Classic Scottish Sea Stacks – Part one

One of Boulders outdoor climbing partners recently took on a challenge to climb three Scottish Sea Stacks – Old Man of Stoer, Am Buachaille and Old man of Hoy. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to publish articles leting you know how they got on. Here in part part one we take a look at how they got on climbing the Old man of Stoer.

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In early September 2013 Martin and I set out to combine a cycle tour of North West Scotland with climbing the three classic Scottish Sea Stacks: The Old Man of Stoer, Am Buachaille (The Shepherd) and The Old Man of Hoy.

Day 1 Lochinver to Invershin 60km

With kit packed and bikes prepared Martin and I took the sleeper up to Inverness. A couple of cans in the buffet ensured that we both had a good night’s sleep. We woke to find the train gently snaking its way through some beautiful Highland scenery. The train pulled into Inverness at nine o’clock, and after a short wait we found ourselves loading the bikes onto the train that would take us to the start point. The vista changed from mountain to coast and back to mountain and by midday we were unloading the kit at Invershin station, ready to take on the first, 60 km leg, to Lochinver. The wind was light and it was slightly overcast: ideal cycling weather. We made good progress, with some really pleasant riding on gently undulating roads next to rivers and lochs. With us averaging about 10 kms an hour, we both acknowledged that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. As luck would have it the only real hills we encountered, on this leg, were on the final stretch into Lochinver. A couple of real testers with loaded bikes with lots of huffing and puffing, but, nevertheless, we arrived at the Seamen’s Mission just before dusk and were pleased to find that we had the place largely to ourselves. The Mission cafe was still open, so we tucked into a carbo-loading three course meal before heading over to the local pub, for more carbs, and to plan for the next day’s cycle and climb.

Day 2 Lochinver to Stoer and the Old Man of Stoer

Having worked out the journey time in relation to tide tables, we decided to leave for Stoer at nine o’clock, stocking up with the day’s rations as we left the town. The ride to the start point seemed to go on forever, bendy roads with steep uphill and downhill sections to match. We arrived at the Stoer lighthouse for 11am, slightly behind schedule. As we sorted out the kit we chatted to Leigh, the owner of the small tea cabin located in the car park. Leigh agreed with our interpretation of the forecast, and that the climb was ‘a goer’ given the conditions, but she urged caution and not to be afraid to call it a day. She kindly agreed to keep an eye on our bikes and to act as our point of contact in the event of trouble or being overdue. Keeping one eye on the time and another on the weather we managed a quick cup of tea and a slice of cake, and then we headed out along the coastal path towards the Old Man of Stoer, with the cafe owner’s words of warning regarding the sea state and wind in the area of the climb echoing in our minds. Her words proved true. As we crossed the headland we both felt that the wind stronger and sea appeared rougher than we had expected, with the swell and weather being contrary to that given in the met. After about thirty minutes walk the stack came into view, with the waves crashing in around the Old Man, with it looking far more intimidating as the distance between us and the climb lessened.
Forty minutes or so of walking and we found ourselves at the top of the descent path, the wear and polished rock giving the route away. We paused to assess the situation. The westerly wind which was whipping up the waves out at sea had been nullified by rock surrounding the stack, in effect causing a natural harbour. We decided to go for it, with the caveat that we would make a further assessment once we were at sea-level and able to judge the currents at close range. After some quite tricky scrambling, due to the slight damp going under foot, we arrived on the home bank, gazing into the arrow eight metre channel that separates the stack from the land proper. After another check on the swell, current and cloud, we made the decision to go for it.
In order to gain the foot of the stack one of us had to swim across with one of the ropes. The rope had a dual function: acting as safety line during the swim, should cramp or current get the better, as well as forming part of the Tyrolean for the second, thus avoiding the need for Martin to swim.
Realising that time was of the essence we hastily prepped and waterproofed kit; checked and arranged the rope, then identified the anchors for the ‘home-bank’ of the Tyrolean. Finally we found the narrowest piece of the channel, with the best entry and exit points. Following a confirmatory chat on what to do if I got into trouble during the short swim across, I stripped off, put my clothes in a dry bag and took the plunge. It was freezing, so cold that I didn’t want to put my head in the water. Thirty seconds or so later I found myself on the ‘stack-side’ with the rope in hand. I jogged over to the base of the climb to get shelter from the wind (it was bitter at this stage) and then pulled the dry bag across with my clothes and share of the equipment.
After quickly drying myself off and putting some layers on, we rigged the Tyrolean and tensioned the line. One final check, loading it with full body weight, then Martin came across to join me. We left the ropes intact, to safeguard our retreat in the event of emergency. Martin set up the first belay, after which we put on harnesses and sorted the rack out, making sure we had lots of cams ready for the first pitch
At this stage it hadn’t started to rain, and luckily we were on the lee ward side which ensured that the rock was only damp, and that we were out of the wind, with just the sea spray adding a little dampness to the air. A final check of kit and the route and we were off. The first pitch was cheeky, given the conditions, but mercifully the Torridon sandstone proved remarkably grippy underfoot and hand. The initial pitch was slightly reminiscent of Valkyrie at the Roaches. (The key to successfully negotiating the traverse was correctly identifying the footholds which were slightly obscured by the ledges above it, and having the confidence in your stickies would work on the damp rock). Thank God for cams I said to myself at this stage, having used more on this pitch than I had all year in the Wye Valley. That said, it was a truly memorable pitch, with the waves and froth below, combined the wind blowing in from either side of the stack making for an enthralling and atmospheric start to the climb.
I set up the belay out of the elements (we were having problems communicating due to the wind) and then brought Martin around, before I headed off again. Easier ground to the second stance, nice big foot and hand holds on great rock with lots of opportunities to place gear. I climbed quickly to get the blood flowing. Eventually I began to feel the warmth return to my body. After a short while I was stood on the second stance: a nice wide ledge, with just enough shelter to keep the worst of the weather at bay. It wasn’t long before Martin joined me there. After a brief route check and handover of gear we were off again.
By the time we started the third pitch the wind had picked up and it had started to rain, with the water beginning to run down the rock. Martin set off and eventually cried out that he was safe and that I could climb. On arriving at the third pitch’s technical section I was amazed that Martin had been able to get up it as easily as he had, as I found it hard with a top-rope. The only decent foot hold was polished and wet, and the hand holds were mini waterfalls or greasy. In my opinion this was to prove the hardest pitch that we were to encounter during the whole of the three climbs. A great achievement given the conditions.
Once again we changed the lead, the final easier pitch to the top. I brought Martin up and then we set up the anchors and harnesses in preparation for the abseil. This took some time, more than we had bargained for, as the selection of tat, old rope and krabs were in such a state that neither of us was willing to commit our body weight to them. We re-arranged the best of the tat and combined it with some of our own, leaving kit, krabs and cord behind rather than rely on the weather beaten in-situ gear. The tide was turning, and so we made the call to make the descent in one abseil. Due to the wind Martin wrapped the rope around his body, rather than throw the coils and risk the rope becoming caught on one of the stack’s many fissures. Off he went, very patiently removing a coil from his body with each metre of descent. Finally he reached the bottom with rope to spare and gave a loud rope free. Then it was my turn. It was an unnerving abseil, the majority of it being in space, and I took care to ensure a smooth descent, and avoid jerking the rope, to prevent it from rubbing against the abrasive stone. After what felt like an age dangling in space, I joined Martin at the bottom, with the tide and swell starting to look like it might prevent a dry retreat. We speedily retrieved the ropes and went about making the preparations for the traverse back to the home bank.
The traverse went smoothly for me, and I managed to avoid the worse of the waves by timing my crossing with the rise and fall of the water, with only my chalk bag getting slightly damp. It was a different matter for Martin who got completely immersed when he was swamped by a particularly large wave. Miraculously he emerged from the sea unscathed: his zipped Gore-Tex jacket keeping his torso dry, and his trousers seemingly made of Teflon; not a mark upon them.
With both of us safely on landward side we stripped the traverse, accounted for the kit and made the tricky scramble back up the bank to the top of the headland. We headed briskly back to the car park, retracing our steps across the marshy headland. We got to the car park and the cabin with sixty minutes of daylight to spare, enough to see us the majority of the way back to Lochinver in daylight.
As we pulled the bikes from their hiding place next to the tea cabin a small parcel fell on the floor. Martin picked it up, only to find a plastic bag containing cake and a note from Leigh, the tea cabin owner, asking her to ring to let her know that we’d got back safely………….the kindness of strangers we both thought.