Dizzy Heights: Climbing in Dorset and beyond

Pushing the Boat Out: Swanage E4 and E5

The best Swanage limestone comes in the form of steep, white sheets and wildly leaning cracked faces. When the holds form an orderly line of jugs the routes are top quality E2s and E3s, but the smallest lack of co-operation and this is E4 ground and above. Iíve tried to put together a brief list of the best that Swanage can offer in this category.

Iíve assumed potential E4/5 leaders will be able to find and access these routes without too much bother, so approach details are minimal.

The descriptions are roughly in order of difficulty. Some are thanks to Woody, who dragged me up them when he was a student in Bournemouth, although the descriptions are mine. Some are routes I haven't been on (yet) but Ed has ticked them off in a recent campaign and written them up.

Warlord (E4) [R]

This is probably the best introduction to E4 that Swanage can come up with. The climbing is steep and sustained but the gear is pretty good and the crux well protected. The first pitch is shared with Oceanid and goes at about HVS. Just below the fault step right onto a slab and belay from what looks like a drilled thread but is actually half an ammonite fossil - wacky! There are also wires in cracks up on the left, just below the fault. The main pitch is hard right away. Make sure you have gear to protect the belay before you pull over the fault into a shallow scoop. There is a peg in the scoop and a thread to the right; you may be able to clip the peg before fully committing to the move. The next bit is more amenable, with some natural gear and another peg Ė a big homemade one this time. When the crack goes straight up, the climbing starts to feel pumpy. Itís tempting to continue to try to lace things up but the gear is fiddly and itís best to keep going until more obvious gear appears. There is a loose flake in the crack round here too, although you can actually hand jam against it if youíre careful. Above are some solid jams; wires and cams can be placed, and a good jug reached. At this point the climbing gets harder so hopefully youíve reached here fairly fresh. Three more homemade pegs protrude above; these have small eyes and some krabs won't go through. The holds are alright until you reach the third peg, when things get both fingery and technical at the same time Ė well it is E4. If you reach a standing position with your feet level with the peg, things will suddenly seem more reasonable, but donít blow the top out, which is a bit shaky. Moving a metre or so to the right is probably the best option, but there are holds straight up too.

Limited Edition (E4)

Following a rock fall, and a re-write from the Rockfax team, you may be looking at a guide that describes this as an E4 that turns out to have a really gnarly start. I think it's still E4 but be warned! Alternatively you may be looking at an E3 description starting over on the right and moving left into the big corner, in which case you will be wondering what it's doing here instead of in Swanage Extreme where I have actually now moved the E3 version.

For anyone still keen to take the original start, can I suggest looking at the option of staying left of the big corner and going straight up to the finish. This will probably feel eliminate and might be totally nails, but might just be really good. And since you're following my suggestions made from a comfortable dining room, what about "Limited Addition"?

By the way, the E4 start - post rock fall - has a hard move out of the sentry box but the hold is good when you get it. It is possible to get a micro-wire out on the left and another above before making some more fairly hard moves up to reach a little diagonal crack and better gear. Step up to reach the corner and the rest of the route.

The wave-cut platform at the bottom of the route can catch waves on rough days but it is usually fairly dry even if the section nearer Conner Cove is catching a lot of spray. It is possible to abseil straight down the line from stakes at the top (a T-shape girder and a pipe) if necessary.

Barracuda (E4)

This takes the line of cracks at the left end of the Ocean Boulevard wall. Standing beneath it tells you most of what you need to know; itís straight up, steep, and well-protected. In fact it is a bit deceptive; it looks like some proper finger locks and other bits of technique may be required but itís actually more or less hidden jugs all the way. This is offset by the fact that the wall is actually loads steeper than it looks Ė even though it does look overhanging. Take plenty of extenders and some small to medium cams to speed up placing gear. The first few moves are as hard as anything else on the route so once you get going itís all about conserving energy; keep moving and donít spend time fiddling with tricky gear Ė a better placement will turn up if you press on. If you make it to the fault, itís nearly in the bag; move a metre or so right and pull up to a good jug then go again to reach less steep territory. The finish is reasonably sound Ė you may find moving back left a touch is best. If youíre not pumped stupid on this then you need to try some of the harder E4/5ís on the right side of the wall. Most folk will just need to have a good long rest.

Impending Gleam (E4) [Description by Ed]

This climbs the amazing groove left of the Palace of Brine Cave. A mid or low tide allows access, but you start from a low platform so make sure that the swell is minimal. The crux is steep climbing on jams, so low humidity will be a big help. I have heard the jams are described as awkward and I canít jam very well, but on the low humidity day we had, they felt sinker. The start looks - and is - amenable, up the arÍte right of the groove to the first roof. Arrange some gear below this and then swing out on good holds and jams. A bridging position allows more gear to be placed in the crack, before yarding up on more good jams through steep terrain to a pull over onto a less steep section and more good gear. The continuation crack above is easier with gear opportunities all the way. Whoop whoop!

Vikings (E4) [R] [Description by Ed]

The first pitch runs up the right hand of two converging cracks and looks frighteningly loose, but actually it isn't too bad [Editor's note: I thought I was pretty steady on loose ground but...] and there is plenty of good gear deep in the crack for reassurance. At the top of the cracks you step left onto a slab and traverse to the belay. There is some gear at the start of the traverse but not much more after that to protect the second. That said, the belay at the end of the traverse is totally bomber with two threads and a peg. The second and third pitches can be run together to avoid a potential fall onto the dodgy looking second belay. The second pitch starts by climbing up to a roof (good cam) and then demands a committing move over it to undercuts that lead right. The climbing soon eases after the undercuts and you move right again onto a ledge below a roof and the headwall. There is a big flake here that may be detached (the basis of the second belay), but there is also gear either side in the break below the roof. The pull over the roof is wild, so think about where you are going before you commit. Contrary to the topo, you pull up and left using stonking jugs on the arÍte that allow you to get stood up on a ledge on the left. There is a good small nut in the crack hidden around to the right of the arÍte. From here you can see the hard moves up the headwall past a peg. The route moves slightly right before reaching the peg. There is a tempting flake up and left that offers gear but it may also be detached so is perhaps better not tested. After the peg you reach for three downward pointing spikes (clearly visible from the boulder beach at the base of the route) and then a rest at a flake crack on the right. There is good gear behind it and the climbing now eases off to the top, although it becomes slightly loose again. There are obvious handholds just left of the flake, and once on these head straight up. Belay on the fence posts. Now I have written it down, it doesnít sound too great, but I loved it!

Mother Africa (E4) [Description by Ed]

I have heard this described as, 'defining the very upper limit of E4 at Swanage' and I don't disagree. The start is a juggy cruise up to a calcite ledge past plenty of sinker nuts. Above the ledge there is an undercut on the right that helps provide a rest before committing to the crux moves up to the break above. It looks innocuous but it' s hard. A good small nut can be placed in the vertical crack above the ledge, then side pulls in the crack and on the wall to the left allow a reach up to poor holds at the lower part of the break and then better holds higher up. From here a big thread can be clipped and easier moves left made to another vertical crack - bomber big nut and a semi rest. From here, move up a little bit (peg) and then left to good holds in a right trending crack that leads quickly to a stonking jug. The crack continues with more good gear and jugs until a slightly more technical step left at a flake, but still with good gear. The climbing then eases (although you could well be totally boxed by now so it may not feel like it) past several more pegs to the top.

Polaris (E5) [R] [Description by Ed]

A totally mega adventure and easy for the grade, but choose a low humidity day for the best conditions. You can usefully scope the first two pitches of the route from the headland above the Great Cave before you commit (the third corner pitch is hidden). Above the route, we couldn't find the stake described in the guidebook as 40m downslope of the corner fence post, but the grass is long so it could be there. Instead, gear up on the gentle slope below the corner fence post and abseil off it down to the steep grassy hollow above the route (less than 50m). Then abseil again off two stakes to the east of the hollow (less than 50m again). We did the second ab on the climbing ropes and pulled them. We also set up another rope for the top out to the east and I was glad we did. There are two stakes here and you top out between them. The first pitch is mediocre and just gets you in position for the main pitches: the short, sharp second and the superb, longer third. The first pitch ends on the fault below a wide, open groove - this is just before a corner below the fault, and the main arÍte. For the second pitch, drop down across the corner to the arÍte and good holds (good photo opportunity!). The wall above is very steep, but the holds are good. You can reach up to place gear before yarding up, swinging out right on a jug and then crimping and heel hooking across the leaning wall to an amazingly positioned belay ledge on the right. The third pitch heads up and right below a roof on jugs with flowing moves past two adjacent pegs, an old sling on the right, and decent gear in the roof crack. The steepness relents with a pull over onto a slab, and there is more gear in a crack along its back edge. Traverse left into the corner - more gear - then bridge your way up past beautifully sculpted jugs and great gear. Swing left at the top to finish on a ledge system with a final chossy wall and your waiting rope.

Zoolookologie (E5)

This is a pretty good E5 to have a crack at. Itís well protected and very steep, so although getting pumped and falling off is certainly a possibility, the consequences shouldnít be too horrific. It is worth rigging a belay rope for the bank above the cliff top. From above, most of the cliff edge looks nasty but one area has a decent ledge sticking out; Zoolookologie tops out at the left end of this (looking out). With a 60m rope it is just possible to rig the belay and abseil but it leaves some scrambling to get down because the abseil stakes (one is buried in the grass) are a long way from the edge.

The first bit of climbing is easy. At the steep wall things change dramatically though. Get gear in as high as possible before launching for the break, and work out what youíre doing Ė reaching the break is much easier if you get the sequence right. The break itself is not as good as you might hope but there is a good jug formed by a small flake just above. Once youíve got hold of this you can place gear on the left and reach up and clip the thread. The next few moves, using the crack left of the thread lead to a reasonable undercut in the next break and gear in the same place. The final bulge looks alright but has a noticeable lack of decent holds. Itís possible to use a kneebar to help out arms that may now be past their best but youíll probably still have to make a couple of disconcerting moves on slopers before getting hold of something better. This brings the top quickly to hand.

Wall of the Worlds (E5)

This used to get E4 but has now been upgraded to E5. General consensus seems to be that this is harder than Mother Africa and that Mother Africa is a tough E4 but I think it depends a lot on whether steep, stamina routes are your thing or not; they're both really sustained and massively pumpy but neither has a hard crux.

Fly Crazy But Free (E5) [R]

This one is nails for E5. Although it does have a very hard crux, the gear is excellent Ė making up, at least in part, for the outrageously sustained upper section.

First get yourself onto the belay shared with Oceanid and Warlord. Then the first moves, into the scoop above the break, are the same as for Warlord. With the thread clipped, move up rightwards and then pull back left into another shallow scoop. The smooth sheet of limestone above is endowed with some brilliant cracks, which provide good holds and solid gear, but the move to reach them can feel hard if you donít find the crucial undercut. Above this section the headwall leans out alarmingly. The first moves to reach a good horizontal break are the hardest on the route but the break is good when you get it, and also takes good cams. Above this the climbing is totally sustained all the way to the top. Not only is it very steep and on barely adequate finger edges, but several potential holds turn out to be very poor, so it takes a lot of reading too. The only saving grace is the presence of the two pegs that at least render it reasonably safe. If you on-sight this I reckon E6 is well within your grasp - you just need to find one that's easier than this.

Wide Awake in America (E6)

Probably easier than Fly Crazy But Free although with a bit more potential for a nasty whipper. The first pitch is an absolutely awesome jug haul through ridiculous ground - a real Swanage special - at about E4 with good gear. The second pitch is the hard one. From the belay make a tricky pull over the lip of the fault onto a shattered grey wall. Climb more easily across this going diagonally up and left, without much gear, to a decent footledge under the headwall where there is better gear. There is a peg, which may be out of sight, at the base of the headwall. It's possible to pull up, clip this and drop down for a breather. Then go for it, tackling the crux immediately, to reach a second peg a bodylength above the first and then slightly left to good holds.

Dorset...

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

For more information, feel free to contact me.