Friday, 17 June 2016

The Old Men of Hoy

L to R; Paul Trower.Al Alvarez and Mo Anthoine: Photo G Band
Most of us city dwelling climbers lead split lives; five days a week in the office or factory, occasional weekends and holidays in the hills. Rarely can the two interests be merged; when the chance occurs it must be seized. One such opportunity arose last February 1985. It was the most prestigious oil industry dinner of the year, still some months before the oil price collapse. The UK's 212 million barrels per day of production was earning over £20 per barrel. Even while we ate, royalty and tax revenue was accruing to the Government at £1 million every 44 minutes. The Prime Minister had just delivered a stirring and congratulatory speech. In the Great Room of London's Grosvenor Hotel, eighteen hundred well fed guests unbuttoned their dinner jackets, lit up cigars and recirculated the port and brandy.

Conversation became completely relaxed. My host was the chairman of the company which operates the Paper and Claymore North Sea oil fields and their onshore pipeline and storage terminal at Flotta in the Orkneys. It was a prize-winning plant constructed with great care to minimise its impact on the environment. Learning that I had never yet visited it, he immediately invited me to do so. 'That must be quite close to the Old Man of Hoy', I volunteered. 'I've never been there either'. 'Then you must do them both', he said. And so the idea was born. I recalled a much earlier occasion in the Pen-y-Gwyrd Hotel below Snowdon. It was 1966 and in came the late Doctor Tom Patey, who, in between treating his patients at Ullapool, was famed for seeking out hard new routes on remote Scottish crags. He fanned out a sheaf of large photographs of an incredibly spectacular sandstone sea stack.

It stood like a stubby pencil on a granite plinth, vertical on all sides for 450ft, and separated from the equally sheer line of sea cliffs by a jumble of rocks just clear of the breaking waves. Rusty Baillie, Chris Bonington, and I have just made the first ascent', said Tom; 'there was one really hard pitch’  a third of the way up the East face; a thin traverse to the base of this long vertical crack which Rusty led using several slings and wooden wedges where it overhung: I've come to show the pictures to Joe Brown. What a TV spectacular it would make'. Tom's words were right. Both in 1967 and more recently in 1984 live TV broadcasts of the ascent by several different routes had fascinated and gripped millions of viewers. Climbing standards had also shot up in the intervening period, not only due to sheer fitness and intensive training but helped enormously by the invention and development of modern safety gear: the whole range of 'nuts' and 'Friends', and sticky soles. 

It meant that climbers of my age who had still kept reasonably fit were uniquely still able to lead routes as hard as they were doing in their twenties, even though these fall far short of the more desperate present day routes. It is a rare privilege accorded to our climbing generation which will probably never occur again.

Having accepted my host's generous invitation, I soon began to have misgivings. I could manage to fly up to Flotta but was less sure about the Old Man. After years of festering in the Tropics, I was no longer leading hard routes and would need to assemble a strong party to get me up. I contacted two equally mature friends: Dick Sykes, who had recently introduced me to ski touring and was still rock climbing well; he had celebrated his fiftieth birthday by leading Cenotaph Corner, and Al Alvarez, poet, poker player and author of several books including a recent one `Offshore; the story of North Sea oil. Both were enthusiastic but we needed younger blood. Al suggested Mo Antoine with whom he had climbed in the Dolomites. Mo ran a small company, Snowdon Mouldings, making and selling climbing equipment but had a profitable sideline as a 'safety officer' to the cameramen in stunt films requiring climbing skills.

He was currently involved in the shooting of 'The Highlander' starring Sean Connery. More important he had assisted in the TV programmes of the Old Man, and had done the climb. He suggested we should have at least one more strong climber. I enrolled the youngster of the party, Peter Evans, who I had last seen wandering off to try Suicide Wall alone with a fixed top rope. He was the son of Sir Charles Evans with whom I had climbed Everest and Kangchenjunga 30 years ago. 

It was not until the end of the summer — Friday, September 13th, to be exact — that we could fix a mutually convenient date. The weather then would be less reliable but it would give us veteran pen pushers the summer to improve our fitness and finger strength. Dick and I climbed a few days together on the seacliffs of Cornwall and Pembroke. Al rehearsed his favourite routes at Harrisons Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, and I practised on a rough brick wall at home. Mo returned from filming 'The Mission' in the Argentine. Over the phone he said What if the weather's really poor? We, need a hard man at the sharp end who can get up in the rain, if necessary. With six in the party we can fix the Old Man with one long rope from top to bottom'. He produced his secret weapon, Paul Trower, a plumbing and heating engineer, who like many top climbers had chosen to live in the heart of the Welsh mountains at Llanberis. With a permanent stubble and single earring he added not only strength but a slightly piratical image to our party.

Surprisingly, we all arrived in time at the southside of Heathrow airport on Friday 13th, for the specially chartered flight to Orkney. We were joined by Alex Blake-Milton, Occidental's public affairs manager who was adept at handling unusual assignments with his customary good humour. Expecting some spectacular moments, he had I commissioned a professional I photographer, Chris Mikami, to come along with us. I began to worry that with all our climbing ropes and equipment our increasingly large party would no longer be able to fit into the compact HS-125 executive jet which was to whisk us up to Kirkwall. 

Happy wanderer: Author George Band
It was drizzling on Saturday morning as we boarded the ferry for Hoy. The weather forecast promised sunshine and showers with even a little hail and S.W. winds of 25-30 knots gusting to 40 knots later in the day. We were rather subdued about our chances; but with most of the climb on the East Face we ought to be sheltered from the wind. It's nearly an hour's walk over the moorland from the hamlet of Rackwick towards the Old Man. Halfway there, the summit appears 50ft above the level heather. Only as one teetered at the cliff edge and peered over did the immensity of the 450ft pinnacle appal one. Powerful gusts blew in from the sea and angry waves surged around its foot. We changed into our climbing footwear and waist harnesses and, shouldering one or two ropes each, scrambled warily down the steep and soggy grass slopes and scree, to the base of the pinnacle. Alex, who had already muddied his fine hand-stitched brogues, wisely stopped halfway.

We planned that Paul should lead the climb; Mo going second would then remove surplus gear, Next the three veterans with 167 years between us: Al, myself and Dick: all of us doubly protected on the tricky traverse by rope ahead and behind. Finally, Peter would patiently bring up the rear. The first pitch of 70ft led to a convenient ledge at the top of a buttress on the South East corner. From there one descended a few feet onto the slightly overhanging East Face where an irregular ledge, but an acute absence of handholds, enabled one to traverse gingerly across to the foot of the vertical crack. Paul swarmed up confidently and was soon out of sight over the overhangs, the rest of us silently hoping to make it look as easy but knowing that it would be a lonely struggle. It was my turn to climb up to the ledge at the top of the first pitch, where the wind still buffeted unless one could sit right back in the corner.

On the second pitch Mo had left a sling dangling as an extra foothold but Al didn't need it and crack widened above until one was straddled inside as in a chimney. Above, it was blocked by a roof, but the rope snaked up through a diminishing slit on to the outer wall which overhung. I could hardly believe that was the only way. Fortunately for me, previous parties had left slings or wooden wedges in place here and there and I had no scruples about using them for extra handholds to conserve my strength. Leaning right out on the arms over the void, one had to commit and lever upwards on the right foot to gain an inch wide ledge for the left toe at the extreme point of reach. Comfortingly, the rope eased tight to reassure me after the move. The crack continued up a vertical corner with the natural jointing of the sandstone providing occasional horizontal creases giving rounded handholds and adequate bridging for the feet.There was no point in dallying and I soon thankfully joined Al — my guardian angel — crouched in a niche amid coils of rope. We had climbed the crux. Two more pitches followed at a distinctly easier standard continuing upwards but easing to the right in a depression. The ledges became wider and more frequent but the rock was also more suspect, slippery with sand grains, or coated with a slimy green lichen. Finally a vertical 50ft corner led to the top.

We waited for what seemed an age as the rope eased out foot by foot and then stopped. We shivered to keep warm and watched the passage of the heavy clouds breaking and reforming, infused by shafts of sunlight. With the wind distorting our voices, communication round the corner was difficult and Chris, in between taking photographs from the opposite slope, helped to relay our requests to pull in the rope.

In the back was a crack with daylight filtering through here and there as the summit block almost became split into two fingers.The wind howled through the gaps and made us realise how lucky we had been sheltered on the East face. We were also largely protected from sheets of rain enveloping the mainland cliffs and a splatter of hail which now suddenly surprised us. It made us keen to finish as quickly as possible. We had been slow; there as no question of lingering as a group on the summit. Paul and Mo were already descending past us, abseiling down and busy fixing further doubled ropes below. Al brought me up to just below the summit where he was squeezed in the corner sheltering from the wind.

I climbed the last few feet and the blast hit me as I raised my head above the parapet. It was four minutes to four. I stood bracing myself momentarily on the summit in case Chris was taking pictures from the opposite clifftop but I could only see a dim figure running for shelter. Peter now led Dick up the crack as Al and I prepared to descend. Al was soon out of sight, and at the third abseil I began to feel very lonely. How was I to know that the rope below ended at a convenient ledge? One might end hanging like a spider over space or simply slide accidentally off the end.
To avoid this at the overhanging second pitch it was essential to leave a fixed rope on the way up so that the first person descending could haul himself back in to the cliff at the beginning of the traverse and then tie in the end of the abseil rope for the others. When it was Al's turn to haul himself in he had an anxious moment finding himself slipping precariously upside down out of his harness which had become too loose. Dick and Peter had the tedious task of retrieving and coiling the numerous abseil ropes. Finally Peter was halfway down the last abseil laden with three coils of rope over his shoulders. A sudden extra strong gust of wind blew him sideways and the twanging of the taut abseil rope flipped a loose block of rock from above on to his head. Fortunately his climbing helmet protected him. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he joined us at the bottom.
A couple of hours later, tensions released, we were laughing and joking and downing our first pints at the bar of the Ferry Inn, Stromness. 

Chris Bonington's 80th birthday ascent of TOMOH

George Band: First published in High-May 1987.