It all began a long time ago, back in 2004, after I had been encouraged to organise a CMC trip to Lundy, and what a trip; fantastic weather, brilliant climbing and an island full of charm and interest. Fourteen years on and I’m here again, for my twelfth visit, and in the company of the highly estimable Mr and Mrs Wilson, better known as Steve and Rachel. Steve was here for the climbing, while Rachel was acting in the dual capacity of deep water swimmer and Steve’s advisor, particularly in the linked areas of hydration and alcohol consumption, plus the all important matter of sartorial elegance.
Having yet to open his account on the sea cliffs, we decided that Steve would benefit from an acclimatisation trip, so the weekend before Lundy; we planned a visit to Gogarth. In some quarters, eyebrows were raised at this choice of venue, but in the event, the weather turned against us and we had two days on Stanage instead. Being rather a long way from the coast, this wasn’t the ideal training location, but to simulate the sea cliff experience, I did find a Severe called Grooved Arete that required an abseil descent and a semi-hanging belay. Suitably prepared, the following weekend saw us on our way to Lundy.
First port of call was Kistvaen Buttress, which is located on the south coast and offers easy access, along with a dozen, mainly single pitch routes of up to HS standard, only one of which has evaded my previous attempts to climb it. The route in question is Balthazar, a 26m VD, best accessed by The Dark Labyrinth, a rather intimidating traverse beneath overhangs, just above high tide level, which I was hoping we could repeat and thus gain access to my missing route. Alas, even at a lowish tide the strong swell scuppered that plan, so Steve set off on Mount Olive, VD.
After a steep start the route follows an easy groove before making a step up left onto a fine right-trending upper slab. Having committed this to memory, Steve set off and at the end of the groove, omitted the step up left and immediately turned right onto the subsidiary slab. Finding this to be somewhat testing, he reversed to the groove where we did our best to confer above the sound of the crashing waves and the singing of the seals who were hauled out just across the zawn. Having got his bearings, Steve found the way onto the upper slab which offered delightful climbing all the way to the belay.
Our next route was Sour Grapes, HS, which starts on a small pinnacle, not too far above the sea – a fact that, given the incoming tide, seemed to be preying on Steve’s mind. With promises not to hang about, I moved briskly up to the point where Sour Grapes crosses Mount Olive, then proceeded up the lower slab that Steve had inadvertently made a start on. Thin moves that were definitely not V Diff led on to the top.
We concluded the day’s climbing with an ascent of Justine, S, which again makes a steep start to attain what appears to be a slabby corner, but is actually steeper than it looks. This posed little problem to Steve who was well into his stride by now and he romped up it in good style. Full of the joys of sea cliff climbing we made our way to Hanmers, which was once a fisherman’s cottage, and is perched in a delightful location at the top of the hillside overlooking the harbour, and offers superb views along the east coast and across to the mainland.
Red wine, tea and bottled water were advised by Rachel as the ideal rehydration cocktail, and Steve showed no hesitation in consuming significant quantities of all three drinks. The next day dawned wet and stayed wet, so while Steve and Rachel went fishing (to no avail), I stayed resolutely inactive thus saving my energies for when the weather improved. Patience was rewarded when Monday dawned dry, but dull, so we headed off up the west coast in search of Wonderland, which is a newly developed crag that is guarded by a substantial earthy cornice that poses some interesting access issues. The preferred method is to abseil via the adjacent Dihedral Slabs then make a southerly traverse above high tide level to gain the foot of the cliff. The earthy cornice, which extends horizontally outwards by a good three metres, certainly concentrates the mind.
To alleviate our discomfort, I chose to start on Alice’s Arete which climbs the second arête line just right of the first earthy cornice in the picture. This is given the rather curious grade of S 4b, but with a run-out crux and reasonably steady climbing, we thought HS 4a closer to the mark. Once Steve arrived at the belay we then had to abseil back to where we had started, which is the way of things in Wonderland. Starting to feel peckish, we traversed back to beneath the Dihedral Slabs where Steve led Johnny’s Makeshift Harness, S, which climbs the left-hand side of the slabs to the left of the earthy cornice. Back at the sacks we should really have had a Mad Hatter’s tea party, but as that gentleman was absent (I think), we contented ourselves with peanut butter sandwiches. The lure of Wonderland is hard to resist though, so we descended again for me to lead The Knave of Hearts, HS 4b, which climbs the line of stepped corners to the right of Alice’s Arete and proved to be a very enjoyable route. Still, what goes up must come down, so we abseiled off again and headed back to the Dihedral slabs. Lacking his fashion advisor, Steve decided to try his luck with a Mankini, which in this instance was thankfully a Severe rock climb and not a garment (any ladies reading this must show resolve and not let their imaginations run riot at this point). Moving in a suitably smooth, svelte manner, Steve despatched the climb with aplomb, and so we were back at the sacks again. Now for the interesting bit; retrieval of our abseil gear from below the earthy cornice. The 2018 CC supplement suggests that this can easily be done on top rope, but a preliminary study of the area revealed no anchors of any description. Casting our net further we roved around the grassy hillside above the crag, until some 40m back I found a good flat boulder, which once excavated to the rear and side, provided a firm anchor. In the meantime, Steve headed left and found a threadable boulder, 55m back, so deploying both climbing ropes and some rigging rope, we came up with a reliable, if rather stretchy anchor. On the grounds that I am older and probably have a shorter life expectancy than him, Steve determined that I should be the one to test this yo-yo like abseil set-up, so I commenced my bouncy descent. Alas, our choice of line took me to the very centre of the earthy cornice, so a hasty upwards retreat ensued. Adjustment of the take off point saw me on safer ground (everything’s relative) and the abseil kit was duly retrieved.
The forecast for Tuesday was good so an ascent of The Devil’s Slide, HS 4a, was planned. The Slide must be the south-west’s
most prominent rock feature as it looks like a 100m ski jump straight down into the sea. To be honest, the climbing is a bit repetitive, but the situation is outstanding, making it a classic outing. The descent involves a steep walk down a grassy gully to a large jammed boulder from which you make a 55m abseil to a rocky platform at the base of The Slide.
We were a little surprised to find that, due to seepage, the first pitch was wet, so I volunteered to lead that in exchange for pitch two; Steve having already commandeered the crux traverse of pitch three. Normally the first pitch is a romp, but taking a slightly more central line to avoid the wet made it feel unusually tricky. On the second pitch there is a choice of either a delicate white scoop or the rib to its right. Steve chose the latter and made good progress to the belay, where he psyched up for the traverse.
There are a few tricky moves to reach the start of the traverse, which is protected by an ancient peg. It’s in a rusty and dilapidated state, and it seems that someone has tried to remove it, but has only succeeded in turning it through 90 degrees, thus making it even less reliable. Despite being very hard to clip, Steve still managed to wiggle a thin sling through the peg’s eye and commenced the traverse. You wouldn’t think that a climbing career focussed on grunting and udging up strenuous off-width fissures would be good preparation for a delicate, run-out traverse, but Steve swaggered along it in a very nonchalant style and later declared it rather easy, and not the crux. I can think of at least one person who will be shocked at that.
Pitch four is really much more Steve’s style, but I got the joy of leading out on the steep cracks to complete a fine excursion. With multiple teams operating on Albion, Satan’s Slip and The Devil’s Slide, we felt that a slightly more reclusive route was in order, so after lunch we headed for the Devil’s Spine, a three pitch VS 4b. I’d climbed this once previously, in 2010, when I seconded the first pitch, and didn’t remember it being too hard, but it felt more like tough 4c today (good lead Erica). Being round the “back of the Slide” means the routes can be a bit furry, which judging by Steve’s expression was definitely not to his taste.
Confirming his dislike of the sea grass, Steve led a short part of the next pitch to an obvious belay spike then let me have the glory pitch up the spine itself. From below, this can look a little uninspiring.
However, the holds are all clean and the climbing is brilliant as you work your way along the spine.
The weather on Wednesday started off wet, but faired up at lunchtime, and with a stiff NW wind, the crags were bound to dry quickly, so we headed to The Battery where Steve started up Alouette, S, which is usually climbed in two pitches, the first of which follows an obvious stepped right-angle corner, although Steve seemed determined to hug the left edge, rather than the corner itself, which I thought would have been right up his street. When I arrived at the belay I congratulated him on his “Wilson Variation”, at which he seemed to take offence and pointed out that he had followed the guidebook. Having climbed Alouette at least half a dozen times, I was a little taken aback, so I read out the description, which proved my case, but Steve had been going by the topo, where the line is drawn in the wrong place. Ah well, even the best of guidebooks can contain errors. I continued up the delightfully steep and juggy top pitch.
This went really well so I felt it was time to tackle something from Erica’s banned list. When I say banned, what I mean is that Erica has refused to do them; in one case as a repeat, and in two others having seen me retreat from them. In total the list amounts to seven climbs on Lundy, the identities of which will remain secret until such time as I find a willing partner to do them with.
First of the seven to be tackled was The Exorcist (not to be confused with the route of the same name in The Devil’s Limekiln that goes at E3 5b and comes with a description of “a unique and soul-searching adventure that requires great faith in what lies above” – even I’m not that daft). This particular Exorcist is found at the southern end of The Battery, is graded VS 5b, and is described as being deceptively steep. My previous attempt to climb this ended when it started raining, much to Erica’s relief as she clearly didn’t like the look of it. This time round, conditions were perfect; full sun and a strong cool wind, but was I up to tackling the deceptive steepness? Well, once you’re on it, it’s blatantly obvious how steep it is as it’s continuously overhanging for the first 9m. Having previously retreated without falls or rests, I was determined to go for a ground-up ascent, so kept climbing up to either work out a move or place a piece of gear before down-climbing again for a rest. This process continued until I was about 7m up and couldn’t reverse so I got another piece of gear in, then discovered that I couldn’t move up either. Still, I was hanging off a positive lay-away flake and could see what looked like a good finishing hold just 2m above; my only problems were a lack of footholds, a dubious top runner and some very rounded lay-away holds to get me up to the jug. Several attempts later and with strength waning I decided that I didn’t want to take the fall onto the dubious runner, so capitulated and shouted for Steve to take. This gave me the chance back-up the dodgy nut and try again, and again, and again. Eventually, after many attempts and many rests, I contrived a sequence of moves that solved the problem. Having patiently belayed me for what must have been a considerable time, Steve was keen to have a shot at the route. Battling hard and having fought his way to my sticking point, he sensibly elected to leave the last two runners that appeared to be welded into the rock, and with a final display of uncontrolled gurning, he made it to the top – a brilliant effort. As his reward for a clean ascent, Steve then had to lower down to remove the stuck runners and make the crux moves again – think it’s about time we started calling him Strong Steve.
After the strenuous technicality of The Exorcist, our minds turned to a more adventurous objective; an ascent of the Devil’s Chimney, which is the tallest sea stack on Lundy and possibly England. It’s also on Erica’s banned list for reasons of the challenging approach, the uncertain tidal window required to get up and down it, and the movement of the 15 foot high starting boulder (it got washed away!) that has seen the grade of The Original Route change from VS 4c to HVS 5b. However, last year, Pat Littlejohn no less, put up a new route on the Chimney at VS 4c which sounded more do-able. What to do for a warm-up though? Steve suggested the elusive Balthazar, via an abseil approach, so that’s what we went to do, however, elusive routes take a bit of finding and although we ascended a slab of around V Diff standard, it traversed rightwards, where Balthazar is supposed to go left. Maybe the guidebook is wrong, or maybe Steve had done a new route? Whatever the answer, it took longer than it should have and ate into our tidal window for the Chimney, so we abandoned that plan and looked for an alternative. Consulting my Lundy to-do list, Bridge of Sighs, HVS 5a, looked to fit the bill, although it would be like rubbing salt into the wound as it offers good views of the Chimney.
As with Wonderland, this is the work of Graham Everitt, a.k.a. Egg, who has put up many new routes on Lundy in recent years and this route in particular, is one that he has encouraged me to try. Descent of the buttress requires some care, especially towards the seaward end where it narrows and feels quite exposed, so some crafty rope-work is required to ensure safe passage to the start of the climb, which is located a couple of metres down a square cut groove. Once installed at the belay, Steve was very happy as that was the only shady place on an otherwise sun kissed buttress. Add in the lack of breeze and I could foresee warm work ahead. The climb takes a slightly rising traverse above the arch of the buttress on great rock, but it’s very featured, and the best line isn’t clear. The holds are also generally good, but often are side-pulls, which can make it feel quite strenuous, and with sweat glistening on the backs of my forearms, I knew I was probably over-gripping. Still, the climbing was good and absorbing, and initially there were plenty of runners, but as the traverse continued, these became more spaced and less obvious. At one point I wedged myself into a niche to try to get a rest and Steve thought that I’d disappeared into a chimney – what a role reversal that would have been. Progress beyond this point looked difficult and the supply of runners seemed to have dried up, so scanning around for options, I spied a square cut slot up to my left, which was perfect for my #5 Dragon – relief! Buoyed up by this I edged further right to where the route description advises making exposed moves over projecting blocks and flakes to easier ground. I liked the sound of the latter, but the former looked daunting, and again the runner supply had dried up. Spending some time in a stressed position I eventually fiddled in a rattly #1Wallnut, which didn’t inspire confidence, and recognising that on a traverse you’re often only as safe as your last runner, discretion seemed to dictate a tactical retreat. However, downwards lay the sea, so I had to retreat upwards to the eventual safety of the ridge above. So, two failures in two days – how disappointing – but what of Steve, once prised out of his shady corner? Well things started badly with a foot slip within the first two metres, but he held on and with much huffing and puffing, made his way along the traverse. Traverses can be just as serious for the second as for the leader, so Steve was very pleased with the quality gear that he found in the first section, and was particularly admiring of the #5 Dragon, but as for the rattly Wallnut; he declared it to be the worst runner he’s ever seen me place – next time I’ll bring my brass offsets and see if I can fully complete the route.
Friday, our last climbing day and having decided against a warm-up, we headed directly to The Devil’s Chimney. Being surrounded by taller “mainland” cliffs, it’s not easy to view the stack until you actually begin the approach. This initially descends a steep bracken clad slope, from which you need to locate a narrow grassy trod that cuts back sharply to access the steepening spur down which you make a 70m abseil to the sea-bed. The abseil anchor is a comfortingly large tombstone like flake embedded at the top of the spur. With age taking precedence I was first down the spur which is initially grassy, but becomes rockier as it steepens, until eventually overhanging slightly on brittle rock. This lands you in an atmospheric debris laden gully before a final descent down more solid terrain to the sea bed. At this point it’s fair to say that the stack looks quite intimidating.
With a gap through its middle and an alarming lean to the right, Steve was concerned that the stack was in imminent danger of toppling over, but he drew comfort from the fact that we would be avoiding the overhanging east face, which goes at a challenging E6. Instead, our route made a rising traverse to the west arête, which given my clothing choice of shorts and tee-shirt, was very welcome as I was soon into the sun, although getting there was a little precarious with some tricky moves up stepped flakes, followed by a long stride into this position:
Easier climbing then leads up to a commodious belay ledge.
The moves from here follow a steepening crack line with good gear but rather less for the feet than is ideal, so the moves took a bit of working out before I could get into a position to traverse to the south arête. Photography had ceased at this point as climber and belayer were both fully engrossed in their work, especially when what from below looked like a resting ledge, proved to be anything but, and the ensuing moves involved very careful handling of a slim, hollow-sounding shield of rock. Trying to pull inwards on it while stepping high proved interesting, but thankfully a solid flake was soon reached that provided holds and gear, but there was still a semi-mantelshelf moved required before you could get a proper rest. A traverse back left led to a short crack that gave access to the summit, which sports a large flat boulder perched atop a smaller, stubby one, both of which were entwined with multiple pieces of tat that were in varying stages of decay. Tying into that lot, I belayed Steve to the top where he expressed doubts about the grade, thinking it hard for VS 4c. Whatever the grade, it’s an excellent climb, but at this stage, the job was only half done, although with the tide still out, we had time for the obligatory summit shot.
Being public spirited, as well as being conscious of our own safety and the need to be able to retrieve our ropes without too much of a tussle, we made a few modifications to the abseil set up, then commenced the descent.
The abseil was pretty straight forward and nicely exposed:
However, despite our best efforts, it was a two man job to haul the ropes down, but once done, we were onto the last lap; re-ascent of our fixed rope. I had a Wild Country Ropeman for both foot and waist loops, which worked well, but proved quite strenuous, while Steve had a Ropeman and a Shunt, which seemed a less energy sapping set-up. Once up, the abseil rope was coiled and we made our way back across the narrow grassy trod to our sacks where we could finally relax and celebrate the successful completion of our adventure. This was followed up later on with a visit to the Tavern, where we had fish and chips, and Steve took on board the requisite amount of rehydration fuel.
On Saturday, Steve and Rachel returned to Ilfracombe on the MS Oldenburg:
I stayed on for three days on my own; then Erica joined me for anther week’s climbing, during which detailed explorations of both Kistvaen Buttress and Hidden Zawn highlighted the fact that where Steve thought he was leading Balthazar, he was in fact doing his first new route: The Three Wise Slabs, 35m, V Diff – not bad for your first sea cliff climbing trip!