The best of the Bri­tish Isles’ end­less sea cliffs

Climbing - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos by Mike Hut­ton

The best of the Bri­tish Isles’ end­less sea cliffs, from sport to trad to deep- wa­ter soloing.

Climbers of­ten use the words “mag­i­cal,” “ma­jes­tic,” and “mon­strous” to de­scribe the sea cliffs of the Bri­tish Isles. Here, the ex­po­sure above the At­lantic’s dark, fe­ro­cious wa­ters, the taste of the sea air, the cry of the gulls, and the feel­ing of iso­la­tion con­spire to over­whelm the senses. The Bri­tish Isles have a vast, di­verse coast­line stretch­ing to over 8,000 miles, with 30-plus rock types, in­clud­ing lime­stone, gran­ite, gneiss, quartzite, do­lerite, sand­stone, and py­ro­clas­tic breccia.

On these walls, you’ll find more than 10,000 routes, with op­por­tu­ni­ties to climb sport, tra­di­tional, and deep-wa­ter solo—of­ten all at the same venue. Take the lime­stone cliffs of Swan­age in sunny south Eng­land. In­fi­nite Grav­ity (F8a+; 5.13c) in Black­ers Hole, Ocean Boule­vard (E3 5b; 5.10d) on Boulder Ruckle, and Free­born Man (6c S1; 5.11b) at Con­ner Cove rep­re­sent, re­spec­tively, the crème de la crème of these dis­ci­plines just a stone’s throw apart.

The UK coast is home to some of the world’s old­est rocks. Un­til 80 mil­lion years ago, Amer­ica and Eura­sia were joined. Then vol­ca­noes erupted in the mid­dle of the su­per­con­ti­nent. Magma forced the land apart, cre­at­ing North Amer­ica and Europe/the Bri­tish Isles—and our coast­line. This cool­ing lava formed the gran­ite and gneiss en­coun­tered on the Cor­nish and Lewis sea cliffs, re­spec­tively. UK ethics are of­ten strict, and some cliffs are “no bolts”; the wet, cold cli­mate keeps vis­i­tors away, as do the ab­seil ap­proaches. This is def­i­nitely not the French Riviera, with its bolt-stud­ded lime­stone above balmy seas. Still, there are vari­ances in cli­mate and com­mit­ment, and you can climb any­thing from a sin­gle-pitch non-tidal route in 70-de­gree sun­shine to a multi-pitch ad­ven­ture with hang­ing be­lays in Baltic temps.

The al­most-trop­i­cal Juras­sic south coast of Eng­land of­fers a re­lax­ing am­bi­ence, with invit­ing wa­ters. Along these shores, you’ll en­counter steep, juggy lime­stone at venues like Swan­age and Port­land. With cliffs that rise to over 160 feet cov­er­ing grades from VS (5.4) to E8 (5.13) and the con­ve­nience of mod­er­ate sport routes at the more re­cently de­vel­oped Port­land, this venue has be­come pop­u­lar. In late sum­mer when the seas reach a stag­ger­ing 70° F, deep­wa­ter soloists flock to the sparkling coves for big splash­downs and late-night par­ties.

“The best is in the West,” Cor­nish climbers say, and it’s the gran­ite that oozes qual­ity at the south­west­ern tip of Eng­land. Yel­low lichens dec­o­rate the ledges and pil­lars of this re­mark­able tex­tured rock, and when the win­ter sun warms the cliffs there is no bet­ter place. Vom­it­ing sea birds, salt-cor­roded pegs, and the surg­ing At­lantic swell all serve to heighten your aware­ness of the el­e­ments. The dra­matic cliffs on iconic Land’s End are home to some of the hard­est climbs in the area, and routes like the com­mit­ting At­lantic Ocean Wall (E5 6b; 5.12a) lure in more ad­ven­tur­ous teams. Sen­nen Cove, with its sun-bleached plat­forms, is a charm­ing place full of steep, gym­nas­tic routes on sculp­tured rock, and is fa­mous for its abun­dance of eas­ier lines, such as Demo Route (Hard Se­vere 4b; 5.7). Chair Lad­der epit­o­mizes Cor­nish mul­ti­p­itch climb­ing, with its well-known clas­sic Dio­cese (VS 4c, 5a, 4a, 4b; 5.8). Spend­ing hours strapped to the rock as waves thun­der in al­lows the mind to drift, with noth­ing but the cries of the gulls and the sul­furous smell of seaweed for com­pany.

Quest­ing north, one en­coun­ters Wales, with its ex­ten­sive Pem­brokeshire coast. This area

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