The Old Man of Hoy has to be one of the greatest icons in British rock climbing. However, with such classic routes it's all too easy to become driven by the sole pursuit of that objective. Whilst spending a week on the Orkney Islands earlier this year, it occurred to me that there was far more there than just the Old Man, and far more than just Hoy, and that all-in-all the Orkney Islands had more than enough to warrant anyone travelling that far to spend a few more days in the area, taking in all of what is on offer.
We'll start with Hoy simply because for 99% of the climbers visiting the area, this is where the main event is for the majority of people visiting the area. Anyone planning a trip will first concern themselves with the logistics of how to get there, which essentially comes down to cost vs. convenience - hopefully the information below clears this up nicely. In short: going as a foot passenger is cheaper, going in a car is more expensive...
If you are planning to take the car it's worth booking in advance as spaces, particularly on the Houghton-Lyness ferry, are limited (unsurprisingly it isn't a large vessel). If you're going as a foot passenger then you can probably rock up on a whim, but it'd be worth calling through to book the taxis in advance - that way they'll be there waiting for you when you arrive.
Option 1 (foot passenger)
Scrabster - Stromness: £36 Return
Stromness - North Hoy: £8.50 return
Taxi to Rackwick Bay: £10ish
Total (2 people) = £109
Option 2 (with vehicle)
Scrabster - Stromness:
£110 Return (vehicle) + £36 Return (per person)
Houghton - Lyness:
£27.20 Return (vehicle) + £8.50 (per person)
Total (2 people + car) = £226.20
Rackwick Bay, the 'base-camp' for climbers visiting the area, is both stunning, tranquil, and rugged (assuming the latter two are actually possible to combine). The beach is as good as they get and the sea as clear as it comes, you could begin to think you were in the Bahamas if the water wasn't quite so cold! Due to the fact the islands are basically out in the middle of nowhere, there tends to be a positive on-shore breeze that keeps the dreaded midges at bay too. The wildlife within the bay itself is stunning, with seals, skuas, terns, gannets, hares, and many more animals around and about. The Orkney Islands are definitely a place where it is worthwhile having a good pair of binoculars on you.
Now that we're over and done with the logistics we can get back to the romance. For those that haven't climbed in the Scottish Islands before you are in for a treat, they are - at least in good weather - the best places on earth. Hoy is no exception and the long drive north and two ferries it takes to get there only serves to make the experience that bit more special: it is a real pilgrimage.
In terms of accommodation you have several options: inside the bothy, outside the bothy (camping) or in the youth hostel. Being that you have to pay for the latter the first two options tend to be the most popular, and to be fair - why wouldn't they be - the location is fantastic, not to mention steeped in history.
It's worth noting that just besides the car park there is a toilet block that is quite easy to miss; however, it is free for all to use, done up properly, and even has electric hand driers (!!). As such, I would encourage everyone visiting the area to use it religiously - no shitting on the beach (or anywhere else for that matter). It's a special place and let's try to keep it that way...
Finally, if you've got a bit of time spare and fancy exploring the rest of the island then there are some stunning beaches situated near Longhope, plus a shower at the Lifeboat Centre which costs 20p to use.
However, it would be inappropriate to start without a mention to the Old Man itself, which should - I hope - provide the necessary impetus to make the long journey north. Rather than go into exhaustive detail within this article, I will instead direct you towards two further articles, which go into great detail about the Old Man and the various routes that go up it.
From my own experiences of the East Face Route (Original Route) (E1 5b), all I can say is a) you won't be disappointed, but b) go prepared for adventure…and sand…lots of sand…
The rock quality increases as height is gained, but rather inconveniently doesn't improve rapidly enough for the crux pitch - pitch two - to be on pristine sandstone. For those wishing to do the route, it's worth packing a large cam (Camalot or Friend 5) and getting your head into gear for what is undoubtedly a sandy grovel up a very wide (and wild) crack. Once you're up this the only cruxes that remain are the ones getting past the fulmars, that seem to sit on every belay and on all the ledges you wish to use. I would recommend forming a dialogue with these glorious creatures early on, as rapport goes a long way. Fall on ill favour with them and…well…you're stuffed really, as these gracious birds soon live up to the origins of their name - 'Foul Gull' - with a limitless supply of vomit, not always spat out with accuracy but always with ferocity.
The final pitch up the corner leading to the summit deserves a special mention, not simply because it is the finest rock - and finest climbing - but also because of the fact that you can actually see through the Old Man for much of it. Arriving at the summit will no doubt be a meaningful experience to anyone who reaches it (and who knows how long its going to be there for!).
If you've got a pair of 60m ropes you'll even be able to descend within two abseils (1st = top of P2, 2nd = to the ground), but watch out for getting your ropes caught - particularly if its windy. If you've got 50s, read the articles linked above and they'll tell you all you need to know.
So, other than the Old Man what else is there? Well, there's Rora Head, and from the pictures above you can probably see there's quite a lot of it too. To make things easier I've bracketed things into grade ranges. Despite killing all the romance, it does make things a lot easier and will give you an idea of what your options are depending on your own ability.
If you're climbing E1, or thereabouts, then it would be worth checking out the various routes in/around the Geos on Rora Head. Gully 1 in particular takes a clean sheet of rock, with limited intrusion from fulmars (always a positive…) and on sound quality rock. Furthermore, you approach on foot, so there's no messing around with awkward abseils like on the Old Man.
If you're climbing E3 the options increase dramatically, with A Few Dollars More and Roaring Forties being your best two options.
A Few Dollars More (E3 5c) takes a direct line up the north face of the Old Man and is supposedly one of the finest on the stack, taking in good, clean (well, relatively clean…) rock and fewer fulmars than the original. Being on the north face you'd have thought it would be in the shade all day, but due to the northern latitude the sun keeps coming round and the face is (assuming it's a good day) be bathed in light from around 7-8pm onwards around the solstice.
Roaring Forties (E3 5c) takes an impressive line up the arete of Mucklehouse Wall at Rora Head. Despite receiving only 2 stars in the guide, I was blown away (no pun intended) by the quality of the route. The wild and wandering first (crux) pitch climbs much of the neighbouring E5 - Mucklehouse Wall - before sneaking off around the arete to find the comfort of a fantastic ledge perched above the sea, then two further pitches on big holds and good rock lead you to the top and there's not a fulmar in sight either!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, climbing E5 supplies you with even more options than climbing E3 or E1. With the obvious contenders being Mucklehouse Wall itself, GMB on the Old Man, and Big John on St. Johns Head.
Mucklehouse Wall (E5 6a) (pictured above) tackles the superb 80m, leaning wall via a wandering and adventurous line. It features varied climbing up a system of flakes, cracks, crimps and ledges and is worth climbing for the beauty of the rock alone - it is picture perfect. As per the Old Man, the quality increases as height is gained and the final (crux) pitch is so compact it feels more like quartzite.
GMB (E5 6a), much like Mucklehouse Wall, is another classic put up by BMC CEO Dave Turnbull and is - much like Few Dollars More - rated as one of the best on the stack (although they're all good really aren't they?!). The route takes a line up the seaward face, which gets plenty of sun (good to burn off any grease) and will no doubt provide suitably adventurous climbing for any would-be ascentionist. Dave Brown's write up provides fitting inspiration - or warning - for any would-be ascentionists.
Big John (E5) is probably the biggest and baddest of the three, simply because anything going up St. Johns Head deserves a lot of respect! Expect a lot of protectionless grass pulling low down, a lot of fulmars pretty much all the way through, and a lot of variable quality rock throughout. That said, if these three things appeal more than they detract then get yourself on it and enjoy the ride (although try not to fall…).
Once you've drunk your fill of Hoy it'll be time to head back to 'the big smoke': Orkney Mainland. It'll probably be time to have a shower too, so get yourself over to the camp site in Stromness, have a wash, and head over to Kirkwall - the island's capital - and have a mosey around this historic place. We visited a nice place cafe called 'The Reel' whilst we were out there, that aside from coffee + cake offered traditional live music most nights - well worth checking out.
Whilst on a more cultural line of investigation, you may wish to visit the island's many archeological sites, from the standing stones at Sternness and Brodgar, to the ancient village at Skara Brae. If you're not into that and just fancy getting pissed (the logical alternative) the local whisky - Scapa - does daily tours at their distillery just outside of Kirkwall. Finally, if you've still got room for more history then the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre is worth a look, the Orkney islands - unlikely though it seems - played a key part in both world wars, being the anchorage point of the British Navy. All-in-all though you can drive around the island visiting many of these features, plus some of the incredible beaches, all within a single day - its not a big place!!
Back to the climbing though, there are three obvious objectives for any climber on Orkney: the Yesnaby Castle, the cliffs around Yesnaby Castle, and North Gaulton Castle.
The Castle of Yesnaby, despite being significantly smaller than the Old Man of Hoy is just as great an undertaking in many ways due to one major factor - you've got to swim to it… Maybe I'm being soft, but when we were there in May/June there was no way I was getting in the ocean sans wetsuit, so if you're harder than me go for it, if you're not then bear this in mind - its cold up there!!
The soft, but potentially even more fun, option would be to take a boat out from the promontory just south of the swim approach. Were I to go back this is the option I would take, simply because it seems like the most ridiculous. Climbing sea-stacks is around 98% faff to 2% climbing, using a boat may even nudge that figure up to 99%. Also, given the lack of opportunities for boat approach amongst virtually every other route in the British Isles I think it would be a wasted opportunity not to do so. That said, if you have a wetsuit its really not that bad swimming…
Routes-wise the most popular by far is the Landward (East) Arete (E2 5b), but from the reports I've had both Meditation (E2 5c) and the South Face Route (E2 5b) are both very good too. I haven't heard much about Yes Please (E3 6a), but seeing as it was done by Mick Fowler I would assume it'll be an adventure!
It has to be said that much of the climbing on Hoy + Orkney is of a somewhat sandy disposition; however, the cliffs that surround Yesnaby - Point Wall, Tower Face, Arch Wall, Gardyloo Wall, the False Stack, and Spectators Geo - are something of an exception to this rule, being on more compact, solid and clean rock.
There's plenty to go at too, with a good selection from VS to E6. However 'must do' routes include:
- HVS: Variety Show (HVS 5a), Wee Lum (HVS 5a)
- E1: Blue Crush (E1 5b), Wander Wall (E1 5b)
- E2: The Quarryman (E2 5b), Deceptively Groovy (E2 5c), Summer's End (E2 5b)
- E3: Long Hard Winter (E3 5c), New Sensation (E3 5c), Dark Island (E3 6a)
- E4: Nuckelavee (E4 6a), Thing of Dreams (E4 6a) (accidentally gets E2 in the first Edition of Scottish Rock Vol. II)
- E5: Guns in the Sky
Whilst we were there the cliff was suffering considerably from greasy/condensed conditions, so it is definitely a venue that would benefit from a little bit of sun before you go. Ordinarily I'd say sun and wind, but seeing as its always windy this isn't usually a problem - as such wait for a sunny day!
The first time I saw a picture of North Gaulton Castle was on the cover of the SMC's North Highlands North Guidebook, it looked too precariously balanced to be true and around a million miles out to sea, not a single piece of land in sight. The reality isn't too far from the truth either, as accessing the route makes the access to the Old Man of Hoy look virtually roadside and Yesnaby a short stroll…or swim…in the park. In short, you've got to prepare yourself for a 40m swim (!!) or a 200m tyrollean - both sound equally memorable. Once you've made it across there's a relatively tottery HVS for you to climb up, but remember - it's only 1% about the climbing and 99% faff (aka. adventure).
When to Go
Traditionally the 'magic month' is May; however this does coincide with bird nesting - as such expect plenty of fulmars + vomit. That said, there's a lot of daylight around this time of year so you'll have plenty of time to do the route or more time to get vomited on (depending on which way you want to look at it).
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Hoy: Inside the bothy, outside the bothy (camping) or in the youth hostel - all in Rackwick Bay.
Orkney: The Point of Ness Campsite is located just beside the harbour in Stomness. Its pretty basic, but has much needed showers and is in a lovely spot. A walk along the historic high street of Stromness is a must too!
Gear and Supplies
Hoy: If you haven't got food or gear with you by the time you reach Hoy you have made a major error somewhere within your planning. That said, there is (apparently) a place in Moaness that does good, local seafood, called the Beneth'ill Cafe.
Orkney: Whilst we brought most of our food with us, fearing starvation out in the desolate isle, we needn't have - as there is a well stocked Lidl and Tesco in Kirkwall. For those climbers wishing to top-up on essentials there is also a Co-op just after you get off the ferry in Stromness.
The Reel (mentioned within the article above) in Kirkwall has a good coffee + cake selection, but this is by no means the only place in town - there's a plentiful supply of bakeries and delicatessens along Kirkwall's unmissable high street.
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Gary Latter's selective guide 'Scottish Rock Vol. 2' will provide more than enough climbing for several trips. If you find yourself completing every route in that guide then there is always the definitive 'North Highlands North' by the SMC; however this has far fewer topos, so expect a bit more vagueness and a lot more adventure as a result.
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Hoy: Swimming in Rackwick Bay or visiting the beaches near Longhope. Endless opportunities for birdwatching, including an eagle look out point on the road leading in to Rackwick (there's usually an RSPB van pulled up in one of the lay-bys). A walk over to see St. Johns Head and the Longhope Route is also worthwhile, simply because it's an astounding piece of rock (irrespective of whether you wish to climb it!!)
Orkney: The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, the Scapa Whisky Distillery, the neolithic selttlement at Skara Brae, and the beaches all over the island are all worth visiting if you have a day spare (more info within the article itself).
About the Author:
Rob Greenwood is the Advertising Manager at UKClimbing.com.
He's a passionate climber, yoga addict and eater of vegetarian food. After spending the past three months trying and failing on The Groove at Malham Cove he was in great need of some trad therapy, going to the Orkney Islands and writing this article has been a part of the healing process...
Aside from spot/trad climbing, he's dabbled with alpine climbing, Scottish winter, Himalayan climbing; however he still maintains that Pembroke and the Scottish Islands are still the best places to climb on earth.
He keeps an occasional blog about his adventures here: Rob Greenwood Climbing