One of “The Big Three Scottish Sea Stacks” and “arguably the finest” according to Gary Latter, The Old Man of Stoer has been a long-term goal of mine – I’d just been biding my time, waiting for someone to volunteer to do the crux. At VS 5a, you wouldn’t really imagine that was a problem, but it’s not the climbing I was bothered with – I was waiting for someone to volunteer for THE SWIM. You see, TOMoS is cut off from the mainland by a sea channel, and the usual approach requires a brave soul to make the short (about 10m) swim across to establish a Tyrolean to get the rest of the team and the gear across (and back!) without getting wet!
After escaping a very wet Skye, a one-day weather window in a generally grim week presented itself, and we were within striking distance – “We” being Helen and me, plus Tash and her boyfriend Chris. Things were aligned for a fun family adventure, with “adventure” being the key word for Chris especially, as this would be his first experience of multi-pitch climbing. Nothing like “in at the deep end!”
There’s a great van-overnight spot at the Stoer Lighthouse, where the local grazing committee ask for a voluntary donation of £5 to £10 per vehicle per night (a sensible and hopefully sustainable way of balancing local hospitality and tolerance for van-dwellers at a time when both are under pressure from the NC500 masses!)
After overnight rain, we woke to find the weather to be better than forecast, with plenty of sunshine, though the photos belie the blustery breeze and the 15C max temperature. Game on! There’s a well worn path northwards along the clifftop for about 3km, leading to a vantage point above the Old Man which is obviously a popular attraction for more adventurous visiting walkers / tourists.
After half an hour or so of undulating terrain you catch a first sight of the stack:
Viewed from above, it all looked quite “sploshy” around the base, but the narrow channel that you actually need to swim seemed to be sheltered from the worst of it.
There’s quite a lot of beta and banter on the web about TOMoS, but the most useful hint I picked up was the suggestion to leave a note on the path: “Hello! We’re climbing The Old Man – if you happen to take any photos it’d be great if you could drop me an email! Cheers Dom :-)”
This worked an absolute treat, and thanks to Mike, Lesley and Robert we have some great shots from a different perspective to help make a fabulous day even more memorable!
The descent “path” down the cliffside is fairly obvious from immediately above the stack, but quite steep and slippery after rain, so it seemed prudent to drop a rope down (there are a couple of handy, solid rock spikes just below the clifftop – 40m would do the trick if you had a spare 4th rope to leave in situ, but we used our climbing ropes and they pulled fine. By the time we came to reascend at the end of the day, things had dried off and everyone felt fine without the rope).
Down at sea level, the swim was looking fairly amenable – just as well, as despite the other three members of the team being much more into “wild swimming”, and despite my best efforts at delegation, it was me who’d drawn the short straw. My final vague hope that timing our crossing for low tide would enable the alternative “boulder hopping” approach was in vain – you’d need a spring tide and a very calm sea to play that “Get out of jail free card”.
I reckoned the best crossing point was about 10m north of the Tyrolean, with an easy entry down a short ramp/corner, and more importantly an easy-looking exit (marked in red below, with the approximate line of the Tyrolean in blue)
The water was surprisingly warm (I guess mid-September is as good as it gets) and it was all over in seconds
– the Eagle had landed!
I’d had a brainwave to bring our plastic washing line (about 15m) as a zip-cord, so I just towed this across as I swam, and then was able to pull across a bin-bag stuffed with dry clothing plus one end of the rope for the Tyrolean (leaving the other end firmly attached to an anchor constructed with a couple of bomb-proof wires). A 50m rope is enough for the Tyrolean – a static would be ideal, but we found a well-tensioned old sports rope to be fine.
There’s a decent fixed anchor (usual disclaimer applies – check it for yourself!) on the stack, so you just pass the Tyrolean rope through this and throw it back across to the team on the landward side (so that you can ultimately retrieve the rope once everyone is back on shore at the end of the day). Top tip – I gaffer-taped a pouch of olives to the washing line (other random, non-lethal throwing weights would do though!) to make it into an easily throwable line.
Now you need to attach this second end of the rope to the landward belay and tension the Tyrolean. An easy way to do this (which will also allow you to un-tension it when you come to go home!) is to use a grigri or similar device (backed up with a clove-hitch!) Getting the Tyrolean nice and tight will make for an easier and dryer trip – be sure that your belays at both ends are really sound as this puts a huge strain on them! Also be sure to use clove hitches rather than a figure of 8 – these knots will be very tight when you come to undo them! OK – now there’s a very tight loop of rope running to the stack, through the situ mailon / screwgate and back to dry land. Tyrolean time!
A good test is to send your gear and ropes across first (again, the zip line can be handy for pulling these over). If nothing else, it reduces the weight for the rest of the team. The “outbound leg” is slightly downhill so easier going. You can use a pulley (even better a microtraxion) on one strand for an easier ride, but then you get more stretch. Alternatively a screwgate over both ropes gives less stretch but more friction. We had various friction / ascender options available to help with pulling up the last bit, but all found that “hand-over-hand” worked fine without.
Now for some climbing! The first pitch is the 5a crux and involves a short leftwards hand traverse of the crack / break clearly visible above the Tyrolean tat in this shot:
It’s not far, but the final move to a good foot ledge is tricky (especially for the vertically-challenged) and not easy to protect for your second.
If you are fairly confident, I found a good option was to press on and link the next pitch (effectively solo but only about Severe) which heads easily around onto the seaward face before angling back to a commodious ledge immediately above the start of the route – thus giving the rest of the team a top-rope for the crux.
The rest of the climbing is an absolute delight, never desperate (4b/c), but always interesting and on immaculate rock. Pitch 3 takes a diagonal crack…
to another splendid stance in a cave above a huge chockstone.
Here’s a shot taken by Robert from the clifftop, with me in the cave stance, Tash following pitch 3 and Helen and Chris on the P2 ledge.
Then P4 & 5 link easily, with a gritstonesque leaning flake / off-width giving pause for thought before a dash for the summit. You can just about make out the Tyrolean immediately below Helen, and the gradually disappearing starting ledges.
Fabulous views from the top and the perfect summit selfie!
If you’ve got 60m ropes, as we did, you can be back down at the Tyrolean anchor in one huge ab (most of it free-hanging!) Alternatively, 50s will get you down to the P2 stance/ledge where there’s an intermediate rap point on a couple of old-looking pegs (good luck!)
If you started your adventure around low tide, there’s a good chance it’ll be getting on towards high tide by the time you come to make the return Tyrolean. The platform at the bottom of the ab / start of the Tyrolean will likely be wave-washed but mostly dry (although with a spring tide there’d be another metre of water compared with our experience)…
… and you’ve got at least a couple of meters less clearance between your bum and the briney on the way back!
All that remains is to pull the ropes, retrieve the Tyrolean and scramble up the cliffside, before trogging back to the van for very well-deserved beers.
I can really recommend The Old Man of Stoer as a fantastic day out, certainly on a par with its more famous brother on Hoy. It might only be half the size, but the swim / Tyrolean add an extra dimension and the quality of the actual climbing is probably superior. Better? That’d be a big call – do them both and decide for yourself! Talking of which, having now done two of the “Big Three” I now feel compelled to tackle Am Buchaille in Caithness. So many climbs; so little time!
Footnote: Please excuse the bumper length post – “Old Man of Stoer + Tyrolean” seems to be one of the most frequently recurring topics on UKC Forums, so I thought I’d throw in some detailed beta. Please feel free to ignore my suggestions, and however you do it be sure to have a brilliant (and safe!) adventure!