I belayed Luke, who had done it before, as he vanished around a corner into the mouth of the cavern. Slowly paying out rope, I sat on the ledge and wondered what the hell I was doing. Why, I thought, am I going into this hellish place; this miserable, sun-forsaken pit of pitch black hopelessness? Why?
To get back out again. Obviously.
“Safe!” came the shout, and I started dismantling the belay. Here was my chance to escape, to pretend that I had never come to Swanage on this piss wet day, and I could tell the authorities that Luke had been soloing and that I didn’t know who the hell he was anyway. Then the rope came tight. Too late. Attached to a single skinny 8.6 mil half I lay down on my stomach on the soaking ledge and wormed my way lower, feet feeling for footholds on the steep wall. Once established I began traversing into the cave. Into the very jaws of hell itself...
A few tenuous moves later I could see the first of the aid slings hanging off the wall. The rock was far too featureless and slippery to climb conventionally, so instead you had to follow a line of tatty old threads, clipping them directly to your harness using extended slings as foot stirrups. Or something like that. Apparently the person who had placed them was a giant, because I found each one to be just far away enough to necessitate a sort of desperate horizontal stretch, one foot scrabbling and sliding all over the slimy rock in a vain attempt to find some kind of purchase. All the while I could hear the sea crashing just beneath me. If any of the shitty old threads broke under my weight I would get very wet indeed.And probably very drowned as well.
But as I delved deeper into the cave I developed a steady rhythm of reach, clip, step, unclip, and soon enough made my way to Luke’s belay. He was sitting on a small ledge at the back of the zawn, maybe 20 feet above the sea. Above him was the dark chimney of the second pitch. The one I was going to lead.After some awkward shuffling on the confined stance, I established myself above Luke and started sorting out the gear for my pitch. It looked genuinely terrifying. The black walls rose up above me, leaning out all the way, towards a tiny circle of light at the top. In the darkness I couldn’t tell whether it was 10 or 10,000 meters away.
“This is perverse,” I muttered, wedging myself into a corner and trying to wriggle higher. There were plenty of good handholds where the walls converged, but not much for the feet. After struggling past a chockstone I finally found a decent foot ledge. With both feet pressed into it, I simply pushed my back and arse into the opposing wall, and got myself into a suspended sitting position. Proper old school chimney climbing, no fancy moves here. Inch by inch I wormed my way upwards, squirming towards the distant light. The sound of water and waves echoed around me, joined by my own grunts of exertion as I climbed higher.All this in darkness. I could hardly see a thing, didn’t have a clue what my feet were on. I blindly fumbled with my hands to find holds, hoping all the while that I wouldn’t grease off and go plummeting back down into the foaming sea. At least the protection was good. There were several fixed threads, some of which felt almost new, and I realised that somehow, unfathomably, I was enjoying the route. A hard move past another chockstone, and I saw that the roof of the cave was just above my head. The blowhole was in front of me, a vision of salvation, a window into a forgotten world of brightness and life. Still wedged in like a tic I worked towards it, pressed one way then the other, bridging and smearing on the slippery rock, using my own body as a block to prevent me falling.
A last step out to the opposite wall brought me into an open tunnel of light. I walked through the blowhole to a huge ledge covered in bird crap and feathers, actually kind of sad that it was over. I had become almost used to the bizarre contortions and sweaty jams of the chimney.Luke followed, far quicker than me, and led through the blowhole, across a loose traverse, and back onto the clifftop. This was made only slightly harder for him by the flocks of birds perched on all the holds. I seconded the pitch easily enough, and we made our way back to the ledge where we’d stashed our gear. It was gone 9 by the time we got to the car, we’d been in the cave climbing Benny for hours. I felt like I’d just had the shit kicked out of me. My hands were bleeding, Luke had smashed his knee somewhere; we were both absolutely knackered.
And my conclusion? If Swanage is climbing porn, Benny would be the weird German stuff they keep behind the counter.