Many climbing adventures are born on the geologically majestic Cornish sea cliffs. This summer, BMC member Simon Hammond embarked on a Cornish quest of classic E2s and tells us why the culm coast should be on everyone's hit list.
At sunset on a calm July evening we finished our Culm Coast trilogy.
At some point in your climbing career you've just got to go climbing on the Culm coast! You might be only a stones throw from a beach full of surfers but this strip of coastline from Bude up to Clovelly has every ingredient to make each day's climbing an epic adventure.
This naturally west-facing coastline is composed of the buckled remains of 270 million year old sedimentary rock. Layers of this rock alternate between a relatively dense sandstone and a very soft shale, known locally as culm. Not long after it was deposited these layers were squashed in a north-south direction causing huge folds and buckles to form. The layers, in places, now became almost vertical and after millions of years of coastal erosion the softer culm receded leaving the harder sandstone to form headlands and free standing pillars of near vertical slabs.
These north and south-facing slabs of varying degrees off-vertical dictate a delicate style of climbing, perhaps with the exception of the steep fins at Lower Sharpnose which stand so vertically that the forearms take the pump rather that the calves! These slabs can be smooth but aren't completely featureless, it's just that the features tend to be small. Pockets like those found on Crymptyphon at Compass Point create well placed rests, vertical cracks like that on Haile Selassie at Gul Rock provide ample places for good gear and then there are the quartz breaks, honey comb weathered rock and the gradual changing gradient of the slab which generally eases as the top is approached but which sometimes does the opposite as at Cornekey Cliff with Sunday Bloody Sunday!
You won't need to perform a balanced abseil off every fin you summit but there are some where pulling a rope through and anchoring it to the ground on the other side gives you the only method of creating a bomb proof belay at the top. Pegs are another interesting extra on many of these slabs as are the spiders webs of tatt left behind to aid your descents. With a new guidebook for the area underway, there's a good chance that many of the worst rusty relics will get replaced and even some of the most rotten slings might get cut out but nothing is ever certain.
Of course the rock is just one factor on this rugged and rural coastline. The weather is a big issue and the wind direction, when there's rain about, is critical. Anything blowing in from the east may actually leave the coastal rocks dry. Failing that, climbing a slab with its back to the wind is always a good idea. But the biggest issue is the sea; the size of the swell, the time of the tides and the monthly cycle of neaps and springs all have a huge effect on whether the rock is dry, washed and sprayed by the sea or simply under water!
And its not just the climbing that is affected by the sea, the approach and retreat also need a bit of planning. There are routes that require you to abseil in, others where several kilometres of boulder hopping are the only approach and escape, a few where mountain biking from the nearest parking spot might save you some time and then there are some that, to be honest, would be best approached by sea kayak.
Some routes and crags are certainly more straight forward that others but none are completely simple. So with this in mind me and local climbing instructor Joel Perkin decided to pick off a trilogy of classic Culm Coast E2's all on north-facing, free-standing fins where low tide and calm seas were essential. The selection included Bulldyke E2 5B on the Cow and Calf just south of Hartland Point Light-house, Sacre Coeur E2 5C on Blackchurch Rock near Clovelly and Blisterin' Barnacle E2 5B on Blisterin' Barnacle Slab at Dyer's Lookout.
The trick with all of these climbs was to choose summer evenings when the sun would warm these northern faces together with the best days of a tidal cycle giving mid-day highs and evening lows and then just hope the weather would hold (which it did!).
Bulldyke was first and the scariest. A vertical crack provided placements for gear but the honey combed rock face gave no confidence in the quality of this sandstone layer. It was a very careful climb and the appearance of a hidden peg close to the top made all the difference to my feelings of well being. The moves were straightforward and to be fair the rocky honey combs might have been dusty and thin but made for reasonable hand holds and even better foot holds. I was glad to top-out and with huge boulders at the top belaying Joel was easy.
Next came the recognised classic Sacre Coeur on the much photographed Blackchurch Rock. For this we parked at Clovelly and mountain biked along farm tracks and forest paths to get out to this secluded point at the perfect time for sunshine and tide. Two climbers had just finished the route and were basking in the evening sun (thanks to Neil for getting up and taking the photos of our ascent). This is a wonderful route with no let up from start to finish. Small cracks all the way create ample placements but with no real rests it's a balance between constant moving and fiddling about with gear. With Calf muscles burning near the top I kept moving only to get into a position a long way above my last runner with a committed move to make! A bit of sweating and swearing later and all was well and with a small wire and cam in place the final moves could be enjoyed. Joel stormed up, making it all look far too easy as the tide lapped up to the bottom of the face. Tatt and pegs at the top gave us the luxury of a gentle abseil off the back of this rock, just in time to get back to the bikes before the surging tide cut us off from the mainland.
With good weather holding the very next day we headed out to Hartland Quay to try and finish our challenge. Joel refused to boulder-hop, swim, bike or abseil into any more climbs, which was lucky, as all we needed here was a gentle coastal path walk down into the bay of Dyer's Lookout – home of the famous and impossible looking The Walk of Life E9 6C!
We were greeted by a calm sea and warm evening sun but Blisterin' Barnacle Slab was still deep in the ocean! I couldn't imagine the tide retreating much further so we scrambled in as close as possible before we geared up and looked for a route to the water washed north face. Guidebook in mouth Joel gallantly traversed around a couple of tricky corners to find the starting ledge clear of the sea. This route looked desperate! Guidebook out to identify the vaguest of lines and then a very cautious start. Nothing wrong with caution but as the climb went on the placements and holds just kept coming, invisible from below but positive edges and finger pockets all the way to the top. The best of the three and we made it just as the sun was setting.
By BMC member Simon Hammond, recently qualified MIA and member of AMI. Simon is a Budehaven School PE teacher and with his wife Nicola owns Shoreline Extreme Sports based in Bude. Climbing partner Joel Perkin also lives in Bude and works at Shoreline as a multi-activity instructor.
Join us on the Culm Coast for the Cornish Climbing Festival
Following the success of the 2012 Cornish Climbing Festival in West Cornwall, the BMC’s team of volunteers in the South West has decided to host another weekend of climbing and socialising; this time the venue will be the North Cornwall / Devon border. Everyone is welcome, so head to the Culm Coast for the weekend of 6-8 September.
More information on the BMC Local Areas site