26 September 2010

The Old Man of Hoy - A Giant Due to Fall

The Old Man of Hoy is, at just inches off four hundred and fifty feet one of the largest sea stacks in the world.  A stack is formed through geomorphology – erosion which is totally natural.  Man had no hand in his existence – only water, wind and time. Here he looks like a giant  Bart Simpson from the back, gazing out to sea but it is as The Old Man that we know him.  Yet what looks like it might last all eternity could topple in to the sea today.

The inexorable force of water and wind has slowly but surely created cracks in the headland.  These crack enlarge and force a collapse, leaving a stack isolated and standing alone.  The Old Man of Hoy was formed like this – some think as little as four hundred years ago. Maps older than this show no evidence of its existence.

After 1750 the sea stack appears on maps.  Situated on the west coast of the Orkney Islands, the Old Man of Hoy is like a red cloth to mountaineers but it was not until 1966 that it was conquered for the first time, by the legendary mountaineer Chris Bonnington and his team.

Image Credit Flickr User ant2ant41
When William Daniell painted the Old Man in 1817 it had an arch at the base and a smaller section on the top which very much made it look like a hobbling old man.  The elements have done for the arch which formed the impression of legs and the top has slowly weathered until it is as wide as we see it today.

When Bonnington and his team of Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey climbed the Old Man of Hoy for a second time in 1967 it caused something of a media event which is associated with the twenty first century rather than the era of The Beatles.  A live broadcast showed their progress over three days, attracting more than 15 million viewers.

Ascents are rare.  In 2008 Sir Ranulph Fiennes climbed the Old Man when he was preparing to clime the Eiger but there only around twenty ascents each year.  When the summit is reached climbers can find a RAF log book tucked away inside a Tupperware container which itself is buried in a small mound of rocks (known as a cairn).  It is considered one of the personal pinnacles of mountaineering to have your name recorded in the log book.

The Old Man of Hoy has remnants of past climbs dotted around his almost sheer side.  Wooden wedges, ironmongery and a deadman anchor are just some of the items which have been left on the rocky Cliffside, as if he were some kind of giant geological voodoo doll.

Yet mountaineers recognise the fact that the Old Man of Hoy might not be around too much longer.  True, he may persevere for hundreds of years to come but that is unlikely.  The chances are that someday soon he will tumble in to the sea, creating a mini tsunami.  A shame in many ways as, in geological terms the Old Man of Hoy has been around for a nano-second.