Weekend Warm-Up: Not a Hope in Hoy

Adventure climbers in the UK don’t need to head to Yosemite to experience the thrill and exposure of big-wall climbing. Tucked away high up in Northern Scotland is a 350m face called St John’s Head, which is the world’s hardest sea cliff climb.

A two-hour boat ride is required to reach Hoy, a remote island in the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. Here, the moss-encrusted St John’s Head rises vertically from the sea. Back in the 70’s, the legendary Ed Drummond assaulted the huge sandstone cliff over seven days.

Drummond and company created a 493m aid route called The Longhope that went unrepeated for decades. Then in 2011, the Scottish polymath climber Dave Macleod freed the whole thing in nine pitches at a whopping grade of E10 (5.14).

Over the years, the massive sandstone outing has been a siren call for only the most adventurous trad climbers. Prerequisites: a penchant for loose rock, big run-outs, and vomiting sea birds.

Photo: Mark Reeves


Putrid vomit

The latest Longhope wannabe, who stars in this week’s video, is Robbie Phillips, one of the UK’s leading trad climbers. He first teamed up to tackle the Longhope with Emma Twyford, another British trad god. They were beaten back by the unique challenges of this Scottish coastal monolith.

“Extremely poor rock quality and some squeaky bum moments slowed us down and drained us mentally. Then we had the local inhabitants to deal with: the fulmar. It’s a bird that spits putrid vomit at you if you come too close,” Phillips later told UK Climbing.

A year later, the dynamic and motivated Scotsman returned with strongman boulderer Alex Moore. Tagging along behind the lens was Ryan Balharry, a climber and adventure filmmaker. A couple of months ago, I happened to bump into Balharry when hiking in Greenland and was captivated by his tales of filming on this wild and exposed headland.

If ripped gear, loose rock, heavy winds, putrid vomit, grassy pitches, slime-filled cracks, ledge crawling, and humorous belay chat sound like your thing, then watch on to find out how Phillips and Moore fared on this infamous Longhope route.

Ash Routen

Ash Routen is a writer for ExplorersWeb. He has been writing about Arctic travel, mountaineering, science, camping, hiking, and outdoor gear for 7 years. As well as ExplorersWeb, he has written for Gear JunkieRed Bull, Outside, The Guardian, and many other outlets. Based in Leicester, UK, Routen is an avid backpacker and arctic traveler who writes about the outdoors around a full-time job as an academic.