August 2019 was not the best time for climbers in Scotland — wet! My mate Simon was planning to come from the South to climb in the Highlands with me for a week-ish in late August. But we changed the plan at the very last minute and I went to the South instead, seeing pretty wet forecast in the north and much better one in Southern England. As it turned out, we climbed every day in our 10 day trip in Southern England except for 2 days spent for travelling, experiencing hardly any rain!
Simon later described it as the best rock climbing trip ever for him, and it was close for me, too!
Skeleton Ridge, The Needles of Isle of Wight
My highlight of this trip is chalk-cliff climbing of Skeleton Ridge, The Needles of Isle of Wight. The Needles is a group of iconic chalk cliff and sea stacks in the western edge of Isle of Wight, rising directly above the sea. It is a popular tourist spot, a bit like Dover’s famous white cliffs, where many boats operate to take tourists for a round trip. Also, Batteries for military use were built on it and used during/before the war time. The whole site is owned by the National Trust now as both historic and natural attraction.
It is fair to say it is a rather crazy idea to climb a cliff made of crumbling chalk, however spectacular it looks… I agree to view them from far afield would be much saner. Unsurprisingly, although Skeleton Ridge is without doubt by far the most popular route on chalk cliffs in the UK, as listed as one of CLIMB Magazine’s Top 100 routes in Britain, and is allegedly one of less serious ones among chalk routes, it seems very few parties climb it per year. I bet no one else in the world but Brits is crazy enough to attempt to climb chalk in the first place. The facts that the island is far to travel for most climbers, yet has pretty much nothing else to attract climbers in it and nearby, and that the logistics is also complicated, and that the route is too hard and serious for a majority of occasional climbers and actually is too easy (in terms of the climbing grade on paper) for more experienced ever-grade-pushing climbers, all must contribute to its unpopularity.
Indeed Skeleton Ridge was at at the easiest end grade-wise during our trip. However, the grade does not mean much. The whole experience was a proper adventure and is very memorable. Here is my wee video of the adventure, including some drone footage:
We travelled to Isle of Wight on the 20th August 2019, a day before our climbing. There was a reason for it. The bottom of the route is accessible only during the low tide, which was 8:11 am on the 21st (or 8:31 pm, which would be too late to start climbing and finish in daylight). Climbers are obliged to obtain a permission prior to climbing from the National Trust and to meet up with the staff for some induction during their opening hours. So, we went to see (very kind and friendly) staff of Old Battery of the National Trust in the afternoon of the 20th, paying an admission fee, and got induction. The National Trust staff knew nothing about climbing (and surely would not want to be responsible for climbing activity by any means, either, in case something goes wrong). But they took us and pointed out in the induction where about to set up the abseil rope for access and the finishing point of the route, where it is recommended to rig an extra rope (40m recommended) for the final belay prior to climbing, which we did. Basically, we abseil off from a point beyond a security fence before (but close to) the entrance gate of Old Battery, walk to the starting point of the route Skeleton Ridge in low tide, climb the route, which finishes at a point beyond another security fence at the other end of the premises of Old Battery. In other words, climbers clamber and go over a fence to start, and then after the climb, enter the premises of Old Battery by going over another fence. In a way it is astounding that is the official induction!
If I digress, I love this sort of British attitude of not interfering people doing what they want on semi-public land. Dumbarton Rock in Scotland is similar. Climbers who climb up the rock face basically end up in the back side of the premises of Dumbarton Castle and actually could walk out of the official entrance for tourists who pay an admission fee (though morally speaking, climbers are highly discouraged to do so and should instead either abseil or climb down by their own steam, not disturbing the touristic part of the castle).
The following day we set off our camping ground before 6am with sunrise, walk to Old Battery, go over the fence, and abseil a big cliff for 90 metres to a beach. Perhaps it was the most dangerous part of the day. Any slight move of a rope above a climber during his abseil dislodges a chunk of rock, which showers onto the abseiler (who cannot go anywhere to dodge, obviously). My helmet is once hit by a rock with a size of a small fist even though I try to abseil as steadily as possible.
The rest is featured in the embedded video above. In some parts, every move of us dislodged or broke a part of rock under our feet or even hands. No wonder why some of the descriptions in the guidebook published several years ago did not agree with what we saw. I am amazed the whole ridge still stands there!
Running belays are limited, majorly because rock itself is untrustable. Very sharp flint rock embedded on chalk gives another risk that a rope may be chopped by it in case of a (likely long) fall. So, a fall is basically unthinkable. Embedded flints might be used as convenient and edgy hand holds, although they may and often do easily come out of rock as soon as you pull on them… Overall, the closest I could think of was actually climbing on snow — to spread your weight as much as possible on untrustable medium is crucial. If footage of my climbing in the video looks far from elegant, this is the reason…
One of the highlights was the final pitch. It involves a 30cm-wide 20m-high airy ridge made of cheese to follow with ample dose of exposure. The guidebooks describe proceeding à cheval is common, and indeed I have seen photos of climbers in a horse-riding posture on the ridge. But why so? I did wonder and did not figure out why. However I realise as soon as I am in the position… Basically, the rock is so untrustable that any rock edges or foot holds you would want to stand on may just crumble down! Then, to use the entire crest as a big hold is the surest way to proceed.
Climbing Skeleton Ridge was a bizarre, interesting, and very memorable experience! I applaud the first ascentionists, who somehow thought it would be climbable and realised it, Mick Fowler and Lorrainne Smyth!
From Avon Gorge, Dorset to West Penwith of Cornwall
Though Skeleton Ridge is the route of our trip, other climbing we did is also worth a mention. Indeed, all those climbing combined has made our trip!
The Preter, Avon Gorge
Our first route of the trip was The Preter, Avon Gorge, a 3-pitch Extreme Rock classic, first climbed by Edward Drummond in 1966. I lead through, taking the Original Malbogies Start for P1. The ropwork is tricky as P2 involves traverse. Luckily(?), I find an enough number of psychological gear during the traverse, which then gives Simon some comfort in seconding, who does not know how poor the gear is until seeing it up close. The crux is at the very top — bulldozing through dense brambly bush in T-shirt is not a fun… This route may have not been climbed this year?
We visit Dorset seacliffs after Isle of Wight. It is the first visit of a crag in Dorset for both of us, partly because if we go south for a long way (instead of going to North Wales or the Lakes) for climbing from the Midlands, usually we may as well go to either Devon or Cornwall…
Simon leads the first route, Quality Street in Cormorant Ledge. The fact the approach involves free abseil shows how steep the route is. Yet, the route provides a number of bucket holds at the right places. Simon said it was possibly the best HVS route he had ever lead!
Then we move to the nearby Guillemot Ledge and I strongly encourage Simon to do The Spook, which a RockFax guidebook says
one of the best E1s at Swanage and yet is graded as HVS in the CC selective guide (South West Climbs, Vol.1). Simon hasn’t onsighted E1s for a couple of years after his injury. It would be a good route to try in terms of quality and for the reason it would be probably soft for the grade!
Unfortunately, though Simon gets on the crux P2 to lead, he backs off eventually, not fancying committing to poorly protected sections above. I take over and finish it but with some struggle. We both agree it would be E2 5c.
Later we realise the route we have done is not what we intended but Sapphire! Oh dear. At least, it too is a quality route, if a bit sandy. Surprisingly, it is graded HVS(!) 5b in the CC guidebook and E1 5b in Rockfax, though, as opposed to our subjectively guessed grade of E2 5c…
Chudleigh Rocks is a limestone crag in inland Devon. Again neither of us has ever visited it before. For Midland climbers (as I used to be), it is not the primary choice of the crag for the same reason as, or even more so than, Dorset, given there are plenty of inland (aka polished!) limestone crags in nearby Peak District, Yorkshire, or Avon Gorge and Wye Valley and alike. However, apart from the fact it is conveniently located on our way from Dorset to our final destination of West Penwith of Cornwall, I set an eye on a few routes, including an offwidth HVS Loot and hand crack Oesophagus at E1. As it has turned out, Neither of them disappoint me. In particular, the steep crack route Oesophagus is superb and is the best hand-jamming crack I (and Simon) have ever done, perhaps even edging Unleash The Beast, if a lot easier technically. Chudleigh Rocks is worth a visit!
Astral Stroll, Carn Gloose
We have now moved to West Penwith (region around Land’s End) of Cornwall in Friday night, camping off St Just.
The tide is again very wrong (the tide times in Isle of Wight and West Penwith are very different and against our favour, as we find out disappointingly) with the low tide between 5-7 am/pm during our stay over the (English) bank-holiday weekend. Our first route in Cornwall is Astral Stroll in Carn Gloose, which is allegedly the Cornish answer to the national classic traverse route above the sea, A Dream of White Horses in North Wales.
Our plan was to alternate lead this 4-pitch route with me leading the easiest P1 (20m). Unintentionally, I end up doing the first 3 pitches (50m) in one go… I realised I had climbed too much by the time I had climbed for 30m, but I was too committed to reverse and so carried on to the obvious belay ledge, which is the P3 belay. Simon wanted to lead the crux P2 (5b) and was very psyched to make this his first proper onsight of E1 after disappointing failures in his attempts at Dorset and Chudleigh Rocks on the previous two days. Understandably he is really unhappy with my “over”-climbing. My apologies…
We made a late start to climb this route just before the low tide in the late afternoon. The rock was pretty greasy in places but dry at least where it matters. The day after our climb, my friend Liz and her friend Marianne went for it and had a very hard time, as they found the rock to be sopping wet. The rock of greenstone (or killas) there is like slate and so is not a good one to climb when wet for sure! I do not think it rained between our and their climbs. I wonder why the rock was wet when they got on! Poor Liz and Marianne!
Cribba Head and Logan Rock
Next up is Cribba Head, a non-tidal crag. My first visit to this crag was back in 2012. I eyed up for Boysen’s Groove and Boysen’s Cracks but did neither, wimping out. This time I am determined to make a return match. So do I Boysen’s Groove. The innocuous-looking initial groove turns out to be desperate. But I manage to onsight it with some fight to my pleasure! Except we lost (Simon’s) Link Cam stuck in the crack to my displeasure…
Later we move to nearby Logan Rock. It is a popular hiking destination, yet is a fairly obscured venue as a crag, but hosts an infamous short but fierce E4 offwidth Jack Yer Body, which was recommended to me by more than one local activists. It starts with an overhanging finger-wrenching crack, before reaching the meat of the route, the offwidth part a few metres above. Simon, who has a longer reach than I, kindly place nuts by stretching high from the ground as the first gear. Then I try to boulder up to place another gear higher up and to climb back down, before properly trying the route on ropes. After many many attempts, I fail to do it and give up with my fingers wrecked… It did look possible for me. However, I am not good enough to climb without fully committing, and having no bouldering mats, I didn’t want to take an uncontrollable fall as a result of full commitment… I am disappointed. But perhaps it is not a bad thing to have something to come back for!
Simon then cruises to lead a rough hand-crack HVS Blondie Jams with Sepultura, even achieving Royal Flash, which is (in his definition)
DMM Dragon cams 1-6 placed in numerical order and no other gear for fun. He is rock-solid on HVSs for sure!
Chair Ladder and Carn Barra
On our final day of climbing in the south, undeterred with wrong tides, we set off the campsite at 6:30am and go to Chair Ladder to do a 3-pitch Hard Rock classic Bishop’s Rib. The guidebook recommends a late start to give rock time to dry properly with afternoon sun. However, we cannot change the tides obviously. We have to play with what we are given by the mother nature, like or not.
Psyched for his first proper onsight lead of E1 after injury, Simon takes the lead of the crux P1. The crux is (as it will have turned out) the diagonal traverse on the initial slab, for which the protection is limited. And I now realise why the late start on dry rock is better for this climb or pitch — it is a friction-dependent slab climb! After placing a crucial small nut, backed up with a skyhook(!) weighted with two heavy cams, Simon scouts the next (crux) moves, moving back and forth, and eventually commits to them. It is an intense moment for me the belayer, too, seeing his violently shaking disco legs. …But he has made it!
Now, after a group of welcome gear put in, the overlap above appears hard from below. But it turns out to be one of those signature moves that are easier executed than first appeared, as often found in good routes. Simon eventually makes it without a wobble and soon completes the pitch. A 50-min onsight lead of a 13-metre pitch is not a bad effort! After my seconding the pitch, Simon continues to lead confidently the next 5a and last easy pitches to top out. It is great to see my mate beaming with his long-coveted achievement! As an added bonus of an early start, we saw no other climbers in this popular crag on a summer bank holiday!
By the time we have packed our gear, including the abseil rope retrieved, and walked back to the carpark, it starts raining as the forecast predicted. Rain has become heavier while we are having a lunch in the van. Worry not — we drive for a bit, catch a mobile signal and check the latest forecast. Rain cloud will pass shortly in the area, says it. We drive back to the same carpark (for which the day parking charge has been already paid!) and head to another crag in walking distance, Carn Barra. And we do three more quality 20m routes at HVS-E2 in non-tidal Central Wall. It is a fitting finale of our climbing trip and we are content we have managed to have made the most of the showery day with wrong tides.
Our Leicester-based Bowline Climbing Club had a summer bank-holiday meet in Cornwall, based in the Kelynack campsite, which we loosely joined for the last three days of our trip. The meet was well attended with about 20 people despite West Penwith (Land’s End area) is quite far away from their base. Living in the Highlands, I seldom see the club members nowadays. It may be a bit of irony to see them in the completely opposite end of the country, but whatever, it was a great pleasure to catch up with my old (and new) friends! Admittedly, the weather was a little too good to spend a long enough time for socialising as we went out to and stayed in the crags each of us chose for most of time (and the fact the crags Simon and I chose were not popular Cornish standard crags like Bosigran or Sennen did not help). Well, I would say climbers’ relationship is often like this? Brits would never complain weather is too good!
Also, I had a pleasure to catch up with two more friends from the south, Stu and Liz, during our trip. Climbers like and choose to go into the wild, where there are often hardly any one else. Yet it is not uncommon they bump into their old climber friends in such places. This is a joy of climbing, too!