Booking the ferry for the Hoy trip what’s your reg no, read Darryls text; Bugger had forgot all about that. I was midway through my work season in France and sleep and reasoning were in short supply. I’m sure I volunteered myself on the basis of having a car large enough for the mountains of gear needed for the trip and not for my extensive knowledge of trad which consisted of 3 days at Swanage.
All that way for one climb 5 days, 1600miles, 4 ferry journeys, a fair chunk of cash, is it really worth it.
As I peered out of the tent at around 2am the clouds had partly cleared and I hoped the northern lights would be in full flow, as the next two days had a large solar flare festooning the poles with magnetic particles. It was still light and at first I thought I had slept in till dawn, double checking the time it still read 2am, guess it doesn’t get dark at midsummer in Thurso. During most of the trip I wasn’t really sure if was midnight, late afternoon or morning they all
looked the same.
Dick, Naomi, Daryl and I boarded the fine north-link ferry Mv Hamnavoe and slipped into the calm north sea (a bit of a rarity by all accounts) shame we had breakfast as the Scottish £10 all you can eat breakfast looked very alluring.
The first sight of the old man and the towering cliffs of St Johns head is pretty special, the water falls cascading off the sides and wildness lent a Jurassic feel to the island, the teetering tower looking fragile from a distance, a small blue dot near the base must be a climber, there’s a slight quickening of the heart as reality taps you on the shoulder.
Rackwick Bay once a collection of old and abandoned crofts a couple of hardy farmers and the Bothy with its camping ground. Well almost unchanged since Dicks last trip apart from the crofts being turned into swanky holiday homes and a few miles of fencing, camp set, a quick dip in the sea with the local seal (and I mean quick) and we hiked the path to peruse the old man. Bumping into the climbers on their way back we inquired into their experience, sheepishly he mentioned something about vertigo and abseiling off after the second pitch, this conversation was not really boosting my confidence. Another little heart skip as it grew into view all 140m of leaning sandstone “cor looks pretty big close up” was the general consensus.
7.30am Thursday 25th of June good weather and we set off for the climb, a bit of a slog with the gear and the scramble down was pretty ropey, with large sods giving way threatening to tip you into the next fulmars nest. Think we all tried not to keep looking at the impending climb; just one spicy pitch and the rest is simple, was my mantra.
We reached the base and set up. I decided a while back that if I was making this rather large effort climb this stack then seconding the thing wasn’t really an option, and for once I actually studied the route and even watched some vids old and new from Bonnington to Catherines solo, especially of the crux on pitch 2, and some good advice from the previous days climber this gave me the much needed boost to get on with the climb and as Dick was making his 200th accent then I was sure he would be happy for me to do some leading. As soon as I threw my first bit of gear on the ledgey first pitch, the doubts left and unlike the heart stopping moments at boulder ruckle, I felt pretty good on the whole climb, Dicks idea to split the 2nd pitch and belay from the chimney base was sound as there would be less drag from the traverse and make the crux a little easier. The traverse was very sandy and so was the first few feet of the chimney, I was hoping this was not the case of the whole pitch and thankfully it cleared for some much more positive rock. There was plenty of old tat and gear and wooden chocks some of which disintegrated on closer inspection. Just beneath the crux one of my ropes got jammed. Brilliant this was not the best scenario and turns out it was a rope tangle which Dick was trying to sort while I wrenched the rope at full throttle, it released and I took a breather with a large shoulder and arm jam, looked up at the dark recess of the chimney, two firmly wedged cams beckoned like sirens and I eased myself up to them. Major mistake and something I had been warned about and planned not to do, getting wedged up inside the comfort of the chimney this meant a bridge with no handholds to get back around the overhang and out onto the face, I looked for the black foot marks of yesterdays effort and eased my body a few inches at a time and after a few inelegant shunts planted my feet in the slots and swung onto the face the pitch didn’t let up the holds were small and the climbing steep, I decided to climb through and dragged myself onto the precarious belay point with a big smile, the large array of tat meant a quick clip in and set up for me to belay Dick. What a lovely day I mused to myself as I stared down to the turquoise sea and the bays resident seal , “ hello Dick I’m safe” no reply , fantastic time for the radio to go down, there was a few minutes of very loud hollering to which an eventual reply was heard tho pretty faint in the wind, I could only guess when he would start climbing luckily I had decided to avail myself of an autolocking belay device the DMM pivot guide plate , brilliant little piece of kit which meant I could belay him off the anchor and not take if he was in strife, much safer and more comfortable option. He rounded the final few feet much as I did with plenty of colour in his cheeks and we swung the lead and carried on the climb much more relaxed after the spicy section was done.
The radios crackled back into life and at the top of the third as we all had the same radio frequency we could here the Drama unfolding of Daryl and Naomi below with their own little battle on the crux. The final pitch was here Dick had the inevitable fulmar spew and the top beckoned, probably the best pitch of the climb, the stack split into its two sections. The sea came into view and the breeze coursed its way through. And there I was on top on my todd watching the razorbills and puffins ferry fish to their young with a rare bit of Scottish sun on my face. It felt pretty good, like a hard earned achievement type of good. Dick appeared and we waited for Daryl and Naomi the weather turned and the wind started howling, Dick tried to give some route advice over the poor radio connection which led to some off piste climbing for Daryl but finally they made it and after a quick implementation of the selfie stick which Naomi had dragged up, we started our decent down, with the culmination of four of us on the small belay ledge at the top of pitch two and Dick still not 100% on getting to the ground with 60m ropes without the using the handrail rope tho the other climbers assured us this was possible, Dicks final advice to Naomi on the free hanging 55m abseil was try not to stop as the belay device can get hot and melt through the rope. We all descended safely and finally returned to camp pretty beaten, my respect goes out to both Dick whose resilience is outstanding and Naomi who was recuperating from bronchitis and employed some classic British backbone to complete the day which Daryl and I found tough being fairly fit.
Orkney and Hoy are wonderful places the weather is rarely kind, but the place always looks magnificent, tho we were blessed with only one day of major rain, Rackwick bay is a beautiful camping spot and a great bothy with a free head massage from the resident rat if your lucky like Daryl. The place has plenty of history from neolithic stone circles to scarpa flow and its sunken naval ships. Stromness is pretty much the St Ives of Scotland and from the ferry there is wildlife abound from killer whales to dolphins and seals if your lucky, more then just the climb a great experience.