Dizzy Heights: Climbing in Dorset and beyond

Swanage: Getting off the Ground

Swanage is a good two or three hours closer than the Peak for most of the twenty million or so people with the misfortune to reside in the south-east. And yet, while Londoners queue three deep for routes at the Popular End of Stanage every weekend of the summer, most of the Swanage cliffs lie deserted, the only competition for routes coming from the fulmars and guillemots. Can there be any logic to this? Well, yes; there is some.

All the above statements are true, but let me try to persuade you that things are not all they appear.

Most of the climbs are in the harder grades but, if you can climb Hard Severe there are plenty of great routes to try, and if you can manage VS then there are loads.

A lot of the crags at Swanage can only be accessed by big, scary abseils, but at Cattle Troughs the climbs are reached down a dead easy scramble, and at Subluminal, although you have to make a short abseil to get in, there is a straightforward escape route should your original plan prove too taxing.

There are certainly a good few tonnes of tottering choss at Swanage but most of the good routes are on solid rock. The loose finishes of a few of the classics have been known to unnerve some people but – with a bit of inside info – you can avoid these experiences until you’re feeling suitably spunky.

And yes, Swanage does have a bad reputation for accidents. Why? Because it’s a very easy place to bite off more than you can chew. To some extent this is what it’s all about: true adventure as an antidote to the unremarkable experience of so much of 21st century life. On the other hand, a bit of an epic is one thing, serious injury and death is quite another. Making good decisions is important when climbing at Swanage. And good decisions are a function of accurate information and appropriate experience. These pages attempt to provide more of the former, so you can build up more of the latter. And where better to start than the most popular crag at Swanage.


This is the best place to get used to typically steep Swanage climbing, and the sometimes fiddly gear placements in the Jurassic limestone cracks, without the distractions of scary abseils, intimidating overhangs, loose and brittle rock, and horrific top-outs.

There is a big, rocky ledge above the climbs; dump your gear here. You can get a view of some sections of Subluminal from the buttresses that stick out above Slip Road and Baboon if you want.

Unless you’re first on the scene, someone will probably already have set up an ab. rope. If so, it generally makes sense to use it. Some people get all coy about this but no serious climber is going to object to you using their ab. rope, so don’t worry too much about finding the owner if they are not hanging around on the ledge. Do check their set up before you trust your life to their rope though. If you are rigging your own rope make sure the load is equalised between two stakes. Finally, the usual ab. goes down High Street so make sure no-one is climbing it before you set off.

Now, most of the Swanage crags require an abseil approach so get your abseiling system sorted out here so you don’t have to worry about it later. Take down only what you need for the climbing – no trainers, rope bags, or rucksacks please. If it’s cold then the second should make sure they’re going to be warm enough, and the leader can cunningly leave a spare jumper near the top of the route. Get down there, and get on with it!

Here’s a brief list of a few routes at Subluminal that offer good training for later adventures. I have tried to put them in some kind of ascending order of difficulty to help with decisions but remember all these routes are short so they really pack it in for the grade. They are mostly hard right from the first move and many need fiddly wires placed from strenuous positions on their lower sections. If you haven’t climbed here before then pick something well within your grade to get started. If that goes well then you can try something a bit harder. Because of the intense nature of these routes, you should be fine on the hard bits of bigger routes at the same grade as those you can cope with at Subluminal.

  • High Street (Diff);
  • nice climbing with good gear.

  • Curving Crack (S);
  • good bridging practice.

  • Bypass (S);
  • starting up Slip Road also makes a good climb.

  • Avernus (S);
  • an entertaining outing with easy climbing – if you’re used to this sort of thing!

  • Second Corner (S);
  • this is a lovely climb, hardest at the bottom. The gear is good at first, then a bit more spaced at the top.

  • Balcony (HS);
  • some technical moves but they are protectable.

  • First Corner (S);
  • great practice for Swanage VS corners. Dead hard but well-protected.

  • Botany Bay (VS);
  • properly steep and you have to hang on to get gear in too; do something to warm up before you jump on this route.

  • Freda (VS);
  • the start is hard but the peg gives something to aim for. Above is easy but requires a steady head.

  • Slip Road (VS);
  • fiddly gear and an intimidating crux but it can be fairly well protected with a bit of care.

  • Spreadeagle (VS);
  • moving into the main groove is tricky but nothing compared to the last few moves, which are distinctly technical and/or awkward, so make sure you get good gear in.

  • Baboon (HVS);
  • the crux, pulling right round the overhang, is utterly desperate, but can be well-protected (a missing block explains the upgrade by the way).

    Just a few more things before we move on.

  • Watch out for rough seas; waves sometimes reach the ledge at the base of the routes.
  • Get used to climbing across the gaps in this ledge - it's good for you.
  • Cattle Troughs

    This is the other ‘easy’ area at Swanage. The rock and the finishes here are more akin to the bigger cliffs but the climbing on the easier routes is generally less strenuous. The access is also by an easy scramble (and it is easy – no abseiling allowed!) so the commitment of the main cliffs is not a factor here. However, the starting ledge is much closer to the sea than at Subluminal, so stay away if it's at all rough.

    Try these for size.

  • Pulpit Route (D);
  • a lovely, easy route, with plenty of gear if you look for it.

  • Chockney (VD);
  • the steep start should be easy unless your bridging technique needs practice.

  • Resurrection (HS);
  • delicate and balancy, there’s pretty good gear but placing it requires thought; if you try to thrash straight up you may find yourself in trouble.

  • Bunney’s Wall (VS);

    the start is hard, and placing gear is strenuous, but at least there is some.

  • Hangover (VS);
  • steep and sustained.

  • Isis (VS).
  • This route has all the character of a full-scale Swanage adventure. The start is easy but the moves across the lip of the roof are wild and it continues to stick it to you above. Double ropes are needed to protect all this properly – one rope should be clipped in the starting corner and provides protection to move onto the lip of the roof (use a sling or long extender); the first gear on the other rope should be placed on the lip. The groove above looks unlikely, and is certainly not easy, but there are good holds and decent gear to be had.

    If you have climbed a fair selection of the routes in this article then you’re ready for the bigger Swanage cliffs. More commitment, more adventure, more fun! Read the next article Beyond Subluminal to find out more.


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

    For more information, feel free to contact me.