The Long Hope Route

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Terry killed the van’s engine at the end of the road and turned to us. His Deerstalker hat and quick jokes made him the archetypal Scotsman, and he was enjoying showing us soft mainlanders his island. Hoy was empty and rugged, with only single-track roads and strong winds. As far as we could tell, Terry was also the only person on the island, but maybe everyone else was just sheltering from the wind. I wondered how anyone got drunk here, but Terry said he survived nicely from whiskey donations.

‘This is as far as I go,’ said Terry, and the wind buffeted the car in welcome. We could see Rackwick bothy in the distance, a squat stone building set close to the beach, away from the other houses. It was temptingly close to the crashing Atlantic and a constant roar came from the wind and the waves. We jumped out and Terry wished us luck with the midges (‘they’re so tough they'll drink a whole can of midge juice and hit you with the empty can!’).

After two load carries Tony Stone and I finally established Advanced Base Camp in the bothy. Just 24 hours earlier, we’d both sat in Tony’s front room in Sheffield, about to go to the Alps. I was psyched out of my tree, as per, but even I could tell the current conditions were rubbish - and the forecast looked worse than bad. We spoke to a few folk out there, and when Big Tim said things were grim we knew it was pointless to try; our summer alpine objectives would have to wait. We threw ideas around and eventually the only place with a semi-good forecast turned out to be Scotland. Crampons out. Ice axes out. Sunhat in. M6. Northbound.


We learned to lean into the wind, just like the locals, and I jokingly thought this would be good training for Patagonia. The weather gave us little breaks, flashes of optimism, and we even went part-way down the descent to the Long Hope route on our first day in glorious sunshine. That’s what we’d come for: the 9-day HXS aid route which became an 4-day E7 free route which became a 1-day E9 Direct super-route by Dave Macleod. We were only interested in the E7 version at the moment, but our first attempt eventually ended on the descent as it was too late in the day. We climbed the Old Man of Choss (sorry, Hoy) that afternoon, running home in our waterproofs in the rain. Hindsight is wonderful sometimes.

We kept waiting for good weather or trying to go for the route, only to be shut down by wind, rain or an evening shower. Sat in the dark bothy, thick stone walls and small squares of natural light, we listened to the roar outside. Raindrops smacked against cold glass but inside, our cave was silent. The wind never seemed to blow out of breath, and I thought back to my aunt and uncle’s story of cycling the length of South America. They described the fierce Patagonian winds, nicknaming it ‘The Wolf.’ At times their journey sounded blissful, but when The Wolf howled, throwing them from their bicycles or blasting sand in their faces for days, it sounded like The Wolf was a true enemy. I knew, tucked in our bothy, our adventure couldn’t compare to theirs but I thought of them battling against the wind and it gave me strength. Eventually, we could outlast the wind outside.  

In between showers, we climbed on the Old Man again, and even sampled some of the sandiest rubble in the world on Mucklehouse Wall, but we wanted at least somereasonable weather for the route on St. John’s Head. I’ve read Alex Mason’s piece on his and George’s attempt on the Long Hope, and it sounded intimidating, committing and very wild. I was really inspired by their attempt and Alex’s blog is well worth reading. Each time we talked about ‘doing it tomorrow’ I’d swallow my fears and hope we wouldn’t end up abseiling into a gully.

The wind and weather eventually gave us a window of opportunity, a chance to get a tan in Scotland (?!), and we set our alarms for a leisurely 6 a.m. start on Thursday. We tramped through wet grass to St. John’s Head and slipped down the descent route, yesterday’s rain keeping the grass in optimum conditions for a waterproof trouser death descent.

Everyone’s said it, but it needs to be repeated: when we stumbled onto the boulder beach it felt like Jurassic Park down there. St. John’s Head rose for 400 metres, up and up and up, all the way to the plateau. The ocean crashed at our feet, deep blue and frothing, with nothing between us and Canada. The coastline was a giant wall, straight out of the sea, and the birds ruled the land and the sea and the air. They were everywhere, as thick as midge clouds, wheeling and screaming like fighter pilots. A high-pitched ‘ak-ak-ak-ak’ came from all around, and the stench of fish made me want to wash my mouth out. It was a sensory overload, a place we’d only imagined. A place which oozes intimidation. A place for the birds.

But the forecast stayed true, and the sky was clear and winds were light, so we hopped along to the base of the Head and got stuck in.

We followed the Dave Macleod topo, which linked many of the existing pitches into 50 or 60 metre monsters but made a lot of sense. Soon, I was trying not to sit on the belay at the end of the ‘grass pitch’ and Tony was leading into the main cliff. I led The Vile Crack - it’s in the name - and I made a mental note to get a health check after thrutching through all that bird shit. We climbed higher, dodging the fulmars and their projectile vomit. 

These birds deserve a special mention: the fulmar is an evil, evil creature. If threatened, the bird will projectile vomit at you and refuse to move from it’s nest despite all encouragement. They cough green, yellow or red sick over you, stinking and slimy, and the entire cliff is covered in the little bastards.

We were getting pretty high on the wall, the evening sun was shining onto the face and we were feeling strong and positive, but I still couldn’t properly relax. The rock was filthy, sandy and snappy - not great for switching off and just pulling through the moves. We built belays with four or five pieces, we trundled blocks, and at one point I thought climbing this wall was the most stupid thing I’ve ever done. The mainland ferry went past in the evening and I realised my heart beat matched the quick ‘thumpthumpthump’ of the engines, despite my lying down belay pose and the tranquil evening. Thankfully I was able to relax and led us to the base of the Headwall proper, to the base of Pitch 18 (according to the guide).

We both had a look at the next pitch but backed off due to a relatively recent (1990s) wire which was in situ and blocking a good placement. Without a new piece in place, a fall would have been pokey. High on a remote cliff is Scotland is not the place to be taking mega-lobs, and in the twilight we agreed to return the following day and start from our highpoint. We escaped up the last two pitches of Big John (E5 6a) and returned to the bothy at 4am, enjoying the almost 24-hour daylight.

The following day (Saturday) we abseiled to our highpoint, removed the stuck wire and started swinging leads again. Tony linked pitches 18 and 19 together, and I led the ‘heel hook traverse’ without a heel hook in sight. We then re-joined Dave Macleod’s Direct and cleaned, chalked and worked the 8 metre E7 6c section of our route. I was disappointed by my brief encounter and knew it would go with more practice, but not as quickly as Tony. The grades for the rest of the route seemed to be pretty generous and I hoped it would be the same here - unfortunately not. Although it’s well protected and short-lived (Caff is chatting shit about E4 6b), it has a few tricky moves. 

After a couple of attempts, Tony sent the pitch. I was psyched for him, and it was an impressive lead. It’s a fierce little pitch (and is actually the final 8m of Dave Macleod’s Direct) with bouldery moves and ratty crimps - my weakness, unfortunately. Given more time, I’m sure it would go but right there, right then, I was simply content for Tony.

We climbed the final two pitches to the summit in glorious sunshine, content to finally be free from the Land of the Birds but with just a hint of sadness to be ending another adventure. The effort involved in getting on this route, the fickle weather, the nature of the climbing, the atmosphere and finally the grade make this an adventure I won’t forget in a hurry. Although I still hate those fulmars…

As some people have pointed out, I didn’t climb every pitch free - I couldn’t do the crux, even on second. I’m not totally happy with our ascent either - I like to think I have good morals and ethics, and high standards for myself. Obviously the best style is to climb it onsight or ground up, in a day or single push. 

We had enough warm clothing to sit and shiver on a ledge during our first attempt on Thursday but, so close to the top, it seemed pointless to shiver rather than return to the bothy and come back the next day. We were also out of water, which would’ve been an issue. If we’d gone for ‘in a day’ we would’ve had a less enjoyable experience and we might’ve ended up aiding the crux pitch rather than Tony freeing it. Which is better: Tony climbing it free on our return visit or neither of us freeing it, but ‘in a day?’ I think the former. I’m really pleased we did the route, and I’m not trying to climb it for anyone other than myself and Tony.


As we walked back to the bothy after finishing the Long Hope route on Saturday, I looked out to sea. The sun was beginning to set into a flat sea again, turning the clouds orange, pink and gold. The improbable stack of The Old Man stood silent, proud, and there wasn’t a sound in the world. The Wolf was quiet, allowing us two brief days of calm in which to climb. A good feeling was in the air and we casually strolled down the hill, both quiet and content. So long, Mr. Wolf.


Thanks to Tony for a great trip, a good laugh, a great route and fine (strong) company as always. 

Good effort to Dave Macleod and Andy Turner for the Direct, to Caff and Bransby for repeating it, to Alex and George for getting on the monster and, of course, Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill for putting the thing up in the first place.

Tom LivingstoneComment