Oh To Live On Sugar Mountain…or Churston (My Latest Obsession).

Happenstance – it’s a funny thing. Thinking about writing this blog has made me realise just how tenuous this phenomenon called life is. To quote George Michael, ‘turn a different corner and we never would have met’. Don’t think he was referring to Churston though!

About a year ago now a series of events began which have led to me having, debatably, the best and, undoubtedly, the most exciting, climbing year of my life. It was at the bum end of Summer 2013 that I re-visited Ash Hole in Brixham to re-evaluate the climbing possibilities hidden within its dank interior having checked it out many years ago and vaguely remembering some grimy potential for those with sufficient time, vision…and cleaning equipment. Ash Hole is, to be honest, a pretty grim spot. Not only is it usually green and often dripping, it seems to attract people who are far more interested in bringing their beer along to the venue than removing the cans afterwards! To compound matters, the posh house overlooking the venue seems to think (or, more probably, their gardener seems to think) that its OK to chuck garden waste over the balustrade of their perched decking into the depths below. Add a comprehensive smorgasbord of rotting in-situ gear from the early 90s, a thriving ivy plantation and a sticky toffee pudding base and you have the makings of first-class Devonian esoteria – catnip for weirdo South Westerners looking for fresh challenges, probably less enticing for those travelling over from their base in Catalunya.

Once inside the cave itself, however, the true potential of the venue reveals itself. Tufas abound, rock is sound, the angle is perfect for overhanging jug fests. Having made relatively short work of Dave Henderson’s thread protected Wayne, I started to consider other lines in the roof and my eye was immediately drawn to a point of entry just down and left (as you look out of the cave) that led from one funky feature to the next right up to the apex of the roof – 12 metres of roof climbing heaven…potentially.

Unfortunately there was only one way to protect the line and, in that respect, I was significantly lacking. However, I happened to know a friend of mine was looking to sell his drill and glue gear so I quickly contacted him and, before I knew it, the two of us were teetering up his three part ladder, Ryobi in hand whilst we guessed at the rough positioning of the bolts, hoping beyond hope that the ladder, drill and ourselves were not going to head off down the mud slope that leads from the back of the cave to the entrance 10m below. The bolting process was absolutely exhausting (God knows how those Spanish rock gods manage to bolt up their caves – no wonder they are strong) but we got it done and, barring a few falls – from the rock as opposed to the ladder – and a few nerves, Dream River (7c) came into being. Although it still needs a bit of traffic in its middle section, it’s a great addition to Devon sports climbing being highly unusual – climbable in the rain (as long as there is no seepage), bring a head torch in the Winter months and enjoy the experience of climbing on severely overhanging tufa holds in South Devon!

So, for a brief while, I became Mr Ash Hole (although some might have mispronounced this) and, as a result, Pete Saunders contacted me to ask if I would write the section on it for the forthcoming South Devon Limestone guide. Having had extensive experience of the venue (well, I had climbed two routes there!) I was only too happy to help…and why not chuck in Churston too – keep me off the streets and besides, it might actually incentivise me to get over to the backwater to end all Devonian backwaters (and that’s saying something!).

Up until this Summer I had only climbed one route at Churston, although I had been to ‘snoop’ on a few occasions. In one of those interminably sodden winters a few years ago, Murray Dale and myself decided to check it out…mainly because the alternative was to go home or to the cafe or something equally uninspiring. So we climbed a soaking Supercalorific and had a nose around. We couldn’t have been looking very hard, however, as we failed to find any of the cliffs I have spent the last six months climbing on. That was that until the early Summer of 2014 when, upon finding myself at a loose end, with no-one to climb with and it feeling a bit too chilly to don my waterwings and go deep water soloing, I decided to have one last look to see if there was any potential left at Churston that I had, somehow, missed from my previous visits. I hoped to find the odd unclimbed line; y’know, direct finishes, eliminates, that sort of thing. I didn’t expect to be sitting here half a year later, having put up a dozen sports climbs from 6b to 7c+ on crags that had, until now, been left unclimbed and with my mind full of future lines and possibilities. How the hell did we miss these cliffs?

Well, Nick White is partly to blame seeing as he claimed that the quarry just east of the Supercalorific quarry housed no potential for the climber in his guidebook of 1995. So was that you, Nick, who placed those pegs at the top of Sugar Mountain? Hidden high on the slope behind a wall of ash trees, Sugar Mountain is almost impossible to spy in high Summer and I guess Nick (assuming it was him) counted on this, thinking that natural camouflage and a diversionary comment in the guidebook would be sufficient to keep all but the most inquisitive eye at bay. And so it had proven for almost twenty years.

In fact, on that first foray I didn’t really find Sugar Mountain as I only had a momentary glimpse of something white up through the trees just as I was leaving. I had, however, found the even more impressive but very rough around the edges Redstone Cliff. A real curio, the Redstone Cliff consists of bullet hard limestone which is covered, in places, with a strange patina of sandstone. I was excited by my discovery, but somewhat dismayed at the state of the cliff – this was going to take a lot of effort to get into a climbable state. It was obvious from the examples that were in reach at the foot of the cliff that the sandstone could be pried off relatively easily but there was a lot of it and the limestone underneath was invariably pretty dirty. I was frustrated that I had found an overhanging, unclimbed twenty metre high cliff that was in such poor condition.

Undeterred, I decided to grasp the nettle and come back for a better look. And while I was at it, what about checking out that glimpse of white cliff I had spied in the ‘middle’ quarry? So I trudged up the slope, more in resignation than expectation. How many slopes had I trudged up in my time only to find the boulder I thought would house the next Dreamtime was actually only chest high or that the cliff I was convinced would be the next Ceuse was, in fact, a slab you could walk up. So I was blown away on finding a sheet of pretty much perfect, gently overhanging white limestone. Whilst the right hand section of cliff was hidden under a vast sheet of ivy, the left hand half that now houses Mackerel Stevens and Krushmi Chheda was pretty clean, and obviously classic route territory…if it was climbable at all, that is. Added to this was a further, steep and ivy shrouded side wall that looked just as enticing although the rock was much less predictable being sandy and soft in appearance.

No matter, I enthusiastically started purging the crag of its ivy, running back and forth like a dog with two tails, not knowing where to start. But start I did and thus began a wonderful six months of discovery; each pull of ivy revealing yet more potential, each exploratory top-rope creating probability from possibility, each hour spent with the drill providing a permanent path where before there was a temporary line of speculative chalk dots.  There is nothing quite like the thrill of looking back at a newly dressed line that has been transformed from a shrouded lump of enticing vegetation to a pristine wall of sheer limestone proudly awaiting the ‘proper’ battle to commence; the one with rope heading off between legs and adrenalin pumping wildly as you realise that once again you have completely overestimated how brave/strong/composed you are.

There are currently ten bolted lines (and no link ups!!!) at Sugar Mountain. They go like this: 6c, 7a, 7c, unclimbed project (7c+/8a), 7c, 7c/+, 6c, 7a+, 6b, 6b, 7b+. They are all between 15m and 18m long, gently overhanging and on generally excellent rock (although there may be a few loose holds still remaining). The first four routes listed are found on the side wall and they offer very different climbing to the main wall being more sustained and pumpy. The routes on the main wall tend to have well defined cruxes and are steeper than they look. I think they are all great, but I would, wouldn’t I – they are my children after all! Come and have a look yourself and see what you think…at the very least, it is somewhere you haven’t been before and, what’s more, unless there is a strong NW wind blowing rain in, the main wall remains dry in all but the heaviest rain (and the side wall is pretty good too in this respect) and is in deep shade throughout those sweltering Summer months (some irony here, admittedly).

So Churston – the new Torbryan or a pile of choss by the sea? There’s only one way to find out, right?

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Yard Trimmings – My Relationship With The Empire Wall

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On the Empire crux section of Fusion Reactor

I can still vividly recall the moment, back in ’87 I think it was, when I sat in my parents’ car clutching my brand new, just purchased, copy of the Littlejohn and O’Sullivan South Devon And Dartmoor guide – the one with Andy Meyers on the cover, hanging from Caveman’s roof whilst bedecked in his old blue Levis (funny how things come full circle – his attire seemed really dated back then in those lycra worshipping days) . Having only recently fallen under the climbing spell, but still hugely and wonderfully ignorant, I flicked through the pages, my mind conjuring up images of the immaculate Ceuse like South Face of Chudleigh and the Siuranaesque rockscapes of The Old Redoubt. In my imagination Hay Tor was only slightly less impressive than El Cap, Foggintor Quarry’s soaring aretes and technical faces akin to Millstone at its best and Anstey’s Cove was basically an earlier (and better) version of what Kalymnos has become. It turns out that most of these mental images were about right and in some cases it transpired that the Devonian version was superior to my wild imaginings. But, to be honest, the only venue of those listed that has held my interest, the one that I keep returning to, no matter how bruising our last encounter has been, no matter how much I manage to convince myself that we are totally incompatible bedfellows, is…well no doubt you’ve already guessed!

I think it’s probably fair to say that Anstey’s Cove is the beating heart of hard climbing in Devon. The Cove has evolved from a curious mess of slabby nonsense, loose trad and a smattering of aid pitches – as it was in the 1985 guide – to what is, ostensibly, the sports climbing epicentre of the South of England. Although that crown is nowadays challenged by the likes of Cheddar and Portland, the benchmarks – Empire of the Sun, Just Revenge, Cider Soak, Tuppence, Poppy and Brian – all reside just above the mediterranean waters off Redgate Beach – and few would argue that the routes listed would justly hold their own when compared with the best of the grade in the country. Admittedly Anstey’s is not perfect and it has a frankly embarrassing lack of choice for those operating between easy and hard but once the breakthrough has been made (more often than not with a successful ascent of Empire) there’s no looking back. I remember meeting a young Mark Campbell at the Cove way back in the early 90s as he struggled up The Lynch. Next time I saw him, he was lapping it! Similarly myself and Tim Emmett had a fun hour or two trying to boulder out the start of American Express (I recall him eventually being successfully…the first time (of many) he burnt me off!). The next thing I knew he was clipping the chains on The Cider Soak. As a forcing ground Anstey’s Cove has been one of the most important crags in the country for the past three decades; as a place for new talent to hone their skills, it’s second-to-none.

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Leaving Empire on Fusion Reactor

My own relationship with Anstey’s has, I imagine, followed a very different trajectory to most. You see, I always fancied onsighting Empire and so I saved it for years thinking that, at some point, I would get fit by projecting Just Revenge in preparation. So eventually that’s what I did. Of course, by the time I came to do Empire it was nowhere near an onsight but flashing the route has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my climbing life.

However, I have always harboured a little pang of regret when reminiscing on the approach I took to climbing Empire because at around about this time…2005 or so…I had spotted a monster unclimbed diagonal running from the bottom right to top left of the wall. I knew I couldn’t do it without climbing about one half of Empire and therefore blow the flash so I mentioned it to my good friend Jon Wilson who was unencumbered by such ridiculous, self imposed, restrictions. He promptly set to work on the line and, before too long, the wall had another route to add to its ever growing list of link ups. Helium does have a really cool 15 foot of previously unclimbed traversing that links Empire with Oozy, especially if the unnecessary friend placement is eschewed and the ride is taken – it’s about the most fun you can have whilst failing on a route! Jon opted to finish up Heathen Man which gives a tough final couple of moves and caps off a fine 20+m of sapping, but nowhere too hard, climbing.

And that’s where Jon’s line differed from the one I had originally spotted. The natural sweep of the rock on the Empire Wall, and the curve of the line climbed by Helium up to Oozy, draws the eye up and left from Heathen Man and it was always my intention to follow this sweeping line and try to finish up the short and obscure crack of Avant Garde….

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On new ground, just leaving the rest on Heathen Man.

Fast forward eight years and now in a position to do something about it having both climbed Empire and acquired a drill, I decided this Summer to check out Avant Garde on a top rope. Really unpleasant, fingery and hard, it seemed way out of keeping with the rest of the route. I was getting pretty dejected when it occurred to me that a line of unclimbed rock existed between Avant Garde and Heathen Man. It looked like there were holds and the line seemed independent…and so it proved. So I added a couple of new bolts and a new lower off and within a week or two I was hauling my unfit frame onto the finishing ledge of Fusion Reactor to surely close proceedings on the development of The Empire Wall. Fusion Reactor has about 27m of climbing on it – just under half the route contains moves that are only shared with Helium or are completely new. Harder for me than Helium but not hard enough for an increase in grade, Fusion Reactor must be the pumpiest route with no real hard moves on it around. I’m sure if you’re super fit it will feel like a path, but it certainly pushed me right to my limit and, as far as I am concerned, there’s no better place to be in climbing, especially whilst voyaging into previously unchartered terrain!

 

 

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Off The Beaten Track – A Decade Of Bouldering In Bovey Woods

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Mark MacManus on Jilted Tart (V4) – Northcombe Copse

Around 12 years ago now, the woods above Bovey Tracey began to be developed for bouldering. On Friday the 550th boulder problem in the woods was climbed. I often ask myself whether I would still have the same enthusiasm for climbing if I hadn’t discovered the woods – I count myself extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to find, explore, scrub and climb in such a special place; it’s something most climbers these days can only dream about as the unexplored corners of our craggy little isle become ever smaller and more remote. The fact that I can still be climbing first ascents on virgin boulders less than five minutes walk from the car gives me great pleasure and I know how lucky I am.

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Murray Dale on Heroes (V5) – Shaptor Rock

Yesterday I took Dan, Lee and Annette on the guided tour. They are all relatively new to the bouldering in Bovey Woods and got in touch for an orientation walk – a perfect activity for a typically damp April day. I was dismayed as we walked to some of the parts of the venue that I haven’t frequented in the last couple of seasons to see just how efficiently mother nature has reclaimed her own. This last Winter has been particularly depressing – mild and wet beyond our worst imaginings, the moss is about the only lifeform that has been flourishing in the recent months. It has been so frustrating; dry rock has been hard to find and those crisp, biting East winds that lead to perfect climbing conditions in the South facing bowl that houses the bouldering just haven’t materialised. So a lack of traffic has compounded matters and now many prime boulders are looking like they have never been climbed on at all.

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Jon Wilson on the easy start of The Modern Dance (V8) – Bearacleave

However, I have made it my mission to sort out the Rock Copse and Bearacleave sectors this Winter and these are both now looking really good. The brilliant Waller Slab is now in pristine nick, better than ever I would say. It took a couple of hours of hard work to clean the entire boulder – not long when you consider that it holds about 12 problems, some of which (Mornington Crescent, Black Swansong, Bovey Boys, La Fin de la Fin) are amongst the very best in the shire. So we need a few more enthusiastic devotees in there…and their brushes!

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Paul Hadley on the masterpiece that is Devon Sent (V10) – Bearacleave

One thing that has surprised me since I started climbing in the woods is just how reluctant the majority of climbers are to put in a bit of effort and have an explore. The woods can be a bewildering place to navigate but there is plenty of information available (try googling ‘Bovey Woods bouldering’) and those who have taken the time to download the topo seem to work it out before too long (although in this day and age I recognise the maps that are available could be improved). My reluctance to put the woods in a printed guidebook stems from my concern about the possible initial inundation that this would lead to and the probable accompanying problems with parking and litter rather than through any selfish motives – I love seeing other climbers enjoying the woods and would prefer to have more people using them…just not too many! So come on down whilst there are still a few weeks left of the current season (the woods become hopeless once the leaves come onto the big trees) – there are currently about 50 three star boulder problems in the woods and many others that contend with the best on offer on Dartmoor granite. What’s more, at the moment the place is heady with the scent of bluebells – there’s no better venue for a quick couple of hours after work or a half day at the weekend. Oh, and bring your brush!

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Dave Westlake on the magnificent The Jungle Book (V8+) – Lower Shaptor

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Land’s End to John o’Groats – 2011. How was it for me?

God! The Summer has been a long one, six weeks of holiday feels like a lifetime. They say time flies when you’re having fun, so either I haven’t been having fun, or ‘they’ don’t know what they’re talking about….because it’s been a blast.

I thought, unlike Rob (my cycling buddy… hell… I’d even be prepared to drop the ‘cycling’) I’d give the ride time to percolate before writing up my thoughts. Now that the bum is more or less untainted, the muscles reverting back to normal size and the tiredness due to lack of sleep as opposed to turning peddles endlessly, the ride has assumed a warm glow in my distant memory and that, for me, is a better place to write my thoughts from than the raw mess of my immediate post match ruminations.

Obviously people have been interested to hear about the trip. I have found it really difficult to talk about it. Not in an ‘oh my God, it’s too emotive’ kind of way. I just find it hard to encapsulate such a huge undertaking in a snatched conversation over the garden fence or the like. I have been asked on many occasions (almost as many occasions as we heard ‘you should have done it the other way round…it’s downhill that way’) whether it was as expected. That again is difficult to answer. As a repressed optimist I often find myself picturing a forthcoming experience in the best possible light. Before setting off my mind was filled with sunny days, cycling carelessly through idyllic British countryside on quiet roads with great people. And that’s exactly what happened – the weather was fantastic, only half an hour of proper rain in the 12 days and the route exceeded expectations, every stage an unfolding beauty (with the exceptions of Avonmouth and Irlam). I am happy to report that the country is in very rude health indeed and I can not praise the route highly enough…whoever put it together must be a genius!

But naturally this is only part of the story. Physically we coped well (although Rob pretended to find it hard at times I know it was all an act aimed to elicit sympathy from the groupies), but there were times when I had my worries. In fact, if I hadn’t been told at the end of the second day that underpants were a no-no when cycling, my bottom would have disintegrated long before the borders (certainly Scottish, possibly Welsh) had been reached. Mentally the ride was much more draining for both of us.  I cycled a 100 mile ride in the Autumn with Rob and on that occasion I trailed in his wake.

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