Franco Cookson takes us on a tour of one of his stomping grounds: The Yorkshire Coast
A decade ago there was no climbing documented on the sea cliffs north of Filey. The local guidebook instead focussed its eye on the outcrops in the easily-accessible western part of the North York Moors. For anyone who has spent any time along the Yorkshire coast – on family holidays in Whitby, walking the Cleveland Way, on day trips out to the beach – the absurdity of the lack of documented climbing in this area will be striking. In recent years the wealth of crags along the 50 miles or so of this coastline have gradually given themselves to a broad mix of venues, each unique in character and each endowed with a handful of superb routes and problems.
All the destinations on the Yorkshire coast share a common theme of seaside sandstone. The ocean, even when by itself, gives us a dramatic and turbulent scape against which any experience is magnified. Sometimes this is to the point of terror – the boom of the waves, the insane cackle of gulls, fret on the face. If I say to you "sea cliff climbing", what do you see? It's probably something a million miles away from relaxed Gritstone edges. But the two genres needn't be mutually exclusive and on the Yorkshire coast, they aren't. In the moves, we have a world we know, full of intricacies, subtleties and friction. In the setting, there still lies that raw squawk, putting us all the time slightly on edge. It's a unique setting that is a breeding ground for rich experience.
This article will take you to five crags that are evenly spaced along the coastline. Within them, there is the potential for short Trad, highballing, bouldering and even some steep sport climbing. None of the climbs rise more than 15 metres, but what they lack in physical stature, they more than make up for in unbridled character. The style is unusual. The boulder lines are sharp and the Trad routes enthralling. Often there is a combination of 3D body tension, with aggressive limestone-esque crimping and grit-style slopers. It is without doubt a climbing destination like no other.
The furthest north of the Yorkshire cliffs (for now at least) is also the one with the most remaining potential. Unlike the outcrops and quarries further south, Boulby Cliffs have long been investigated by climbers. The consensus over the years was largely a negative one. The cliffs are about a mile long and 20 metres or so at their highest. The majority of this stretch is raw choss and it is unsurprising perhaps that this strong first impression halted any more nuanced development of the area. What has become apparent in recent years however, is that there is a good selection of high-quality boulder problems and shorter routes hidden in between the swathes of sandy rubble.
New Horizon F7B (F7C+ from sit)
The stupendous arête. Distinctly highball in feel at the top.
Genetic Stress F6C
A great technical problem up the right side of the blunt arête.
Immanuel Bant HVS 5b
A slabby arête that screams out to be climbed. Ergonomic, aesthetic and flowy, boulder mats should prove just about adequate, although care should be taken at the top.
Disney's Bantasia E2 5c
The fine nine metre-high quarried wall at the back of Banter Bay is a deliciously sustained outing, tackling plumb vertical terrain on lovely flat holds. The line of weakness snakes rightwards across the ledges at the top, forming an excellent introduction to North York Moors technique. The direct start is one for the pocket connoisseurs at Font 6A+. There is gear available at the top once the pads start to look a little small.
A fairly steady, but utterly loony solo above the steep hillside.
Boulby Wall H7 6c
It is the nature of Boulby that the best routes are the most hidden. The Boulby Wall is an overhanging face, safely nestled in the back of two other [sic] buttri. The beauty of the climb's situation combined with its position, tucked in one of the diminutive flanks of the cliff, almost makes the line feel inviting. The climbing is however highly modern in its steep and dynamic style and the result of a fall would most likely be acutely serious. Bring sliders, micro tricams and your maddest jumper.
If unique experiences are your thing, then the Maiden's Bluff is not to be missed. The crag is a strange mix of manmade and natural, with the uniform Pex Wall believed to be the remnants of a cutting formed on the Victorian Saltburn to Whitby line. Slightly north and south of the crag, two tunnels mark the points at which the track once left and then re-entered the coast. Where now a steep hillside prevails was presumably the location of the "space railway", long since eroded by the sea. To climb on such a pristine feature, so close to, but yet so high above the sea, is most definitely bizarre.
The style of the climbing is distinctly two types. The lines on the chipped walls offer very delicate and intricate slab climbing, with an infinite number of very poor footholds and sparse holds for the hands. They are however mostly highball in nature. On the other hand, the routes on the natural orange walls are, without exception, very serious and on larger but less trustworthy holds. This split personality of the cliff leaves the bold lines feeling even more unhinged in the shadow of their very accessible and friendly neighbours.
Jugendstil E4 6b / F6C+
A surprisingly physical affair for what looks like a slab. The holds are decent once you find them.
Futuristic Hering Gull Project E8 7a / F8A
The vague line of razors between two sections of blankness, which heads up to a very balancy lunge. The hardest slab of the North York Moors.
Sky Burial E10 6b
The Sky Burial is a place of wild terror, where a fall from the crux means a fall down two cliffs – one after the other. The moves unhinge – first on thumb sprags and then on full outside edge body pivots. The possibility of a hold breaking is not entirely remote and there is not a drop of gear for the crag's full length – only exposure by the bucket load.
Stoupe Brow is one of the few crags of the Yorkshire coast to have received national attention. This is mostly as a result of the exceptional highballs that adorn the two great boulders at its centre. Of particular note are the problems that tackle Barry The Boulder. This huge diamond-shaped block managed to do what we have all wished so many other boulders had done – get stuck into the ground at its apex. The result is a vast winged profile that rises to a monstrous height of around 10m. A quick solo up the easy back of the boulder is well worth it for the look down the terrifying hanging front face.
For those liking a rope and gear, the quarry walls have a good handful of very strong lines. Central Crack (E2 5c) stands on the traditional end of things, with the modern classic of The Waves Of Inspiration (E7 6c) occupying a more modern style of climbing. Unusually for the Moors, there are even a couple of bolted routes next to the Trad lines, which are of an equally high quality and seemingly well bolted.
Pretty much the perfect quarried line at a decent, but not ridiculous height. One of the region's most highly-prized Font 8As.
Piton Crack Font 6A
The crack on the wall facing Barry gets harder as you get higher. Fantastic rock.Central Crack E2 5c
The obvious central crack to the right of an orange roof is climbed, leading to difficult bridging moves up the scoop. Finish direct and fast. Protection is perfect.
Fire Dance f6c+
A delicate choreograph up the square arête, protected by modern-looking glue-ins and a two bolt lower-off. Any further bolting of North York Moors sandstone is to be deplored, but the opportunity to be prancing about on thin English 6a sandstone, in perfect safety for 14 metres, is certainly a rare one.
MYXOMOP E9 7a (F7C+)
The Diamond at its centre. The sustained ultra-highball with several hard moves, some of which are out of the reach of pads.
The Smuggler's Terrace is a place that is scarcely believable in its existence. It is an extensive natural crag, well weathered and hidden from every angle. A great option for windy days, there is enough to go at for several trips and the climbing is not hugely conditions dependent. There are 3-star lines at most grades, from the brilliantly positioned Six of the Best (Severe), through to the plunging line of The Tormented Sole Direct (E7 6c).
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about The Terrace is its aspect. The distant sea swashes Creak Point just down the hill, and with a full 230 degrees of woodland above the crag, you're more or less guaranteed not to see another soul, nor lick of wind, all day. The buttri extend for a quarter of a mile, with numerous worthwhile boulders scattered in between.
Six Of The Best Severe
The pleasant central corner crack is a great introduction to the Yorkshire coast, with a grand feel about it.
The Colossus F7A+
A crag-based rounded arête that offers a long sequence of off-balance slapping to a grand cave. The sit start of Life is Life (F7B+) is possibly even better.
Contraband Crack HVS 5a
A proud sustained crackline alternating between awkward and elegant moves, where mid to large gear is essential.
Psychosis E4 6a
A captivating classic tackling the thin crackline that seems to go on forever.
A Plaice Lost In Time E3 5c
The hidden gem of a crag of hidden gems. The blunt arête offers a lot of beautifully technical climbing.
The Tormented SoleE7 6b
Follow Billet The Kid to the cluster of gear, then break rightwards to ascend the wild fin on its right-hand side. Superb!
Filey Brigg (The Wildcard)
"Sixty-degree overhanging sport climbing on the beach?" I hear you gasp.
Well, it's not quite as good as it sounds. Filey Brigg is one of those venues that really has to be seen to be believed – it's a truly strange place. The crags are just far enough away from the ocean of static caravans to be enjoyable and are approached via a steep muddy bank, followed by a rusty old ladder. The bottom of the crag is a sea-washed rock pool system, with conditions being more than just a little fickle. The rock itself is of an interesting composition, being so unreliable that a special kind of bolt had to be developed.
The climbing too is somewhat unhinged. Big moves between great holds, but so steep you're barely going up. There are however a couple of bays-worth of good climbing, with Watkin's Ale (f6b+) being the crag classic, not to mention the swathes of unexplored rocks further west. I certainly wouldn't put this crag at the top of the "must visit" list, but for a climber who's seen it all, Filey might just have the answer.
When do I go?
The season is pretty much all year round, although conditions will generally be better in the spring or autumn when it's not too hot. The Smuggler's Terrace is best avoided in Bracken Season (June – August), but good conditions can often be found in mid-summer, when the crags' shady aspects and cool sea breeze can work wonders. Similarly, the east-facing aspect of the crags and their proximity to the sea render them both sheltered from prevailing winds and often kept above freezing in winter. It's well-worth keeping an eye on the Whitby forecast and comparing it to other UK destinations – there have been numerous times that conditions have been great on the Yorkshire coast when it has been rubbish everywhere else.
The crags don't exceed 15 metres for the most part and as such a doubled over half suffices for most climbing goals. Most routes either have trees or stakes above them, so there is no difficulty with headpointing/belays. The usual rack of RPs, nuts and friends may be complemented by tricams and sliders, which often prove themselves very useful in small pockets and breaks. If you're going for the highballs then take as many mats as you can. For The Maiden's Bluff or Barry The Boulder you'll be wanting a minimum of three.
The Yorkshire coast is a big day out from pretty much everywhere – even parts of the North York Moors. If you're planning on doing it in a day from Leeds or Newcastle, get ready for a couple of hours driving each way. If you're planning on coming from much further afield, it may well be worth considering the numerous accommodation options available. As Whitby is at the centre of this coastline, the whole area is very well set up for tourists.
There are loads of campsites littering the clifftops, as well as an absolute mountain of B&Bs. A quick search on the internet will locate hundreds of options at whichever point you choose to stay. The atmosphere of much of the coast is very relaxed and wild camping on the plateaus below The Maiden's Bluff or The Smuggler's Terrace is unlikely to gain much attention.
Most of these crags are detailed in Betaguides' excellent North York Moors bouldering book, which also has more detail on the local area and how to get about. The bouldering guide is particularly useful for Stoupe Brow and Boulby Cliffs, as well as documenting several other near-by bouldering spots not listed here. For details on the routes, have a look at the UKC logbook pages, which have the most up to date information on new routes and approaches. All of these venues will be included in the coming North York Moors climbing guide, which will detail routes and bouldering alike.
A car comes highly recommended, but infrequent train and bus services do run from Middlesbrough to Whitby, as well as buses from Scarborough to Whitby. There are buses that drop off just above Boulby, Maiden's Bluff and Ravenscar on the coast. Details of these are also easily found online and walk-ins from these stops are ten minutes or so.