David Coley and friends are in the process of putting up a 1km traverse of the Boulder Ruckle in Dorset, England. If they succeed, they plan to call the route Wonderland. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
I guess someone had to fall off. After 80 pitches we had entered the realm of the law of large numbers. Shame it was Tom. First time on the route. First time on the cliff. First time playing this game of multi-pitch new routing. Shame it was Big Tom. A smaller Tom might not have snapped the foothold.
We tend to assume the second falling off is a minor event, or not even an event. However falling off on a traverse is always a little more like a lead fall and Tom was 10ft above the nearest runner when he fell. Still, there was a lot of rope out and the fall factor small, so I was a bit surprised when the force picked me up and threw me hard at the rock face. Tom was left hanging in space below a roof, unhurt and slowly rotating on the rope. I was left feeling like Mike Tyson had taken a dislike to me.
In a normal fall the speed of the belayer is limited by gravity. You have probably experienced this when climbing indoors and belaying a heavier climber: you get pulled up the wall, but come to a gentle halt. This is because all the time you are travelling gravity is applying the brakes – because you are travelling up, away from the planet. In a traversing fall, the belayer is accelerated sideways, and gains no height, so once travelling there is nothing to slow you down except the anchors and the rock face. Splat.
Why Tom decided to snap another hold and fall off again remains a mystery, but at least I was ready for the impact.
Six hours later the climbing is starting to look hard, so I let Tom go first. We have been forced briefly onto the main mid-height break that runs for a kilometre along the length of the cliff. The climbing is steep and wild: big jugs protected by big cams and big threads. He disappears from sight just as the sun sets. I follow along the break and around an arete. As is often the case on this cliff, a big corner follows the arete. These are the most dangerous moments for the second as falling into a corner is much the same as hitting the deck. The final few metres are hard in the dark, but I manage to reach over, place a wire to protect myself, move past it, and then remove it. Big holds follow and I find Tom clipped to three questionable pegs buried in the dirt of the break.
We sit in the dark and wonder what to do. This part of the cliff is rarely visited for two reasons: it is impossible to top out without a preplaced rope as the top twenty feet of the cliff is total choss; and secondly, the cliff starts straight out of the sea with no protecting boulders. The next section looks harder than the last, and the break has turned soft and sandy. As the whole point of Wonderland is to avoid the poor rock and the break, we convince ourselves not to continue. The cliff below is overhanging. We are trapped. We can’t go up, and going down means plunging into a wintery sea.
The stars are out, so it looks like it will be a cold night, and well below freezing by dawn. I’m starting to feel guilty, as I’m not sure Tom signed up for this, but he’s a big lad and I don’t think one can actually freeze to death in Dorset. I’m more worried that someone will miss us and call the rescue services. That would be embarrassing, but I also don’t think they will be able to find us as we are a long way from our abseil rope. Even if they use a boat to spot our head torches, the roofs above us would make it hard to reach us, and given the loose rock it would be a dangerous rescue.
This is pathetic: benighted two hours from London. Time to go for a late night swim. I reinforce the belay with a perfect hex, cut a cordelette up and use it to lash it all together. Tom lowers me diagonally across the cliff to minimise the length of the swim. I stop three metres above the sea on the lip of a roof. Place a wire and prepare for the evitable. Timing will be everything. I shout to Tom to lower me just as a wave retreats. When I hit the water it is only knee deep and I run for the nearest high point. I make it just as the next wave arrives. Perfect. I build an anchor on top of a boulder and Tom abseils down is a big arc. We laugh at our luck.
I know where we are and where the nearest easy route is. We time each boulder hop to miss the waves to reach a beautiful two-pitch VS (5.8). At the top we rush back to the car. Our head torches pick up the reflective letters ‘POLICE’ on the patrol car before we get near our car, and by the time we reach it the car park is awash with the lights of the rescue volunteers. We smile and apologise for the trouble. The police officer seems glad we are safe, the volunteers slightly disappointed they won’t get to play in the dark.
A few weeks later we are still left with a section of cliff that is too loose high up and too hard down low, and can’t find a way through. On most of the route we have taken a true on-sight approach and have not walked the base spotting the best line, but just kept going, trusting our noses. Here just when we could do with a good look we can’t as the sea is covering the base of the cliff.
But this time it isn’t night, and the sun is shining, so I strip naked, tie the rope around my waist with a bowline, hope Pete can pull me out if I faint from cold or a wave drags me out to sea and leap into the wintery foam. From the water the line is obvious: mid-height for a pitch then trending down almost to the sea before heading back up to what looks like an in-situ peg or two to lower off. I swim back and we jug up the abseil rope to abseil back down in the right place. This time all goes perfectly: Out before dark and a pint at the Square and Compass.
Footnote: We only have a few pitches to go. Unfortunately the bird closure has come into force, so they will have to wait until mid summer.