The Finest Crags in the UK & Ireland Lower Sharpnose, Cornwall Mike Hutton in association with
Misha Nepogodiev on Pacemaker (E5 6a) - an outstanding wall-climb that rates as one of the best pitches in the West Country.
By far the best crag on the Culm Coast some might say. Three precariously balanced, yet magnificent fins of rock protrude out into the wrath of the thundering Atlantic swell. Just by the very fact these monoliths remain intact, indicates them to be made of the toughest materials.
Layers of soft shale known locally as Culm have been compressed with the harder sandstone and over many years the softer rock has eroded, leaving behind these proudly standing features. Mother nature has sculptured an extreme outdoor climbing gym along one of the most beautiful parts of the UK coastline.
Misery Goat (E2 5b) - an impressive wall-climb that is endowed with good holds.
It has to be said that this style of climbing will very much favour the athletically fit. Many of the routes follow diagonal crack lines and there is generally an array of other holds for when these fade. In fact, there are almost too many holds and being decisive about what to use definitely pays off before the dreaded pump slowly renders your forearms to jelly. Pegs are frequent and almost certainly past their best, so those with a good head who are happy to place a quick cam and push on without procrastinating are more likely to find the grades a little soft here. There have been many debates about the grades over the years, but a brilliant quote by activist Iain Peter's sums it up for me:
Grading Lower Sharpnose is a tricky one, partly due to geology. If the Middle Fin, for example, were to tip a few degrees south, Lunakhod and Clawtrack would become classic Severes, a slight shift to the north and Fay, Pacemaker etc. would turn into hold plastered VS's whilst Clawtrack would be a desperate full on off-width. In truth, any small movement would dramatically render any grade debate obsolete!
A busy day on the North Fin
Andy Reeve on Fay (E4 5c) on the Middle Fin. A stunning, pumpy wall climb that fires up the face on generally-good holds. The pegs on the route are fast deteriorating but alternative gear options are available...
The Rockfax guidebook West Country Climbs covers one of the UK?s most celebrated, sunny and diverse climbing regions including the magnificent Lower Sharpnose. It is available in both print and app format and covers around 900 of the West Country?s most popular and highest calibre climbs, which span the full spectrum of climbing styles and grades; from committing multi-pitch sea cliff routes, to easy-going inland sport climbs. The rock ranges from the moorland and sea cliff granites of Dartmoor and West Penwith, through the geological weirdness of North Devon and Cornwall, to the multitude of limestone?s on parade in Devon, Somerset, Avon and Dorset.
Photo: Rich Mayfield on Pacemaker (E5 6a) on the south face of the Middle Fin of Lower Sharpnose.
In the February of 1971, Keith Derbyshire set the scene and it wasn't long before the talented Pat Littlejohn got wind and climbed the huge leftward trending diagonal fault line on the south face of the North Fin, christening it The Smile (E1 5a). This was to be the start of his onslaught and he added many fine lines during the seventies.
Chris Nicholson and Nick White after adding the amazing Diamond Smiles (E3 5c) in 1982, got so close to the much-acclaimed Break On Through (E4 5c) on the sunny face of the Middle Fin. It was only down to Chris not being able to belay whilst treading water that cost them the first ascent! It wasn't long before Littlejohn "the machine" moved in on the Middle Fin and in just a few weeks had completed Break On Through(E4 5c), Fay (E4 5c) and Pacemaker (E5 6a). Amazing achievements for their time and routes that still to this day kick off endless debates about their grading.
Alison Martindale on Diamond Smiles (E3 5c)
Soon the Culm was to receive its first E7 when Steve Monks added the thin line to the right of Fay, aptly naming it Coronary Country. Most impressive for the time, as was Martin Crocker's on-sight flash of the route, that to this day still deters some of the country's best climbers.
Finally in 1989, Mark Edwards accompanied by his father Rowland added Sharpnose's hardest test piece. The Monk's Satanic Verses at E8 6c was definitely ahead of its time and until this day has only seen ascents by a handful of very talented climbers. Most notable was Dave Pickford's second ascent in 2000, which saw a monster fall during the upper run-out on his first attempt. Dave confirmed the climbing to be of the 7b+/7c difficulty, so it's likely that Mark Edwards' grade of E8 is entirely warranted.
Sam Hamer on Diamond Smiles (E3 5c), North Fin
One thing can be assured of on your first visit to Sharpnose - you are virtually guaranteed some kind of adventure. If you can spot the buzzing white discs of GCHQ Bude, then you're most likely heading in the right direction. Navigating round the high security perimeter fences and the abandoned world war two airfield can present a few problems, but this is all part of the Sharpnose experience.
As the magnificent fins of rock come in to view, it soon becomes apparent that this crag is all about planning and logistics. It's quite common for first time visitors to be seen walking straight back to their car after realising they have completely misjudged the tides. Even worse, I have known individuals who actually got to the base of the routes only to discover that the tide was going in the opposite direction to what they had hoped for.
Arriving on a cool summers day morning with the tide already on the way out is perfect for a long days climbing. If the tide is sufficiently low, you can access the boulder beach at the base of the North face on the North fin by descending easy grass slopes. It's then possible to walk between the fins for several hours either side of low tide. The North fin is easy to navigate along and has several abseil points along its length, which makes reaching the base very easy when the tide is still quite high.
A climber on Misery Goat (E2 5c), North Fin
On my first visit things didn't end well, as I tried to access the top of the Middle Fin by traversing along its collapsing summit in a feat of stupidity. The Hamer brothers were attempting Coronary Country and I needed to be up top for my photo duties. Opting to abseil off the top of the fin at the end of the day, seemed a much better option than walking back along the teetering ridge of choss I had encountered earlier. It would have been had the tide not been thundering in at a rate of knots. I landed in the sea and made a hasty retreat up the backside of the South Fin.
Of course word got round of my mishap and on the following day a Russian friend of mine encountered some Bulgarian climbers who had got into difficulties and wanted to escape out along the treacherous middle fin after their ascent of Lunakhod. After learning of my antics, they too opted to abseil down and nearly got savaged by the in-coming tide. It turns out this was the chap's second outdoor route and coming from Bulgaria, they weren't familiar with concept of tides, as apparently there are hardly any on the Black Sea! It ended up being a rather a harrowing encounter for the poor blokes, especially for their non-climbing friends who had just turned up to the crag with sandals and some cans of beer. I think their illusions of a nice day by the beach had been shattered somewhat by the brutality of the Atlantic. Either way they survived to tell the tale.
Quote of the day by Misha Nepogodiev who summed up his experience on two of the routes beautifully!
A sharp harpoon out of the blue green sea is no match for the pace of the smiling diamond maker who lives behind the old walls of the lower vicarage
Ferdia Earle on Sea Green (E4 5c), North Fin. A bold wall climb where the holds and gear get better towards the top!
Alison Martindale on Last Laugh (E2 5c) on the North Fin, which has a testing, but well-protected crux.
A Selection of Sharpnose's must do routes
Lunakhod HVS 5a
A monster of a route, which climbs the enormous 45m stepped corner and groove line past the odd overlap, up the gloomy north face of the middle fin. If HVS is your grade bring a huge rack containing some large friends and set siege on one of the Culm's greatest. Care is needed as the start is often damp, but once established the drier grey rock is enjoyed all the way to a magnificent top out on the widely exposed Rabbit Ear's tower. From here a handy abseil can be made down to the boulder beach.
Mascon E1 5a
If you venture round to the forbidding and blank looking North Face on the North Fin, you will discover all is not lost and there is a route for mere mortals. Well, pretty competent mortals it has to be said. The standout wide gear swallowing crack is attained by an airy traverse left from the right seaward end of the fin and should only be attempted at low tide - unless your belayer is accomplished in the art of treading water whilst feeding out the rope. Thankfully the walk out from the top is nothing like the horror show on the crumbling Middle Fin.
A climber on Lunakhod (HVS 5a), Middle Fin. One of the Culm Coast's greatest lines - both intimidating and sustained.
Out of the Blue E2 5b
A great shorter warm up for some of the harder routes on the South Face of the North Fin and a good introduction to the general face climbing at Sharpnose, with the advantage of it not being tidal. A bold, but not hard start on the extreme right end of the fin leads quickly to gear, holds and a steep finish. With a confident approach this shouldn't feel desperate and it has the added benefit of sharing the belay with the abseil point.
Diamond Smiles E3 5c
Almost a direct line through the centre of the South Face of the North Fin, that just for a few metres utilises the leftward diagonal break of The Smile before venturing direct to the top on a crimpy wall.
Break On Through E4 5c
The South face of the Middle Fin is home to the best of the harder routes at Sharpnose and a great place to break into the E4 grade. Break on Through climbs the seaward side of the Middle Fin and whilst never that hard, it never seems to relent at any point.
The climbing is technical and the rock generally sound, but a few loose holds near the top when you're running out of gas will keep you on your toes. Might feel like E3 for the athletic climber.
Andrew Wilson on Out Of The Blue (E2 5b) on the North Fin. A really good and mighty popular pitch that requires care in its lower reaches...
Fay E4 5c
If you found Break On Through a pushover, then you should definitely try Fay. Essentially a 30m stamina pitch that literally climbs direct up the centre of the fin. Nowhere is the climbing that hard, except at the top when you're pumped stupid. There are several pegs and a thread that could completely change the difficulty if these were good. The reality of the situation is that the pegs are not and any opportunity to place alternative gear should be taken whilst you still have the energy to hang on.
Pacemaker E5 6a
This route takes the best line between Break On Through and Fay by joining up several of the leftward rising crack lines. It's definitely not soft touch and is easily one of the best wall climbs in Cornwall
Coronary Country E7 6b
Probably one of the most sought after routes for the high-end climber at Sharpnose, yet because of some guidebook inaccuracies many climbers have been following a less direct but equally good variant that merits a grade closer to E6. Either way it's an outstanding bold wall climb of the highest calibre. Even Alex Honnold said “It's kinda scary...”
Sam Hamer committed on Coronary Country (E6 6b) on the Middle Fin. A high grade testpiece of the Culm Coast that combines some technical and fingery climbing in its mid-section, with a tiring and not overly-geared upper wall.
When to go
Essentially Sharpnose is an all year venue and it's freestanding nature and exposure to the wind means it suffers from little seepage and dries fast. The South facing sides of the fins offer welcome sun on cold spring and winter days. They can get intolerably hot and greasy during the summer, so there is always the option to retreat to the north sides of the fins. In reality,the best routes are on the south faces so this won't always be practical.
The tides are the biggest consideration and ideally you want a low tide 6 to 8hrs before sunset, to optimise the best part of the longer summer days.
It's possible to abseil in from the top of the North Fin and climb the extreme right-hand routes close to high tide. Walking out along the un-stable Middle fin to access routes from the top is highly in advisable.
RockFax West Country Climbs by Mark Glaister covers all of the best routes.
The Climbers Club South West Climbs Volume 2 by Pat Littlejohn is a good guide, but focuses on less of the routes in more detail.
A Climbers Club definitive guide to North Devon and Cornwall is due out in 2017.
Twin 60m ropes are essential as several of the routes are in excess of 40m. There are many pegs on the harder routes, which have seen better days and shouldn't be relied upon. Although wires exist, a big rack of cams is the way forward on this rock type.
Where to stay
There is a cheap campsite at the village of Stibb, which is only 15 minutes drive from the crag parking area
Sam Hamer on Coronary Country (E6 6b) on the Middle Fin
Mike Hutton is an Adventure Photographer and Writer working for the Outdoor Industry.
During the past decade, Mike has travelled to over 30 countries capturing images of climbers in places rarely visited by people. He has accumulated over 2000 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books and on national television. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Geographical Magazine, GQ Italia, Red Bulletin, Rock and Ice, Women's Adventure, The Outdoor Journal, Rockfax, Climbing, Derbyshire Life, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Vertical, Climax, Climber, Summitt, Outdoor Photography and Rock and Snow.
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