BMC member Red Szell has just climbed the Old Man of Hoy. What makes this special? Red is blind. Here's his story of how he came to find himself living his dream on the iconic Scottish sea stack.
No amount of research prepares you for coming face to face with The Old Man of Hoy…even when you’re blind. The pixelated 5% of normal vision I still have took in the 450ft of red Orcadian sandstone in sections, a lot of sections.
Was I about to get a rude awakening from my 30-year dream?
Back in the mid-80s I’d watched a TV documentary about Joe Brown and Chris Bonington’s ascent and thought, “I want to do that”. A year later I’d been old enough to join the school rock-climbing club. Twice-termly trips to Harrisons' Rocks and a couple of weekends in Swanage and I was hooked.
But then I learned I was going blind and it was like taking a long fall and wondering whether the person belaying is going to catch the rope.
So I hung up my harness for 20 years until a climbing wall opened at my local sports centre and the itch returned.
If the instructors at Climb London in Swiss Cottage were surprised to have a novice with a white stick they didn’t show it – rather they treated it as a challenge to get me confident enough to climb outdoors again. A conversation about Al Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat led me to confide my dream to Trevor, an old trad hand, who rubbed his chin and in his calm, considered way said, “well…with a bit of work you could probably do it.”
A bit of work turned out to be rigorous training routine drawn up by Climb London’s Operations Manager, Cole Styron and a lot of research.
My BMC membership helped me track down a guide who knew the route and logistics. Martin Moran takes the toughest challenges in his stride and put me through my paces on Cioch Nose over Easter, after which he pronounced himself satisfied that he could lead me up.
So on Midsummer Day I found myself on the crux pitch, bridging the bottomless chimney known as The Coffin, 150ft of thin air between me and the churning Atlantic below, wondering how the hell I’m going to climb out and over the Old Man’s huge overhanging belly above me.
Facing a disability and climbing a wall are not that dissimilar. Both can appear insuperable obstacles until you break them down into a series of moves and pitches; you buzz on your small successes and come back again to try and defeat the sections that throw you off; sometimes you just need to tough it out.
I wedged my toes into a pocket behind me, fist-jammed the crack above and rose into a wobbly Egyptian. My free hand groped the outside wall for…anything. As my back foot began to slide and my muscles screamed for mercy, all the training, all the support I’d received (and a bit of blind faith) held me there. My fingers closed on a dusty nubbin, I hauled up and was over!
Ninety minutes later I was at the summit – dreams can come true.
By BMC member Red Szell
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