It's funny how nature has a way of balancing things out - even after a particularly bad winter when Cornwall had snow! We glided into what turned out to be our best summer for a long, long time, giving extended hot spells of dry and bright weather (I even stopped watching the weather forecast for a while!) that allowed for seemingly endless opportunities to get out on the crags & climb. This was particularly beneficial in the wild and remote areas of sea cliffs on the North Devon and Cornwall coast, where these isolated crags can remain damp from year-to-year, and gave us the chance to explore and uncover some of its secrets.
I moved to North Cornwall 17 years ago from the landlocked Midlands, drawn by the isolation and adventure of its sea cliffs and the potential new route possibilities. I have to say I have not been disappointed, and have been climbing and guiding on its miles of stunning coastline ever since and although I still make regular climbing trips overseas, I always look forward to coming home.
The North coast has always had a reputation for serious routes, due in part to the isolation and difficulty of access, but also because - in combination with this - the routes themselves offer additional challenges. The rock quality is often unpredictable and the protection can be sparse/sketchy at best, which requires experience, boldness and good judgement in equal measure. Many routes on the more remote stretches get the XS or HXS grades, which serve to give you an idea of what you're getting yourself into. Needless to say it is also rare to see other climbers!
The north coast is steeped in history, with routes being added over the years by the likes of Pat Littlejohn, Mick Fowler, Dave Turnbull, Martin Crocker & Frank Ramsey (to name a few). All produced some wild and wacky routes (and grades) from Exmoor to Blackchurch, and Tintagel to Carn Gowla, which are guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on the mind.
So as the summer moves into its twilight it has given me a chance to reflect on some of our own adventures and what has personally turned out to be a stunning year of exploration and new routing in the South-west with local climber Lee Bartrop. Here is a taste of the treasures we discovered...
FIGHT OR FLIGHT *** (E5 6a 6b 4b 4a), Willa park cliff Tintagel North Cornwall - 1st Ascent
The mobile phone beeped into life! The text was from the ever-enthusiastic Lee Bartrop and read "Wow, I have found an amazing roof crack". Lee is a Cornish local who is big on adventure and is always out rummaging around the coast hunting down potential new routes and I have been lucky enough over the years to be on the receiving end of some of his great finds. That said, he can be prone to enthusing over some wild potential new routes on rubbish rock devoid of protection in seriously committing situations, and although I have an obsession with cracks, particularly jamming and wide cracks, my initial response was to play it cool until I had chance to see what I was letting myself in for.
As it turned out the roof crack was situated in the underbelly of a huge sea arch/cave in the heart of the massive loose horror show of a cliff that is Willa park near Tintagel, the approach required a short abseil and a huge sea level traverse even to get a look at it. The traverse had been climbed as a new route only a few weeks earlier by Lee and another local climber, Richard Hudson, and gave a 9 pitch HVS which they called "Hunting the Snarg".
We soloed across this in less than ideal conditions to reach the cave and both stood under the arch with our heads at full tilt. "As soon as I saw it I thought of you" said Lee. I had to agree the crack was stunning: it ran from the right side of the arch, through the roof and the escape back to the vertical world was via a totally horizontal roof section on the apex of the arch. I stared at it in disbelief and intimidation. To be honest the whole situation had unnerved me and I needed time to get my head around the commitment of the task. We climbed out via another route that day and walked away to let it settle.
A week or so later we were back, only this time we opted for the 80m free hanging abseil entry instead of the traverse. The problem was we only had a 50m abseil rope, which meant we had to double our climbing ropes through the end of the abseil rope to allow us to reach the base and then pull them down, which meant we were totally committed to the situation with no "get out of jail card" should we have a problem.
I was surprised at the quality of the rock and the gear which allowed me to enjoy the incredible situation. The climbing was superb and suited my style; strenuous 3D moves on jams, arm bars and undercuts led me into a hanging, bottomless back and foot slot in the roof. It was then that I realised we were totally committed. I stared down into what was the only escape route: the wild cauldron of white water and crashing waves. To ramp up the pressure the climbing now got harder; wild moves hanging out in space from undercuts, feet high and shuffling from one constriction to another was followed by a weird reverse move out of the slot and into a wide bridge move before cutting loose. I was fighting to stay on and remain aware of the 3 dimensional options for my feet to gain some drive. I arm-barred the wide offwidth-size crack in the back of the roof, managed to place the huge cam and by the skin of my teeth make the last few down-climb moves to reach a hanging belay on the opposite side of the arch. Amazed at what I had just done, I dared not look up at the roof section that led to freedom, so I concentrated on getting Lee across to join me. He made a fine effort, battling along the crack fighting all the way into the hanging slot, the cruxy moves out of the slot sapped up the last of his reserves and he hung there waiting for the inevitable fall into the void.
We both sat back on the hanging belay under the arch and took in the scene, it was like being encased in rock with the roof casting a menacing shadow over our heads and the wild white waves of the Atlantic ocean breaking against the base way below. I laughed and said to Lee "more people have walked on the moon than have been down here!"
Pitch two proved to be as strenuous and entertaining as the first. The initial moves back up to reach the roof were gymnastic and cramped and from there a fragile-looking flake crack was followed along with some wild contortions under the roof, before reaching a final testing move over the lip to escape to freedom. The move entailed cutting loose with your feet and heel hooking above your head on the lip of the roof, followed by a grovelling, nose-grinding mantle onto a hanging ramp. I felt both stunned and elated to reach the belay.
The last two pitches were a combination of rock and steep grass pulling and although not of any major technical difficulty they are serious as the rock is loose and protection is sparse.
Sat on the grass at the top of the route, we were totally sated: what had we just done? We were amazed we had pulled it off!
The quality, the situations, the climbing. What a find...
Climbing-wise we felt it sat somewhere between Il Duce (Tintagel) America (Carn Gowla) & Caveman (Berry Head) having some of the ingredients of all of them. One thing we both knew was that we had created a classic that deserved to be climbed by anyone with the ability, and are excited to see it repeated and share the experience.
THE WIRE & BEAD THEORY ** (E5/XS 5c), Trewethet cliff North Cornwall - 1st Ascent
The side door slides open unveiling the familiar chaos and clutter that is Lee's van. He rummaged through his "organised chaos" and pulled out a coffee pot and got a brew on the go. Whilst we waited for the brew to boil I noticed in the centre of his dashboard - along with a stash of sheep's wool and bits of his handmade pottery - that two new objects took pride of place: a set of large, smooth beads and next to it a bunch of jumbled wire. "What's all that about Lee?"
"The wire represents my life at the moment," he said. "Disorganised and chaotic, and the beads are to inspire me to be more organised and in control of my life." I smiled, "I like it, there has to be a new route name there somewhere." We both laughed.
Lee had spent most of the summer totally immersed in the darker and rarely frequented side of the North Cornwall coast searching out adventurous new lines and we had met up again to hopefully pick off another quality new route.
This particular area had given up some fine new routes in the previous summer, including a great sea-level traverse we had soloed together.
The route we had come for sat at sea-level in the open box-shaped zawn at the foot of a steep rock ramp and was bordered on one side by Mick Fowler's still unrepeated 90s XS masterpiece "The Urge". The morning sun highlighted its strong aesthetic line; drawing the eye like only cracks can, it staggered its way up the buttress through the bulges from bottom to top leaving no doubt as to which line to follow.
From the first few moves it was obviously going to be strenuous and require some commitment. The whole wall was far steeper than it appeared from a distance and now, with my feet hidden underneath the bulge trying to find drive and my hands feeling above like a blind man reading braille, it instantly started to feel serious. The rock was covered in thin, sharp, snappy pockets and flakes which were devious and required three or four hand changes to find a usable/reliable hold. Protection wasn't forthcoming either, so accepting the fact that a fall was not an option I battled on to reach a cramped niche out left.
By the time I reached what turned out to be the only rest on the route, the rope arced free in space, highlighting the big run out and the consequences of screwing up. I found a contorted rest and reverted to my tried and tested method of shutting out reality by closing my eyes and breathing to slow my heart rate and control the inner chaos. For some reason the wire and the beads from Lee's van came to mind: "Control the chaos, take control." It took a while to arrange a cluster of small wires, which didn't inspire confidence in the sandy, unpredictable rock, but there were no other options. I left them with some trepidation as the next rock bulge pushed me out of balance. I moved up and down at least half a dozen times trying to find the right combination of holds to reach a large square hole, which I thought would take the Camalot 5, but when I eventually pushed the cam home I realised that the sides of the hole were not rock at all, but dried mud...
A bit more upping and downing got me into a position where at full stretch I could scrape the sides of the hole with a nut key to allow the cam to sit better, but it all started to feel like dodgy gear on top of dodgy gear. I have been in this situation many, many times over the years and with experience comes judgement and self-belief in your ability. It's no time to ponder on negatives once you are already in over your head, so I dug in. I genuinely thought it was going to get easier once I pulled over the next bulge...Wrong! I struggled to make the moves up and with foot holds snapping under my feet it all felt a bit wild...shit! Shit! SHIT! COME ON!!! After some worrying moves I finally mantled onto the ledge feeling huge relief and I whooped with elation. "Wow that was brilliant, but boy was I sailing close to the wind." Lee battled his way up and his first words hit the nail on the head, "Who needs cocaine?" he said with a big grin. The route was in the bag and so was the name: The Wire & Bead Theory.
THE URGE *** (XS 5b 5c), Trewethet cliff North Cornwall - 2nd Ascent
We had looked at this wall and the line "The Urge" with its capping overhangs a few times before and after we did "The Wire & Bead Theory". It didn't surprise me that it hadn't been repeated since 1995, as most of Mick Fowler's routes have gained a reputation for their seriousness and commitment on less than ideal rock, but for him to have given this three stars and for it to still not have had a repeat was a sin. I had been new routing in the area with Dave Turnbull some months earlier and he mentioned that Mick Fowler had said he felt it to be one of the best of the routes that he had put up of that style in the area. We didn't need any more encouragement than that and as we were already in the mindset for this type of climbing after our recent activity, how could we resist?
The wall is often running with water and its overhangs are home to birds of prey in the nesting season, so we waited it out until a little later in the year.
We stared at it for quite a while, working out the intricacies of exactly where the first pitch went before Lee got to work. Despite all the warm, dry weather we had had over the past months, and the fact that the wall catches the afternoon sun, it was still streaked with water and felt greasy, so he methodically picked his way through its 5b technicalities doing his best to avoid the water and the damp green lichen to set up a belay about 20ft below the overhangs.
I led through, placing a good cam just off the belay and heading up towards the overhangs. Climbing through water streaks I arrived at the "large dubious block" with wet hands and rock shoes. The only protection I could find before committing to the hard section was one nut in a flared dried mud/rock placement. I pushed on. At the "dubious block" I did my best to paste myself into a position that avoided using it to reach the roof, as it was hanging above Lee's belay. The sloping holds were damp and the rock was greasy with lichen. I couldn't see how I was going to make the moves without using the block, so shouted down to give Lee warning of my intentions, then very nervously spread-eagled across and pressure-palmed off the block to get my feet up. It then became obvious that for me to make the move up and right I was going to have to use the block for my feet. The odds seemed stacked against me; I had wet feet on damp, greasy rock with no protection in sight and was about to commit to 5c moves across the overhangs. The situation had my full attention. I made a decision I was not totally happy with, but couldn't see another option. I wedged myself in position and precariously placed a sling around the down-pointing block for protection.
Lee looked uncomfortable about it and tried to side shuffle on his belay. I moved up as carefully as possible with the help of the block for my left foot to reach the roof. I now had to rock-over rightwards beneath the overhangs, using friction for my right foot, onto the steep greasy slab which hung under the rooves. The hand holds consisted of a very thin vein of quartz, which ran out and disappeared just when you needed it. I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and transferred my weight. A couple of heart in mouth moves up the wet sandy slab followed to reach a rest below a jam crack in the overhangs. I held out my hand to show Lee I was visibly shaking! It felt like the most committing move I had been in for a good while.
The moves up the crack through the overhangs felt strenuous but comfortable, on good solid jams. As I moved leftwards I pulled on a large hold and without warning a whole block the size of a small microwave started to slide into my lap! I snatched for another hold to stay in balance, leaving the block half hanging out of its slot. I got myself into a less precarious position and warned Lee that a big piece of rock was coming down. It hit the rock slab 40m below and exploded into the sea.
As I approached the top I placed what gear I could find and carefully pulled out onto the steep, sloping grass finish and exhaled a sigh of relief. I couldn't see Lee climbing as the rooves hid him from view, so I kept just enough tension on the rope to allow me to feel his progress and hoped he would make it through the crux moves without losing contact with the rock and ending up hanging out in space. Thankfully he appeared through the overhangs with a grin. What a wild ride and an indelible experience from Mr Fowler, the master of cool.
CHIMNEY SWEEP ** (E5/XS 5b 5a 5c 4a), Valley of the rocks, Exmoor - 2nd Ascent
Exmoor is not renowned as a climbing area; it's a bit of a dark secret even in the South West. Whilst it has plenty of rock and potential big routes, many of the approaches are monumental and the rock a little suspect for most tastes. All that said and done, if you are looking for isolated adventures then look no further.
The first time I became aware of Exmoor climbing was in an article in "High" magazine many years ago by the unstoppable Martin Crocker. The shots looked stunning, but further info was hard to find until Pat Littlejohn's updated guide "South West Climbs" came out in 2014, which contained a small selection of Exmoor routes and - more importantly - venues, written by Mr Crocker and provided inspiration for a whole new playground.
The venue that caught my eye straight away was the big cliff of Wringcliff bay with its adventurous multi pitch E5s. One in particular grabbed my attention, "Chimney sweep" mainly due to the mention of it being based around an offwidth crux pitch. After contacting Dave Turnbull, who did the first ascent in 1997, it became clear that it had not had a repeat ascent, plus I could see from the text in the guide that it had a point of aid (for cleaning on lead). It looked and sounded like a proper adventure. Dave also said he was sure he had given it XS not E5, so it sounded spicy! I knew just who to call: enter the trusty Mr Bartrop.
We waited until the nesting season had passed and on a sunny day at the end of July we found ourselves at the base of the impressive wall. The whole face bristled with shale bulges, overhangs, flakes, cracks and debris, giving the feel of an earth quack zone. Trying to figure out the lower pitches and how to reach the infamous offwidth crack high on the route proved tricky. Lee set off on the first big 5b pitch, which proved to be quite intricate, and not overly protected. By the end of the pitch the commitment was starting to show and it was with some relief that he arrived at the belay and brought me up.
The following pitch was fairly short and traversed across an exposed ledge and up a short steep flake/crack to gain a small niche tucked under a small overhang left of the main offwidth crack. The belay was totally devoid of natural protection and I had to hammer home a couple of pegs into fragile, flaky seams to get anything like a reliable belay.
With Lee across and clipped in I set off to tackle the crux pitch. The wall above overhung the belay niche making the initial moves steep and strenuous, forcing technical 3-dimensional climbing on fragile shale holds. Part of me was scared to pull too hard as they were liable to snap, but the steepness gave me no option but to pull as hard as I could to get my feet up. After a couple of holds crumbled under my feet and with no protection off the belay, there were a tense few moves. The wide crack was hidden way out to the right and required climbing higher to gain some protection (first ascent jammed cam found) before down climbing and tackling a wild exposed traverse above the roof on dubious holds to reach hand jams over the bulge at the start of the offwidth crack.
It became obvious from the first few moves why it had earned the name "Chimney sweep" and whilst hanging on one hand jam, legs bridged out wide, I started pulling out loose blocks and shale flakes and tossing them over my head like a cowboy with a bull whip. Strenuous jamming moves through the bulge got me established in the crack proper. The lower section required an assortment of arm bars, jams and large cams for progress whilst driving up with the left leg on the outside of the crack and continuing to chimney sweep as I ascended. Higher up the crack bulged and then widened into a squeeze chimney, which was now devoid of protection all the way to the belay. Luckily I was in my element locking and squeezing into the crack and working around the loose flakes on a combination of chicken wings and leg locks to reach the steep grass and the bomb site which served as a belay.
Lee battled his way up to me and led through up the loose choss, then disappeared behind a short chimney slot. The rope kept running at the speed of an anchor dropping from a boat to the seabed and he soon ran out of rope. I waited a good while for a call... Nothing. I tentatively released the clove hitch from the first part of the belay, the rope disappeared. Then the next piece, and the rope disappeared. Finally I decided that we had just lost verbal contact. A couple of rope tugs later confirmed this and I was off pulling on fistfuls of steep grass and beating my way through blackthorn bushes to find Lee sat in a jungle of bushes belayed to a sapling. We shook hands and laughed at the craziness of it all. From here it was a torturous bushwhack through the unforgiving gorse, bramble and blackthorn back to the coast path and freedom. What's next!?
All the above routes were climbed onsight with a pure adventure attitude and ethic and other than the belay pegs used on the 2nd pitch of chimney sweep, no other fixed gear was used.
About Stu Bradbury