The nice young lady at the tea shop was full of encouragement as she pointed the way over the mistshrouded moor. ‘It’s a bit early but best of luck. No one’s managed it so far this year! Who’s swimming?’
The Old Man of Stoer is less than half the size of big brother Hoy but is never the less still impressive and guarded by a narrow channel, scoured by the North Atlantic swell.
Where’s the best place to swim? Where do we rig the tyrolean for the return? Is it low tide yet? Do you think the waves are getting bigger? How do you get into a wet-suit? How do you tension the tyrolean? Problems mounted, time was passing and tides wait for no man.
A narrow point of the channel was slithered to and an apprehensive Chris pondered the frequency of the waves, but fortunately found himself washed in before being able to change his mind. It was a frantic but short and splash, bobbing up and down, sweeping along the channel then back, eyeing waves from both sides and feeling less than buoyant with the trailing ropes. A hold was grasped on the far wall, the sucking sea disappeared below, the sound of the next wave prompting a quick mantle-shelf and a seal-like flop onto the jagged rib leading to the pillar.
The pegs for the return rope were agreeably welded in place with ferrous oxide and the straggling tapes had been washed and tumbled twice daily over the winter so all was fine for Dave to tension the rope and come across. Showing more than a little disrespect to Davey Jones, Davey Richards fixed all the heavy gear to himself, clipped onto the sagging line and, allowing his white eyes to be drawn down 40 feet into the cauldron below, took an audible gulp and slid like a lonely spider across the void.
United with warm clothes but sweating under the weight of unresolved risk assessments Chris watched as Dave swung up the initial steep pitch. It was an exposed, overhanging traverse, like trying to hand- jam along between two blocks of soap. Fortunately, after many winter nights on Cleveland rock, our leader has acquired skills and cunning so, undeterred by his now shivering and whimpering second, was soon belayed around the corner.
On the west face the rock was clean, rough and sound and it was straightforward climbing now, or would have been had the guide book not been left safely in the car. This pitch was remembered to contain the crux so a suitably overhung crack was selected, attempted, backed off, sewn up and tried again.
By this time Jan and Heather had arrived at the cliff-top and from their view-point the correct route looked so obvious, but communication was impossible. The crack gave in, Dave came up quickly and disappeared back onto the very exposed, dripping landward face, the sound of thwacking blades of a chopper, hidden in the mists close by, adding to the general feeling of unease. The final wet groove was a pleasure. It smelled sweetly of damp earth, fulmars and nights on Landslip and the more sheltered ledges were furnished by carefully arranged, comfy nesting stones.
There was little ceremony on the summit block, thoughts of how to get down overriding any buzz of success.
The wind was rising, clearing the mists but the increasing swell was now crashing onto the base of the tower, sending up huge sheets of spray. No time for indecision, the ropes were quickly cast down onto the tottery summit ledges, snagging the fulmar furniture, which fell like stones. More risk assessments, but fortunately our helmets were safely at home so couldn’t be damaged. Clip into the ropes, check, double –check and check again, a quick thought of Tom Patey prompted a final check, a fond wave to the onlookers on the opposite cliff, who seemed so near but so far away, and a short, jerky slide towards the unseen void.
From a committing position, poised above the overhangs of the landward face it was possible to look down the remaining 50 metres of the rope as it fell free, arcing and snaking in the wind over the channel. It swung back, the stopper knot brushed the base. Bingo!
Returning over the tyrolean was not without interest, a touch wet but still preferable to another swim and all that remained was the slog back to the lighthouse.
The nice lady at the tea shop had long since departed but had left us some cake and her card which read ‘livingthedream.org.uk.’
We had lived the dream but it could easily have been a nightmare.