Dizzy Heights: Climbing in Dorset and beyond

Dorset is the spiritual home of Deep Water Soloing. Initiailly there was the realisation that certain routes could be soloed (usually after a successful conventional ascent and with a bit of a headpoint frame of mind) with the possibility of a wet landing rather than the usual bone-breaking contact with solid ground that is the fate of the unsuccessful soloist. Bit by bit, people actually started to take these falls and, more recently, it has become apparent that, given a moderately capable splash-down technique, you can hurl yourself at, and off, routes well above your onsight capacity in a ground-up style, gaining height bit by bit until success finally arrives. This mentality has unleashed DWS as the summer activity of choice for many of the stronger locals and a good number of visitors too. I count myself as more of a dabbler really but managed a few more sessions this year so that I think I have just about enough insight to put together an article on the subject.

I've started an attempt to keep track of the fickle conditions on some of the DWS crags. Lulworth, in particular, is sometimes almost unclimable. It would be a great help if you could add brief comments.

First, the venues:


Climbing: The king of the Dorset venues with two massively overhanging slabs of limestone poised above good water, plus a fair bit of low-level traversing.

Best Grades: F7a to F8a but with decent traversing down to about F6b

Sun: South facing so all day sun but it's always shady in the caves.

Conditions: Suffers noticeably from greasiness varying from bone dry to almost completely unclimbable. Contrary to poular belief the only significant factor is the wind direction; offshore winds are good (NE to NW) and onshore winds (SW to SE) are bad.

Tides: Best on Neaps when the tide level doesn't matter much, although the slab under Mark of the Beast sticks out further on a low tide. High Springs make the routes feel just a little less high but low Springs make the water depth questionable.

Access: Officially, the Lulworth Estate do not allow climbing (reflecting reasonable concerns about tourists being lured to their doom) but in practice there is no access problem.

Connor Cove and the Funky Wall at Swanage

Climbing: A set of excellent routes, mostly on gently overhanging ground. The height makes this a more intimidating venue than Lulworth although the cruxes are not all high.

Best Grades: F6b to F7b

Sun: Sun all day.

Conditions: Sometimes slightly greasy but the rock gets much more of the sun than Lulworth so it's not usually a significant problem.

Tides: Best on Neaps. A high Spring tide reduces the height of the cruxes a touch but the traverse along the base of the Freeborn Man wall will involve wet feet. The Funky Wall is slightly less intimidating on a really big tide. The water is still good on almost all routes even on a low Spring tide. At low tide it it possible to traverse in to The Vanishing and other routes in the cave without getting wet (I'm not sure if this applies to all low tides or just Springs).

Portland East Coast

Climbing: Lots of lowish stuff across a wide spread of grades but very tidal and in the shade after lunch.

Best Grades: F6b to F7a

Sun: Sun in the morning. Although the coastline gets sun until early afternoon the routes (and splashdown spots) tend to go into the shade quite early. This is a perfect pre-breakfast location.

Conditions: I've not climbed here enough to know - conditions have always been okay when I've been down.

Tides: Many of these routes need a high tide and quite a few need a high Spring tide (over 2.0 m) to give an adequate water depth.

Portland White Hole

Climbing: There's some excellent climbing here although it's less friendly than the East Coast in terms of both height and grades.

Best Grades: F7a to F7a+

Sun: Different parts get sun at different times but the chill out ledge is definitely an excellent evening sun affair and this often fits with finding good conditions.

Conditions: Can be greasy. This is a classic summer evening venue when the sun has had a good chance to dry the rock.

Tides: High tide, preferably Springs but it's not essential. Being near the Bill, it's an exposed bit of coast so make sure that it's suitable for swimming - you don't want to end up in France!

Hidden Quarry at Swanage

It's been recommended to me but I haven't visited yet. Several routes in the F6a to F7a bracket so I will put this on my hit list for next year.

Dancing Ledge at Swanage

Climbing: Pretty gnarly.

Best Grades: F6c to F7a+

Sun: Lots of sun.

Conditions: Can be greasy.

Tides: Big Spring tides

The 2005 Dorset Rockfax covered the main areas and routes so if you've got that then it's a good intro. However, the DWS is not in the 2012 edition - it's only in the DWS guide (see below). The CC guide to Portland is more or less comprehensive as far as White Hole and the East Coast and Lulworth are concerned, and presumably the imminent CC guide to Swanage will cover all the DWS there (no, wait, it's delayed again and now the new Rockfax is out with even more Swanage trad. so the CC are screwed). However, the best information is in the Rockfax Deep Water guide by Mike Robertson. This has bags of useful general advice from one of the main developers of DWS plus all the DWS in Dorset along with the brilliant venue of Berry Head in Devon and a selection of other venues in the UK and around the Med. On the other hand, this guide is only any use for DWS trips whereas the other guides are useful year-round and cover all the same route information.

General Advice


Often there will be climbers around who know the area well and can offer advice but if you come off a route and hit the bottom then it's your fault! If in any doubt then you need to get in the water and have a look - goggles help a lot. A visit on a low spring tide will give even better information. If you're not familiar with the effect of tides (maybe from sailing or living by the sea) then you must get your head round the rapidity with which the water depth changes. Nothing much happens for an hour or two around high tide - sometimes for much longer with the unusual double tides along the Dorset coast - then, when the level starts to drop, it does so more and more quickly. The main change only takes a couple of hours so if a route is depth-dependent then it can easily go from "still pretty safe" to "far too shallow" in the time it takes to swim out and grab dry kit. The Admiralty Easytide site provides 7 day forecasts in graphical form, which is really helpful for seeing the way in which the water depth changes. You need to select the relevant ports which are Swanage, and Lulworth, and Portland. You also need to know what the swell is going to be like so have a look at surf reports for Kimmeridge at Magicseaweed (scroll down to the shaded table for the clearest info).

I guess it's pretty obvious that you need several pairs of rock shoes and several chalk bags. In fact, climbing in wet shoes isn't too bad - although getting the handholds wet is considered bad form - so chalk bags are usually the biggest problem. It is possible to make chalk bags from a sandwich bag and a piece of wire but chopping up an old waterproof and doing some sewing is better. The ideal DWS chalk bag doesn't have a fleece liner so dries much quicker than an ordinary chalk bag but at the moment no-one seems to be making bags like this. To save wasting chalk, the best solution (applies for normal climbing as well) is to put your supply in a plastic bottle; this makes it easy to dispense in small amounts. Use a funnel made from the top of another bottle to get the chalk into your supply bottle. Board shorts of some description seem to be the only clothing required but it isn't always sweltering in Dorset on DWS days (particularly since Lulworth is best on a northerly wind) so a rash vest, or just an old T-shirt, isn't always a bad idea. If you get really serious then there are some super-thin neoprene tops available e.g. O'Neill that might be particularly nice early season when the water's still freezing. Whatever the temperature suncream will be essential for most. A rope is handy at a few venues and a few routes are approached by abseil so a harness and abseil device will be required. Don't forget your towel, and at the end of the day you will have a manky pile of wet shoes, shorts and chalk bags; top tip - bring a big plastic bag.


I mentioned in the introduction that a moderately competent splashdown technique was an asset. The water is soft - but not that soft. From below 4 or 5m, it doesn't matter much how you go in. Landing on your back will sting a bit but no other damage will be done. From twice that height it is possible to hurt yourself so a bit of technique is a good idea. 90% of the time, falls are pretty controlled and landings will be feet first. Point your feet, legs just about straight, and either get your arms down by your sides or up above your head. Down by your sides is probably more instinctive but above your head reduces the chance of leaving a hand sticking out and stinging your palm and tends to make you look up, which reduces the water going up your nose and protects your upper lip, which can get forced up by the water. Try both and decide what works for you. Water up your nose is quite a noticeable problem so you need to breathe out hard as you go in. Again, this will probably take some practice. If you take an awkward fall then it's down to the proportion of cat genes as to how badly you land. If you can get upright, that's good, if not then slicing your way in rather than landing flat is what you need to do, or tucking up. I can't help you with this much. You can get some practice by doing some somersaults and flips and stuff from a low jumping point. You should only take falls like this from dynos or if you fail to control a swing or if a hold breaks. The latter is unlikely at the Dorset venues; the former can be avoided by picking your route and/or backing off dodgy moves of this nature. You'll have to make your own choices but don't be put off too much. 'The Fear' is mostly psychological. Here's an inspiring little video that shows big falls into water are more fun than you might think.

The Fear

This is really the crucial factor in DWS. If you can achieve a top-roping mentality, despite being 10m above the sea, then you are no longer restricted to routes you are reasonably confident of flashing and can get cracking on ground-up attempts of pretty much anything you fancy. Without this mentality, DWS days will always be disappointing, occasional forays, and a swift return to use of ropes will be the result. I only consider myself qualified to comment because I've found this so difficult myself. Here are a few suggestions based on my own experience and the tentative progress I'm making in the right direction. When I've fallen off the last move of Beast a few times, I'll update this page with the definitive advice on the subject.

1. Climb steep and hard: It is just difficult to get the best out of the Dorset DWS unless you are climbing about F7a. I'm not convinced that you can really do more than have a bit of a play around if you can't manage this grade. And it's mostly stamina on big jugs rather than crimp strength that's needed. Falling off is a really important objective so you don't need to be amazing but you will struggle to get the mileage in if your arms blow out on the first route you try and don't recover for the rest of the day.

2a. Practice falling. Jump and/or deliberately fall from increasing heights. You may need to jump a lot from each height because the aim is to reach the point where a particular jump feels normal and not scary. Go as low as you need to achieve this at first and don't move to a new, higher, jumping point until you no longer need to do any psyching. A falling tide can be helpful in achieving incremental change (but keep an eye on the depth obviously).

2b. Pick your venue and fall off lots on some low stuff: Portland East Coast is a good choice although the need for a high Spring tide is a pain. If tides are not conducive then there are various suitable low traverses at Lulworth. The idea here is just to get used to falling in - not the height but the whole getting wet thing. You need to pick problems which you definitely can't flash. This should be towards the end of a session (or after a sport day) because, if you're anything like me, then removing the option of stepping off or resting on a convenient bolt will make you try really hard not to fall and therefore you will get insanely pumped. If you actually like falling in the sea then you may not need to spend much time on this but it is still useful to realise that, at the moment of detachment, you have a lot of control over how you come off.

3. Combine the Above: When you can both jump off the top of the routes without fear, and casually fall off low problems into the sea, you are ready to try falling from higher. Don't start flashing lots of things; get straight on something way too hard for you so that you fall off without getting too high. Then gradually bring the grade down until you are falling off near the top. Good routes for this include:

Adrenochrome (F8a) at Lulworth. You need to be able to do the first half of Horny L'il Devil, then move up to a jug, get a sidepull out left, and make a massive move for a big hold, which should see most taking the plunge - about 5m.

Shark Hunt (F6c) at Connor Cove. Best approached via the John Williams traverse from the bottom of A Bridge Too Far (abseil in). The traverse is not a foregone conclusion but it gets really steep and pumpy round the corner. It's a clean fall into very deep water - fall is 4m to 8m depending on your stamina.

Never Kneel to Skeletor (F7c+) at Lulworth. Steady up to where it gets steep (provided conditions are okay) then it quickly becomes both powerful and technical and extremely steep so mortals shouldn't last long. About 6m for most; try not to fall sideways!

Nightmirth (F7c) at White Hole. This gets really hard as soon as it diverges from Mirthmaid - 4m or 5m.

Bare Reputation (F7a+) at Portland's East Coast. Most of the hard climbing is sideways so you get increasingly knackered without gaining height - 4m

Octopus Weed / Tentacle Master (F6c/7a+) at Portland East Coast. Largely horizontal so each move does not increase the fall potential - 4m

4. Maintenance: If you have a session or two without coming off you can quickly slip back into old ways, and each Spring as the sun gets strong but the sea remains chilly you may feel reluctance towards the embrace of the sea. In which case, repeat the steps above!


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

For more information, feel free to contact me.