Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Skeleton Ridge

Skeleton Ridge follows the crest of the Needles

For reasons that I struggle to define I've wanted to climb this crumbling monstrosity for ages now. It's made out of chalk, and therefore slightly less stable than a third world democracy, highly committing, and worst of all you have to go to the Isle of Wight to do it. But it appeals to me in a 'you don't have to be a good climber just fucking stupid' kind of way I suppose. Either way here we are, me and Staples, on the Pile of Shite and ready to climb Skeleton Ridge.

Looking back a couple pitches in

It's a huge amount of faff just getting to the start. Early morning ferry crossing. That's eighty sodding quid straight off the bat. Then we hike down to the National Trust fort thing on the headland and meet with one of their guys. He's really helpful and shows us where to rig all our ropes. We've got 100m of static line, 4 60m half ropes, plus 20m or so in tat. Enough to siege a Himalayan peak.

Pre-placed rope for the final belay

We leave a rope in place for the final belay, which is otherwise non-existent, and another as an initial abseil into a sort of ditch just to get down to the main ab point. Here we find a stake and a chunk of rubble, which we equalise as the anchor. Finally we tie our two statics together, which should be enough to get us to the deck. Just in case it's not the first man in will carry a spare rope to reach the bottom. All that done we sod off back to the cafe to wait for low tide.

After some food and an extremely nervous shit I find myself slowly abseiling down a slabby face of vegetated choss on the southern side of the Needles. Rubble pours down the cliff after me, covering me in chalk dust. I reach the knot, pass it, and finally land on the bay at the bottom. Prussiking back up would be an absolute fucking nightmare. I wait for Staples to descend then we both stagger off along a shingle beach towards the start of the ridge. The ledges beneath the first pitch are still underwater so we find shelter from the sun under a low overhang. We sit there pulling chunks of rock off the cliff with terrifying ease.

Approaching the start of the route

Not in any way worried at the bottom

Eventually we get bored and wade across to a small ledge. I look up at the serrated ridge rising above me, like some prehistoric spine, and wonder if it might be easier to simply walk into the sea with the rack on and save a bit of time.

The superbly protected first pitch - note the tied off screw at the start of the traverse

Instead I start climbing up a vague groove of darker, waveswept rock. There's a good runner about a foot above the belay and that's pretty much it for the rest of the day. Next I reach some toss old peg, clip it anyway, keep shuffling upwards. It gets even better - I find an old borehole, think 'why the fuck not?' and start drilling in an ice screw. With hateful predictability the bastard only goes halfway in, so I just tie it off and begin a long, unprotected traverse on bits of flint embedded in dust, laughing hysterically all the merry way. Somehow I reach the crest of the ridge and a shite belay on, you guessed it, rubbish pegs.

Razor pinnacles lying in wait

Staples follows me up the pitch and just like that we're more or less committed to the whole miserable lot. The usual existential 'what the fuck am I doing with my life' crisis swiftly follows...

Staples leading the easy second pitch

And the joke of a belay at the end of it

The next bit is an easy wander across ledges to the base of a steep pinnacle. This is the crux of the route, and I won't lie I'm shitting myself as I edge along the knife edge crest towards it. A cluster of hilariously awful pegs greets me, I clip every damn one and fiddle a nut into a crack that probably wasn't there ten minutes ago.

Me leading the steep crux arete

Relieved to get it done!

Nothing else to do but go for it. A few pulls on big but crumbling holds, a high step, job done. Absolutely piss. Nowhere near 4c, probably more like 4a. I reach the belay with some relief and bring up Staples. He manages to break off a foothold, the silly twat, an ominous reminder that we can't get too complacent on this pig.

Easy but fun climbing on pitch 4

Pulling holds off on the chossy ramble of pitch 5

I don't know if it's my alpine mountaineering experience, but I'm really not finding this bad at all. Yeah it's a bit loose, not exactly Stanage Popular, but come on. I've heard horror stories but it's just easy rambling on slightly dodgy rock. We breeze across the next two pitches, booting off the odd block, trying not to pull the ridge off by accident, and soon arrive at the final (terrible - who knew?) belay. Now the fun begins.

The last steep wall before the top

Staples already a way above the only gear on the pitch

Gaining the final ride to safety

Staples demonstrating the true elegance of rock climbing

It's Staples lead, and off he goes, up a narrow pinnacle, two pegs after ten feet then bugger all else. He reaches the very apex of the ridge, a jagged fin of chalk mere inches wide, and begins the final death-straddle to safety. That's literally what you have to do - hump your way to salvation. The exposure on either side is ridiculous, sheer faces dropping away into the sea, and the feeling that such a thin bit of chalk really could break off any second under your weight. Staples edges his way along, laughing, sobbing, I can't tell anymore. The ridge eventually widens into the headland, and he disappears from sight. I follow, it's the most outrageously stupid bit of climbing I've ever done. The whole time I feel like I'm about to pitch over sideways, pendulum into a chalky void, end up topped at the bottom.

Me enjoying the knife edge of death up my arse

Looking down at the bay about 90m below me

I can't say it any better than our guidebook; if there's a more spectacular pitch anywhere, you don't want to climb it.

The arete we both shagged to get to safety

Soon enough though I'm riding the last section onto solid ground again and that's the route done. Tourists gape at us from various viewing platforms. They look at us like 'what the fuck are those idiots doing?' and I can't help but agree with them. We're both covered in chalk and pissing ourselves at how crazy the whole thing was. It takes about an hour just to de-rig all our ropes and pack up. We say a final goodbye to the National Trust guys, promise them some shaky headcam footage of us swearing our way up choss, then fuck off to the pub.

Job done, in all its pointless glory

Drinking beer. Now then. Wonder if there's a route up Beachy Head....?