There's no secret trick to climbing sea cliffs, but it's all too easy to mess things up, complicate the situation, or end up confused and off route. Help avoid an epic mega-faff and instead have an amazing adventure on the UK's sea cliffs with these helpful tips from Mike Cheque, creator of BMC TV's latest feature length film 'The Seaside'.
If you’re keen to head to the seaside I don't blame you – it’s awesome. But sea cliffs do have a unique charm and there are specific things you need to bear in mind. I’m not a qualified guide but I’ve experienced and witnessed enough epics to bring you this list of sea cliff don’ts.
1. Don't arrive at the crag to find out you can't climb there
Many sea cliffs have access restrictions, some of which can be seasonal. Bird nesting season is roughly from the start of March to the end of July. Sea cliffs where endangered birds nest are banned for climbing during this period, so check the BMC RAD to see if your objective is affected and don’t climb there if it is. It can also worth waiting ‘til it’s rained to let the guano situation ease at the start of August too. And don't piss the birds off, they'll vomit on you and the smell will never leave you.
2. Don’t forget about the tides
It’s pretty easy to work out if the ledge you need to belay from is underwater or not. What requires a little more knowledge is whether it will be by the time your leader’s got to the top of the pitch! Tide tables are available online and easy to understand, just check whether you need to adjust by an hour for BST. A good plan is to climb non-tidal routes when the tide is rising and save the tidal ones for when it’s receding. Also be aware of the tidal range – this varies throughout the month and from area to area. The wider the range, the quicker it will rise.
3. Don’t trust fixed gear
My mate Eric once climbed a route at Pembroke that’s described as having a crucial peg at the crux. When he arrived at the peg, he realised it was “the same colour and consistency as a Curly Wurly”. You’ve got to assume that, due to the corrosive sea air, any fixed gear on sea cliff routes will be useless.
4. Don’t expect to be able to hear your partner
If you’re used to casually calling down to your mate from the top of short routes then you need to practice non-verbal communication before you head to the coast. The sea and wind can be loud and the pitches long and circuitous. When filming one route on abseil a climber on a nearby ledge asked me if I could see what his second was doing – he was surprised to learn that she was halfway up the pitch, particularly as he hadn’t put her on belay yet! Make sure you both agree how many pulls on the rope mean 'safe', 'climbing', 'off belay', etc., way before you set off.
5. Don’t be naïve about rock quality
Loose rock is a geological fact of life on sea cliffs and you need to be prepared for it at all times. If you can, belay away from the line your partner is climbing (keep in mind that corners can act as a 'funnel') and it goes without saying that a helmet is a good idea. Even solid sea cliffs like Pembroke can have a chossy surprise in the final few metres, but some crags are inherently unstable and the routes on them are the choice of the 'connoisseur'. These are normally described pretty unequivocally in guidebooks but look out for routes graded XS or with an adjective grade suspiciously higher than their technical one. If you are tempted to get straight on these after watching The Seaside then bear in mind that the climbers on them in the film have either a number of technical grades in hand, a lot of experience on this type of terrain, or both. Good luck!
WATCH: The Seaside by Mike Cheque on BMC TV
6. Don’t forget the sunscreen
Many of our best sea cliffs areas are south- or west-facing sun traps with no shade whatsoever and it’s not uncommon to spend longer on the routes than you expect. You will fry if you’re not careful. This might sound like pretty basic advice but the effects of dehydration and sunstroke are no joke, not to mention the feeling of coiling those salty ropes round your neck at the end of the day.
7. Don’t abseil on your climbing ropes
This isn’t Alpine climbing – you can afford the extra weight of a dedicated ab rope. It’s very reassuring to have an option for an emergency escape, you can use it to back up the belay and it eliminates the horrifying possibility of your ropes getting stuck as you pull them down. Sometimes the top of a route is so inhospitable that yarding on a pre-placed rope is the accepted means of topping out and the guidebook should tell you this. You don’t need a shiny new static; a retired (or borrowed) sport rope will be fine as long as it’s the right length.
8. Don’t forget your Prussiks
With safety being at the top of the route rather than the bottom, an emergency method of getting back up the way you came down is a very wise precaution. It’s also handy if you’re seconding steep pitches – your partner can’t just lower you down if you fall! Just as important is knowing how to use your prusiks. As a sea cliff rookie I made myself unpopular with my mates by insisting that we practice before a trip. It turned out to be just as well; our prussik cord was too thin and wouldn’t budge after being weighted!
9. Don’t drop your mate’s gear in the sea
Just kidding, you’re guaranteed to do this on your first sea cliff trip. Look at it as a rite of passage. When traversing along the base of a sea cliff, carry your rack on a sling or bandolier to avoid drowning if you fall into the sea. Jettisoning your entire rack into the sea will be expensive, but less painful than drowning.
10. Don’t get court-martialed
Like many out-of-the-way parts of Britain, the army owns a lot of the coast and some of that has sea cliffs in it, the most famous Pembroke cliffs being the obvious example. Be aware of restrictions at firing times (available online) or the more complicated processes required to climb in live-firing areas. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the army.
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Mike Cheque: maker of The Seaside and Stonnis
I’m a climber, filmmaker, photographer and musician, based in Sheffield. I loved the outdoors as a kid, got distracted by making music for about 15 years then rediscovered climbing around 10 years ago. I made a film called Stonnis in 2015 which was successful beyond all my expectations and gave me the motivation to make Seaside.
How did you get into filming?
I watched loads of climbing films when I was first getting into climbing and as a creative person it inspired me as much to make films as to climb. I made a camera-in-a-shoe sort of film in 2010 and that gave me the bug to get together the gear, and knowhow, to do it seriously.
What was the inspiration for a film about sea cliffs?
I knew there was the potential for a great film entirely about sea cliffs from my own experiences climbing them and the sections that I loved in other people’s films. After the reception of Stonnis I just thought “I’m going to make that sea cliff film”.
What were your biggest challenges in making the film?
Capturing the atmosphere that was present at the time of the ascents. I’d remember exactly how it felt at the time but sitting at home months later wading through hours of shaky footage I’d be asking myself “how do I make this feel like it did?”.
And what did you think would be challenging but actually found easy?
I wouldn’t describe any of it as easy but I had a lot of luck finding climbers – some of the best bits of the film are of people I’d just met, climbing on crags that I had no prior knowledge of.
Any tips for budding filmmakers?
Invest time and money in sound recording. Choose substance over style. Don’t film the same crags, routes or climbers as other people. Only film people on things that they have to try hard on.
Looking back, would you do it all again?
Absolutely. I sacrificed a lot to make it but I had so much fun and the result will be here forever.
What’s the next big project? Climbing/filming…
I’m currently recovering from a 25-metre groundfall I took at Easter so my project right now is to walk without a crutch! Climbing can wait. I’m going to work on improving my stills photography in the near future, at obscure or hard-to-photograph venues mainly in the Peak, and hopefully have a new film project idea by the time I can carry video gear again.
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