Final Words

While it has been more than a year since Tyler and I made our way to Scotland, a final post had remained stored away. It was written but not finished on September 5th, 2017, several days after our adventure together had come to a close.

Sitting in the airport waiting for my flight provides ample time to reflect on the final days of our trip. It also forces confrontation with the finality of it’s conclusion. I cannot escape the necessity of glancing up at the time with an urgency I’ve not had to deal with for nearly a month. The buzz of activity surrounds as I enjoy perhaps my last Doom Bar for some time.

One week ago we were climbing aboard a bus; a journey that would eventually leave us in Thurso, Scotland. This, the northernmost town on the mainland, had been an important port for trading and fishing dating back to the Medieval period. We stayed a night in a hostel, subsequently taking a ferry, first towards Stromness on the Orkney mainland, followed by another to Moaness on the northern end of the Isle of Hoy. It was then a handful of miles on foot to Rackwick via the Old Post Road, and then the trail from Rackwick to the final objective of our trip. We’d since reunited with our full complement of climbing equipment and now it was time to meet the Old Man face-to-face.

Standing on the edge of the cliff had been a bit surreal. Two weeks ago, it was still a very nebulous idea with no definite or established plan for even getting to the island. This was the stretch goal, the disposable segment of the trip should we not have the time or money. Laying eyes on the sea stack, really being there in that moment instead of seeing it as an aggregate of pixels on a screen, alone had forced me to acknowledge the success of our trip as a whole.

We found a flat portion in a wonderfully soft and dry area well back from any battering a cliff-side bivouac would have surely forced us to endure – an area with apparently some avian significance as it was also the site of a handful of bird skulls. We staked our claim with no shortage of views, mild weather, and crashing waves to undoubtedly drown me in deep and heavy slumber. The remainder of the evening was spent exploring the coast while bathing in warm sunlight, in awe of the enormous sea cliffs and the birds that call them home. One of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen had consisted of focusing on a single fulmar and following it through its flight path powered exclusively by the ocean breeze; floating, dipping, and soaring about with such careless ease as to cause a great many tremendous envy.

A great portion of both this and the following day were spent in relative silence. Sporadic rain through the night and the successive afternoon pushed our attempt in to the second of two total days we had to rely on for an opportune moment. I crossed paths with a group of three the evening prior to our ascent who would be attempting a climb on the same route the following day, concurrent with our own plans after being shut out earlier. While I feel I’m rarely competitive, the moment I became aware of their intentions I’d be lying if my first though wasn’t something along the lines of “Well I’ll be damned if they get on the route before us and finish this climb first after all it took to be standing here!”.

I was awake the moment the alarm sounded as if waiting for it; no grace period of disorientation. I was immediately aware of where I was, how I got there, and what our intentions were. Zipping out of the tent, we were faced with overcast skies but no rain on the horizon and a hint that the layer was little more than a thin ribbon floating so many feet above the ocean surrounding us. We ate while we organized our gear for the day. The clink of climbing gear in that early morning silence will always stay with me. Few sounds bear so much gravity, the implications of which spell out excitement and danger and pure adventure.

Arriving at the base of this tower of stone and bird droppings with the mind to finally climb it fully imprinted in me the totality of advancement and the culmination of progress over time. Though the weight of the behemoth bore down, we were both airy and light on our feet. Adrenaline was our fuel now and the almighty force of willpower drove us forward, and more importantly, upwards.

Pitch one is inconsequential as it follows a series of steps towards the first belay station. Tyler had broke ground on our ultimate goal so I could have the opportunity to meet my own ambitions – climb the technical second pitch and top out on the fourth. While only rated 5.9, pitch two was to be a test of the aforementioned “culmination of progress over time”. Old Man of Hoy consists of sandstone, a material I had no experience climbing. It also creates fissures and cracks in ways I am not used to in the granite dome of the Adirondacks. Much of the strenuous climbing, including the crux – a crack leading to a narrow chimney forcing a shimmy outwards and past an overhang – can be easily protected with #4 cams. The largest I had on my person was a #3 that had been used just prior to protect this overhang. Arms and legs fit quite well in this last section and at times I was shoulder deep hoping my jacket would forgive its rather sudden beating. A final move up and over to the second belay station and I was clipped in and secure some 10 meters past my last piece.

I cannot say what took so long to unearth this account, nor do I care to speculate on the matter. Maybe this will provide the final wrap-up, the ultimate reflection that every great adventure must not be without.

We sped up those final two pitches which were covered in generous helpings of bird droppings. I found it was not my topping out that made me most proud, not the tick mark I now get to place next to this climb. It was the few hours we had shared on the Old Man’s summit - a few final care-free hours of simple existence, drifting in an out of sleep in the warm sun, talking about everything and nothing; no doubt immortalized in countless photos of those making the trek to lay eyes on the sea stack first-hand.

Looking back at it now and trying to grasp at specifics is an exercise in futility. The details fade but the emotions remain. What I do get to carry with me are the countless photos we have shared. The trip was documented visually and will forever be tied to an experience all our own. While time and entropy separate, humans can reclaim some of that dissolution through love of what surrounds us. I look forward to a time in the near future when we can share adventure once again.