Two go mad in Dorset – Dave Mahon

It is always a pleasure to climb with Brian Mead, there is never a dull moment. I want to share my vivid experiences of steep Swanage limestone from two recent day raids to Boulder Ruckle.

Brian first introduced me to the mysteries of Swanage limestone in August 2007. At the time I had a lengthy list of VSs to my name but I was well in my comfort zone. I was aware that Brian had taken many club members to Swanage on day raids but few had gone back for more! Up until now I had been put off by the reputation for loose, overhanging rock covered in guano. The top-outs sounded a bit scary as well! However, we had recently been to Pembroke so I was very confident that Brian knew what he was doing. We decided to warm up on the Heidelberg Creature at Boulder Ruckle. It was an event just getting to the base of the cliff what with a long, free hanging abseil followed by boulder hopping with a moderate sea. I was concerned to watch Brian gibbering up the Heidelberg Creature, a mere VS but very steep and exciting for the grade. It seemed far tougher than the average Stanage VS! I led the awesome Finale Groove (HVS 4c) and Brian led the amazing Lightning Wall (HVS 5a). Following up this, I thought it was the most ‘out there’ climb I had ever done. And it left a big impression.

Far from scaring me off, I revisited Swanage four times with my main climbing partner Matt Jackson, who was briefly in the TWMC. I now love the place with its sunny climate and short drive. On the last trip we ticked off a bunch of big HVSs and I led the amazing Elysium (without resting!), a classic and sustained 38m E1 5b. So far I have enjoyed Guillemot Ledge and Boulder Ruckle but Subluminal has disappointed twice so I won’t bother with that again. Lightning Wall is now a warm up!

Day raid 1

Anyway, it was the end of October but the weather forecast was good so we went to Boulder Ruckle. We drove via the A27 which I have done lots of times before but it was new to Brian. I wish I brought some sunscreen because the sun was intense and we were sweltering in t-shirts! We thought we would check out the Buccaneer area of Boulder Ruckle – an exciting cliff where it is all E1 upwards apart from Larus (HS but now HVS 5b? after a rockfall). We thought we would warm up on Sinbad (E1 5b, 5a), in retrospect a bad idea as the difficult move was at the bottom. I led this pitch and cruised up the crux, although I got really pumped mid way. I was glad to get to the stance. My bomber stance came in handy because I had a tight rope for about half an hour! Feeling like Simon Yates I was relieved to feel the slack when Brian nailed the crux. He had done it before and didn’t like it first time either! Having done the 5b pitch I expected an easy time following but it had a really big feel and kept on coming at you. Phew, we were shagged out at the top, good lead Brian! We couldn’t find the energy to do the Grim Reaper (E1) so we went to another part of the Ruckle to do the pleasant Silhouette Arête (VS 4c, 4b) – one I haven’t done due to bird bans. I led the easy 4b pitch while Brian had the interesting traverse before the striking overhanging arête. Recommended.

Day raid 2 – a week later

It was the end of the season so I had put my leading gear into storage, having washed the metalwork and lubricated the moving parts. Brian then advertised on email again as the weather was good. With marital permission secured, I was off again to Boulder Ruckle! The plan was to warm up on Prudence (HVS 4c,5b) before doing an E1. It was warm for November and the light northerly wind was blowing over the top – perfect! Access is tricky from the bottom so we estimated the position and abseiled off a single stake – it looked bomber though. Which was good as it was massively overhanging. We judged it well and I got cracking on the ‘easy’ pitch! It was a jamming crack, very rough like gritstone and big gear was needed, all very strenuous. After an awkward hanging stance in a corner under an overhang, Brian led the 5b pitch. It as no pushover but the top out was OK and Brian could use the ab rope to fix a welcome runner. My awkward stance suddenly seemed to make sense when a large 20cm+ boulder passed by to hit the base like a bomb. At the top we definitely felt warmed up and I was suddenly down to a t-shirt. Not bad for November!

To avoid ad rope faff we decided to climb Ganymede next (E1 5a,5b) as it was adjacent to Prudence. It was rarely climbed but looked OK and it was low tide, which was just as well otherwise the belayer would have been ankle deep in water having rope problems. I started up the fist sized right hand crack but soon ran out of big friends. It was too committing so I descended and swapped to the left hand crack. Steeper and narrower, it was climbed on finger jams and strenuous laybacking. After negotiating overhangs and further steep ground I finally got to the stance. It was a hanging belay and I put stacks of gear in as each bit wasn’t perfect. Brian was ankle deep by this point, contemplating an epic as the ropes were swimming about. He did very well to get my prized no.2 cam out and arrived pumped as his feet and hands were wet and slippery.

They luckily dried out for his pitch. After a traverse Brian had a very committing move over an overhang and up a blank wall with no obvious bomber holds to look forward to. After a tense half hour he managed to secure a shallow no.2 nut and went for it. Brian asked me to ‘watch me here’ which came easy as it seemed a certainty he was going to take an almighty whipper if the nut came out. Following was pleasurable, apart from worrying about my ab rope. It had 5m+ lying on the deck and the tide was coming in – I feared for the worst. At the top we sorted out gear and ropes out with a shell shocked look to us. At that moment a gnarly looking climber passed by who I recognised from a magazine – Scott Titt. We got chatting and he explained he had only just hammered in our lovely belay stake a few days ago. Thanks Scott! Apparently, the last batch rotted easily but these were of superior quality and went down to a reassuring three feet.

Before he left I checked my ab rope but the worst had happened. Bugger! Scott lent me a sharp knife and a shunt (I already had a shunt, tibloc + prussics) and abbed down to a lively swell. After some swinging I managed to land on a block and hauled in some rope before attaching the two shunts. I cut the rope, swung into mid air then shunted to the top. As it was mostly free hanging it was a little unnerving as I imagined the sharp lips of limestone at the top cutting through the taught rope. Well, I eventually topped out to Brian’s relief and we drove via Swanage to drop Scott’s gear off at his house before the drive home.

Top tips:

  1. Drop a few notches before you get used to the place. It is best to go with someone that knows the place for your first trip.
  2. Use Rockfax and make photocopies – don’t faff around with carrying a book.
  3. At the Ruckle be careful when belaying at the top – there are always loose blocks and dislodging them is very easy.
  4. Be careful to set up the ab rope with minimal excess at the bottom. Knot the end and remove it at the bottom.
  5. When Brian advertises a day raid on email – go for it. You won’t be disappointed!
[nggallery id=5]