Happenstance – it’s a funny thing. Thinking about writing this blog has made me realise just how tenuous the path of life can be. To quote George Michael, ‘turn a different corner and we never would have met’. Don’t think he was referring to climbing at 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 have another look at the climbing possibilities hidden within its dank interior – checking it out once every few years had become a pastime for me and I vaguely remembered 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, 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 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 stars manage to bolt up their caves – no wonder they are so strong) but we got it done and, barring a few falls – from the rock as opposed to the ladder – and a few redpoint 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 much of the sandstone could be prised 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 laboured up the slope, more in resignation than expectation. How many hillsides 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 really 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 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 eleven bolted lines (and no link ups!!!) at Sugar Mountain. They go like this: Arete Butler (6c), Billy Crystal Cluster (7a), Stan Coliform (7c), unclimbed project (7c+/8a), Mackerel Stevens (7c), Krushmi Chheda (7c+), Bob Handhold (6c), Macca’s Route (7a+), Powderfinger (6b), Ragged Glory (6b), Gene Parmesan (7b+). They are all between 15m and 18m long, gently overhanging and on generally excellent rock (although there may still be a few loose holds remaining). The first four routes listed are found on the side wall, which turned out to have rock that was, on the whole, much better than it looks, and they offer very different climbing to the main wall being generally more sustained and pumpier. 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?