About me:

Originally from Hull, I now live in Llanberis, North Wales. Totally addicted to climbing, I work at the Indy Climbing wall and as a freelance routesetter to fund my dirty habit.

13 June 2013

A Shade Familiar

After all the heady climbing I’ve being doing, and generally without a head, I was ready for a nice spot of bolt clipping. Over the weekend Jemma and I went to Kilnsey. For those who haven’t been it’s probably the best sport crag in Britain. It’s got about five main buttresses with huge roofs, bulging bulges and yawning steepness. The quality only kicks in properly at about 7c but from then on it’s pure, overhanging class. Anyway, on Saturday I lost my keys so we set off about an hour late. The van prefers a lazier pace and when we got to Skipton a sea of bodies flooded the road and we had to take a lengthy diversion, so we only arrived in the late afternoon.

Events continued in a similar fashion at the crag. My arms felt leaden from having eleven stone of gibbering man hanging off them for three hours on Thursday and all the warm-ups had ropes or climbers hanging on them, so we were forced to take the Alternative Optional Extra (7a+). Flash pumped and reminded how crap I am on bouldery ground, my ambitions dropped from 8a+ to finishing off a 7c+ I’d dropped the last move on three years ago. Jemma cruised up AOE and while I belayed I bumped into climbing’s most envied man; Alex Barrows, who had just made light work of True North (8c). Wanker.

I got on Mr. Nice (7c+) for a quick afternoon tick, but I quickly realised I was much weaker than last time I was here. So much so in fact, I couldn’t even do the moves in isolation. I spent half an hour trying to unlock a sequence that I had nearly done on redpoint a long time ago. I stripped the route and called it a day. I recommended Nerve Ending (7b) to Jemma, remembering Billy Laurence flashing it for his first 7b. After she’d fallen off for the second time, I also remembered that the route is full of reaches and Billy is a gangly bugger. We spent more time driving and more time in the pub than we did at the crag that day.

We slept a few hundred metres from Kilnsey and we were still beat to all the warm-ups.  We managed to negotiate a time slot on Highway 395 (6c+). George turned up, hungover, and all three of us had chance to throw a lap in. We moved on to Smooth Torquer (7a+), I thought it would be a good second warm-up, which it was for George and Jemma, but I felt like a fish out of water and the lead arm came back.

I understood by this point that my arms weren’t going to let me make hard moves so I went for a flash burn on Dominatrix (7c). It went quite well and I made it to about half way getting just through the crux sequence before an eyeful of chalk and and armful of porridge had me off. Retrospectively, this was a good place to come off, the top roof was awkward and graunchy and It took a few goes to crack the squirmy sequence. I was chuffed when George fell off lower than I did. He might have been hungover but ill savour that burn-off. In your face Ullrich! I was elated when I managed the route second go, it was anyone’s game when I set off. Unfortunately, George got up it second go too.

A picture from a few years ago showing the impressive North Butress. Dominatrix takes the white groove in the near distance. Laura Perry Collection

On the Monday, George managed to persuade me to head up to Cloggy with him for an after work hit. He wanted to try It’ll be Alright on the Night (E7 6b). On the walk-in, we passed a couple of lads from the Lakes, they said it was ‘midgey as hell’ up there, but we carried on up. At the bottom of the crag we expected to be swarmed but it was fine. I got on Womb Bits (E5 6b) with the intention of linking it straight into the second pitch of Great Wall (E4 6a) to give a monster 65m wall climb.

It was going well and I was climbing confidently until halfway. My feet started cramping in the bridges when I tried to use small footholds and my big toe felt like it was taking the strain barefoot. I re-jigged my boot a couple of times on a small foot ledge, but it didn’t change anything. I set off into the crux sequence and after the first couple of moves I ended up on two dinky foot edges. My feet were squeezing up; taloning and my knees were weakening. I writhed about on the wall, making a few half-hearted attempts upwards. In the end, I caved and slumped onto the cam beneath me. I took my boots off and shouted at them. Goosfrahbah...

Back on the route I was quite glad of the respite. On some fairly bold ground I felt like I was moments from a pain-induced panic as I gained the Great Wall Jugs. The GW half was fun, but I was driven by a great sense of urgency. I had about three seconds per foothold. At the belay I was awash with relief when I took my boots off. The sun came round onto the wall with a ‘eureka’ feeling, lighting the place up like a rediscovered attic. Magic.

We scampered round to the base of It’ll be Alright on the Night. As George racked up the midges moved in. We had been detected. Word soon spread and by the time George set off, hundreds of the little blighters had arrived for the feast. I tried my best to belay. I had my trousers tucked in my socks, my tops into my trousers. I pulled my buff right over my head and ratcheted my hood tight around this. I was a sealed unit, but they still got in, buzzing around inside my cocoon. The low, reverberating drone sounded like some kind of blood-fuelled power station. What would they eat if I wasn’t here?

I ‘meditated’ it out, doing my best to stay calm. I would let them picnic on my hand before raining down a mighty vengeance with the other. I killed hundreds of them in the time I was there, yet, it made no difference. They stifled the air, a black, infuriating mist. Luckily, George made light work of the route. I came to second, I had to take down my cotton force field. All the way up the route they chewed at me; gnawing me senseless. I flailed up the route like a burning man falling from a building. At the top of the crag I was livid. We both were. They’d followed George up too. I screamed ‘Argghhhh! Help! ‘, enjoying the echo more than anything, then, two minutes later on the descent, voices came up the crag ‘Is everything ok? Do you need help?’  Whoops!

Finally it’s raining and I’ve an excuse to take a few rest days, get some money in the bank and notch up the power a touch. Phew.

10 June 2013

The Long Blog Post: Part II

3am. I put on my pre-prepared porridge and ate my laid-out clothes. I felt surprisingly awake. George and I began the slow trudge up to St. John’s Head. Two hours later we arrived at our stashed bags. The glum moorland disappeared into swirling white on one side, on the other, a thousand vertical feet spewed cloud like a chemistry vial. I couldn’t imagine feeling anymore isolated.

We began the descent, weaving down gullies through knee-deep elephant grass that hid streams and holes. Fulmars shot out from all over making sure you stayed tense throughout. For much of the descent the top and the bottom of the cliffs were hidden in the mist; a journey to nowhere from nowhere. It felt like a bad idea to carry on in these damp, threatening conditions.  George pressed on so I followed thinking ‘Well, he has been to Patagonia and stuff. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing?!’ Forgetting that George never really knows what he’s doing.  I found out later that he had thought the same, but at the time, I kept following so he kept going. At the boulder strewn shoreline, unseen screaming cormorants maintained the air of tension as we made our way across the beach, I couldn’t imagine feeling anymore isolated.

Vanishing into the haze on the descent.

At the base of the route we could see two pitches up. The other twenty-one of them were hidden in a Grand Theft Auto-style shroud. I re-applied the bandage to my burn, necked some more pain killers (hoping they might act as fear killers too) and set off on pitch one of The Long Hope Route

Our 'heroic' DVD cover shot.

I took each move as it came, I was enjoying it and in the moment. The climbing was never too hard, but sandy all the while and you could climb for tens of metres without finding a single runner. George seconded quickly and I got pretty pumped trying to take in both his ropes whilst pulling a haul bag up.

Heading into the mists of time on P1 of The Long Hope Route.

 Pitch two was similar but with a trickier, unprotected start. As George neared the end of the pitch I looked up to take a chunky grain of grit to the eye. The grass pitches were surprisingly steep on some parts, but we passed these quickly, soon finding ourselves at the base of St John’s face. I couldn’t imagine feeling anymore isolated.

Seconding P2 like a sand crab.

The cloud had lifted to reveal the next fifteen pitches or so, the towering wall spiralled away forever. The E2 Corner was on good rock, climbing felt good and there were some sequential Fulmar sections involving initial drainage followed by tactful positioning and calming stealth. George got the first vom of the day seconding. Next up, ‘The Vile Crack’, George disappeared into this emerging filthy and grinning thirty minutes later.
The Vile Crack (It's much more vile than it looks here).

Then, ‘The Unconquerable Flakes’; two exposed E4 pitches around roofs, via thick, powdery lichen and beach-like breaks.  We stopped for lunch and whacked the speakers on. It seemed so surreal to have Primal Scream blaring out up there, we were making good time and spirits were high.
George balancing up sand on The Unconquerable flakes.

The next pitch was simply a walk along an enormous break, complicated by half a dozen poised Fulmars. Softly, Softly, pass a seagull. The belay was situated right next to one of the birds. I don’t know what Ben and Caff did to it the day before, but it seemed unphased, in fact, happy to see me. George led a monster E1 pitch which included ‘The Stomach Traverse’; an incredible, exhausting wriggle along a narrow break for about 15m with 800ft of thin air dropping away right by your side. 

The Stomach Traverse.

Exhaustion began to take hold. We ate more food and cranked up The Red, Hot Chilli Peppers, amplified in the break. Above us was the infamous ‘Guillotine Flake’ where Drummond began to crack on the first ascent. He wrote how he felt this was a suicide mission, and how a voice in his head taunted him; ‘like some kind of male witch in hot gloat’. He imagined grabbing the flake and tearing it off wiping them both out and chopping the ropes. With this in mind, I set off to an internal chant of ‘like a male witch in hot gloat’. I tried not to think as I pulled on various smaller suspect flakes. The climbing was the most strenuous and technical yet and cramp was setting in up my arms, and in my feet and hands. I got ‘the guillotine’ and tried to scurry quickly along it, but, I was too tired and a slow, intense grapple with the male witch ensued. This moment epitomised our distinct lack of urgency. 
Stood on 'The Guillotine'.

After George had led the next E6 pitch it was 8 o’clock, we had five more pitches to go including some English 6c and the wind was picking up. We wouldn’t make it to the top before dark. We were both shattered. It had got too cold to bivvy. This is where our adventure began.

At our high point on the route before bailing off around the arete.

I led off round the left arête in search of an escape up Big John (E5 6a), we were only fifty vertical metres from the top so it should be fine finishing up this. As I made it round onto the Northeast face the wind was howling; screeching across the face and sending cold air ripping through my five layers. I belayed after about twenty metres at a junction with a few potential escape routes. George forayed each of the ‘up’ lines with a sense of urgency brought about by the scowling wind and the setting sun. I wanted to sleep. I was freezing cold and all I could think of was sleep. I suggested going back round to the long hope face and having a nap, but George had other plans. He traversed off leftwards with a wide break for hands and sheets of turf for feet. I couldn’t watch as the wind was coming from the same direction and it made my face too cold, so I turned away as George disappeared. He shouted ‘watch me’ just after placing a big cam, as some of the grass peeled away from the wall beneath his feet. I thought about a nice, warm bed as I struggled to keep my eyes open. I came to second and tried to switch my brain off and go, but the dim light and loose stuff kept me thinking. Every time I arrived at a piece of gear I felt a whoosh of relief, this was serious and I was seriously exhausted. When I reached the big cam George told me that was the last piece of gear that would hold a fall. I was facing a twenty-metre pendulum if I came off, and I had to climb the moves that made George Ullrich shout ‘watch me’.

I was frantic after I took the cam out, the grass that began to peel on George came clean off the wall. Fulmars baulked in the break and George kept shouting at me to get in it. I had no choice. I took the rucksack off, stuffed it in the break and then followed it in. ‘The Stomach Traverse’ on the proper route seemed like a pleasant stroll now. This break was muddy, loose and leant out towards oblivion. It was lined with Fulmars and they were pissed. I crawled along fighting the urge to sleep now I was laid down. I held the bag in front of me for a shield as ‘bwarks’ and ‘bleughhhs’ preceded splatters as the bag got a good covering of fishy vomit, inches from my head. 

George had to coax me along another pitch whilst my head bobbed. It was fully night time as we entered the bowels of the Earth. We had crawled out its intestine and we were now in the cavernous anus of the beast. The smell of sulphur, mud and bird chunder thickened the air and now St. John was literally about to shit us out. 

We abseiled down into the dark, moist gully with one head torch between us; I forgot mine. We climbed two hideous pitches up saturated mud which slipped away with every step, before arriving back on elephant grass to the dim glow of the sun riding beneath the Northern horizon. We had survived. We walked back, I felt like a rubber segway; leaning forwards to keep my legs twanging downhill, almost sleep walking. After two-hours we arrived back at the tents. That was the most enduring twenty four hours of my easy, modern life. I took a shoe off and fell asleep to the hallucinatory sound of Fulmars vomiting all around. 

I woke three hours later, parched, with one gritty eye glued shut and walked into the bothy. I could have not noticed the savage slowness that I moved with if it were not for contrast of everyone else’s normal pace. I spent the whole day eating. 
Viking Re-enactors having trouble with a tent outside the bothy.

The next day all five of us headed to Rora Head. Caff was just resting, Adam and Ben did Two Wee Laddies (E6 6b) and George and I attempted the headwall cracks we had spotted a few days earlier. The steep line was mega sandy and the cracks were wider that the gear we had on us, so we swung around the arête and climbed the ‘Fern Hill’ style, stepped cracks. I was still knackered and I got pumped to the eyeballs climbing it and cleaning as I went. The route turned out to be awesome finger-crack climbing and had the best rock we climbed on Hoy. It became The Wise Hoy Hawk (E5 6a).
Atop P1 on the first ascent of The Wise Hoy Hawk (E5 6a).

 Funnily enough, I remember seeing a talk in Sheffield by Adam Long about new-routing on Scotland’s North Coast and being hugely inspired, declaring that one of my climbing ambitions was to go to these Scottish sea cliffs and try new routes, ground-up and hopefully about E5. Here I was five years later, putting up a new E5, onsight, with Adam himself.

George on P2 of The Wise Hoy Hawk (E5 6a).

On our last day on Hoy, Caff and Ben went to try a line they had spied from the bothy; The Death Corner. An hour later they returned. The rock was rubble and if they had stayed any longer they would’ve been locked in until the evening by the tide. George and I went and did Two Wee Laddies. I fell off the very top of the first pitch when a poor hand jam ripped on sandy, greasy cracks. George took up the sharp end and managed to smash through the crux. I seconded pumped stupid. Caff was going to climb with us, but we were taking too long for him so he prussiked out to run all the way back to the bothy to grab his kit and climb with Adam. Caff spent the rest of the day running round, psyched out his mind to climb, trying to persuade someone to climb with him. In the end he resorted to soloing. That man is keen!

George and I on a pair of E2s at Yesnaby. Peter Moore Collection.

We left Hoy, taking the head of all their big talk with us, and arrived at Yesnaby Crag on Orkney at about 8am. Here we all did a bunch of E2’s an E4 and took it in turns to lead the neo-classic Dragonhead (E6 6b). Caff and Ben had gone first and left patches of chalk on non-holds to lure me out the wrong way. While I was climbing, their bespectacled faces appeared over the top and looking like school kids watching a teacher walk right into their trap, I kept my wits about me and followed my instinct. Also, the holds Caff had chalked were too small for me to hold anyway. After lunch at Julia’s we hit the road and headed South. The plan was to stop at the CC hut and then press on to The Cobbler in the morning to try Dalriada (E7 6b). Caff had tried to climb here two or three times before, but wind, rain and poor visibility had stopped him in his tracks. I woke up feeling knackered and completely worn down so I caught a lift home with Jemma instead. The rest of them made the two hour walk up to the crag just in time for the rain to come in. Thank you fatigue.

Photo: Alex n george on Dragonhead this morn
On Dragonhead (E6 6b). Caff's red herring chalk on the right. James Mchaffie Collection.

After a few days relaxing and recovering Jemma took me mountain biking. It was nice to do something different, and Long Hope had made me keen to face down some other things I find intimidating. Then, not quite ready to get back on the horse I went for a day top roping with Caff. He made a very quick headpoint of Rare Lichen (E9 6c) and I worked out the moves on Gribbin Wall Climb (E9 6c). It was nice to be on the blunt end of the rope and do some hard moves. I will be back on this soon to see if a lead is a realistic proposition. 

On Thursday, Lee ‘Lee-Dog’ Roberts and I stomped up to Cloggy. The walk-in felt fine after the daily uphill grind on Hoy. We warmed up on Jelly Roll (E2 5b) and used it to access the upper facet of the crag. Lee then did the superbly positioned; The Axe (E4 6a). Not feeling on form and wildly intimidated, he savoured his way up the route and topped out a very happy man. Then, also not feeling on form and not massively psyched I went for a literal look at Authentic Desire (E7 6b) with full intention of escaping up the adjacent Octo (E1 5b). 

Calum and George had both done it earlier in the week. Calum had said it was well-protected and very soft for the grade. George said it was pretty airy and there wasn’t really any gear after the crux but the climbing was steady. The reality was that after a decent RP at about 7m, there was no more gear I would’ve really wanted to even slump onto until a thin break at 25m. 

I had such mental turmoil getting up the route, three hours of the male witch in hot gloat took its toll. A repetitive cycle went through my mind; I don’t want to be in this position anymore, I’ll equalise this RP and skyhook and bail. If I’m gonna do that I might as well get the abb rope flicked over. I can’t use the abb rope that’s cheating. I couldn’t bail off the gear because it was unjustifiable with a rope there, but, using the rope was unjustifiable too. I was pinned to the arête by a catch-22. I spent a whole hour hanging from a flatty after the crux. George (who had just made a rare onsight of Shaft of a Dead Man (E7 6c)) and Caff were peering over the top as I reached the flatty. They walked all the way around the crag after packing up and I was still in the very same place. In the end I sucked it up, made some scary arête moves and got stood on the flatty. I spent another thirty minutes here, before finally going for it up the unprotected, sidepull sequence to the sanctuary of the thin break. I was a broken man; a spent force. I never wanted to onsight a scary route again. My brain had gone into meltdown and I sat shivering on the belay. 

Photo: It's all been going down in the mountains of North Wales in the last few days. James Mchaffie has repeated 'Rare Lichen' E9 6c and came within a whisker of on-sighting 'Margins of the Mind' E8 6c. Dave Rudkin has repeated the 'Ogwen Crack' E7/8 6c and there have been multiple on-sight ascents of E7s including 'Authentic Desire', 'It'll be Alright on the Night' and 'Shaft of a Dead Man'. All this and the forecast is good for the weekend too! Here's George Ullrich on-sighting 'Authentic Desire'.
George on Authentic Desire (E7 6b). Calum Muskett Collection.
Lee seconded rapidly, then scrambled up to the top of the crag. As I reached the top of the crag, the sun drew sigh upon sigh of relief from my lungs. I breathed out the darkness of my Authentic Desire; exorcised of the focus and fear. Through the contrast of moving from the shade to the light, reality shifted into a fond memory and I wondered what E7 to try next...

7 June 2013

The Long Blog Post

In the two weeks running up to our trip to Hoy I lost the will to climb. Even on sunny days, the idea of cranking up some pumpy wall, or sitting on some sunny belay ledge, stopped seeming like fun. I couldn’t really put my finger on what was going on... Maybe I’m subconsciously preparing myself for Hoy? Maybe I’m getting old and I can’t face it anymore? Maybe I’m subconsciously cowering away from the impending challenge? Maybe my brain is just tired? Maybe the pressure of having less than no money is finally getting to me? Maybe I’ve realised there is more to life and I’m wasting my time? Maybe my days of climbing are over?? 

After a week off, one thing tempted me onto a rope. I went to have a crack at a big link on Main Cliff with Tom Ripley in an attempt to re-establish some kind of psyche. I seconded Emulator first, all the while dread encroached. At the top of Emulator, my fate was sealed. I went to have a go at ‘the link’. I managed to get up the direct start to Alien, but mid-way through the main section of the pitch my mind buckled with an almost audible snap. I knew I had to do Skinhead next. I was pumped (was I really?), it was greasy (was it really?), and every move was a fight against myself. Doubt had me by the bollocks and I conceded.

I’m positive that the ability to override fear, doubt and general concern is directly proportional to passion and desire. My passion was gone just in time for The Long Hope Route.

Three days later, George, Caff, Bransby and I were on our way North. I’d torn my bicep bouldering the day before, which, as frustrating as it was; provided a superb get-out clause should I need it. I had no idea how it would feel to climb on, but the soreness while sitting in the passenger seat didn’t bode well. We stopped at a service station for breakfast No.2. As soon as we pulled out of the services my untouched, three-pound coffee dived from the cup-holder pouring down my leg and the door into a gritty, brown puddle in the foot well. Fortunately, it didn’t scold me that would’ve been a nightmare.
We rocked up at Tunnel Walls in Buichaille Etive Mor (It might be there, I’m just guessing?). Caff and Ben cruised up Romantic Reality (E7 6b), to the extent George had thought they were on an E5. Meanwhile we climbed one of the only bolted routes on any Scottish mountain crag, the wonderfully crimpy; Uncertain Emotions (7b), and the extreme rock classic; The Risk Business (E5 6a). My bicep only hurt on undercuts, I began to feel a little psyched again.

George on pitch 1 of The Risk Business (E5 6a).
We stayed overnight in the CC hut, where I bumped into an old friend, Adam Harrison. He and his mate were staying up there for a month or so, mopping up Scottish classics every day. This sounded appealing and I wished I could do the same. Overnight I’d gained a dickie tummy and a bit of a cold, I was beginning to feel like The Long Hope Route might fall off the cards.

We arrived at the ferry terminal on Tuesday morning to learn that the ferry was cancelled and would not be running again until at least Thursday. I felt a warm wave of relief, but I quickly realised this was just the puddle of coffee sloshing over my foot as the car span around and we made for another ferry port.

Me on Pitch 2 of The Risk Business (E5 6a). George Ullrich photo.

We arrived on Hoy to be greeted by strong winds, self-proclaimed and unofficial judicial independence, a desperate attempt at a tourism industry and a baffling, poetic pamphlet quote; ‘To take the head of all their big talk, pay attention to the wise Hoy hawk’. We all pondered this clearly very poignant message as we drove, packed like sardines, to Rackwick Bay Bothy.

Packed tight into the car on Hoy.

We awoke the next day to ‘a mild breeze’. Caff and Ben had left already to work the Headwall pitch on TLHR. George and I decided to begin our time on Hoy with a saunter up the E5 on Britain’s biggest sea stack; The Old Man of Hoy. When we arrived at the top of the overlooking cliff, I could barely stand in the wind, but we reasoned that, having four climbable faces, at least one must be out of the wind. At the base it transpired that our best bet was the East face via The Original Route (E1 5b). I was surprised at how sandy the route was despite being one the most sought after routes in the UK. I had my first fulmar encounter of the trip and it took about fifteen minutes to negotiate the black-eyed bastard. Near the end of the pitch I came across a wide break with a ‘foul gull’ every metre or so along it. Here I learned how to drain a seagull. I was buzzing at the top. It’s such an amazing feature to climb; the ground drops away 140m to the sea on every side, the tiny elevated island epitomises, or generates, an awesome sense of achievement. 
We abbed back down the route with strong side winds. On the final abseil we threw the ropes and the pair of them, two 60m lengths of rope, blew straight out, perfectly horizontal; barely fluttering in the constant gale (totally true!). Even as we abbed down the line the ropes were still suspended diagonal by the incredible, invisible force. Wild!
We stashed the bags and boulder-hopped along the beach to check out some big unclimbed cliffs. There were hundreds of lines, but generally the rock was poor, or the line terminated at half height etc. Eventually we found a stunning 50m arête leading to an equally stunning 50m overhanging crack or a really compelling stepped crack feature (similar to Fern Hill at Cratcliffe). We decided we would definitely return with a rack. If we couldn’t do it, there was a big tiered wall with cracks and chimneys which should give ‘the best HS in Britain’ to do instead.

The Old Man of Hoy.
We hiked back up to the cliff top, legs knackered. George was psyched to go and have a look at St. John’s head, another hour or so uphill. I reluctantly went with. After about forty minutes my legs were like jelly. I hadn’t done this much walking for a long time. I was close to giving up on the walk, concerned I wouldn’t recover for days. I plodded on trying to keep up with thunder legs Ullrich. Any landmark you aimed for never seemed to get any closer. I felt pathetic. We finally made it to the viewing point and holy shit, it was huge. Videos and photos just don’t do it justice. It spiralled away to a foaming oblivion at the raging fringe of the briny. The awkward twist gave a natural vertigo-like visual as you peered down; the whole structure propped up by a screaming Beaufort 10. Hundreds of Fulmars swooped around the head like satanic sentinels and searchlights flashed across the wall through gaps in the cloud. It was an organic Auschwitz. Tolkien’s third tower.  An impregnable fortress of nature, riddled with physical and psychological repulsion. My tired legs gave me a heavy, human, feeling. We stumbled back to camp, my arm felt better, I’d stopped shitting everywhere and I needed a new excuse to not go back!

I woke up to the sound of rain, glorious play-stopping rain. Caff and Ben hadn’t had a chance to climb yesterday because the winds were too strong. Caff’s eagerness to get on the route was palpable. I felt the opposite. We drank brews and ate custard creams all morning until it became obvious we were consigned to a day of shopping and tourism. The island’s shop was shut with a note in the window saying; ‘Dr Tibbert’s funeral, all friends welcome.  Shop closed all day. Sorry for the inconvenience.’ We drove off down a street lined with cars, a peculiar site for such a small village. We passed rows of mourning faces on black frames until we were nose-to-nose with a car of disgruntled men on a narrow single-track road. We realised we were amidst the precession. George pulled off to the side, out of the way, only to land us all staring straight at a black car containing Dr Tibbert’s Oak retirement lodge. And that’s how we became Hoy’s most popular visitors.

That evening I was reading a book about a young lad who’d gotten into surfing. As he got the hang of it, the local surfing guru invited him to go and surf ‘Ol’ Smokey’ with him. He found himself questioning whether he could do something ‘serious’, or whether he was simply ‘ordinary’. This summed up how I felt about The Long Hope Route. As the young protagonist rode a fifteen-footer followed by an even bigger wave of euphoria, I realised I had to sort out my head. I’ve been preparing for this for months. I’ve come all the way here for this. I do want to do this. I am ready.

Ullrich surfing outside the bothy one evening.
The next day, the weather had cleared and the wind was ‘calm’. George and I planned to go do the new line, then ferry all our kit up to the top of St John’s Head, ready for an attempt the next morning. After about an hour of George trying to force a line up the arête we conceded that the rock was too weak in the damp conditions. We had a foray around the wall on the other side of the arête which looked much easier, but the wall was guarded by a not quite negligible twelve-foot of blank slimy rock. We backed off and went to climb ‘the Best HS in Britain’. George whipped up the first pitch at HS. I set off on the second, but I could barely get off the ledge. Any face holds peeled away like mud, the cracks widened with force; a pointless shit-fest! We made a simultaneous abseil over an arête where old tat marked a previous escape. After a few moments, like a tense scene from the Chuckle Brothers, we were back on the deck with two failures to hand. ‘Oh I know! Why don’t we try The Long Hope Route tomorrow?’

I felt excited and surprisingly relaxed as we cooked up an enormous pan full of pasta. Tomorrow was the day for all four of us. Adam Long had arrived ready to get some snaps of Caff and Ben in action. I was chopping some Chorizo, being conscious not to knock the pan of boiling pasta off the table... Arghhhh!!! I fled the room flailing, panicking, dancing. I tried to brush the water off as it sizzled down my calf. My leg felt on fire. I ran some cold water on it, pleading for it to be ok. It was not ok. An hour later it continued to scorch inside. I rang the Doctor. He was dead. I rang Orkney Hospital. It was recommended I stand in a river until it stopped burning. It was 11:30pm. We were supposed to leave camp at 2am to start the walk-in. The attempt was cancelled and I felt more glum than relieved.

The next day, I awoke with a hot, red leg, savage dehydration and a cold from standing in a chilly river for twenty minutes. I planned my escape from the island. George and Adam were walking up to watch Caff and Ben in action, so I decided to join them and leave the day after. When we arrived at the viewing point around 1pm, Caff and Ben were already high on the wall. I couldn’t believe it. They looked so small and distant and made the wall look even bigger. I wished I was there.  We watched them through binoculars, it felt intrusive and voyeuristic. On this calm sunny day the wall appeared much more inviting, still intimidating, but more goading than foreboding. My thoughts seared with the same heat as my leg. I felt guilty for letting George down and I wondered if everyone had noticed how scared I was about trying the route and thought I’d staged the whole thing. I doubt they did. What a fucking annoying mistake. I genuinely wished I could have a crack at the route now. We were sitting for a couple of hours, the flame of resentment was gradually dowsed by the sun. I thought about how it would feel to be on the wall with a sore leg and a cold. Would it make much difference? ‘Shall we get up at three then George?’ The penny dropped and he gave a huge grin.

George's Rock Scuplture and my wood sculpture outside the bothy.