Grant Farquhar brings us word of the Deep Water soloing in Bermuda, detailing turquoise water, lots of rock and never-ending sunshine. Wee Davie matches these words with a stunning and entertaining film. Both climbers bring the island to life with their excellent photography. What are you waiting for?!
“St Budeaux or Bermuda? Tough call. I was on the plane the next day”
Not until a year later did I find out for certain that this cave, known as Running Springs, was indeed virgin before my dive. The knowledge gave me a strange and most satisfying pride. Satisfying because of the feeling of mystical possession and intimacy with the spring that I felt. Strange because the cave had existed for thousands of years before me, would exist for many years after me, and could care less about my intrusion, momentous as it was for me.
Sheck Exley, Caverns Measureless to Man, 1994.
Substitute cliff for cave, rock for spring and climb for dive and there you have the best parallel description of the emotions engendered by the peculiar delights of new routing in rock climbing that I have read anywhere.
Anyway, it was 2002 and I saw an advert in the British Medical Journal “Psychiatrist required in Bermuda”. I was working in Plymouth at the time and thought St Budeaux or Bermuda? Tough call. I was on the plane the next day. But the $60 000 question was whether there was climbing in Bermuda or not? A climber who had visited Bermuda advised me that there was no rock climbing in Bermuda but there was an arch that had potential. By the time I visited, the arch turned out to be literally tottering on it's last legs and was shortly thereafter destroyed completely by Hurricane Fabian in 2003.
The islands of Bermuda are an isolated, subtropical 21 square mile archipelago on the summit of an undersea volcano in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. The Sea Venture set out from the Mayflower steps (co-incidentally 100yds from my front door in Plymouth) to colonise Virginia, but was wrecked on Bermuda in 1609. Bermuda has been a British Overseas Territory ever since. The points of the Bermuda Triangle are formed by Bermuda itself, South Carolina 600 miles to the West and Puerto Rico 900 miles to the South. Ironically, the locals do not believe in the existence of the Bermuda Triangle, but the large amount of sunken ships on Bermuda's hazardous reefs provides some of the best wreck diving in the world.
Nowadays, Bermuda has the highest GDP per capita in the world. This is due to an economy based mainly on international business such as banking and re-insurance. Unfortunately, despite the relative prosperity of the country, the legacy of the Trans- Atlantic slave trade continues to cast a long shadow over Bermuda's culture and politics. All slaves were freed in 1834, but until 1959 racial segregation still existed and ended only after public protest. The issue of race continues to overshadow the national psyche.
When I first came to Bermuda I was told that the rock was unsuitable for rock climbing and that anybody who tries will die. This is an opinion I have come across before where there is rock but not yet rock climbing. And in fact, although there is no shortage of rock in Bermuda, only something like the harder 10% of the soft Aeolian limestone here is suitable for climbing. Regardless of warnings, climbing is more addictive than Heroin and it is impossible for a climber to live somewhere with cliffs and not try to climb them.
“The nature of the climbing resembles something like Northern Frankenjura topography combined with Gogarth South Stack talcum powder fabric”
The first potential venue I couldn't fail to notice when riding along North Shore to and from work on my moped was Dill's Rocks. It is a sheltered bay with an overhanging wall. Could that be suitable for Deep Water Soloing (DWS)?
Armed with rock shoes and pulverised blackboard chalk in a plastic bag (in lieu of climbing chalk) I discovered some entertaining circuits above a resident squadron of squid. These were the first DWS routes in Bermuda and a springboard to future development.
I returned in 2004 with a broken arm for another contract to find that Dave and Claire MacLeod had been out visiting Claire's brother. Unsurprisingly, Dave had put up the hardest boulder problem on the island, Dark & Stormy at V9. Despite local attention this problem remains unrepeated.
Fast forward to 2006. I was back and looking forward to some DWS. In the meantime one of the gyms on the island, The Olympic Club, had built a climbing wall on the exterior and had employed 2 instructors; Ward Byrum and Bryan Caldwell.
Both from the USA and very good and experienced climbers. They exchanged puzzled glances when I kept asking to buy climbing chalk but then never showing up to climb at the climbing gym. Before long they were out sampling the delights of such classic DWS routes as Atlantis and Lara Croft as well as establishing their own lines like Ward's spectacular Lost City finish to Atlantis.
As with most DWS venues it is advisable to snorkel first and inspect the landing zones. The water usually has excellent visibility and it is possible to DWS the year round. The water temp gets up to 30 degrees C in summer and in winter is still an acceptable 20 degrees. (At the time of writing, October, it is 26 degrees C). You can expect to encounter a lot of marine fauna whilst deep water soloing. For example, also at the time of writing, Atlantis has a 6 foot green moray eel living in a hole underneath the route.
In 2008 we established the first sports climbs on the island. Making the commitment to buy the drill for $700 was the most gripping part of the process. With the warnings about the soft nature of the rock echoing in my head, I was expecting to abseil down the first route only to find out that the rock was too soft for bolting and that would be the end of sports climbing in Bermuda and $700 down the drain. Thankfully my fears were (mostly) unfounded. A state of high paranoia fuelled the unnecessary equalising of about 10 runners in what appeared to be good rock in order to construct a belay. Fortunately, the rock below proved to be good (enough).
The first route to go was on the biggest cliff on the island, The Great Head of St David's. Bensalem is a spectacularly positioned and mildly graded lip trip over a sea cave. Fishermen on the rocks nearby were slightly bemused by the antics and wanted to call the police to rescue us. Thankfully, the locals are now a bit more accustomed to seeing climbers on these cliffs.
My wife, Eloise made her very first ever lead on a section of this cliff. She stormed up this 5.9 and because it was the first route on the wall she not only got to name the route, Xantho, but got to name the whole wall, Nereids Wall as well. Not bad for your first ever lead!
2008 was also the year of the landing of the God of Strathyre himself, Davie Crawford. After completing his first DWS, Davie was quickly into the swing of things and producing loads of new routes, both DWS and sports as well as enthusiastic participation in the compulsory après grimpe at the Swizzle Inn.
Some of the more remote DWS cliffs posed access problems. However, exploration was accomplished in a $30 inflatable dinghy. This intrepid craft performed beyond the call of duty to exceed its recommended max operating load of 2 small children by grittily transporting two fat Scotsmen plus climbing gear and obligatory beer.
At the time of writing, October 2009, there are 25 sports climbs and 125 deep water solos in Bermuda as well as a load of beach boulder problems above sand (pads not required). Summer is DWS season with hot sunny weather, high humidity and warm water. Winter is sports climbing time with cooler weather and better conditions. The sports climbs are currently equipped with threads and stainless steel expansion bolts. My project this winter is the replacement of all bolts with titanium glue-in bolts. If you intend to climb here, please consult the Climb de Rock wiki website for the latest update on the state of the in-situ protection.
After all the enthusing about climbing in Bermuda, please bear in mind that this will never be a world class climbing venue. Bermuda is a very isolated destination. Don't make an extra special effort to come here for climbing. The nature of the climbing resembles something like Northern Frankenjura topography combined with Gogarth South Stack talcum powder fabric. That combination appeals to me, but I have strange tastes. Suffice to say travelling here specifically to climb would be like choosing to visit Norway in winter rather than anywhere else to go to in order to get a suntan.
However, if you happen to be here for work or holiday then there is more than enough to keep you happy. The weather is generally favourable for some sport or other and it is highly unusual to have a day when you can't participate in something. Even in a hurricane you can still go cave diving which is world class here. With only 21 square miles, everything is literally on your doorstep. You can deep water solo during your lunchbreak from work and at the weekend it is not unusual to be climbing, surfing, wakeboarding and scuba diving all in the same day.
The focal point of the climbing scene on the island remains The Olympic Club Climbing Gym replete with new resident instructor John Langston who is making the slightly bizarre transition from trad 12d sandstone offwidths to overhanging limestone DWS.
The local climbers are always happy to show visiting climbers around. Over the past couple of years we have had a steady stream of visiting climbers from the UK, US and elsewhere. Recently we had a visit from the former X-games speed climbing world champion Elena Whitburn nee Ovcchinikova who had never deep water soloed before but nevertheless made some impressive flash ascents. This week, visiting National Geographic photographer David Doubilet shot some over/underwater climbing shots at Tsunami Wall.
If there are any competition climber or organisers reading this then I would recommend Bermuda as being the ideal venue for a deep water solo climbing competition. The cruise ship dock on Front Street in the capital city of Hamilton is yards from the main street of the city, has deep warm water underneath and would attract a lot of spectators.