In July 1967 some 15 million people in the UK watched a ground-breaking TV outside broadcast transmitted live by the BBC as three pairs of climbers tackled the Old Man of Hoy, a 449ft high sea stack off the island of Hoy in the Orkneys. No-one who watched "The Great Climb" will ever forget it. It was one of this reviewer's earliest TV memories, only eclipsed in prominence by the landing on the Moon of Apollo 11 just over two years later.
Red Szell was born two years after the climb was first televised, but was captivated when he saw the film of the ascent as a teenager in the mid-1980s. He knew that at some point he simply had to climb the Old Man of Hoy. But at the age of 19 he was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition retinitis pigmentosa, and told he would be effectively blind by the age of 30. By 2012 he had just 5% of his vision remaining: it was "like looking into a smoke-filled room through a keyhole - I catch glimpses of parts of things. If they lie at the lower end of the spectrum and stay still long enough, I sometimes stand a chance of of identifying what they are." But his dream remained intact, and he decided to make the attempt while it was still even vaguely possible: "My future... promised decreasing mobility and while I still could I wanted to go out and grab some stories to furnish my own library in preparation for the dark housebound days that lay ahead."
Even if you don't already know the outcome, the cover art, showing figures on top of the Old Man of Hoy, leaves you in no doubt about what happened. But in many ways the fact of Red Szell's successful ascent of the Old Man in June 2013 (and his partial re-ascent of it the following day because a key video camera had failed to record the actual climb) is the less important part of his story. "The Blind Man of Hoy" is his own account, told with stark and at times brutal honesty, of how he prepared for the climb, the problems he encountered and overcame, and the incredible support of family, friends and climbing partners that enabled him to make the climb.
It's easy to spin off words like "inspirational" when dealing with a story of someone who manages, through sheer determination, hard work and bloody-mindedness, to overcome great adversity. But this is a truly inspirational book that will fascinate anyone who has ever had any interest in climbing; or who saw the film of the 1967 ascent; or who simply wants to understand what can be achieved by the human spirit in full flight.