Old man of the sea
Cue opening music.....Scrabster to Stromness, the ferry slid past the edge of the island of Hoy. On deck we excitedly waited to see the iconic geological feature under a leaden sky, our feet on a damp deck as she rolled gently.
As if in a movie, the island wreathed in a moody mist quietly and slowly began to give up its secrets, then in the opening scene there he was. Standing majestic and strong the Old Man of Hoy fairytale like appeared, his hat capped in the swirling fine mist like smoke from his pipe.
Paula was speechless, her eyes wet with tears of pure joy, years in America as a geologist now she had finally seen in real life the feature in so many poured over books. The cliffs behind him were shrouded, providing a blank canvas for the 400ft high sea stack to starkly push out of the frame. I held Paula’s hand and stared at the old man, my years as a climber I felt the climb in my DNA, It was as if I knew every bit of the 400ft sandstone pillar even though I had never been this far North. Excitement and apprehension flooded my veins and my smile threatened to fix itself permanently in the changing breeze.
Stromness was sleepy and I bought some Crocs for my tired feet, the week we had spent climbing in Scotland had taken its toll. Another quaint little ferry ride with the weather slowly improving and we were there, on Hoy, the movie continued with frames of rolling hills, mysterious valleys and misty cliff tops. A taxi took us across the island to a smattering of houses down to a wide empty beach, a tiny stone Bothy nestled in between broken walls and patches of green. A stiff breeze pushed across our little beach and the towering cliffs and sand were in a soft focus sepia lens. I felt like I was in heaven, everything felt mysterious and exciting, the air was so clean it scrubbed my lungs I was alive and free. This was our desert island and this was our beach, safe and clean, rescue not required, I could live here forever. Along the beach under the foreboding cliffs was a grey shape, a murmuration of flies moved above it. The seal lay on its side, one blank eye staring at nothing, perfect, no scars or blood; it just lay there permanently asleep. The flies loved it and didn’t scatter as we got closer; with the long beach spreading out behind us and the black cliffs above it the freshly dead seal provided the romantic yet sad part of our movie.
The breeze had died down and the evening was warm, then our perfect world turned on us, our movie had a dark side that came in a surprising plot twist. Millions upon millions of black tiny insects filled the air, biting, swarming, filing your mouth, eyes and clothing. We tried to cook but the moving mass filled our pots and bowls so that the pasta was black, drinking was impossible without swallowing the dark horde. Inside the candlelit Bothy it was worse, somehow containing the biting mass between stone walls concentrated their attack and we ate our now extra protein filled meal in disgust and then sought relief in our tent.
I woke up to a gentle patter on the tent walls, upset at the rain yet relieved that the miniature army of mosquitoes would be gone and I had to pee, it was dark and calm with light from a half moon turning everything grey. Unzipping the tent the air still felt clean and dry, the moon appeared through the canvas and I emerged naked to the world. As I stood my sleepy brain didn’t compute the clear sky, it wasn’t rain, and the patter was the constant knocking from our devilish dark enemy. In a flash I was running, running break neck down to the beach, I had been mugged, duped by the little black thugs. They covered my naked skin as I ran, eyes, ears, mouth, arms, legs, genitals crawling with them, I could taste and smell them as I screamed towards the ocean. Feet scraping across rocks and sand I dived headlong into the quiet surf, the water a bracing relief from the dark horror that had covered my skin. Leaving the sea I ran back screaming, my wet body repelling my muggers enough to make it back to shout at Paula, I could hear her laughing already, ‘open the tent!...’open the tent!’, the zip ripped upwards and I flew like a spring board diver arms first into safety.
I had provided the comedic twist to or movie and the laughter continued until we both fell back into an amused sleep; my attackers had only stolen my ego and given me a harsh lesson in Scottish survival! They may as well been Bucky swigging hoodies, the little beasts!
In the morning we made our way up the hill, thankfully the breeze and light mist keeping the mosquito hooligans at bay. The cliff top swirled with billions of tiny water droplets as suddenly at the edge there it was, brooding below us, looking down from our high point the Old Man plummeted away his feet in a sloshing dirty sea. Cinematic colours spread out to the left and to the right the camera panned across a huge wall of rock, grass and whirling birds, locating the precipitous descent we began to scratch our way towards the sea, cue dramatic music.
I was worried, the descent was wet, deep pockets of turf filled with black water, it was steep, the grassy slope falling away to our right , dislodged pebbles sickeningly crashing towards rocks hundreds of feet below. Paula picked her way slowly, she should be on a rope not teetering along a knife edge, the thought of my love sliding and falling to certain death made me feel sick, I wouldn’t be able to save her hero like from a stunt like that. Eventually the dramatic music in my head slowed to a slow distant baseline as we stood under the tottering bent frame of the Old Man. We were in the wild, a harsh yet majestic jumble of rock, a sucking pulling grey sea and distant measureless cliff tops hidden with a skull cap of hanging water.
The rock was damp so that particles of sand stuck to everything, my hands were red from it and everything felt gritty. A towering crack line ran away from above me as I made a kind of ugly dance to get established below it, looking back Paula was smiling framed by a backdrop of sea and rock and my rope arched across the traverse swinging in an updraft from the waves. Somehow the wet crack allowed me to jam and scratch my way upwards to a point I could no longer see Paula or more than a couple of meters of my rope. I was not climbing well, too stressed, to concerned about falling and rescue to relax.
Clipping into a mess of old pieces of rope around a semi detached rock the next scene opened with my pointless shouting ‘SAFE’, CLIMB WHEN YOU’RE READY’, ‘PAULA CLIMB WHEN YOU’RE READY’ Nothing, no reply, looking up to the cliff top opposite walkers had gathered to watch the tense plot we were acting out. The walkers could hear me screaming but Paula couldn’t so I held the ropes and prayed she had started to climb, the rope moved and I could take it in at a surprising rate. Convinced she was going to fall I was planning in my head her rescue from this silent movie, she would fall into space, I would have to haul or lower, either option made me shudder. Subtitles ran through my alert brain, everything is OK they said, it’s all OK, a head appeared below, then an arm, then Paula was standing in the crack below me. I could have cried, this was not an easy climb and not her style at all yet she had climbed it with leading lady swagger and charm. On the tiny perch we embraced, cue romantic music, the lovers had reunited, my tension rushed out of me so I swooned.
Two more pitches climbed with only minor heckling from the Fulmer audience, I found myself below the last section. A widening crack led to the summit and as I bridged my way up the wind began to blow at me, straight in my face and down my fleece top. The crack was straight through the Old Man’s head and I could see a stomach churning void stretching out through the gaping slash. He had stopped smoking his pipe and for a brief moment as I reached the summit I could see for miles. Paula joined me on the bizarre tiny landscape on the summit; 400ft of clear air all around us an island on an island. Over the closing credits we beat a hasty retreat, no time for tea and medals, it was late and the climb had taken nearly 4 hours. It had been jubilant, exciting and unique but one of the most stressful climbs of my life, not for difficulty or its position but due to my level of responsibility, my directorship had taken its toll on the safe return of my love and life. Paula was the star and the Old Man was her Oscar.
‘An account of an ascent of The Old Man of Hoy E1 5b Hoy Island Orkney ‘