The survivor's guide to sea cliffs
(or how to avoid getting wet unless you want to...)
Sea cliffs conjure up a range of responses and memories from most climbers. They are a curious mix of the relaxed and the wildly committing and adventurous.
For me, that is their enduring appeal. The sheer variety and challenge of the environment, and the fact that you can choose to have a relaxed day's climbing at the seaside, or a level of adventure that you would otherwise have to travel to a major mountain range or remote corner of the planet to experience is unique. Sea cliffs are also infinitely variable; the same crag can be friendly or a intensely exciting depending on the weather and sea state.
Concentration and serious focus are essential on seacliffs. Toby Dunn and Tom Randall demonstrate the attitude on Blackleg E6, Gogarth.
Of course, there is a lot to think about; tides, birds, sea state, changeable weather, rock rendered greasy by salty sea air, the list goes on. However, for me, it is always worth the effort. Days on sea cliffs in the UK are probably the most treasured, satisfying experiences I have ever gained through climbing, equalling having climbed in Yosemite, all over Europe, Africa, New Zealand ... As climbers, we have a precious resource in our coastline, and this article should inspire and inform you to start on your way to being able to enjoy this environment as safely as possible and have as much fun as you can into the bargain; whether you are after a multi-pitch adventure epic, or a quick couple of deep water solos.
This article is relevant to those who are keen to get their first experiences of sea cliffs, but more experienced climbers might find the odd tip - to make their days out on the rock at the seaside pass a little more smoothly - very helpful.
The presence of the sea is the primary distinction between this and other aspects of climbing. It gives us both the atmosphere, and the potential for significant objective danger. As anyone who has done any surfing or sailing will know, the sea demands enormous respect. A little time spent informing yourself about tides, weather forecasts and ocean currents will often pay dividends when you are in a sea cliff environment. A full explanation of these factors is outside the scope of this article, but I'll try and condense some of the most useful nuggets of knowledge into a few tips to get you started ...
Lands End on a peaceful evening.
Top ten sea cliff tips
- 1) Tides. Check the tides, remember they are always printed in GMT, and that it may well be BST and necessary to add one hour. Spring tides mean higher highs, and lower lows, neap tides are the opposite (i.e.: smallest variation). Tidal range can be fairly small - Swanage sea cliffs for example - or enormous: the Bristol Channel has the second biggest range in the world at over 15m. This can be crucial for deep water soloing, tide height can be the difference between a route being safe or extremely dangerous. Access for roped climbing is also often affected: you may have a limited time window in which to get to and climb your route. http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast/tides/ has times for tides around the country, and some helpful information.
- 2) Surf. Check the surf forecast if one is available for your area, the sea state can have a massive effect on your day out, and be the difference between a pleasant mellow day and a gripping nightmare. Some surfing sites also have web cams on beaches, which can give a really good insight into local weather and sea conditions.
- 3) Birds. Check the bird situation: is the route / cliff subject to restrictions? The BMC: http://www.thebmc.co.uk/bmccrag/ should have the latest updates on access. Many sea cliff areas are restricted until the 31st of July - meaning August / September is prime season for these places.
- 4) Running away. Think escape routes: sea cliffs can be difficult environments to climb in and it is wise always having an exit plan if your route does not go to plan: is there a route easy enough for you to climb in any weather? Can you prussic / jumar back up the abseil rope? Can you walk or swim around to get out?
- 5) Look before you leap. Try and find a viewing point for your route before you start to relate rock features to a top or description. Knowing where you are going when you are embroiled in the climbing will make it a more enjoyable experience. If you are strapped onto a hanging belay just above the water with a dizzying mass of overhanging rock above you, it's not the time to get the guidebook out for the first time.
- 6) Drinking. Take water: routes can be long, time-consuming, and the sun reflecting off the sea can turn some crags into very warm places indeed. Dehydration will not improve your performance, or comfort and enjoyment of the route.
- 7) Take precautions. Always take a belay at the bottom of your route, even if the sea appears calm. An unplanned dip due to a boat wake / ‘freak' wave while your leader is mid pitch might seem appealing on a hot day, but is unlikely to prove popular at the other end of the rope. Make sure it can withstand multidirectional loading as well - a wave would lift you up before dropping you down again. A really solid thread or cam / wire combination is ideal.
- 8) Washing. No, not you... wash your gear after close exposure to salt water environments. A good coating of brine and a month in the cupboard will result in an interesting powdery oxide residue covering most of your alloy gear (that's all your crabs, cams etc) and this does not improve their function or strength. Wash in fresh water, and oil cams with a light Teflon based lube, WD40 is not a lubricant (it disperses moisture), and will attract grime to cam springs if they are liberally sprayed with it. Wash ropes as well.
- 9) Strings. Keep ropes out of the sea, not only because its nicer handling dry ropes, but they have an interesting habit of sneaking under submerged boulders if allowed to dangle in the drink. This may result in you having to take a knife to your rope and abandon a section of it. This goes for abseil ropes used for approach as well, stack them out of the way, above the high water mark, with no knots in the end when you have descended them once. This minimises chance of it catching on things when pulled up later in the day.
- 10) Chilling. You are at the seaside... indulge in the bizarreness of combining exciting vertical adventures with beaches / swimming in the sea / ice creams / fish and chips / a cold drink or two!
Helen Freake on Army Dreamers HVS, Pembroke. Image - Simon Richardson.
Top ten gear tips
- 1) A guidebook cover - having a guidebook at the bottom of the route is invaluable, in case your chosen route turns out to be wet / too hard / busy, and on longer routes where it is hard to remember the descriptions.
- 2) Prussic cord / tibloc / ropeman - essential for escaping up your abseil rope should your route be un-climbable or in case of emergency. Re-ascending climbing ropes if you fall beneath a roof may also be necessary - lowering is not an appealing option if it means going straight into the sea! The mechanical mini ascenders are a great deal quicker and more efficient to use once mastered than a prussic, but a prussic is more versatile, and lighter. I would usually carry one tibloc and two prussic loops.
- 3) A lightweight windproof - the modern lightweight windproofs will stuff into a pocket, or into a tennis ball-sized bag to clip to your harness.
- 4) A helmet - wear one. There isn't really any excuse for not wearing one when they weigh about 200grams, are well ventilated and close-fitting.
- 5) Comfy harness with plenty of gear racking - sea cliff routes often require carrying a lot of gear, and longer routes may mean long hanging belays so a super lightweight sport climbing model may start to feel like a false weight saving ...
- 6) Rope bag / bucket / tarp - invaluable for keeping your climbing ropes dry at the bottom of routes, either in a bucket if on a belay suspended above the sea, or a tarp for wet sand. One with rucksack straps you can carry on the route is useful, but it is often possible to clip the bag to the abseil rope before you climb for less encumbrance while you are on the route.
- 7) Comfortable enough rockboots - you are looking for a good snug fit as usual, but perhaps a slightly higher degree of comfort and support for longer pitches and routes. Something that fits your foot shape is by far the most important criterion in appropriate climbing shoe selection.
- 8) Decent approach shoes: sea cliff tops are sometimes exposed, smooth and grassy, it pays to have a pair of approach shoes with a good tread. Fell running shoes have the benefit of also being light so that they are not too much hassle to carry on the route.
- 9) A fairly sizeable rucksack: you'll be carrying more gear than for a day on the grit - weather is less predictable, extra ropes, a bigger rack.
- 10) 60m half ropes - 50m is a false economy, belays on sea cliffs are often a very long way back from the edge, and pitches often long. A fairly skinny diameter rope will cut down on weight and rope drag, which will make life easier at the top of monster pitches.
Andy Turner on Space Cadet E3 St Govans. Image - Simon Richardson
Top Destinations & Classics
This is nothing more than an attempt to characterise each area and give an introduction to some routes there that are really good, rather than a best of list. The areas often vary vastly from crag to crag in character, but take this as a starting point for your investigations and adventures.
Tom Chamberlain on Star Wars E4, Pembroke. Image - Simon Richardson.
Pembroke: generally solid limestone, steep and well protected (again, generally!) best for E1 and upwards, though there are plenty of easier routes at some venues it is in the extreme bracket that Pembroke limestone really shines. (Usually in a metaphorical sense, it's rarely that polished...) Mostly single pitch, abseil approaches.
A selection of classics:
HVS: Heart of Darkness
E1: Rock Idol
E2: Lucky Strike
E3: Pleasure Dome, Zeppelin,
E4: Star Wars, Witch Hunt, The Fascist and me
E5: Darkness at Noon, Beat Surrender, Grey English Morning
E6: Souls, Grezelda Grezelda, Always the Sun
Toby Dunn on Bloody Sunday E4, Pembroke. Image - Don Sargent.
Gogarth: quartzite, very solid on some crags, degenerating to substances which may still be rock but resemble something altogether less solid on others. Fantastic, adventurous routes from VS upwards.
HVS: Scavenger, Concrete Chimmney, Britomartis
E1: North West Passage,
E2: Atlantis/True Moments/ Freebird, the Strand
E3: Kalahari, The Moon, Winking Crack
E4: The Camel, Blue Peter
E5: The Cow, any Main Cliff E5!
E6: The Cad, Alien, Conan the Librarian
Dream of White Horses HVS, Gogarth. Image - Simon Richardson.
Swanage: limestone of a blocky nature, less wobbly than its reputation suggests, but some crags demand a healthy amount of respect. Relatively unpopular, but abounds in fantastic steep, juggy routes, mainly VS upwards. Also abounds in sport routes and deep water soloing.
VS: Silouette Arete, Aventura
HVS: Finale Groove, Lightning Wall,
E2: The Conger (DWS), Tudor Rose, Calcitron
E3: Ocean Boulevard, Soul Sacrifice,
E4: Freeborn Man (DWS, 6c),
E5: Lean Machine, Relax & Swing, Polaris
E6: The Mind Cathedral, Mark of the Beast (DWS, 7c)
Andy Reeve on the classic DWS Freeborn Man E4, Dorset.
West Penwith - (or the bit around Land's End, if you're a Northerner): mostly very solid golden granite, short single pitch and committing multipitch.
D: Alison's Rib
VD: Commando Ridge
S: Flannel Avenue
VS: Little Brown Jug
HVS: Anvil Chorus, Cormorant's Bill,
E1: World's End, Bishop's Rib
E2: Bow wall, Sampson Arete
E3: Raven Wall, Dream, Cain, Grande Plage
E5: Atlantic Ocean Wall
North Devon and Cornwall: very variable in rock types and quality, pillow lava, sandstone, culm, greenstone, slate, sometimes more than one within one crag. Sometimes an extremely challenging environment, although some crags are much friendlier (Baggy Point, for example). Also wild, beautiful and eminently rewarding.
HS: Right Angle
VS: Kinky Boots
E2: Out of the Blue, Heart of the Sun
E5: Darkinbad the Brightdayler
South Devon: mostly limestone, very solid to dubious quality, surrounding the seaside fleshpot of Torquay. Scattered but excellent DWS and sport climbing.
VS: Gates of Eden
HVS: Moonraker, Incubus
E3: Dreadnought, Black Ice
E4: Call to Arms, False Gods, Renegade, Zuma
E6: Caveman, Carribean Blue, Shadow Beast
First sea cliff outing?
If you are deeply unsure about the whole idea of having the briny sloshing about beneath you whilst you climb, here are five suggestions for erm, dipping your toes into the waters of the wonderful sea cliff experience. Also fantastic if you are more experienced but after a fun and profoundly relaxing day out!
- 1) The Bay of Rainbows, Portland. The full abseil in, belay above the sea experience, with short, well bolted sport routes on excellent rock. Beautiful on a calm, sunny day.
- 2) Scrattling Crack VD, Baggy Point, North Devon. A formidably ancient (est 1898!) sea cliff classic. Low angle, atmospheric, in a great area.
- 3) Symphony Crack, VD, Rhoscolyn, North Wales. Similar rock to the better bits of Gogarth, with a lower level of commitment and technical difficulty.
- 4) The Long Traverse S ish, Ansteys Cove, Torquay. An excellent DWS traverse, difficulty depends on tide height - gets pretty steep in places but on the biggest holds you could wish for, and above plenty of water. Some excellent places to throw yourself into the sea on a warm day, and a good view of the awesome Sanctuary Wall.
Images - Toby Dunn (unless where stated.)
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