Subject to your choice of spectacles, Hodge Close Quarry in the Lakes is either a pokey, chossy hole in the ground or a quirky treasure trove filled with esoteric gems. This venue surely joins a list of crags, which we might struggle to sell to any visiting internationals other than Caroline Ciavaldini. Yet the hallmark of British climbing is is that books shouldn't be judged by covers and the richest climbing experiences can sometimes be found in the most unlikely settings. It was on that premise that I set off to Hodge Close earlier in the year, armed only with an open mind and an appetite for something different.
I picked my way down the scree slope and descended into a forgotten world. Dashed at the base, the twisted rusty evidence of a 1970s insurance job was slowly surrendering to the ivy. A conspicuously chipped bolt ladder lay next to an unprotected chop-route, showcasing the whacky, 'anything goes' ethics that were coined for the slate quarries during the '80s boom. It made sense precisely because it made no sense at all. The whole place was a symbol of conflict between man and nature. A contradiction of beauty and ugliness. In the modern arena, this was the antithesis of a stereotypically 'good crag', and for that reason I fell in love with it instantly.
I had always dreamt of doing a new route on slate, but like most climbers, I'd figured that the best lines had all been found. But here I was in sleepy old Hodge Close doing double takes as I stared at the back wall above the pool. Was I imagining things or was this not a blatantly obvious target for Deep Water Soloing? The height was perfect, maybe 40 feet to a broad terrace. There were some clear lines, corners, grooves, a flake-crack and an impressive 'showcase', overhanging wall. The only snag would be getting in there, though it was nothing a dinghy wouldn't solve. The water might be on the chilly side but a 'shorty' wetsuit would take care of that. My climbing partner, Anna Taylor confirmed that - other than a few bits of traversing here and there - she'd never heard of anyone DWSing on this wall. It was a devious notion and I couldn't lay it to rest, so I returned and abseiled in yielding an array of brushes and garden tools.
On reaching the wall above the pool, my excitement soon dissolved into anti-climax. It was covered in thick dust and most of the holds came straight off in my hands. However, after prizing away the surface layer, a solid base was revealed and it scrubbed up pretty well. Perhaps it was still on. I set to work and after two full days of intensive 'gardening', I had unearthed what appeared to be a promising DWS playground by anyone's standards. It just so happened that this coincided with the arrival of a major heatwave, which was surely a sign.
The First Order 6c+ (S0)
I came back with my trusty dinghy and the obligatory selection of shoes, chalk-bags and beach shorts. The scene was set - DWS comes to the Lakes! My first target was a slim vertical groove in the centre of the back wall. It had looked technical from the abseil rope and wasn't quite the warm-up I was hoping for. I pulled out of the boat and launched straight into a testing bridging sequence, laughing to myself at my shameful display of over-gripping. I fumbled onto the ledge at half height, re-grouped and the easier upper groove provided a welcome chance to find a semblance of rhythm. On reaching the top, I spun on my heels and ejected into space before I had the chance to think twice. Why had I been so tense on a mere 6c+ above bottomless water? A new venue? Concern for the water temperature? Was I out of practice or maybe it was just that inexplicable fear that hits us sometimes? Perhaps, as DWS guru, Mike Robertson says, you never fully relax until you've been in the water. I'd taken the plunge and now it was time to get down to business.
Clone Wars 7b (S1) & Rebel Alliance 7b (S0)
On cue, it clouded over and the mood changed completely. The pool turned into a cauldron of boiling black tar and the walls looked like some sinister, gothic cathedral. Psyche-out potential was high, but I managed to stay in the frame. The two lines that I'd cleaned on the overhanging wall both appeared to have the makings of DWS classics. Big holds, burly moves and sustained 'out-there' finishes. But which should I try first? A communal start at a conveniently positioned spike, lead me to a point where the lines split. I pause, procrastinate, draw breath, then launch up a series of flat, spaced edges and sloping flakes on the right-hand line. I glance down to the ominous rock shelf, which protrudes below. It appears to be too close for comfort but I'd worked out that you'd just miss it. Soon I'm at the top punching the air, then before long I'm back up at that junction and committing to the left hand line. A slopey traverse, a tenuous undercut move and I'm shaking out on buckets at the base of a hanging groove. I know all the holds but I just can't read it. I try out left, get shut down and just manage to reverse. I try again, this time direct, but I'm wrong handed and the pump escalates as I attempt to stave off the panic. A final desperate attack, the gaston is my last option; it turns the key but I still have the final slopers to contend with. An all-out fight ensues and I manage to crawl onto the summit ledge. It had felt 7c on the day, but I climbed Rebel Alliance again the following week and realised that it was 7a+/b and also what a chump I'd been.
Kyber Crystal 6b+ (S0) & Crystal Maze 7b (S0)
I simply couldn't wait to get back to attempt the two prominent lines on the left wall of the corner. I had hoped that the crag would reveal a quality easier route and the compelling right-to-left flake-crack had the potential to deliver. Sure enough, Kyber Crystal 6b+ is the ideal 'first DWS' being relatively short and straightforward, although you still have to pull in a few places! This route has already had a load of ascents and received numerous comedy splashdowns, including one from me, the first and only time I broke a hold off whilst climbing any of the DWSs at Hodge. If you climb Kyber Crystal then you can't fail to notice the sloping ramp that leads out rightwards across the blank wall. Crystal Maze is perhaps 'the line of the crag', a wolf-in-sheep's-clothes, which requires a potent combination of powerful slapping and tenuous heel-hooking. I'd guessed it would be 6c but it turned out to be bouldery 7b (or V5/6). A great party piece to impress your pals if you're feeling strong, or to skid off sideways and take a body-slap if you're not! I'm going to stick my neck out and put this in my DWS top-10, for sheer novelty factor and strength of the line.
Shock Treatment 6c (S0) & Sinking Feeling 6a+ (S0)
The next routes to go were the short, steep burly corner of Shock Treatment 6c and the surprisingly awkward slim groove immediately right, Sinking Feeling 6a+. These aren't the best DWS routes in the world but they are good choices for those looking for something a little lower in height. The names are a tribute to a friend who warned us of a condition called 'cold-water shock', where your lungs spasm in cold water and you sink like a stone. Needless to say, I won't be returning in January to test this out!
Leo's traverse and down-climb
The final addition to the crag was a fantastic full-width right-to-left girdle traverse, which was made by none other than climbing royalty, Leo Houlding himself. Leo had first looked at the traverse back in his youth, but my recent DWS activities enticed him to finish it off. Note that this includes the ramp of Crystal Maze, so it's as hard as anything else on the crag! Leo also added a useful but tricky-ish down-climb, Second Order 6c, which reverses the top part of First Order and then the broken slab just right of Sinking Feeling. This now means that, theoretically, you don't need to use a dinghy and it is possible to climb all the routes without getting wet, provided you're as good as Leo!
DWS party time!
Sure enough, the heat-wave continued and after my ascents, Social media did its thing and Hodge DWS seemed to gain a reputation as the place to go on a hot day for a bit of climbing fun in close proximity to some water. On a few occasions, there have been 3 or 4 dinghies out on the water and gangs of climbers hanging out on the beach! Top marks go to some enterprising local boulderers, who launched a D.I.Y raft made from two crash pads! It certainly seems to be a tempting option for those living inland, who otherwise face a long drive to the coast. Clearly the style is very different to the conventional DWS spots on limestone sea-cliffs, and it certainly makes for a new experience that you won't forget in a hurry.
DWS is no different to any other type of climbing in that there are associated risks. There are a few obvious do's and don'ts. The list below is not comprehensive:
- Always climb in groups and be on standby for others
- Wear a wetsuit if you're concerned about the water temperature
- Practice jumping from low down before jumping from a height
- If you're not confident about jumping from the top of the routes then climb as far down as possible before jumping, or try the designated 'down-climb'
- The water is deep. A few people have checked for protruding metal spikes and none have been found, but always make your own risk assessment
- NEVER jump from higher than the top of the routes as you risk serious injury
- Behave responsibly. Don't allow DWS to be pigeonholed as tombstoning. Use safe practice in the interest of access arrangements and maintaining good relations with other users of the quarry
- The easiest way to access the routes is by dinghy. Alternatively, attempt the girdle traverse. It is possible to abseil down to the terrace above the routes but this is a faff, as well as being potentially hazardous
- If you don't have lots of pairs of shoes and chalkbags then climb with a small roll-up dry bag clipped to your chalkbag belt
- Have fun and take the grades with a pinch of salt
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