Edward Mills, an eight-year-old from the Caithness in the Scottish Highlands, became the youngest person to climb the Old Man of Hoy on Friday last week, raising nearly £30,000 in the process for Climbers Against Cancer.
It's a remarkable achievement, to be the youngest person to climb the Old Man of Hoy. But what's more amazing is that Edward didn’t set himself the challenge for the limelight – he did it for Bekki, his Mum, who has terminal breast cancer.
The Old Man of Hoy is no walk in the park either, it's a lone sea stack standing 137m high and the easiest route to the top comes in at a weighty E1 5b or around f6a. But Edward had support from his parents the whole way, as well as expert supervision and coaching from Ben West and Cailean Harker.
Overcoming nerves and anxiety, Edward slowly made his way to the top of the Old Man while Mum watched from the ferry and Dad from the mainland on the other side. He completed the ascent in just under five hours on the afternoon of Friday 8 June and “climbed every move himself,” said Bekki proudly.
“There was a hidden box up on the top and I had a metal card which said 'Mum's gift to Climbers Against Cancer', which I put into the box and I wrote a story in the book,” Edward told the BBC.
Edward started climbing at the age of two, and his family has been behind him every step of the way.
“Edward said it's the hardest thing he's ever done” wrote Nathan, his Dad, on their JustGiving page, which has over £26,000 donated to Climbers Against Cancer at the time of writing.
Wanting to find out more about this unique family outing, we got in contact with Edward and his parents to get the background info on his remarkable achievement.
Edward and his Mum versus the Old Man of Hoy
Why did you decide to do the climb?
Edward: My Mum did a Macmillan Mighty Hike and raised lots of money for charity and I decided that I wanted to raise money too. I wish there was a cure for cancer, some medicine to make people better, so I wanted to raise money for a charity.
Why the Old Man of Hoy?
We can see the Old Man of Hoy sticking up over the top of Orkney Islands from all over Caithness. I see it when I go to my swimming lesson in Thurso, or to Lidl with my Mum. Whenever we came on holiday to Caithness, before we lived here, we would go across to Orkney and we always talked about it. It just looked like it would be a really cool thing to do and we knew that some young people had done it before. An 11-year-old and a 10-year-old and I thought I wanted to be the youngest person to do it.
Were there any special preparations that you had to do?
I did lots of practice climbing. There isn’t a climbing wall in Caithness so my Dad and Ben built me one in the garage to practice on. I train twice a week in the garage with my Mum, we make up boulder problems and play games. My Mum is always getting me to try and concentrate on my footwork. Dave MacLeod showed me a good drill for swapping my feet on a hold and my Mum makes me do that each session at the beginning. Then I would go to Inverness and to Kirkwall to practice on their walls for practicing on top rope and leading.
I needed to practice on real rocks though as well and practice climbing next to the sea so Simon Nadin, who lives in Brora and used to be a world champion climber, took me out practicing. We went to Sarclet and Mid Clyth near Wick where there are some routes that are the same type of difficulty as the Old Man of Hoy, although they aren’t as tall. We also went to Curmingston near Moray climbing with Climb Scotland and the Moray coast youth climbing club. To help support me the Moray Coast club did a fundraising day too, they all did 10 climbs that added up to 137m the same as the Old Man of Hoy.
Edward with his special waistcoat under the supervision of Cailean Harker. Photo: Alex Shaw
Also my Mum brought me a special waist coat to wear on the day which had pockets for bottles of juice and for sweets to keep me going. I had wine gums which were ok, but next time I'll have haribos.
We also watched lots of climbing videos. We liked watching Dave Macleod do the Longhope on Hoy and also last year there was a film Three Woman and Three Old Men on BMC TV in 2017 which we really loved, although we talked about not having a beer on top but maybe some sweets instead.
Which parts did you find the hardest?
The hardest part was when I was in the chimney. I couldn’t see anything but the wall and I needed a wee and I didn’t know what to do. To climb out of the chimney I had to reach out with my hand and I couldn’t see the move, I just had to feel for it. That was the hardest bit. Ben talked to me and he kept telling me I could do it. Then I had a wee and felt much better!
What was it like at the top?
Topping out was really good. Normally when you top out you put your two hands to the top hold and then you come down again but this was like a part of the climb, I had to pull myself up on to the top and then stand up. I really liked being able to stand up and look all around. I liked the view of the sea best. I could see the white house on Dunnet head so I knew I could also see my house and that was really cool.
The team on the top after a grand day out. Photo: Alex Shaw
You've raised a lot of money are you surprised?
When I looked this morning it was over £25,000 raised. It is amazing. So much money. I have never seen such a big number. Can you get £1,000 notes? I was really surprised but really happy that there is lots of money for helping people with cancer.
How do you feel being the youngest person to climb the Old man of Hoy?
I feel really pleased to be the youngest person. People are always saying you can’t do that, you are not old enough, so it is good to be able to say, yes I can do it even though I am young.
Bekki (Edward’s Mum): Edward has loved climbing since he was really very little, but not being climbers ourselves my husband and I didn’t know how to get him lessons and get him started. We used to take him for one to one lessons at the Warehouse in Gloucester, and when he was four and started school we wanted him to join in a kids club.
Lots of places told us that he was too young, but someone from the South West BMC area put me in touch with Undercover Rock in Bristol; we had a chat with them and they let him join their Rockhoppers Group with the other kids who were aged seven and eight. We had a fantastic instructor called Alex Shaw who really took Edward under his wing. He would give him one to one sessions so that he could do lots of climbing and also really persevered with Edward on the belaying process and climbing being a partnership.
In 2017, when Edward competed in his first BMC Youth Climbing Series, he was the youngest person there. His birthday is in December and so he was only eligible by a couple of days but he still managed to qualify for the finals. Taking part in the YCS was really great fun and introduced us to lots of other climbing families. Nathan, my husband, and I both learnt to belay and Nathan took some classes so that he could climb too. Nathan is going to do his Rock Climbing Instructor award training this summer.
We are still struggling to keep up with Edward and have to rope in friends or hire one to one guides when we want to go outdoors! He is still too young to join in on the group courses and we have to explain to the guides that we book that Edward is good! He might just be eight but he wants to climb hard. Hopefully now we will just say “he’s climbed the Old Man of Hoy”, so people will know what to expect when they take him out for a day!
Climbing the Old Man of Hoy. Photo: Alex Shaw
Do you think you'll do more of this kind of challenge?
Edward: Yes, I want to climb more big sea stacks! I think it would be really nice to do all three of the Scottish Old Men. It would be cool to swim across to Am Buachaille, The Shepherd. I also want to climb El Capitan in Yosemite and I want to go and see what it’s like at Malham as that was my Great Grandad’s favourite place.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start climbing?
Just go and try it. It’s lots of fun. I like spending time in boulder halls. Whenever we go to a city we always try and find somewhere new to have a go. There are lots of different problems and some of them are really big and you can spend all day there. My brother had a birthday party at the climbing wall which was good fun and there is clip and climb too now. Going out bouldering is really good fun. If you want to climb, see some rock and see how far you can get. I like climbing walls and trees too.
Bekki (Edward’s Mum): As a family we have fallen in love with climbing and we get such a lot out of it, have got such a lot out of it. It has given us something to focus on when life has been tough. Travelling to competitions or to different crags has given us things to aim for and look forward to. We have always been very active and like spending time together outdoors, in the mountains or on the moors or at the beach.
We also want to give back to the sport. When we moved to Caithness and realised that there were no climbing facilities here we set up our own club, Caithness Climbers. Nathan is currently training so that he can take kids climbing outdoors. There is a very very basic four line top rope wall in a scout hut that is about 6m high and we ran an introduction to climbing day there in May for 40 kids from Caithness with Climb Scotland. We hope to do some more days like that and to petition to get some proper facilities built in the far north of Scotland for the kids. Climbing is such a great activity. We think all kids should have access to learning to climb. Health, community, challenge both mental and physical, it’s great.
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