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The Orkneyinga Saga

'Two routes on The Old Man in a day?' I wondered whether anyone had done that before. 'How about two new routes in a day?'

photo: John Arran

The 450ft high Old Man of Hoy, with the line of 'The Orkneyinga Saga' (E6 6a) shown

I speculated aloud as we scrambled down to the base of the stack. Dave didn't reply, just grunted with knowing contempt. New lines were staring back at us as we milled around excitedly at the bottom, mentally connecting faint cracks, grooves and ledges into a route of convincing possibility.

It started to rain. Shit, this wasn't part of the game plan. The local oracle had only this morning said it would hold off, and who are we to argue? It'll blow over.

The first pitch looked easy enough, ledgy rock and not even quite vertical. I won the toss and set off leading. The ledges sloped unhelpfully. There was moss or lichen or some such green nasty covering everything and it was all wettening horribly. There was also a distinct lack of good gear and some disturbingly tricky moves thrown in for good measure. Hmm.

Arriving finally at the belay ledge confidence had taken a nose dive. The 'easy' pitch had felt like E6 in the wet and the pitches above looked much steeper and blanker, though thankfully this may also mean drier. Dave took over, put some gear in above, then assumed a belaying posture and handed me the lead ends. "That's what I brought YOU for," he explained.

I was already beginning to miss warmth and dryness, and overhanging rock seemed as good a way as any of rectifying this, so I jumped at the chance and headed up what turned out to be a classic pitch of sound yellow sandstone, steep and pumpy but nowhere too hard. I was just about to concede genuine enjoyment when reality reared its ugly head again. The angle was easing and water pouring off the belay ledge above was cascading down the darkened rock, rectifying any residual dryness I may have been cherishing. I manteled soggily onto the ledge and was promptly vomited on by a fulmar with a death wish - I was in no mood to be nice.

The belay was sheltered but the cold, the wet and now the stench were taking their toll on my enthusiasm. Dave arrived. "Great pitch," he enthused, stepping neatly around the now empty stomached and harmless bird.

photo: John Arran

"The 'easy' pitch had felt like E6 in the wet"

We looked up at the pitch above. An impressive wall of smooth yellow rock loomed the brave side of vertical, split horizontally by innumerable sandy strata and vertically by a solitary discontinuous crack. "I guess we go up there," I said, stating the obvious. Dave agreed and clipped himself into the belay. "Your lead," he explained. I was beginning to see a pattern to this.

I'm no stranger to scary situations, I've encountered some pretty fragile rock, but 80ft up this pitch I felt it was beginning to take the piss. Placing what looked to be the last worthwhile gear for some time I moved gingerly up to where the crack fizzled and disappeared. Then I paused; above was a band of geologically curious and aesthetically stunning horizontal wisps of red and yellow sand, more at home in a museum or art gallery than on a rock climb. But there it was and there I was and somehow I would have to levitate past it without weighting anything.

I paused a little longer, putting little chalk dots next to the fudge footholds I thought would break off least readily. Then suddenly I found myself accelerating downwards without warning or apology. The only handhold I thought genuinely worth pulling on had snapped like a twig. It wasn't a long fall, mostly slack and rope stretch, but any confidence I may once have had in the holding power of fudge was now gone forever. The biggest problem was that the gear seemed to be holding, thus denying me the excuse to back off for which I secretly was hoping.

photo: Arran Collection

"the cold, the wet and now the stench were taking their toll on my enthusiasm"

Round two saw the twig's next door neighbour prove more resilient, and with carefully non weighted foot fudge and a temporary ban on breathing, soundish yellow rock once again came into reach. I composed myself, resumed breathing, failed to put any gear in, moved up and composed myself again.

This could get serious...

The rock looked more solid higher up and I managed to convince myself it would be easier so I continued, failing all the while to arrange worthwhile protection.

... could get very serious ...

A fragile wire above helped with the self-delusion. I needed a number 2 cam but the only size I had left was a size 6 monster. I relinquished a last Hex and rubbed sand away with fingertips until it wedged itself diagonally and hopelessly. It then dawned on me that I would need to belay very soon, that all I had left was a monster cam and a bunch of wires and that neither small cracks nor large cracks seemed indigenous to this part of the wall. I stopped breathing again.

... very serious indeed.

I dallied, I tried continuing, but without gear it seemed absurd. I was getting tired of this game and didn't want to play any more, but I had little choice, on I went. With neither gear nor rope enough to reach the terrace above, an increasingly nervous hunt ensued and continued past many creative though irresponsible belay options, eventually leading to the discovery of a four foot deep horizontal break off to the left. I took a hanging belay on the thankfully perfect size 6 Flexifix which all of a sudden justified not only its own existence but also my having lugged it all the way up on the back of my harness.


Dave followed in concentrated silence. He pulled a block off not six feet below my belay, which scared me more than it did him as the potential consequences of my having done the same rattled through my head and quickly became unthinkable. Dave's way of saying well done was to lead the next pitch, which belly flopped soggily onto the grassy terrace above and belayed in comfort on old pegs from routes which traversed thereabouts.

The band of roofs above had been understandably avoided by existing routes, and curiously it was my lead again. One last push and we should make it to the top, but I'd become very cold on the last stance. Half an hour of continuous 'Jane Fondas' while belaying had served only to make my legs knackered and I was still shivering. I hoped it wouldn't be as hard as it looked.

Near detached blocks led up to the roof. On close inspection one of the larger blocks was teetering precariously on its unstable base and by the time I realized, I had gear underneath it and was considering its value as a handhold. I took the gear out carefully, delicately side stepped and then delighted in a near 400ft trundle clean onto the platform below.


The roof would have been fun had it not been so cold and wet, though the gymnastic hand jam moves nevertheless took my mind briefly off the sheer wretchedness of my condition. Then disappointment again as a short hand traverse and mantel was to lead not to the top, but to yet another ledge and yet another belay. In the wind, and rain, misery and woe.

photo: John Arran


Dave arrived, sighed, looked up at yet another tricky pitch and offered me the lead. "No," I snapped brusquely, acutely aware that no matter how cold I was on this ledge it would almost certainly be much worse perched on top of the entire stack with an unbroken view of the wind for 3,000 miles. Time for more 'Jane Fondas'. Evening had arrived, the rain persisted and I was now more clearly in its line of fire. If it was going to pass it was taking a bloody long time about it.

Dave must have been feeling pretty miserable too, but he's hardier than I. He ignored my short temperedness and proceeded to weave an unlikely line up the bulging wall above - a sterling lead - finally disappearing from sight and sound. One two, one two, one two, I will get warm, I will get warm, I will get warm... The rope came tight and up I climbed.

The top was a massive relief. Not only had it finally arrived but it turned out to be impossibly sheltered and Dave sat belaying with a smile and a warm glow on his face. We abseiled down. It was now after 10 o'clock in the evening and the light was fading fast. Maybe there wouldn't be time for a second route after all.

The rain stopped.

"The Orkneyinga Saga" is the name of a medieval chronicle, by an un-named Icelandic author, which recounts the first conquest of Orkney by Norway.

This article, by John Arran, first appeared in the April 1998 issue of High magazine.