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Chapter 9: Climbing The Old Man Of Hoy; “Orkney Stories: A specially commissioned collection by Highland Park”

In 1966 the climber Chris Bonington led the first successful climb of the Old Man of Hoy. Tom Patey was in the team and described with typical humour how Orkney's most famous landmark put up more of a resistance that the North Face of the Eiger.


“The Old Man of Hoy?" said our fellow passenger. "You'll see it when we round the headland." We jostled for position, responding to every lurch of the St Ola as that time-honoured vessel pursued her rugged course through the seven conflicting currents that separate Scrabster from Stromness. "And what would you be expecting to find in Hoy?" inquired the informant. "You probably won't believe this," I replied. "We hope to climb the Old Man." He looked at me oddly, although he was too polite to register amusement. He advised us to contact an old man living in an isolated cottage at nearby Rackwick Bay. This man made a practice of descending the cliffs opposite the Old Man to recover driftwood from the shore. "He'll be glad to show you the way down. You'll be able to get a photograph of the Old Man from the bottom, and that is as far as you can go. The Old Man cannot be climbed. Even the British Army couldn't do it. And they used rockets to try to get a rope across the top!" "My two friends over there," I said proudly, "have both climbed the north face of the Eiger." He glanced discreetly at Chris Bonington and Rusty Baillie. "You mean the two gentle- men who are being sick?" I could appreciate his lack of faith. Bonington, his features mottled green, was a shadow of the bearded giant who had figured in so many mountain dramas. Sharing his paroxysms was the swashbuckling adventurer from Rhodesia, Rusty Baillie. The man who had got a lift from Mombasa to Aden on a passing Arab dhow had capitulated in the Pentland Firth. With Rusty were three more sea worthy companions, his wife Pat, their baby, and a dog. We were bound for Ultima Thule with ropes, pitons, cameras, a cradle, and a dog bowl scattered in happy confusion across the deck. Unorthodox, we did not appear a team of professionals. By contrast our goal, the Old Man of Hoy, off the starboard bow, gave every foretoken of belligerence. As if aware of the impending threat to his privacy, he had drawn about his lofty cowl a dark pall of cloud. From the great breakers that dashed against his feet a white plume extended across half a mile of turbulent sea. Objectively the Old Man consists of 450 feet of Orcadian sandstone resting on a granite plinth. The pillar never tapers from the base to the square-cut summit, nor does the maximum diameter ever exceed 100 feet, yet this extraordinary freak of nature must have weathered some of the island's most violent gales. The monolithic pillar did not always have such unique symmetry. An old print depicts the Old Man with a short second leg on the landward side. When this broke away it formed a 50-feet high escarpment of tumbled blocks, connecting the pillar with the mainland of Hoy. It is easily accessible now, even when high seas are running, although improbable local legends tell of days when a daring skipper might sail his small fishing boat through the narrow channel isolating the Old Man from the shore.

Legendary, too, is the chronicle of the first ascent. An elderly but athletic islander was reputed to have scaled the pinnacle as the result of a wager. On regaining terra firma, he discovered he had left his favourite pipe on the summit and had to repeat the climb. It was a refreshing story, and if the theme was an old one, the tail-piece was undoubtedly new. It was less refreshing to our egos to discover that some locals still believed it. The Old Man, a mountain peak in its own right, had long appeared utterly unscalable. Nowhere else around these shores is there a sea stack of such majestic proportions or one whose ascent by the easiest route involves free climbing of extreme technical difficulty, allied to skilled application of the most

modern mechanical aids. Height for height it is considerably more spectacular than the final 450 feet of any Alpine peak of my knowledge. Since I first started climbing in 1948, I've met many climbers interested in the mysterious Old Man. Some considered it impossible to climb, on photographic evidence alone; others like myself concluded that the rock must be rotten. But the word "impossible" has no permanent place in a climber's vocabulary, and the Old Man had been an unfulfilled date in the diary for several years before we arrived. It would be well to admit that Bonington's visit was not wholly recreative. He had signed a contract with a well-known Sunday newspaper to photograph and climb the Old Man of Hoy by a specified dateline. This lent a sense of urgency to the affair and accounted for much of the deadweight we carried to the start of the climb. By noon the following day we had assembled a vast armoury on the isthmus below the pinnacle: ropes, pitons, bongs, karabiners, slings and nuts, the stock in trade of the modern climber, the "Meccano man". In the good old days stalwarts would have attempted the Old Man fortified only with moral courage, as W. H. Murray describes it. We took a more materialistic view, preferring degradation to decimation, a not unreasonable attitude. The first 80 feet, up a rickety pedestal inclined against the main face, were not particularly difficult, and I spent some time picking away rotten rock. It was often hard to decide what should be left and what discarded. It would have been quite easy to have stripped the face entirely of holds.

At the top of the pedestal was a large ledge, the essence of comfort had I not shared it with a young fulmar petrel. When molested these birds have a characteristic and unpleasant trait —they eject a foul-smelling oil from their throats into the face and eyes of any intruder, leaving a pungent odour on skin and clothing which no amount of scrubbing or deodorant can remove. To combat this, we used a long wire to persuade the birds to dis- charge their ammunition before we entered the target area. But they resolutely refused to retaliate until it was profitable for them to do so. Some of the hardier specimens had to be bodily evicted from the nest, a risky procedure when hanging by one hand. We were careful not to harm the young birds, although they often tried our patience. By the time Rusty arrived I was liberally spattered with oil and partly digested offal. "You must hand it to the little basket," he said, sniffing the air appreciatively. "He really hates you." The feathered friend responded to his remarks with a hoarse belch. "Your best bet would be to push on up the face and lead out left," I suggested, glad I wasn't leading. Above us the South Face swelled out with foreboding, overhanging throughout most of the next 200 feet. This ledge marked the undisputed frontier between the realm of free climbing and the unknown hinterland dominated by the "wee iron men". These pitons and bongs dangled neatly from Rusty's waist-belt, jangling rhythmically as he climbed. He had gained a few tentative feet when he gave a hollow curse and hurried back to the ledge. "There's another of those petrels up there," he said, wiping his brow. "I didn't stay to argue, and I'm certainly not going back."

He disappeared round the right-hand corner. The East Face was slightly more overhanging, but facing land and keeping the off-stage director in good spirits. "Do you know, Tom, " he shouted, "that really looks quite dramatic from down here. Will you tell Rusty to hold it for a second? I'm not quite ready for him yet." It was quite dramatic. Rusty descended a few feet, and, relying on rope tension from above, clawed his way across the abyss until he squeezed himself breathlessly into a small niche below a huge overhanging crack. Two hundred feet of air lay between his boot soles and the jagged boulder field at the base of the Old Man. Every hand-hold gave way as he touched it, dropping like an overripe coconut into space. After a few tense moments we heard the welcome ring of a soundly placed piton. A short time later he had secured a traversing rope which could serve as an emergency lifeline. We remained linked by two full-weight nylon ropes, one clipped to Rusty's pegs as a security rope, the other hanging free as further protection. After a few feet the crack widened, and he exchanged the ordinary knife-blade pitons for wide angle pitons, called bongs. We had only a limited supply, since they cost a pound each, so Rusty often had to drop back on his etriers (stirrups) to remove all but the bongs essential to the second man's ascent. Soon he passed out of sight above a roof, and I could only guess at his inch by inch progress from the nervous twitching of the nylon plumbline which soon hung 10 feet away from the rock face. If the worst happened, I would be able to arrest his fall on one of the many pitons to which his rope had been clipped, but if he no longer had the strength to climb up his own rope and make contact with the face I would have to lower him 200 feet to the ground. This would have been difficult, since our rope was only 150 feet long.

How near we came to disaster remains a secret known only to Rusty. He told me afterwards that he reached a point where the angle ceased to be vertical, and, encouraged by a few rounded incuts, he dispensed with 100 per cent protective measures, against his better judgement. Without the restricting fetters he could force the pace for a few feet before inserting a peg upon which to recuperate.

Soon he was firmly wedged in a short hanging chimney below the main roof. A few more inches would have brought good holds within reach. At this crucial moment his sweaty fingers started to slip on the powdery sandstone, and simultaneously one foothold crumpled and fell away. For an instant he hung suspended in space from his shoulders, jammed squarely across the chimney. A desperate contortion enabled him to drive home a life-preserving piton in the remaining wall. He slumped back in his etriers, drained of nervous energy. "That was the nearest I've been to a peel for some time," he announced ruefully as he rejoined me on the launching platform. I nodded sympathetically, not mentioning I had been more preoccupied in lighting up a cigarette than minding his rope. It had never struck me that on a long artificial pitch, Rusty might meet any difficulty that could not be easily solved with a hammer. It was an obvious cue for us to retire and reconsider the verdict. The implications of this narrow escape were not lost on us. Either traditional precepts of rock climbing would have to go overboard or we would. Nothing was certain on this crumbling colossus but the due fate awaiting a carefree climber. When were turned next morning we intended to use pitons to safeguard every move if necessary. Rusty first consolidated the previous day's gains, and then wedged his way backwards out of the inverted chimney until he could tap a trembling piton into a hairline crack above the overhang. Clipping a stirrup into this, he swung clear of the roof, only to find that the continuation of the crack still tilted slightly out- wards for a further 30 feet. The battle, it seemed, was far from won. Chris thought otherwise, for an unexpected burst of cheering roused me from my three-hour reverie. Unfortunately I took the applause to mean that Rusty had completed the pitch, and, taking advantage of the respite, began to unpack my overdue lunch. Frantic signals from the shore recalled me to duty, and I had no chance to satisfy my appetite until mid-afternoon, when Rusty finally overcame the pitch, the hardest on the climb. Bonington's belated arrival from the ground floor roused my cynical displeasure. I suggested graciously that he tie on to the end of my rope in order to supervise the de-pegging operations. "Sorry, old chap. I have to be quite frank about this I'm afraid—the de-pegging is your problem. I will be prussiking up the fixed rope alongside so that I can take thrilling action shots as you climb." Swearing under my breath, I submitted to the insistent demands of Rusty's top rope. Under its reassuring guidance I slid down the fixed rope on a kara- biner fixed to my waist-belt and gained the foot of the crack. My climbing style is ill-suited to a mammoth pegging campaign. I know of no more subtle way of inadvertently strangling to death. The higher one climbs the more complicated becomes the tangle of etriers, ropes, slings, nuts and pitons which are recovered. Eventually exasperation gives way to despair, and the unfortunate second becomes enmeshed in a spider's web of his own making. Bonington's cameras clicked busily. He was thoroughly enjoying his trip, hovering over me like an inquisitive vulture. This pitch held Rusty up six hours, discounting his efforts of the previous day, and I took two additional hours to restore the crack to its pristine savagery, aided morally and materially by the top rope. By the time we were all reunited in a cramped triangular niche at the top of the crack the lengthening shadows cast by the Old Man indicated that we must spend a third day on the climb. This 450-foot sea stack was taking more time than the North Face of the Eiger! Even more ridiculous was the suggestion mooted by Chris and Rusty that we bivouac in this undignified, not to say cramped, situation. We had come a mere 200 vertical feet from the starting point. The Orcadian well-wishers who had come along to satisfy their curiosity had long since lost interest in the snail's paceandgonehome."I'moffdown,"Isaiddecisively."I'llremembertogive you a call in the morning." No man enjoys a bivouac when he knows that home comforts are just around the corner and Chris and Rusty were no exception. After a rapid descent we rigged the doubled rope to await our return in the morning. "Today we must succeed", Bonington announced, "or we will be too late for the Sunday edition." He had become increasingly edgy since the possibility of failure first dawned on his commercial soul. It was my turn to lead, on territory well suited to my peculiar talents. The average angle had relented but the next 50 feet resembled hard-baked mud at best. It was useless trying to insert many pitons in the friable cracks. The few pitons I left behind were carefully re-inserted by Rusty when he fol- lowed me up, since he distrusts any scaffolding he has not erected with his own hands. In three separate pitches we gained 200 feet in little over an hour. The diminished angle of the rock, now nearly vertical, greatly increased our climbing speed, and the colonies of fulmars that hugged even the smallest ledge made this no place to linger. I was surprised to find myself at the foot of the final 80 foot crack, Bonington's allotment, and was tempted to press on. Although from a distance it appeared hostile, the Old Man's headpiece was compact sandstone offering generous holds which could be freely exploited without fear of sudden retribution. While I brought up Chris and Rusty I had an opportunity to appreciate our magnificent situation. The surge of the waves against the base of the Old Man was no more than the distant murmur of the wind. Only the mournful howls of Rusty's faithful hound reminded me of the world we had left behind. Once you climb the first 100 feet, you are no longer consciously aware of any added insecurity. As you climb higher there is a unique sense of physical detachment and height ceases to have any morbid significance. We were higher than St Paul's Cathedral, and by the time we reached the top we would be level with the new Post Office tower, London's highest building. Any lingering doubts about the climb's success were quickly dispelled by Bonington, who tackled the final crack with the energy and skill of a dedicated climber. As he swung gleefully up from the crack the rope dropped cleanly from his waist to the coils at our feet. A single forlorn cheer heralded our arrival at the top. "Where are all the crowds? Where is everybody?" I demanded impetuously. Climbers are brought up to scorn the public gaze, but, like Walter Mitty, every man has his pretended moments of glory. Yesterday the cliff top had been alive with spectators. (Nine,all told. I counted them.) Today not a soul had turned out to witness our triumph. Like the Beatles arriving at an empty London Airport, we were already forgotten heroes. "We could always build a cairn," prompted Chris. "Or light a bonfire," Rusty suggested, with his sense of the spectacular. We carried out both suggestions. The top of the Old Man is a spacious plot of sun-scorched heather. In our enthusiasm the fire got out of hand, and only collective action saved us the inconvenience of a fast abseil down melting nylon. "It wasn't really too bad, after all," Rusty concluded. "Next time, we'll try it without pitons." "In that case, you can count me out," I said. "There won't be a next time." And for once I really meant it.


Written by Tom Patey


The text is an excerpt from "Orkney Stories: A specially commissioned collection by Highland Park" (pp. 47 - 54), published 1995 by Matthew Gloag & Son Limited under the commission of Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky.