Weekend Warm-Up: Climbers Brave Scary 8b+, Vertical Grass, and Vomiting Birds

So you think you want to climb a sea cliff? If you want to find out how committed you really are, you should go to the island region of Hoy, Scotland and take a look at the “Longhope”.

Yes, the 470m line looks heroic in profile. The prow leans outward gradually but increasingly, as it rises from its craggy contact point with the sea below. It’s a bona fide classic at E10 7a (the British trad equivalent of 8b+/5.14), with a classic roof pull at mid-height and a thrilling final pitch that thins as it steepens.

It’s also guarded by desperate, unprotectable climbing on vertical grass and birds that serially vomit on any and all visitors.

longhope sea cliff climb

Photo: Screenshot


Still think you want to try the “Longhope”? Then watch this. Robbie Phillips and Alex Moore traveled to the “world’s hardest sea cliff climb” earlier this year, hunting a rare repeat.

How rare is rare? Well, Phillips and Moore would be only the second and third individuals ever to free climb the route, if they could pull it off.

Ed Drummond and Oliver Hill pioneered the line via a week-long siege in 1970. At the time, free climbing a route of its difficulty was impossible.

In fact, the “Longhope” was so hard that it took 41 years for anybody to free climb it. Scottish legend Dave MacLeod finally broke through in 2011, freeing all nine pitches — with the hardest one right at the top. He dubbed his variation the “Longhope Direct”.

Fast forward another decade, and MacLeod was still the only human to ever climb it without aid.

The route’s prohibitive nature entails a lot more than the pure physical difficulty of the moves. Any sea cliff exists on a thin margin of erosion — generally speaking, salt water and soggy biomes will degrade any stone. But the “Longhope’s” position in northern Scotland exposes it to extreme saturation.

Watching Phillips and Moore in “Not a Hope in Hoy” and try counting the scenes that take place in direct sunlight. Spoiler alert: There aren’t any. Usually the weather is gray and vaguely rainy.


Because of that, the cliff itself is slowly succumbing to the ocean. Constant moisture is pulling it apart at an elemental level, creating scads of loose rock, swaths of slippery moss, and vertical metres of wet grass.

All of which happen to create an ideal nesting habitat for fulmars — the cliff’s seasonal avian residents. Fulmars resemble seagulls, with a wingspan of about a metre. When they’re nesting, which they like to do on cliffs, they can become defensive.

“The birds like Robbie and they hate me,” Moore explains in the film. “There’s one fulmar that lives on a [belay] ledge. Robbie said, ‘That ledge is great! The fulmar’s really nice, she loves the climbers. If she had opposable thumbs, she’d make you a cup of tea!’ Got down there, and she’s all spitting at me and hissing and throwing up on my feet. What’s that about?”

longhope sea cliff climb

The fulmar whisperer? Robbie Phillips. Photo: Screenshot


While the prospect of a fulmar attack doesn’t imply fatality in and of itself, it could prove severe for a climber in the no-fall zone.

Bird vomit notwithstanding, Phillips and Moore undertake a proper adventure in “Not a Hope in Hoy”. Moore often comes across as perturbed or comically cynical. That contrasts amusingly with Phillips’s cheery optimism. Candid adventure footage shot at windy, hanging belays in miserable weather makes the texture authentic.

longhope sea cliff climb

Photo: screenshot


And because it’s hard, scary trad climbing on bad rock, there’s plenty of drama in the action itself.

A common worry is that publicizing a climb will make it too popular, and thus diminish it. The softening effect of traffic can turn any adventure nexus into a place where tourists go to buy bubblegum, the logic goes.

But no matter how many stories anyone writes about the “Longhope”, it’s hard to imagine it will lose its repulsive character. Climbing 8b+ is hard enough, and gripping wads of wet grass above a death fall is not for the faint of heart.

Time will tell. But I bet the “Longhope” remains a place where eagles — or in this case, fulmars — dare.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.