Richard Haszko recounts a 'long weekend' of ticking three classic Scottish sea stacks, meetings with Fulmars, fisherman and some sandbagged grades...
"I bet you a pound we can do all three in a weekend." I looked at Joe with incredulity. The three in question were the Old Man of Hoy, the Old Man of Stoer and Am Buachille. Hoy alone was normally a three-day trip. "It would have to be a long weekend I'll grant you, but it's possible." I happily took the bet on, completely confident that I would be able to relieve him of some of the proceeds of his scribblings.
We, Joe Simpson, John Stevenson and I were in the Broadfield pub in Sheffield. It was 1996 and we were all climbing well. "Bruce will be really keen as well," Joe opined.
Three weeks later our team assembled at Joe's house. Bruce had a company car so we were to go in that. "If we take two-hour stints each we can drive through the night."
"An excellent plan, John," Bruce replied. "With just one small flaw. The insurance only covers me." Fortunately, Bruce had a lot of stamina, being an ex-Nottingham and England wicketkeeper, and he managed to stay awake long enough to get us to within 20 miles of Scrabster when we pulled into a layby, spread out our sleeping bags and had a couple of hours sleep before the midges roused us for breakfast (theirs!).
We found an early-opening supermarket and loaded up with supplies: a throwaway barbecue set, two packets of sausages and four crates of extra strong lager. Driving down into the tiny port we could make out the distant outline of Hoy on the horizon. Unfortunately, our expansive panorama did not include a ship. "I think I must have misread the timetable," Bruce muttered. Checking with the port office he found this was indeed the case and there wouldn't be a ferry for another five hours. This information led to a frank and open exchange of views during which someone came up with the idea of hiring a fishing boat to get us across to Hoy. Somehow this extraordinary concept actually worked and thus it was, two hours later, we were chugging across a millpond-like sea drinking lager and bantering with the boat's owner, a man by the name of Clare, and his friend. Bruce, a poor sailor stood in the bow, the colour of his face matching the sea.
It was a four-hour journey to the Old Man and it looked truly spectacular as we came around the base in our tiny craft and stopped about 75 yards offshore. "I'll row you across from here," Clare said, throwing a rubber dinghy over the side. He took us across two at a time and very soon we were assembled on the boulders at the base of the Old Man. "I'll pick you up at seven o'clock," Claret yelled as he rowed back to the Karen, our trusty vessel.
Joe was soon leading the first pitch, steep but easy, up to a large ledge. "There's a dirty great Fulmar here," he shouted down. "Talk nicely to it," John replied helpfully. Bruce followed quickly and John led off to join them on the ledge. When I arrived Bruce had disappeared round the arete onto the landward face. John, Joe and I tried to keep out of the Fulmar's way while Bruce worked his way unseen up the big pitch, with occasional muttered comments about sand and overhangs floating down to us. He was soon shouting for Joe to climb and when he'd gone I peered around the corner for a look at what I would have to lead, nearly falling off our shared perch when I saw what awaited me. Joe was working his way across a vertical wall trying to brush sand off the holds. He grinned weakly at me: "You're not going to like this Richard." I quickly suggested to John that a faint black line on the horizon might indicate a fierce storm about to break and we'd better retreat but he would have none of it.
A few long steps down led to the start of the traverse line into the main corner. The moves across were balancy and very sandy but took me to protection in a crack and out onto an arete. Looking up I could see Joe grappling with the big overhang high up the pitch. He appeared to have his right foot inserted into his left ear and was describing the moves in a very colourful fashion. With increasing trepidation, I climbed up to a niche with some old slings in the back. Aha, I thought, I can belay here and let John enjoy the roof. This suggestion elicited ripostes that did not befit my status of team respected-elder so I felt impelled to continue.
The roof was as bad as Joe had made it look but it succumbed to a move involving a one-handed mantle on a small hold at the same time as turning through 180 degrees. Bizarre, but effective. Excellent bridging then led to a good stance at the end of a fine but harder than expected pitch. The next two were a bit scrappy but the last was a gem. John cruised up it, a vertical 4b corner on immaculate rock in a superb position. Joe and Bruce passed us on their way down, resisting blandishments for now so we could have a team summit photo. I thought that was a little churlish until I got there and found it to be windy, sloping and rubble-strewn. I grabbed a quick picture and we set off down.
The abseils caused no real problems, even the diagonal one back to the top of the first pitch. We'd spotted the Karen coming to pick us up right on schedule, which was a relief but couldn't help noticing that it was bobbing up and down rather alarmingly on a sea that was no longer smooth.
We gathered together on a boulder as Clare approached. He was struggling to maintain position and shouted out to us "I'll come in on a wave and you'll have to jump into the boat." This terrifying prospect was slightly less bad than the thought of being left behind so with a strangled cry of "I'll go first," I leapt with the grace of a startled wildebeest, and landed in a jumbled pile of nets and ropes. John followed on the next wave and Clare began rowing towards the Karen which was by now rolling so far over most of its hull was exposed. My earlier terror rose to new heights.
The dinghy and Karen performed an intricate dance for 10 minutes as the two boats were manoeuvred into a position from which it was possible to approach. "When she rolls towards us grab the rail and pull yourself out," Clare instructed. I stood up and prepared to meet Neptune, now beyond fear and into a weary acceptance that a watery end was inevitable. The Karen rolled toward me. I grabbed the rail and, as she rolled away, I was hauled violently out of the dinghy. Throwing a leg over the rail I landed on the deck, giggling hysterically with relief. Moments later John arrived in much the same state. This seriously character enlarging exercise was repeated until we were all safely aboard and the Karen pointed towards the mainland.
It was a totally different voyage to that of the morning, the small boat pitching and rolling so much I thought we would inevitably be thrown overboard. "Och no," Clare said as I begged him to make it stop. "It's just a moderate swell. Here, this will help." He poured us a very large measure of Scotland's finest export which certainly did help for a while as I synchronised my rolling with that of the boat. It wasn't too long, however before I had to go and lie down in the wheelhouse while John and Joe, completely unaffected, played chess. Bruce knelt in the bow, communing with the creatures of the deep until we were back in Scrabster where our attempt at a celebration was cut short by falling asleep in our beer and suffering the ignominy of asking to be let out of a lock-in.
The next day dawned fine and we realised the master plan might actually now be attainable. "This could cost me a pound," I thought as we drove across to the Old Man of Stoer, Bruce entertaining us with tales from his days as wicketkeeper for England. We soon found the stack and swung across the Tyrolean Traverse rope already in place. John and I elected to climb the ordinary route, a three-pitch VS in the sun, while Joe and Bruce went up a shadowed E2. It was a glorious climb on perfect gritstone-like rock above a twinkling sea, the presence of several other climbers giving it a party atmosphere. It was to be all very different the following morning.
The sun had gone, to be replaced by cloud and wind and we were in a rather more sombre mood as we drove from our campsite at Sheigra to seek out Am Buachille. It didn't take long to locate the descent gully and we were soon on the rock platforms at the bottom. Am Buachille looked formidable - much bigger than its 130 feet, covered in guano and blasted by the wind. It stood on a plinth of rock separated from us by a 40-foot wide channel of black, foamy water. We had four hours to get across, climb it, get down and get back across to the mainland before being cut off by the next high tide. This was the time to unleash our secret weapon: a children's rubber boat!
We inflated the boat and tied a rope to it. There was just room for Joe and Bruce to kneel down in it and they began to paddle across. On reaching the plinth Bruce leapt out. Unfortunately, he hadn't timed his leap very well and instead of landing on a ledge, he finished up clinging on to a barnacle-encrusted boulder, his feet dangling in the water. The reduced weight in the boat now enabled the wind to push it along the channel and towards the open sea, despite Joe's frantic efforts. John and I were, by now, convulsed with helpless laughter and it was some minutes before we could get a grip on the situation. With Joe landed and Bruce retrieved, John and I could make the crossing but only after wrestling the boat back on to the ground after it became an airborne flailing demon when relieved of its passengers.
Joe led off up vertical but juggy rock, quickly at first but soon slowing to a crawl. He seemed to take an age to make some moves to reach a ledge in a corner at the top of the pitch. All attempts at communication were lost in the gale but he eventually made it, still trying to tell us something but what it was we had no idea. Bruce followed and then I set off, soon reaching the point where Joe had had so much trouble. It was immediately obvious why: there was no protection worth the name, it was hard to stay on the holds in the wind and a fall and undoubted injury would have been extremely serious in this very remote location. There was nothing for it: "Throw me a rope!" I screamed. "That's what I was trying to tell you," Joe informed me as I made the very balancy moves onto the ledge and clipped into the several pieces of tat that comprised the apology for a belay.
Bruce set off on the next pitch. We tried to squeeze ourselves into the back of the corner to get some relief from the blasting wind. "This has all the makings of a major epic," John shouted into my ear when he arrived to join the huddle. It certainly began to feel that way as the rope slowed then stopped altogether for a long time. Bruce could not tell us what was happening and we began to get very worried as the climbing was only supposed to be VS and Bruce is a bold leader, but after 15 minutes of occasional jerky movements the rope ran out more quickly and shortly three tugs indicated he was safe and ready.
It had been a good lead. There had been no worthwhile protection and once again a leader fall was out of the question. Even following the pitch was a nightmare. The holds went straight up but the rope from Bruce pulled me up and right while the rope to John, blown into a tight arc pulled me down and right. All the while the gale shrieked and I have rarely been so glad to reach the top of a climb. "VS?'" Bruce yelled. "Not in these bloody conditions it isn't."
We'd got to the top. All that remained now was to get off the wretched thing and back across to the mainland. The tide was very obviously coming in fast and we had visions of the abseil rope wrapping itself around the stack, trapping us here. But it was almost as if the gods had tired of playing with us. The ropes didn't get snagged anywhere, the abseils went smoothly after we'd nearly come to blows arguing over who was going to escape first, and we got back across the channel just as the waves started to crash over the plinth.
Our celebrations that night were long and liquid and I was very happy indeed to hand Joe his winnings.