Climbers scale 'biggest adventure' in UK climbing

By Huw Williams
BBC Scotland reporter

  • Published
Robbie Phillips on the Long Hope Direct routeImage source, Ryan Balharry
Image caption,
The Long Hope Direct route scales 493 metres up the highest vertical sea cliffs in Britain

Two climbers have completed one of the toughest sea cliff routes in the British Isles, for only the third time.

Edinburgh-based Robbie Phillips said the Long Hope Direct route weaves its way up the rock face "taking in some of the most spectacular, most exposed, and most difficult climbing that you can do".

He completed the 493m route - at St John's Head in the Orkney island of Hoy - with climbing partner Alex Moore from Cornwall.

The climbers said it was "the biggest adventure" in the sport in the UK.

Image source, Robbie Phillips
Image caption,
The route is open to the weather and includes areas of crumbly loose rock which make placing holds harder, and falls more likely

The first ascent of the Long Hope Direct was made 11 years ago by Dave MacLeod.

The route - on the highest vertical sea cliffs in Britain - features crumbling "questionable" rock and the added hazard of nesting fulmars, which projectile vomit on anyone or anything that gets too close.

Mr Phillips and Alex Moore call themselves "free climbers" - using a rope to protect themselves from falling, but using their fingers, hands and feet to grip on to the wall and climb up.

Image source, Ryan Balharry
Image caption,
Higher stages of the route include challenging over-hangs
Image source, Robbie Phillips
Image caption,
Fulmars nesting on the cliff face projectile vomit on to anyone who gets too close

Mr Phillips told BBC Radio Orkney the climb was "a totally unique experience".

He said: "It can be terrifying at times. The constant exposure you get up there really eats away at your energy reserves throughout the day.

"The final 70 metres of this massive, massive rock face, all the ledges disappear and you just have this insane drop below you.

"It's also super-steep, and over-hanging in places, where you're basically just dangling with nothing but air below your feet."

Mr Phillips first tackled the route last summer and was beaten by the birds.

"When fulmars have eggs they are particularly aggressive to anyone that gets too close to their nests, and they spit this putrid vomit," he said.

"It's a really disgusting inconvenience. But I realised we really had no right to be there in nesting season.

"That's why we backed off last year, because I got to this one section of the wall where we just couldn't avoid them.

"So, this year, we decided to go a month earlier. The weather was a little bit worse, and we didn't get quite as much light. But the fulmars just hadn't quite started laying their eggs, so I think we got it done just in time."

Image source, Ryan Balharry
Image caption,
The cliffs at St John's Head in Hoy are close to the more famous Old Man sea stack
Image source, Ryan Balharry
Image caption,
Climbing earlier in the year than previously reduced the challenges from fulmars, but meant poorer weather and shorter days

He said it was "amazing" to have completed the route.

"Non-climbers think we do it for this adrenaline hit", he said.

But that is a misunderstanding.

"What we're doing it for is overcoming the challenge," he said. "And I guess the Long Hope Direct for me was everything I love about climbing.

"The fact that it was technically challenging, it was a physical challenge, but there were also so many hazards you had to weave your way around - everything from the wildlife, the fulmars which I absolutely love, to the loose rock."

"The final pitch is the best climbing on the wall. And the rest of it just feels like you're dodging really dangerous scenarios all the time. I think part of being a climber is being able to assess these risks when they happen."

Image source, Ryan Balharry
Image caption,
The Long Hope Direct expedition was the first time Robbie Phillips and Alex Moore have climbed together
Image source, Robbie Phillips
Image caption,
After climbing St John's Head, the two men tackled three more sea stacks in a 24-hour challenge

After successfully completing the route on St John's Head, the two climbers went on to tackle three more stacks in a 24-hour climbing challenge - the Old Man of Hoy, and Am Buchaille near Sheigra and the Old Man of Stoer in Lairg on the Scottish mainland.

They finished all three with just an hour to spare.

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