Each year for the last few years we have run a Sea Stack Odyssey, a trip to climb the best sea stacks along the west and north coasts of Scotland. It's a trip that gets me super excited every time; my nerves jangle in anticipation, i love the whole experience of the trip, and the deep satisfaction afterwards. It's a big highlight of my year.
This year I was climbing with Barry and Stephen. We had to cancel the trip last year along with a lot of our trips, so Stephen was waiting a long time for this one. Stephen saw Old Man of Stoer one stormy November many years ago and wanted to climb it ever since. Barry found he had a week off at the perfect time and wanted to make sure he got the chance of doing these climbs in between a very busy work schedule. He had tried Old Man of Hoy ten years ago but found it impossible to bring together the weather, a climbing partner, fitness and days off altogether to make a successful trip. The three of us met up at Stoer light house and shared six brilliant days in the far north west of Scotland.
We dived in at the deep end with Old Man of Stoer. It's nice to have a warm up day to get to know each other and get into the climbing before we commit to a sea stack. However, the weather forecast ws looking wet for days 2 and 3, and it seemed like a good idea to make the most of the good weather on day 1. A few other people had made the same decision, and we arrived at Old Man of Stoer to find a tyrolean rope set up already, so no swim was needed. A good start!
We shared the climb with the other teams, happy to take our time. Most people there were from the south of England, a long way away from home. Old Man of Stoer has the best rock, the nicest climbing and fewest birds of all the stacks. It's a very good one to start with and we all got on great. The long and free hanging abseil down went well and we used the tyrolean to get back across again at the bottom. Someone else volunteered to swim after releasing it on the stack side.
We were off to a brilliant start and we drove round to Sheigra to camp, full of high expectations.
Sometimes the sea mist is dry, sometimes it is wet. This time it was classic warm front weather and everything was wet, the clag was in (Cloud Level At Ground) and it was pretty clear that we were not going to be able to climb Am Buachaille. We wanted to have a look though, just to be sure. The cycle in along the path was nice and we had a wee explore of Sandwood Bay beach, a wonderful long stretch of white sand in a very remote place.
Day three was wet too, but we used the time productively to relax, soak up the atmosphere of Sheigra, and to refresh some rope skills such as hoisting people up climbs, escaping out of a belay system when your partner is dangling on the rope and a few other useful things. The rain stopped and the rock dried out later on, enough for us to enjoy a couple of beautiful rock climbs at Sheigra. The rock here is, quite simply, perfect.
Day four is a transition day, a drive, two ferries (one big, one small), a taxi and a short walk to the bothy in Rackwick Bay. We got our first sight of Old Man of Hoy from the big ferry and a brilliant display of diving from the gannets just off the beach.
Having put up with two wet days, we were blessed with a perfect day for climbing Old Man of Hoy. It was warm, calm and the sun came out in the afternoon. We made an early start to make sure we got back to catch the last ferry to Stromness. Being first on the climb meant we climbed quickly and it was clear that we would have plenty of time to enjoy the experience. The scale of this stack is always very impressive. The bottom abseil (of three) is the same height as Old Man of Stoer. The second pitch is the crux and always provides a memorable climb of traditional chimneying and beautiful bridging up the corner above with a massive drop to the boulder beach beneath your feet.
The last pitch to the top is wonderful too. Solid rock with great protection and brilliant moves and positions lands you on the small summit of the stack. It becomes very apparent that the top is actually made of two separate stacks and you climb the corner and gap between the two. Razorbills nesting on the top welcomed us and we were circled by manic puffins nesting on the mainland cliff.
We hung out on top for an hour, to make the moment last for as long as possible and to enjoy the weather on this unique location. Just as rewarding as the climbing, making the abseiling go smoothly with no trapped ropes or stuck prussics is very satisfying. 60m ropes are very useful, well worth taking there just for this last abseil which turns into 50m free hanging straight onto the boulder beach.
We had time to spare before catching the small ferry back to Stromness and a fish and chip supper, back in the world of hostels and cafes, people and facemasks. Going climbing is such a perfect thing to transport you away from all the hastles of every day life, the commitments and obligations, expectations and things you have to put up with. It can be quite a jolt going back to normal life after a good climbing trip, but you always feel mentally refreshed even if you are physically tired.
We took the first ferry back to Scrabster and Stephen and I had time for one more climb. Barry had to make his way all the way back down south and had a very long drive ahead of him. Stephen and I stopped in at Sarclet to climb Sarclet Pimpernel, a wonderful pitch of climbing straight up a lovely arete from a belay hanging just above the sea. It was strange to be on rock with positive edges and hidden pockets after the rounded slopers and three dimensional moves of the sandstone. Beautiful warm weather, guillemots looking for fish and looking at us, and a perfect end to a brilliant sea stacks trip.
I'm off to buy a tide timetable to start planning next year's trip!
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.