Achmelvich is a firm family holiday location for team Pescod. Camping at Shore Campsite is bliss and renting a cottage in the October holidays provides peace and quiet like nowhere else. And just down the road is the Old Man of Stoer, a sea stack with a super classic climb. Many stacks offer a fantastic adventure, and this one is right up there; a sea channel that demands a swim and/or some tyrloean rope tricks, crashing waves, time pressure from the incoming tide, a committing abseil, sea gulls, remoteness.... But unlike many other stacks, this one has good rock and fantastic climbing. Of course, I was super keen to climb The Old Man of Stoer.
One time we were staying at Achmelvich in October. The weather was great and the sea was calm. Having not climbed it before I was slightly nervous, especially as I was to climb it with Owen, my son, who was just coming up to his 13th birthday at the time. After a few years of climbing indoors, I was sure he could manage the climbing, but the exposure, tyrolean traverse, sea gulls, real rock, traditional climbing moves, and the big abseil were all new to him. He was also much smaller than me still, so the impact of me falling off would have been huge. More importantly, solving simple problems might not go well due to his lack of climbing experience outdoors and the nature of the stack making communication, at times, nearly impossible. Of course, returning to my lovely wife Louise, Owen's mother, with tales of things going wrong was the biggest fear, far greater than the things going wrong in the first place!
So, I did a lot of research. We did a recce walk along the coast (recommended - it is one of the best low level walks in Scotland) which revealed a tyrolean rope already in place. I checked out the scramble descent down the the cliff to sea level. Tide tables showed a very low tide early in the morning and the sea was near flat calm. Also, I had learned that it is possible, at a very low tide, to walk around the back of the stack and avoid the nasty first pitch. This is a 5a traverse across a slimy green wall and well worth avoiding if at all possible. You can see it in the picture above - hands on flat holds in the horizontal crack just above the level of the rope anchor, going left to the big ledges capped by overhangs.
So, Owen and I got up nice and early, left quietly before anyone else was awake, and walked in to the stack. At every point during the climb I offered Owen the chance to decide not to carry on, to return, pride intact, very happy. At every point, Owen said it was all cool. We scrambled down and took a moment at sea level to soak up the sounds, the smells, and the unique atmosphere of a sea stack. We slid across the tyrolean ropes after checking they would (probably) be OK and waited a few minutes for the last of the tide to sink away so we could traverse round the back. Sure enough, we found a nice easy traverse to get us onto the normal route and a very comfortable belay. A slightly awkward diagonal crack and pull through a bulge got us to another superb belay on jammed blocks. Everything was cool still, so we carried on.
Next, the route traverses right and up slightly to find a groove leading to the top. There is a choice of traverse ledges and a choice of grooves to follow upwards, so I spent some time deciding which one was best. I was also very careful to arrange the protection very well. I placed enough to make it easy to follow the route, but not so much that it slowed down the whole process, it was all within reach of Owen but was well extended so there was no rope drag, and it all stayed in place but came out easily when Owen got to it. There is virtually no chance of communicating with your belayer once you get to the top of this pitch but Owen was very well briefed and he followed up the pitch easily. Everything was cool.
One last easy pitch got us into the sunshine and onto the top for a very satisfied moment before starting to think about the abseil back down. This was another key part of the whole enterprise since it would be tricky for me to sort out any problems Owen might have on the way down. The ropes were set perfectly, the stacked abseil was put in place and we both abseiled a short way to get used to the idea before I went down the overhanging section to the base of the stack. At the bottom, talking about the abseil, Owen said "Can we do that again?".
Now, the ropes needed to pull down nicely. I pulled, they moved, there was no snag, and when the ropes fell, they coiled perfectly into a pile at my feet on the narrow ledge without falling over the edge a few centimetres away and into the sea. We pulled ourselves back up the tyrolean ropes, scrambled back up the cliff and went back to the cottage for lunch. Sometimes, everything needs to go smoothly, and this time it went about as smoothly as possible. I'm sure Owen will remember his climb of Old Man of Stoer at the age of 12 forever; I certainly will.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.