Scott didn’t look happy. I think the damp and the grey skies must have got to him. He’d been silent since the foot ledge he was standing on had collapsed, leaving him hanging from a couple of flints embedded in the soft limestone.
He’d arrived from his home in Yosemite into a wet English Autumn, didn’t know anyone and hence was open to climb with anyone, on anything. I decided not to tell him about Swanage top-outs. Why spoil his fun. Why spoil the rawness of the experience. I knew Californians lived for The Experience. I’d read Kerouac and of his parties in San Francisco. I reasoned that at home Scott probably downed a tab of LSD most mornings and soloed The Nose most afternoons. He still wasn’t moving. Must be jet lag. Or maybe he can’t swim and knows that there is no other way out but up.
He inches slowly upwards to the vertical earth bank, takes his shoes off and claws his way through the sticky mud and loose blocks to the top; great, another five pitches done.
The idea was a simple one. The cliffs in Southern England are short, very short, so let’s climb sideways. Swanage already had a long traverse and it wasn’t clear if it had been repeated, so we went to have a look. We quickly found that, although it takes the most obvious line, it follows a mid-height band of the worst rock on the cliff, the worst that is apart from the blocks and mud near the top. We decided that it would be safer to do a new route on the solid rock either side of the band. We guessed we were looking at 50 or so pitches.
Where to start? Left end or right end of the cliff? We picked the left. Rapped in and started climbing. Knowing that we weren’t going to able to do anything like 50 new pitches in a day, and that most people wouldn’t want to try and repeat the route in a day, we decided to break it up into natural sections. This would create a series of routes which people could combine depending on how much time they had, and how fast they climbed. It would leave a route that most climbers could complete by spreading the experience over several winter days of fun above the sea – Munro bagging for rock climbers. It also meant we would have time to knock off some of the classics during each visit when we weren’t traversing.
One of the best sections discovered so far has been that from Heidelberg Creature to Tatra and climbed with Stuart Fox. As the normal start to Tatra had recently fallen down, this section of cliff needed another way in anyhow. This has proved one of the harder sections, but it follows a perfect crack-line and would make a good spot for some aid practice. The next section, onto and then along The Adventures of Portland Bill also gives solid, quality, climbing.
One of the worst sections is that near the Asp. Being that the routes around here have names such as The Grim Reaper, Scythe and Blow the House Down, Tim and I knew this was going to be the case, but it was still a little traumatic, with much rock needing to be gently removed and thrown into the sea.
Another implication was that although I planned to climb the whole thing, I could be joined by a series of partners, thereby allowing as many people as possible to be part of the experience. I found this element highly attractive as it meant it would be a community-based mission – or maybe I just didn’t want to make the long drive from Exeter to Swanage with the same person each Sunday.
I’d started with Pete. We rapped down at the far end of the Ruckle and headed East from the Ramp. The climbing was easy and when we got to the jammed boulder at Jericho Grove we descended behind it just for fun.
So far we have climbed around 30 pitches and are about half way there. When finished Wonderland will be a very British big wall: above the sea, never more than 2 miles from a tea shop, within walking distance of one of the world’s best pubs, no need to haul, no need for a portaledge (there are several good bivvy sites on the route – but if you end up spending the night make sure someone tells the coast guard). Don’t forget to bring your swimming trunks.