Top ten sea-cliff climbing skills that you need to know

Posted by Jonathan Garside on 24/04/2014
Sam Whittaker samples the salty delights of Red Wall, Gogarth. (Photo: Alex Messenger)

It’s official: Britain has the best sea-cliff climbing in the world. If you want to sample some salty fun this summer then stack the odds in your favour with our top ten tips for successful sea-cliff climbing.

As an island, we might have unreliable weather, but our coastline is packed full of adventurous climbing fun. From Land’s End in Cornwall to the Old Man of Hoy, there are enough challenges to last a lifetime, but what extra skills do you need?

1. Can you climb there?

Climbers aren’t alone in being attracted to sea cliffs; many birds nest there too. The BMC negotiate access for climbers to ensure that climbing and conservation work hand-in-hand. Some areas, such as Pembroke, have quite complex restrictions, so be sure to check access when visiting new venues. Check the BMC Regional Access Database (RAD) or download our Android and iPhone RAD app.

2. Get a weather forecast

This may sound obvious, but a big tide combined with a weather depression will produce a big sea. Even if the sky is bright blue, the sea can still have a big swell if there’s been recent bad weather.

3. Decipher the tide tables

Many cliff bases can only be accessed around low tide. High and low tide times can be found in tide tables, available from tourist information, post offices, chandlers and climbing shops. There are also many websites and apps that provide tide times. Alternatively, contact the coastguard. It’s easy to misread a tide table: you may have to make adjustments for your venue, compared to the port in the table, and the times are in GMT, not British summer time. Check and check again.

4. Reduce approach angst

Abseil? Walk? Scramble? Read the guidebook, and ask around – you may find someone as confused as you. Some sea cliffs are topped with steep, convex grassy slopes, making approaches difficult or hazardous; abseiling down can sometimes be a very good idea. Many sea cliffs don’t require abseil approaches, so if it’s your first time, consider a venue like that.

5. Mind the swell

Even if the tide is low enough, the ocean swell can come up higher than you think, so take care on approaches and at the start of your route. People have been known to be washed off the slabs at the bottom of the approach to Bosigran Ridge.

6. Locate your line

All large cliffs are confusing, and sea cliffs are no exception. Wandering around the top, you can’t see the climbs to help locate your line. Guidebooks go a long way, but if in doubt walk along to an overlooking buttress to get a feel for where you are. You really don’t want to abseil into the wrong area.

7. Learn the art of abseiling

Popular venues with abseil approaches often have fixed gear, which must be checked. When abseiling consider using an auto bloc. Think how far you will be abseiling before tying a knot in the end of your rope: if your abseil rope ends up in the sea then the knot could catch, but if it doesn’t reach, a knot can be very reassuring as you’re dangling above the deck. Using a low-stretch rope is a very good idea: you’re less likely to dislodge rocks above as you abseil down. I use a 70m low-stretch rope, which is fine for most venues.

Watch: how to abseil on BMC TV:

8. Respect the wildlife

Large birds can be very aggressive if you get too near their nest. Being mobbed by one is very unpleasant, so if you find yourself near a nest, be especially careful not to disturb the chicks. Stood at the bottom of a zawn, you often see seals bobbing their heads above the water – they may be concerned for their seal pup hidden on the beach, so watch your step. Coastal cliffs also provide a unique environment for plants, and gardening can remove seemingly boring plants such as the unique Orme Cabbage at Pen Trwyn. Try to avoid removing vegetation when you climb.

9. The problem with pegs

Sea-cliff climbing is all that’s great about trad climbing in Britain: rich in history, exciting, adventurous, and taking place in a beautiful natural environment. There are, however, a few things to think about. You may come across the odd peg, but treat all fixed gear with extreme suspicion. Much of it has been exposed to the salty sea air for over twenty years, with their buried parts rotted away. Think of them as vertical cairns, marking the way. The tops of many sea cliffs are also loose; helmets are a very good idea.

10. The great escape

Be fully aware of the implications should you not be able to complete your climb. If you walked in, you can always walk out, even if it means waiting twelve hours for the next low tide. If you abseiled in, then it’s likely you’ll have to climb or prussik out. Take two prussiks or a small ascending device, such as a Tibloc or Ropeman, and practice using them. People drown easily; don’t think of swimming unless you’re sure you’re up to it. In case of an emergency, dial 999 and the coastguard will coordinate with the appropriate rescue services.

11. Don’t forget your ice-cream money.

Jon Garside is the BMC Training Officer. The only thing he loves more than sea-cliff climbing is the ice cream afterwards. Contact him at jon@thebmc.co.uk.

Further info

Watch BMC Rock Climbing Essentials on BMC TV:

Packed with top tips on all aspects of outdoor climbing, including sea cliffs, this BMC skills DVD is essential viewing. Buy it now in the BMC shop.

Watch our exclusive T-Rex Film on BMC TV:

A special out-take from Rock Climbing Essentials. Watch Trevor Massiah and Ruth Taylor tackle the classic T-Rex (E3) at Gogarth.

Expert Q & A

Trevor Massiah is a qualified mountaineering instructor and has close to 30 years of rock climbing and mountaineering experience. He’s climbed in many parts of the world and counts Pembrokeshire, where he’s been based for the past 18 years, as one of his favourite. His winters are spent new routing, guiding and coaching in Thailand. He is a director of Rockandsun.com, specialists in running climbing trips to exotic destinations.

Q. Do I need to wash my rack after a sea-cliff visit?

A. Yes. Wash your gear in warm, soapy water, then dry and lubricate any metalwork with moving parts, such as cams and karabiners. This will maintain their smooth action, guard against corrosion and prolong the life of your rack.

Q. How should I carry my gear when traversing to the start of a climb?

A. When traversing along the base of a sea cliff, carry your rack on a sling or bandolier. Jettisoning your entire rack into the sea will be expensive, but less painful than drowning. Roping up and placing the occasional runner, even on easy ground, is another option.

Q. Do I need to set up a belay below a climb?

A. Not always, but is the ledge big enough to guarantee you not losing your balance and pulling your leader off? Is there any chance of being washed off by a freak wave? Is there any chance of your leader falling past you before getting the first runner in and sending both of you into the sea? If you decide that you need a belay, try to create one that is not directly below the climber and has enough slack in the system to allow movement away from falling rock.

Q. Do I need to be a strong swimmer?

A. Not unless you’re heading out deep-water soloing. Having said this, I’ve had to lower off into the sea on at least one occasion and could tell many stories of people swimming out when things haven’t gone to plan. If in doubt, rope up for approaches where falling into the sea is a possibility.

Q. I’ve seen belay stakes at the top of cliffs. Are they safe, and what’s the best way to tie into them?

A. Stakes, as with all in-situ gear, should be backed up where possible. Check them by looking for excessive signs of corrosion, and sharp edges; try placing a foot on top and pushing firmly in the direction that they will be pulled to check for excessive movement or bending. Space at the back of a stake could be a sign that it has shifted forwards recently. If it looks secure, then use a sling or a figure-of-eight on the bight with a loop big enough to tie a clove hitch with. Tie the clove hitch as low as possible.

Q. Do I need to tell the coastguard if I’m going sea cliff climbing?

A. Always tell someone where you’re going and what time you’re expected back. Other climbers are usually best for this: they often have a better idea of the exact location of the routes. Coastguards are also happy to do this and see it as a normal part of their work, but make sure you remember to check in with them before heading to the pub!

Q. Is it considered OK to descend someone else’s ab rope?

A. Yes, generally it’s considered OK. Often it’s not possible to set up two or three abseils in the same place if anchors are limited. If possible, seek permission first and check you’re happy with the set up. Also consider carefully how comfortable you are if the other parties finish while you are still climbing and remove their rope

Read more climb skills articles


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Anonymous User
07/06/2016
Don't forget that a mobile phone signal is often not available at the bottom of many sea cliffs (or even the top). Getting emergency help may well involve an awkward climb out and some distance and time to get to a phone or signal afterwards.

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