Cherry-Picking Sea Stacks
June 2008/Aug 2009. Report by: Bryan Rynne


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Old Man of Stoer,   Original Route VS 5a ****, 65m,   21 June 2008
Old Man of Hoy,   Original Route E1 5b ***, 135m,   17 August 2009

Old Man of Stoer

Last year Ruth persuaded me that we really ought to do the Old Man of Stoer. This did seem like a good idea - in Scottish Rock Climbs the Original Route has 4 stars, and is described as 'a superb VS'. So, last June we headed off up north to the Naismith Hut in Elphin, and then off to the lighthouse at Stoer Point. From there, an easy walk across moorland brought us to the stack - a spectacular sight from the cliff-top - then a steep, slightly scrambly walk led us down to a large rock platform directly across from the stack.

We were now faced with the main difficulty - the Tyrolean traverse. Neither of us had set up one of these before, but on the basis of successfully constructing what I felt was a remarkably realistic, 2 metre, Tyrolean between some chairs in Ruth's living room in about 5 minutes flat, after half a bottle of wine, I was convinced that we had mastered the technique. Also, we were carrying enough ropes (static, dynamic and tatty), pulleys, rope-men and other accoutrements to open a small climbing shop, so how could we fail? We had decided that Ruth would do the swim and I would adopt a managerial role, i.e. I would stand around and watch (of course, this was because Ruth had a wet-suit and I didn't - nothing to do with me not wanting to get wet, or drown). She did this with what seemed remarkable ease to me, and I was then faced with the task of connecting together all the bits we had brought into a 20 metre Tyrolean that was going to have to get me across. Inspired by not wanting to get wet, or drown, I managed this relatively successfully. Of course, I had complete faith in it, but I did send across a fairly heavy rucksack first to test things out. When that worked, and I was unable to think of any other reasons to procrastinate, I was forced to cross over myself. I did this with a certain amount of trepidation, but I made it unscathed. Now all we had to do was the climb.

There is a lot of information about the climb in various guides and on the internet, so I won't go into it much here. Most guides say that there is one 5a pitch on the route, they just don't agree on which one it is! Personally, I felt that both pitches 1 and 3 were 5a (we did 5 pitches - some guides run our pitches 1 and 2 together so only have 4 in total). Anyway, whatever the grades, the climbing was excellent. Exposed and exciting but not desperate, on good rock and well protected. The 4th pitch, although straightforward, was particularly exciting, being a traverse across an undercut ledge, with a view straight back down to the channel and the Tyrolean rope. All in all, the route thoroughly deserves the 4 stars. We even had good weather, until the final pitch when the wind began rising towards gale force.

Due to the rising gale we didn't hang around long on the summit. From the summit it is possible to abseil straight back down to the starting platform on 60m ropes - you can line yourself up above your Tyrolean rope to figure out where to start (slightly daunting abseil, in mid-air for quite a bit of the way). Having watched a party make a complete hash of getting down on 50m ropes, I would say: don't even think of doing it on 50m ropes.

Unfortunately, we arrived back at the platform to find that the tide had come in and 6 foot waves were sweeping up the channel, driven by the gale force wind, and crashing across the platform - and had swept Ruth's wet suit away! Fortunately, the rest of the gear was still there, so I rapidly sped back across the Tyrolean (getting hit by the waves, so I ended up getting wet after all, but at least I didn't drown), and dragged all the gear back, and then dragged Ruth back through the waves on the end of the rope. Despite the slightly frantic ending, it was a tremendous day out, which we celebrated with a bottle of wine back at the hut at about midnight.

Old Man of Hoy

Having successfully bagged what seemed to be the premier British sea stack I felt confident that I could rest on my laurels (whatever they are) and would not be called upon to go anywhere near the sea, or another sea stack, again. Unfortunately, rather perversely I thought, Ruth interpreted this success as meaning that we should go after the Old Man of Hoy this year. Even when I pointed out that it was a lot further away and a lot harder, she failed to see sense. I even described Tom Patey's account of doing it - it took them 3 days - why did Ruth think we could do any better? These arguments were not treated with the degree of serious consideration I felt they deserved. In fact, I believe it was suggested I was talking nonsense.

So, one Friday evening in mid August we set off on the long march northwards. We arrived in Rackwick hostel on Hoy at 7.00pm on Saturday evening. On Sunday we did the 45 minute walk round to the stack. Unfortunately, about 15 minutes before we got there a heavy drizzle started up which persisted for quite some time and meant that we could not do the climb that day. However, we had allowed ourselves a day's leeway to deal with this eventuality, so we returned to the hostel.

Monday morning dawned very damp, grey and cold - things didn't look promising! However, we headed off back to the stack and sat on the cliff top and ate our lunch. After that, things at least seemed to be drying, so we descended to the foot of the stack (an easier descent than the Old Man of Stoer, and no Tyrolean - a ridge of rubble links the stack to the land). By the time we had geared up, a band of blue sky seemed to be spreading from the north, and although it hadn't reached us we thought we ought to go for it. Pitch 2 is the 5b pitch, so we thought that if we could get past this in the dry we might just be able to keep going if it clagged in again (we were of course climbing in our Scottish summer climbing gear - thermals, fleeces and gore-tex jackets). With this cheerful thought to buoy us up, we got going. Ruth led the initial pleasant, straightforward pitch, and I then struggled up the 2nd pitch, the 5b corner-crack. Despite being covered in fine sand this was an excellent pitch. An initial daunting but straightforward traverse across an undercut ledge, followed by steep bridging up the corner on small rounded holds, with a small and a large roof to surmount. A wide crack runs up the corner, so large friends are useful for protection. We had brought enough large friends with us to open a small climbing shop, so I happily rammed these in left, right and centre, only stopping when I ran out of quick-draws. This was, of course, slightly disconcerting, but on the positive side it meant that I was much less laden down and Ruth had to carry most of the heavy friends up the crux for me. When I emerged from the corner the sky was blue, the sun was out, the birds were singing and it was rapidly turning into a very nice day. We alternated leads thereafter to the top, with Ruth getting the final, excellent, 4c pitch up another bridging corner.

We reached the summit just after 8.00pm, and since it was getting dark soon after 9.00, we again couldn't hang around. This time the descent needs 3 abseils, and again the final one is much easier with 60m ropes. Forget the faffing with back ropes that the guides describe for people with 50m ropes, buy yourself a pair of 60m ropes and get straight to the ground from the top of pitch 2 - you know it makes sense. After 3 slightly frantic abseils (and adding tat in various spots) we ended up back on the ground at 9.45 - in pretty dim light! Despite the slightly frantic ending, it was a tremendous day out, which we celebrated with a bottle of wine back at the hostel at about midnight ... bit of a pattern here.

One could summarise this route as 2 excellent pitches (2 and 5), one fun pitch (1) and 2 poor pitches (3 and 4). However, overall this was a tremendous trip and well worth doing. I will remember this for a lot longer than I would remember 4 days of cragging.

Overall, two excellent expeditions. No other stack in Scottish Rock Climbs seems as good, so there is clearly no need to do any of them, and I am going out to get those laurels before Ruth comes up with another scheme.

For anyone for anyone interested in doing this climb, see here for some notes on various aspects of the journey and the climb.