Hard Hoy Trad – how many new E7s can you put up in a day?

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Although the morning dawns clear and bright, the Orange wall is in the shade and damp from overnight wave-spray. It’s not ideal, and our schedule is now extremely tight. Tomorrow we have to be in, variously, Sheffield, North Wales and London, and at the moment we’re in a remote corner of Hoy, two ferries from mainland John O Groats, and at least ten hours of driving from where we all need to be.  If we’re to make it back home on time, Calum and Tom both need to get the route first time and we need to be on the 3pm ferry back to Orkney. Climb a new E7, shoot photos and video, drive the length of Hoy on bumpy roads? Tight is an understatement.

The boys abseil down and warm up with a quick top-rope ascent, drying the holds with liberal quantities of chalk. I then abseil into the intimidating void and look down at the lurid orange rock with its tenuous line of white crimps and realize that this line is truly inspirational. Shooting straight up the middle of the wall, it’s uncompromising, hard and direct.

First off Calum scoots up and I get a series of images of the whites of his eyes, his gaze concentrated on the small, technical sequence of holds ahead. But he needn’t look concerned since his climbing is fast and confident, and he makes the well run out crux look as if it’s a gentle walk in some suburban park. With no whoop of joy and no scream of success, he calmly clips the belay and strips the pitch for Tom while I jumar back up the ropes and re-position myself.

Tom’s style is very different. His small green figure stands out against the orange wall as he climbs slowly, mindfully and steadily, looking completely self assured. His climbing states that even here on a remote and adventurous Orkney cliff, there’s just no need for drama.

Unfortunately, all this terribly-in-control-E7-climbing takes longer than expected, so we find ourselves running back across the hillside in the bright sunshine, sweating wildly and struggling under heavy packs. It’s a close call but we just about make the ferry, then cruise onto  the second ferry to the mainland. Blimey, Hoy is remote. Amidst all the seagulls and puffins, the crashing waves and howling wind, I’ve kind of forgotten we are at the far end of Britain. It was beginning to feel familiar.

Back on the mainland, it’s only 8.30pm and there are a few hours of light left, so Calum decides on another attempt at the line he tried en route to the ferry. It’s horrible to watch this since the crux is protected by two sky hooks held down with a spare rope to a rucksack on the ground – effectively making it is a solo – but by 10pm there’s a second bold E7 to add to the day’s tally. It’s not every day that you get this much hard, sensational new routing.

Finally, it’s time to leave this far north adventure wonderland. It’s a crazy long drive back down, but we’re all buzzing with adrenaline and the self satisfied glow that comes from pulling off a great trip in the face of a poor forecast. It’s been brilliant, and huge thanks are due to Tom, Calum and Emma for being such a grand crew to get remote with.

Thanks guys – enjoy your onward adventures.

 

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A late night with the Old Man

ImageWe may be late onto Hoy, but the endless daylight means we head straight over and start on the Old Man… at 3pm. We opt for Fist Full of Dollars, a spectacular E5 on the south east arête of the stack, and the climbing proves both sandy, steep and extraordinarily exposed. It’s an awesome place to be hanging, empty space on most sides and the long drop to the Atlantic filled by spray from the exploding waves.

Emma Twyford, who’s helping me with the rigging, leads a sensational crux pitch steadily, slowly and carefully. The rock on the Old Man is not so much sandstone as sandy stone, where bits break off unexpectedly, each hold has to be brushed clean, and the protection looks unreliable. I second it, shooting back on Tom who looks steady if not entirely enamored with this adventure. He has to hold on for a long time while I take pictures, and I get him to reverse key moves for the camera, but he’s quite happy and fit enough to be going back and forth. 

We end up descending the Old Man at probably around 10.30pm, although no-one’s checking because we’re on Orkney time and that means everything’s governed by darkness. Which is handy, because our ropes get stuck on the final spectacular abseil at 11.30pm, leaving Emma and I to re-climb the first two pitches of the classic route to free them. It all means that dinner doesn’t get eaten until well gone midnight, and bed happens at 1.30pm. Yet there’s still enough light to walk by.

Next morning the sun shines and we lie in, but the wind tears at the tents and rocks the van. Our objective is Rora Head, a headland just south of the Old Man where the incredible Mucklehouse Wall rises from the sea in an 80m face of compact, overhanging sandstone. Spectacular as it’s routes are, Tom and Callum shun the Mucklehouse and abseil in to inspect a new line on the wall opposite. It’ll take them hours, so Emma and I abseil in for a quick trip up the Roaring Forties, a spectacular E3 on the left arête of the Mucklehouse wall. As we pull our ropes, though, it begins to rain, yet we’re already committed. The wall looms over us looking outrageously steep, sandy and intimidating, and I realize this route was a daft, tenuous idea. Now we’ll probably need rescuing.

The rain doesn’t much affect the friction of the jamming cracks, although the rock is weakened by the dampness and the occasional chunk comes off beneath our feet. It makes the climbing sensationally engaging, and the exposure, the waves thundering in from the Atlantic and the strange, watery storm-light give everything a serious air. I clip into a hanging belay above the void and watch as fast-scudding puffins zip by.

We reach the top at the same time as Tom and Callum, and roughly the same time as another squall comes barreling in. The hour is much later than anticipated, so we head back down for a night in the bothy on the beach. Their project, which they’re both raving about, will have to wait for tomorrow. But it looks so wild that none of us really want to wait…

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Orkney – England’s furthest point north

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I know Orkney is a long way north, but not this far. We wake up south of Glasgow and spend the whole day driving, and driving, and then driving some more. The Cairngorms pass to our right beneath a cap of scudding cloud, Inverness rewards us with a hasty shopping spree to prepare for the week of wilderness ahead, and then the road continues. Further and further, ever further north, past smaller and smaller settlements and houses, and soon we’re near the most northerly point in this nation of ours. But before we catch the evening ferry to Orkney we snatch a few routes at one of the less frequented crags in Britain – Mid Clyth.

We’ve only got a couple of hours but it’s enough for Callum to whizz up a bold and classic E5, Tom to pocket the only thing resembling an offwidth on the crag – even if it is merely E2 – and for Callum to try a stunning looking new line. With longer he may have made it, but an onsight, first ascent of hard E7 is quite an ask, and with only 40 minutes before we leave for the ferry he ends up down climbing from the rickety skyhook crux. In the end we make it to John O’ Groats for the obligatory end-of-the-world snaps, then roll onto the ferry to whatever it is that lies beyond the end of the world.

There’s something about ferries that compound the sense of adventure, and on arrival in St Margret’s Hope I remember to put my watch forward by an hour, only to then remember we’re still in Britain. Leaving the ferry I double check which side of the road I need to be on, then set off across a landscape that is bleak, flat and devoid of trees. It’s Viking country, a harsh land where life looks hard and tenuous, and that’s in summer. There are cows and meadowgrass struggling in the breeze, and the architecture is that depressing, faded pebbledash so characteristic of the Highlands. If pebbledash can fade, that is. 

This whole island feels like it’s hunkered down against the elements, a kind of survivalist place governed by the wind and the cold and the rain, although it’s only the first of these that’s raking the island today. The clouds are racing, scattering a patina of sunbeams across the land, and we’re treated to a spectacular, rich-light sunset at around 10pm. I say that, but I’m not sure the sun really sets up here at this time of year since even by 11pm its still light.

Next morning and the forecast that brought us to the far, far north of Scotland turns out to be wrong. It’s raining. A bunch of fronts stacked in the Atlantic throw a heavy slew of showers over the islands we hope to climb on, so we retire to a café before the second ferry crossing required to reach Hoy – a ferry to increase the adventure factor further. Over coffee I film a quick interview with Tom where, in a moment of unsurpassed cultural faux pas, he tells the camera that: “We’ve come up to the furthest point north. It’s as far as it’s possible to come in England…” This already silent Scottish café grows quieter. “Bravo!” call a couple of sea-hardened fishermen at the other end. In good natured jest, I hope, but if so then only just.

And now we’re crossing the sea again in the hope that this afternoon’s weather will improve. We’re all increasingly excited at the prospect of finally getting on the fabled sandstone of Hoy, putting up a few new routes perhaps, standing on the top of the Old Man, and having a good, proper adventure. We just need that high pressure resting over England (south) to udge north, and we’re set.

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The Road to Hoy

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Part two of the Rab rock tour has started, and I know this because the van we’re travelling north in has been full of non-stop climbing talk for over twelve hours. Climbing talk, and bad jokes. If Tom Randall and Callum Musket were trainspotters then they could be committed for this kind of obsession, but as they’re two of the fittest (and, they claim, ‘hottest’) climbers in Britain, they allowed to – indeed encouraged – to roam free. Which is why we’re heading to Scotland: to roam the Highlands and see how many hard routes it’s possible to clock up in a few days.

Strangely, finding somewhere hard enough for a few days climbing with this pair isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. There’s a lot of rock in Scotland and plenty of hard routes, but we’re looking for somewhere with a decent concentration of lines that tallies with the current forecast of crap weather in the west. Driving north through the night, we vaguely settle on the Red Wall north of Aberdeen, then pull into a random lane somewhere south of Glasgow and settle down for not-a-lot-of-sleep in the short night.

Early morning and the weather comes in as we’re passing Glasgow, and it’s distinctly Scottish. Rain hammering on the windscreen and spray fogging the motorway returns us to the guidebooks and the forecasts to pit the two against each other and come up with a slightly ambitious plan. We’ve only got four days, but Orkney, the far Viking tip of Britain, looks like it might just be feasible. It’s home to Hoy and it’s famous Old Man, plus a whole host of hard routes that don’t get much traffic. Rumour is there’s good potential for first ascents, plus a bothy to stay in, so with a quick re-check of the forecasts and a confirmation that there’s enough budget for ferries, we decide to go. A quick refuelling stop with a blow-out Scottish breakfast, and our mini-adventure is on!

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Why is it always like this?

What is it about big shoots that creates such chaos? Is it the amount of kit that needs packing and sorting? Organising a selection of busy, disparate and invariably strong willed characters into something resembling a climbing trip? Or is the mess in my office simply an external expression of the stress that weather forecasts always create?

The only thing I know is that by this evening, I’ll be in a camper van heading for Scotland with uber-climbers Tom Randall and Callum Musket. It’s to be a five day anarchy trip across the Highlands: part two of the Rab Rock Tour where we’re on a mission to climb as many hideously hard lines as possible, shoot a range of new kit, make a video, get bitten by midges, drive too many miles, have too little sleep… and hopefully have a good time. But right now the forecast is far from perfect, I’m surrounded by random socks and lenses and ropes and feeling a long way from that moment when the trip finally comes together. But it will.

Meanwhile, I’ve just updated the website with some of the imagery from February’s shoot in the Arctic circle. Now that feels like a long way back!

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