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.
|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.
|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...