Sunday, May 07, 2006

Old Man of Hoy

One of my favorite climbing adventures involved a climb we never even got to attempt. A couple of years ago, my wife and I tried to do the Old Man of Hoy off the far northeastern coast of Scotland. The Old Man is a great classic of world climbing, not so much for the quality of its climbing but for its isolation, spectacular setting and history. First climbed by the great trio of Rusty Baillle, Chris Bonington and Tom Patey, the Old Man is 450 feet high, and the easiest route is 5.10. It looks a bit like Castleton Tower in Utah, but with foul weather, a treacherous approach, pitches covered with grass, and seabirds that puke on trespassers in defense of their nests.

It's a long, long way to Hoy from just about anywhere. You have to get to Scotland, then drive for many hours to catch a ferry to the Orkney Islands, then another ferry to the sparsely populated island of Hoy. We spent almost a week in Orkney, a paradise for bird watching and archaeological sites (the oldest house in Europe, among other things). We had not booked a place to stay on Hoy because we wanted to time our visit there for the best weather. Bad luck for us: We ended up trying to go the weekend of the Hoy Half Marathon, and every bed on the island (not that many) was taken. Through great luck, the manager of the place we were staying in Stromness, port for the ferry to Hoy, used to live in Rackwick Bay, the trailhead for the Old Man, and she still knew the few people who lived there. She was kind enough to start callling around, and before long we had a cottage by the bay.

We arrived at our cottage in the dark in a driving rain. The road ended about 200 yards from the cottage (in the middle of the photo above). I ran through the rain, found my way inside, and flicked the lights to alert my wife. In the morning, the rain had stopped but the wind was pounding, even though we were still sheltered from the worst of it by the headland that framed one side of Rackwick Bay—the headland beyond which the Old Man stands. Well, you have to try. We packed up, found the trail, and walked about 45 minutes up and over the seaside hills to the Old Man. Waterfalls blew right back up over the cliffs onto the headland, and at the viewpoint that overlooks the Old Man I could lean hard into the wind without falling. I suppose we could have braved the steep and exposed goat trail that switchbacks down through wet grass to the Old Man's base on a bench by the sea. But my wife delivered the ultimatum—no climb—and I didn't put up any fight.

The next day we hiked up with our gear again, but this time we really were just going through the motions. The wind had eased slightly, but now rain fell every 30 minutes. We hunkered down on the point opposite the Old Man to watch the puffins perched on the ledges at the end of the second pitch. Then we hiked back to our cottage. Naturally, by the time we got there the sun had reappeared. No matter. This is one of the few climbs I've really wanted to do that, in the end, I didn't have any regrets about not doing. The climbing looked OK, but what really makes the Old Man special is its splendid and isolated setting. We spent two nights lounging at our cozy and romantic cottage, and each day after our outing to the Old Man we explored the beaches and hills by Rackwick Bay, one of the most extraordinary and beautiful places I've ever seen. A climb would have been nice, but we got what we came for.

1 comment:

Alyson Wilson said...

What a great trip! That Old Man of Hoy seems like a nasty fellow but he certainly looks impressive. I just found your blog while surfing at work (I'm the content director for a new Web site called that doesn't launch until August) and was happy to adventure vicariously with you and your wife. Thanks for letting me explore with you!