This feature first appeared in Coast magazine in 2015

Orkney, 2013: a man stands buffeted by the wind. Salt air fills his nostrils, gull cries reverberate above him and the Atlantic crashes 449ft below. He is standing on top of the Old Man of Hoy, Europe’s tallest sea stack. First scaled in 1966, the Old Man has a fearsome reputation as one of Britain’s toughest climbs. But Red Széll didn’t let that put him off – nor the fact he is blind. As he takes in the sounds and smells of the epic landscape surrounding him, he is filled with a deep sense of elation. This is the culmination of a 30-year journey, sparked by a BBC documentary.

***

Red was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) just before his 20th birthday. Now in his forties, he has only three per cent of normal sight. All his peripheral vision is lost; he describes what little he can see as ‘like looking through a keyhole into a smoke-filled room’. Long before his sight deteriorated, Red developed a passion for climbing.

It was a TV retrospective of Sir Chris Bonington’s career, aired when Red was a teenager in 1983, which first inspired him to take up the sport. Sir Chris had scaled Everest and led daring expeditions throughout the Himalayas. But what particularly captured Red’s imagination was the stark beauty of Hoy’s perpendicular coastline. ‘Of the entire documentary, less than five minutes was on the Old Man, but it just burned itself onto my mind’s eye,’ recalls Red. ‘I’d got used to seeing Chris wrapped in mountaineering garb, against the bright snow. But at Hoy he was in normal clothes. I thought, I can do this – this isn’t the Himalayas. It was the beauty and the accessibility of it.’

More accessible than Everest, perhaps – but conquering the Old Man was never going to be easy. Described by one climber as sticking out of the Atlantic ‘like the admonishing finger of God’, this mythic sea stack has seen fewer than 2,000 people ever reach the top. After Red received his RP diagnosis, ascending the Old Man must have seemed an impossible fantasy. For a couple of decades, he hung up his carabiners and stopped climbing altogether.

But a trip to a local climbing centre for his daughter’s ninth birthday reignited his past passion, and soon he began to believe again that he could achieve his teenage dream. As he became reacquainted with climbing, Red had to overcome new difficulties he hadn’t experienced before as a full-sighted climber. ‘It’s the most frustrating thing,’ he explains, ‘when your fingers are splaying everywhere and your climbing partner is shouting, “Just two inches to the left” but you still can’t find the hold. You just don’t have the luxury of sight.’

Ever positive, Red points out that there are some advantages to being blind. Even the most experienced climber is prone to ‘exposure’ – that leg-wobbling feeling of vertigo that comes when you suddenly realise how far off the ground you’ve come. ‘I remember that feeling from when I was 15 years old in a Welsh quarry. You glance over your shoulder and the world falls out from under you. I don’t have to worry about that any more.’

A gruelling six-day-a-week training regime gave Red the confidence and fitness he would need to take on the giant sea pillar. He was barely able to do four press-ups when he started; after six months he could manage 150 and had lost 26 pounds. He was going to need every last ounce of strength and stamina he could muster.

***

On the day of the climb, a rare sunny one – as if, Red jokes, the Scottish tourism board had laid on the best weather for him – the challenge he most feared came before he even reached the Old Man’s foot. To get to the sea stack, he had to scramble across a causeway of minivan-sized boulders that had formed when the arch that used to link the Old Man of Hoy to the promontory came crashing down. ‘If I was going to break my neck anywhere, it would have been there,’ recalls Red, who had to attach himself to his climbing partners Nick Carter and Martin Moran with a short rope in order to get safely across. ‘My awkward stumbles would have left no one in any doubt that I was blind. No blind person is good across broken ground. Put me vertical any day!’

He made it to the base with a sense of relief but there would still be trials to come. The first section of the Old Man – or first ‘pitch’, as climbers call it – is heavily weathered by centuries of lashing waves. ‘It was so worn that pieces crumbled and became detached in places,’ says Red. Elsewhere, ‘It was slimy with seaweed.’ Letting his fingers explore the decaying sea stack, he imagined that he was climbing an ancient cathedral or the armoured skin of some prehistoric beast. Progressing to the second pitch, he had to traverse a sandy ledge, which in places was just half an inch thick, before ducking into a three-sided ‘chimney’ running deep in the rock. Then came what Red calls, ‘the Old Man’s monstrous belly’, an overhang sticking out a good six feet, which he had to scramble over.

By the time he made it out and over the belly of the rock, Red was in lee of the wind and had hit his stride. He could barely make anything out with his clouded eyes, except for the occasional contrast of bright white fulmars against the red sandstone. His other senses filled in the gaps. The briny air, infused occasionally with sweet-smelling coastal plants, reached his nasal passages. The waves beat out a soothing rhythm to his climb, punctuated only by the squawks of seabirds. ‘Everything hit a happy equilibrium for me,’ says Red. ‘Some climbs inland can feel dead but it was so clear this coast was alive, and I felt part of it.’

Five hours and several hundred feet after Red had stood at the bottom of the Old Man, he finally came to the split in the top of the stack where it looks as if a giant has cleaved it apart with an axe. Through the six-inch gap, even he could make out the juxtaposition of the deep red rock and the glittering Atlantic. A few moments later he was at the summit, which, surprisingly, was covered in ‘soft, springy grass’.

It was here that his hero Sir Chris Bonington had stood in 1966, years before he was born. ‘I felt proud of what I had achieved, but standing on that rock also put me in my place,’ reminisces Red. ‘I have a very short lifespan compared to this 500-million-year-old rock and the sea. I felt like a small being in this vast, inspiring landscape.’

***

Since completing the Old Man, Red has climbed the other two of the ‘Big Three’ Scottish sea stacks: the Old Man of Stoer and Am Buachaille. Such places are unique but for Red anywhere by the sea is special. ‘In London, I listen to echoes bouncing off buildings, but sounds by the coast are more orchestral than the tight, boxed-in sounds of the city. It’s impossible not to feel a thrill of excitement as soon as you hear the waves. That first excited intake of sea air – it’s a huge blast of mental and physical oxygen.’ And that, says Red, is ‘a universal feeling that everyone can enjoy’, whether they are climbers or not, full-sighted or blind.

First appeared in Coast in 2015.