The Big 3 Scottish Sea Stacks – Part 1

Climbing the big three Scottish sea stacks comes down to a game of logistics and good luck with the weather. Being based in the Yorkshire Dales, it’s a little further than a long day trip to climb these routes. The Old Man of Hoy is on Hoy, Orkney isles and involves a long drive and 2 ferries to reach. The other two can be reached from the mainland and are not without their own difficulties. The Old Man of Stoer, is in the North West of Scotland, not far from Lochinver, some 40 miles beyond Ullapool. Am Buachaille is not far from Cape Wrath, the most North Western point of mainland UK. 

Lee and I made the trip to Hoy across a week during the May Half Term of 2018. This would give us the give us plenty of time to play with regarding the weather to maximise our chances of climbing the stack. The best weather day looked like the day after we arrived, so that was to be the day. We’d met another party of three on the boat to Hoy, who only had the one day to make their ascent so they were planning on an early start. They had an overnight ferry to Aberdeen to catch later in the day, it didn’t go well them, but that’s another story. I was quite nervous as we set off from Rackwick Bay to walk the 4 km round to the stack. I’m not quite sure why, maybe it was the remoteness or the added pressure that we’d come all this way from the Dales to climb this route and today was the day. As you turn the final corner to the walk directly to the stack, you can see the top third sticking out above mainland Hoy. Soon. you reach the viewpoint, starring the whole stack up and down. It’s big!

Once you’re on Hoy, logistically the Old Man is quite straight forword as the stack is joined by land and it’s possible to scramble to the base of the stack. This descent is more involved than the climb itself. Prepare yourself for a narrow muddy path on a steep and exposed slopes with rock steps and slippery grass to contend with along the way. 

The first pitch is a pleasant introduction to the sandstone rock with good shelves and cracks for protection. The second was the technical which involved a short down climb followed by a traverse before climbing up into the bottomless chimney. Pulling out of the top of the chimney and into the corner above is the technical crux of the route. The route is particularly sandy, not surprising given the soft nature of the rock and the wild weather that will be experienced on the Orkney Isles. This meant that after each foot placement your climbing shoes were covered in grains of sand which acted like ball bearings if you didn’t brush them off on your trousers before placing your foot again. Thankfully the rock quality improves the higher up the route you climb.

I definitely felt some relief at finishing Pitch 2 as this was the technical crux with the most difficult route climbing on the entire route. The difficulties were in a couple of short sections and otherwise it was just a case of keeping it together bridging and cam shuffling up the final corner. The route ahead moved up an easier crack before moving out and around the stack between ledges on the upper section of the route. The crack passed quickly and we were soon moving boldly between the shelves of rock above. This felt like real adventure climbing, route finding and weaving around as our route was dictated by where the fulmars were.

Chuffing fulmars! May is nesting season and the birds were far more reluctant to leave their perches, and their eggs, than we expected. And the little buggers vomit on you, with surprisingly good range, up to a metre. I’d go to move up, slowly raising my head to the ledge that my hands were on, hoping that there was a fulmar straight in front of me. I got lucky and never sustained a direct hit, Lee wasn’t quite so lucky when he seconded. So I weaved a line up the shelves, zig zagging my way between the ledges and the fulmars, trying to find protection where I could. I eventually reached the belay beneath the final corner.

The final 4c corner was an absolute joy to climb. A perfect open book corner with great gear, good breaks for perfect bridging. At this point the stack has split into two and I was climbing the crack between them, the sun gleaming through the crack as I climbed. The sea breeze was cool on my face and distracted me from the hot pain in my toes crammed into climbing shoes. I pulled over the top into the sunshine and made myself safe before Lee climbed to join me at the top. We stood up on the top of the stack and waved to our families on the mainland who had walked round to watch us climb the final pitches. We were so pleased with what we had accomplished and had a celebratory dram. The 3 abseils to the base of the stack went without any issues and we returned to Rackwick with a weight lifted and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of our week’s holiday exploring the Isle of Hoy.