“…and that’s how the f-word first came to be used on the BBC.”
Our taxi bumped along the single track road connecting the slipway at Moaness to the small settlement of Rackwick, its driver a proud custodian of facts and anecdotes relating to Orkney’s most famous resident, the Old Man of Hoy.
“It’s been busy this year. I reckon 18 ascents already and the summer’s only just here. We’d normally get that number in a whole year. There were two teams on it yesterday. Both of them failed. Too windy they reckoned. Lost their ropes on it as well. You’ll be fine today though. The wind’s dropped and there’s no rain due until tomorrow afternoon. You’re in for a sunset too. It’ll turn the cliffs pink.”
We dropped our bulging duffel at the shoreline bothy in Rackwick Bay and said some hellos to the Dutch and Irish occupants, emerging from their hovel like chimney sweeps and sporting the deep croaking voices of a whisky hangover. We stuffed ropes and rack into our sacks and set off along the coast and up onto the moorland path that runs along the top of Rora Head. I’d heard that no amount of reading, research or preparation will prepare you for the bowel-loosening effect of actually seeing the Old Man in the flesh for the first time. I confirm this to be the case. Like all sea stacks its steepness is amplified by its absence of adjoining landmass and its seriousness is exaggerated by the relentless noise of a churning sea. In the void between the clifftop and the stack, gulls and fulmars wheeled and shrieked.
At 137 metres high, the Old Man of Hoy is Great Britain’s tallest sea stack and one of its most remote. It’s also this country’s most famous, first climbed in 1966 by Sir Chris Bonnigton, Dr Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie and then re-climbed by them the following year under the gaze of the BBC’s cameras for one of their first ever live broadcasts, The Great Climb, drawing an audience of 15 million. First glimpsed from the Scrabster-Stromness ferry, a tottering red-tinged lichen and birdshit-covered obelisk, it dominates the south-west coastline of Hoy.
After a descent to sea level from the adjacent cove, we crossed the bouldery land bridge to its base and geared up underneath its absurdly steep and improbable landward face. Despite appearances, the first pitch delivered a pleasant blocky romp to a spacious platform that gave good viewing access to the bottom section of the potentially troublesome second pitch. Traversing down and right over granular sloping holds, the base of the second pitch’s first overhang was reached where a solid and reassuring cam was stuffed into its roof. Out and right again, on better holds than expected, the roof was passed. In the crack above, Tom Patey’s 50-year old wooden wedge from the first ascent, still in remarkably good shape, was clipped in an act of homage. Up and into the chimney above, body smearing and general groveling led inch-by-inch to the second overhang. With another solid cam for protection, this was overcome by an exploratory leftward step onto the face and a stretchy reach for a crack above. This crack then led steeply but solidly to an incut triangular niche where safety and a good belay were provided.
Although the crux was now behind us and the lactic in the forearms receding, the cacophony from above told us that the Old Man’s defences were far from breached. On cue, a beaky white face appeared from around the corner to the right and vomited an oily green bile over us. Our cover was blown and the fulmars were onto us.
With rhythmic guttural noises as they brought up the contents of their stomach and weaponised their lunch, we fought our way upwards amidst these treacherous birds and their foul-smelling vomit. Although the third and fourth pitches were straightforward, they were sufficiently steep to obscure from sight – until too late – the stinking feathered ambushers that lay atop most ledges and holds. And of course, a slowly moving human face when only six inches away is an easy target for a seasoned fulmar. And if it’s 1967 and you’re the first ascensionist, anxious and holding on tightly, you’d express what you felt about these ‘fucking fulmars’, regardless of whether the BBC is streaming you live to 15 million viewers. Our taxi driver’s story from earlier this morning had a ring of truth to it.
Dripping and reeking, but elated, we reached the bottom of the fifth and final pitch where the stack became vertical again and the horizontal ambush ledges disappeared. Separating us from the top was a 30-metre corner. Bridging left and right on immaculate rock, placing gear at will, and with the surf crashing loudly against the Old Man’s feet 110 metres below, the climbing was sensational. With a few metres to go, a vertical fissure appeared in the back of the corner, splitting the final section of the stack to reveal blue sky and sea. Pulling onto the summit, a puffin hovered clumsily next to us while his wingman hopped around amongst our ropes, stopping occasionally to observe us with a cocked head. We stretched out on the grass and lolled in the sun for almost an hour, accompanied throughout by our two new friends.
Back on terra firma after a series of wild abseils, made all the wilder by our 50-metre ropes instead of the recommended 60s, we said goodbye to the Old Man and returned along the costal path to Rackwick Bay. With deep contentment, we cooked on an open fire by the shore as the setting sun turned the sea cliffs pink.
The next morning, looking like two chimney sweeps and with deep croaking voices, we were met by the wife of our taxi driver for our return journey back to the slipway. She congratulated us and I asked her how she knew. She gave a dismissive chuckle, turned the ignition and began a story about the first time the ‘f’ word was heard on the BBC.
Tommy Kelly is a co-founder of Jöttnar. Two weeks and multiple washes later, his fulmar-nated clothes were eventually taken outside and burned.