There’s something about coastal climbing that really does it for me.
Maybe it’s because I grew up near the sea, in Sussex. Or maybe it’s the association with childhood holidays that often began with a ferry trip from Portsmouth or Dover.
Certainly those trips led to a fascination with coastal rock formations. I’d stand on deck goggling as the White Cliffs receded behind us or as we slid past The Needles. Even as a little boy I wanted to climb them.
Fortunately for my parents most of our seaside holidays were spent at the foot of sand dunes so my juvenile climbing exploits always had soft landings. But my desire to try something harder didn’t leave me. So when, in the early 1980s, I watched a documentary about Chris Bonington and saw footage of him climbing The Old Man of Hoy, the seed of my desire began to germinate.
Like thousands of other kids I’d followed Bonington’s adventures on Blue Peter. But the snow-capped peaks of The Himalayas were an alien world to a boy who’d never even been skiing. But here, with this giant sea-stack in The British Isles, was something I could aspire to.
As soon as I was old enough I joined the Army Cadets at school, suffering a year’s square-bashing for the promise of a week’s climbing instruction in the Welsh Mountains the following summer. That week convinced me that I had found my sport. Soon I was heading off to Harrison’s Rocks in Kent and testing myself on sandstone. I was hooked.
Unfortunately back in the 1980s I didn’t have access to indoor climbing like The Arch; so the season was short and subject to the fickle British weather. Somehow it always felt like I’d only just got into peak condition when the summer holiday’s ended and autumn began. Still I bagged some decent routes on the sea-cliffs of Swanage, Portland and Pembrokeshire…but never made it up to Hoy.
Then, aged 19 I was told I was going blind and my life went into free-fall. After a brief and hair-raising flirtation with night-time buildering at university I hung up my harness and for two decades put away my dreams of climbing anything ever again…
…until eight years ago when my daughter decided to have her birthday party at a climbing wall. I saw my way back in and began making up for lost time. I bagged the Old Man of Hoy in 2013. At 137m (449ft) it’s Europe’s tallest sea-stack.
Having bagged a few other routes on my bucket list my climbing partner Matthew and I now spend the indoor climbing season preparing for the next coastal challenge…that way we can make the most of the outdoor season. We do most of our training at Arch North in Colindale (with a bit of high-wall practice thrown in elsewhere to maintain our rope skills), After a couple of hours bouldering we’ll head to the pub next door to plan our routes for the next climbing trip.
This winter we were getting in shape for an attempt on Europe’s second tallest sea-stack, Pan di Zucchero in Sardinia. At 133m it’s only a little shorter than The Old Man of Hoy. But lying 2km offshore in the middle of Masua Bay it forms a beautiful island of white limestone that is just as dramatic.
Like many routes in the area it’s bolted, which is good for me as my trad skills are definitely something that departed forever with my blindness. It means I can do a bit of lead climbing, although realistically for my own safety and Matthew’s nerves we’ve found that attempting anything more than an F5c is inadvisable.
The hardest pitch on Pan di Zucchero is graded F6a+. With neither Matthew nor I getting any younger and both of us having family and work commitments, that meant packing a lot of practice and planning into the evening each week we meet to climb.
Luckily The Arch North is close by and has enough wall-space that we don’t waste time queuing. It’s also a hub for climbers who are always happy to pass on tips and advice. We knew that the hard white limestone in Sardinia is dotted with sharp little pockets and tiny nubbins so worked on finger strength and footwork, especially rockovers. We also made time for some thuggy overhangs in preparation for a couple of meaty crux moves.
So we felt in pretty good shape by the first week in May when we flew out to Cagliari with our ropes and quickdraws. Unfortunately our arrival coincided with that of the maestrale – a strong, cold north-westerly wind that was gusting up to 50mph and creating 1.5m waves making the sea crossing to Pan di Zucchero, let alone any attempt on it, impossible.
Fortunately there’s loads of climbing out there and it was easy to find some cliffs in the lee of the wind. We bagged some excellent single-pitch routes at Castello dell Iride and a clutch of truly stunning multi-pitch climbs further round Masua Bay.
There’s a wide range of grades from beginner to full-on ‘in-my-dreams’ stuff. And all the sport routes are really well maintained. Without being as busy as, say, Swanage there were plenty of other climbers out there, from all over Europe. Some dirt-bagging; others staying in B&Bs or, like us, in one of the lovely villas that dot the hills overlooking the coast. If you can get a group together I’d recommend where we were, www.casafigus.com – it was a great place to chill after a hard day’s climbing and it also had sea kayaks we could use to explore the amazing rock formations that line the coast. The food, the people and the scenery (according to the others in the group) were wonderful. And as for the rock…that hard, white limestone is a dream to climb on. Just remember to check your shoes beforehand, you’ll need all the smearing you can get!
The sea was like a mill-pond as we drove back to the airport past Masua Bay; wind-speed 2kmh. Typical! Was I disappointed not to bag Pan di Zucchero? Yeah…but I had a great climbing trip, and it’s still waiting for me. And like Arnie…’I’ll be back!’
I knew I should have slotted in a session at Arch North between Christmas and New Year. Because the first week of January slipped by to become the second and now here I am struggling up a V3 with my winter stomach providing a bulge more difficult to work round than any of the volumes on the wall!
It’s amazing how quickly you lose climbing condition – particularly as you get older. I check with my climbing partner Matthew (who at 51 is even older than me) and he confirms that all those grunting and sweating most profusely around us are also of parental age, whereas the under 25s are cruising up the white or green routes with their usual effortless grace.
To paraphrase Ruby Wax – life is cruel; it takes months to get fit and days to get fat.
Not that I’m particularly bothered about my appearance. Being blind it’s been a long time since I last saw my reflection in a mirror! – but I do take pride in my climbing and get frustrated when a route I know is within my capabilities defeats me because I’ve overindulged or under-trained during the past few weeks.
As my fingers slide from a yellow crimp to send me thudding for a third time into the mat, I consider that the chalk ball I received for Christmas is scant mitigation for all the butterball turkey I ate.
But then as Matthew reminds me, remember how much worse it was in the days before we had indoor climbing walls – something the under-25s will never have to suffer.
Back then, unless you were into ice-climbing or had the time and money to go to a crag in the sun, the dark days of winter stretched interminably from mid-October till early-April. And the only way of maintaining climbing fitness was at the gym – which was fine for strength but did little for technique…and it was boring!
How well I remember those brutal first trips of the year; dogging up some still damp VDiff as if it was Longhope because the muscle memory and the mental agility you need to climb decently had dissipated during my months off. Back then it would take at least a couple of frustrating weekends and the goodwill of the British weather to get back into any kind of form at all.
Thank goodness for indoor bouldering centres! Now all I have to do is hop on the tube and head to Arch North, or The Biscuit Factory, and within a week I’ll have worked off the Christmas excess, ensuring that none of what I learnt or perfected last year is lost for lack of practice.
So now my only problem is trying to decide which of the climbs on our wish-list Matthew and I will work towards conquering this year, when the weather is good enough to get back outdoors again? I’m thinking something Scottish and coastal….
It was curiosity born of happy childhood memories of Peek Freen’s biscuits that first led me to climb at The Arch.
I have to confess I’d always been a bit sniffy about bouldering. It’s probably my age (just turned 47) but when I was learning to climb in the 1980s there were no indoor climbing walls and a trip out to the crags was made with the intention of making as much vertical progress as rope, fingers and skin allowed. A day’s clambering over boulders was a consolation prize taken only when the weather was too bad to attempt anything else.
By the age of 19 I had developed a serious crag habit. I was leading my first HVSs and thinking that the sky was the limit. Then out of the blue I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and told that I could expect to be fully blind by 30. My life went into free fall and after a brief struggle (ending with a nasty unprotected fall) I’d hung up my harness and begun a two-decade battle with my craving to climb.
Writer and climber Al Alvarez calls it ‘feeding the rat’, a gnawing compulsion in some of us to push ourselves to the limits of our endurance. Starved of action my rat was eating me up. I ached to climb and Pilates was no substitute.
I had tried a couple of climbing walls during the 1990s when they first came to the UK but they didn’t feed my need to get high at the end of a rope. So I wasn’t expecting much when in 2009 my daughter decided she wanted her birthday party to be at our local wall in North London. How wrong could I have been?!
While other parents were ogling the buff-body instructors I was checking out the bumps and curves of the top roped high walls, and I was hooked again.
I quickly discovered that climbing instructors, like climbers the world over, are born problem solvers. My blindness wasn’t a barrier, merely a hurdle to be worked round. As the weeks and months passed my confidence returned and the prospect of getting back out onto real rock seemed less absurd. One day as I lay gasping but jubilant having cracked a tricky overhanging problem I let slip my teenage dream of climbing The Old Man of Hoy, a 450ft sandstone pinnacle in The Orkneys. In his calm considered way my instructor rubbed his chin and said ‘well with a bit of work you could probably manage it’.
A bit of work turned out to be a brutal climbing fitness regime that saw me lose 12 kilos and gain the ability to hang from one arm like a chimp. By now I had acquired a climbing partner, Matthew, and he and I trained two to three times a week with a new instructor called Andres. We spent weeks perfecting a clock-face system so that they could accurately direct me to my next hand or foothold.
But it soon became clear that top-roping had its limitations as far as teaching was concerned. The distance between climber and belayer makes communications difficult and the higher the climber goes the less easy it is for the belayer accurately to judge distances between climber and holds, to spot useful features and even to be heard. Frustration was setting in and we needed a solution.
That turned out to be bouldering. By now it was 2012 and Andres was ravsing about this amazing new climbing centre in Bermondsey called ‘The Biscuit Factory’. When I learned that it was on the old Peek Freen’s site and therefore the home not only of the Garibaldi and Bourbon biscuits but of Twiglets too!, I decided to eat my words and give bouldering another go.
Biscuit production may have ceased long ago but the emphasis on ‘virtuous activity’ to improve the health of those labouring within the building (which made the factory owners pioneers in Victorian England) remains.
On a series of cleverly designed and well-maintained routes I quickly discovered that there is no better way to improve climbing stamina and technique than bouldering.
Because the spotter is that much closer to the climber it’s easier for him/her to direct and correct their movements – and all without the need to shout to be heard. Without the security of a rope precise footwork becomes essential and because the routes are shorter they tend to be more technical and often designed to focus on one specific climbing skill. Matthew, Andres and I found ourselves returning to work on problems that exposed my weak areas – rockovers and laybacking – and enjoying the progress we all made up through the grades. My footwork and my ability to crimp on seemingly impossible slopers grew as did my confidence and, when it did go wrong I learned how to take a fall safely (which is really quite terrifying when you can’t see what’s below you).
In 2013 I became the first blind person to climb The Old Man of Hoy. The ascent was filmed by BBC Scotland and aired on The Adventure Show. I have since published a book detailing the background to the climb and how the camaraderie I rediscovered in the climbing community and the spirit of the London Paralympics helped me scale heights I thought were lost to me forever.
As a result of all the publicity an old school friend, Carl, who I hadn’t seen for twenty years got back in touch. Another keen climber he lives round the corner from The Biscuit Factory and so we meet up two or three times a month to climb there together.
And then last year The Arch North opened just up the road from me in Burnt Oak so that Matthew, Andres and I now get together every Friday afternoon for a three-hour session followed by a pint or two. We still try and get outdoors as often as possible and I’ve even started to lead on sport routes up to F6a (learning to fall indoors has proved invaluable!). We do still go to the top-roped wall we started at but as the three of us prepare for a trip to the sharp, white limestone fo Southern Sardinia this month it’s the edgy little yellow V3s and V4s at The Arch North that we’re concentrating on.
I am delighted to announce that the owners of The Arch Climbing Walls have kindly offered to let me do all my training at their excellent facilities. With winter approaching and the outdoor rock climbing season coming to an end what better way to maintain your hard-won climbing fitness and work on technique than with regular bouldering sessions? Read how my eyes were opened to the benefits of bouldering as I prepared to climb The Old Man of Hoy back in 2013.
Midsummer Madness, June 2015:
Scottish Cliff Climbs and The South Downs Way
To celebrate the second anniversary of reaching the summit of The Old Man of Hoy and having bagged The Old Man of Stoer in April 2014, I decided to go for the hat-trick and attempt Am Buachaille – the third and, according to legendary climber Hamish MacInnes, “the most serious of the big three Scottish sea stacks.”
This 65 m tall sandstone pinnacle, lies 100m off shore at the lower end of Sandwood Bay, in the far North West corner of Scotland near Cape Wrath. It requires at least one climber to swim across a 30m channel at slack tide, rig up a Tyrolean traverse to get the gear and the rest of the team to the base of the stack and then you’ve got about three and a half hours to climb and ab off before the tide gets too high for you to get back ashore. At least two teams have had to spend a chilly night on Am Buachaille for being to slow.
What’s not to like.
Andres and I flew up from a beautifully sunny and warm London into gale force winds and driving rain in the Highlands. Hardly typical June weather even for the West Coast.
Over the next three days with Nick Carter as our guide we sought out sheltered sea cliffs at Reiff and Sheegra and shivered and slid our way up and down a nice collection of VDiffs, VSs and a couple of HVSs – although Jug Lust at Sheegra in the pelting rain is not a route I wish to remember.
On our final morning with the weather looking a little brighter (you could see the sky for a change) we set out across the bog to check the lie of the sea.
Horrendous. Metre high waves crashed over the 70m platform making even getting to the 30m channel perilous. And the gusting South Westerly nearly blew us off the top of the cliff.
We backed off and instead bagged a couple of 35m routes (including Marram, a cracking VD***) on the gneiss cliffs at the other end of the long golden sweep of Sandwood Bay; Am Buachaille sticking its finger up behind our backs as we did so.
Feeling a little cheated I returned to London for 40 hours, used the facilities at home and headed off to Petersfield. With Matthew ordered to rest his damaged shoulder for at least six weeks I’d be attempting to tandem the South Downs Way with Matthew’s friend Simon Russell (an avid mountain biker who’d been nursing the tandem through a series of brake replacements and unforeseen mechanical issues) and his friend Mark Angela.
Both were familiar with the area having lived there for years but I’d only met Simon a couple of times and Mark never, far less cycled with them! We had some fast learning to do.
Over a lovely dinner cooked by Simon’s wife Selina and Mark’s wife Vicky we got started. Outside a violent thunderstorm ensured that our path next day would be more slippery than we might have hoped.
Still it was a good excuse for getting up an hour later than originally planned the next morning. And it was still cold and damp as we set off from Chilcomb just outside Winchester. Simon and I had got a bit of practice in the previous afternoon and found we cycled easily together. He’d also persuaded his teenage son Louie to have a test run along a section of the South Downs Way the weekend before. Consequently we made good progress on the first 6 mile leg before Mark swapped into the front saddle. He owns a road tandem which he rides with his teenage daughter. But he’s rather less familiar with off-road terrain and with me, so it took us a bit longer to get in-sync and we were still doing so at a steady 6mph when the bike came to a sudden halt.
The tandem is fitted with disc brakes, like those on a motorbike, and the rear calliper had worked loose and swung through the back wheel. One fixing bolt was lost, one bent. Fortunately we were near a main road and had mobile reception, so Selina came to our rescue, via Cycleworks in Petersfield, with spares that Simon fitted while the rest of us had a coffee in the conveniently positioned Shoe pub in Exton.
Having lost two hours we knew we’d be hard pushed to get to our halfway point of Worthing by 7pm – which was when Selina’s parents who were putting us up, had told us the BBQ would be ready.
With growing confidence we ate up the miles past Harting and Cocking and Amberley, ignoring the gradients as we toiled up them and rvelling in them as we sped down their rocky paths. We made it for dinner having put 54 miles and 6000ft of hill climbs behind us.
The three of us ate, drank and slept very well!
From the moment the next morning that three girls on a Three Peaks training weekend pointed up a long steep hill and told us they’d been amusing themselves watching all the cyclists dismount and push up it, Mark and I were on a mission. We blatted up that and pretty much everything in our path finding the rhythm that had eluded us the previous day. Lunch at The Abergaveny in Rodmell was a very tasty carb-stop but we were on a roll and with Simon resuming the pilot’s duties our downhill speeds increased too – hitting 40mph when the surface allowed. The ride just got better and better so that the hurtle down the bridleway from Beachy Head to Eastbourne ended too quickly and it was rather a surprise and almost a disappointment to pop out opposite The Kiosk café and find that our 100 mile ride was over and 11,000 feet of ascent and descent done.
But what an amazing trip – I guess I’ll just have to do it all again when Matthew is fully recovered…can’t have him missing out on the fun!
My wife Kate was waiting with the van for the bikes and two train tickets back to London. I settled down into my seat a little saddle-sore and achy after ten days of ups and Downs!
BBC Scotland’s “Out for the Weekend”: Red talks about the ups and downs of his life rock climbing, in a programme that also features a fascinating interview with Sir Chris Bonington reminiscing about his ascnents of The Old Man of Hoy in 1966, 1967 and then in 2014 when he celebrated his 80th birthday!
From the moment I watched a documentary of Chris Bonington and Tom Patey climb the perpendicular flanks of the Old Man of Hoy I knew that my life would not be complete until I had followed in their footholds. That was in 1983 when I was thirteen. Within months I was tackling my first crags and dreaming of standing atop Europe’s tallest sea stack with the Atlantic pounding 450 feet below. Those dreams went dark at nineteen when I learned I was going blind. I hung up my harness for twenty years and tried to ignore the twinge of desire I felt every time The Old Man appeared on TV.’ Middle aged, by now a family man, crime novelist and occasional radio personality, Red Szell’s life nonetheless felt incomplete. He was still climbing, but only indoors until he shared his old, unforgotten, dream with his buddies, Matthew and Andres, and it became obvious that an attempt had to be made. With the help of mountain guides Martin Moran and Nick Carter, and adventure cameraman Keith Partridge, supported by family and an ever growing following, Red set out to confront the Orcadian giant.
Publication date 16th April 2015 by Sandstone Press
Click here to order your copy from Amazon.co.uk