Wednesday, 27 June 2012


The ledge ended abruptly, dropping straight down into the sea. A black cave was carved out of the cliff before us. I could see steep, slimy rock walls disappearing into the darkness, foaming waves crashing all around, the noise incredible. This, apparently, was where the route called Benny went.

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.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Falling off bits of rock... always much easier than climbing them.

I recall saying once that I could never be persuaded to try BASE jumping. My argument was that, as a climber, I’m simply too accustomed to not falling, to doing everything in my power to maintain contact with the rock rather than embrace the void. Only now I’ve sort of changed my mind. Climbing, you see, is very difficult. Falling isn’t.

My first lead fall came during an onsight attempt of a route called Stroof at Swanage. The crux was a steep finger crack and to be honest would have been at my limit on bolts let alone trad gear. I don’t remember much beyond clinging to tiny holds one moment and dangling in my harness at the bottom of the cliff the next. As my belayer lowered me I think I said something along the lines of “I’ll get back on it next time, there’s no excuse now I know the protection’s good.”

I still haven’t though. “It’s too hard,” I say, when what I really mean is “I’m too scared to lob off again.”
Not long ago I screwed up some deeply misguided courage and tried to climb my first Boulder Ruckle E1. This went badly. Despite what had happened on Stroof, I picked a route with a similarly fingery crux section, and only realised after the rock and I had become suddenly and profoundly disconnected that this really was a particularly stupid idea. With my last bit of strength, one hand clawing at a desperately small crimp, I’d clipped a shitty old rusty peg and slumped straight onto it a millisecond later. Not a proper fall as such, but had the peg broken I would have gone a long way indeed. And had the gear below the peg blown as well, you could’ve scraped what was left of me off the boulders below and presented it to my parents in one of those little jam jars you get at breakfast in hotels.

Now fast forward a week to the wind-swept, wave battered expanse of Guillemot Ledge, where I further indulged in my new passion for Ueli Steck-style speed descents of routes that have traditionally taken climbers hours to negotiate in the old-school upward fashion.
I was with my long suffering friend Pat, and neither of us had ever climbed at this part of Swanage before. So, glorious leader that I am, I jumped straight onto a route near the top of my grade limit with the eternal words “It’ll be OK” ringing about the towering grey cliffs.

Basically, it wasn’t.
Most of the first pitch was easy, bridging type climbing, and I got up to the last resting ledge before the crux pretty quick. Above the rock steepened into a thin tapered crack that guarded access to the midway belay. I placed some gear and pulled up. The holds demanded lay-backing technique, something I conveniently happen to be rubbish at. With strength draining from my arms like air from a punctured balloon I stuttered higher, a Quasimodo of the stone, legs shaking like Elvis with Parkinson’s. The last gear placements were getting further and further below me, but the ledge was getting closer, just a few moves away, all I needed was a good hold and everything would be alright...

One last all or nothing lunge, my fingers wrapped around what I urgently hoped was a thank god jug.
Basically, it wasn’t.

With the weak resignation of a man who knows he’s beaten I pawed at some other holds with my right hand, while good old lefty uncurled finger by finger. One good hold, just one, come on, there’s got to be-
My hand slipped off the hold and I was falling. I shot down past the crack a lot faster than I’d climbed up it, tumbling through the air, still wondering where I might find a nice jug. Then my harness jerked, a huge pain shot through my right leg and I was unaccountably hanging and inverted about halfway back down the pitch. My aforementioned right leg was entangled snake-like around the blue rope, foot high above my head, and I swayed merrily in space like some grotesque, misshapen ornament.

“Oh bugger,” I thought, “I seem to have fallen off...”
I probably went about 4m or so; not massively far, but far enough, believe me. At least all the gear had held. After untangling my wayward leg, and a few bemused minutes resting on the rope, I climbed back up, had another go, and folded off the rock like wet paper the moment my weight came onto my arms. Strangely enough, considering the climbing to rope-dogging ratio, I was knackered.

But we had to get out somehow, and since I didn’t want to lower off and sacrifice gear, I decided to aid climb the crack instead, by clipping slings to the runners and using them as foot stirrups. I’d never used aid before, and naively assumed it would be a piece of cake.
Basically, it wasn’t.

It felt awkward and undignified and I eventually reached the belay ledge feeling like I should do the one honourable thing left to me; untie the ropes and fling myself into oblivion, the still sadly hanging slings my only epitaph. Pat followed me up in the solemn silence that befitted the moment. He led through to the top, and it was only when I seconded the pitch that I noticed a distinctly growing pain in my right ankle. By the time I finished it hurt to put any weight on it at all. So that was the end of the day, and possibly of climbing for some time.
So now I’m going to buy a parachute instead, and explore my new found talent for rapid vertical displacement of altitude. It would seem I’m already a natural. What can possibly go wrong?