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.