An Old Man and Young Men

During the long walk out to Poolewe, having spent two days at Carnmore, climbing Gob, the classic Hard Rock route, I pondered on what we had acheived. In climbing terms, not a lot; on a personal level, our successful ascent was a long held ambition acheived.
Yet climbers are not known as being amongst those whose ambitions are easily sated. In fact Paul had wanted to stay on to attempt Dragon, the other classic HVS of the crag. Heavy rain on the first day which delayed our climbing however, meant that we had enough food for a meal before walking out, but little else. I knew Paul would have stayed anyway; perhaps I was less driven or simply felt that I had accomplished what I wanted at Carnmore, either way, I was keen to move on, both towards the prospect of a well earned pint and fresh supplies, and the next climb on my list.
Long before reaching the end of the track, where the river falls in one last drop to the sea, my thoughts had turned to the Old Man of Stoer.
It was an easier climb in terms of technical difficulty, and despite its dramatic situation, arguably less serious in nature than either Gob or Dragon on Carnmore. Yet it would not be without its challenges. Neither of us had actually set up a tyrolean before now; essential unless the climber is prepared to swim the channel between the cliffs and the stack. We both knew the theory well enough of course; tomorrow would tell.

(We later learnt that a climber was drowned here a short while before our trip. My understanding of events is as follows: Having climbed the stack and abseiled to the base without incident, he proceeded to haul himself across the now sagging ropes of the tyrolean. On reaching the middle of the channel, now as much in the water as out and being hit repeatedly by breaking waves, he became exhausted and was unable to haul himself the last few yards to safety. Without a backrope, his companions were unable to pull him to safety either. I do not know how events unfolded from there, but it was a sobering account to hear immediately after our own high spirited adventure during which we made mistakes at almost every turn.)

A rather grotty descent from the cliffs saw us standing opposite the Old Man, the channel near empty with the tide low and ebbing still. I hopped across on submerged boulders, fixing the rope to an old peg, the solitary anchor for the tyrolean.
With the doubled rope tensioned, Paul came across, full of boyish enthusiasm, all legs and arms, swinging wildly as I reminded him of the rusted nature of the anchor.
The first section of climbing was easy enough and I belayed Paul as he lead up into the bulges of pitch 3. It looks obvious from the cliffs opposite, but once on the stack, route finding is tricky, overhangs and bulging blocks leading the unwary astray. Finding a stance, Paul belayed and I followed on increasingly dirty rock.
From the stance, I bridged up a damp corner, rounded holds covered in damp dust. After a couple of rather disconcerting and unprotected moves I found another old peg. Assuming we were back on route, I pushed on finding a more comfortable ledge with more pegs for a belay. This time it was Paul's turn to chastise me for relying on such poor anchors. I hastily clipped into another cam as Paul set off, unwittingly, now completely off route.
A corner with a long reach stopped him. We swapped leads and, at full stretch with finger tips just curling over a tiny rounded lip, I managed to mantel precariously onto the slab above. Soon enough I entered the finishing chimney, belatedly realising that only now were we back on route.
On checking the guide book later that evening, it transpired we had linked the Original Route (VS) to the more recent North West Corner (E2), before rejoining the Original Route where the two meet at the top of the slab, beneath the chimney. I was childishly gratified to note that the pitch was given a technical grade of 6a, the crux being the moves to gain the ramp, harder than anything I had lead to date. Privately I doubted that it warranted 6a, but success was sweet.
We posed for the obligatory summit photos before starting the abseil descent, where we made another mistake.
I watched Paul reverse off the ledge and, tied into the anchor, leaned over the edge to follow his descent. Very soon he was hanging free of the stack and seemed to hang stationery for a long while before continuing down. The tensioned ropes suddenly bounced as Paul's weight came off: my turn.
Prussick loops on. Check belay plate. Check main anchor - pointless as I have no back up anchor to remove. Check which rope to pull down so that the knot doesn't jam. Check everything again and in a second I'm committed, sliding slowly, smoothly, ropes running with slick heat across my palm and then the cliff is gone and there is nothing but space all around.
A seal flashes through the channel over 100ft below and I can see Paul's upturned face watching as I descend. He is shouting something but I can't understand the words.
"Don't let go..."
Of course I'm not going to bloody let go.
Closer now and I realise the ropes are swinging a long way above the platform on which Paul is standing, shouting: "Don't let go! If you let go when you get down, we'll lose the ropes."
Of course. He must have just made it on stretch; that explained the long pause in Paul's descent as he realised our error and considered his options. He gambled and carried on descending.
I least I now knew the ropes would reach the ledge, but once there, with the ropes extended at full stretch, once my weight came off they would shoot upwards, out of reach, lost...
With Paul hauling, adding his weight to the ropes, I stood on tiptoe, unthreading them from my belay plate, keeping a tight grasp of one strand to pull down through the sling at the top.
Of course, we were off route again. Instead of breaking the abseil at a convenient ledge 45m down, we had committed to descending in one go; an abseil of approximately 60m on 50m ropes...
The return via the tyrolean was without incident thankfully, although with the sea now lapping at my back, I was glad of the additional safety rope with which we belayed each other across.
A last view of the Old Man of Stoer and another ambition acheived.
With the clag set in the next morning, we began the long drive south, temporarily sated but already thinking of the next trip... The South Pillar of Stetind in Norway perhaps...


Ian said…
I doff my mountain cap Will! My wife and I walked out to look at the Old Man(no intention of climbing it, but I thought I'd "take a look" for future reference). I can still remember the first view, and my immediate reaction, which was "f*** that!"

Good work sir!

Will Herman said…
Thank you again Ian - I doubt I would fare so well these days but the Original Route really is enjoyable climbing and low in the grade; as long as you stick to the route!
Iain said…
Many many years ago I climbed this with a friend. Our abseil ropes jammed and I ended up swimming the channel 3 times before we recovered the gear. My friend tried the Tyrolean on an old rope that had been left behind- it snapped and he fell in carrying a rucksack full of gear. Luckily I now had our own ropes to fish him out with. Relieved laughter went on for a long time.
Will Herman said…
Hi Iain,

It seems to be one of those routes; everyone I know who has done it, has a story to tell...One of the great days out in Scottish climbing.
Vince said…
Nice one will! I confess to only ever looking at the Old Man from the opposite cliff and never being tempted.
Will Herman said…
Thanks Vince - wishing I'd never been tempted was something I often thought about on a few of the more esotoric climbs I ran away from years ago!