Portland is the finest mid-grade sport climbing venue in the UK, bar none! To be fair, a lot of cleaning and bolting/retrobolting of limestone and the odd bit of sandstone elsewhere (mainly Cheddar, South Wales and the Peak) has slightly reduced the gap but nowhere else can boast one thousand routes, all within walking distance of each other, stunning sea views, and a near Mediterranean climate that often encourages shirt-off climbing in the depths of winter and provides dry rock when nowhere else in the country is in condition. To offer criticism seems churlish but it would be fair to say that there are better venues for the sub-F6b climber and, at the other end of the scale, good routes above F7c are few and far between. However, for anyone operating in the F6s and F7s, this is the place be.
The Isle of Portland is a lump of limestone, connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach. The cliffs run down both sides of the island, starting well above the sea at the northern end and becoming proper tidal sea-cliffs as they approach the most southerly point at Portland Bill. This has two implications:
- Cliffs on the West Side mainly get afternoon sun; East Side cliffs get mainly morning sun
- The further south you go the more conditions dependent the routes get
Hence The Plans...
Check the windsock by the Ferry Bridge Inn as you drive onto Chesil Beach. The main aim for the day is to be out of the wind. If it's a westerly then The Cuttings or Cheyne Cliff are the best options. Avoid Cheyne if the sea is very rough as it can be damp. If it's an easterly then go for the West Side but not Wallsend or Coastguard, which are likely to be greasy. On a sunny day, Blacknor Central is the only place to be before the sun catches the rest of the crags around lunchtime. On the rare occasions when it's not sunny then choice of crag is up to you - it'll be cold everywhere.
When it's fairly hot, the main aim is to avoid sliming off stuff. Head for the West Side in the morning for pleasant temperatures in the shade but pick a crag well above the sea (not Coastguard or Wallsend South). You could start on the East Side for a bit of early sun before it gets hot, but if you climb at Portland regularly I would save these routes for the winter plan. If there is a bit of a breeze and it's not a humid day then by mid-afternoon the sea-level crags should be in good nick. Wallsend South and Coastguard have so many good routes that it's a crime to waste any more time. Get down there and choose your area in conjunction with the tide times.
Alternative Summer Plan for Spring Tides
Go DWS in the sun, and on the morning tide, somewhere on the East Coast. Break for brunch. Go and do a bit of sport somewhere in the shade (maybe Blacknor North), or whatever else takes your fancy, then scare yourself silly at White Hole on the evening high tide.
Climbing: Blacknor North has a big variety of climbing on varied rock, including some amazing flowstone.
Best Grades: F6a to F7a+
Sun: From 3 pm
Conditions: Shady; some parts catch the wind; freezing in winter, ideal in summer; almost no seepage; rarely greasy.
Access: There may be a seasonal nesting restriction around Drag Racing Underground. Check the BMC Regional Access Database.
Blacknor Central & South
Climbing: Mostly long (60m rope), sustained routes on shell-filled rock where finding the best holds can take time.
Best Grades: F6a to F7b+
Sun: From 10 am
Conditions: Sunny; catches the wind; rarely greasy and with rough rock anyway but often too hot and rather overgrown in summer; a persistent drainage line around Niagara Wall can blow across onto Portland Heights area too
Access: There used to be a seasonal nesting restriction for peregrines in the Go With the Flow area. Check the BMC Regional Access Database.
Blacknor Far South
Climbing: Blacknor Far South has a superb selection of routes on excellent rock, mainly featuring short, intense crux sections between decent rests.
Best Grades: F6b+ to F7b but with some decent routes from F5 to F6b too
Sun: From midday
Conditions: Usually the most sheltered West Side crag; can be sweltering in summer; rarely greasy but some of the hard routes benefit from crisp, cold weather; some drainage streaks for a day or so after very wet weather.
Climbing: Battleship offers fingery routes of moderate length on excellent rock.
Best Grades: F6a to F7a+ but with a couple of good routes that are harder
Sun: From 1 pm
Conditions: Sometimes greasy on routes around Never Drive a Car When You're Dead and Evening Falls and also some of the other harder routes benefit from crisp, cold weather; some drainage streaks for a day or so after very wet weather.
Battleship Back Cliff
Climbing: Long (60m rope) routes with extended, power-endurance cruxes and some shorter routes of lesser quality.
Best Grades: F6b+ to F7b+
Sun: From 1 pm
Conditions: Usually in good condition but the Battleship Block funnels the wind and keeps some belay areas shady for most of the day so this can be a chilly spot on cold days.
Climbing: Wallsend offers a massive selection of routes with the emphasis on long (60m rope), stamina-based expeditions.
Best Grades: F6b to F7c but with a good F7c+ and F8a to try too
Sun: From midday at the northern end but not until after 1 pm at the southern end
Conditions: The more northern sectors are set up above the boulder beach and tend to be in good condition once they've picked up a bit of sun. The big southern sectors rise straight up from the beach and can suffer more severely from greasiness. Best conditions often come late on summer afternoons after a combination of sun, and a bit of breeze. High tides affect access slightly at the southern end but have a more significant effect on conditions, which are sometimes not so good if the sea is close to the base of the routes. There is a seasonal nesting restriction; check the BMC Regional Access Database.
Climbing: Like Wallsend, mostly long, stamina-based efforts but even nearer to the sea.
Best Grades: F6b+ to F7c+ but with a few good routes down to F6a and Portland's hardest route at F8b.
Sun: From 1 pm
Conditions: Most of Coastguard South is tidal, the furthest south sectors very severely so, and the routes tend to be greasy too so look for low tides in the afternoon on fresh, breezy days. Maximise the time available by following the tide southwards. Coastguard North is not tidal but does suffer from greasiness again although the China White wall might be worth a poke if other areas are a bit minging.
Climbing: White Hole offers the best selection of full-on DWS routes on Portland with the benefit of a better viewing platform than either Connor or Lulworth. There are a few rope-only routes but they don't see much attention.
Best Grades: F6a to F7a+ for the solos
Sun: There are walls facing all directions. The big solo wall on the west side of Mirthmaid Zawn gets the sun from first thing until mid-afternoon, whereas the easier solos on the east side get the sun from midday on; the routes on the promontories get sun more-or-less all day, but the routes inside Memories Zawn and The Labyrinth only get (and often need) evening sun. Having said that, this is a classic evening venue because of the tides.
Conditions: Dangerous in rough seas; some routes only dry out properly on breezy and sunny summer evenings but most are in good condition once they've seen a bit of sun; high tide, preferably springs, for the solos.
East coast crags
Climbing: A disjointed but high quality collection of short and mostly entertaining DWS routes. Many are S0 when the tide is in so this is a good place to get into soloing. There are lots of other routes that aren't above good water but they are mostly so short they're over as soon as they're begun.
Best Grades: F5 to F7b (ish)
Sun: Until midday
Conditions: The solos almost all require a high tide, in some cases only springs will do. This is a good pre-breakfast option since the best tides are always early morning and early evening and these crags face east. The other routes mostly require low tide and are worth a look on a very hot summer's day.
Godnor Far North & Neddyfields
Climbing: Fairly mediocre low to mid-grade sport routes, but lots of them. Many of the easier routes have an awkward crux, which detracts from the quality of the experience.
Best Grades: F4 to F6c
Sun: Until midday
Conditions: Sometimes a bit dusty and/or greasy but gets the sun first thing and dries out well unless the sea is very rough or it's a warm and humid or cold and clammy day.
Climbing: Cheyne Cliff offers stamina-based routes on flowstone often featuring long sequences on small holds. A classic spot for long drawn-out redpoint battles.
Best Grades: F7b+ to F7c+ but with some worthwhile routes in the F6s
Sun: Until 2 pm in summer and 3 pm in winter
Conditions: Not usually greasy in the same way as Wallsend and Coastguard but on the flowstone a high friction day does make your redpoint project a fair bit more amenable. Avoid only on truly stormy days, when spray can reach the crag, but pick a cool, sunny day with a bit of breeze if your project is proving stubborn.
Climbing: The Cuttings offers a really good selection of fingery, technical routes on excellent rock.
Best Grades: F4 to F7c
Sun: Varies by sector but mostly gets sun until about 3 pm
Conditions: Always okay but the harder routes rely on finger friction and feel about a grade easier on cool, crisp days
Best below F6a
Portland is not the best venue for sub-F6a routes although on any given day there is a good chance that there are more climbers on routes of this standard than there are climbers on harder routes. The best advice is to get better, quickly. Meanwhile, these are the better options in some kind of order of progression for working up the grades:
Triple Slabs and Fallen Slab - in that order - offer a handful of steady routes that benefit from being slabby (the clue's in the name) so that you can concentrate on climbing without getting pumped; The newly-developed Bower area at The Cuttings has much better routes than the set of very short, polished, technical horors at the left end of the main cliff; there are quite a few newly-developed routes in the Lost Valley below F6a - worth a look but I can't vouch for the quality (check DCWeb/DisInfo for more details); Godnor Far North offers a reasonable day of climbing around the F4/5 level; Blacknor North - Slings Shot is a terrific F5 and the F6a routes are also very worthwhile including Shit Happens and Monsoon Malabar which are around the corner towards Blacknor Central and are both quite soft for the grade; there is a good selection of routes around the F6a mark at the right end of Blacknor Far South.
Worst below F6a
Avoid Valerian unless you have plenty of experience of trad. climbing on funny rock; the left end of The Cuttings looks like the best easy area in the guide but the routes are very short, polished, and the rock forms a series of big, smooth steps, which makes for very awkward climbing; Blacknor South features poor quality, balancy routes with some high first bolts and desperately blank finishes and is often crowded; Battleship Block routes are polished horrors - not good when you know it's a slab with very few positive holds; opposite the Battleship Block are a couple more low-grade routes - both with horrible holdless finishes (although the F6a there is brilliant); The Lunar Park is hard to find if you don't know the area pretty well.