Friday, 19 February 2010

Stacks to Do

The Old Man of Stoer: R Haszko©

The black dropped with a satisfying clunk into the top right hand pocket and I felt a warm glow of happiness as Joe glowered at me before slapping his pound down on the table. “You were lucky,” he said. “ I was watching that fight near the door and not concentrating.” It’s a good job Joe’s not competitive I thought as I gleefully pocketed the money before going to the bar. We were in the Broadfield pub for our twice – weekly game of snooker on the half-size table set up in a raised corner and looking down on the crowds below. It was a good atmosphere with a lot of young climbers talking about their latest routes or parties and a few of us rather older ones enjoying doing the same thing.

It was April 1996 and my climbing year had been going surprisingly well. A few days earlier I’d been to Wales with Joe and we’d done a winter ascent of Western Gully on the Black Ladders, a hard route at the best of times and in fairly lean condition being so late in the year. Somewhat to my surprise I’d found myself leading the crux pitch – a very steep, snowy slab with no possibility of retreat once committed and no protection, a position which I’d studiously avoided for many years. With Joe encouraging me from his belay (“Ha, ha, you’ll have to do it now, there’s no way back from there!”) I wobbled my way up. By way of a total contrast the next day Joe led on Left Wall, one of the best rock routes in Britain.
“Right, Richard, I bet you a pound we can do all three in a weekend.” John and I looked at Joe with incredulity. The three in question were the classic Scottish sea stacks: Old Man of Hoy, Old Man of Stoer and Am Buachille. Joe had been muttering about doing the Old Man of Hoy for some time and both John and I agreed that it would indeed be a fine thing do. But three in one weekend? Hoy alone was normally a three day trip: ferry from Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney, another ferry to the island of Hoy then a taxi ride across this to the stack. “It would have to be a long weekend I’ll grant you, but it’s definitely possible.” My doubts about Joe’s sanity were only increased by this so I happily took the bet on, completely confident that I would be able to relieve him of some more of the proceeds of his scribblings.

With that we got down to some serious planning. “I think we’d need to get Bruce as well, two ropes of two will be better than one of three and he’s got a company car” Joe offered. Bruce was a man we all knew and liked so we were happy with that. He’d been a wicketkeeper for Nottingham and England as well as a keen climber and now retired from cricket could devote a lot more time to climbing. We’d got to know him through Steve Bancroft who’d hero-worshipped Bruce as a cricketer while at the same time Bruce was hero-worshipping Steve as a climber. Neither of them knew each other until Bruce stopped playing professionally and got in touch with Steve.

The team paddle out to The Old Man of Hoy: R Haszko© 

Three weeks later our team assembled at Joe’s house on a warm, early May evening. Bruce hadn’t needed any persuading to join the adventure and had even volunteered to sort out the ferry timetables for us. “If we take two hour stints each we can drive through the night” John opined. “Excellent plan, John”, Bruce replied. “With just the one small flaw. The insurance only covers me.”  This was rather unfortunate as it was something like 500 miles to the ferry port at Scrabster but Bruce seemed unfazed so we loaded the car and set off. Stopping only for a pint in Lockerbie we got to to within 20 miles of Scrabster when we pulled into a lay by at 3a.m., spread out our sleeping bags and had a couple of hours sleep before the midges roused us for breakfast  (theirs!)

Our planning hadn’t gone as far as organising any food for the trip and we were relying on finding a shop somewhere. Our optimism paid off and, somewhat fortuitously, we came across an early-opening supermarket. Aware that time was short before the ferry departure we rushed around with a couple of trolleys and loaded up with supplies: a throwaway barbecue set, two packets of sausages and four crates of extra strong lager!

It was a beautiful, clear morning and driving down into the tiny port we could make out the distant outline of Hoy on the horizon. Unfortunately our expansive panorama did not include a ship. “Bruce”, I enquired, “What time is our ferry supposed to be?” “Er, seven o’clock. But I think I must have misread the timetable” Bruce muttered. Checking with the port office we found this was indeed the case and there wouldn’t be a ferry for another five hours. Our ill-thought plans were now in tatters. This led to a frank and open exchange of views at some point in which John came up with the idea of hiring a fishing boat to get us across to Hoy. With this extraordinary moment of lateral thinking our hopes rose and we set about trying to realise this concept.

Over breakfast in the Seamans’ Mission (a very fine establishment should you ever find yourself at a loose end in Scrabster) we got a phone number for someone “who might be able to help youse boys.” We rang the number and spoke to a man named Clair who was, justifiably, concerned that we might be a bunch of idiots who hadn’t a clue what we were doing and would end up in serious trouble. Convincing him that he was only partially correct he agreed to meet us at the dock. “It’ll be a hundred pounds,is that alright?” he asked when we met 25 minutes later. “Absolutely” we answered, very pleased that this was half the price of the ferry. “Where can you take us to?” “Och, I’ll drop you at the bottom of it.” We were gobsmacked. It meant the plan might actually be do-able. 

 It was a four hour journey to the Old Man and the sea was glassy smooth. Clair told us something of himself while a friend of his steered the boat. He was a fascinating man and it turned out he’d been a racing driver in his youth and had retired to live up here and take people out fishing. He’d had quite an adventurous life and that was what attracted him to our quest.

The journey passed very pleasantly, except for Bruce who turned out to be a poor sailor and spent the whole time standing in the bow with a face matching the colour of the water. As we neared the Old Man it began to look truly spectacular, towering nearly 400 feet above us. We came around the base in our and slowed to a stop about 75 yards offshore. “I’ll row you across from here” Clair said, throwing a rubber dinghy over the side. We looked at each other with a mixture of excitement and mild anxiety. He took us across two at a time and very soon we were assembled on the boulders at the base of the stack. It was two in the afternoon and we about to climb the Old Man of Hoy. “ I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock “Clair yelled as he rowed back to the Karen, our trusty vessel.
Joe was soon leading the first pitch, steep but easy up an obvious broken pillar to a large ledge. “There’s a dirty great Fulmar here” he shouted down, a note of concern in his voice knowing that Fulmars have an unfortunate habit of emptying the contents of their stomach over intruders. “Talk nicely to it “ John replied helpfully. Bruce followed quickly and John led off to join them on the ledge. When I arrived Bruce had disappeared round the corner onto the landward face. John, Joe and I tried to keep out of the fulmar’s way while Bruce worked his unseen way up the big pitch, occasional muttered comments about sand and overhangs floating down to us. He was soon shouting for Joe to climb and when he’d gone I peered round the corner for a look at what I would have to lead, nearly falling off our shared perch when I saw what awaited me. Joe was working his way across a vertical wall trying to brush sand off the holds. He grinned weakly at me: “You’re not going to like this Richard.”  I quickly suggested to John that a faint black line on the horizon might indicate a fierce storm about to break and we’d better retreat while we still could but he would have none of it. “You could always lead it John, I don’t mind” I volunteered bravely. “No, no. You’ve been climbing a lot more than me lately, just get on with it.” 

 A few long steps down led to the start of a traverse line into the foot of a large, overhanging chimney. The moves across were balancy and very sandy but took me to protection in a crack from where I could step out onto an arete. Looking up I could see Joe grappling with the crux overhang of the pitch. He appeared to have his right foot inserted into his left ear and was describing the moves in a particularly colourful fashion. With increasing trepidation I climbed up to a niche where there were some old slings attached to wooden wedges left over from the first ascent. Aha, I thought, I can belay here and let John enjoy the roof. This suggestion elicited ripostes that I felt did not befit my status of team respected-elder so I had little choice but to continue.

The author on the crux of The Old Man of Hoy: R Haszko©
The roof was as bad as Joe had made it look but it succumbed to a move involving a one-handed mantle on a small hold at the same time as turning through 180 degrees. Bizarre, but effective. Excellent bridging then led to a good stance at the end of a fine but harder than expected pitch. The next two were a bit scrappy but the last was a gem. John cruised up it, a vertical open book on immaculate rock in a superb position. I followed, slightly worried with the insubstantial nature of the stack as I could see right the way through the corner crack to the sea on the other side. Joe and Bruce passed us on their way down, resisting blandishments to wait so we could have a team summit photo. I thought that was a little churlish until I got there and found it to be windy, sloping and rubble-strewn. I grabbed a quick picture and we set off down.

The abseils caused no real problems, Joe and Bruce having left a fixed rope so we could make the diagonal one back to the top of the first pitch. We’d spotted the Karen coming to pick us up right on schedule, which was a relief, but couldn’t help noticing that it was bobbing up and down rather alarmingly on a sea that was no longer smooth but white-capped.

    By seven o’clock we were all back at the base, exactly 24 hours after leaving Sheffield! Huddling together on a boulder Clair approached in the dinghy. He was struggling to maintain position and shouted out to us “I’ll come in on a wave and you’ll have to jump in.” This terrifying prospect was slightly less bad than the thought of being left behind so with a strangled cry of “I’ll go first” I leaped, with all the grace of a thousand startled wildebeest, and landed in a jumbled pile of nuts and ropes. John followed on the next wave and Clair began rowing towards the Karen which was by now rolling so far over most of it’s hull was exposed. My earlier terror rose to new heights.

The dinghy and Karen performed an intricate dance for 10 minutes as the two boats were manoeuvred into a position from which it was possible to approach. “When she rolls towards us grab the rail and pull yourself out” Clair instructed .I stood up and prepared to meet Neptune, now beyond fear and into a weary acceptance that a watery end was inevitable. The Karen rolled toward me. I grabbed the rail and, as she rolled away, I was hauled violently out of the dinghy. Throwing a leg over the rail I landed on the deck, giggling hysterically with relief. Moments later John arrived in much the same state. This seriously character enlarging exercise was repeated until we were all safely aboard and the Karen pointed towards the mainland.

It was a totally different voyage to that of the morning, the small boat pitching and rolling so much I thought we would inevitably be thrown overboard. “ Och no” Clair said as I begged him to make it stop “ It's just a moderate swell. Here, this will help.” He poured us a very large measure of Scotland’s finest export, which certainly did help for a while as I synchronised my rolling with that of the boat. It wasn’t too long, however before I had to go and lie down in the wheelhouse while John and Joe, completely unaffected, played chess. Bruce knelt in the bow, communing with the creatures of the deep until we were back in Scrabster where we immediately sought out the nearest hostelry to celebrate being alive. Sadly our attempt at a celebration was cut short by falling asleep in our beer and suffering the ignominy of asking to be let out of a lock-in. Somehow we managed to put tents up and fell into exhausted sleep.

    The next day dawned fine and we realized the master plan might actually now be attainable. This could cost me a pound I thought as we drove across to the Old Man of Stoer, Bruce entertaining us with tales from his days as wicket keeper for England. We soon found the stack and swung across the Tyrolean Traverse rope already in place. John and I elected to climb the ordinary route, a three pitch VS in the sun while Joe and Bruce went up a shadowed E2. It was a glorious climb on perfect gritstone-like rock above a twinkling sea, the presence of several other climbers giving it a party atmosphere. It was to be all very different in the morning.

The sun had gone, to be replaced by cloud and wind and we were in a rather more sombre mood as we drove from our campsite at Sheigra to seek out Am Buachille. It didn’t take long to locate the descent gully and we were soon on the rock platforms at the bottom. Am Buachille looked formidable - much bigger than it’s 130 feet, covered in guano and blasted by the wind. It stood on a plinth of rock separated from us by a 40 foot wide channel of black, foamy water. We had four hours to get across, climb it, get down and get back across to the mainland before being cut off by the next high tide. This was the time to unleash our secret weapon-a childrens’ rubber boat!

We inflated the boat and tied a rope to it. There was just room for Joe and Bruce to kneel down in it and they began to paddle across. On reaching the plinth Bruce leaped out. Unfortunately he hadn’t timed his leap very well and, instead of landing on a ledge, he finished up clinging on to a barnacle-encrusted boulder, his feet dangling in the water. The reduced weight in the boat now enabled the wind to push it along the channel and towards the open sea, despite Joe’s frantic efforts. John and I were, by now, convulsed with helpless laughter and it was some minutes before we could get a grip on the situation.  With Joe  landed, Bruce retrieved  John and I could make the crossing, but only after wrestling the boat back on to the ground after it became an airborne flailing demon when relieved of it’s passengers.

Joe led off up vertical but juggy rock, quickly at first but soon slowing to a crawl. He seemed to take an age to make some moves to reach a ledge in a corner at the top of the pitch. All attempts at communication were lost in the gale but he eventually made it, still trying to tell us something but what it was we had no idea.Bruce followed and then I set off, soon reaching the point where Joe had had so much trouble. It was immediately obvious why: there was no protection worth the name, it was hard to stay on the holds in the wind and a fall and undoubted injury would have been extremely serious in this very remote location.  There was nothing for it: Throw me a rope” I screamed. “That’s what I was trying to tell you” Joe informed me as I made the very balancy moves onto the ledge and clipped into the several pieces of tat that comprised the apology for a belay.

 Bruce set off on the next pitch.   We tried to squeeze ourselves into the back of the corner  to get some relief from the blasting wind. “This has all the makings of a major epic”  John  shouted into my ear when he arrived to join the huddle. It certainly began to feel that way as to the rope slowed then stopped altogether for a long time. Bruce could not tell us what was happening and we began to get very worried as the climbing was only supposed to be VS and Bruce is a bold leader but after 15 minutes of  occasional jerky movements the rope ran out  more quickly and shortly three tugs indicated he was safe and ready.

It had been a good lead. There had been no worthwhile  protection and once again a leader fall was out of the question. Even following the pitch was a nightmare. The holds went straight up but the rope from Bruce pulled me up and right while the rope to John, blown into a tight arc pulled me down and right.  All the while the gale shrieked and I have rarely been so glad to reach the top of a climb. “VS?’” Bruce yelled. “Not in these bloody conditions it isn’t.”

We’d got to the top. All that remained now was to get off the wretched thing and back across to the mainland. The tide was very obviously coming in fast and we had visions of the abseil rope wrapping itself around the stack, trapping us here. But it was almost as if the gods had tired of playing with us. The ropes didn’t get snagged anywhere, the abseils went smoothly after we’d nearly come to blows arguing over who was going to escape first, and we got back across the channel just as the waves started to crash over the  plinth.

Our celebrations that night were long and liquid and I was very happy indeed to hand Joe his winnings.

Done it! A happy team after bagging Am Buachille:R Haszko©

First published in High. Many thanks to Richard for permission to re-publish the article and for supplying the images.Richard Haszko©