Monday 10 August 2009

Living in Longhope

Working on the headwall cracks, Longhope Route, Hoy with the 7pm from Stromness ferry heading by far below. If you can’t see me, click on the pic to see it full size. Photos: Claire MacLeod

Walking off the hill from Kentallen last week after doing Durorband with unexpected ease, I felt that feeling of lightness, fitness and a readiness to climb something really hard that I’ve not felt so strongly since before climbing Echo Wall. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I really felt this. For sure, hard climbs can be done without it by pure force, but this state and this feeling is what’s needed to break barriers.

Good timing then, as I was heading back to Orkney the following day for a second look at a really amazing project. A couple of years ago, Oliver Hill sent me a message pointing me in the direction of a possible good project. In 1970, he and Ed Drummond had a fairly gruelling adventure opening a 500 metre long aid route on St John’s Head on Hoy, over six days. The Longhope Route is the longest wall climbs in the UK and everything about it also makes it arguably the most adventurous. In 1997 John Arran and Dave Turnbull made a free version of the route, climbing the lower pitches before escaping off left, and returning a few months later to abb in and climb the top part, avoiding the headwall cracks by a 4 pitch deviation up grooves on the left. Even though their route avoided the hardest part of the Longhope Route, it is still one of the hardest adventure style trad climbs anywhere, with 23 pitches of serious, loose and sometimes birdy climbing, and an F8a pitch near the top.

St John’s Head - quite a cliff!

Oliver pointed out to me that a free ascent of the original headwall cracks (about pitch 18) might be 8c+ at a guess. So I swore I would get myself there, sooner or later. Last month, sooner or later arrived and I was dangling in space, 350 metres above the sea inspecting the unbelievable overhanging headwall of St John’s head. To look at, the cracks reminded me of my own route Rhapsody - a smooth, long leaning wall, with a thin crack petering out into the wall with tiny edges beyond. But this time it was 18 pitches up! Fairly irresistible as you might imagine.

I wasted myself for two days cleaning it and then trying the moves. Getting seriously dehydrated and stumbling back across the plateau in a bit of a daze. It seemed like Oliver was on the money with his grade estimation and I thought perhaps it was too hard for me. Between then and my next trip, I trained, dieted and went over and over what would be needed to climb a 50 metre pitch near my sport climbing limit, but on trad gear, 18 pitches up, with some puking fulmars to fight with passing the gear breaks?

Claire waiting to board

But last week’s trip with Claire all felt quite different, the effect of training properly for it made it all seem a lot more possible. The pitch looks, and climbs very similar to a lovely 8c I was on just right of La Rambla in Siurana earlier in the year. But unfortunately it’s not bolted, or at a roadside crag in Spain! I still can’t quite imagine carrying a large armoury of cams up the route, and this pitch, getting past the fulmar below the crux without being doused in ming, trailing 100 metres of rope and then sticking those tiny edges just before it rejoins John’s 8a section. So although I’m not totally sure how possible the route will be for me to actually climb, I’m at least certain that I’m going to try. I hope the Orkney weather allows me the chance to do battle sometime soon I can return with a partner. I felt pretty bad hanging in the huge natural shelter of the wall while Claire (filming) was battered for 6 hours by the atlantic gale

For now I’m heading back to work on it for another couple of days, followed by more training no doubt. I’ll let you know how it goes..

Wreckage of a Liberator Bomber near the top of Cuilags, on the walk-in to St John’s Head. It crashed here in January 1945 in a blizzard killing all it’s crew. There are quite a few plane crash sites around Hoy and grim stories to go with them, which give a flavour of the inhospitible nature of the place. The poor soldier they sent to guard the wreckage of one actually died of exposure at the site.

The long approach to St John’s and ever-present 60 mph gale has a levelling effect on Claire.

But at least a sheltered spot in Stromness made it feel less arduous on the way home!

The hardships of the climbing lifestyle

A good feed on returning to the Great Glen. Claire gets stuck into her Haggis like a proper teuchter. Alicia is little more hesitant.


  1. That looks Epic Dave. Is the crux on sound rock? good luck.

  2. Nice to know fulmar chics play havoc on top end route's as well as classic VDiff's! Good luck with it!

  3. Looks amazing. Whats the gear like at the crux? Good luck.

  4. Totally speccy line Dave. Inspirational stuff. Have at it! Can't wait to see more.

  5. How exciting! I cannot wait for you to succeed on the top two pitches; and then put it all together. I have always felt the top pitch from the Crow's Nest, directly up the roof, might go easier than apparent. In my imagination, but 50m of planar overhang wall followed by a huge roof would be perfect!

  6. Really hope you do it, Dave. Good luck. Climbed or unclimbed the route sounds utterly unparalelled.

  7. Good luck .Climb more and give us some great top views pictures.