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?!