The map of Britain’s geology is a great psychedelic, multi-coloured spread of streaks, slashes and blotches, each shade a different species of bedrock. You would assume by now we know what Britain is built on (apart from bacon butties and mugs of tea). But there is a small collection of circles as yet uncoloured – The Needles.
These white fins of rock pierce the sea just off the Isle of Wight and a casual glance would reveal they’re chalk – but which of the many types of chalk are they? Although the British Geological Survey could hazard an educated guess, to prove it scientifically a sample was required. Cue the BBC.
I began presenting on a BBC programmed called Coast last summer and was keen to somehow shoehorn some climbing in. The premise was I’d climb the middle Needle, bagging a new route on the way, retrieve a sample from the top and deliver it to the scientists waiting in the boat below.
Chalk sits within ‘esoteric’ climbing. For those unfamiliar with the term it means basically you intentionally climb on rock people normally avoid. It’s loose, fragile, crumbly and no hold or anchor can be trusted – all in all it initially sounds like a fairly unpleasant day out.
Our research could only produce two other routes on the middle Needle, both climbed by Mick Fowler in 1988 and never repeated. We used one to ascend so Alistair Rickman, the rigger, and my climbing partner Dave Talbot could set up the rope for cameraman Ian Burton (of Asgard fame). Then I’d take a line that wandered between the worst of the blistered, vertical rubble on the left hand edge of the South face.
Arguably the crux move was getting from the landing craft onto the base of the route. A well timed Hail-Mary leap in six-foot swell onto slick, greasy ledges was required…I let Dave go first.
I was under instruction from the producers not to assist in the rigging so that the new route would be my first on chalk, or anything esoteric. As I struck out on the lead I felt confident. The rock, once past the sea-soaked slipperiness, seemed relatively hard and solid. The problem is the wave-battered lower section has been thoroughly cleaned by the pounding sea and most loose stuff removed. As I moved up everything became noticeably softer; nuts would slide out with a solid test-pull amidst the increasingly spongy rock around them. It was incredibly loose and carefully selected, solid looking hand holds would constantly crumble away as I gently pulled on them. The most oft-used phrase of the day become “BELOW” as cascades of chalk, like crumbling cheese, pirouetted into the rolling English Channel. The higher I climbed the looser it became.
It’s a strange experience climbing on chalk this loose. You can’t trust any ledge, crack, pinch or crimp no matter how solid they feel. Every move is tentatively taken and you feel constantly out of kilter and insecure. It creates a very unsettling, confused feeling – your hands and feet, on huge holds, feedback that this is easy and all is good, but your head, knowing the trustworthiness of the rock tells a wholly different story. You try not to pull or push on anything too hard, try not to put too much pressure on any hold, distributing your weight and pad gently upwards. Unlike most other climbs, at no time do you feel entirely in control; there are no solid rests or holds that allow some mental relief. The chalk is also broken every few metres by seams of sharp, shattered flint – not the best medium to be running your ropes over.
After pulling and kicking off would-be holds with unerring frequency I reached the final move, which is the, admittedly, not technically difficult, crux. Layback up a flake before mantling to the finish – easy. Except the flake, about six feet high and wide looked alarmingly like it was stuck to the cliff by nothing more than encrusting salt. I tried to layback without actually putting any force into it. If the flake decided to pop off I’d be heading seawards comically holding a large piece of the Needles. It was highly likely that my last piece of gear, like most I’d put in, would not take the impact of a fall this big, especially as I’d be clinging to a six foot dinner plate of chalk. But the flake stayed put and I scrambled over the edge. I felt triumphant, a real sense of achievement, something I rarely experience after a climb. The view, witnessed by so few, was spectacular. I could see the lighthouse to my right, the top at eye level, the Needles flowing into Skeleton Ridge and the huge stunning white chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight, all surrounded by a beautiful, sparkling sea.
Esoteric climbing is not a pleasant experience. You never feel safe. You are continually on edge and the whole thing is stressful and confusing regardless of how easy the route is. But this last part is important. I’m a fairly average climber, I’ll on-sight HVS with maybe the odd E2 on an exceptional day. I’ve had other parts of my life where I chisel away to improve and achieve greater things and I admire those that dedicate whole seasons to overcoming a single route. But for me climbing was always the one area I wasn’t trying to excel (potentially a decision made for me by my complete lack of talent). Most of the projects and expeditions I’ve done in the past have been exploratory or adventurous and it’s for these reasons I love climbing. And that’s what esoterica offers. You can experience the same rush, break new ground and take yourself to the, albeit very unstable, edge, just like those rock-ninjas without having to climbing at E11. My route was one of the strangest, most unsettling climbs I’ve ever done but we only gave it MXS. On decent rock it would have scraped a Severe 4b – yet it gave me more satisfaction than a flashed E2. There are few areas left in the UK as readily accessible with so much unclimbed rock at lower grades than the esoteric cliffs. If you want to experience bold, pioneering climbing, and you can deal with the head game, the constant danger and the lack of any certainty, esoteric is the way ahead. It’s a stressful, disturbing and unpredictable way to ascend a disintegrating piece of rock – and the most adventure I’ve had in climbing for years.
Epilogue: In keeping with the theme of Skeleton Ridge (and my employer) we named the route Brittle Bone Coast MXS. The scientist confirmed that the Needles are Portsdown Chalk. Although one of the (relatively) harder types of chalk it’s still eroding away so if you fancy bagging some new routes on the Needles you’ve probably got less than a few hundred years – so best get your skates on.
Thanks to Andy for the words and images. His book, ‘Extreme Adventures‘, includes this story as well as a piece previously published on our Journal, ‘Cave of Skulls‘.