The Sky’s the Limit for Southampton Climbers

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In 1966 three British climbers made the first ascent of Europe’s highest sea stack. Standing at 137 meters tall, the Old Man of Hoy lies in the North Sea archipelago of Orkney.

It took Chris Bonington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey three days to reach the top of the distinctive red sandstone plinth. A year later Bonington and Patey repeated their original route for the viewing pleasure of the British public, in the most audacious outside broadcast ever attempted by the BBC at that time. Sixteen tons of equipment was ferried 450 miles from the Firth of Clyde to Hoy in army landing craft and then man hauled in sledges to the cliff edge overlooking the Old Man. The resulting broadcast was watched by 15 million people and signalled a new era in outside broadcasting and reality television worldwide.

Both climbing and broadcasting has moved on since Bonington and Patey’s landmark ascent. Yet, a large proportion of climbing within Britain is still performed in a ‘traditional’ or ‘trad’ style.

Trad climbing involves the climber placing and removing their own safety protection as they climb a route. The difficulty of traditional climbs in Britain has escalated hugely since the Old Man was first climbed, thanks to developments in safety equipment and a more intensive approach to physical training by climbers. Despite, the developments in traditional climbing, the original route up the Old Man of Hoy still remains one of the most coveted routes in any climber’s logbook; largely because geologists have predicted that the 400 year soft sandstone plinth may not stand much longer due to the detrimental effects of erosion.

This summer four climbers from Southampton University Mountaineering Club made the 700 mile trip from Southampton to attempt the original route. The team allocated two weeks for the trip to ensure that there would be an adequate weather window whilst on the remote island of Hoy.

“On the way climbing stops were made at Ben Nevis and various Scottish sea cliffs to ensure the team were operating as efficiently and safely as possible upon reaching Hoy.”The four climbers, John Tanner, Jonathan Pearson, Tom Green and Tom Maidwell successfully completed the route on the 24th of August. The ascent took three and a half hours and was split into five sections. The climbers worked in two teams of two, one leading the most difficult and serious section of the climb, a wide overhanging crack that still bears the original chocks of wood deeply jammed into it that were used to protect Bonington and Patey over 40 years ago. The climbers also had to contend with the projectile vomiting of nesting Fulmars and make sense of 4 decades worth of discarded climbing gear when building anchor points in order to safely descend.

The achievement is made more remarkable given that two of the team only started climbing upon joining Southampton University. The ascent stands as a testament to the opportunities that the AU has to offer club whilst at university.

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