Meeting the Old Man

Climbers are hereby warned that there is neither suitable rescue equipment nor experienced rock climbers in the vicinity. Climbers therefore proceed at their own risk.

The sign at the beginning of the walk into the Old Man of Hoy succinctly sums up its appeal to climbers. It is situated on the remote west side of Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland. With an approach time that is often measured in days, not hours, it feels more like an alpine route than a rock climb.

The Old Man is first glimpsed from the ferry between the Scottish Mainland and the Orkney Islands. Dwarfed by nearby St John's head, the third highest seacliff in the UK and itself the home of some impressive routes, the stack looks less than its 137m. It's horizontal strata give the impression of a gothic skyscraper while the Orchadian sandstone suggests it has been constructed by a child on the beach.

Although no exact records exist, the Old Man is probably less than 400 years old. Maps from the middle of the eighteenth century show only a headland, while a painting from around 1815 shows a free standing arch with two legs, from where the formation takes its name. Sometime in the early nineteenth century, one of the legs collapsed and formed the boulder bridge used to access the base of the climb.

Despite its initial impression, the sandstone from which the stack is formed is surprisingly solid, feeling firm under the fingers and providing plenty of friction for the feet. That it hasn't all been eroded away is down to the plinth of igneous basalt on which it sits. As well as protecting the stack from the waves, we can be grateful that this provides a dry means of access to the routes. However, the boulders on the beach below show that the Old Man won't stand forever, a deep crack already splits the top 25 metres clean in two. Best climb it while its still there.

Using modern equipment, it is possible to climb the stack in four pitches but the first ascent in 1966 took three days. Without camming devices to protect the off-width cracks, Chris Bonnington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey had to place pegs, bolts and wooden wedges, many of which are still in place, festooned with abandoned tape and carabiners. Their route up the East face has become the voie normale while a variety of other routes up to E6 have been climbed on the other faces.

In July 1967, the BBC made a ground breaking outdoor broadcast from the Old Man. Featuring three pairs of climber, Bonnington and Patey repeated their original route, Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis climbed the South Face while Dougal Haston and Pete Crew tackled the South East arete. The images of these pioneers, hanging from their slender threads off the precarious needle helped to introduce the television public to the world of hard rock climbing. In 1998 a pregnant Catherine Destivelle furthered cemented that image by soloing the stack for the film The Rock Queen.

While the cameras may not be rolling when you arrive at the cliff top for your ascent, you cannot help but appreciate what a cinematic spectacle the Old Man presents. A 120m scramble down the grassy cliffs, along a narrow, precipitous path leads to the base. From here the stack rears above you and, assuming you are taking the normal route, there is no doubt as to where you need to go.

The first pitch leads up the arete with easy climbing over a series of ledges and plenty of placements that inspire confidence and help to calm the butterflies that beset all but the hardiest ascensionists. There is a little loose rock so, with your belayer just below you, care should be taken not to contribute to the natural erosion. All too soon you arrive at the “Gallery”, an enormous ledge littered with the remnants of previous belays.

From here the challenging traverse is made into a corner, split by a crack. This is classic jamming territory with the crack staying slightly larger than hand width and slightly smaller than arm width for over 30m. A small overhang about a third of the way up provides the crux of the route and, while the climbing may feel hard, the situation is superb with the blue sea glimpsed between your feet and waves of red rock stretching out over your head.

After being buried up to your elbows all the way up the crack, a small ledge provides some welcome relief. Looking up to the top of the stack, you realise how insignificant you are compared to it's towering height. Climbing on over a series of ledges, it is clear that the worst of the difficulties is past and surprisingly quickly you reach the bottom of an open book corner.

At sea level, on its own, this corner would merit three stars. A hundred and ten metres up at the tip of a sea stack it is the ideal way to round off a superb route. As you bridge your way up, handholds seem to appear exactly where you want them; never hard, it requires thought rather than strength. Towards the top, the crack in the back of the corner splits the stack completely in two and you can see the sea on the other side. If a light breeze is blowing through it, it gives a peculiar sensation that Old Man is swaying. If it is a howling gale, it is best to climb on and put such thoughts out of your mind.

The summit is bigger than expected and, on a clear day, provides views across Hoy and and over the Pentland Firth to the mainland of Scotland. Three or four abseils see you to the base of the route and the long walk back to civilization.

If you have already done the Original Route (E1 5b) or fancy something more challenging, there is always Ancient Mariner (E2 5b/c), A Few Dollars More (E3 5c) or Brown and McNaught-Davis' South Face (E2 5b). Haston and Crew's SE arete aid route has been superseded by the super hard A Fist Full of Dollars (E5 6a), which the guidebook warns “is a big route in every sense”.

Having hurried to the top of the Old Man, it is worth lingering some time in the Orkney Islands. The gentle pace of life, where ferries are used like buses and friendly faces greet you from behind counters and in bars, is an ideal way to counteract the remnants of adrenaline left from the climb. Stay a day or two and relax before returning to the mainland.

Access to the Orkney Islands, Hoy and the Old Man

Ferries to Orkney go from Scrabster on the North coast of Scotland to Stromness. Northlink Ferries (0845 6000 449 has crossings several times daily. It takes 1.5 hours and costs £29.60 return. On its way around the West coast of Hoy, it passes the Old Man, providing a good view of the stack and of the descent route down to it but not the Original Route which is on the inland face.

There are two ferries from Mainland (Orkney's biggest island) to Hoy. A foot passenger ferry goes from Stromness to Moaness in the north of Hoy. Alternatively it is possible to drive or get a taxi from Stromness to Houghton (Brass's Taxis 01856 850750, 15 minutes, around £13). From Houghton a small vehicle and passenger ferry run by Orkney Ferries (01856 872044 takes half an hour to reach Lyness and costs £6.50 per person return.

If you arrive in Moaness, you can walk the 9.5km across the island to Rackwick Bay. If this seems like too much work or you arrive in Lyness, Mr T Williams of Bu Farm (01856 791263) provides a taxi service, as he did for the 1967 BBC outside broadcast. From Lyness to Rackwick Bay costs around £15, a little less from Moaness.

The stark warning sign noted above in the Rackwick Bay hostel car park and it is from here that the path to the Old Man starts. It leads out to the headland, with a few posts and signs on the way. After a while you start to climb steeply over the headland and the tip of the Old Man comes into view. (45mins).

The descent path starts at the second obvious gully, about 100m right of the stack looking out. After a steep series of sandstone steps, the path traverses towards the Old Man, exposed but well defined. It rises over a buttress and then descends to the boulder bridge connecting the stack to the main land.


Accommodation in Rackwick Bay is basic but there are a number of options. There is a YHA hostel (01856 873535), beds are £9.60 per person per night or it also allows camping in its grounds with use of the kitchen and shower. On the beach is a free bothy which is in good repair and has running water and a flushing toilet. You can also camp for free in the grounds of the bothy. Midges can be a problem so take some insect repellent.


Maps and Guidebooks

The routes up the Old Man of Hoy are covered in the SMC's Northern Highlands North. Chris Mellor has written a superb guide to the sea stacks around Britain which can be downloaded free from [].

Ordinance Survey maps Landranger 7 (Orkney, Southern Isles) and Explorer 462 (Orkney, Hoy, South Walls and Flotta) cover Hoy. You can find the Old Man of Hoy at grid reference HY175007.