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Blind climber Red Széll completes triple Scottish sea stack challenge

Written by Fiona

August 24 2019

Red on the second pitch of Am Buachaille. Credit: Keith Partridge

Blind climber Red Széll reveals how climbing saved his life – and how he set about achieving an impressive trip sea stack climbing challenge in Scotland. I was fortunate to bump into him – and his team – at the SMC hut near Ullapool just as he was about to make his second attempt of Am Buachaille in Sandwood Bay, Sutherland. 

This article appeared in The Scots Magazine.

Széll in front of Am Buachaille (photo Keith Partridge)
Széll in front of Am Buachaille. Credit: Keith Partridge

A young Red

As a young teenager, Red Széll watched with awe a BBC documentary about the first ascent of an iconic Scottish sea stack. It was a film recording of Chris Bonington and Tom Patey’s audacious 1966 climb of the 127m (449ft) tall Old Man of Hoy in Orkney.

Red (short for Redmond) immediately knew he wanted to one day follow suit – and he set about learning how to climb. Unknown to the teenager at the time, however, his dream would hit by a major obstacle that few could overcome.

Six years later and aged 19, Red – an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and by now what he describes as, “a reasonably good” climber – was delivered a devastating diagnosis that he was losing his sight

Medics told him the degenerative condition retinitis pigmentosa would leave him blind within a decade. 

His hopes of the sea stack ascent came crashing down and Red, now 49, admits he went into “a long period of self-destruction”.

He says: “Until that diagnosis, there was so much about my life that involved sport and the challenge of pushing my limits. I had become a reasonably good climber, I played cricket, rugby, cycled and ran. One by one I had to stop what I enjoyed because I couldn’t see. 

“I pushed people away and drank too much, among other things. I don’t think that freefall stopped until about 10 years ago.”

Red Széll and Matthew Wootliff on the approach to Am Buachaille (photo Nick Carter)
Red and Matthew on the approach to Am Buachaille. Credit: Nick Carter
Széll swimming to the base of Am Buachaille (photo Keith Partridge)
Red swimming to the base of Am Buachaille. Credit: Keith Partridge

The beginning: Indoor climbing

It was a chance trip to an indoor climbing wall in his late 30s that put Red, by then a married dad-of-two, back on the path towards his dream. 

He explains: “One of my daughters, Laura, had decided out of the blue she would like a ninth birthday party at a climbing wall. While the other parents seemed content to stand and watch their children climb, I was drawn to the wall. I started groping at the holds.

“I thought: ‘I want to do this again.’ When I asked the instructor, Trevor, if it might be possible he said, ‘Yes. Why not? I think it can work if we climb together.’ And that was it.”

By this point, Red, from London, had just five per cent vision. Today, this is reduced to two per cent. 

He says: “My field of vision has closed in around me and I can see only a small hole of light and shadow. It’s like looking through a keyhole into a smoke-filled room.”

Red’s rediscovery of his first sporting love led to many hours of joy at the indoor wall.

“To climb again was similar to riding a bike,” he says. “It felt so natural and the skills came back quickly. It gave me such incredible pleasure to feel like I was reversing the tide of my worsening physical ability because of my limited vision.”

Yet still Red, a writer, broadcaster, and househusband, did not believe he would ever climb outside again. He says: “If I couldn’t trust myself to climb on rock then how could I expect others to trust me?”

While climbing one day with his instructor he mentioned the Old Man – and he was surprised by the response.

Red says: “Trevor said that with a bit of work it might be possible for me to climb the sea stack one day. Suddenly, I was floating on air.”

The dream of climbing the Old Man of Hoy

The “bit of work” turned out to “a huge amount of hard work” but in 2013 Red was preparing to climb the Old Man. In the meantime, he had met another househusband, Matthew Wootliff. Both have two daughters the same age.

Red says: “Matthew is the sort of person who believes all kinds of things are possible. We formed a friendship that has been amazing in so many ways.”

The Old Man of Hoy rises vertically out of the crashing Atlantic, just off the Island of Hoy. Almost three times the height of Nelson’s Column, it maintains a towering reputation among climbers. 

Red’s successful climb in June 2013 is told in his book, The Blind Man of Hoy. He was supported by Matthew, and another friend Andres Cervantes, as well as mountain guides Nick Carter, from Inverness, and Martin Moran, who died earlier this year in the Indian Himalaya.

Award-winning Scottish adventure cameraman Keith Partridge filmed the record-breaking climb. 

Red, who was the first blind person to scale the sea stack, says: “To climb the Old Man was a dream come true; exactly that.” 

Red, Nick and Matthew. Credit Keith Partridge
Am Buachaille. Credit Keith Partridge

Two more Scottish sea stacks

With his appetite whet, Red went on to summit another famous Scottish sea stack, the 60m (196ft) tall Old Man of Stoer in Sutherland in 2014.

Next, the blind athlete’s focus turned to the final stack of a so-called “Big Three”, Am Buachaille in remote Sandwood Bay, also Sutherland. 

In 2015, Red travelled with his crew to make an attempt of the spearhead of Torridonian sandstone that rises 65m (213 feet) vertically from the ocean.

Reaching the sea stack requires a 10km hike over rocky terrain, a 60m scramble down a cliff face, 500m of seaweed strewn boulders and a swim of a 30m tidal channel. 

That time, Red did not make the climb. The wind and waves were too extreme to get to the base of the sea stack. He says: “Honestly, it was a relief.  After hiking blind across 10km of broken, boggy ground, I was mentally and physically exhausted. 

“It’s the getting to the climb that can be the hardest for me because of my lack of vision. I needed to find a smarter way to reach the stack.”

The new plan included a mountain bike tandem – and a welcome prize fund. Red says: “With Matthew as my pilot on the bike it was possible to do the journey to Sandwood Bay in around 45 minutes and that made the adventure possible.

“I was also awarded the Holman Prize, which made it financially feasible.”

The Holman Prize is named after the British explorer James Holman, known as The Blind Traveller, who despite his disability became the world’s most widely travelled man before the invention of the internal combustion engine.  

Backed by San Francisco LightHouse For The Blind charity, the prize funds three people to “explore the world and push their limits”.

On June 22 (2019), a suddenly favourable spell of weather and tide saw Red make a second and successful attempt of Am Buachaille.

To achieve his goal, Red reassembled the team that had backed his 2013 Old Man of Hoy climb, except, sadly, Moran.

The final sea stack adventure took 12 hours. Red says: “The bike ride gave us some hard knocks and we fell off twice, but it was the right decision to bring the tandem. 

“The hardest parts were still those I had to do on foot, particularly the scramble down the cliff, which was treacherous. I love swimming so I enjoyed that and the climb was amazing even if I was constantly aware we were racing the incoming tide.”

Nick led the climb with Red second. Matthew shouted guidance to his friend with directions on where to find hand and foot holds. Red says: “When I’m climbing I forget I’m blind. I’m immersed in the moment and focused on the rock that I’m feeling. I concentrate on my balance and sense of place. 

“It is very liberating and healthy for me because I flush out all thoughts about blindness from my head. 

“Standing on the top of that sea stack, I felt so thrilled.” 

But the team still needed to retrace the route, including a tricky abseil. 

Széll at the summit of Am Buachaille (photo Mike Braddock) (1)
Red Széll at the summit of Am Buachaille. Credit: Mike Braddock

My aim is to inspire others

Red says: “Climbing Am Buachaille was the most exhausting day of my life but also the most exhilarating. I’m so grateful to all those who have helped and supported me.”

The first blind person to ascend all three “classic” Scottish sea stacks, Red hopes his endeavours encourage others.

He says: “I want to show people that blindness should be no barrier to adventure. I want them to explore and to feel the high of achieving something physical, whether it’s climbing or salsa dancing.

“I don’t believe I would have done the climbs if I was not blind. If I had been able to see I imagine I would be doing a boring desk job, getting older and more unfit. 

“Climbing has positively changed my life. I’m happy that instead of focusing on what I can’t do because I am blind, I now look at all I can do.”

Find out more: www.redszell.com

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