Climbing The Old Man Of Hoy offers climbers an amazing adventure. If you are planning an ascent we hope the following information helps with your logistics.
The Old Man Of hoy sits on the island of Hoy which is one of the Orkney Isles in the north of Scotland. It is widely considered to be the UK’s highest sea stack although there is some discussion, because it is connected to the mainland by a spit of land, about whether it is a true sea stack. Without getting into that debate (!) and regardless of which side of the argument you decide to take, there is no doubt it offers one of the UK’s greatest climbing adventures. The stack is a 137 metres high and is formed from red sandstone sat on a basalt base.
The Original Route
There are several climbs on the stack, but most visiting climbers will probably be focussed on the East Face (Original Route). This was first climbed by Chris Bonington, Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie in 1966, although it became more widely known after it was the subject of a BBC televised ascent in 1967. Apparently this live broadcast had 23 million viewers!
The East Face (Original Route) offers 5 pitches of climbing. Most of the pitches are around VS 4b or 4c, but the second pitch offers a more challenging corner pitch graded at E1 5b. This gives the route an overall E1 5b grade. Descent is by abseil. There are usually some in situ abseil points (make sure to use good judgement before trusting them) and the descent can be done in 3 abseils (providing you have 2 x 60 metre ropes). To access the base of the Old Man there is a scrambly descent from the landward side.
Climbing The Old Man Of Hoy
The main reason for writing this article is to share some logistics ideas for climbers heading north for an ascent. The information provided is based purely on our ascent in September 2023. There are several other options to get to the route. Undoubtedly, opinions on strategies will vary too. This is just one option, but we hope it helps. Welcome to our Climbing The Old Man Of Hoy article.
Getting To Stromness
We drove to Scrabster on the mainland. This is the ideal point to pick up the ferry to Stromness on Orkney. Ferries can be booked online and you can either travel as a foot passenger or take vehicles across. We travelled on foot and, as will be explained, this is a very simple option. At no point did we wish we had a car during our trip. It is simple to leave cars at the ferry port and parking costs £10 for up to 7 days. The ferry from Scrabster to Stromness takes about 90 minutes and the ferry is very comfortable with all modern facilities. It costs under £20 each way as a foot passenger.
Around Stromness & On To Hoy
There are any services you could need in Stromness including accommodation options, a supermarket and pubs. On arrival in Stromness it is simple to get a connecting ferry across to North Hoy. The Hoy ferry is a small but comfortable boat and the journey only takes about 30 minutes. It cost under £3.00 each way. We travelled on the lunchtime Scrabster to Stromness ferry and could then pick up a connection and be at North Hoy by 16.30. Enroute to Stromness the ferry passes the Old Man and you’ll get your first view of your objective. It is best to be on the left side of the ferry for this. We also headed outside for a better view and this is recommended. Details on Northlink Ferries is here and Orkney Ferries is here.
Getting To Rackwick
Once you arrive on Hoy you need to get to Rackwick. We had pre-arranged a taxi with Mr Clark who runs the only taxi service on the island. It was simple to arrange by phoning in advance and he was waiting for us at the North Hoy ferry jetty. His number is 01856 791315. It is only about a 10 minute journey across to Rackwick and we paid £15. It is possible to walk from the ferry port to Rackwick, but we were loaded down with climbing gear and food and the taxi felt worth every penny.
Rackwick is a small settlement situated around a stunning bay. It is a small cluster of properties and, although it was once a much larger community, we heard from locals that there are now only about 5 permanent residents. You will need to bring everything you need as there are no shops in Rackwick.
There is a small hostel in Rackwick, but we didn’t use this and so can’t share much information on what it is like. You can find details online. There is also a free bothy situated in a stunning location on the edge of the bay. This is perfect for visiting climbers as it is only about 150 metres from the taxi drop off point. This is called Burnmouth bothy and is an old crofters cottage offered for everyone’s free use by the people of Hoy and the Hoy Trust. This was our accommodation.
The bothy is basic but weatherproof and makes a great base. There are sleeping platforms, tables and chairs. The bothy also has a wood burning stove although you will need to bring fuel. There is even a simple toilet and tap. The water that comes out of the tap is a rather peat stained brownish colour and there are signs everywhere advising it should be boiled. We agree!
What You Need
We weren’t sure how busy the bothy would be and so had brought a small tent in case there wasn’t space. Camping is allowed in the bothy grounds. In the end we spent 2 nights here and there were only 2 other people on the first night and we were on our own on the second. You will need to bring everything you need including a stove, fuel and food. You also need a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. Everything feels very safe and we were happy to leave spare equipment in the bothy, although do be aware it can’t be locked.
It was fantastic to stay here and it was a lovely part of the overall adventure. In the morning you can walk outside and sit on the edge of the bay with a morning coffee. Occasionally a passer by calls in to have a look at the place or to say hello. Every aspect of a stay here adds to the experience.
Near the parking area there are another set of toilets which are a bit more user friendly than the bothy toilet. These are flushing loos and there is a sink which even has hot water. When we were there there was also toilet paper, hand towels and soap. Outside this toilet block there is another tap although we would still boil this water. There is also a human waste disposal point for camper vans. People using the bothy are asked to remove rubbish and there are bins by the parking area. It is worth packing in a couple of bin bags so you can move rubbish from the bothy to the bins.
Rackwick & Getting To The Old Man Of Hoy
When we stayed in the bothy there was a fascinating book charting the interesting history of Rackwick. There is also a small free museum on the hillside which gives an in sight into the life of Rackwick residents. This is called Craa’s Nest and is one of the original croft buildings. The old school building and archive centre are also open for visitors to explore. These are all well worth a visit if you have time.
Getting to The Old Man of Hoy
The path to the Old Man Of Hoy rises around the headland on the opposite side of the bay to the bothy. After an initial ascent you contour across and, after around an hour (depending on speed), you cross to the cliff edge to get your first glimpse of your objective. From this vantage point you are looking directly at the east face and the East Face (Original Route) is easy to spot. If there are other climbers on it you’ll be able to watch them in action too.
If you made your ascent very early (or climbed very quickly), it may be possible to head back to get a ferry to Stromness that day. We’d arranged a taxi for the following morning so we could enjoy another bothy night and not be under time pressure. We had also left a contingency day incase of poor weather, but didn’t need it.
We were the only party on our ascent and everything went very smoothly. Our ascent and descent took under 5 hours. We climbed as a party of two. Don’t forget you then have to scramble back up to the headland and walk back to Rackwick. Best to leave about another 90 minutes for this.
We didn’t know in advance about mobile phone signal at Rackwick. On Vodaphone we didn’t have a signal at the bothy but could pick up a 4G signal by strolling across to the Old Man side of Rackwick Bay. We carried a Garmin InReach incase of communication problems in an emergency as you are in an area without easy access to rescue services.
This isn’t designed to be a climbing guide and we anticipate any climbers will also read a climbing guide with all the relevant route info. We used the excellent Wired Guides Scottish Rock Climbs (details here). However, a couple of useful points to mention. We found a Black Diamond Camalot size 5 useful for the crux pitch off-width section. We also took and used a Black Diamond Camalot size 6, but this felt like more of a nice to have rather than an essential. We have talked to other friends who managed the crux section without large cams, though. Maybe large Hex’s could do a similar job? We are only raising it as a point to consider.
We felt the abseil tat and fixed gear was safe to use at the time of our descent. We did carry spare incase any needed replacing and we would recommend this.
We didn’t witness a single midge during our stay. However, we hear Rackwick is notorious for being as it is surrounded by marshland. We were perhaps helped by visiting in late September and it being quite windy throughout our stay, but we still came well prepared with head nets and plenty of repellant. It pays to come prepared as, if you’ve experienced the Scottish midge, you’ll know they can make or break a trip!
Climbing The Old Man Of Hoy is a magical experience. The climb is a unique adventure, but a trip to climb it is so much more than the ascent. It is also about the journey to Hoy, the beauty of the islands, meeting the extremely friendly locals and about dipping into the climbing history of the Old Man and the rich heritage of the islands. We really hope this information has proved useful and, if you do climb it, please consider letting us know via our Contact Page here. Similarly, if there is anything you think we should add to this blog post please also let us know.
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