/ Pondering the polish (Avon Gorge)

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Martin Southville 06 Jan 2020

I am enjoying my first forays into outdoor climbing after 2 years of indoor climbing. 

On Saturday I ascended my local classic, Morpheus (HVD) for the first time and I found the polished footholds to be a nasty surprise. I'd been told that Avon Gorge (Sea Walls Area) suffered from the problem but this was my first time actually experiencing it.

Ascending what was advertised as a 4a, I would test my foot on one of the dark, glistening holds and feel hardly any friction. I would hunt around with my foot to discover all other holds within reach were just as bad and then feel a bit stuck.

I had to resort to using my arms in a way that would be described as bad technique in the cosy world of indoors but it felt necessary in the situation. I was thankful I'd played all those "silly" games on the indoor walls like trying to do routes without using any foot holds, only smearing. Not so silly now. 

My buddy and I reflected on the issue after ascending. Years of history have taken a physical toll on the route and the truth is, this is not the 4a it was in 1956. I am 1 of many newcomers, respectfully following in the footsteps of thousands but I am not experiencing what they did. 

Natural weathering is altering all rock, but human activity is also altering it. It reminded me of the preservation vs restoration argument that historians and classic car collectors are constantly wrestling with. We wondered if it was possible to "undo" some of the human bit so that newcomers can continue to experience something closer to those before them?

I did my research...

A thread at https://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/rock_talk/corrective_action_for_polished_holds-526018 mentions that Tom Proctor experimented with hydrochloric acid on polished holds but got so much stick for it he abandoned the project. That thread is interesting but is difficult to read because of the usual UKC bumf that every 2nd comment is a sarcastic remark or a wry suggestion to do something extreme. But ignore the boring trolling and there's an intelligent exploration of the nuances of the argument. 

I looked up the issue on The BMC's website and found an article from 2016 (https://thebmc.co.uk/limestone-holds-grips-polished-acid-solution) which did get a lot of supportive comments and some criticism before being subtly outed as an April fools joke in an easily missed footnote, which I bet many readers haven't noticed. 

I also found another BMC article from 2007 (https://www.thebmc.co.uk/access-qa-gritstone-erosion) which contained the list of Simon Panton’s "10 Commandments" for preserving what we love. I enjoyed reading that.

In summary: Even though there tends to be a consensus that if the friction could be restored without modifying the shape of the hold, it would be a good idea to do so, no method of undoing the polish (chemical or mechanical) is risk-free enough to gain popular support. There's always a chance that a protective layer is removed from the rock and a new phase of accelerated corrosion is started which would lead to the undesirable affect of the shape of the hold being changed, which nobody wants.

I agree with those who think online route descriptions and beta should be updated to include warnings about the polish so that climbers can choose to climb elsewhere or attempt the route knowing there is an additional challenge involved. I understand now that the words "popular" and "limestone" might have been clues to experienced climbers but they were too subtle for me to get before now. 

I post this as new outdoor climber enjoying the discovery process and I hope my experience can help those similar. 

Safe and happy climbing,

Martin

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Trangia 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

I remember climbing at Avon in the early 1960s, and we thought it was polished then! There was one route in particular called Piton Route, which IIRC was graded Severe. It was one of my first Severe leads, and the polish made it scary particularly as in those days we had no modern protection, and our footwear was Klets.

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Oceanrower 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Avon Gorge? Pah. That's nothing.

You want to try The Cuttings at Portland!

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d_b 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Trangia:

Piton route is appalling for the first 4 or 5 moves, then becomes merely polished later on. Presumably the majority of climbers get to the initial traverse then back off.

To the op: learn to use your feet and the gorge gets a lot less intimidating. When the holds are small and polished you need to commit and press hard with your feet. It is tempting to be tentative but that's the wrong way to deal with it.

I assume the bit that shut you down is the corner on the second pitch? Stepping right onto the arete and slab to the right is much nicer although more exposed.

No acid required.

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mountain.martin 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Good post, I climbed some easy - mid grade routes at Avon in the past and agree a lot is horribly polished. The routes on suspension bridge buttress are much nicer, or they were 20 years ago.

> I understand now that the words "popular" and "limestone" might have been clues to experienced climbers but they were too subtle for me to get before now. 

Could be a clue in Avon, but if you drive down the M4 to pembrokeshire you will find plenty of mid grade routes with very little polish (apart from the foot traverse of army dreamers).

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Iamgregp 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Indeed, polish can render what would have been an enjoyable easy climb to a horrifically worrying slip fest.... Really affects the grade!

But...  fear not, as your climbing progresses and you get onto progressively harder routes the polish problem gets less - the harder the route, the less people have climbed on it, and the people who have climbed on it will use better technique and move their feet about on the holds less.

In short, don't worry, this happens but crack on and it gets better and better.

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JimR 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

It might be worth remembering to spit clean your shoes before starting! You don't learn that partic skill on indoor walls ;-)

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henwardian 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Interesting read. My two cents would be that it's nice to have warnings about polished routes but that I personally avoid them like the plague. There is so much rock in the world that I feel no need to go and get hacked off on a horribly polished route just because it is a "classic". The last few times I've been sport climbing on limestone, I've just looked at the date the routes were equipped in the guidebook - if it's over 10 years old I just go to another sector pretty much.

Obviously this approach doesn't work if you live in England, have polished rock nearby and rather have to suffer through it because there is nothing else. So I guess I would say, commiserations and why not move to northern Scotland? There is loads of room, the climbing is fantastic and I'm always looking for more partners!

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Tom V 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Wow! That's a relief! From what I'd been reading recently I thought it was only gritstone that suffered from polish.

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Al Randall 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Don't let it put you off.  Once you progress to harder grades there is less polish and what polish there is becomes easier to deal with. Avon Gorge has some of the finest technical routes, at least on limestone, in the UK and there are not many places that offer multi-pitch climbing that is so easily accessible.  Be warned however that the character of the rock, with one or two exceptions, does not lend itself to natural protection and pegs are the norm.

Al

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Kid Spatula 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

The Chute at Ilkley has the single most polished hold in the history of polish. It's like a glass sheet that has been covered in teflon and then oil that has been sprinkled with microscopic ball bearings.

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Doug 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Kid Spatula:

there were holds like that at Chudleigh on my only visit some 40 years ago, I hate to think what they are like now

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PaulJepson 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

The polish is taken into account and a few routes have been upgraded (The Arete is now a Severe in the new guide, and Piton Route is given VS). Morpheus doesn't warrant more than HVD even with the polish; just something you have to get used to in Avon or skip a few grades ahead. If you think Morpheus is bad, I'd avoid the Idleburger Buttress area like the plague (and the 6bs in New Quarry; they're dreadful up until the 3rd bolt). 

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Phil79 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Doug:

> there were holds like that at Chudleigh on my only visit some 40 years ago, I hate to think what they are like now

Some of the lower grade stuff is, as you remember, appalling. Although it doesn't seem to be any worse now than when I first climbed there 15 years ago.

The slightly harder routes (and these not frequently top roped) are generally fine.

I think trad limestone is generally pretty unpopular these days, so hopefully the 'rate of polish' is reducing!

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GrahamD 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Most inland limestone will feel 'polished' compared with climbing wall holds.  As others have said, it requires clean shoes and positive footwork to climb.  Stick with it.  Further eroding the rock to temporarily enhance holds is certainly not the answer.

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leland stamper 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

We were out climbing just down the road at North Quarry on Saturday and I have to say conditions(damp, seeping with odd patches of mist/drizzle) were not exactly ideal which may well have added to the slippery experience you had. It was along way off being "like Redpoint" and my partner threatened not to come outside again until June. We both had moments of fear on something we would find straightforward in dry conditions.

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krikoman 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Polish, try Troutdale Pinnacle, it's the biz.

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Anotherclimber 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Thanks for using ascended and ascending rather than sent and sending.

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oldie 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Phil79:

> Some of the lower grade stuff is, as you remember, appalling. Although it doesn't seem to be any worse now than when I first climbed there 15 years ago.....I think trad limestone is generally pretty unpopular these days, so hopefully the 'rate of polish' is reducing! <

I certainly remember many easier routes being badly polished by 1970. I think Drummond's guide to the Gorge had the words: "so has it not aged", presumably referring to the fact that once something is fully polished it can't get any worse.

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Basemetal 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Anotherclimber:

> Thanks for using ascended and ascending rather than sent and sending.


Is that where those terms come from?

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Chris Craggs Global Crag Moderator06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

I can't remember precisely when, but the about 20 (or 30 years) ago many of the Gorge cliffs were shut for about five years while they installed some big drains/sewers or something like that. When the cliffs reopened much of the friction had returned - I put it down to acid rain. Of course over the next few years they all got glossed up again,

Chris

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Cusco 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Polish is great.  It focuses the mind and one's technique. A bit like climbing in the rain. And narcicists can admire their reflection on the way up (or down).  It's amazing what you can climb with careful, sensible footwork. 

Come down to Chudeigh for the joys of Wogs, Sarcophagus Seventh Veil Direct, The Slot and my all time favourite Loot!

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Bobling 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Good to see you back Martin!

As d_b said was it the corner?  I can't remember much other note worthy polish on that route but as someone else said the conditions at the moment probably would have made it feel worse.

Have fun finding all the other local gems!

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Donny M 06 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

This is a great post and a lot of thought has gone into it. I can see you’ve ventured into outdoor climbing and have just unfortunately had it a little tarnished By sea walls routes and thought you’d explore a solution but what I believe, a little prematurely. 
 

I live in BS3 and my foray into outdoors was cycling to the gorge (6 years ago) and just watching. Then eventually I jumped on some routes with a mage. I didn’t know about guide books so I didn’t really climb ‘classics’ I just went for what looked fun and really enjoyed these obscure routes amongst the bushes.

When i finally got a book I saw all the hype over ‘sea walls’ where you climbed and really got to understand what polish is. Some amazing climbs there absolutely ruined by polish, but, what do you expect when you can park your car 10 foot from the start of a multi pitch trad climb, 1 mile from the city centre, and then jump on a starred, beginners route. 
 

I’ve climbed in Europe and America but I’m always drawn back to the gorge. The thing is I believe it’s made me a better climber. My friends who climb harder onsites than me everywhere else regularly get knocked down a peg as I crank my way up slopey limestone. It’s also meant when I get to grippier rock it feels a lot easier for me. 
 

My advice is to carry on utilising the gorge, there are hundreds of routes there, a lifetimes worth. Yeh Morpheus and Gronk are worth an annual run up, but check out the other areas, morning slab, suspension bridge buttress, even the Leigh woods side, much less frequented and comparatively better grip, but in the long run you’ll be grateful you learnt in nasty Old Avon Gorge where times are tough, the traffics loud, and the hold glisten in the sun. 
 

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Martin Southville 07 Jan 2020
In reply to Anotherclimber:

> Thanks for using ascended and ascending rather than sent and sending.

I watch the videos from EpicTV Climbing Daily on YouTube and they use "sent" and "sended" a lot. It took me ages to understand what these terms meant in the context and now I do realise, I find them jarring. 

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Sean Kelly 07 Jan 2020
In reply to Cusco:

You missed out Barn Owl Crack, as delightful a polished climb as anywhere!

Great training for Avon.

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Cusco 07 Jan 2020
In reply to Sean Kelly:

Barn Owl Crack, Great Western, Leek/Reek and Chudleigh Overhang are only reasonably bad compared to the others I listed. But then Barn Owl Crack often has a bees or wasps nest in situ...

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Martin Southville 08 Jan 2020
In reply to Bobling:

> As d_b said was it the corner?  I can't remember much other note worthy polish on that route but as someone else said the conditions at the moment probably would have made it feel worse.

I don't remember the corner on P2 being a problem. I think I did go quite far up and right taking me high up the slabby bit before stepping left across to the belay ledge but I did see that a lot of people would have taken the low path when moving left across that slab and then up to the ledge.

The bit that really stuck in my head as a moment of feeling like I'd run out of ideas was the chimney bit on P3, the bit with the old peg that's been hammered flat so it can't be used. There's 3 big notches along the right-hand ridge that are so step-like it looks like it's going to be an absolute cake walk from below but every one of them was giving no grip. To the right of the ridge it falls to a slabby face with a polished foot hold that I ended up using with a fully-extended reach of my right leg. It did hold me so I think I naturally tensed up my body to create a lot of vertical force instead of applying any kind of lateral force that might have slipped.

As I watched my buddy lead he took a long time feeling around before completing that move and I honestly began to suspect he'd not noticed the notches on the ridge. He explained they were too slippery and sure enough, when I got there I agreed.

I forgot to mention in my original post that a fine mist was falling during P2 and P3 and there was no direct sun to warm or dry the rock. I think we might possibly have experienced the worst conditions for climbing Morpheus. I'd like to do it again in the summer. 

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leland stamper 08 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Better off at Brean til we get a bit of dry weather

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d_b 08 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

I think we are talking about the same bit of rock. The cc guide gives you a 25m pitch and an 18m pitch that lead to the ledge. Using 60m half ropes it's pretty easy to run those together into one long one.

Pitch 3/2 is pretty disgusting but secure as you can wedge yourself in. A couple of m above the belay there is a way to escape to the right, which let's you trade secure but polished thrutch for easier exposure. I can see why you didn't go for it if it was drizzling though as it's still a polished move to get established.

Sleepwalk, the severe next door is easier technically but a bit run out. One to look at on a sunny day when you feel confident.

I was serious about the footwork though - it needs to be bang on for polished limestone. I the found the Neil Gresham masterclass videos were very helpful when I started climbing that stuff.

Another tip: Avon tends to get less polished the further from the sea walls you get, except for suspension bridge buttress and Giants cave buttress.

Finally, don't climb liverbird buttress. It may only be a severe but it's serious and unpleasant.

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PaulJepson 09 Jan 2020
In reply to Martin Southville:

Basically most of the crags around Bristol are not great for sub-HS climbs....

I've just been looking through my logbook from when I started and I wouldn't particularly recommend anything closer than the Gower at around VD/S. Symonds Yat and Fairy Cave have some alright options but my advice would be to climb sport locally (Wye Valley and South Wales sandstone) to accelerate your strength/technique and hone your trad head/gear on trips further afield (Peak, North Wales, Cornwall, etc.). 

Once you're climbing VS then the options open up at Wyndcliff, Wintours, Shorn Cliff, Goblin Combe, etc.

Once you're climbing HVS then the Suspension Bridge has some corkers. 

If you know someone already climbing these higher grades then second as much as you can but don't forget to leave some of the good ones to onsight!

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