Surviving Sea-cliff Adventures

© Mike Robertson
Get Out on Rock DVD  © UKC Articles
This brand new UKC mini-series combines words, photos and diagrams to make it easy to grasp some of the trickier aspects of climbing. With the most up to date info possible it uses the stunning images of Mike Robertson and diagrams from Rock Climbing – Essential Skills and Techniques.

The Get Out On Rock DVD (pictured right) is a collaboration between Neil Gresham (top-level climber and Britain foremost coach) and Libby Peter (experienced Mountain Guide and climbing Instructor). It brings you the very latest in rock climbing skills and techniques and provides instruction and inspiration whether you're venturing onto rock for the first time or getting more adventurous with your climbing.

The DVD is available from: Libby Peter's Website

The UK has 11,000 miles of coastline. Take away the beaches, the promenades, the crumbly sections and the boring bits and that still leaves us with an extensive playground that provides some of our most memorable climbing adventures.

Climbing above the sea is both exhilarating and calming but of course there is also an extra degree of commitment and an added seriousness. Here we look at some of the techniques that will help your sea cliff climbing experiences go smoothly.

Big abseils

Part of the allure of sea-cliff climbs if that they are difficult to access except by abseil and at some venues you can't even get a glimpse of the climb until you've committed to abseil down.

Castle Helen is one of Gorgarth’s more amenable sea-cliffs and Lighthouse Arete is the perfect introduction at VS 4c  © Mike Robertson
Castle Helen is one of Gorgarth’s more amenable sea-cliffs and Lighthouse Arete is the perfect introduction at VS 4c
© Mike Robertson

Most abseils at sea cliffs are rigged on stakes of varying length and quality hammered into the soil. You tie the rope directly onto the stake or use a sling on the stake and clip the rope to this, but either way make sure the attachment is secure. Clove hitches work well, especially if the cross of the hitch is placed at the back of the stake. This enables the clove hitch to tighten around the stake as shown here:

Clove Hitch on Stake-1
Clove Hitch on Stake-2

Don't automatically trust stakes, they may have been there for many years and are vulnerable to corrosion. If there's only one it's a good idea to back it up with your own gear if possible like this:

Backing Up A Stake Anchor
© Mike Robertson

Think about what's below you and what the ropes will land on when you throw them down. To avoid dropping the end of your rope in the sea where it may tangle carry the ends down with you clipped to your harness or simply in your free hand as shown on the photo below left.

Abseiling with the ends of the rope in to Mother Carey's  Kitchen. Pembroke  © Mike Robertson
Abseiling with the ends of the rope in to Mother Carey's Kitchen. Pembroke
© Mike Robertson
The belayer is safely attached as Libby  sets off on the delightful Red Wall, Severe, Porth Clais,  Pembroke  © Mike Robertson
The belayer is safely attached as Libby sets off on the delightful Red Wall, Severe, Porth Clais, Pembroke
© Mike Robertson

A simple prusiking set-up  © Mike Robertson
A simple prusiking set-up
© Mike Robertson
Seaside belays

Standing around at the base of the crag isn't always the safest place to be. In choosing where to belay make allowances for the tide and swell plus a bit extra for exceptionally big waves. The belayer will normally be attached to the rock but if the platform is spacious use a long tether so they can still move around to doge any rock-fall.

Some routes start from a very small ledge or hanging belay rather than a platform and these need particular care and organisation. A well organised stance is seen in the photo above right.

Useful skills

The most useful 'just in case' skill you could practise before venturing onto more committing routes is prusiking, this photo on the right shows the basic set-up.

It's a simple process of transferring your weight between two prusik loops attached to a fixed rope (normally your abseil rope). The top prusik is clipped direct to your harness central loop and the bottom prusik is extended with a sling to create a foot-loop to stand in. Then it's a case of stand in the foot-loop, move top prusik up, hang off this and slide the bottom prusik up and so and so. As you gain height add a back-up knot, like a clove hitch clipped to your harness, just in case the prusik fails.

If you can only remember one prusik knot then just use that one but the best combination is to use the ordinary prusik at the top attached to your harness as this is least likely to release accidentally, coupled with a French prusik for your foot-loop.

You probably know the French prusik already (if not you can see it in my other UKC Article on basic abseiling) and the ordinary prusik knot is shown here:

Photo Gallery - Prusik Knot:

The ordinary prusik knot 1

And Finally

Don't forget to check the tides and remember that the condition of the rock can be hard to predict. Sea-cliffs can be frustratingly damp even when it hasn't rained. Keep your options open and all will be well.

Click to buy the DVD

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14 Apr, 2010
Regarding the picture "Backing Up A Stake Anchor" that really a good example of an abseil set up? I would have thought that the stake and nut should be equalized with an alpine butterfly, and the black sling and one screwgate would then become unnecessary and reduce prospective failure points. As it is, that nut would get shock loaded if the stake failed :-o I know everyone does these things differently. Any other views?
14 Apr, 2010
And God forbid a nut should ever be shock loaded. How irresponsible - UKC ought to be ashamed of itself for printing such terrible advice (and from a Mountain Guide as well!). Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children? etc etc
6 May, 2010
A good article, but I think that it is worth mentioning that you should rinse your gear with fresh water after climbing on sea cliffs. Salt water can do some serious damage to climbing gear. I've learnt this the hard way, after getting hit by a large wave at Sennen in Cornwall and not rinsing my gear for a couple of days - two of my HB cams never recovered.
6 May, 2010
No mention of checking tide tables (at least for some routes)?
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