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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