Sunday, 29 September 2013

Saved by the Whole (HVS, 5a), Rainbow Walls

The ample white wine and champaign from last night's wedding reception wasn't helping matters...

A simple traverse from left to right along a wide ledge was baffling me. The surrounding slate walls were overhung. Foot ledges were cut at 90 degrees to the overhung walls as though the cliff was subsiding.

Crawling across the ledge did not seem the answer...

(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Nor did facing outwards...

(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Ultimately it proved easiest to simply side-step my way across whilst facing inward. But only after I had found the confidence to press my forehead against the wall to avoid barn-dooring.

The right way
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
I placed a cam in a shallow semi-circular bore channel. It was just about deep enough for the apexes to grip. My only other piece of gear lay before the traverse at foot level. Horizontally too far and low to prevent a ground fall. At least the immediate climbing looked easy, which led up and slightly back left.

But there was still no gear at the crux. This involved a committing mantle onto a large platform with little in the way of holds to pull through on. Made more awkward by the leaning walls and floor. I looked down and right to my shallow cam four metres below. The edges of the bore channel would likely fracture and the cam blow I reckoned. I didn't trust it. Nervously I searched for gear at the crux but there was nothing. Twice I pushed on regardless, bridged higher to the mantle position but then backed off following minor foot slips and general lack of confidence in the hand holds. I tried to instead climb leftwards up more juggy ground but this led to a totally blank slab that was impossible to exit. Uncomfortably I backed down. "What the f*** am I doing here"!

At the Crux
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Some loose slate filled a slot high to my right. I cleaned this out with my fingers to produce a perfect cam placement. I hadn't read the rule book on slate ethics but this seemed acceptable practice given no force had been used. It still felt like cheating slightly. With a lovely medium cam placement now above my head my commitment to the moves found another level. Rather than try to bridge up the mantle shelf I used more traditional means and kept my body in a tighter position. Something changed, and now I felt in balance to rock-over and then pin myself down in the absence of good holds. Drama over. I was soon at the top.

Now it was Anna's turn. Any advantage created by my new cam placement was quickly cancelled out after a large hold at the crux tumbled away beneath her foot without warning. Twice she looked to have successfully mantled the ledge but on both occasions slowly slipped back off after some resistance. Then after much clawing at rock on the third attempt she made it. And with that we had our esoteric trad tick in the bag for the day.

About to slip off the crux any second...
We followed this up with an exciting F6a+ further left called Gwion's Groove. The start was bold with the first bolt approximately 5m off the ground and a guaranteed bad landing. Some gymnastic sloping lay-back moves led up and right before a bold hand traverse led further right towards a distant bolt. The crux was saved for the very top with a thin sequence of moves that Anna needed to impressively dyno to link up.

Gwion's Groove (F6a+)
I was happy with my lot as this was my first F6a+ lead. Anna was keen to totally blow her arms and so set about fighting her way up Drowning Man (F6b) further right on top-rope (the first bolt was very high again with a some bold, difficult climbing to reach it). An impressive array of moves by Anna between ample rests brought her to her dyno move beneath the lower-off again. Arms wasted.

Drowning Man (F6b)
Anna dyno'ing the top move on the Drowning Man (F6b)
All that was left was for a quick lead up a VS, 4c on the Upper Walls called Vertigo. 23m high... no decent gear until close to the top. Only on slate.

We had wasted a lot of time in the morning wondering lost in the quarries despite the excellent Ground-Up guide in hand. The quarries are like a giant maze although hangovers, lack of sleep, and lack of clear objectives were partly to blame. The only climbers we met in the quarries today were also lost. Having found our way to the Manatese area of Rainbow Walls Upper we then set about abseiling two tiers in order to reach some routes of interest. The first abseil down the 'True Clip' was particularly awkward if you intended to use the pair of lower-off bolts rather than trust the sole sole bolt on the large boulder at the top. The quarries despite their ugliness have a strange charm. Something makes me want to return and explore another corner of them. The climbing is good with a unique feel and the rock dries in an instant following heavy rain. There are many things to like.

Rainbow Walls

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Culm Coast

It was after last orders by the time we arrived at the Bush Inn at Morwenstow with no place to stay. The bar had a slightly Wild West feeling about it in that we drew the attention of nearly everybody at the bar. “No nearby campsite” was the general consensus but the local farmer at the far end of the bar was quick to offer us a field almost adjacent to the pub to camp with no strings attached. We were quick to accept the offer.

Next morning there was low cloud and a light drizzle. The cliffs were supposed to be quick drying so in spite of this we headed for Vicarage Cliff, which had some low grade routes that would suit potentially poor conditions.
Light drizle
...and low cloud
We missed the normal descent and instead abseiled off a wobbly stake down some loose rubble scramble terrain. Both of us dislodged some rocks along the way. Everything was slippery and soaking. The cliff across the beach was shrouded. What were we doing here?... Still, there was no better plan, other than go and have a Devonshire cream tea. And we couldn't do that all day so we may as well go and inspect the crag we thought.
Makeshift  abseil descent
The cliff was wet and shiny. Even the severe looked deeply unappealing. At least the drizzle had stopped... almost. May as well have some lunch and see what happens we thought. There wouldn't be another low tide today after all. The problem was that there was virtually no wind. This combined with the low cloud meant that a lot of nothing was happening fast.

But patience proved to have some worth. Slowly the left hand seaward side of the crag developed dry spots. The whole areas of rock looked ok. It was time to gear up. Now just some wet patches. Time to get on with shortly...

We started on a VS called Pandora. My feet slipping off at half height but fortunately my hand were holding the rock firmly enough at the time. Next Anna knocked off another VS further right called Sunstruck. She cruised through the roof at half height without bother. With confidence still a little wobbly but on the rise, it was time to try an HVS even further right called Little Dribbler.

Pandora (VS, 4b)
Sunstruck (VS, 4c)
...I got stuck at half height where the climb moved through the small roof. The climb had looked dry from the ground in reality the rock beneath the roof was a skating rink. I needed some foot purchase on the slabbing rock but it was a hopeless cause. My gear wasn't good enough to just blindly go for it so tentatively I down-climbed leaving the last two pieces of gear to protect.

The tide was nearly upon us but now there was gear to retrieve. A VS called Wellington's Stand further right looked to be the best option for a quick ascent but the crux moves through the overlap were no pushover. And where was the gear? The waves were now hitting the rocks below the cliff - time was a commodity in short supply. I backed-off from the moves through the roof - stress! No time to hang around. Try again - be quick! Second time I managed to bridge my feet better and improve my purchase on the crack above. Thankfully the moves above the overlap were easy. Still not much in the way of gear though.

I belayed Anna up, who then traversed back left along the top of the cliff until above Little Dribbler. The tide was now washing the beach directly below us but fortunately some large boulders remained above the waterline. We set up the abseil and I stripped the gear on the way down. Inevitably the surplus ropes ended up floating in the sea. Time to leave! We hopped from boulder to boulder to the safety of dry beach. 10 minutes later the large boulders were submerged.

Time to leave
Rock hopping
Sunday morning it was raining again. Deja vu. We had been tricked by the weather forecast, which had indicated only grey cloud for the weekend. It was reportedly dry in the Wye Valley and so we contemplated relocation. By mid-morning the blue sky appeared unexpectedly. It made sense to stay put, given the driving time to get here. Another day of moderate ambition though. No E numbers.

Anna made fine work of leading Stormy Weather (HVS, 5a) at Cornakey Cliff before we climbed Wreckers' Slab (VS, 4b), which as described, had little in the way of gear and the odd loose bit of rock thrown in to sharpen the nerves. Two great climbs, which were different in character. There was better rock conditions as well today due to the absence of low cloud.

Stormy Weather (HVS, 5a)
First pitch of Wrecker's Slab (VS, 4b)
Second pitch of Wrecker's Slab
We made the bad decision to head to Gull Rock in the afternoon, failing to appreciate the time to walk-in. Our time of arrival left no time for climbing - at least not without another desperate escape bid from the tide. What's more the crag was mobbed by CC member route checking for a new guide. Time to quit and go for a cream tea instead.

Gull Rock
Overall, we lacked the chance to do some harder routes due to poor conditions. Plan A had initially to head to Lower Sharpnose but that was aborted on Saturday morning and never reconsidered. The trip was more of an ice-breaker for us. It's a beautiful stretch of coastline with lots of character and no crowds (minus the odd CC route-checking day). Plenty to think about for the next trip.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

First Ascent of Conchalktivitis Slab (IV), Dover

The chalk near the start of the slab was unexpectedly hard. I swung my axe repeatedly trying to chip reliable holds. Sometimes I would fail and would need to switch location. It had been a fine summer but was the chalk maybe too dry as a consequence? Usually the chalk at Dover is easier to climb low down where it is more saturated and therefore softer. What beckoned higher up? The top looked a long way off. My forearms worked overtime from the multiple axe swings. I paused to shake out my calves. My busy summer on rock provided little in the way of conditioning for this form of climbing. At least the first couple of warthog placements were adequate.

(About 7/10 I reckoned)

Beneath the slab
I veered right to avoid a mild steepening at the left edge of the slab at third height. The chalk quickly became softer and easier to climb but proportionally more crumbly, which triggered a steady flow of debris to tumble South. The surface chalk repeated cracked and peeled with little encouragement but behind this layer of mush were placements of better reliance. This process of clearance was also creating some adequate horizontal ledges for my crampons to rest and relieve my calves of burden.

Conchalktivitis Slab in the Centre of the photo
My warthogs were becoming progressively poorer. Warthogs repeated sunk with little resistance, which didn't bode well for their reliability. A solid warthog placement would usually take over a minute of two-handed pounding with my 2.5lb lump hammer to fully sink. These were taking maybe ten seconds with a lot less effort. Really they were just placebo warthogs but somehow good for the head game nonetheless.


I veered slightly left and quickly heard complaints from my belayer's direction as the rain of surplus chalk was now falling in his direction. Really he could have just left the scene given the state of my protection. I moved rightwards to better protect him from my incessant chalk shower. I placed my only Screamer... for what it was worth.

(About 2/10)

I was making steady progress and now the top was within reach. The slab steepened to vertical towards the cliff edge in a similar manner to Brighton Rock at Saltdean. This route had dealt me a particularly desperate escape through a loose top soil and I feared a repeat. It looked from the ground as though the easiest escape was going to be via the far right of the slab. This looked pretty chossy and unpredictable at closer quarters and so I chose the left side. This was steeper but bounded by a corner that would allow me to generate some opposition through bridging. The axe placements had thankfully firmed up as the ground steepened but my feet were meanwhile peddling in slow motion through a band of unstable chalk that crumbled at will.

I punched my last warthog in...


... that would do.

I launched my front points onto the opposing walls and quickly punched my picks successively higher into the chalk. My front points desperately fought to find purchase but my axes felt solid. Then the optimistic swing into the grass at the top of the cliff. The axe held and quickly I swung a leg over the top and belly flop-mantled onto the grass.

I belayed of a small bush... (about 9/10 under the circumstances)

It felt a proud moment. It hadn't been the perfect of climbs but it was a new route at Dover nonetheless, which felt something special, and good foundation for further fresh objectives. I knew I would need to be stronger though for the other routes I had in mind.

Laced - A view back down the route
Now it was Adam's turn to climb. My pitch had started amidst glorious sunshine but by the time I had reached the top the weather had transformed into light rain and blustery winds. Wind now whipped up the loose surface chalk but Adam made steady progress up the slab regardless. By the time he was at the top of the slab his eyes were clogged with chalk and his mouth rimed with the stuff. My message the previous day to buy some safety glasses had been a little bit short notice. Adam made the mistake of trying to 'rock climb' his way off the route. He clutched at some loose chalk bounding the crack in the exit corner, without warning it disintegrated, and Adam was soon weighting the rope. His chalk-filled eyes no doubt didn't help matters. Second attempt he used his axes to blindly pull through without problem. 'Maybe a little too esoteric' were Adam's general emotions. It seemed appropriate to name the route Conchalktivitis Slab.

Near the top
I first spotted the slab two years ago. It had formed as a result of a landslide at some point but did not look stable enough to climb at the time. Time would be needed for the chalk to consolidate. I had another look last year. The climbing now looked a realistic prospect but I could tell it would be bold as the gear would not be reliable. With a wet weekend forecast it was time to take another look at the slab. Things now looked better.

Since my last trip to the Dover cliffs in December there has been a big slide on the cliffs immediately North of St Margaret’s Bay. My second ever Dover route, called Loose Living, is largely gone. It was by far the worst climb I have done at Dover so no great loss. The freezing weather weakens the chalk cliffs and no doubt there more routes were lost during the exceptionally cold last winter.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Devil's Chimney, Lundy

So after accidentally climbing Needle Rock instead of the Devil's Chimney it was only right that we should double our efforts to climb the Devil's Chimney. Particularly since we were now confident about its location through a process of elimination. Bad weather looked possible tomorrow so we needed to get on with it.

The Devil's Chimney (left) & Needle Rock (right)
Anna set off down the 70m ab rope. It looked to be a full length to the bottom of the cliff from where a short hop across bounders would land us beneath our sea stack.

But something was wrong... She was taking for ages to unweight the rope. Anna was out of sight and all I could hear were the waves brushing the shore. I started to worry about the length of the abseil. The summit of the Devil's Chimney was a long way below. Did she have enough rope? I prusik'ed down the steep grassy slope to where the cliff dropped away more rapidly. Anna was a distant figure hanging on the end of the rope far below. 'Lower the nuts' she shouted up. We had made a schoolboy error in that I was wearing the rack at the top of the cliff whilst Anna had nothing below. What's more she had one of the 60m ropes on her back so I couldn't even ab down towards her on the halves.

The Devil's Chimney from the cliff top
I tied the nuts to the end of the rope and lowered them down. It took me about three goes for the end of the rope to finish in Anna's hands. Patiently she rigged anchors for her half rope to thread through. Then finally she made it the last 20m to the bottom. The whole episode had seemed to take ages. A couple of nuts, a sling and a crab left at the intermediate anchor were not such a great loss. And that's the price you pay for visiting Lundy without a 100m ab rope I guess.

At the intermittent lower-off
Photo by Anna Kennedy
Anna's intermediate lower-off
The guidebook description made no sense in relation to what we were seeing. It talked about starting up an awkward shallow groove, which we knew to be the crux but there was nothing on display. I was pretty confident that we were looking at the right aspect of the stack. There looked to be an obvious weakness up a V-shaped groove bounded on its right by a prominent slim column. Surely any route description for this line would mention the obvious column? In the end I opted to shut the guidebook and work it out for myself. The column seemed the obvious line...

We climbed the obvious groove to the left of the column in the centre of the photo
The first pitch was easier than expected. Not 5b. Maybe 4c. And with good cam placements under the column. I branched right at its top. The guidebook mentioned a large platform (nowhere to be seen) followed by twin cracks. It was supposed to be easier to climb the right-hand one but the left one looked more appealing. One thing that certainly did match the guidebook description was the large boulder strewn ledge, which I had clearly arrived at. The summit looked close at hand. We had this in the bag.

The top pitch now matched the CC description. Anna made fine work of the steep slab leading up to the small overhang and into the cracked wall above. Probably the best pitch of the route. Then it was my turn and soon we were both on the summit full of smiles. The original plan had been for me to lead the harder first and third pitches but having linked the first two pitches I was really happy that we had been able to split the difficulties and interest more fairly. Overall the route felt more like VS, 4c than HVS, 5b. Presumably the first pitch fell down at some point.

The steep slab
The small roof
The upper wall
My only Puffin sighting was on the summit of the Devil's Chimney
But getting to the top was of course only half the battle. We still needed to descend and then exit the beach via a route leading back up the main cliffs. Ambitions dropped a level. We had achieved our main objective and had lost a lot of time trying to reach it. Now it was time to leave without further dramas.

Anna abseiling from the summit
Boulder hopping
We chose a nice looking single pitch VS, 4c called Pretender, which climbed a steep cracked wall on perfect rock with a good variety of moves. And with the usual bags of atmosphere as is staple on Lundy. Then throw in an army of silver fish at the crux. Some stiff moves towards the top above a square cut-away were surely worth 5a?

Between sea grass and boulders
Pretender (VS, 4c)

Monday, 2 September 2013

Incognito (VS, 5a): An Accidental First Ascent and a Harrowing Escape

1) FUN

The CC description for the classic route on Lundy's largest sea stack, the Devil's Chimney, was baffling. Nothing completely matched up but after spending 30 minutes examining all aspects of the stack we convinced ourselves that the line climbed a faint crack near the right-hand side of the West wall.

Into the depths
(Anna bottom-right in the photo)
The initial wall was damp from sea spray and covered in small barnacles that cracked and fractured with pressure. But the handholds were positive albeit small, and footholds substantial enough to perch and fiddle with gear. Then an unnerving balancy move off a steep sloping barnacle-covered foot hold, which proved to be the crux of the route. A shallow ledge presented on the right-hand side. Not the "large platform" described in the CC guide but surely the belay.

Anna continued up easier cracks to a large platform on the left. Again not the "boulder-strewn platform" described by the cc guide but a substantial platform nonetheless. I led through a bulging wall above to a large platform and slinged a spike to my right. A steep wall led to the to top on large holds. I stopped at half height to try and place gear but the cracks were poor and so I pushed on regardless.

The summit
Having wasted time trying to find our route, and knowing we still needed to locate and climb an escape route to safety, our time on the summit was short-lived. Some brief congratulations were followed by a dramatic abseil down an overhung face to the boulder-strewn beach below. Time to plot our escape...

The abseil


We skipped between boulders trying to identify the surrounding cliffs, or more importantly a weakness in the cliffs that would allow escape. Some steep grassy slopes were in close proximity but these we anticipated would be loose and scary. We couldn't even identify the Devil's Chimney Cliff, which was supposed to neighbour the sea stack. The sea stack even cast a shadow over the cliff in the CC guide photo so surely we must be staring it in the face? Having followed the cliffs one way and then the other and still without clue we cut our losses and opted for some rock that looked stable enough to scramble up.

Rock hopping
Things followed the script until half height. I broke left up steeper rocky ground with the hope of meeting the top more directly only to come face-to-face with a fulmar. It grunted at me and the message was understand. Come any closer and expect to be hit with some projectile vomit. The fulmar sat right at the crossroads to my escape. I would need to literally climb over the bird were I to continue to the top. Reluctantly I descended back to Anna in waiting.

The way was blocked
We continued up a gentler slope, which gradually funnelled into a broken gully. Rocks rattled and turf broke off from under our feet without. There wasn't much ground to trust. Even the belay that Anna promptly made was best not tested to destruction. Escape out right was futile as too much steep slippery weak grass blocked the way. After a suitable dose of grass pulling horror I returned to my belayer and headed upwards and then left instead. This way at least offered a few pieces of rock that were stable enough to step on with confidence. Then I was amongst larger boulders again and apparently easier climbing to the top.

I faintly brushed a breeze block-sized rock to my left and it slid towards me then stopped in a delicately perched position. I missed a breath as my belayer was currently about 8 metres directly below me. It seemed sensible to try and wedge the rock in a safer place given its exposed position. As I moved it another rock stacked behind it, which was over a metre in diameter, nudged forward in my direction. Panic-stricken I slid the breeze-block sized rock back to its natural resting place to jam the considerably larger boulder behind for fear of Anna's exposed position below. Time to make a belay. I shoved 2.5 cam in the only stable crack I could find, cut my losses as to finding any further anchors and suggested Anna 'climb'! She stripped the belay and moved out of the firing line. Relief. Our bags were now only a short traverse left.

Loose blocks
Anna departing the exposed belay
But there would be one more twist. Later that afternoon, whilst walking North along the coast, we spied another sea stack. This one larger than the one we had climbed. Quickly we realised that this was in fact the Devil's Chimney and that we had climbed a smaller stack called Needle Rock further South. We had somehow managed to apply the CC description for the Devil's Chimney to Needle Rock, climbing the same aspect, and in the process accidentally making a first ascent. We named the route 'Incognito' for this reason. Our route had climbed directly to meet the mid-section of a three star HS called Integrity. Where this route passed back right onto the Southern Face we had continued directly to the summit bearing slightly left instead. The whole incident was laughable. I had mixed feelings. I one hand happy to have made a first ascent. On the other hand there was mild anxiety that start of the Devil's Chimney, and possible combined tactics to overcome the reported missing boulders at the start of the climb, was still to come another day.

Needle Rock