The Old Man of Hoy is a 137m sea stack of red sandstone that veers straight up towards the sky on the Orkney archipelago, off the north-eastern coast of Scotland. It was first climbed in 1966 by Sir Chris Bonington, the UK’s most famous mountaineer, and the Red Bull website still warns that it can be ‘challenging even for the most seasoned of climbers’. It’s pretty impressive, then, that the 40-year-old British rock climber Leo Houlding ascended the Old Man at the tender age of 11. ‘I grew up in the Lake District and I wasn’t a sporty child, but I was adventurous. My father had a friend who was into rock climbing and the three of us started climbing when I was 10 and I immediately fell in love. The Old Man of Hoy was a big, scary adventure, but I didn’t think twice about climbing the formidable sea stack.’
Half-way up the stack, he realised there could be real consequences if he got it wrong. ‘The best-case scenario would have been two broken legs. One of the cool things about climbing is the cerebral element of it; you are constantly problem solving and assessing the level of risk. You are effectively putting yourself in harm’s way for no other tangible reason than to get out of it again.’
Houlding appears to be a pretty chilled, relaxed guy who glows with good health. He is not in the least bit arrogant when we meet, but he is dismissive of the ‘hundreds and thousands of modern-day adventurers who row the ocean or climb the Seven Summits’ because he prefers to go right off the beaten track and push himself to his absolute limit.
By which he means, for example, spending two weeks living on a cliff north of the Arctic Circle. Two weeks. How is this even possible? For starters, does he ever get a good night’s sleep? He laughs. ‘Of course. I couldn’t keep going if I didn’t. I’ve spent hundreds of nights in a hanging tent system called a portaledge. But it’s not without mishaps. I was once asleep in a portaledge and this whirring sound woke me up. The cliff was overhanging, so I had no reason to be scared. But then this fist-sized rock came out of nowhere and hit me square in the balls! It had arced right over the cliff and landed on my down sleeping bag, which exploded. It looked like a fox in a chicken house. I was OK, but I kept the rock as a reminder.’
In 2002, quite early in his career – but four years after becoming the first Briton to free climb El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley, at the age of 18 – Houlding broke the talus bone in his right ankle really badly in a 20m fall on Cerro Torre, on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. He was 25 miles away from the nearest road and had to crawl on his hands and knees for 24 hours. He had no back-up plan and ‘no comms’, as satellite phones were neither widely available nor affordable at the time. He was out for a year, but being a glass half full kind of guy, he didn’t get depressed. Instead he met his future wife, bought a house and decided that while he wouldn’t become risk averse, he’d be more careful about when and where he took those risks.
Timing, he points out, is critical. ‘I rarely go anywhere without my Linde Werdelin Biformeter watch and the accompanying Land Instrument, which was an essential piece of kit when we were free climbing the Northeast Ridge of Everest. The Land Instrument measures temperature, heart rate, altitude, weather and compass readings – in other words, it monitors the body’s reaction to extreme conditions. I’ve been doing lots of stuff in Polar regions in the past couple of years and you really lose track of time because it just doesn’t get dark. When we were in Greenland snow hiking en route to the Mirror Wall, we didn’t do a great job of timekeeping and we started losing days. You’d be on the go for over 24 hours because the lack of darkness gives you energy. You’d get up on a Monday, sleep four times and it’d be Saturday. My next trip is to the Amazon jungle of Guyana, which will entail a 50km jungle trek and a 600m climb. We’ve got some very specific deadlines this time and we’ll be supported by the local tribes.’
After three decades of climbing, what has Houlding learned? ‘We are all experiencing climate change in some way now, but the melting ice on the west coast of Greenland is really shocking. The effect it will have on this country will probably be one of the defining events in my children’s’ lifetime. To focus on the positive, I just have huge respect for the natural world. There’s nothing like hanging off a ginormous cliff face and looking down to give you a different perspective on the world.’