With extreme weather warnings and near biblical levels of rain, I doubt many of us have been able to get out climbing much in 2014. Due to the less than ideal conditions, I have spent my time re-watching youtube videos of Southern Sandstone from last summer. Despite yearning for the drier months of 2014 to hurry up and get here, I can’t help but reflect that 2013 was an exciting year for climbing in the South East.
Spring is a notoriously quiet time of the year on the Southern Sandstone as so much of it is un-climbable. However, in February, Barnaby Ventham added Face Me, 7C+, on the Fandango Wall (often the only dry bit of rock at this time of year). This is quite an achievement in two ways as not only is the climbing probably more like 8A, but it is miraculous that another independent line has been squeezed onto this wall! (Video here)
Belinda Fuller also climbed Change in the Weather, English 6c, at High Rocks Annexe above just the one pad. I believe this is the first female ascent of this route, and considering that it was only soloed in 2006 by James Pearson (no doubt due to the fact that the crag is on a hill, and the crux requires moving off sandy smears), is certainly an ascent that is worthy of praise.
As the weather warmed up, so did the potential to get on the rocks a bit more. During the early May Bank Holiday I was walking through Happy Valley with some friends and noticed that the council had done some serious de-forestation work revealing, to my surprise and delight, an isolated boulder. Now this is by no means a southern equivalent of the Grand Hotel boulder, but none the less discovering a new boulder is certainly a rare experience these days, at least in the South East! I returned to what has been named the De-forestation boulder as soon as the weather permitted, and added 5 straight up problems and a link-up from 6A+ to 6C+ .
In June, Matt Tullis completed, on a top-rope, his much-eyed dyno project at Harrison’s Rocks. This is an outrageous, and without a dedicated spotting team and sea of pads, potentially dangerous leap to the obvious break on the prominent overhang of Hangover III. Matt appropriately called it Big Air and graded it English 6c. However, despite the poor landing the problem continued to be tried without a rope by various people, including Matt. The problem was eventually climbed as a boulder problem in August by Seb Powderham, who impressively dispatched it on his first go without a rope and graded it 7C. I believe that Neil Hart (mastermind of the recent font film ‘Out of Sight’) caught Seb’s ascent on camera, which may make it into his anticipated upcoming Southern Sandstone film.
As June came to a close, a heat wave descended on the UK. While the rest of the climbing community were cursing the increasingly searing conditions, in the Southeast those who regularly climbed on Southern Sandstone became excited as lines that rarely dried out came in to condition. There has historically been a pattern of heat waves and first ascents in the South East, which continued in 2013. As the rocks dried out I put up The Cornerstone, at High Rocks, which received multiple ascents in the following weeks and seems to have settled at 7B+.
As the heat wave continued in July, so did the new routes – particularly at High Rocks. Barnaby Ventham added Twinkle Toes, 7A+, a technical and frustrating slab route that is much more difficult than it first appears. Unfortunately, Barnaby slipped off this problem while demonstrating it to a friend later in the month, which resulted in his foot being put in plaster. Although a scan a couple of weeks later revealed that he had not in fact broken anything so his cast was removed, the joke was made several times that he should have called the problem broken toes.
Before Barnaby injured himself he also managed to repeat the legendary Chimera, English 7a, on a top-rope, making the technical and powerful crux moves look easy. He also added Gully Grab, 7B+/C, an awkward and powerful problem (unsurprisingly located in a gully), which unfortunately can be avoided with a large dyno by those with enough height. Finally, I also added Gethsemane, 7A, to the arête right of Pegasus at High Rocks. Gethsemane is the Hebrew word for ‘wine press/squeeze’, which seemed an appropriate name due to the amount of pressing, squeezing and clenching that was needed to climb the problem.
In July Matt Cousins made what is undoubtedly the most significant ascent of the year on the Southern Sandstone by soloing Chimera, English 7a (See UKC News Item). This is not only an impressive ascent in that it requires climbing a technical 7C+ set of moves high above pads, but the near horizontal body position of the crux moves makes predicting where the climber could fall almost impossible. This is followed with a standard sandstone top out – which means muddy and sandy! All in all, while I am sure Matt was rather pleased to send the problem, I think that as his sole spotter I was the more relieved that he didn’t fall.
Matt continued to add to his soloing repertoire in August by soloing several other Southern Sandstone test pieces. Most notable in his haul of ascents were the Harrison’s Rocks classics Woolly Bear and What Crisis?, graded English 6b and 6c. These two are rarely soloed as they combine technical climbing above what can only be described as ugly, boulder strewn landings. At Bowles, Matt also added Temptation, English 6b, to his tally, which involves pulling on shallow monos at an uncomfortable height. Neil Hart also filmed these routes, amongst others, for his upcoming Southern Sandstone film.
Before the summer came to an end, and with it the dry weather, I added The Path Seldom Taken, 7B, at High Rocks in early September. This traverses an often-damp section of rock that had just about stayed dry following the heat wave. While the traverse offered some enjoyable climbing, it unfortunately rapidly declined back into its normal moist state, preventing any subsequent repeats. (Video here)
Competitions (Written with the aid of Matt Cousins)
Competitions have always been popular in the South East, due to the lack of climbable rock for large portions of the year, but 2013 really set a new precedent. This would be a much longer article if I described every competition in detail, so instead I will just extract the highlights from the year.
In September, Boulder Brighton, a wall that had only opened last March, hosted their first competition. It was a roaring success, with everyone enjoying the problems in this new centre, and it is hoped that it will become an annual event kick starting the competition season in the years to come.
It’s been a few years since Craggy Island had their last Boulder Bash competition. Thankfully it returned to the South East in 2013. On the 9th November Craggy Island (Sutton) opened its doors to over one hundred competitors. The setting by Mark Croxall and Danie Rushmer was outstanding as ever and resulted in some rather ‘interesting’ problems for the final. With a disgusting display of power and determination Jon Partridge completed all four final problems in the men’s, while Becky Whaley managed to keep at bay her competitors to win the women’s. (Video here)
However, the undisputed king of bouldering competitions in the South East is Blokfest. This series of bouldering competitions made its début in the 2012-2013 season, combining a 25-block format with live music, and in the autumn of 2013 it surpassed the high standards it set last year. With high quality setting from the likes of Gaz Parry, Mike Langley, Alex Lemel, Kornelija Howick and ‘Rock On’ Dom, it’s no wonder that it has become one of the biggest bouldering events ever held in the UK. The highly successful first round at Mile End in October was reported on here, which was equalled by the second round at the Westway in November, and the third at the Reading climbing centre the month after. One of the major differences from last year is the standard of some of the top competitors, with a number of strong climbers travelling to the competitions from around the country including Nathan Philips, Ben West, Chris Webb Parsons and Leah Crane. This has certainly made for some inspiring finals on some increasingly horrific looking problems! With two more rounds remaining; at The Depot, Nottingham, on the 19th January and
The Castle, London, on the 16th February, it is still all to play for in all the categories.