Monday, 1 October 2012

Avon Day

Last Sunday was ‘Avon Day’ arguably the best day in the year to climb in the Gorge because though the routes are always absorbing, whether technical and balancy or steep and pumpy, for me they are let down by the continual roar of the traffic from the Portway down below. For one day a year, however, the growling rumble of the cars and lorries is replaced by the patter of thousands of be-trainered feet and the gasping pants of 20,000 pairs of lungs as Bristol Half Marathon closes the Portway for a few precious hours.

Early on Sunday we parked on the downs and walked down to the road just as the leading runners passed by, we wandered on as the foot traffic increased from the first few athletes to the many body of the race, a colourful mass of humanity stretching back as far as we could see along the Portway. We wandered up the Ramp to the short steep climbs that waited there, the Ramp as always twisted the mind turning from a steep walk into a terrifying slope and then back again in the blink of an eye.

I warmed up on New Horizons II which was as delightful as ever and then turned my attentions to Arms Race a route which, on the last attempt, had seen me dangling from the metal spike runner as I lacked the strength of mind to resist its tempting call. This time however I was determined to ignore it no matter how pumped my arms would get (which, judging from my last encounter with the route, would be a lot). It’s always hard getting on a route after a spoiled on-sight; I had no useful information about the route, no idea about the best sequence or where to rest or which wires to place but I had no illusions about how much my arms were going to hurt from the constant effort of staying on the route.

Maybe my mind had made the memory of the route more pumpy than it was, maybe I had warmed up more thoroughly, maybe in the intervening 6 months I had got stronger or fitter or maybe I felt better knowing that the thousands of people running below me were in more pain than I was. Whatever the reason the route felt ok, I felt relaxed enough to rest properly, to only place gear where I needed it off good handholds (not every 10cm off poor crimps as before) and to take in the world around me, the sea of runners interrupted by the occasional jogging banana or hotdog, the efficient volunteers at the water station and the slowly growing sea of blue bottles in the gutter. When I passed the spike I felt no desire to reach up and hang onto it, I didn’t even clip it, smiling smugly at my past self I climbed on, placed a cam and carried on up to the ab station. Job done.

There’s nothing like the smug glow of self-satisfaction to remove all desire to climb hard routes so as a result I spend the remainder of the day belaying and observing the last few runners jog past and the clean-up operation begin. I did persuade myself to climb Mirage, another brilliant Ramp route which is pumpy but short-lived, before relaxing and watching the road sweepers sweep up a few thousand bottle caps. All too soon the road was clear and the cars began to filter noisily past once more.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Passing through Ruby Country

My trusty van chugs through the heart of Devon countryside passing lush green verges, fields of ripening corn and hedgerows where the trees are showing the first hint of autumn’s arrival. We travel onwards through the heart of Ruby Country passing Bradsworthy, Grimscott and Stibb to arrive at Duckpool where our progress is temporarily halted by a farmer moving his ruby-red North Devons up the road to pastures new. As we wait for his cows to arrive the farmer and I converse about cattle and cliffs before he starts again up the road shaking a bag of feed and calling over his shoulder to his herd.

The tides have necessitated an early start so we arrive at the magnificent fins of Sharpnose and abseil in before 10am as the sun slowly begins to dry the grease off the base of the cliffs. Alexis starts up Finesse and I belay watching limpets track their way impressively fast towards the safety of the cracks in the rock. These molluscs are pretty cool citters with reliable internal clocks to track the times of high tide; a good sense of direction, or memory, to find their way back to their home fissure and a suction power of up to 80psi.

But back to the climbing... Dispatching the route with no real difficulties Alexis lowers to the ground and I pull the ropes and lead it on his gear creating a sport-like mental and physical warm up. For my lead I choose Sunscape, a good looking line left of Pacemaker, that doesn’t disappoint. The route zigzags steadily upwards in typical Sharpnose style as the pump in my arms slowly increases until I reach the first crux where I stall. The moves look hard and when I try them they feel hard, I faff around trying to rest on footholds that are all in the wrong places and look for more gear as a way of delaying the inevitable. I don’t find anymore gear and run out of reasons to hang around and so force myself back into the crux.

Pulling with all my might on two small handholds I try to step my feet up, one foot skates of the smooth rock and I convince myself that I’m going to fall off but my fingers squeeze the holds with a strength I didn’t think I had and I reach up. My left hand sinks into a pocket-like hold that offers relief until I reach the layer of sand and shale at the bottom, I grab something with my right and try to relax as I brush the detritus out of the hold.
I know I should place some gear at this point but there’s nothing for my feet and my hands are threatening to open out so I scuttle on up until holds and gear placements are more obviously available. I join Pacemaker briefly and leave it again heading left up the break until a line of small holds point the way to the top. 

Mercifully I find some jugs, place some gear and relax my body. Above the climbing looks hard and doesn’t relent until the top of the crag is reached but it’s only a few metres away, I hang off the jugs, shake out and weigh up my situation. I know that I don’t have much power left for hard moves but my arms feel rested from the shake-out; the gear here is good and I can’t see any obvious placements before the top even if I had the energy to place them; I'm running out of chalk and with the sun beaming down on my back I can’t afford to waste any at the rest, forcing me to fight the engrained pattern of chalking up each time I shake out. I decide to leave the rest, chalk up and climb to the top in one go, I don’t need any more gear and if I climb up and down again to the rest I’ll run out of chalk.

For someone who struggles with anything approaching a bold start I happily leave the gear below my feet and embark, unfazed, on a series of powerful moves off small holds until the lip is within reach and I can sit on one of the best spots in the world – the top of the ridiculously narrow middle fin at Sharpnose.

Back on the ground we just make it around the fin before the tide cuts us off, Alexis climbs Spoils of War while I edge further and further away from the base of the route, helmet firmly on my head and a wary eye trained on the loose looking ground above. Seconding it, barring the loose rock in the middle, it’s an absorbing and sustained climb. With the tide still lapping its way up the beach we hurry over to Out of the Blue and I lead up it revelling in the size of the holds and the delightful nature of the climbing. At the top I haul the bags up the ab rope and belay watching Alexis perform exaggerated dyno moves between massive holds.

The tide may be in but it’s not yet 3pm so we eat a leisurely lunch before heading for home passing our new friend The Farmer at work in the fields on the way.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Anstey's Cove

Above me quickdraws swing in the gentle breeze and some distance to my right gentle summer rain patters down on the verdant foliage. While my brain searches for internal peace and calm I tie in to the rope hanging down from the first clip and wipe the red dust off my shoes and onto my leggings. Seconds later I stand at the base of the climb, chalk up and set off. I try to climb smoothly and efficiently, I try to climb fast, I try to remember to breathe and I try to stop thinking. My hands follow a precisely prescribed pattern; my feet perform a continual dance of tiny subtle foot-moves that are vital yet entirely subconscious; my body twists and turns, core muscles contracting for each move and relaxing allowing a gasp of air into my lungs.

I sense my fingers slipping slightly on each hold and bite down harder, my left foot steps up and my body automatically turns – a sort of half drop-knee move – allowing my left hand to reach up to a crimp. I squeeze all four fingers on and grip the edge with my thumb pulling hard enough to dig the nail of my thumb into the side of my index finger.

The next move, however, is one that can’t be overcome by subtle changes in body position or by climbing quickly or slowly or smoothly. The key to the move is simple  - keep pulling on the crimp, don’t allow your fingers to open even when it feels like it they will rip from your hand. If I manage that then a quick snatch will see me to a good hold and further series of moves that seem both powerful and delicate will set me up for the crux. From there if my right hand pinches hard enough and my legs power me up and left enough and my left hand reaches out fast enough, with enough strength left to latch the hold... then the route could be over.

My thoughts drift on ahead of my body, removed from the stubborn battle between hand and hold. I press down harder with the fingers of my left hand, will them not to open as I reach my right hand across. The fingers on my right just manage to curl around the tiny tufa ear when the crimp under my left spits my still-crimping fingers off into space and a split second later my body follows, falling backwards until the rope comes tight.

Anger and frustration bubble up inside me threatening to explode; months of wet holds, of 100% humidity, of stalled progress steal my composure leaving me swinging on the rope seething.

That I will return is a given, that I will keep bashing my head against this particular brick wall is a certainty. Maybe if I could forget about this route, if I could no longer see the moves in my mind’s eye, no longer know the feel of each hold under my fingers... maybe I would give up but I know that I can’t.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Sunshine on a Rainy Day

Gnarly mountain man Steve and I
To climb during the Great British Summer you need, more than strength, power or endurance, an optimism unhampered by reality. Yesterday in the company of two suitably optimistic climbers I walked to Blackchurch Rock to find the tide in, the cliff seeping and the sky bestowing us with rain. We turned and walked back to the car, drove down the coast and began the whole process again; this time, however, we found dry rock, scary slabs and a beautiful sunset.

Vicarage Cliff

The guys had a lead each on a pair of cracking culm slab routes as the sun shone and the tide turned and slowly began to head towards the beach, there was however enough time and sunlight left for one more route. The route in question was Harpoon and, while Vicarage Cliff may not have any routes harder than E2 and only one of those, Harpoon packs a bold and committing punch. My tendency to steer clear of any routes that get a fluttery symbol in the guide or that are described as bold, scary or exciting has lead me to identify a weakness in my climbing which can, in part, be corrected by getting on E2s and E3s of this nature. And there’s no time like the present.

The climbing on Harpoon never stretches much past F6a in difficulty but the gear, or absence of it, in the first few metres easily makes up for this. A steady head, careful tapping of the footholds and remembering to forget about the back-breaking boulder below all helped to reach the first good gear. From there the climb bimbled on with enough gear placements and holds to keep me happy before depositing me at the crux with good gear but no holds (not unless you count the array of hollow-sounding footholds that flexed when hit). After much time spent attempting to move and even more time spent convincing myself that I didn’t need handholds to stand up on a slab I stood up. 

Soon I had reached some holds, fiddled in some poor gear and carried on when a stern internal voice told me to climb back down to my gear and make it better. Sheepishly I did just that and set off again reminding myself that gear isn’t just there for decoration but is actually supposed to stop me in the event of a fall – a simple but significant mistake.

I arrived at the top and the 360 degree views of wild culm coast that it afforded as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon casting a soft glow over everything. Our optimism about finding dry rock had paid off leaving us three happy climbers to pack our bags and head off to the nearest fish and chip shop.
Photos by Mark Bullock

Friday, 15 June 2012

June: A Month of Contrasts

The wind buffets me incessantly, a constant assault on my mind and body, stealing the heat out of my fingers and the joy out of climbing. I'm back at Anstey’s Cove, back on Tuppence and although I have been making progress, slowly, over the last few months today it feels harder than ever. Each move feels at my limit, hampered by numb fingers, poor coordination and the unrelenting easterly that tears along the coast and hassles me as I try to climb or try to rest.

Only a day or two ago but a world away it was too hot for shoes, the dark rock underfoot scalded my toes and the sun warmed my back as I sorted the gear and the ropes. Stepping into the shade I glanced up once more at the climb, scoped out the route and set off, insecurely at first, on rock still wet from the retreating tide. Two hundred yards away tourists licked ice creams, bought tat and paid an extortionate price for parking but here at the Land’s End only the sea and the seals kept us company.

I sit on the rope eyeballing Tuppence’s top crux, I can do the move but only about 20% of the time – today is the other 80%. I pull on, slap the right hand up to a hold that looks and feels like half a marble and try to persuade my left foot to step up. One pitiful attempt at the move and I’m back on the rope. Figuring out this move is like trying to work out a lateral thinking puzzle with too much going on at once, maybe I should stand up more on the right foot or possibly I haven’t got the right hand correctly, would the left foot benefit from being a bit further right or do I just need to man up... Usually I have the patience to try and work out what I'm doing wrong but today all I can think about is the wind and how much I wish it would stop.

Above the slippery start of Antenna the rock was dry and cool, I squinted left into the sun to work out where to traverse and then set off on crimps and fragile looking ledges. I tested each hold with the diligence of the truly paranoid; bigger holds I treated with more distrust and jugs with downright suspicion but nothing wobbled or snapped when I hit it. Halfway across the traverse I fiddled in a small wire to encourage me to continue and ignore the potential safe but swinging fall. Soon I reached the main crack line that led the way straight up the slab to the top; gear and holds appeared in each set of horizontal breaks prompting big balance-y moves between them.

After a couple more goes I give up trying to climb and instead belay wrapped up in as many layers as I can find; with my back to the wind I’m almost warm... that is until the rain starts. Big droplets of water strafe the cliff; the roof of rock over our heads offers no protection today as the wind carries the stinging raindrops right in to the base of the cliff.

A few metres below the top the horizontal breaks ran out leaving an absence of the big holds that I was getting used to. I climbed up a bit, saw some hard moves, scuttled back down to place more gear and then headed up again – I then repeated this process a few more times before I ran out of possible gear placements and had to get on with the route. A couple of thin moves led to a pop to the top and the relief and disappointment that comes when a wonderful climbing experience is over. On the top the sun shone and the bright pink thrift flowers waved in the gentle breeze.
Purple Sea Thrift Flowers - By Mike Coates
Alexis finishes climbing, strips the draws and I lower him to the ground. Inanimate objects and the wind conspire to make packing away a challenge and lost in my own world I pull the rope, shout below and give the rope one last tug... nothing happens. I look up to see a knot in the rope stuck in the bolt, it seems a fitting end to the day.

It was too nice an evening to stop climbing so we abbed back in for another dose; Alexis led up New Editions and I belayed and waited for my turn to climb whilst watching the light from the sinking sun play on the spray thrown up by the sea.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


In a bizarre twist of fate the extended bank holiday weekend wasn’t a complete wash-out but in an even more bizarre twist I was working for all of it. Now however I’m not working and it’s raining and windy and horrible. The last few days have been spent traipsing around wet crags watching runoff paint black lines on the orange walls of Anstey’s cove and rain turn Chudleigh into a sparkling jungle of foliage. I have also indulged in my favourite pastime of flicking through guidebooks and picking out lines to add to my ‘to climb list’ – a list that is expanding at a faster rate that the Universe shortly after the Big Bang.

In the Swanage guide there is one route that sticks out more than all the others, a route that I contemplate every time I climb at Swanage. An impressive natural line that cries out to be climbed, that offers excitement and adventure and really wild things...

As the name suggests the BRGT is a traverse of the Boulder Ruckle that follows the 2 foot deep mid-height sandy, chossy break in much the same way a lemming follows its friends to almost certain death. This is of course the break that you reach on any given Ruckle route with a mixture of irritation, despondency and fear. The sandy floor of the break offers no good handholds whilst covering your arms in a frictionless layer of muddy powder as you desperately scrabble for purchase. The back wall of the break presents precisely zero gear placements increasing your fear and the speed at which you try to scrape your way upwards to more pleasant ground. 

Whilst on most routes this section of the climb is over soon, too soon some would say, on the BRGT the experience will stay with you for days and days as you traverse the 52 pitches that comprise the route and will remain with you forever in your nightmares.

The traverse hasn’t been repeated since those brave fools Richard Crewe and Kenny Winkworth did the first ascent in 1969 and many pitches have fallen down since then. If you’re lucky more pitches may fall down while you are on the route!

Despite the fact that this climb is rarely more than 10m off the deck to get the full tick it would have to be climbed in one push without lowering to the ground which does offer a few minor problems. Ruling out the concept of being able to stomach all 3500m in a day you would need to sleep, eat, etc. on the route which means that you’ll have more stuff than you can carry. On your standard big wall this would result in a lot of hauling but on the BRGT to be able to haul anything you’d first have to kick your haul bags out of the break where they would pendulum into the rocks below to become irretrievably tangled whilst probably ripping your meagre belay out in the process. 

I have, however, come up with a solution...
The sense of urgency caused by a continually approaching train will serve to increase the climber's speed.

The train, as well as providing an invaluable way of transporting your belongings along the traverse, will also serve as a testament to the courage of the climbers who have gone before and will give something back to the climbing community in the form of 3½ km of model railway.

Equipment: The route may also provide some opportunities for alternative protection, for example: several cams the size of those miniature ponies, acrow props and those pull up bars you can put in doorframes without using screws as well as your usual rack of ice screws, bongs and deadmans/deadmen (which is the correct pluralisation?).

Training: Consider practising crawling, ignoring the smell of guano, and sleeping without rolling over or you’ll be out of the break and dangling on one dodgy ice screw before you know it.

Conditions: Don’t worry about conditions as rain, snow, bright sunshine or 40 foot waves could hardly make the traverse less pleasant.

All you need to know about the great Boulder Ruckle Girdle Traverse... who's in?!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

"The only real failure in life is the failure to try." Anon

Like every aspiring hard climber I am constantly trying to evaluate my performance to try to work out how to climb better and where best to concentrate my training. I am, however, coming to the conclusion that the main reason why I don’t get up a climb is because I don’t get on it in the first place. That’s not to say I would get up any climb I choose to get on just that I tend to pre-empt failure by avoiding the route altogether. Why I don’t get on a route seems to be due to a combination of reasons: fear of falling, fear of failing, a reluctance to put myself in a position where I’ll have to try hard (otherwise known as laziness) but mainly because I forget that I really like climbing.

Recent outings have been prime examples of this. Last week we headed down to Swanage, to the mega-steep Lean Machine Area. Alexis lead Surge Control first whilst I belayed cowering from the huge waves funnelling in to the base of the crag. I set off to second it with cold hands and without a warm up, unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before the flash-pump-of-doom and numb fingers saw me sitting on the rope feeling generally sorry for myself. The rational view of this would be that I fell off because my fingers and muscles were cold and I was trying to climb the 6b crux of a pumpy E5. The view that I took, however, was that climbing was hard, painful and unpleasant and that there was no point in me getting on Lean Machine as I would just fail and hate myself forever. As you can tell I wasn’t in a happy place!

Luckily I had time for my arms to recover, I managed to encourage myself to get on the route and from there it was alright. Compared to seconding Surge Control it was a walk in the park: lots of holds and gear and an entirely bearable level of pump. The crux as always was the decision-making part before getting on the route, moral of the story: I really enjoy climbing and if in doubt should get on and lead something.

Yesterday, with the memory of Lean Machine in the front of my mind, we went to Cheddar to get on Kephalonia. As three star, three pitch E5s go it was amazing, cold and shady but amazing. Alexis led the first pitch – it was his birthday after all – and I seconded it cold, without a warm up and fell off with numb fingers and toes and flash pump in my arms (déjà vu anyone?). Despite the lessons learned from last week’s adventure when I got to the belay and looked at the intimidating second pitch I handed the lead back to Alexis citing flash pump, cold fingers and the fact that the first pitch felt really hard.
The other Kephalonia
As I sat on the belay listening to the plaintive cries of goat kids and the unnecessary noise of boy-racers echoing around the gorge I berated myself for not leading ‘my’ pitch. By the time I got to the second belay I was annoyed enough with myself to make the decision to lead the last pitch without thinking twice. We sorted out the gear and I set off, as usual as soon as I stepped off the belay I felt relaxed, happy and unhassled by a rope above me. The pitch started easily and then culminated in a wonderful series of layback moves above 60 or 70 metres of exposure. It was a delight and leading a pitch made the whole route a far more enjoyable experience.

From now on I solemnly vow to ignore the pessimistic voice of failure and get on lead on stuff that I find hard whether I believe I can climb it or not.

Monday, 7 May 2012


The unlikely (and unstable) looking fins of rock that make up Lower Sharpnose Point jut out into a wonderfully calm Atlantic Ocean. A light breeze blows along the faces drying out the last of the sea grease and the sun pokes his head out from behind the clouds creating a tranquil atmosphere at a normally intimidating crag. When we arrive there are already a few other parties climbing and, though I enjoy the solitude of a quiet crag, the crowd of regular Devon climbers only add to the convivial atmosphere.

Crispin on Last Laugh
Pete and his band of ‘seasoned’ rock athletes heckle and sandbag each other whilst ticking off hard routes with ease whilst Crispin, Dave, Justin, Nick and I get on routes that have long been on our respective tick lists and for once we all succeed. Between the five of us we tally up 17 E points and 20 stars and not a single fall leading or seconding which means either we all had an awesome day or we really weren't trying hard enough.

While Dave and Crispin finish warming up on The Smile Nick sets off up Lunakhod, a bridging masterpiece on the North side of the central fin which offers the climber a surprising view through the metre wide fin. Although it is slightly disturbing to be able to see daylight through the cliff you are climbing; the rock (and the abseil tat) held so I really can’t complain. My lead next and we head round to the South side stopping on our way to congratulate Crispin on his first E2 onsight of the testing Last Laugh.

I decide to get on Pacemaker after falling off seconding it a year ago and, as is expected of one of the best climbs in the West Country, it is amazing. The route wanders up the sheer face giving 25m of technical climbing on a gently steepening wall with enough gear to keep me happy and a rising pump to keep me moving.
Me on Pacemaker
Back on the ground it was Justin's turn to lead and my turn to skip around the boulder-strewn beach staring excitedly at the rock like an over-eager Spaniel with a rock fetish. I mentally added to my tick list Break on Through and Fay (occupied by Justin and Dave respectively), Sunscape, Dry Stone Wall and Finesse. I giggled at Coronary Country and tried to imagine leading it, I picked out the line of Culm to Mother on the North side and shuddered at the look of the rusty pegs then turned and watched the tide as it quietly snuck towards me.

Nick smiling on The Smile
When Justin and Nick had finished on Break on Through we hurried back to the North fin with minutes to spare before the tide came in and guaranteed wet feet for anyone left behind. Justin, Crispin and Dave walked out with the bags and I belayed Nick on The Smile as the busy crag quickly emptied. The last of Pete’s merry band followed up Misery Goat and Out of the Blue and the ab rope snaked silently up the cliff pulled up by unseen hands to leave me on my own at the base crag gazing out at the soul-searchingly beautiful view. Without a sound it began to rain giving the boulders around me an increasingly bad case of measles and turning the light grey pebbles a matt black. The call to climb came and I set off across the face leaving Sharpnose in peace for another day.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Learning to Headpoint

At a rarely visited crag tucked away on the Penwith coast quality 3 star lines lie between sections of unclimbed Greenstone. We approach the top of the cliff while a raging sea jostles for attention down below but for once the rock reflects a matt dryness back to the eye. For reasons known only to the fickle conditions gods neither condensation nor spray will affect the crag today. We set up an anchor through which I thread the half ropes and watch them unfurl down the length of the crag, their ends slithering inevitably into a pristine rock pool to lie patiently alongside the limpets.
I abseil down, spinning slowly in the cool air as gravity drags me away from the face and deposits me a few metres out from the base of the cliff. Alexis slithers down the rope after me placing gear on his way to keep his rope close to the route. He reaches the bottom, assembles the necessary gear and sets off again, acting out the performance of removing gear, replacing it and removing it again, re-practising pre-practised moves and chuckling at the run-out from the comfort of the top-rope.

Soon he returns to the increasingly wave-washed platform and we swap roles. A different route but the same routine: I place gear, test it, remove it, memorise footholds, refresh my memory of the sequence and try to stay calm.

Back on the ground an air of nervousness prevails, an almost audible crackle of excitement, of fear, enhanced by the sound of the waves pounding the shoreline. The ropes are pulled, Alexis ties in and organises his gear into the correct sequence on his harness. He sets off and I belay standing in close to the cliff, one wary eye on the raging sea sending waves crashing over the platform ever closer to me. He climbs, executing the moves precisely, placing gear and leaving it below his feet to face the 5 or 6 metre run-out seemingly unconcerned. He reaches the top without so much as a power scream and between waves I edge out tentatively across the rock platform to take a photo; confirmation and a memento of his new route.  After a moment he lowers down, cleans the gear and takes the swing into space, floating for a moment above the foamy sea before gravity swings him back onto dry land.

Now it’s my turn. For a short while I can lose myself in the comfort of the pre-climb routine – ropes, gear, helmet, shoes, chalk – and forget about the pressure of the ‘tick’, stop worrying about how it’ll feel to be on lead with the safety of the top-rope notable only by its absence. Then I step off the ground and automatically relax, it’s just climbing after all. The first section passes easily and at the rest under the roof I realise I’m grinning, I feel comfortable leading, in control, alive. I take a deep breath and swing out across the lip of the roof and up the moves above it, I refrain from worrying about the potentially unpleasant fall onto the gear placed below the roof – the decision to take the risk had been made on the ground, a lifetime ago.

I place a small wire, seat it, clip it to my left rope and carry on, a few moves and then two cams, yellow one first, then red. Now for the crux, one hard move with the cams at my feet, a blind cam slot then another hard move but my body works on autopilot, it has done this before. The meat of the route is now over just a few more well practised moves, a wire and an unpractised top-out; I tell myself not to relax, not to panic, just to climb...

High as a kite I sit on the top and watch the waves.

Monday, 9 April 2012


The long Easter weekend dawned bright and early as we made our way up the M5. Being, as I am, a full-time climbing bum, who is only employed in the vaguest sense of the word, the concepts of Bank Holidays or even weekends are alien to me – marked only by the crags being busier that mid-week. Justin, however, is constrained by a full time job and as a result it's Easter and we're heading to Pembroke.

Day 1: Stennis Head
A few hours later and we were peering into Huntsman’s Leap, a terrifying looking crag filled with routes ranging from hard to HARD! I fancied a gentler warm up to Pembroke trad and headed down to Stennis Head to get on a truly awesome looking route – Pleasure Dome.

Pleasure Dome has everything you need from a route: a perfect line on a pristine section of rock, guaranteed exposure with a drop to the sea beneath your feet and holds and gear galore. It was a perfect wake up after hours in a van and the route didn't disappoint. I topped-out revelling in the un-Swanage-like nature of the rock – it’s not even loose!
Enjoying Pleasure Dome
Justin’s lead and he picked the mean-looking line of Flash. One smooth lead later with only one, very controlled shout of ‘watch me’ and he reached at the top. I climbed it and got the fear, seconding is a scary business.

It was my lead again and true to the rules of ‘Add a Grade’ I had to climb something harder than Justin’s last lead. I flicked through the guide looking for a low in the grade E5 that I could check out from the bottom before committing to, that doesn’t have words like  ‘outrageously strenuous’ or  ‘finger-shredding’ in the description and that isn’t accompanied by any of the following symbols in the Rockfax guide:
Unsurprisingly this narrowed the field somewhat.

Yellow Pearls at Trevallen fitted the description – apart, possibly, from the low in the grade bit but the guide says it’s French 7a+ and I can climb 7a+ right? Wrong! The route started well; I performed the vertical bellyflopping move that is required when the route, and the cliff, start over a metre off the ground, I mantled with surprising ease, I even climbed some moves and placed some gear. Soon, however, I reached a point where I needed to place a wire in the slot that I was eye-balling but couldn’t take a hand off to do so due to the irritating lack of footholds. I considered ignoring the gear and carrying on, citing the old motto ‘if in doubt: run it out’ but I felt too close to the ground to justify it. I settled on the only option left open to me and fell off.

A few more attempts later and I surrendered the lead to Justin who found the same difficulties but reach the top via a few quick-draw shaped holds. I seconded it with some rests and much fighting with firmly wedged-in gear. I was annoyed at falling off but pleased that I had got on the route to start with and psyched for some serious endurance training.

The day ended with a typical camper’s diet of beer, pasta surprise and mini eggs but I felt lost without my trusty van that, at present, is in the garage having the engine re-attached.

Day 2: St Govan’s
We woke to drizzle and the sounds of an entire campsite complaining that 'this wasn’t on the forecast' but after a brief trip to stock up on supplies of cake and tea it cleared up enough to risk an abseil. Strong offshore winds hassled us as we sorted our kit at the top of St Govan’s Head; at the cliff bottom it was another world, in the lee of the wind with the sun sneaking out from behind the clouds to warm our backs and dry the rock it felt like paradise.

Justin led first, climbing The Butcher (E2.5) a lovely climb which made me feel that I was about to barn-door off around the arête on nearly every move. Back down, out of the wind, I eyed up Charisma; the guidebook description suggested that it was a bit of a one-move wonder with the move protected by an aging peg and had upped the grade accordingly.

The route went well until The Move; from a good rest I placed some gear, ignored the rusty peg and tried to figure out The Move. I must have spent 30mins climbing up and down, trying to ignore the increasingly apparent fact that The Move was a big, committing slap to a flat hold. I don’t like big committing slaps, I don’t like them above a bouldering mat, I don’t like them above a bolt and I especially don’t like them above (admittedly bomber) gear. Eventually I had faffed enough and had nothing left to do apart from commit to The Move, which I did. I hit the hold and didn’t fall off, a bit of an anti-climax really. The rest of the route passed in an over-gripped and pumped blur.

Justin’s lead and sticking true to the game of Add a Grade, he found a classic E5, Get Some In, and set off. The route looked pumpy and greasy, rests were taken. My experience of the route was made far more pleasant by chalked holds and the absence of a lead-fall potential but I still fell off.

We abbed in one last time to retrieve the bag and escaped up Army Dreamers, a classic HVS, which had both holds and gear and was delightful. More beer, pasta surprise and mini eggs followed.

Day 3: Stennis Head
Easter Sunday dawned grey and cold, we started the day by a recce of a couple of committing routes that Justin and I had our eyes on: Out of my Mind at Stennis Head and Star Wars at Bosherston respectively. We managed to talk ourselves out of both routes due to the lingering sea grease experienced on our first climb of the day, Stuntsman.

A wee while later and I was staring at the bottom section of Trevallen Pillar eyeing up the grease and psyching myself up. The grease didn’t prove to be problematic and the first half of the route (originally the first pitch) went well; technical climbing, enough gear and a pleasantly committing crux. Then a ledge offered a welcome rest and a slab above offered a far less welcome series of unprotectable, unreversable moves on spaced crimps. I tried, I failed, I got scared and ran off, sideways, to belay around the corner leaving a 5b pitch for Justin.
Contemplating Barbarella
Justin’s lead and after a brief contemplation of the horrors of Barbarella he led the neighbouring Sunlover and we skipped away over Pembrokeshire moorland to the promise of tea, warm showers and a real bed.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Days That Dreams Are Made Of

I’m sitting on a grassy slope, a cliff-top at my feet and the sea far below, ropes trail back from me to a stake and a fence post and down in front of me to my partner climbing up. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky and a gentle breeze is blowing along the cliff carrying with it the smell of gorse flowers and the sea. At my waist my battered and bleeding hands, aided by protesting arms, control the rope though the belay plate. Out to sea four sea-kayakers fade to minuscule dots in the vast ocean and the occasional hum of a passing motorboat replicates the lazy drone of a bee on a hot summer’s afternoon. I feel alive, content, sated.

Earlier today I stood at the foot of the cliff and stared up, the line of Ocean Boulevard looked awesome from the ground, an obvious crack line slicing through the wall liberally strewn with massive holds and perfect tapering cracks for gear. I bounded over to the start eager to get my teeth into the route, eager to get absorbed into the climbing and to let the noise in my mind fade to silence. The climbing was as good as it looked; big holds all the way, steep enough to remind me to keep concentrating whilst still allowing time to relax and enjoy the exposure, the view, the uniformly haphazard cliffs stretching away on each side. All too soon it was over and I was standing on a ledge at the top with only the typical Swanage top-out still to climb wishing the route was longer.

I belayed Justin up and we grabbed some food and abbed back in, it was Justin’s lead and what a route to choose – Wall of the Worlds – a name which, like the route itself, both inspires and intimidates. I sat and belayed in the sun dodging the falling chips of rocks which seem to find me wherever I placed myself. After an impressively calm and smooth lead Justin reached the top and I set off after him fighting a rising pump and the few hard moves thrown in along the way.

Such a route called for a celebratory picnic which gave my arms time to recover before ‘Round 3’. The route I had scoped out for my next lead was Barracuda, a beast of a line up a steep section of rock which the guidebook says “never lets up” (they weren’t wrong). At the bottom I ditched as much unnecessary clothing as possible, partly because I didn’t need to carry the extra weight and partly because the last few days of climbing had worn through much of my skin leaving only the layer that constantly seeps moisture and glistens in the sunlight, the cooler the skin the better.

After a cursory look at the first bulge I set off and found steep rock, poor holds and equally poor gear. A hard-looking move not far off the deck made me feel the need for a decent bit of protection that was only achieved one downclimb and two painful knee bars later. Excuses gone I had no choice but to get on and commit to the move and the route, I just managed to reach the good hold above when my foothold crumbled quietly beneath me injecting a shot of adrenaline into my lactic acid infused circulatory system. On the better holds above I tried to regain some sense of poise and control however the clock was ticking and my arms were tiring fast. A few more moves and gear placements later and I was properly pumped, so much so that I could only watch as my fingers tried over and over to clip a quickdraw onto the cam and clip in the rope.

The cost of learning to jam mid-route.
Pumped I reached a vague corner that I wedged my body in and desperately tried to teach myself to jam, being from the south I am hopeless at jamming but I knew that you can get a good rest on jams and I really needed a good rest. Even more pumped I grabbed at the break above which didn’t provide the sinker jugs I was after but instead provided a selection of rounded holds covered in sand. By now the pressure was off, I had given everything I had and at some point I would reach the top or fall off, I didn’t really care which as long as it happened soon.

I found some sort of a rest in the break which involved a heel-hook and a lot of hope, the angle of the wall above looked like it eased a little and I convinced myself that there would be a perfect rest above 5 moves further up. This gave me just enough encouragement to leave the break and carry on, needless to say the rest didn’t turn out to be restful but I told myself there were good holds just about 5 moves further up and so it went on. I was now just climbing on auto-pilot (the pilot had given up some time ago) and, with enough hand swaps, I could place the odd bit of gear.

The angle slowly eased as the pump in my arms continued to rise, the sinker jugs never appeared but eventually I found myself standing on a ledge at the top that I had stood on four hours earlier, this time I didn’t wish that the route was longer but I have never felt more alive.

At my back the sun shone in a cloudless sky and the smell of gorse wafted gently down from the cliff-top above.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Before the Bird-Ban

The last couple of weeks have been spent, beside the regular trips to Ansteys’, climbing on cliffs shortly to be bird-banned. Last week, on the 29th of February, we sneaked in one final trip to Guillemot Ledge, the highlights of the trip were falling off the awesome line of Fly Crazy But Free, not falling off the no-less-awesome line of The Spook and watching for pirate ships lurking in the mist out to sea.

Yesterday, however, we headed north instead of east as the bird-ban at Baggy Point doesn’t start until the 15th of March (I hope someone has told the birds). A short visit to check out the new-born livestock on my parents’ farm allowed the slabs time to dry out after the morning’s rain. By the time we reached Baggy Point the sun was nearly out but unfortunately strong winds were battering the coast; great for drying out the slabs, not so great for any feeling of psyche or motivation. A good friend once told me that you can estimate the speed of the wind by comparing your ability to walk in the wind with your ability to walk after a few pints; 1 pint equals about 10 mph. I reckon we were at least 3 pints down and well on our way to another pint and a kebab.

Anyway we unpacked by the top of the slab trying to stop our stuff blowing away and noticed the conspicuous absence of one of the half ropes (my incompetence). Luckily we had a single rope with us and figuring that lines on slabs were straight-ish we abbed in. The wind was calmer near the bottom of the slab but still strong enough to whip up the waves and occasionally send the foam circling into the sky in crazy maelstroms.

The angle of the rock at Baggy Point is always surprising, from a distance it’s hard to imagine a truly hard move, and in most places, if you just believe, you can move up on nearly nothing. However the gear, or absence of it, the state of the pegs and the friable nature of the rock balance out the fact that you can get a hands-off rest at any point.

I tried, without real intent, to find the line of an E3 which was described differently in both guidebooks, neither of which seemed to bear much relation to the cliff. Instead I ran away up the beautifully obvious line of Undercracker, a route which follows the edge of one of the sheets of rock that make up the slab. Having only one rope, limited extenders and climbing a slightly wandering line concentrated my mind to place only bomber bits of gear and a restrained number of those (as opposed to my usual tactic of shoving in gear at random in the hope that some of it would hold).The moves were wonderful requiring poise and balance in equal measure along with a strong belief in the capacity of rubber to stick on lichen-covered ripples of rock. I restrained myself from placing cams behind dodgy flakes and avoided using a massive balanced block which looked like it had the capability to kill both me and my belayer and arrived at the top laughing and singing to myself like a mad-woman. I composed a belay out of dodgy bits of gear and a general belief in the structural stability of the cliff and then sat and watched the gulls soaring as Alexis skipped his way up the slab.

We abbed back down for round two as the tide worked its way up the belay ledge, Alexis debated briefly between Soft Touch and Urizen and chose, due to the rising tide, the latter. I sat below the towering, tottering cliffs to the right of the slab and watched the waves crashing in, the sun highlighting the plumes of spray. By my feet the water kept creeping up the ledge but Alexis crept higher faster; soon the call to climb came but not before I had moved the rope out of the sea’s determined reach. I set off up the long clean corner of Urizen and remembered the last time I climbed this route five years ago, when I was learning to lead climb and Baggy was my nearest crag.

At the top we gathered our things and set off up the slope and into the still raging gale spurred on by the thought of home-made Eccles cakes and the squalls bearing in on us from the Atlantic.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Pigs and Pixies

It’s 7.45am and I prise myself out of bed; my body aches and my mind protests against movement after the 13 hours of work yesterday and the four days of climbing before that. I stop making excuses and get up.

I step outside and the warm air feels strange and unnatural, the ground is wet and condensation could well be a problem but I’m only heading to Pixies’ and it’s worth the 10min drive to find out. The world-famous Pixies’ Hole is a squalid cave at Chudleigh which epitomises all that I need to improve at. The angle, somewhere between vertical and Ferocity Wall steepness won’t succumb to my usual technique of turning sideways and throwing in a drop-knee instead you need to climb square-on using strength, power and accuracy, three of my major weaknesses.

I park up and walk in, the crag is silent and deserted which is unsurprising as it’s 8.30am and the whole crag is dripping with condensation. Pixies’ is normally festooned with bright white chalk marks but today it’s dark and damp and slimy.

Climbing is clearly out of the question but I can’t bring myself to turn around and head back home. I dump my bags and wander on down the crag, past Pixies’ where many a happy hour has been spent in the company of good friends, past Combat where I scared myself silly 1st time round and Tendonitis where I felt calm and collected despite dropping some crucial gear. I pick out lines I’ve led, lines I plan to lead and lines I haven’t noticed before. I look up at Hot Ice and remember top-roping it many years ago and hoping one day I’d be brave enough to solo it... then remind myself to get on and do it. Past Cow Cave, past some of my first climbs nearly ten years ago, Wogs and Barn Owl Crack, exciting outings that I loved and that got me hooked on climbing. I look up at Black Death and White Life and mentally bump the latter up my to-do list of climbs for this year. I wander on past Scar and The Spider and Great Western, so many climbs and so many memories of great days out.

Turning away from the crag I meander back through the trees breathing in the warm air and the scent of spring, I see snowdrops pushing their way through the mossy soil and watch ravens soaring and cackling overhead. The smell of the woodland and the sight of the old twisted oaks remind me of walking through the wood on my parents’ farm, following dear tracks and disturbing magnificent stags. I remember being sent with a bucket of pig food to find an adventurous pair of pigs that we brought for the autumn; the pigs where free-range throughout the whole farm but had a penchant for exploring and finding gaps in the boundary fence.
As happy as a pig in...
I walked through the wood calling and rattling the bucket until eventually there was a rustling in the undergrowth and the two pigs trotted over for some food and a good scratch. On the way back I disturbed a pair of stags fighting in a pond in the centre of the wood, the image of them is framed in my mind with sunlight streaming through the trees and catching on the droplets of water thrown up in the air.

Back in Chudleigh I see no deer or pigs but the wood is beautiful nevertheless and the morning spent wandering around a damp crag doesn’t feel wasted at all.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


For some climbers training is the bane of their lives, a torture they endure occasionally and only when circumstances force them to. For others it’s the reminder of a climbing lifestyle in an otherwise busy life, an escape from their commitments for a precious 30 minutes spent hanging off a fingerboard or training wall, memories of past climbs and future plans are all the motivation they need.

For my part I enjoy a good training session, I love turning up to the wall with a plan and sticking to it, I love walking away 4 hours later with tired and aching muscles and a very real sense of achievement but most of all I love the focus it requires.

I warm up at The Quay, traversing and climbing some of the easier boulder problems then I head to the 40 degree wall and work out a ten move problem that’s near the limit of my ability. It’s strange to be climbing in a busy climbing wall instead of at a quiet crag, people and their conversations distract me; I climb the problem for the first time, feet skating everywhere. At the last hold I jump off, a 30 second rest and a quick chalk up and I’m back on the board. This time the concentration comes more easily, my footwork is more precise, each move is carried out more efficiently.

Jump off, rest, chalk, climb.

The third go and I start to feel tired, the pump in my arms won’t shift and I feel like Popeye just without the spinach habit. Fourth and fifth goes are a trial, the last move nearly gets me each time but I stick it, just. Five bolts stand in a row by the entrance to the boulder room, each one symbolising a go on the board and an inability to count whilst tired.

I take a rest then head to the other boulder room and repeat the process on the roof section then back to the 40 degree wall for round 3 on a new 10 move problem. Time for a break and some food and renewed psyche from an old edition of climb magazine.

Back on the floor I warm up again and head on to the auto-belay for laps on some longer routes. A slopey 7a is perfect for the challenge, only one positive hold on the route and hard moves requiring locking off and reaching. Five goes later and I don’t want to stop, my arms are tired but the moves are so absorbing that I don’t seem to mind. In the break between goes my mind wanders, in the lull between focusing hard on the route it explores the reasons why; why I’m training, why I enjoy this, why I keep coming back.

Sanctuary Wall - it's time to get strong!

I think I’m addicted to the feeling of moment, of freedom, of pain and resistance, of power and strength, of muscles working to their limit and my mind fully focused on each hold, each move. The beauty of it is that while my mind is full of climbing it is empty of everything else. The absolute commitment to each move requires rules out thoughts of anything more, of life and people, of the ever-changing future or the unchangeable past.  My life, and all of existence with it, shrinks to a heart-beat, a burst of power from my muscles, a single focused thought.

At the end of the session when the outside world returns to crowd out my mind I miss the feeling of being lost inside a move but the memory of it is as powerful as a drug, calling me back time and time again. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Early-Morning Blues

I wish I was still in bed...

My thoughts are slow and sluggish but it’s 7.45am, I’m at the cove and it’s one of those days when everything feels like hard work. I try and wake up by getting on the traverse but after yesterday’s dawn session at Chudleigh my skin feels like it’s on fire. I move round to the sloper traverse in the hope that it won’t hurt as much and that I’ll warm up, which I do, slowly.

... my skin hurts...

Though it's gloomy over Anstey's the view out to sea takes my breath away; a container ship sits out in the bay silhouetted against the early morning sunshine that breaks through the layer of cloud in rays covering the scene in a soft orange glow.

... it’s beautiful here...

Under Ferocity Wall the cold easterly wind whips along the base of the cliff stealing the last of my psyche and body heat but we set up anyway as there’s not a lot else to do. I put the clips in Tuppence trying to link sections of the route but the moves feel hard today, especially compared to my last session. On Sunday, back on the project after 3 weeks away I felt fit and strong, possibly the strongest I’ve ever felt on the route; today, however, every move is a challenge.

... but so cold...

After a stint of belaying I’m climbing again, trying to ignore the pain but each hold bites into my skin like a piranha, if my fingers pop off a hold the pain increases leaving me hanging on the rope cursing quietly but the move at the bottom of the route is the worst. The big slap to a razor sharp hold requires all-or-nothing commitment, I settle for neither and my fingers catch but don’t quite hold the edge...


Thought it feels unusually hard and painful today, somehow it’s still worth it; every move I try and make with tired arms and worn-out skin will feel easier next time, at least I hope it will! Despite it all it feels great to sneak in a climb before a full day’s work, like I’ve manage to cheat the system just a little.

... I wouldn’t miss this for the world.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


I’ve just returned from two weeks in El Chorro climbing sunny sport climbs, absorbing a much needed dose of Vitamin D and accidentally believing that summer had come and winter was over for the year. My return to England and its rain, snow and sub-zero temperatures quickly disabused me of that notion.

We stayed in the Olive Branch, the perfect hang-out for any climbing bum, and our time there fell into a regular pattern; days spent at a local crag either baking of freezing depending on its aspect, evenings spent in the strange improvised dance that happens when half a dozen people attempt to cook in the same kitchen.
The highlights of the trip were:
 ·         Bouldering in Malaga Airport with John Mcshea, we found a traverse around a pillar which involved wide spans and then matching on sloping side pulls. We got a few strange looks from the other tourists but it was worth it for our first bit of Spanish climbing.

 ·         Climbing in Poema de Roca, a massive cave in the side of an immense expanse of rock that puts any cliff in England to shame. We went there on our first day as, much to our disgust, it was raining (and there’s me thinking that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains). The routes in the cave vary from wall climbs to tufa-laden endurance routes to horizontal, and frankly ridiculous, roof climbs. I had a go on Swimming Through a Shark Attack partly because it looked crazy and like nothing I’d ever climbed before and partly because it had the draws in as I didn’t fancy the logistics of stripping a nearly horizontal route on petzl bolts. The route consisted of swinging between stalactite blobs, finding knee-bars and leg-locks and trying not to become disorientated in a world that is 90degrees away from the norm. I had a few goes on the route but didn’t get further than halfway, I’ll save the route for another day when I have learnt how to roof climb and have the endurance of a chimp.
Redpointing La Villa Strangiato in the Poema de Roca cave.
Climbing high above the cloud inversion at Desplomilandia
Justin figuring out the crux of Arabesque at Escalera Arabe

        ·         Visiting Desplomilandia, a shady, north-facing venue perfect for any sweltering climber unsuited to the temperatures of the Spanish Winter. We spent most of our time on the El Triangulo crag, the angle was just what I am used to (cheating really) but some of the routes were 25m long, approximately 10m longer than my stomping-ground Ferocity Wall (and to be honest I spend most of my time there sitting on the rope or possibly linking 2 or 3 moves). Good days were spent there trying the moves of the marvellous Mar de Ortigas which consists of 25m of pocket and tufa climbing – exactly the sort of route I came to Spain for.

John on Mar de Ortigas at Desplomilandia
Amongst all this bolt-clipping I did have a yearning for some trad climbing, a yearning which was at least partially sated by our ‘rest-day’ climb Africa. Just the approach to the climb was an exciting and nerve-wracking affair; after walking to the start of the gorge you embark on El Camino del Rey, a dodgy concrete and metal structure that traverses the entire gorge made somewhat safer by the via ferrata set-up that accompanies it, although the locals bimble along the walkway with the nonchalance of a French Guide we edged our way tentatively expecting it to collapse at anytime. The base of the climb is then reached by crawling through a tunnel and abseiling 50m down the side of the gorge to a committing position where escape is either up the cliff or an abseil into the river below. The route is partially bolted and gets 6b+ in the guide which makes it easy to forget that you’re embarking on a 4 pitch E3/E4. The route was great though our route-finding towards the top wasn’t and as rest-days go it wasn’t particularly restful leading me to take another rest-day just to get over the first one.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Dawn Missions

It’s 6:30am and my alarm wakes me up with an unnecessarily cheery tune. For a second complete confusion reigns, I have no idea what day it is or what I’m supposed to be doing, no daylight creeps through the curtains convincing me that it’s still night. The word ‘climbing’ permeates through the fog in my brain encouraging me to get out of bed and get dressed, in the cold dark I layer on clothes to make up for the warmth of the duvet.

Breakfast eaten and tea drunk and I’m on the road, headlights cutting a swathe through the winter morning darkness. The roads are quiet and the dance tunes on the radio help to wake me up. The reason for this early morning activity is simple; I work four days in a row but don’t start work ‘til midday and I don’t want to go without climbing for four days. The answer – dawn missions; if I arrive at the crag at first light I can get a decent session in before work and finding a partner for such an ungodly hour is no trouble as Alexis is just as keen/stupid. We meet at the car park at 7:30, shoulder our packs and walk to the crag in the half-light. Our destination (as ever) is Anstey’s Cove where even a short session is bound to be exhausting.

The crag is quiet and still, a beautiful place to be at any time but all the more so this morning. In the cold air my duvet jacket reminds me too much of its namesake and I’m loathed to take it off, instead I warm-up wearing it feeling like the Michelin Man with about as much co-ordination. The sun sits like a ball of gold above the sea turning the wispy clouds pink, it brings comfort but no actual warmth at this time in the morning. We’ve been here on early-morning missions in the summer when it’s too hot to climb by 9am and in the autumn when drizzle and rain makes the whole idea of climbing a challenge. Today however, on this cold crisp morning it feels perfect: a sunrise in a bright blue sky, a wood pigeon cooing and the sound of the waves drifting up from far below on the gentle breeze.

The moves on Tuppence feel as hard as ever but I’m climbing and I can’t bring myself to care. My fingers slowly warm up and my muscles wake up, I link moves that I’ve linked before and fall off moves that I’ve fallen off before. As I sit on the rope, my back slowly being warmed by the sun, I can see clouds moving in to cover its brightness but for now it’s just perfect.

Sunday, 1 January 2012


Christmas passed in a blur of food, drink and wrapping paper. A good time was had by all but after four days of not climbing I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms and desperately needed to spend some time in the company of people who knew , for example, the importance of the onsight and the relative merits of single vs twin ropes in a trad climbing environment.
Justin and John

The promise of a days’ climbing at Portland shone like the light at the end of the festive tunnel and when the day arrived, with good weather forecast, we were waiting for it with rucksacks packed and down jackets on. John came to pick us up and bounced out of his car like an overexcited puppy; this man is the embodiment of psyche, a couple of hours talking about routes with him and you’ll be itching to quit your job, sell your cat and CLIMB!

Soon we were on the road and it felt good to be heading off to Dorset after being stuck in Devon for the last couple of weeks dodging showers and Christmas obligations. I have a mixed relationship with climbing at Portland: I love the idea of attempting to onsight endless sport routes in the sun in beautiful Dorset however when I go there I remember that I find the routes hard to read, dusty and weird and that Portland isn’t Dorset’s answer to Kalymnos but a windswept spit of land with a prison and some moorland on it.
Trying to figure out the crux of Julie Ocean

Nevertheless, it was a good day. The warm up route, Wonderlust, was excellent, big moves on big holds to a thin cruxy section at the top and with only one loose block which when tapped made a noise that made me want to run and hide in a very safe place. The second route, Julie Ocean, was one of two halves, the first was a gentle romp on good holds while the second half consisted of a wonderful sequence of improbable moves which would be very satisfying to onsight... I imagine.

Next we headed up the coast to Drowning on Dry Land, a route on a cliff that bears a striking resemblance to the piles of rubble you have to walk over to get there. The route itself was surprisingly solid with a beautiful flowstone section that made a pleasant change from the sharp limestone crimps of the rest of the climb and was long enough to allow my fingers to go from numb to sweating with only a modicum of hot-aches related pain.
The scary looking Cheyne Cliff. See what I mean?!

On up the coast to Road Rage - a 3 star classic of Portland and a route we all wanted to get on. John set off for the onsight and I watched trying to memorise his sequence with the desperation of a prisoner trying to memorise an escape plan. However the conditions got the better of us with an icy wind freezing our fingers and sea-grease making the middle section unpleasant and insecure. Excuses aside it was a great route with hard moves, small holds and an unrelenting angle, definitely one to get on next time.

Darkness was creeping up on us and it was time to head back. The journey home was filled with talk of dream routes, trips to plans and adventures to be had in the New Year. Bring on 2012!