wide at its base. It is a very imposing rectangular stack which has been carved from layer upon layer of Old Red Sandstone rocks.

The shaping of the stack can be traced back through the centuries through paintings and maps. In 1750, the Old Man was depicted as a headland, but by the 1820′s stormy seas had carved the rock into a stack and arch – two legs gave the Old Man his name. A severe storm however, washed away one of the legs to leave the pillar that remains – for now!

The Old Man of Hoy was first climbed by Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey over a period of three days in 1966.

Ascent

Ascent date: 20th May 2000

Over the weekend of the 20th and 21st May 2000, the Assynt Mountain Rescue Team (AMRT) were having a training exercise over on Hoy in Orkney.

I had travelled over to Orkney on the 19th May as I was taking the team sprinter van and equipment across using scheduled ferries. The rest of the team travelled over by lifeboat from John O’Groats direct to Hoy where I then acted as taxi driver to take them to Rackwick Bay bothy and camping area.

I had sailed past the Old Man of Hoy on the Friday on route to Stromness from Scrabster and this was the first time that I had seen it up close. It was a mighty sea stack and very intimidating.

Whilst the team sprinter van was parked up outside a supermarket in Orkney mainland, a note was left under the windscreen wiper from BBC Radio Orkney asking us to get in touch as they were intrigued as to why an Assynt Mountain Rescue Team vehicle was on Orkney. I got in touch with them and was interviewed about the team’s training exercise on Monday 22nd May in the morning when I took the vehicle back to Orkney mainland.

The Assynt MRT had organised for Mick Tighe, an ex-marine and mountaineering instructor and also the training officer for the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, to come and assist with the training exercise.

On Saturday 20th May, the plan was for as many of the team as possible to climb the Old Man of Hoy then on the Sunday we would train with helicopters, lifeboats and do some ropework on the Old Man of Hoy.

Bruce Maltman and myself had the privilege of climbing in a group of three with Mick Tighe up the Old Man of Hoy. Mick leading with Bruce and I seconding.

I knew before going to the Old Man of Hoy that even the ‘tourist’ or ‘easy’ route up it is a very hard climb. The easiest route up the Old Man of Hoy is graded E1 5b which means Extremely Severe 1. I had undergone a few months of climbing practice before heading out to Orkney and I was more or less able to climb this grade on a top rope at the time. I certainly could not lead climbs of this grade – I’d fall off!

I walked up to the headland overlooking the Old Man of Hoy from Rackwick Bay early in the morning on 20th May. Upon reaching the headland, I finally saw the full extent of the 450ft high Old Man of Hoy and thought “no way” and that it was way out of my comfort zone for attempting.  Those that know Mick Tighe will know that I had no choice, I had been selected to second him, therefore I had to go and get on with it. Absolutely terrified of what was about to take place, I descended the steep route down from the headland toward the crumbling Old Man of Hoy.

At the base of the Old Man of Hoy we roped up and Mick shot up the first pitch. In no time at all he was up at the first stance, was safe, had taken in the ropes and it was now my time to climb. I knew that the first pitch was only about 20m long and at a technical grade of 4b. I was not too worried about this section and I cruised up to join Mick, closely followed by Bruce.

The second pitch is the crux of the Old Man of Hoy and is about 30m in length. The crux is E1 5b and involves a delicate descending traverse, followed by a climb up an offwidth chimney through two overhangs. The holds were all very dirty and I was surprised to see some of the wooden wedges that had been left by Bonnington’s team.

I made the mistake on the second pitch of getting drawn into the relative ‘security’ of the chimney which meant when I got underneath the second overhand it was really problematic to get out from under it and over it. I was later told that I would have found it easier if I had bridged across the chimney and stayed out of it. Somehow, I managed to extract myself from under the overhang and then had to climb up a crack line towards the ledge where Mick was belaying me from. I was exhausted when I reached the ledge. This was the hardest that I had ever climbed.  Bruce later joined me having had his own deliberations with the crux.

With the Old Man of Hoy, climbing teams normally leave a back rope from the top of the first pitch to the top of the second pitch so that they can clip into it and get guided to the ledge as they abseil into free space on the way down. We intentionally did not do this.

Mick gave Bruce and I a short rest whilst he lowered the end of our rope down to other members of the Assynt MRT and they tied on the end of a 150m static rope. We then hauled up the 150m static rope and set it up ready for an abseil straight off the top of the second pitch back to the ground hence avoiding the need to go to the ledge at the top of the first pitch.

About 2 weeks before we went to climb the Old Man of Hoy, according to the log book in the Rackwick Bay bothy, 2 climbers had had an epic as they had abseiled off of the top of the second pitch, over the overhangs, realised that their ropes didn’t reach the ground and had to pendulum themselves into the rock, grab the rock and climb back to the first stance – not recommended practice.

Having now reached the top of the second pitch, I knew that I had climbed the hardest part of the Old Man of Hoy. I just had to physically keep my head together, despite the significant exposure, and climb three more pitches up to the top of the old Man of Hoy.

We reached the summit in time for the lunchtime ferry from Scrabster to Stromness to be sailing past and I remember triumphantly waving to the ferry from the top of the Old Man of Hoy. We had climbed light and fast. I think that it only took us about 4 hours or so to climb the Old Man of Hoy. We had not taken any food or drink with us, so it was time to get back down.

There were other Assynt MRT members climbing up the Old Man of Hoy behind us, so we wanted to get down and out of their way as there is not much room on top.

We abseiled numerous short sections, continually recovering our ropes before transferring onto our pre-installed doubled 150m static rope for the final abseil through free space to reach the ground.

We were told to keep moving at all times as our figure of eights were getting very hot during the abseil and we wanted to minimise the chance of our descenders getting through the ropes like hot knives through butter. I was very glad when I reached the ground and I still recall this as one of my most significant achievements in my battle to have a healthy respect for heights rather than a fear of them.

For an appreciation of what it is like to climb the Old Man of Hoy, see this video made by other climbers a few years later.

Although I have climbed the odd short route harder than the Old Man of Hoy on top rope, I still believe that the Old Man of Hoy has been the hardest, most sustained route that I have ever climbed and am grateful to Mick Tighe for getting me safely up and back down it. I could not have climbed this without someone of his climbing ability 🙂

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