Climbing an Orkney landmark

Orkney's Old Man of Hoy is one of the tallest sea stacks in the UK and for more than fifty years has been a mecca for intrepid climbers from across the world. This summer Pete Colledge travelled to the islands to attempt his own climb of the famous sandstone stack. We caught up with him to hear about his experiences.

Thousands of visitors arrive in Orkney every year via the Pentland Firth with NorthLink Ferries. En-route they’re guaranteed a great view of Hoy’s towering sandstone cliffs and arguably our most famous landmark – the Old Man of Hoy.

The Old Man of Hoy, Orkney
The Old Man of Hoy, Orkney

This 449-foot-high sea stack on Hoy’s wild west coast has captured the imagination of climbers since an ascent by Chris Bonington was covered live on national television in 1967. Over the years there has been a steady stream of climbers heading north to tackle this frail but imposing structure.

In August, Pete Colledge and his climbing partner Alex Hale made the journey to Orkney to launch their own attempt, a challenge which Pete had been dreaming of since his early days as a climber.

“The Old Man of Hoy has been on my wish-list for a long time. I first heard of it in an article about UK sea stacks on UKClimbing.com in 2012 and I’ve wanted to climb it ever since,” said Pete.

The pair discussed the dream of climbing the stack back in March and a date in August was tentatively set. Pete flew from Brighton to Inverness to meet Alex and the duo drove up the A9 to Scrabster. The ferry across the Firth gave them the first ‘real-life’ sighting of their target.

Pete Colledge and Alex Hale onboard the Hamnavoe, and their first sighting of the Old Man of Hoy - image by Pete Colledge
Pete Colledge and Alex Hale onboard the Hamnavoe, and their first sighting of the Old Man of Hoy - image by Pete Colledge

“We got out on deck as we passed the Hoy coastline to get a good view and it just looked incredible,” said Alex. “The excitement really hit at that point and we couldn’t wait to get out there for a closer look.”

First, though, came a night in Kirkwall followed by an early morning drive to Houton and the short ferry hop to Lyness. As anyone who has visited Hoy knows, it is an almost complete contrast to the rest of Orkney. Full of peat and moorland, with glens and valleys and huge hills dominating the landscape, it feels more Highland than Island.

“Hoy is an incredible place, we were barely there for ten minutes before we saw a white-tailed eagle!” Pete said. “We explored a 5000-year-old tomb cut out of an ancient slab of rock, drove through a beautiful and remote valley and then we arrived at Rackwick, the tiny crofting community with its stunning bay.”

The wide, sweeping bay at Rackwick - image by Pete Colledge
The wide, sweeping bay at Rackwick - image by Pete Colledge

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t as welcoming as the scenery, so Pete and Alex decided their first day in Hoy would be spent exploring the route to the Old Man of Hoy and the surrounding area. When they reached the cliff edge after their trek from Rackwick, their challenge became a lot clearer.

“When we got a closer view of the stack it seemed lot more intimidating,” admitted Pete. “We looked at the route we were going to take and the five pitches it involved and I think it’s fair to say we both started to feel some trepidation.”

According to Pete, once the nerves settled, both climbers began to study the Old Man of Hoy logically, researching their route, checking their notes and discussing who would do which pitch on the way up.

The pair studied the Old Man of Hoy before their climb to plan their route - image by Pete Colledge
The pair studied the Old Man of Hoy before their climb to plan their route - image by Pete Colledge

After a night at Rackwick they woke to dull skies and drizzle, so their eagerness to get going was put on hold as gear was organised, lunch was cooked and fingers were crossed for some blue sky.

They say in Orkney that if you don’t like the weather then just wait a few minutes and things will change. That was certainly true as bright sunshine soon broke through the clouds and Pete and Alex began their walk back up the trail.

Climbers are well warned about the challenge ahead! - image by Pete Colledge
Climbers are well warned about the challenge ahead! - image by Pete Colledge

It’s a popular path during the summer months and the intrepid duo passed a number of walkers as they headed to the Old Man. “We recognised a few people from the ferry and they wished us good luck for our climb,” said Pete. “It added to the pressure a little bit, I must admit!”

To reach the base of the Old Man of Hoy you have to clamber down a steep and slippy grass cliff. It’s not for the faint-hearted and certainly shouldn’t be attempted by anyone without appropriate gear. After Pete and Alex made it to the bottom, all their nerves had turned to excitement as they marvelled at the beautiful red sandstone towering up above them.

Heading down the cliff towards the base of the Old Man of Hoy
Heading down the cliff towards the base of the Old Man of Hoy

Then, the climbing began.

“When you start you are eased in by a simple climb up good rock to a ledge called ‘the Gallery’,” said Pete. “But from there it gets more serious. Next up is an intimidating and slightly overhanging chimney pitch, but thankfully it ends at a nice stance where I was able to take a few images before bringing Alex up.”

Thousands of seabirds call the area home, and as the boys found out, fulmars are one species that don’t take kindly to their own patch of cliff being invaded! “You have fulmars threatening to vomit over you for the next few pitches but the quality of the climbing doesn’t matter because you have that sense of where you are, and the sheer adventure of it all,” said Pete.

“We also knew that we were about to reach a special open book corner which takes you to the top, and we weren’t disappointed – it was an absolutely stunning pitch. Then we had the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean and there were burst of light streaming through the tiny fissures of the stack,” said Pete. “It was just a brilliant, beautiful experience.”

The rest of climb was completed without incident and the duo emerged on top of the Old Man just as the sun was beginning to head towards the horizon. At the summit, buried underneath a small cairn in a Tupperware, is a visitors book signed by all the climbers that came before Pete and Alex. After adding their names to the list, they shared a celebratory nip of whisky, took in the view and grabbed some photos from their vantage point.

“We were also able to wave to people on the Hamnavoe ferry as it was heading to Stromness,“ said Pete. “It was strange to think we’d been onboard just two days earlier watching the stack as we sailed past.”

After taking it all in, the pair began their long abseil to the bottom and touched down on the rocks just as the sun disappeared. The scramble back up the cliff face was completed and the walk back to Rackwick was undertaken in that long, lingering Orcadian summer twilight.

For Pete, it was an experience he’ll never forget. “There is a sense of the wild and remote about climbing the Old Man of Hoy. It’s a challenge to just get there, and the climb is an iconic one. I’m so proud I can say I’ve made it to the top,” he said.

Mission accomplished - Pete and Alex on top of the Old Man of Hoy - image by Pete Colledge
Mission accomplished - Pete and Alex on top of the Old Man of Hoy - image by Pete Colledge

And, according to Pete, the iconic Orkney landmark is just the beginning for the duo. “Having done this climb and experienced how special it is, we’re really excited to start exploring some of Scotland’s other sea stacks,” he said.

“There are some other fantastic locations in Orkney so who knows, we might be back soon!”


See more images of the climb and Pete's visit to Orkney via his Instagram page.

Explore more of Orkney's sea stacks with our blog and plan your visit with the Visit Orkney website.

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