'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?'
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.