Dizzy Heights: Climbing in Dorset and beyond

Swanage: Beyond Subluminal

The Swanage cliffs live in their own little world, down here in the Far South, isolated by distance and Home Counties farmland from the climbing impetus of northerners, and protected (apart from the ever popular Subluminal area) from the London Ďlocalsí by busy lives and lack of experience. Quite simply it is the most underrated adventurous climbing location in the UK.

In the first article ďGetting off the GroundĒ I described a few of the more accessible Swanage crags. This time Iím going to get to grips with something a bit bigger. To start with, I offer a flavour of some of the easier offerings on the big cliffs, and an idea of how you might go about climbing a few of these routes.

Now, if you are a Ďlocalí, by which I mean Swanage is nearer than Stanage, and your experience of trad. climbing amounts to a few routes at Subluminal and Cattle Troughs, a trip to N. Wales, and an occasional foray onto the gritstone, then, ďBeware!Ē No amount of reading about it can prepare you for the leap in commitment that comes with getting to grips with a real Swanage adventure. Maybe a couple of weekends on less unforgiving terrain, multi-pitching in N. Wales say, would be a good investment. Sooner or later though, youíre going to have to bite the bullet: are you going to stay safe, or are you going to become a hairy-arsed, long-necked climber in search of adventure? If itís the former then donít bother with trad. climbing. Much better to get rid of your wires, hammer the climbing wall, get super-strong, and spend all the time you can at Portland, Winspit, Dancing Ledge, Fontainbleau, and all those fantastic crags in southern Europe. Youíll have a great time, do some brilliant climbing, mostly stay warm, and not get really scared. But do you hanker after something more? If you do, read on.

Hints and Tips

Before describing particular cliffs and routes, Iím going to run over a few things Iíve learned from many years of general climbing and a few years specifically at Swanage. Please bear in mind that reading this article is no substitute for experience. If youíre not sure what youíre doing, itís well worth finding someone who does. There are a few possibilities on the Links page.

First a few things to do with getting to your route.

Being a sea cliff you obviously have to approach routes from above, normally by abseiling down one of the established abseil routes. Guillemot Ledge and Marmolata Buttress are hard to mistake but much of the rest of the cliff top is rather featureless. The Rockfax guide is the best for locating the abseil routes; follow the descriptions carefully and you shouldnít go far wrong as long as you remember that all the abseil stakes are fairly beefy, all have a back-up stake, and all are safely and easily accessible once youíve located them Ė no teetering on crumbly cliff edges is required. Once on the rope, you will find that you can get down to a point where you can see whatís what. If all looks well then carry on down, if not, itís easy to come back up and have a re-think.

An abseil rope is an essential piece of kit for Swanage. Abseiling on your climbing ropes and pulling them down is a bad idea, partly because it totally commits you to climbing out up a route, but mainly because the cliff edges are often loose and the belays are set well back; pulling ropes is therefore both difficult and dangerous, and will trash your lead lines. A spare (preferably old) single rope will do but, if youíre going to climb a lot on sea-cliffs, not just here but also places like Pembroke, Gogarth, Devon and Cornwall, I suggest getting hold of a static rope; the advantages of minimal stretch and maximum toughness are considerable. Itís well worth getting a 60m length but you can save some weight by going for 10 mm rather than 11 mm. Mine has hauled loads up El Cap, been jugged on, dropped in the sea, been abseiled on by hoards of people, stood on, dragged over sharp edges, loose rock, and up muddy gullies, and is only just in need of replacement after eight years of hard use.

A safe abseil system, using a prusik as a back up, is also essential at Swanage. Different people prefer different systems; it doesnít matter which you prefer as long as itís simple and it works.

When setting up the abseil, all main abseil routes at Swanage have two stakes (so hunt about in the grass if you can only see one). Make sure you equalise the load between them when rigging the abseil. Also think about where the rope will run over the edge; often it will only be possible to sort this as you go over, but try to keep the rope from running over loose rocks that might be dislodged onto your head. When you reach the bottom, always move well away from the firing line, in case your mate knocks anything off. Wearing a helmet reduces the risk of injury if you do get hit by something, unless itís big, in which case it wonít make any difference.

Hopefully your abseil rope will only be used for descending but if things donít work out to plan you might need to climb back out up the rope. Carrying prusik loops and knowing how to use them is essential at Swanage. Make sure that you have actually practised and not just read about it. Prusiking up thirty metres of free-hanging abseil rope is still a nightmare though. Using proper ascendeurs helps a lot and you can leave these tied to the bottom of the rope to avoid having to climb with them. I also carry a mini-ascendeur (a Wild Country Ropeman) most of the time. If you do have to prusik out, take your time and go gently to avoid the rope sawing on the edge, or jerking a loose rock onto your head.

When youíre both down, sort your rope so that it will pull up easily at the end of the day. Either tie it into a coil, so there is no spare rope to snag, or flake it neatly on the ground. If thereís any chance of waves reaching it (perhaps when the tide comes in) you should definitely tie it up in a coil.

And so to the actual climbing. First find your route. Even armed with the CC photo-diagrams or the Rockfax guidebook, it can still sometimes be tricky identifying routes because the features Ė corners and roofs Ė are quite repetitive. Just make sure that all the information fits, before you get committed.

Once on the route, climb it like any other. The rock at Swanage is quite variable, but is generally good on the more popular routes. However, it is important not to rely on marginal wires because they will sometimes rip out through patches of softer rock. On the classics, you should generally be looking for sinker wires in good cracks; these are reliable. In addition to a double set of wires it is well worth carrying some medium Hexes as there are quite a few wider cracks. I also think a large cam is extremely useful, in my case a No. 3 Camalot. Smaller cams (0.5 Ė 2.5) are handy too but remember that a good wire is always more reliable than a cam. Carry plenty of short and long slings; there are lots of roofs and corners at Swanage and you often need to extend gear to avoid rope drag.

Donít get too obsessed with gear though. The key thing when climbing here is to be in control. Save falling off for when youíve a bit more experience and have moved on to harder routes. Take your time when leading and keep thinking ahead. On the easier routes there are plenty of rests, even though the routes are steep. Remember that holds do break and climb with this in mind, particularly when youíre near the top and just keen to reach the belay. Think about exactly where youíre going and keep re-assessing all the time. It is this steady approach that will keep you out of trouble Ė most of the time anyway.

Now, topping out can be a bit of a nightmare on some cliffs and some routes at Swanage. The rock can be very shattered, or may consist of a pile of limestone Jenga blocks Ė pull the wrong one andÖ For some routes a pre-placed rope is a very good idea, transforming a horrific steep slope of soil and loose rock into an easy hand-over-hand job, but most of the regularly climbed classics are fine once you know what to expect. As already mentioned, itís mostly a case of staying calm and working out whatís solid. Sometimes moving just a metre or so one way or the other can make a big difference so keep thinking about your options. And get gear in near the top if you can, even if the climbing seems easy.

After you get onto reasonably safe ground, the belays at Swanage are mostly stakes, sometimes two but often just the one. There is usually absolutely nothing else. I have yet to find one that I have been unhappy with, which is a testament to the hard work of local climbers, but obviously they do eventually corrode so a good tug is sensible. If in doubt, sitting down and trying to get a grip with your feet will reduce the load on the stake; you can also tie off the spiky bushes quite effectively if you equalise the load between as many stems as possible; but normally the stake belay will be fine. It is worth clove-hitching your sling round the stake to avoid any possibility of it lifting off.

Now, of course, you probably canít shout to your partner Ė although if you take your belay back at the cliff edge you may be able to. It is essential to have this sorted out in advance. The system I use is very simple. If youíre seconding and the rope goes tight Ė start climbing. The leader needs to make sure they are ready to put the rope through their plate as soon as they have taken in all the slack, and it helps if the second uses their head and pays out lots of slack once itís obvious (from the rate at which the rope goes out) that the leader is at the top. Anything else is unnecessarily complicated.

And finally, a word about conditions. The Swanage cliffs can be both sandy and slimy at times. Generally neither of these is a major problem unless youíre trying something very hard, but it can be a bit off-putting. The wind direction makes a big difference - expect greasy cracks when the wind is coming off the sea, particularly on warm, muggy days in summer, and mint conditions when it's coming off the land, when the air is also often dry and cool. But itís all a bit mysterious and often you just have to get on with it Ė all part of the adventure. One other thing to remember is that it is frequently warmer below the cliff-top, certainly if thereís any wind. On cold, sunny days beware of wearing too many clothes, and on warm, sunny days in high summer, donít be surprised if itís unpleasantly hot down on the cliffs.

So now, a few of the more amenable big routes to try.

Guillemot Ledge - East

This is the friendliest of the bigger cliffs. The rock on the routes listed is mainly good and the finishes are straightforward because of the old quarry immediately above. The cliff base is clear of the sea although the bottom of the abseil gets wet. The routes are longer than Subluminal and Cattle Troughs but the cliff is not too scary.

You do have to make a free-hanging abseil to reach this cliff. The little approach gully is fairly easy to find. At the bottom of this are some good ledges for gearing up. The abseil anchor is a bizarre piece of cemented-in plumbing at the back of the gearing up ledge, which looks dodgy but seems sound. It should also be backed up by a large wire in the same place.

There are only a few good, easier routes here, but they are well worth doing. There are also some good E1ís here and some excellent routes in the E2 Ė E5 range around the corner at Guillemot West for future reference.

As usual these routes are listed more or less in order of difficulty.

Cormorant Buttress West (S) [R]

At one time, Cormorant Ledge could only be reached by a direct abseil. Following the collapse of a big pillar it is now possible to reach it by continuing eastwards along the boulder beach from Guillemot Ledge, but only if the sea is calm or the tide is out. The rock here is not as good as at Guillemot Ledge and the finishes are natural so, although the easiest of the routes, donít underestimate this one, particularly the second pitch.

The first pitch is great, with a hard move to start followed by easy climbing on monster holds with plenty of good gear. The second pitch is more serious. The first section, to reach the big flake, is easy climbing but the gear is not good. Once the flake is reached there is a decent thread through a hole and large Hexes or big cams can be used to protect the strenuous moves up the flake. Keep thinking because the moves onto the top of the flake are awkward. After this itís easier but be careful what you pull on.

Ledgend (HS)

The first pitch sticks it right at you with some steep climbing so plan your gear placements. The second pitch has an intimidating start moving out onto an undercut nose, followed by easy but slightly loose climbing, up and across leftwards, with some dubious gear. This pitch is not hard but requires a bit of care.

Tensor II (VS)

This is a tremendous route. The first pitch requires a delicate touch for the traverse under the roof and then some steep pulls to reach the belay ledge. Good medium cams or Hexes at the back of the roof and a good small wire for the last move (if you spot it) makes all this a little less stressful. The crux is the first moves of the second pitch. A brilliant wire in a tiny pocket and a weird home-made peg protect a fingery move up the slab. Above, the climbing is steep but on big holds. The top is solid but it is a bit awkward getting belays. You can construct sound anchors in the cracks in the back wall of the quarry but there are better anchors out to the sides.

Ledgend Direct (VS)

The start, like many Swanage routes, has a couple of hard moves, but theyíre over quickly. The steep corner at the top of the first pitch is more of an obstacle, in fact itís desperate, but does have good gear so you can afford to give it your best shot. Once youíve reached the sanctuary of the ledge on the left youíre at the Ledgend belay; the second pitch is the same as for that route.

Batt Crack (VS)

I've done this but seem to have forgotten the details. On this basis it must be similar to the other VS routes around here - I would have remembered if it was particularly traumatic.

Strapiombo (HVS)

Good, solid climbing with one hard move to pass the big roof. The initial groove, shared with Tensor II, is entirely steady until a metre or two below the roof. Get good gear in here (and extend it properly) and then move right across the wall and make a hard rock-over onto a foot-sized ledge. Part-way through this move your head will be up behind the huge flake that forms the overhang and the back of your head makes a very handy extra point of contact. Udge up to a great rest in a chimneying position and take a breather. From here to the big mid-height break is solid, easier climbing. You can belay here but, if the ropes are running easily, it's perfectly possible to carry on up to the top. The climbing remains steep but positive, and with decent gear.

Mañana (HVS)

If this route wasn't a wee bit bold, it would be rather disappointing, being a bit disjointed. However, the little frisson of excitement coming from making delicate moves above possibly dubious gear, makes it worth the effort. I think the start is probably obvious but if not, locate the very big, rusty peg a few metres up The Heat and start just a little right of this by moving up onto a footledge and shuffling right to make sure you're over a significant drop onto rocks - ha! The next bit is where you don't want to fall off as you step up and right onto a faint rib before delicately moving up to another small ledge. With some cunning you can sort of protect this with small wires but I suspect a lot of inexperienced HVS leaders might not manage this. At the ledge you move right and up quite easily, and get some proper gear, before a couple of quite tricky, and thin, moves where the holds run out. However better holds are only just out of reach and then the final section is okay. If you can't puzzle out the groove you can swing left on steep flakes and finish that way, which is possibly more fun, but one of them is a bit hollow.

The Spook (HVS)

The lower wall is straightforward to the roof. Get some good gear in here but take care to extend it so your ropes run clear of the edge. Pulling into the corner above the roof is intimidating and it remains a steep layback all the way to the belay. By way of compensation the holds and the gear are good. The second pitch goes more or less straight up above the belay. Itís easier and less strenuous than the lower pitch, but less obvious, both in terms of holds and gear.

Have you coped with some of these? Enjoyed them even? If so, itís time for the big one. Bring it on!

The Boulder Ruckle

The Boulder Ruckle is the biggest and best cliff at Swanage. Every route is serious, some are suicidal, but many have brilliant climbing and decent gear. If you can cope here, you can cope anywhere. Just remember, if VS is your grade, these routes are the easiest way out, so choose your adventures wisely. Try a few of these.

Bottomless Buttress (HS)

The abseil for this part of The Ruckle is about ten metres before a kissing gate on the coastal path. There is a small grassy break in the thorny bushes with two abseil stakes above some worn earth steps leading down over the edge. One stake is in the top earth step, the other is just at the end of the thorny bushes. The abseil goes down over some big ledges, which you can see when you reach the edge.

The Bottomless Buttress is a fairly obvious feature (although there are some other undercut buttresses around). The route starts in the main corner. The only problem is that the huge roof on the left (the Bottomless bit) makes it look unlikely. In fact, pulling into the corner is fine. Donít climb too high before traversing across the left wall, at the correct height there are good holds and excellent gear, taking you to a nice ledge around the arÍte. The next bit is the crux; you have to step up left and climb the shallow, thin cracks to the fault. This is balancy and the cracks arenít very good for gear. The second pitch is straightforward but be careful what you pull on at the top.

Jericho Groove (HS)

Make the same abseil approach as for Bottomless Buttress. This route is only a short distance to the East of the abseil. Look for a huge roof at half height, with a boulder jammed in a chimney to the left of the roof. The belay is on the jammed boulder. The first bit of climbing is straightforward with good gear Ė a nice introduction leading into a steeper groove below the roof. The gear remains good but some cunning bridging is needed to negotiate a bulge, followed by a wild swing left on massive holds to get established on the little hanging slab that leads easily across to the jammed boulder stance. The second pitch commences with some steady bridging straight up from the stance but at a tiny overhang go left onto a series of ledges (complete with a range of plant life). The gear is spartan until the final corner is reached but the climbing is simple enough. The foot of the corner provides plenty of gear again but compensates with some steeper and more difficult stuff. Soil does wash down this corner when it rains so expect the cracks to be a little dirty. As the corner peters out the climbing gets easier but, as usual at Swanage, some of the holds are a bit wobbly: test them carefully! A large block is fixed firmly in what might otherwise be an unpleasant finish so aim for this. There are two stakes for the belay, one more or less straight up the slope, and the other a little way to the left in the longer grass. Overall, perhaps a touch more serious than Bottomless Buttress but a good route, well worth the effort.

Old Faithful (VS) [R]

The Old Faithful abseil stake is found by counting fence-posts along the coastal path. There is a straining post 15 along from the start of the fence. Head down from here and youíll find a new tubular stake with a back up stake as well, just down from a clearing in the blackthorn, which is there so you can put your rucksack out of sight of the path.

The abseil takes you down just to the left (looking in) of the route. Pick low tides and a calm sea the first time you come down here to make your life easier. On future occasions a high tide is not a major problem but a rough sea definitely is.

The route takes a steep, wide crack at first. There is good gear in this and in a thin crack just to the right of the main feature. When it gets really awkward it is easiest to swing out onto the face on the left and climb this (a bit precarious) to the last bit of the crack leading to the fault. This fault line runs across the entire Boulder Ruckle and most routes take a belay on it. At this end the fault is quite low so this first pitch is short Ė maybe 10 m. The second pitch is the main event. Climb up the corner to the roof, get some good gear in, and make sure you extend it sufficiently; then make some wild moves around the roof. There are some good holds above the lip but some nifty footwork, smearing out rightwards, is the key. Once your feet are level with the roof you get a bit of a rest and can place good gear. The pitch keeps coming at you but with good rests between the tricky bits, and best of all, the gear is excellent. What a tremendous route.

Silhouette ArÍte (VS) [R]

As you can see from the picture, this is no ordinary VS, even by the astonishing standards of Swanage. In fact the climbing is absolutely fine if you can keep your cool: but can you? Use the same abseil approach as described for Bottomless Buttress. Find the route by finding Bottomless Buttress first and then working along from there. Both the line and description in the Rockfax are slightly misleading for the first pitch. Climb the crack (not much of a flake) to a little ledge, then traverse horizontally right, and finish up a short corner to the big belay ledge. There is good gear in the first crack, small wires protect the traverse, and there is gear in the corner too although I think you have to make a slightly tricky move up into the corner before you reach it. The next pitch is the mad one. Head for the position in the photo, out on the arÍte. This looks desperate but there are hidden holds and gear placements above the break. Start by climbing the corner behind the belay to reach the break. Get gear in but extend it so the angle from your belayer isnít too bad; hand-traverse the break for a bit then reach up for good, hidden flakes. Suddenly everything seems much more hopeful as more holds and some good wire placements appear. The position on the arÍte is spectacular but the holds are great and the gear remains good. Thereís a bit of a move round the small overhang but itís not too hard. Above is quite easy but be careful what you pull on.

The Heidelberg Creature (VS)

This is probably the wildest VS in this list. The first pitch pulls through some really steep jammed flakes but the gear is excellent if you can hang on long enough to put it in. Start up the corner but at the bulge climb across left to the slopey arÍte on the left. From here head on up Ė easy enough but awkward Ė then confront those jammed flakes. Even though itís steep, keep thinking about your feet to save your arms a bit. Eventually haul out leftwards onto the ledge at the fault. The second pitch is really good as well. Pull over the lip of the fault and head up a slabby wall; this is quite easy but sparse on gear so climb carefully. Above is a clean groove / corner with good gear again. This provides great climbing all the way to the top.

Black Sunshine (VS)

The first pitch of this route is at first steep and strenuous, then delicate and exposed; it is very good. You can start either from the left or more steeply on the right, to get established in the main scoop. Climbing this is by no means easy but there are some big hidden flakes on the right above the visible undercut flake, that lead up and across to the end of the roof Ė reaching them is quite taxing though and the gear is not bombproof Ė small wires on the left. Above the roof things change completely. The traverse right is delicate and gear is not easy to come by, so get some in before you set off (full length slings may be needed to keep your rope running freely). And donít try to move up to the belay ledge too soon, keep going all the way to a slabby ĎVí corner with a good crack in the back of it, and go up this on its right side. Move back above the traverse to belay (an old peg low down marks the spot), so you can protect your second a bit more as they come across. Above, the line goes up a few feet to a long narrow overlap running rightwards (passing an old ring peg). Move right about ten feet, place some good gear, and go straight over the overlap on a variety of good holds (there was a small plant just by one of them in 2005). Then go more or less straight up to finish with a bit of casting about to find what gear there is. Easier than the first pitch Ė probably only 4a Ė but donít throw a wobbler at the top!

Finale Groove (VS)

This is an absolutely cracking line, well known as one of the most classic Boulder Ruckle routes. Use the Marmolata Buttress abseil route. This is easy to find because you can see it Ė a rocky promontory Ė from the coastal path. The abseil goes down the deep ĎVí in the east face of the buttress and is long and partly free-hanging. Once you have located the correct corner, the line is dramatically obvious. It is possible to split the pitch at the niche above the fault but itís normally done in one long pitch. Mostly the climbing is sustained but fairly obvious, with excellent gear, but it does need a bit more care right at the top where both the gear and the rock are not quite as good. Right at the very top, above the dodgy peg, it is easiest to step left onto the arÍte for the final metre of climbing.

Tatra (VS)

This is another well-known classic. Despite this, it is hard for the grade. Not one to push things on but it is fine if you keep your wits about you. The route starts up a huge sentry-box and the first pitch is the hardest. Go up the back of the sentry-box and identify the crack running up across the right wall and round the right side of the capping roof. Make sure you get good gear before committing yourself. Round the roof the crack continues straight up, and remains steep. Keep placing gear but donít hang around. The climbing eases and you reach a crumbly grotto with old nests (or new!). Make sure your belay anchors are solid here. The next pitch takes an easy traverse round to a little right-facing corner, where it moves up and hand-traverses the break. There are some good wires before you have to commit to the hand-traverse but then you really have to just go for it out to the arÍte; the reward is a big ledge for the second belay. This pitch can be quite alarming to second. The last pitch goes all the way up the corner above to the top. There are a couple of really awkward bits but the gear is pretty good, although not always above your head. The moves are a bit reminiscent of First Corner at Subluminal.

Aventura (HVS)

Welcome to HVS and a typical Swanage route at the grade, with a distinct crux pulling through the roof on the second pitch. Abseil in, as for Bottomless Buttress. Start at a deep slot/cave. You can start up deep within this slot but it is better to start up the pillar on its left. Climb this for a couple of metres to where there is a good horizontal slot for smallish wires. Then climb round to the right until itís possible to bridge across the slot. Bridge straight up and then pull out across the right wall to a good ledge at the fault. It is possible to go all the way up to the fault, then right, but itís easier to take a diagonal line across to the ledge. There is an amazing thread on the upper lip of the fault, formed by a bi-sected fossil for one of your belay anchors Ė how about that as a way to be re-incarnated? The next pitch is distressingly obvious. Climb up easily but donít try to squeeze round the edge of the massive roof; instead step down, round to the left and go straight over the small roof using big holds above. The rest will seem straightforward after this main event.

Diagonal (HVS)

Mostly very relaxed climbing for HVS with only one awkward bit, but a wandering line and a slightly wobbly top-out, make this a good route for building Swanage experience. It's not in the Rockfax but, if you've got the 2005 edition the line can be traced on the photo on p.284. Start up the corner (exactly on the left edge of the p.284 photo), with steady climbing on good holds, round the edge of the first roof and on until up against the second, bigger roof. Place good gear here (possibly in the back of the roof) and make sure it will stay put when tugged from the right. Traverse across horizontally to a ledge and continue rightwards into the far corner (possibly it's easier to hand traverse the ledge rather than balancing on top of it). Place several bits of gear on the traverse to protect your second. The final few feet up and out via the slot are awkward but short-lived and lead onto a big ledge. Belay here. The second pitch is pretty easy but the rock is not brilliant. Move out onto the square-ish rib on the left, up a few metres, and then step right to gain a right-facing corner. This provides decent gear but the final blocks are not completely solid so take time to bridge carefully rather than pulling hard, with a final rock-over out left and a delicate scamble up the steep bank. Whilst the leader is doing all this, the second should make sure they are out of the line of fire. There is an obvious new (2011) stake out left but the stake above the route is pretty much straight above the top-out, buried in the thorns, and is worth ferreting out.

Lightning Wall (HVS)

The climbing on this route is not technically difficult for the grade and the gear isnít bad either. However, itís a really long pitch, quite exposed (this is Swanage after all), and needs a bit of care to keep the ropes running freely. You may find it easier than some of the VSísÖ or you may not. Use the Marmolata Buttress abseil approach. The routes from here along past Thunder Groove are well-protected from the sea by the boulder beach, but in rough seas, spray will make the routes damp. The first part of the route, up past the fault, is pretty obvious. The important thing is to use slings to extend your gear so the ropes are not pulled into the back of the groove; you want to aim to have the rope running more or less straight from your belayer to the gear above the roof. (One option is to just clip one of your ropes until you are on the traverse, and then use the other until near the top.) Above this is an airy traverse across to the arÍte and a few moves up, which can feel precarious. Make sure you get decent gear but otherwise just keep going; it all becomes more straightforward as you get a bit higher. The finish is solid and you can belay off a mixture of stakes and good gear in the little extra wall at the top of the cliff.

Thunder Groove (HVS)

This is the easiest line up the impressively steep wall to the east of Lightning Wall. The start takes a rightwards diagonal line following a scoop in the base of the wall. The climbing on this section is straightforward if you look carefully for the easiest line (donít get too high Ė the line is below the peg). The gear is a bit spaced but just keep it steady to the Ďpinnacle blockí which is more of a rounded knobby spike. This takes a good sling and the gear is excellent from here to the fault. On the other hand the climbing, up a shallow groove, is much harder. Think carefully about your feet and youíll make things a lot easier for yourself. At the fault, you can get another sling round a juggy hold to protect the pull onto the wall above. After this itís pretty easy but a bit run out to the belay. Take care to make sure your anchors are solid before bringing your mate up. The top pitch steps right from the stance and climbs quite steeply up the wall and into the finishing groove; several smallish wires provide most of the protection.

Jasper (HVS) [Tidal] [R]

This route is just to the west of Old Faithful, so uses the same approach. At high tide, it may not be possible to get across to the route, and in rough seas you wouldn't want to try, even though it is only a few metres. Assuming you can get to it, the route starts up the big boulder. Possibly the right edge is the original route but looks very awkward; straight up the front using a chert spike as a runner seems better if a touch bold. A careful step across to the hanging crack brings bomber wires but also the technical crux, mainly because once you've stepped up there is a noticeable lack of footholds. If you make it to the break then you can take a belay, but unless you've messed up your ropes you might as well carry on. The guide suggests stepping right to pull onto the wall above the break but it seems to go pretty well if you just carry straight on, passing two cracks in the lip. Up above here the climbing is pretty steady but with slightly spaced gear although it does get gradually more challenging, and a little steeper, until just before the top. If you are not so good at keeping your head when adrift in a sea of rock then you might find this quite a tough HVS.

Thunderball (HVS)

This is one of the many extraordinary HVS lines at Swanage; like so many others it takes on unbelievable territory at the grade, so a determined and confident attitude is required for a successful ascent. The route is about 200 m east of the abseil described for Bottomless Buttress. The boulder beach becomes lower at this point and there is a scoop in the cliffs. The roofed corner of Snowdrop is a good feature to look for, and the thread in the lip of the low roof on Jug Index is also easy to spot if youíre in the right place.

The start is outrageously steep. You should be able to reach a jug on the right with feet still on the boulder below, but you need to make some fierce pulls to get your feet above the lip. Fortunately gear is available in a pocket under the lip (I think a 2.5 Friend) and cracks above. The rest of this first pitch is more amenable but the quality continues. Above the fault, the climbing is steady, but intimidating, up to the main roof. Be careful to keep your ropes running cleanly by using slings. The moves, first left, and then up to, the roof, start to feel awkward and cramped but hand and foot-holds are available. Suddenly there is nowhere to go but out; remember itís HVS Ė there are jugs over the roof, so grit your teeth, swing out, and haul for glory. The top-out is fairly clean but, as always, take care with the final blocks.

The Golden Fleece (HVS) [R]

This is an absolute cracker of a route. The start of the second pitch is absolutely wild for HVS but eases after a few moves. Use the Old Faithful abseil route described above. You can get across to The Golden Fleece at any tide but not if thereís anything in the way of waves. Donít go down here at all if itís rough. The start, up a corner, is quite steep and sometimes a bit damp, but there is plenty of gear and the moves are not too strenuous if you give them a bit of thought and sort your feet out. The climbing eases and provides a bit of a rest before you have to climb a sinuous crack to the fault. This is nowhere near as mad as it looks from the photo Ė in fact itís not that steep at all Ė but it might feel a touch precarious. At the fault, belay on the right, near the arÍte. If you ever do this route again then try the first pitch of Mooseís Tooth as an alternative; wild climbing but not significantly harder than the normal start and quite well-protected. However you get there, the belay is on medium wires (size 3/4) around and in the back of the V-shaped niche; make sure you make a solid job of constructing your anchors here. As previously mentioned, the next bit is memorable. On the right of the V-shaped niche is a distinct foothold sticking out at about head height. Getting stood on this is the crux of the route. First get another wire or two in to protect the belay, then launch up over the bulge on the right. Youíll find the holds are alright, but not the huge jugs you might be hoping for. Plough on with determination until you get onto that foothold and the weight comes off your arms. The climbing is easier from here but sadly the gear is not fantastic at first. However, if you carry on, you get good gear before some awkward moves round a flake, and the final bit up the corner above is fine.

Other Routes

Tobacco Road (VS)

If you fancy exploring one of the less well-known bits of the Swanage cliffs, you could try this route. First find the approach to Blackerís Hole; this is an easy scramble down a little gully and some rock ledges, starting from a pleasant, grassy slope. This brings you out on a large rock platform, which is an excellent spot for soaking up the sun. With more manly or womanly exploits in mind, scramble down to sea-level and walk across the wave-cut platform (not if the seaís rough) and clamber up onto the raised ledge below the route. The ramp at mid-height can be clearly seen although it looks more like jutting blocks from below. Up to here is quite easy by the most obvious route. Once on the ramp the vertical headwall is clearly going to be a bit harder, but there are good cracks for gear so step right and go for it. Don't crap your pants if an obvious jug turns out to be loose and rattly - there are alternative holds but it seems to have resisted removal so far... At the top the finish is up a nasty, steep earth bank. For the Swanage devotee this shouldn't be too much of a problem but if you haven't really encountered top-outs like this before then consider pre-placing a rope unless you're feeling adventurous. There are belay stakes above both this route and Ruftyís Roll Up just to the left. Coming across from the start of the descent gully, the first stake is a prominent brown tube, which is above Sport Free World. At the same level further along is the stake above Rufty's Roll Up - use this and then go down the little ridge immediately beyond to find a second stake that is hard to spot because it is low in the grass. This stake is directly above Tobacco Road and should be used as your second anchor for the pre-placed rope. In the little valley further east is a prominent grey tube - this is above Snout and is really too far across to be useful.

Wessex Hangover (VS)

Flake Ledge didnít make it into the Rockfax so this is a route youíre unlikely to find chalk on. Itís also probably a bit of a sandbag at VS. The climbing isnít too bad for the grade, and the gear is fine, but I promise youíll be telling everyone in the pub about this, in too loud a voice, later. Walk west from the ledge at the top of the main Cattle Troughs descent. Go past the first amphitheatre to reach the second amphitheatre, which is above Flake Ledge. Leave your sack here and scramble easily down the centre of the amphitheatre until it looks like it gets hard. Follow a narrow ledge left and down-climb a short V-groove and then easy ledges to sea-level. Follow the wave-cut platform round to the left (looking out) until progress is barred by a deep channel Ė Flake Zawn itself. Wessex Hangover starts by the zawn at a 20í high V-chimney. Climb this Ė not as awkward as it looks. Traverse right under a jutting overhang and climb a short square-cut groove Ė more awkward than it looks. Move right again on a sloping slab until you are about to fall into Flake Zawn. Try to avoid this by pulling up the groove directly above the zawn. Getting your foot across to the block on the other side at an early stage is a good idea. Protection is pretty good all the way but you need to be careful to avoid rope drag. Above the lip is a good ledge and easy ground but the rock deteriorates and you may well want to belay here in order to offer encouragement to your mate. Take care to get solid anchors and donít be afraid to back them up Ė I had seven wires and a cam in my belay.

Astrid (HVS)

This route is probably a soft touch for Swanage HVS but the start is hard and is often rather slimy. It also has one of the more interesting abseil approaches in the area. The top of Black Zawn is very obvious and above the west wall is a clean ledge with two belay stakes. If you look over the edge (or from the other side of the zawn) youíll immediately see why the abseil is tricky: it goes straight down into the sea. When rigging your abseil rope it is best to lower the end until it just goes in the water, then pull it up a couple of metres and rig it at this length so it canít snag underwater. Going over the edge is hairy but then things get worse as you realise that the wall overhangs. You have two options: abseil until you think you might lose contact with the wall, place a wire, and clip it to the abseil rope above your descendeur Ė youíll need about three wires on the way down; alternatively, use your legs to keep a swing going so you can push off the wall all the way down. Things that can go wrong with the second option include but are not limited to: not pushing hard enough and ending up stuck in mid-air; turning 180į and hitting the wall with your back/head thus hurting yourself and ending up stuck in mid-air; mis-timing a push and ending up stuck in mid-air; ending up stuck in mid-air due to some other reason. If you place wires things will be a bit more under control but itís still an awkward abseil. At the bottom is a big thread; clip yourself to this and get your mate to come down. If you placed gear, they should remove it, and youíd better make sure you have hold of the end of the abseil rope to pull them in otherwise you will not be popular. There is no stance, just a bit of a foothold so it makes sense for the leader to come down last and keep their weight on the abseil rope until ready to set off.

This is a really bad place to cock up so think carefully before you do anything: the first person down needs at least some of the rack; you both must have a prusik or other system so you can let go with both hands whilst abseiling; you must be very careful not to drop the ropes whilst uncoiling them at the bottom; and the belayer needs to stack the ropes intelligently so that they will pay out easily. Once thatís all sorted the leader can get going. From here on in, things should be back to normality. As mentioned previously, the first bit is quite hard, but then the climbing above is straightforward all the way to the top.

Quality Street (HVS) [Tidal]

It took me a long, long time to discover the quality of the climbing at Cormorant Ledge. This was partly because only one little section featured in the 2005 Rockfax, and partly because my first ever visit resulted in my personal Swanage epic - everyone has to have one! - involving climbing loose, badly protected, unknown ground, in fading light. However, there are some good routes along here and some outstanding ones. There are also some horror shows...

Quality Street did make it into the 2005 Rockfax, understandably so because this might well be the best HVS at Swanage. It's a little tricky to get to. The best option is definitely to ab in from Reforn Quarry. You can get to it from Guillemot Ledge too, but not at high tide, or if the sea is rough, and it's a long old boulder hop. The Rockfax map and description are pretty clear but you need to be aware that Reforn Quarry and its approach ramp are completely hidden from above. I also need to check whether the stiles are still where they were in 2005. Anyway, once you've found it, tip-toe down the exposed, grassy ramp into the marvellous little haven of the quarry. If you can avoid the temptation of lying down in the sun and snoozing, then find the stake and ab in. There's not much to say about the route; it's continuously steep, on good rock with great holds, and every time it looks like it might get a lot harder more holds come to hand and the route sneaks through all the bulges and overhangs at steady-away HVS. Like all the steep, sustained routes at Swanage, if you spend much time hanging around on big blobs of plastic on overhanging climbing walls then it will probably feel soft for the grade. And it even has a completely solid top-out. What more could you want?

Robud (HVS)

This one is back at Guillemot Ledge but feels much more like a Ruckle route and is not in the Rockfax. It climbs a big groove just to the right of Yellow Belly Wall (E5) which is marked in the Rockfax. The start is in the same place as Yellow Wall (E1) which is also in the Rockfax. Climb straight up the big groove and head to the arete when the groove itself becomes unnecessarily steep and difficult. This takes you clear of the right end of the big roof but then you need to head diagonally up and left above this roof into a broad scoop, via some precarious moves. Gear is not overly accommodating here but there are two pegs in the break above, which can and should be backed up to offer relief. The original route takes a long diagonal traverse left from here but a better option is to continue straight up above the pegs, round a massive protruding flake, into the solid finishing corner of Yellow Wall.

Ambler Gambler (HVS) [R]

Ambler Gambler is, I guess, good rather than great. For those without a CC guide, it's on the photodiagram for Comorant Buttress West in the Rockfax. There is a massive low-level roof West of Comorant Buttress West and where this stops there is another roof at 1/3rd height, and a second, similar roof just down and left. When you actually get there, you'll see a deep sentry-box/slot/cave in the base of the cliff below this second roof. The route starts directly under the left end of the roof, left of the sentry-box, pretty much exactly in the middle of the photo on p.235 of the 2005 Rockfax. It starts with some slightly involved climbing straight up to reach the massive flake crack system, then it's a fantastic romp up the cracks until the rock becomes a bit poorer and a big roof above the mid-height break prevents further upward progress. The traverse right from here is the hard bit, mainly because the break is sandy and friable and there isn't much for your feet. However, there is good gear before you go for it, and more good gear in a crack above the break about 2/3rds of the way along (your second won't be impressed if you skip this gear), and a big belay ledge at the end to reward your endeavours. Possibly a biggish cam will go in the break, if you haven't put it in the cracks lower down. The top pitch goes straight up from the belay to get started, and then I think it goes right a touch to break through the top roof where there's a diagonal crack in it. However, when I did it we went left instead, which was okay but not very nice, so try going right but be aware that this could be anti-beta. Whichever way you go, finish carefully! This top pitch is shorter than the first one but it's still fully HVS. There may not be any stakes but the fence is only about 10 m back.

Rough Boys (HVS)

This is pretty tough climbing for HVS but well-protected and escapable if you can't commit to the crux at the top. Access to this part of Fisherman's Ledge is best via a downclimb of Helix (Diff). It's not totally obvious where the top of this is from above if you don't know it but basically you go diagonally down a bit of a groove and across a rough slab (without freaking out about the big drop off the edge of the slab) which leads to a steep but easy corner. If this all seems a bit stressful check out the chipped foothold partway down - fishermen come down here in wellies! At a big ledge you swap onto the sea-ward facing wall and downclimb on massive jugs. If the tide is in and the sea rough, after a few feet down this final wall it it possible to traverse across to a good ledge in a big niche, where the proper climbing starts on Rough Boys. The first groove is quite technical and a lot easier if you find the best line, which is mostly on the right. If you don't, at least the gear is excellent. There is a large ledge before the final steepening and it's easy to move left and finish up a VDiff but the route goes straight up the very steep crack. Move up to reach a sharp, knobbly jug, and get gear as high as you can. Maybe come down for a rest and then go for it. A big reach or hard moves leave you hanging from jugs and eyeing up the finish. Swing up left on the jugs, get your foot up, and top out before gravity takes over.

If these routes go well then itís time for some E1 action. See Swanage Extreme for more exciting adventures.


...Britain's most under-rated climbing area

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