22 years after it was first climbed, the route Laughing Arthur at Blacker's Hole in Swanage, has finally been repeated - well sort of. Tom Randall and Bob Hickish have repeated the main second pitch as a sport route after the route had been bolted by Andy Long, Bob and Tom. The weren't able to (or perhaps 'didn't want to' is more accurate) repeat the original line due to worries over loose blocks.
Tom Randall performing a bat-hang move on Laughing Arthur, pitch 2 in his specially-made T-shirt. Photo: Mike Hutton
Laughing Arthur was first climbed as an aid route back in 1970 and featured on the cover of the 1977 CC Dorset guide. The route was eventually free-climbed as a major trad route by Pete Oxley in December 1988. At the time it was the hardest route in the South West and the second pitch was one of the few pitches on a trad route to be reckoned to be worth at least 8a in sport grade terms. E8 trad routes in sea caves with difficult access don't get many repeats, but even so, the fact that it has waited so long before getting some proper attention is testimony to Oxley's achievement and vision back in 1988.
I asked Tom why they hadn't completed the third pitch and Tom said that it required a different approach. It can't possibly be bolted due to the state of the rock, so they had opted to create a sport route that incorporated the amazing roof-crack of the original Laughing Arthur. They also used a different approach to by-pass the first pitch for the same reason. "There are fridge-sized loose blocks on that first pitch'" said Tom. The new combination route they have done starts up Infinite Gravity, and then traverses across to gain the first belay. It then tackles the full main pitch 2 of Laughing Arthur, before finishing up Coma 2, an alternative E5 finishing pitch Oxley had added back in 1989 which has now been properly bolted.
Tom added the route to his UKC Logbook just after he completed the ascent.
Here is Tom's account:
My relationship with Laughing Arthur started quite some time ago and I've had a chronic obsession with this route starting from when I first bought the CC Dorset guide in the mid 90s. I had originally tried to repeat Laughing Arthur ground-up in 2004, and again in 2008, however, I'd not really got anywhere due to the extremely loose rock and guano on pitch one. The first attempt ended with a large block falling out of its perched position and landing on my lap whilst on the lead with pretty much no decent gear in place - a very sketchy down climb ensued! The second attempt ended with a bruised face, bruised ego and the realisation that I was probably not good enough to do this route.
The old belay stake they found at the top of Laughing Arthur
In 2008 I found out that Andy Long and Bob Hickish has started to retro-bolt the route. At first I was really disappointed that this had happened as I had already invested a reasonable amount of energy in trying to repeat it (albeit, rather unsucessfully) so I gave Andy a call to see what the deal was. After chatting to him for quite while, and him explaining Pete Oxley's views and also the style of fixed protection on the route, I felt a little more easy about the whole affair. It wasn't until this summer (2010) when Bob gave me a call and said that the bolting job had still not been finished that I realised that perhaps it was better that we just go down and get it all sorted properly - after all, a half bolted multi-pitch route is neither sport nor trad! Over 2 days we re-bolted and cleaned a new variation route that is based around the incredible roof pitch of Laughing Arthur. Even the cleaning of this new line was extremely dangerous and nearly ended in disaster for me on pitch 1.
The route that we've bolted up is essentially a tribute to Pete's vision and is a variation multi-pitch sport route. It still shares the 2nd roof crack pitch, but has a new first pitch and a variation 3rd pitch finishing at the Infinite Gravity belay. The line takes in the best quality rock and the bolts have been placed only in sound rock (sometimes a little further spaced on the first pitch to be sure about quality rock). The climbing is absolutely incredible if you like adventure, roof cracks, a bit of spice, lots of exposure and the odd bit of dubious rock - a trad climber's sport route maybe? The pitches are 7c, 8a, 7a+. Bob and I led the route together leading and seconding each other with no falls. We've given it the name of Forever Laughing.
In my opinion Pete's Laughing Arthur is still unrepeated - someone should take up the challenge now the task is a little less daunting. They'll still have to tackle some horrendous rock on pitch 1 (sorry Pete, I have to disagree with you here, that pitch is waiting to fall down!!) and then some incredible looking hanging block work on old threads for pitch 3. If someone doesn't get round to it then I might have to go down and do it myself soon....
Working pitch 2 of Laughing Arthur
We contacted Pete Oxley, who now lives in New Zealand, to get his opinion on Bob and Tom's ascent:
Firstly, top effort to Tom and Bob for sorting out Laughing Arthur to bring it in to the light for the modern sport climber. Also, a massive thanks is due to Andy Long for instigating the retrobolting of this great route a while ago and doing much of the work including his rebolt of Infinite Gravity last year.
To give it some historical perspective, I first considered free climbing Laughing Arthur - which was a huge multi pitch A3 roof - back in 1987. It was then, and it still is, the largest roof crack of its kind in the country in one of the most dramatic sea caves in the South West, usually filled with spiraling sea birds and the sound of sea horses smashing on to the rocks. The scale of the central crack line has to be seen to be believed and captured my imagination from the first time I saw the silhouette picture on the front of the old Swanage guide by Richard Crewe.
After many days of cleaning on my own from one 9mm rope, by repeatedly aiding in and out, it was finally ready for free climbing as a completely traditional route in the winter of 1988. The route separates itself in to 4 pitches with a total overhang of around 45m, with the main event being pitch 2 - a searing roof crack with a 45 degree side-wall akin to Separate Reality but 4 times as long and as clean as a whistle. Like Nick White once said to me, 'there is not a sea bird alive that can crap upside down.'
This the not the case with the first pitch though which needed major guano-removal prior to my ascent and this unplesant aspect has undoubtedly put off many would-be repeat attempts. Pitch 3 is a self-supporting roof crack in appalling exposure before a final easy escape up the final wall. Back then it rated E8 6b,6b,6b,5b with prospective sport grades of 7c, 8a, 7c, 5b. In December 1988, it was probably the hardest route in the South West and certainly one of the very few routes in the Country to have a pitch of 8a level on traditional gear. For me it was one of my best remembered ascents particularly as each pitch was sent first try in a redpoint style with gear left in place.
Since then 22 years have passed and it has been left unrepeated. So, after a lot of thought, I gave Andy Long the go ahead to start a full scale bolting of this ultra-classic free climb to turn it in to a fine companion for the neighbouring Infinite Gravity. It turns out that, to make it viable as a good solid sport climb, a variation first pitch was created coming in from a ramp on Infinite and finishing after pitch 2 via a link pitch I did called Coma 2. The original line of Laughing Arthur still remains unrepeated but it is pitch 2 you come for if you have the strength.
These big roofs offer a huge potential for the future as a self contained sport venue that can sit in harmony with surrounding traditional zones, 9a lurks somewhere here for sure and the next level for Dorset will occur at this venue soon no doubt.
Thanks to Mike Hutton ( www.mikehuttonphotography.com ) for the bat-hang photo.