Sea Stack Odyssey
If you think you need to travel to far continents and foreign countries to find adventure you need to think again. To find wild, rugged landscape where very few people explore you don’t need to leave the UK. Just head north for about as far as you can go.
Think about the numbers; there are 10 million people living inside the M25, an area about the same size as the Isle of Skye on the West Coast of Scotland. In all of Scotland there are only 5.5 million people and 3.5 million of these people live in the central belt. Around the coast of the far north of Scotland you are in for a rare treat. Endless sea cliffs with amazing rock in a wild landscape and with nobody else around for miles in any direction offering as much adventure as you’ll ever need. And then there’s the sea stacks to make it even more fun!
Ella, Dave and I went on a road trip along with Donald, Cathy and Alison to find the best sea stacks and sea cliff climbing on offer. For a warm up and shake down day to get attuned to the noise, the feel and the smell of sea cliffs we went to Sarclet close to Wick. On the East Coast just south of John O’Groats the weather is pretty reliable and the rock is solid. Sarclet Pimpernel and Groove Armada require an abseil down to a small ledge and hanging belay just above the waves then amazing moves on solid rock back up. Only one dropped belay plate and one delicate dangle in the sea made it a successful day. We were ready for the first old man of the trip, the biggest old man in the country.
If you have to take a boat it’s going to be a good climb. We had to take two boats and a taxi to get to Rackwick bothy on Hoy, a small but welcome building made of the sandstone we hoped to climb, a building that seems to grow out of and be part of the boulder beach. The swell on the sea and the heavy rain were not quite what we wanted though. The scale of the cliffs around the bay and crashing waves made it a very atmospheric place. Even the boulders on the beach are huge, like massive dinosaur eggs. It seemed that surfing might have been a better choice than rock climbing.
The next day was bright and breezy though and the rock dried out quickly. The crux corner of the Old Man of Hoy provides typically three-dimensional climbing with more pushing than pulling. Training at the climbing wall will not prepare you for this pitch, especially the 50m drop straight down to the boulders below.
Then it’s four more straight-forward pitches to the top with minor route variations to avoid the nesting fulmars. It’s quite remarkable how much these birds hold in their stomachs ready to throw up at you in defence of their eggs. I didn’t expect it to be bright orange but I did expect it to be warm, oily and very smelly. Thankfully for us, Donald and Cathy got the worst of it so Ella, Dave and I got away with minor damage.
It was nice enough for a few minutes’ contemplation on the top, watching the seals swim through clear water 135m below us. We waved at the folk on the ferry back to the mainland and started the abseils back down. A puffin came and stood on the top ledge a metre away from Cathy to check out what was going on. Its quizzical look appeared to say “you’re a strange looking bird. Why don’t you just fly down?”
Back at the bothy, couscous and satisfaction along with a little relief made for a fine meal and a sound night of sleep.
Traveling around the north coast of Scotland after the ferries back to Scrabster is a joy. The landscape changes quickly from agricultural to rugged, from green and pleasant to brown, grey and harsh. It’s no less beautiful and is so much more dramatic. We settled down at another fine camping spot under the sunset over Cape Wrath.
Another boat ride is required to get to the furthest North West point of the mainland, Cape Wrath. This one is tiny and the knackered minibus that bumps along to the lighthouse is apparently roadworthy (it’s a public road after all) but doesn’t give that impression. The ferry was on flat calm water but we were greeted on the open coast by a 3m swell and crashing waves. It’s tricky to find the old lady, A’Chailleach, but it was immediately obvious that the ocean did not want us to swim over to the sea stack today. Instead we explored the cliffs with the waves reaching up to our toes. We climbed Photographers, a modest route that became exhilarating when you watched the swell surge underneath. Four new routes to the north of the sea stack for the two teams followed by a beer at the lighthouse made it one of the best days of climbing we’ve ever done.
Sheigra is typically west coast. Open camping on the machair right next to the impeccable and steep gneiss cliffs has a friendly atmosphere. The walk in to the climbing is all of 100m so we did several laps. Again, the swell was way too big to contemplate any swimming to sea stacks today but it did add plenty of atmosphere to the climbing. Juggernaut was the pick of the climbs. At E1 5a it has enormous holds but it overhangs for nearly its entire 35m so the crux is not the technical moves at the start; the crux is being able to hang on until the top!
Our last day of climbing dawned bright and the sea had finally calmed down. It’s a beautiful walk from the Point of Stoer lighthouse to the Old Man of Stoer. The path goes over a very modest hill which has the most spectacular view in all of Scotland, back onto the sandstone monoliths of Assynt. We timed the tide perfectly and I made the short swim across to the stack. It was already warm enough for a dip in the ocean to be welcome. We tied a tyrolean rope for the team to traverse the channel and to get back after our climb.
If you get to the Old Man of Stoer at the right time you can walk around the back and start the climbing a pitch up the normal route. This avoids the green, damp hand traverse with the potential of a swinging fall into the water and is recommended. The rest of the climb is on solid and clean sandstone. Only two fulmars were on the route and they were not too upset by us climbing past them. We arrived on the top in baking sunshine with puzzled onlookers on the cliff at one side and Canada on the other.
In seven days we combined most of the North Coast 500 touring route with The Old Men of Hoy and Stoer, spectacular sea cliff climbing at Sarclet, Cape Wrath and Sheigra, shared amazing experiences with like-minded people, immersed ourselves in nature and felt its awesome power and command. What more can you ask for in a climbing adventure?
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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.