Climbing The Old Man of Hoy with Multiple Sclerosis

© Mike Norbury

45 year-old Keswick-based climber Duncan Booth is a familiar name to many, having been an active climber in the past, establishing numerous routes in the Lakes and beyond. In 2010, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Despite having to lower the intensity of his climbing, Duncan has taken on other activities and has raised a staggering £250,000 for the Multiple Sclerosis Society in the process...

Celebrating on top!  © Mike Norbury
Celebrating on top!
© Mike Norbury

'I climbed numerous E7s, with first ascents of about ten routes, I climbed E8 once and could climb up to 8a on sport routes and now I’m doing Severe climbs.'

Duncan recently climbed the Old Man of Hoy in the Orkney islands with a group of friends as his latest effort to raise money for charity. A climb that would have not presented any difficulty at all in the past, could now prove to be a significant challenge for Duncan with his lack of balance, poor co-ordination and weak legs. So, how did he get on? I asked Duncan a few questions about climbing this iconic Scottish sea stack...

How does MS affect you personally? 

MS has stopped me from doing loads of things I loved. I have had to adapt. My walking is terrible, my balance also. I suffer from the effects of neurological damage. I sometimes have pain, always have fatigue, and have times when my cognitive function and memory are not as they should be. I was finally diagnosed on 1/6/2010. With the benefit of hindsight I have had MS since 1999. I climbed reasonably well, but never got any better, despite training. Having multiple "weird" times when symptoms/relapses presented themselves, but always blaming something else.

Ascending the Old Man   © Duncan Booth
Ascending the Old Man
© Duncan Booth

You were a very active climber before your diagnosis, putting up multiple first ascents. How did you cope with the news of your diagnosis?

When diagnosed I obviously went through a desperately sad time. It has taken a few years to really come to terms with it. I could no longer do physically what I used to be able to. I started open water swimming in the Lake District, this was good, as it was physical, required no balance or walking and it kept me cool. I had discovered a worsening in all symptoms when hot. 

'Climbing has given me determination and perseverance and the notion that hard things involving pain and suffering are possible.'

Tell us a bit about the 10in10 challenge!

My wife Yvonne started the 10in10 fundraising challenge in 2011, as a way of raising money for research into a cure, organising an event with massive local support. During the first 10in10 I decided to do my own fundraising and with a couple of mates swam across and back over 10 lakes in under 10 hours.
Since then the 10in10 has gone from strength to strength. Each year I also undertake a challenge which keeps me focussed and gives me motivation. These challenges have been all about adapting.

Getting there...  © Duncan Booth
Getting there...
© Duncan Booth

In 2012 I learned to row a beginner's boat, culminating with a ten hour row through the night on Derwentwater, clocking up 39km.
In 2013 I got a faster, thinner boat and rowed ten hours through the night on Thirlmere, clocking up 72km.
In 2014 I rowed the length of all the lakes in the Lake District over a 48 hour period. In 2015 I climbed some easy, long routes in the Dolomites, and a couple of Via Ferrata.
This year I did The Old Man. is our website, we have loads of pictures, videos and info on there.

How did you prepare physically and mentally beforehand?

I didn't really need to prepare physically and mentally beforehand. I knew that I would get up it.  I knew the whole day would be a challenge. I took my electric bike, to get me to the stack and back to the bothy. if I had tried to walk it, I might still be there now.

A perfect day on the Old Man  © Mike Norbury
A perfect day on the Old Man
© Mike Norbury

Did everything run smoothly on the day? How did it feel to top out and complete the challenge? 

Everything went well on the actual ascent. Topping out was great, but it wasn't even half over. Loads of careful freezing abseils, a horrific stagger back up to the headland top. Then a long drawn out struggle back over the headland to the bothy, with several fences and gates to throw my bike over, before arriving back in the dark, enormously relieved.
I fell off my bike loads on the way back, I'm just recovering now from badly bruised ribs.

How much have you raised for charity through your various challenges?

So far we have raised over £650 for the Old Man challenge. Since diagnosis, we have raised £250,000 for the MS Society - a not insignificant amount.

Duncan and team enjoying the Old Man of Hoy  © Duncan Booth
Duncan and team enjoying the Old Man of Hoy
© Duncan Booth

What would your advice be to someone with aspirations to keep climbing and pushing themselves with MS?

Everyone with MS is so different. I can't offer any advice, apart from not to mourn for and hanker for what has been lost, but to instead adapt, change and focus on what is still possible.

Because I have climbed for so many years, it has given me determination and perseverance and the notion that hard things involving pain and suffering are possible.

​Watch a video of Duncan's climb below:

Duncan is sponsored by: Berghaus

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21 Oct, 2016
21 Oct, 2016
I sacked off climbing tonight cos my shoulder's a bit twingy. I feel like a bit of a wimp now!
21 Oct, 2016
Inspiring story...
21 Oct, 2016
Respect. You're an example to everyone experiencing adversity. Have a donation.
21 Oct, 2016
Nice one Dunc! Survived a bothy trip with those two! :)
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