Sea skills: improvising sea cliff belays

Posted by Daniel Middleton on 08/08/2019
Edmund Morris on the precarious Arretica (E5 6b) in Pembrokeshire. Photo: Stefan Morris

Fresh sea air, waves crashing below and adventure by the bucket load. We may not have the high mountains of the Alps, or the vast clean sweeps of granite which bless Yosemite, but here in the UK we have some of the best and most varied sea cliff climbing on the planet. Find out how to be safer and leave less litter behind when traditional climbing around our coast.

The sea and salty coastal air creates a harsh environment for any fixed gear which is left behind. An ethical ban on bolts in many places means that you’ll need to accept some compromises when it comes to accessing and retreating from your climbs, and this may well mean leaving some equipment behind.

Traditionally, this has usually meant leaving behind some of the older, least desirable parts of your normal climbing equipment. Slings and normal aluminium karabiners work well at constructing an abseil anchor, but problems begin when such equipment is then left behind. The karabiners quickly seize up and begin to corrode, and a form of corrosion called exfoliation corrosion can take place fairly rapidly. This leaves karabiners looking like an onion skin as the layers separate, and they soon become dangerously weakened.

Abrasion and sustained exposure to strong ultra-violet light are two mechanisms which can damage textile materials, and the design of slings mean they are the least able to resist such damage, which makes them the least desirable option to be left in-situ for any amount of time if they are to be reused.

A typical outcome of this is to find your exuberance at reaching the top of a sea stack or cliff tempered by the pile of rotting tat and corroded, useless metal from which you are expected to belay and descend. Knowing this, what are the options for the climber who has to construct and leave an improvised belay behind, but wants it to be a viable option for at least some of those who follow?

WATCH: Sea-cliff climbing essentials – fixed gear on BMC TV

The first and foremost item of equipment to take with you is a good sharp knife, because you’ll want to remove any existing rubbish and take it away with you. This helps set a good example and helps remove litter from an arena which we should aim to keep as pristine as possible.

The ideal set-up is thick low stretch rope instead of slings, tied using double fisherman’s knots. With any luck you’ll be able to tie this around a solid spike or a good rock thread. Onto this should be threaded either a ring made from 316 stainless steel, or a stainless steel maillon. Specialist climbing and caving retailers are the best source of these rather niche items. Maillons have the benefit of being designed and tested as PPE if bought in the correct shape and size. The safest option for rings are the ones produced by bolt manufacturers and intended for climbing purposes. There are some nicely made rings produced for the yachting market but these are more of a risk as you don’t know what the quality control is like.

Carrying low-stretch rope isn’t always very practical, so the next best option is some accessory cord - the thicker the better. Rope and cord is far superior to tape slings if left in situ, because the sheath protects the core from both abrasion and UV light. Another useful item to carry is a lighter, which can be used to melt and tidy up the ends of any cut cord.

Ideally that is all you’ll need to construct a safe anchor, because anything else you leave behind including nuts, hexes or pegs will usually decay fairly rapidly to leave an unsafe, corroded mess which may block any potential placements for future users.

If you do end up having to rely on equipment which you find in situ, make sure you thoroughly check it first, and don’t hesitate to add your own equipment to it. Better to leave some equipment behind than to have an accident. Carefully check all parts including the hidden sections of any rope, slings or cord – things often wear in the part least able to be easily seen.

WATCH: Sea-cliff climbing essentials – abseil, retreat and escape on BMC TV


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