Old Man of Hoy - 137m
via. Original Route (E1 5b)

Thursday 21st July 2017

Weather/Conditions: Brilliant weather with light winds and sun after an overcast start. Stunning all day, especially into the evening.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 39.6km / 730m
Accompanying: Dave

A trip to Orkney to climb the Old Man of Hoy took root many months earlier. Dave and I realised that if we were ever going to climb it, we'd better book ferries and take the risk of a weather wash-out. It would likely never happen if we didn't commit. So we booked ferries, and consequently had a long period through the spring to work toward it. In retrospect, booking ferries early was entirely the correct choice.

We booked four days on Orkney itself plus two days for travelling on either side. The first day we drove from Glasgow to the north coast, and took the ferry under heavy grey skies. We passed the west coast of Hoy to see cloud scraping the summit of the Old Man. St. John's Head was lost in mist, and it was raining. The forecast for the following day looked reasonable, yet it had been so rubbish prior to that. To go the following day felt like taking a chance; we thought about delaying too. That night, debating what to do, we came to the rationale that if we didn't go, it may transpire we blew our one chance. We decided to make the effort, even if it meant the climb was wet.

The morning of the 23rd was overcast when we left Stenness on bikes and headed for the Hoy passenger ferry. This ferry would take us to the north-east of the island, and we shared it with another party of climbers who were also heading for the Old Man of Hoy. We'd have company today.

Across Hoy

The overcast morning cleared to dapples of sunshine as we got off the boat and began cycling across the island. Hoy is a funny place and totally different to the rest of Orkney. While Orkney feels rather 'un-Highland' on the whole (well it isn't after all), Hoy itself has reflections of the Highland glens. The light was low and piercing as sun broke out, and despite being midsummer it was a desolate light of sorts, certainly autumnal.

We left the bikes at Rackwick and continued on foot to the Old Man. The other folk from the ferry had taken a taxi across the island so were consequentially a good bit ahead of us. In the increasing sun, we rounded the summit of the moor and the top of the stack appeared ahead, just sticking over the top of the land. And to think we'd be there soon! We'd been waiting long enough...

A short while later we were standing at the rim. The Old Man was drenched in sunlight, and also looked entirely dry. In spite of the previous day's rain, our prosecpts were looking very good for a dry ascent! The other teams were just ahead of us, one had mentioned the Original Route, the other were heading off to climb A Few Dollars More (E3) on the north face of the Old Man.

When I first came to Orkney it was as a boy with the family, in my early to mid teenage years. I'd already walked out to the Old Man, and always recall looking around for a way down to the beach. I obviously failed entirely to see the long grassy slope on the north flank of the promontory, as well as the break in the cliffs. It was not difficult to find, and it was obvious once we were on it. But a little knowledge of the terrain goes a long way. A stony gully gave way to grassy slopes which were stil wet from the rain. You could perhaps say it was the most sketchy moment of the day, but I felt pretty used to this terrain from the hills. Ahead, the Old Man loomed ever larger; it's a phenomenal chunk of rock and all the features of the Original Route opened out from this perspective.


At the foot of the stack we geared up alongside the other team, and they graciously offered to allow us to go first. Well, can't refuse that offer! So Dave led off on pitch one, finding an easy pitch of sound sandstone.

I took pitch two, which is the crux of the route. In contrast to the rest of the route, this pitch traverses down and along to join a crack system which breaks out in roofs, overhangs, and is liberally covered in loose sand that can't be washed off. It was the crux in every way, really.

I headed off; the low traverse was easy, then the first roof was fine as well, with positive holds on it's right wall. The upper roof and real crux was above, which I started by standing bridged in the 'coffin' chimney slot; There is a pile of protection here, and you can pause with your back against one wall and feet on the other. So I got some photos for the novelty. But the chimney must be quit and you head out into the corner above which very quickly had arms screaming and 'Elvis-legging'. A friend, Gordon, had given me a large cam to use here, but unfortauntely I'd used it too soon and was short on protection for the final metres. Luckily there was a massive cam jammed in situ further up, so I clipped that, traversed onto the little arete on the right, and followed ledges to the belay stance. It had been a fairly draining pitch.

Dave followed up with the rucksack, something I didn't envy so much, and with the sun beating down he emerged covered in sweat. Well, at least the rest should be a walk in the park compared to this.

Dave took pitch three and I took pitch four. These pitches are similar to one another following relatively easy ground. This is somewhat forgiving as the location is phenomenal! The rock becomes easier angled, more brittle, dirty, and the fulmars take residence. I ended up changing route a couple times to avoid their vomit.

Then nearly at the summit, Dave took pitch five, the corner crack which folk write up as being sensational, though I thought it was a little enclosed and quite easy. For certain, the rock quality is fantastic, and with little doubt the best on the whole route.

I climbed the final metres up to Dave quite amazed that we'd just done it. All that anticipation; gone, just like that.

We didn't hurry on the summit. We saw the other teams to the top, took photos and ate lunch. Puffins and razorbills abounded, folk milled about on the headland opposite. The summit of the stack is divided into two squares, with only their corners meeting. It makes an exposed crossing to the highest point, and seems that the eastern block is subsiding. Who knows, maybe it'll collapse some time in the future, again altering the appearanace of the Old Man?

The top abseil anchor is actually a couple of metres down the great corner, so you must down climb into it. Dave did this first, sorted the rope, then abseiled to the top belay stance. The rest of us did the same, then with four at the top belay, we pulled the rope and threaded the next anchor to take us to the top of pitch two. Dick and co. went first, they would use their ropes to abseil to the ground, thus giving an almost continuous line of abseil line from summit to sea.

In retrospect, I think abseiling pitches 3 and 4 together was a bit of a mistake as the rope jammed high up and left us limited opportunity to work with it. Luckily we still had the one team above us who freed our rope. Next time we'll take it in smaller chunks. Once on the belay at the top of pitch two, the ropes to the ground were in place. All we had to do was clip in and go!

This is a mega abseil; the architecture of pitch two is better seen from here than it is on the pitch itself. You appreciate it is all interlocking walls and roofs. Shortly after, we both touched down and back to terra firma.

I knew the Old Man was a stunning stack beforehand. Having climbed it, and in spite of all the old fixed gear, it's grandeur has only improved in my mind. Dave and I packed our bags and slogged back up the grass slope on the other side. We took two minutes at the promontory, got someone to snap a picture of us and then we left, high tailing it back to the bikes.

Warm light of afternoon bathed the hills beneath a great deep blue sky. The hills of the Northern Highlands were on the horizon, all quite inviting. From home, you think places like Hoy are remote, or out-there. But they aren't. At that moment, Hoy felt as good as anywhere on the planet.

We picked up the bikes, and pedalled hard to the east coast of Hoy. We had time, and stopped for a drink or two in the sun before boarding the ferry again.

Back in Stromness we didn't hurry home, getting chips, chaining the bikes up then taking in the atmosphere of a festival. I was pretty knacked on the cycle back to Stenness though; by then it had been a long day.

360° Panorama

Old Man of Hoy
Written: 2017 April-June