The blind man of NW3 who conquered a sea giant

Red Szell climbing the Old Man of Hoy

Red Szell climbing the Old Man of Hoy - Credit: Archant

When Red Szell lose his eyesight, his climbing days looked over. Having overcome the odds however, he told Bridget Galton about mastering the 449-ft vertical Old Man of Hoy.

Red Szell (middle) with friends Andreas (left) and Matthew (right)

Red Szell (middle) with friends Andreas (left) and Matthew (right) - Credit: Archant

Red Szell remembers his first sight of the Old Man of Hoy - in a BBC documentary featuring Chris Bonnington.

The veteran climber was the first to conquer the majestic Orkney sea stack in 1966, a feat which inspired the teenage Szell to take up the sport.

“I remember seeing him on Blue Peter, this larger than life character. Rock climbing seemed so remote growing up in West Sussex, but seeing him climb made me think I could follow in his footholds.”

Szell was even prepared to be barked at by cadet force types, and endure a year of square bashing, in return for a fortnight every summer climbing in the Welsh mountains.

“There’s this compulsion to push yourself to your physical limits but a careful balance between extremes,” he explains.

“When your heart is racing with your mind saying ‘if you cock up here it could be messy’ you use what you have within you to control your fears and your body - to be in perfect balance to reach out over a tiny ledge and grab the smallest of holds.

Most Read

“When you get to the top you feel the elation of conquering something that has stood for millions of years. It’s a huge adrenaline rush, indescribably life affirming.”

Then just before his 20th birthday, Szell walked into a lamp-post in broad daylight while on a Greek holiday.

Doctors bluntly told him he had the inherited disease retinitis pigmentosa and could expect to be blind by the age of 30.

There followed a “two decade struggle with my craving” during which Szell became a Hampstead househusband raising his two daughters.

“Climbing is so much about trust, I thought ‘if I can’t trust my sight how can I expect others to trust my judgement?’”

Then with his sight down to three percent, he booked the Swiss Cottage climbing wall for his daughter’s ninth birthday party.

“While the kids were having fun, I checked out the bumps on the wall and realised I could do this.”

He cannot speak highly enough of Swiss Cottage instructors including Andres Cervantes, who didn’t bat an eyelid about him being blind.

“They assumed I would want to get out onto rock – I never thought within weeks I could get back out there but they said ‘focus on what you can achieve rather than on what might have been.’” Urged on by fellow Hampstead dad MatthewWootliff and with a climbing partner acting as his eyes, guiding him over two way radio to clip into bolts drilled into the rock, Szell felt able to share his dream of summiting the 449-ft-high Old Man of Hoy.

“Sea stacks are the remnants of ancient rocks worn away by the sea,” he says.

“It’s so remote out there on the fringes of where man has settled, it’s eerie. Even though I’m blind I can feel the gravity-defying majesty and beauty of that Orcadian coastline, it’s like approaching an abandoned cathedral, a huge piece of sandstone arching up above you. It felt close to a religious experience.

“I grew up near the sea, there’s something life affirming about climbing above the waves, on something ancient that might crumble at any time.”

With Touching the Void cameraman Keith Partridge in tow, Szell’s remarkable ascent was filmed for BBC Scotland.

And Szell’s book, The Blind Man of Hoy (Sandstone Press £8,99) out next Tuesday, comes appropriately with a foreword by Bonnington.

“Getting to the top was elation, exultation, the culmination of a moment I never thought would happen, and a strange sense of reconciliation. Had it not been for my blindness I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would be twelve stone, unfit and sitting in front of a computer.

“I had to some extent conquered my blindness. My perception that I was never going to be able to do that lasted for two decades. It felt like sticking my tongue out to that.”

Szell has since summitted the Old Man of Storr and has further adventurous plans.

“With RP you are fighting a rearguard battle against constant loss, getting pretty depressed that you will never again play rugby.

“You never think about what you can improve. I am going to climb Pabbay Great Arch and do the South Downs Way on a tandem, it’s a new lease of life and a sign that the disabled can re-enable themselves.

“Like climbing a rock face, you break it down into a series of moves, make small incremental progress and find yourself on top of something saying ‘I did that!’”

And while he admits that dealing with crumbling rock is “bloody dangerous” he’s no plans to stop. “You manage those risks. I would prefer to go doing something I enjoy.”

Szell’s ascent raised money for research into gene therapy to combat inherited disease at UCH but he says: “My RP is so much a part of me I am not looking for a cure – blindness has brought me more positives than negatives - but I would like to stop it being passed on to future generations.”

Bridget Galton