Free Climbing St Johns Head (Almost)

Robbie Phillips heads to Orkney to take on one of the UK's most formidable climbing routes but finds an unexpected immovable obstacle.

words robbie phillips (scottish climber)

Turquoise water, golden beaches and bright fiery sandstone cliffs bursting out of the sea. It could be a setting from a Narnia book, but is in fact a real-life place in Orkney, on the Isle of Hoy.

In 1970, two climbers rocked up off the boat from the British mainland and set out on a bold and audacious adventure. Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill wanted to make the first ascent of the then unclimbed St John’s Head; at the time the UK’s biggest unknown in climbing.

They spent seven days on the wall, battling fear, uncertainty and poor weather. They eventually succeeded, cementing their names firmly in the history books as the first ascensionists of St John’s Head, a climb they named The Long Hope. Longhope is actually a village on the Isle of Hoy, but I like to think that it also meant that the climb was truly a long hope to achieve, for uncertainty and doubt must surely have been a regular feeling during that historic ascent.

Fast-forward to June 2011 and Dave Macleod succeeded in becoming the first climber to free-climb the route. This was a momentous achievement, especially considering after 400m of climbing, the final 65m pitch is technically the hardest.

Free Climbing

Free climbing is when a climber only uses their hands and feet to make upward progress. They still use a rope and climbing gear to protect them in case they fall, but they don’t pull on the gear to get past a hard section. This means the climb is physically and technically much more challenging.

Fast-forward another 10 years and my friend Emma Twyford and I arrived on Hoy to try and repeat what Dave had done.

Arriving in Orkney I remember thinking how different it must have been for Ed and Oliver when they came here. The ferries were so easy to organise for us, I even had my lovely big campervan with me. We parked at Rackwick Bay beside the famous bothy, where they had toilets and warm running water – luxury!

On day 1 we walked to the Old Man of Hoy – a very pleasant walk along a well-curated trail (big up to the Orkney National Trust), St John’s is only another 30minutes further. On top of St John’s I even got 4G on my phone… I video called my girlfriend from the summit “HEY!!! Look where I am!!!”

For Ed and Oliver, it must have felt like a proper expedition, far from friends, family, home and very remote. These days you can stay in constant connection with the rest of the world. It does detract from the adventure, but it’s nice to know that if anything goes wrong, help is at hand.

Emma and I spent the best part of 2 weeks working the top pitch before committing to the climb from the bottom.

Knowing a little from reading blogs and watching the Dave Macleod film, we knew that the top pitch was going to require most of our attention – it was very hard, probably harder than any Trad climbing I had done on a single pitch let alone at the top of a 500m sea cliff.

Come the day of the big climb we both felt excited; full of nervous energy. I also had a tonne of OP bars and nut butter sachets, oh and one Freddo!

I took the first pitch and felt rusty on the lead; I hadn’t climbed on the sharp end in a while, could I still remember how to place gear?

The rock on the bottom quarter was terrible; chossy and loose. I had to commit to a long runout above some very poor gear on the worst rock I’d ever climbed on; 'Weetabix' is the only word I could use to describe it.

Once I was through I felt a wave of relief, as I knew I didn’t have to do that again. But as I moved upwards I suddenly became aware of something in front of me, a Fulmar.

These white and grey sea birds are famous amongst climbers as they make the cliffs their home, but perhaps I should say infamous, as they also eject a putrid acidic vomit at anyone who they are threatened by.

The bird just looked at me confusedly and I felt relieved that it wasn’t going to attack, so I backed off slowly and stood up… SPLAT! A warm oozing liquid hit the side of my face. I didn’t even move I was so stunned - just like that scene from Jurassic Park, I was so focused on the fulmar in front I’d completely missed the one perched to the left, and it got me straight in the face… 'Clever Girl!'

This was only a taste of what was to come, for the Fulmars had begun their nesting season, which is also when they’re at their most aggressive.

"I got to the famous Vice section, a horizontal squirm through an open sided tunnel in the rock. Normally this would have been fine, but guarding the way were five nesting fulmars. I lay there on my belly staring at them..."

We hadn’t realised that they’d be nesting as all other ascents had been in the same month, but turns out their nesting season can be anywhere between May and June with their chicks fledging in July/August.

We figured we could probably avoid the nests for the most part. As we’d already begun the climb we wanted to continue and we managed to stay clear of them until the penultimate pitch.

I was taking the lead on this particularly bold piece of climbing. A lack of gear placements and poor rock, not to mention my dwindling energy and enthusiasm meant I was feeling pretty strung out.

I got to the famous Vice section, a horizontal squirm through an open-sided tunnel in the rock. Normally this would have been fine, but guarding the way were five nesting fulmars. I lay there on my belly staring at them. Could I get past without disturbing them?

I crept forward slowly and the Fulmar closest to me started to make a sort of sucking sound from its beak, its neck oscillating, I backed away again. This wasn’t going to go down well for either of us, so I made the tough decision to retreat.

I descended to Emma to explain and she agreed that continuing would have been immoral. Even getting this far I felt like I was in the wrong and so we decided to go down and leave these creatures in peace.

Throughout the trip I had admired the fulmar from a distance, they fly so elegantly and they are actually very beautiful birds. Do you know they live for over 40 years?! They lay one egg a year and are fiercely protective over it, hence the vomit.

Having listened to climbers over the years I had gotten the wrong impression - to some, it seemed that they were simply an obstacle in the way of their ascent but having spent this time on Orkney, I realise that it was us who was the obstacle, not them. They are at home, and we’ve just kicked their front door down and stormed through the living room...

"...having spent this time on Orkney, I realise that it was us who was the obstacle, not them. They are at home, and we’ve just kicked their front door down and stormed through the living room..."

Birds aside though, 'The Long Hope' is one of the biggest adventures you can have on the British Isles. Having climbed 90% of the original 1970 route from Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill, it’s completely mind bending what they achieved back then with far less technical equipment - an incredible achievement.

My plan is to come back in August/September for another crack at the climb after the fulmar chicks have flown the nest, but in the meantime, I’d like to help educate climbers on these amazing birds.

Although I still feel it was our fault that we were up there, really we weren’t equipped with the right information from the start. There was a surprising lack of it for climbers regarding fulmars, and I’d like to help change that.

Links: Watch The Long Hope, the story behind the hardest sea cliff climb in the world.

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