Toby Dunn describes the special thrill of climbing on the sea cliffs of Britain.
“Half-way down hangs one who gathers samphire, dreadful trade” observed Shakespeare in King Lear. Shakespeare, ever on the ball, was the first to highlight the strange British practice of climbing sea cliffs. But as well as ‘dread’ the crags of the coast can be places of fabulous adventure and possibility. They are equal to any mountains.
I can still remember the wonder that the Lake District and Snowdonia held for me on my first trips, with the school cadets from my childhood home in mountain-starved South Devon. The ridges of Blencathra, Striding Edge and Crib Goch seemed like the wildest places on earth. Encased in waterproofs, I clung to rocks, clammy with wind-blown cloud, and imagined myself a gnarly mountaineer.
These early experiences might have left me unsatisfied with my home county – regarding its rolling moorland and wood-fringed sunny coves with a haughtiness, almost derision – but they gave me a taste for exploration and adventure.
And the more I’ve travelled, the more I’ve come to appreciate the wonder and adventure available on the wild, salty border between land and sea. This narrow strip can provide all the commitment, objective danger and fear of an alpine climb. It’s a thrilling sample of hassle-free adventure close to home.
A wild, windy cliff-top walk, a crumbly Gogarth climb or the tiny holds of a Lower Pen Trywn sport route can all offer a true sea-cliff adventure. You can experience an environment that others will never see. Even on the North Face of the Eiger, a hotel-bound tourist can study your environment, but at the bottom of a remote sea cliff even the fishermen out to sea cannot directly experience your commitment and isolation.
Nearing the end of an arduous pitch on Main Cliff at Gogarth, I gritted my teeth and stared down at both my ropes wavering beneath my waist. My last protection was mediocre, in poor rock, and miles underneath me. I tried to ignore the pulsing agony in my dangerously pumped forearms, and slapped irreversibly upwards – for what I hoped was a positive ledge.
I sagged gratefully from the good hold as I hit it and, adjusting my feet, was treated to a great view of most of the Main Cliff beneath them. My arms felt limp with fatigue; I could not fall off here. I began to drag myself up to attempt to mantelshelf onto the ledge. A peculiar series of guttural squawks issued from the open beak of the fat fulmar chick that was occupying my intended sanctuary. No mountain range in the world could have brought me that really special terror as I pulled into a desperate mantelshelf and the alarmed chick voided its stomach contents – a series of remarkably powerful jets – in the direction of my face. The counter-frictional properties of sea-bird vomit are really quite incredible: almost equal to its vile, persistent odour.
I challenge any 2am-starting alpinist to move as fast as I did the first time I went to Lower Pen Trywn in Snowdonia. As I lazily warmed up, I suddenly realized that the tide really does come in quite quickly on large flat beaches covered with boulders, which neatly disguise the approaching water. Bemused tourists on the Marine Drive above watched me and my friend frantically stumbling across a rocky beach, clutching hastily bundled-up bags. Still tied into a rope and laden with quickdraws, we glanced in mild panic at the inky, lapping water which was almost overtaking us.
However many times I experience Huntsman’s Leap at Pembroke, the majesty and novelty of the 200-footdeep limestone crevasse – yawning in from the wave-beaten bay beyond – never loses its appeal. ‘The Leap’ epitomises the appeal of sea cliffs and I feel a sudden thrill every time I slide down the abseil rope into its murky depths. The tingle of anticipation is easily equal to that from striding out of a hut into pre-dawn darkness, névé scrunching beneath heavy boots.
On a calm summer’s day – when it’s a haven of silent shade – it’s a mellow pleasure to stand bare-toed on the Leap’s sandy bottom, watching refractions of sunlight sparkle and flicker in the water gently lapping at the entrance. But on darker days, when cowering near its landward reaches, staring nervously at the nautical detritus fifty feet up the back wall, it’s truly awesome to contemplate the power of the sea.
Sea cliffs have their fair share of objective danger – and unpredictability – that is at the heart of really memorable adventures. The sight of a gigantic chunk of the Atlantic spraying over the top of a 100-foot Cornish crag in a winter storm is more than equal to the majesty and terror of a vast avalanche or serac fall.
But the one thing which always encapsulates the fearful atmosphere and adventurous joy of the best sea cliffs is the smell of the rock samphire, which grows out of the steepest of cliffs. ‘Dreadful trade’? There is none finer.
BMC member Toby Dunn has been climbing for 15 years and hasn’t got bored yet. Claiming to “just like pulling down on things,” he enjoys everything from bouldering to big walls, from new routing in Kenya to warm ups at Malham. He’s recently qualified as a physio.
Watch a selection of the immense variety of climbing on the Gower on BMC TV:
WATCH: What’s climbing at Gogarth like? Watch our short film, exclusive to BMC TV:
WATCH: Our film about the 2014 Ruckack Club meet at Gogarth. Climbing, fun and a beach party. Exclusive to BMC TV