Nothing can prepare you for coming face to face with The Old Man of Hoy – 450ft of storm-hewn sandstone rising straight up out of the Atlantic off the Orkney Islands. It’s Europe’s tallest sea stack and Britain’s most awesome pinnacle. For 30 years I’d dreamed of conquering this giant, ever since watching a documentary about The Big Climb (the BBC’s epic live coverage of Tom Patey and Chris Bonington’s legendary 1967 ascent). It’s why I began climbing. But, aged 19 with the sky seemingly the limit, I’d discovered I was going blind. It was like taking a long fall and wondering whether the person belaying was ever going to stop the rope. Climbing is all about trust; if I couldn’t trust my eyes how could I expect others to trust my judgement?
So I’d hung up my harness and spent two decades battling the cravings I felt whenever the Old Man appeared on TV, or in an ad for VisitScotland, or I heard The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. I guess it was love at first sight. By the time I stood at the foot of The Old Man on Midsummer’s Day 2013, what little sight I had left was like peering through a keyhole into a smoke-filled room. I’d catch glimpses of parts of things. If they were brightly coloured and stayed still, I might even recognise them. The red Orcadian sandstone was the colour of dried blood and as unlikely to move. I took it in in stages – a lot of stages. Martin Moran, who was leading the climb, set off first, the protection (the metal wedges he’d insert at intervals into the rock and through which he’d run the rope to cheat death should he fall) jangling on his harness like wind chimes. I followed their progress, trying to visualise the line he was taking. After 20 minutes I felt three tugs on my rope – the signal he was ready for me to follow.
My fingers explored the rock, testing its decaying strength. I grimaced at Keith the cameraman; my dream of following in the footholds of Patey and Bonington hadn’t included the TV coverage! But then, that dream had never run to plan. In the two decades since being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) I’d lost 95 per cent of my sight and the ability to do all the sports that made me feel fully alive. Writer and climber Al Alvarez calls it feeding the rat; a gnawing compulsion in some of us that can only be satisfied by pushing ourselves to the limits of endurance. Starved of action, my rat was eating me up. I ached to climb. I’d tried a couple of indoor climbing walls in the 1990s but low-level bouldering didn’t feed my need to get high at the end of a rope.
So when, in 2009, I turned up to London’s Swiss Cottage wall for my daughter’s birthday party, I wasn’t expecting much. How wrong could I have been? While other parents ogled the buff instructors, I was checking out the bumps and curves on 18 purpose-built, top-roped, high walls. I was smitten! No one seemed fazed by my blindness when I returned for lessons; rather, I encountered the same camaraderie I remembered from my crag-climbing days. Everyone seemed to take it for granted I’d want to get back out onto real rock again and as the months passed and my confidence returned, the idea became less absurd. Then one day, as I lay gasping but triumphant having cracked a tricky overhanging problem and my instructor, Trevor, was waxing lyrical about his favourite mountainside, I let slip my dream about The Old Man of Hoy. An old-hand who instructs to pay for his crag-habit, Trevor rubbed his chin and in his calm, considered way said, “Well… with a bit of work you could probably manage it.”
A “bit of work” turned out to be a brutal training regime that saw me lose 12 kilos and gain the ability to hang from one arm like a chimp. But it became clear I also needed professional help. With a dozen previous ascents between them, Martin Moran and his fellow mountain guide Nick Carter were the obvious choice. Both were based in Scotland and knew the logistics. But before they’d agree, I had to convince them I was up to the task.
So in Easter 2013, I flew up to Inverness to join them for three days of testing climbing in The Highlands, starting at Moy Crag. I could have been a million miles from London and quickly found that inner peace that I only ever find when climbing. My rat was in its element. Next day we tackled the Cioch Nose at snow-capped Applecross – a glorious multi-pitch climb at the end of which Martin crowned a perfect day by pronouncing himself happy to lead an attempt on The Old Man of Hoy.
The story of the blind man looking to conquer the Old Man began attracting attention, particularly after it was featured on Radio 4. And when the man who had first inspired me, Sir Chris Bonington, sent his good wishes, it was like a blessing from Rock God. With just one week to go a TV production company contacted me, wanting to film the attempt for The Adventure Show. And so Keith Partridge, one of the world’s top adventure cameramen, joined the team. Hoy’s rugged, timeless beauty impresses itself on you, even if you can’t see it. The soaring weather-beaten sandstone and wheeling birds conjured images of an ancient abandoned cathedral whose buttresses I was preparing to climb. The second pitch was the crux. I used to joke that blindness was an advantage when climbing – in my mind I was never more than a few feet off the ground. But 150ft up, traversing The East Face on an inch-wide ledge with nothing between me and the sea except circling fulmars, I was in no doubt about the drop. Fifty feet further up gaped a bottomless three-sided chimney known as The Coffin – a name I only came to appreciate when I tried to climb out of it and found the Old Man’s mighty overhanging belly in the way. If I fell here it would be over. I’d end up dangling in mid-air, held at the end of Martin’s rope but unable to regain the rockface. I inched out sideways under the overhang, bracing my foot against the sandy wall behind me, and jamming a fist into the wide crack above. Levering myself up and out, I used my free hand to grope for a positive hold on the seemingly featureless outside wall. My strength was ebbing with each second; my foot slipping down the sandy rock – 200 feet below the waves slow-clapped, as if willing me to fall. At last, my fingers closed on a nubbin of rock. Willing my aching muscles to defy the pull of gravity for a few seconds more I hauled myself out and up – and up. I’d done it – I’d cracked the crux! After five hours’ climbing I stood at the summit, elation mingling with a strange sense of reconciliation.
My blindness had brought me to Hoy, without it these chapters of my life would never have been written.
• The Blind Man of Hoy by Red Szell is published by Sandstone Press on Thursday, £8.99, paperback.