Sunday, 4 December 2016

Hyllebekken (WI3), Valdres

It was +4.5 degrees in Hemsedal centre Sunday morning. Even high up the forecast looked warm. According to it was colder in Oslo centre than at Kongsvoll, although there didn't look to be a temperature inversion at play in Hemsedal itself. It seemed a good day to drop the level of difficulty and be conservative with objectives. The forecast indicated it was colder in the valleys further east and I had been keen to climb in Valdres for a while. Fagernes was supposedly -1 degrees and the WI3 icefall called Hyllebekken seemed a good bet, given its large volume of ice and consistent gradient that would make it more resistant to warm temperatures. The broad scale would also mean that Anna and myself could share the route with Espen and Emmi, who were sharing our hut, without knocking ice on top of one another.

It was 0 degrees as we skirted Gol, then +2 degrees over Golsfjellet. By the time we had reached Fagernes it was -2 degrees and the plan looked to be paying off.


We headed for the upper part of the icefall, which seems to be what most people climb and what catches the eye from the road. Espen and Emmi climbed the left hand side of the icefall whilst Anna and me took the right side. Midway of the first pitch one of Anna's crampons snapped in two as a result of the heel bale being too slack. All credit to her that she managed to put it together and adjust the fit without resting on the rope. All about the clean onsight! 

Anna replacing her crampon midway up the first pitch

Anna continuing up the first pitch after the crampon failure 

The climbing was a relatively easy affair with two crampons attached, although Anna was feeling pretty tired from the previous day's climbing. Oddly enough I was actually feeling fresher. The ice was soft enough for my points to easily bite first time, which meant I could climb my second pitch at good speed when my turn came. There was water running beneath some parts of the ice but given the icefall's size there was no cause for alarm.

Top of the second pitch

It was 2.5 pitches to the top, with the third pitch more of an exit pitch. We chose to abseil down the true right hand side of the icefall rather than walk off, as we had left items at the base of the route. Three easy abseils from trees brought us to the starting point.

The climb had a great setting overlooking the outskirts of Fagernes. Made all the more special by a beautiful sunset as we repelled the route. 

Back at the car it was now a staggering +7 degrees, although by the time we had reached Bagn a short way south the temperature had dipped to -4 degrees. The dashboard temperature continued to fluctuate for the remainder of the journey home.

Sunset over Fagernes from midway up the route

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Grøtesigene, Hemsedal

With a forecast of 1 degree on Saturday and 3 degrees on Sunday it was looking decidedly warm in Hemsedal. At least the temperatures had only risen above freezing early Saturday morning, so Anna and me expected some decent conditions for Saturday at least. The weather was overcast with not much wind, so hopefully any thaw would be gradual.

There looked to be a surprising amount of ice forming in the valleys despite the dry autumn. Nystølfossen in Grøndalen for example was looking as close to climbable as I have seen it, with just the section at the very bottom yet to touch down.

Murekløve (left) and Nystølfossen (right)

Little snow had fallen in recent weeks, which meant the south faces and mixed routes were looking particularly dry. Grøtesigene looked well suited to these conditions as I knew slacker sections became quickly buried after snow. The approach would also hopefully be much easier than the two hour slog up to Grøtenutbekken in thigh deep snow that I had endured a couple of winters ago. From the road the routes still looked thin to the naked eye but under the magnification of my camera there looked to be enough ice all the way up. The number three route was clearly the main draw as it was the most prominent and longest. In present conditions it was actually still three independent lines, with the right hand one looking the most impressive. We therefore headed for this. There looked to be no mixed climbing at the start of the route, which can sometimes be the case, so we left the rock protection in the boot of the car.

Grøtesigene icefalls from the roadside

Contrary to the Hemsesal guide we found a large parking bay beside the main road, slightly north of our intended route. The approach through the forest took us just over an hour and was pretty easy, apart from a little scrambling up through a band of rock, and a couple of wire fences to clamber over. The route looked all the more impressive once in closer proximity.

Number 3. We climbed the widest line of ice on the right.  

Much of the first pitch followed thin, gentle angled ice that was easy to climb, albeit different to protect in places and a little wet. I just managed to reach a belay at full rope length, although the ice was less than ideal. All three of my long screws hit air at about 3/4 screw depth, although at least they were adequately separated and so I was happy enough.

Starting up the first pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

The second pitch looked a tougher proposition with a short section of vertical ice to begin. The ice was wet and screws were quickly hitting pockets of air, which didn't encourage Anna to push on. At first she backed off the lead. After pointing out the questionable suitability of the ice for abalakoving she found the psych to have another go. The axes were at least solid and after a bit more searching for a better screw placement she found the confidence to lead through.

Start of the second pitch. The first section of WI4.

We had brought fourteen screws, which normally would have been enough, were it not for every belay needing three screws in addition to planted axes. This left us with eight screws for runners, which wasn't a lot for 60m pitches if things became a little difficult. Anna's second pitch didn't go much further than 30m as a result. Fortunately the next pitch was steady WI3 with excellent ice conditions, which meant I could stretch the rope to full length. Another poor belay though with just two long screws, one of which needed a larks hitch due to the shallowness of the ice.

View of the Hemsedal valley from the top of the first pitch

The distance to the top now looked within reach but it was deceptively far with still a couple of pitches to go. More good ice and moderate difficulty followed on the fourth pitch however, so we were making good progress, albeit racing the daylight remaining. 

Anna leading the fourth pitch

The sun had already set ten minutes prior to me starting the fifth pitch, so I was keen to get going on lead. Fading light at the top of a 200m route wasn't the ideal way for me to get my first WI4 lead of the season under the belt and test my form and so consequently I was a little more tense than normal. The brittle ice at the start of the pitch didn't help matters. the change in ice conditions from wet to brittle suggested we had climbed right through the freezing level. I didn't bother with the torch, feeling enough twilight remained but this was possibly a mistake as I struggled to properly read the features of the ice. In particular where to kick in my front points. My technique as a consequence wasn't great, tending to trust my axes more, which I could better see better than my feet. I would sink both axes high up beside one another and then subsequently kick my feet higher. I was a little out of balance as a result but the high axes were a reassurance in the poor light.

Me leading the fifth pitch in twilight. The second WI4 pitch.
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

With the steep ice dispatched I made a belay just ten metres from the top after somehow mishearing 'halfway' to be 'five metres' from Anna's direction. With climbing having been quite sustained and in poor visibility I had evidently lost sense of what a 60m pitch feels like.

Just a thinly iced gentle slab remained, of which Anna made easy work of, despite tying off the shallowest screws that I have seen in a long while. By my count the route was closer to 240m than the stated 200m.

Anna leading the final 10m of the route

With so many below par ice screws at the belays we didn't fancy abseiling the route. Instead we followed deer tracks northwards until beyond the icefalls from where we could descend from trees. We managed to walk partway down the hillside but then needed three short abseils from isolated trees in order to cross some icy slabs.

Regrettably we had left our walking poles at the base of the climb on the initial assumption that we would be abseiling the route. Consequently a tedious traverse back southwards across the hillside was needed in order to retrieve them. 

It was 8pm by the time we had reached the car. Somehow it had taken us 2.5 hours from the top of the route. Maybe in daylight we would have found a shorter line of descent, however everything was always in hand. We had certainly fulfilled the criteria to get a quality long route done during the better weather day and whatever we managed the following day would be a bonus.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Botnajuvet Trilogy

It took me three attempts to reach the base of the climbs in Botnajuvet. Largely because of the approach notes in the Hemsedal Ice guide sent me on a wild goose chase. It advised me to descend into the nearby gorge of Lauvdøla, follow this for 100m downstream to the junction with Botnajuvet, and then follow this upstream for 200m up until the ice routes at its head were reached.

If first you don't succeed...

I first tried to reach Botnajuvet two years ago with Anna. We made a few attempts at trying to descend to the base of the Lauvdøla gorge via different ways but soon got cold feet (metaphorically). Partly because the audible running water at the bottom of the gorge and partly because the icefalls we were aiming for looked worryingly far away. Deep snow on the approach to the gorge and no snowshoes had also cost us time. We decided to cut our losses and instead climb the short icefall at Øvre Lauvdøla.

Descending to the Lauvdøla gorge on the first visit
(Shortly before aborting)

If first you don't succeed, try again

The second attempt was two weeks ago. Given the time lost on the first attempt through indecision, this time I was keen to reach the base of the gorge in efficient manner to allow plenty of time for whatever followed. The water in the base of the gorge was silent on this occasion, which boded well. Plus we found an easy way down that required no abseils. Once in the gorge our progress slowed dramatically. Much of the ice on the floor was still too weak to weightbear, meaning we needed to stick to the tops of boulders to avoid falling in the water. Many of these were large and difficult to mount and dismount.


Close to the junction with Botnajuvet the gorge floor dropped down in a deep step and made onward progress impossible along the floor. To bypass this we needed to climb the left side of the gorge to half height and then make an abseil from a tree back into the gorge lower down. 

Things didn't improve beyond the junction with Botnajuvet as a poorly frozen pool again stopped us in our tracks midway up. With our way barred we instead climbed out of the gorge via an easy Scottish grade II ice gully. No bad thing as we were tired of following a semi-frozen river by this point.

By the time were in vague proximity with the ice routes it was already 13:30. We still needed to descend back into the gorge and by this point had lost interest in trying to climb anything. Only Botnabekken at the head of the gorge looked worthwhile as other lines were still very thin in places. The main benefit to day was that at least I had learnt the best way to approach the routes having backtracked to the car park via a much easier route. Ironically I had actually used part of this exit previously when I had climbed the route at Øvre Lauvdøla a couple of years ago. Within thirty minutes I was back at the car.

If first you don't succeed, try, try again

With clarity over the approach I returned with Anna for a third attempt. The previous two days had been warm and windy but the temperatures were now back in the blue numbers. A sheltered gorge at high elevation seemed the best bet to find good conditions. Plus hopefully the warm weather would have stripped a little snow from the easier angled ice. 

We used snowshoes for the approach, which probably made things a little easier, although they weren't essential. The descent into the gorge was easy apart from a little bit of scrambling near the base following by a short ice step.

As a consequence of the warm weather from the previous couple of days, the icefall at the head of the gorge called Botnabekken (WI3) resembled a water slide with water running down its entirety. Another route called Botnaveggen (WI3+) looked much better however. Evidently Botnaveggen forms more slowly but is more resilient to bouts of warm weather. A couple of other lines also looked possible around WI3/4 but Botnaveggen looked the most eye-catching. 

Ice at the head of Botnajuvet


Anna was recovering from an index finger A4 pulley rupture and so I led the first pitch so that she could take things a little easy and test the finger out. No symptoms presented happily and she was able to lead the second pitch.

The climbing felt steady with just a few steep steps interspersed with easy angled ice. I still seem to remember what to do despite largely missing last season.

We climbed the main part of the icefall in two pitches totalling about 80m. Both pitches of similar difficulty. A further easy pitch of about another 30m took us to a point from where we could walk off.

The ice conditions varied on the route. Low down the ice had a tendency to shatter but was much improved after the first 20m. In places a weak top layer needed to be cleared in order to find better ice. Most of my screws felt solid although a couple hit empty pockets.

Anna starting the second pitch
Anna near the top of the difficulties on the second pitch

Botnajuvet was an atmospheric place to climb, in a setting that felt remote by Hemsesal standards. It reminded me a little bit of the Upper Gorge at Rjukan but with a more alpine feel. All in all it was worth the effort to reach, as much for the setting as for the climbing. 

Back to the guidebook description 

The guidebook approach likely came into being because it roughly follows how the crow flies. I suspect the first ascensionists saw the icefalls from close to the parking area, made a beeline for them, and the guidebook description is possibly a remnant of this. The guidebook photos show excellent ice build-up in the gorge so maybe the approach was much easier when these routes were first climbed in 2010. That was an extremely cold winter in Norway after all!

Given the problems I experienced with the guidebook approach I've included a description of the approach that I used on my third visit together with a map.

Botnajuvet Approach

Follow the obvious cross-country ski track that leads south from parking area. After 400m the track bears right in a more a westerly direction. Øvre Lauvdøla is the gorge visible to your right. After 800m arrive beside a hut to the right of the track. Leave the track and walk approximately 300m North-West from behind the hut, crossing a broad stream that leads to the Øvre Lauvdøla ravine downstream. Head North for around 1km to the southern edge of Botnajuvet. It's possible to descend into the ravine on foot just to the East of where Botnaveggen faces. Total approach time is around 30 minutes depending on snow conditions. It's worth considering snowshoes if a lot of fresh snow is present.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Pastorale Først Sats (M3+), Skurvefjell

I missed virtually all of last winter due being totally wiped out by fatigue. Much of 2016 has been a slow recovery and for a long period I suspected moderately serious winter climbing might be a thing of the past for me. I've really improved in recent months but a steady return to winter climbing was naturally top priority. Plus I was happy just to be climbing anything at the start of winter so the psych for harder stuff wasn't there. No doubt that will change as I take my health and fitness more for granted.

After a big dump of snow last weekend together with strong winds I was hoping that there would be some favourable mixed conditions after a week of consolidation. I wasn't expecting much ice up high after such a dry autumn so it seemed sensible to stick to something that didn't rely on ice formation to meet the grade. Pastorale Først Sats on Skurvefjell Vest looked a good route to cut my teeth on as it was only 120m high and described as well-protected in the summer guide. This was also the first time that I was climbing with a new partner Alex, who himself had been on a slow road to recovery from leg injuries recently. 

A fine still morning greeted us. Much of the snow on the approach looked to have been scoured by the wind through the previous week. Apart from some locally deep drifts of snow the approach was straightforward, albeit fairly long.

Approaching Skurvefjell

We climbed the route in four pitches, partly to try and share the difficulties evenly, although the first and third pitches, which I led, proved to have the harder more interesting sequences of mixed climbing. We didn't bother to rack screws, although there was some useful ice in the chimneys. A thin coating of ice in places made protecting some the cracks harder work, particularly at the start of the third pitch, but otherwise gear was good.

Start of the second pitch

The snow was entirely unconsolidated but thankfully it was in manageable amounts. Often it needed to be swept to find gear and axe placements, which slowed progress a little. It certainly wasn't a semi-drytooling exercise and definitely full winter conditions.

My lack of mixed climbing and drytooling in recent years felt evident throughout both my leads with progress a little more hesitant and less instinctive than expected. It's something I want to get back to doing more of this season as it's what I enjoy most.

Top of the third pitch

We made steady progress although my focus at belays was on eating, drinking and layering up more than the typical to keep my energy levels up, rather than racing to keep the dead time at belays to an absolute minimum. After a casual starting time we topped out just as the sun had dipped below the hills and proceeded to descend under twilight.

The exit

Despite my layoff and previous uncertainty as to whether I'd return to this sort of climbing it felt strangely business as usual at the top of the route. I didn't even register the milestone. It was almost as though I had not missed a day's climbing in the last year. Climbing often generates that sort of bubble for me whereby all external life events disappear to the back of my mind.

In light of the strong easterly winds the previous week, wind slab was at the forefront of my mind when it came to the descent. In particular I was also concerned about the tops of sheltered southerly aspects behind the Øst and Vest buttresses acting as a trap. I'd climbed on both buttresses during summer of 2014 and vaguely remembered the decent down the west side of Skurvefjell Vest being much broader and shorter than the descent from Skurvefjell Øst. Hopefully the smaller Vest Buttress would also provide less shelter. Otherwise plan B would probably have been a long trudge east over the tops of both buttresses towards the mouth of Øvredalen. Fortunately this was never called for as the descent was relatively easy with just a few patches of moderately deep snow but no slab formation.

Head torches on we started the return trip. It's good to get the first winter route under my belt so early in the season. Hopefully it marks the start of a long winter.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Rough Guide to Climbing at Dover

A Silly Game

Esoteric... intimidating... worrying... exhausting... are some of the words that I would best describe climbing on the white cliffs at Dover. It's one of the most unique and memorable places that I have climbed at and somewhere that has filled me with equal measures of dread and ambition. The style of climbing is far from perfect but it is partly the imperfections combined with the unique experiences and high levels of adventure that kept me returning.What's more the journey time of under two hours from my former London home made the area positively 'local' by London standards.

Mick Fowler's exploits were one of the main catalysts to me trying chalk climbing. I visited Saltdean a few times to climb the bolted chalk routes at Saltdean but was keen for bigger adventures away from in situ protection. An excellent article on Dover by Ian Parnell in Climb Magazine further raised my interest in the purely trad form, particularly in a route called The Tube, which followed a man-made runnel up the cliff. I was lacking partners for such a mission but fortunately somebody was silly enough to reply to a speculative post for a partner on UKC. I climbed most of the route in the dark, without a head torch, having grossly underestimated the time required. Midway up the runnel my ice axes pinged off what felt like a large sheet of metal wedged in the back of it. Carefully I bridged the steep walls of the runnel on either side of it until it was mounted. I was learning many of the intricacies of this climbing style entirely on the sharp end. Then on the way home I crashed the car out of exhaustion, burning a few of my lives in the process.

Beneath The Tube

I made eight visits to Dover in total, climbing a new route on the last occasion. Despite this respectable haul, I felt as though I had barely scratched the surface. Indeed it had taken almost this many visits to gain a sense of whereabouts, with some large sections of cliff still a mystery to me. Partly this was due the scale of the cliffs and partly because many routes had changed or had fallen down in relation the route descriptions that I was following.

Beyond Dover, I also climbed five of the unbolted lines at Saltdean. Somewhere more traditionally know for 'sport chalk' style routes, with in situ protection and lower-offs. Thirteen routes in total isn't a huge haul but it's probably thirteen more than most people and hopefully I've gained enough experiences to have something to share.

An excellent route called Relax at Saltdean

Climbing Style

The style is typically compared to ice climbing, except with protection from the 1970s. The cliffs naturally provide a unique atmosphere as you would expect with climbing on the south face of Kent. The sound of waves, seagulls and ferry horns suggest a positively friendly ambience compared to an average day in the Scottish hills but in reality Dover can feel more intimidating than probably any venue in the UK. The softer featureless chalk at Dover makes climbing with axes the most effective method, however the natural erosion of the cliffs far exceeds the impact of a very few ice climbers. Other areas such as Beachy Head and the Needles are better suited to conventional rock climbing techniques because the rock is harder, although I've no experience with these areas.

Climbing at Dover can be far more physical than climbing even the hardest ice. It often needs many more swings to gain sufficient purchase and the protection can be long-winded and tiring to place. Seconding requires less effect because the axe placements have been created, although removing the gear is still no easy task. It's generally been considered ethical to rest on axes in order to free up both hands to hammer the protection. This essentially means that resting is permitted under the guise of placing protection, although nothing about chalk climbing should really described as restful! Progress up a route can feel a hard fought affair and far more protracted than might be anticipated. The first ascent of South Face of Kent took three days for example, and first ascent of The Great White Freight took two days. Ian Parnell I know has tried to climb routes completely free but other semi-recent ascents I am not sure about. Some would say Dover is good training for hard winter climbs elsewhere, however this relies on a strong mind from the outset.

After dark climbing on Dover Soul with much of the crux climbing still to come 

Routes mainly follow steep walls, buttresses and corners, interspersed with slabbier sections, where the chalk is softer, looser and more vegetated. The cliffs are deceptively steep. What looks vertical from the ground can in fact often be overhanging at close quarters. Particular at the top of the cliffs, where routes are often at their steepest.

The chalk at Dover also contains bands of flint. The temptation can be to hook on protruding pieces in order to save energy with placements, but be warned, these often easily break loose without warning when weighted. They are at best untrustworthy.

Vegetated easy ground on The Real White Cliffs Experience

Chalk Characteristics

Loose, crumbly, brittle and unpredictable are probably most people's perceptions of chalk. Prone to falling down without warning, and lacking adequate protection. School blackboard chalk snapped with ease I remember. Chalk can be all these things but it can also be remarkably dense and homogeneous and harder to impale than the hardest ice. The chalk at Dover and Saltdean is often excellent but there are of course many chossy chalk quarries in the UK at the opposite end of the scale. I never fully understood the varying characteristics of chalk beyond simple observations, and what I observed fluctuated greatly.

As with ice, chalk is strongest when compact and featureless, and it is less prone to cracking or dinner plating where surfaces are convex. Cracks in chalk generally indicate weakness and sometimes even risk of collapse and therefore are best avoided. Such cracks are few and far between though. Gentle-angled chalk is usually softer and looser, sometimes with a grassy, earthy top layer. Presumably due to receiving more rainfall. It's easy to climb but the protection is often weaker. Steep chalk is a much harder density, and so better to protect but harder to climb. I've found some steep ground to be brittle and subject to comical levels of dinner-plating but cannot explain the reason for this, although generally it's been a localised problem.

The large cracks in this picture indicate local imminent collapse

Close to the water's edge the chalk is often soft and easy to penetrate with axes. Higher up the cliffs the chalk becomes drier and harder, often needing multiple swings in order to gain reliable purchase. Six swings is not uncommon. This can make for some very pumpy climbing, whoever you are. How much moderate rainfall affects the rock's hardness and difficulty to climb I am not sure, but extended periods of dry weather certainly makes the rock harder.

Chalk's porous nature means that large levels of rainfall can affect the general stability of the cliffs by increasing structural load. I made a habit to avoid Dover after periods of heavy rain in case of any major collapse. Many of the routes at Saltdean were washed into the English Channel during the appalling winter of 2013/2014 as a consequence of heavy rain and rough seas. During one period I fell off one of the 'sport chalk' routes at Saltdean after a foothold broke unexpectedly, with the preceding piece of in situ gear also ripping. Later that winter the entire route collapsed. It served as a warning to the damagers of heavy rainfall. My second climbed route at Dover, called Loose Living, also collapsed in dramatic style that winter, although it was a pretty terrible route and so no great loss. A chance encounter with a fox midway up the route was the most memorable moment. There were likely other casualties elsewhere.

Loose Living area August 2011
Loose Living area September 2013

I'm no expert how winter frosts affect things. My presumption has been that rain followed by frost leads to water expansion within the chalk and possibly increases the likelihood of collapse, in the similar way to how water pipes can crack. I'd welcome views from anybody more knowledgeable on the subject.


It's fair to say an ample degree of dedication is needed just to build a suitable rack for climbing trad chalk. Warthogs are the only real form of protection. In Scotland I carried one or two but for chalk an equivalent number to ice screws is needed. At currently £28.99 each via Needle Sports this is no light investment. I bought a couple of second-hand warthogs but made only a moderate saving and found their condition often to be substandard. Other forms of rock protection are unsuitable because of the absence of cracks (except where local weakness), and because of the softness of the rock.

Warthogs require a lot of effort to place in chalk and so a hammer with suitable weight in the head is called upon. Don't bother with claw hammers, or anything similar, for this reason. Hammers fitted to ice axes will also be close to useless, made worse by the curved shaft reducing hammer leverage. I bought a 2lb lump hammer from B&Q for about £10, which worked fine. Be sure to drill a hole in the handle so that it can threaded to your harness. I rested it in one of my harness loops. Aid hammers likely work well but I could not see what further benefits would warrant the high price tag.

View to the French coastline

Placement locations follow a similar criteria to screws into ice, in that lack of features makes for stronger placements. Where surfaces are convex or close to prominent edges the chalk is likely to be weaker and more prone to fracture during placement. As with ice screws it's easy to get a feel for the warthog's potential strength during its placement through a combination of feel and observation. The harder it is to place the stronger it will likely be during a fall.

Even with a good hammer it can take a lot of effort to fully sink a warthog. In fact placing warthogs can be more pumpy than the actual climbing. Gripping the hammer with two hands helps matters and for this reason clipping and hanging on axes to place warthogs has been generally considered ethical, as previously mentioned. Sometimes it can take five minutes of heavy handed smacking to sink a warthog, requiring patience and commitment. Removing them on second is no easy task either. I found the best technique was to knock the eye of the warthog a full 360 degrees in order to loosen the shaft slightly. I then to used the axe pick to leverage the warthog out via the eye hole. Hitting them side-to-side like a peg is useless because the chalk just absorbs the impact. It can also lead to warthogs becoming bent if they were not fully sunk in the first place.

Hammering home a warthog

Don't put too much reliance in one warthog. I once made the mistake of running an easy slab out to beneath a steep wall, only to find the chalk quality quickly diminished. I placed some mediocre warthogs in the wall but the more sensible approach would have been to place more protection in advance of the difficulties. I got into this habit with future climbs, which generally made for a happier climber.


Crampons are best set to mono points in order to more easily penetrate the chalk where hard. It also allows for points to be placed in axe placements so as to reduce the workload. Any axe suitable for ice climbing will be suitable for chalk. Sharp points help to more easily punch into chalk but pieces of flint hidden within the cliff can quickly blunt them. In Mick Fowler's era the flint could break a pick, however nowadays picks are suitably strong to avoid needing to carry a spare axe.

Chalk leads to corrosion, therefore all gear needs to be washed thoroughly after use as possible. Clothes often become covered in chalk dust, so this is no place for new expensive new Gore-tex or Softshell. It can sometimes also be difficult to keep boots away from sea water due residual pools remaining after high tide. Generally speaking it's good to use old gear where possible. On the plus side, the south facing aspect often means less layers are needed, although the cliffs naturally catch any wind coming up the channel.

Don't wear your best Gore-tex
White clothes

Wearing protective eye wear, or a visor is recommended as otherwise eyes can become clogged with small particles of chalk. One partner of mine needed to visit A&E after finishing a climb because of the amount of chalk in his eyes. Another parter appeared squint-eyed at the top of route with similar problems. It's more of a problem where the chalk is loose and the wind is breezy.

Hard for the Grade?

The CC Southern Sandstone uses 'ice grades from III to VIII'. Either Roman numerals have been used to unconventionally describe ice grades, or these are in fact Scottish adjective grades. What's more, only The Great White Fright has been graded higher than VI. Possibly there was confusion surrounding its published grade VIII, as Ian Parnell explained on his blog. 'Certainly worth Scottish VIII but definitely not WI8'. Whether this means all the routes at Dover are graded using the Scottish adjective grade, or that all the grades are WI, except The Great White Fright is not clear. The sensible approach is probably to climb a few routes at an amiable grade to get a feel for the grading.

Most of the climbs at Dover have seen few repeats and many have suffered erosion, meaning the original grade is often ballpark. This naturally increases the seriousness of many routes. I'd say it's best to assume changes have taken place, whatever the guidebook states, and allow for suitable headroom accordingly. Otherwise one can quickly themselves climbing at their very limit.

Routes up to Scottish grade IV I've found to approximate roughly to Scottish adjective grades in terms of difficulty. The ground is typically off-vertical and more prone to vegetation, which facilitates axe placements. The Tube is a difficult route to grade as the crux is short and steep and care is needed when transitioning back onto the slab above. It's probably a steady affair for anybody who has climbed routes at around grade C5 at Saltdean. 'Popular' routes, such as The Tube are also stepped-out, which helps matters.

Top of classic grade IV The Tube

From my limited experience grade V starts to feel ridiculously pumpy compared to the Scottish counterpart. The terrain is often steep, with limited features, and the chalk is harder, meaning more axe swings are needed to gain sufficient purchase. Maybe some of the routes have changed since their first ascent but generally speaking you won't read about Ian Parnell getting pumped on a V in Scotland as you do at Dover (see here). My ice climbing ability has improved since last visiting Dover but I'd casually suggest that some of the grade V routes are harder than WI5, and considerably harder and more serious than any Scottish V ice climb. Sadly I had no experience of the Dover VIs.

The top-out

A few things to be wary of when at the very top of a route...

Chalk cornices are a thing of nightmares. Chalk collapses from bottom up, sometimes creating a cornice at the very top of the route. It's really important to check for their presence as climbing through them could be close to impossible. Particularly given that the cliff directly beneath them may also be overhung and unstable. When a cornice exists it's best to avoid a route all together.

The top band of soil can also lead to a desperate exit. Often the chalk subsides in the last half metre and is replaced by earthy looseness. What's more the chalk leading up to this point can often be steep. I've found the best ploy has been to plant an axe over the top and sink it into the grass roots then throw and high leg and hope everything holds. This relies on a degree of hip flexibility of course!

Close to the top of Relax at Saltdean

Don't trust the small grassy ledges

I made this mistake and promptly fell 12m when a ledge peeled away beneath my feet. I at least demonstrated the strength of a well placed warthog in the process. Small grassy ledges can form on off-vertical cliffs from chalk debris drifting partly down the face before coming to rest. Grass seeds then germinate in this loose top surface. Appearances would suggest that these ledges offer an easy foot hold to relieve aching calves but often their bond with the more compact cliff is very weak. Sometimes these ledges will hold, sometimes they won't, but from experience there is little warning when they do give way underfoot.

Peeling vegetation underfoot whilst climbing Dover Soul

The Guidebook

The Climbers' Club Southern Sandstone guide covers the main south coast chalk venues. The Saltdean section is available online for free here, however many routes have changed or fallen down since its publication. The Dover section is comparatively simple, in that route descriptions and generally whereabouts are provided, however topos are absent. The majority of the routes have either the ϯ symbol to indicate no repeats, or ϯϯ to indicate major rockfall on the route. From experience it can be quite hard to match the guidebook descriptions to the cliff features, likely due to changes that have taken place. The TubeChannel Grooves and The Great Dover Experience are some obvious landmarks. Dry Ice had partly fallen down when last I visited a couple of years ago. After that it often gets a bit vague. The cycle of erosion of course means there are new route possibilities where old routes have been lost.

Tide Times

Dover is largely tidal, which adds to the level of seriousness and makes retreat a harder affair. Backing off from a route may well mean waiting a number of hours for the sea to suitably retreat. Note that the cliffs immediately east of the zigzag path quickly become cut off by the tide. Bare in mind the time needed to approach the routes and the slowness of climbing. An early morning start is highly advisable.

Tide tables are available here.

The tide rises quickly just East of the zigzag steps!
We needed to traverse this section above the waterline.


Information regarding general access and bird ban restrictions are detailed in the BMC Access database here.

Please abide by these restrictions as climbing at Dover is already a sensitive matter. The lack of climbers means that agreements with parties such as the National Trust or the RSBP are less likely to be reviewed as with other places and so a greater degree of personal responsibility and common sense is needed with regards general conduct. Whilst climbing is permitted it's sensible to keep a low profile as much as possible as climbing at Dover is not consider a 'normal' activity.

Also be aware that routes directly west of St. Margaret's Bay finish on private property (somebody's garden to be precise) so permission is best sought from the landowner in order to avoid possible access problems.

An unusual back drop drop for a climbing venue

Call the Coastguard

Finally! You may not get a TV crew gatecrashing a climb these days but the coastguard may still attempt to rescue you without your request if they are unaware that you are climbing. Be sure to ring them in advance. Also be aware that mobile signal can be poor once beneath the cliffs. Sometimes it's easier to pick-up a French network than it is a UK provider, and so it's best to call them from the car park if possible. They also like to be notified after you have finished the climb.

Sunrise over St. Margaret's Bay

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Øvredalsrenna, Hemsedal

The pressure to get something climbed on Sunday was on after the volume of food consumed Saturday night. Half a box of ice cream, a large tub of cottage cheese, and a skolebrød were the trimmings to the main course of tacos. The reason for so much consumption related to the total lack of energy and fatigue during Saturday. Grand plans made on Friday had whittled down to getting nothing done the following day. The battery felt flat midway through the walk-in and by the time we were under a route I was ready to leave. Didn't see that coming...

Sunday morning I didn't feel a huge deal better but then at 5am on a Sunday things rarely do. Clearly I hadn't recovered from the previous weekend. The basic plan was aim low, take the walk-in at a gentle pace, and hopefully reach the top of something before the battery ran flat again. The fine weather a major motivator for trying again. The low of -22 degrees on the car temperature gauge suggesting it would certainly be cold enough.

The walk-in, with friends heading to Skurvefjell
Entering Øvredalen

As it happened we got an excellent short route called Øvredalsrenna climbed. I had backed-off the start of this route the previous weekend due to its poor condition but sensed a further week would be enough to sufficiently improve things should we return. Reaching my previous high point of 5m was an easy affair given that the first 5m were now buried under a funnel of snow.

Øvredalsrenna (again)

The lower portion of the gully was filled with ice but the character of climbing remained very much mixed. Thrutchy, awkward and cramped. The thin streak of ice generally wide enough for one crampon, which made for some interesting bridging onto rock. At times the ice was particularly thin, for which my roughly sharpened mixed picks were ill-suited. There wasn't much in the way of solid rock protection but surprisingly some excellent screw placements. Also some not so good screws where the streak of ice became really narrow.

The start of Øvredalsrenna (again)

The guidebook described the difficulties slackening off after the initial climbing but in current early season state the challenging climbing kept coming. Below half height the ice quality had transformed into one of the worst of types. Poorly formed snowy ice suspended above unconsolidated powder. Ice just a few inches thick and useless for placing screws into. I kicked my feet into where this ice commenced and mounted it but quickly the top sheet deformed and then fell apart leaving my feet momentarily scrapping amongst powder for footing. The ice a little higher, where my axes were placed, was fortunately better but still required a some delicacy. Towards the the centre of the gully the ice was best for axes but at the edges I could easily punch foot holes through the top layer, which felt secure enough to weight bear.

One of the falling blocks, which had collapsed under my feet, had unfortunately hit Anna on the back of the hand. Evidently her belay wasn't out of the firing line. At first there was concern that it was broken but after a little pause things began to improve and she was able to enjoy the climb.

Gear wasn't great after the initial good ice. A poor screw in hollow ice. A number 1 nut that seemed resilient enough despite not looking so. I spent a long time trying to seat a large nut only for it lift once into the moves. Another nut sitting a little too shallow for comfort. Nothing totally reliable and everything fairly spaced from one another. Much of the rock was too compact. To be fair, I passed what looked to be a solid large cam placement but we had left all the cams to minimise weight. Just nuts, hexes and tricams.

The upper half of route was largely ice free, apart from the occasional thin covering on rock. The snow offered little help on steeper sections and in addition to this some large black holes were appearing through the snow beneath my feet. Fortunately I was able to patch these with the snow that I was sweeping from higher up. A couple of steep steps proved harder than anticipated. The poor snow forcing me to commit to some very fun mixed moves with a nice blend of solid hooks and holds more delicate. The route was probably all the better for this and very Scottish in character.

Anna climbing the second of two awkward steps

The steep, interesting climbing only lasted for around 60m. I looked to have just enough rope to exit the main gully but chose to make a belay just prior. Partly because this was the first decent rock gear that I had placed since near the base of the route and partly because I was unsure how soon a belay would present once onto easy ground. The final moves at the top of the route heralded bomber frozen turf at which point I knew I was home and dry.

The belay just below the top of the route

I needed to continue up the broad snow slope for maybe another 40m until a belay presented around some large boulders. Maybe this is what qualifies the route as being 100m but really the main climbing is just 60m.

Easy ground above the main climbing

I don't really have a feel for M-grades I will admit. Partly because the few M-graded routes that I have climbed have felt all over the place with regards to grade consistency. With my limited knowledge I would hint that this was hard for M3 in current conditions. It felt Scottish Tech 5. Arguably V,5 with the lack of good gear but possibly more like IV,5 with better ice and good neve in the upper half.

Thus I managed to finish a route this weekend... In fact once on the route I had felt quite fresh. We even set about continuing up and over Nibbi in order to return to the car but later changed tack upon seeing how the easy the descent back to our tracks in Øvredalen would be.

The descent back to Øvredalen (the long way)
Moonlit descent

A trip to the legevakt on route home confirmed fortunately no broken bones in Anna's hand.

Next weekend is going to be largely rest. The mixed routes on Skoghorn I imagine will have become a little too dry for my liking and there looks still to be limited options for ice yet. A few photos below to illustrate conditions from last Saturday. Probably a good opportunity for me to have break. Then full gas the following week with a bit of luck.

Skogshorn Saturday morning
Lanciakaminen looking dry