Updated: Mar 2, 2020
By Red Széll
Red is a London-based writer, broadcaster and adventurer who refuses to allow blindness to stand in his way. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy. And he didn't stop there - in his own words, this is how events unfolded.
In May 2009, my daughter asked whether she could have her 9th birthday party at our local climbing wall in Swiss Cottage. I felt a pang of pride, laced with envy.
Climbing had been my thing until I discovered I was going blind. That was in 1989, just before my 20th birthday. Reluctantly, I’d hung up my harness and starved the rat that gnawed away inside me.
Two decades on, there I was at a climbing wall with a group of 9-year-olds - and my rat was twitching, sensing a safe way to feed again. Shyly, I asked the senior instructor Trevor whether they might be prepared to teach me how to climb again. When he said, "Of course, why wouldn’t we?" I held out my white cane, in case he hadn’t seen it. Trevor replied, "You’ll be doing me a favour; seeing climbing from a different perspective will make me a better instructor."
As the weeks passed, my confidence returned. My steady improvement was a happy counterpoint to my rapidly degenerating eyesight. I told Trevor how I’d got into climbing as a teenager after watching a documentary about Chris Bonington in the early 1980s. The moment I saw Bonington and Tom Patey on The Old Man of Hoy, I knew that my life wouldn’t
feel complete until I’d tried to follow in their footholds.
So I’d begun climbing at Harrison’s, which was where Trevor had honed his skills. We traded stories about the joys of sandstone until, one day, I let slip my dream of climbing The Old Man. In his calm, considered way Trevor said: "With a bit of work, you could probably manage it."
That ‘bit of work’ led to me losing 12kg and gaining a climbing partner – Matthew, another dad from my daughters’ school. Over the next two years, we all worked together to develop a clock-face system so that whoever was belaying me could be my eyes and direct me to my next hand or foothold.
Back in 1989, I’d stopped climbing because I feared that if I couldn’t trust my eyes, then no other climber would trust my judgement. But now, whether because my own or other people’s attitude to disability had changed, I found everyone I contacted for help and advice on climbing Hoy supportive and enthusiastic; including Sir Chris Bonington and Al Alvarez, who provided first-hand accounts of their ascents.
And so, on midsummer’s day 2013, under the expert guidance of Martin Moran and Nick Carter, I became the first blind person to summit The Old Man of Hoy.
My crag habit had returned. Trips to Sardinia and Swanage followed, and in summer 2014 I was back in Scotland with Nick and Martin. Together, we bagged The Old Man of Stoer. At 65m, it's only half the height of Hoy, but as smooth and rounded as those early routes at Harrison’s.
Most of all it was a great adventure with friends, which is what had electrified me when I saw Bonington and Patey climbing Hoy. It’s what drove Patey to pioneer stack climbing and it suffuses his autobiography, One Man’s Mountains; a book that, like Al Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat, became a sacred text for me, as much for the wish-list of great climbs they contain as for their exploration of what drives some of us to push ourselves to the limit.
I appeared to have found my limit in 2015 as I slumped on the cliff-top overlooking Am Buachaille, the third and most extreme of ‘the Tom Patey Three’ sea stacks. The 10km walk-in over broken, boggy ground had done me in, and I was quietly relieved when Martin declared the waves too big to risk the 30-metre swim to the base. While having less than 5% vision means I am almost immune to exposure, it makes the approach to an adventurous climb perilous, exhausting and slow.
I knew I’d be back, I just needed a better approach. The solution came to me later that summer during a successful attempt to mountain bike tandem the South Downs Way. If we could do that, then at least the first eight ankle-breaking kilometres of the walk-in should be possible; leaving me in much better shape for the 1.5km yomp to the cliff-edge, the 60-metre descent down its steep, broken face, the 500-metre scramble over seaweed-strewn boulders, the 30-metre swim, and the climb itself!
That just left the problem of logistics – not least getting our specially adapted mountain bike tandem from London to the far northwest corner of Scotland. Help was at hand in the form of The Holman Prize; an international award for blind adventurers who set out to change the public perception of what blind people can achieve. I submitted my plan for an extreme blind triathlon-style attempt on Am Buachaille. And won.
My proposal included making a short documentary about the attempt. Having met top adventure cameraman Keith Partridge when he filmed my Hoy climb for BBC Scotland’s The Adventure Show, I was keen that he should make this film.
In June 2019, he, Nick, Matthew and I gathered at The Naismith Hut near Elphin and waited for the rain to clear. Finally, on our fifth and last day, we got a weather window and went for it.
It was the most exhausting and exhilarating day of my life and took 12-hours from start to finish. The resulting film Shared Vision captures that, but also reflects the essence of adventure and camaraderie that makes anything possible. It’s what led Tom Patey to pioneer ‘the big three’ Scottish stacks, and it has enabled me to climb out of the rut that my blindness had cast me into and focus on what I can still achieve - rather than dwelling on what I’ve lost.
Red Szell’s book, The Blind Man of Hoy, is published by Sandstone Press.
For more information on screenings of Shared Vision, visit www.redszell.com
To meet Red and hear about his adventures, he'll be at LMFF for SESSION 8 on the evening of 3rd May 2020.