Skeleton Ridge

Posted on: September 1, 2008


Skeleton Ridge

ALUM BAY

ISLE OF WIGHT

ENGLAND

MOST CLIMBERS ARE CONVENTIONAL AT HEART, preferring tried and tested itineraries. Some are not. In the late nineteenth century, the occultist and poet Aleister Crowley had developed a set of predilections that his contemporaries viewed as distinctly unconventional: sex, drugs and unguided alpine climbing. His arcane devotions soon earned him the title of the "wickedest man in the world" and made him the bane of the Alpine Club. But when he began to amuse himself climbing cliffs made of chalk, his peers became truly perplexed.

Although few if any understood it then, Crowley's 1894 ascent of Ethelreda's Pinnacle—named, as he wrote in his Confessions, after a dog or an ex-girlfriend (he couldn't remember which)—at Beachy Head was in fact one of the most serious and technically difficult climbs in Britain at the time. Crowley himself, remarking upon the unreliability of his chosen medium, declared, "One does not climb the cliffs. One hardly even crawls. Trickles or oozes would perhaps be the ideal verbs." Nevertheless he was surprised when local newspapers didn't share in his sense of triumph. "Insensate folly takes various forms," read one article, and while Crowley added a couple of other climbs to the Head, most of his fellow climbers continued to ignore them.

For a long time afterward the chalk cliffs slumbered.

"DAD, ARE THERE ANY GOOD CLIMBS ON THOSE CLIFFS?" I asked. I was thirteen years old, and we were crossing the English Channel on the way to the Alps. The grasslands of southern England that roll in small swells toward the south coast had suddenly ended in brilliant, sheer, vertical white. But although my father had introduced me to the short sandstone outcrops twenty miles south of our home in London, he wasn't a devoted rock climber and he didn't know.

Three years later, I'd started visiting the sandstone crags on my own, and soon I acquired a group of core climbing friends. As avid readers of climbing literature, we were intrigued to learn that when Tom Patey had tried to repeat Elthereda's Pinnacle in the 1950s, his team had found the steep grass and rock slopes so challenging that they'd failed even to reach the technical climbing. And yet Patey was very much a leading adventure climber of the day. Clearly there was something exceptional about this Crowley character.

I researched more and found his account of another chalk climb, Devil's Chimney, a wild pinnacle that has sadly subsided. "I scooped a hole out of the east face," read the account, "inserted my chin, and hauled. I had not shaved for a day or two, so was practically enjoying the advantages of Mummery spikes." Mummery spikes? Turned out they were early crampons. This all seemed very interesting—a little too interesting to start out on, perhaps, but worthy of note for later.

BY THE TIME I REACHED MY MID-TWENTIES, I'd discovered that I most enjoyed exploratory climbing away from the mainstream crags. And I knew that the only other truly vertical cliffs in England were the chalk ones jutting proudly over the channel, only seventy miles south of London. It seemed inconceivable that London climbers hadn't focused on them before. I quickly recruited a group of my sandstone friends: Mike Morrison, Andy Meyers and Chris Watts.

At Beachy Head, we did Crowley's routes first, finding the climbing serious but almost conventional: we wore rock shoes and protected the climbs with traditional nuts and slings along with the occasional drive-in ice screw. The razor-sharp flints made good hand- and footholds, although they tended to catch the rope. Later we moved on to Dover, where the chalk was softer and it was possible to hang two climbers from an ice axe placed in the sponge-like rock with just one blow.

Gradually it became clear: there was a tremendous wealth of urge-giving, unclimbed rock not far from home. And as much as it was adventurous—sometimes loose, and sometimes requiring eccentric techniques—if tackled the right way, it need not be dangerous.

IN 1985 ANDY MEYERS, LORRAINNE SMYTHE AND I STROLLED ALONG the rolling grass-topped cliffs of the Isle of Wight in plastic boots, with crampons affixed to our ice screw-loaded packs and ice axes in hand. We'd based our foot- and hardwear on Andy's reconnaissance; he'd declared the rock was most similar to the ice-climbing chalk at Dover. Since he was a fastidious man with a keen awareness of his surroundings combined with the willpower to build kit cars, we had no reason to doubt his judgment. The other weekend walkers studied us dubiously but offered no comment.

At the bottom of a 300-foot abseil, on the otherwise inaccessible beach of Scratchells Bay, I experimentally swung my axe.

"Shit!"

It bounced back, a bit as though it had hit a concrete wall. I scowled, Lorrainne collapsed laughing, and the normally loquacious Andy went quiet. It transpired that he had not actually taken his ice axe on the reconnaissance visit.

However, between the extra time and cost of the ferry ride and our committed position on the beach, we were not in the mood to give up.

I strapped my axe to my pack and stepped gingerly onto the rock, pleased to find solid flints, sound underlying chalk and straightforward climbing. To the west, the three Needles pierced the blue sky, presenting many obvious future objectives; to the north, cargo ships ploughed lanes up and down the Solent, which separated us from the British mainland; to the south, racing yachts dotted the sea; while to the east, the 400-foot, knife-edge ridge soared up over white pinnacles resembling a giant's weathered vertebrae. A coast-guard lookout sat atop the final steep section.

At the first belay, a keen north wind whipped across the crest, until I was almost glad to be wearing my Himalayan mountain boots. Lorrainne and I huddled while Andy led a short pitch to a twenty-foot, near-vertical step. As I surveyed the impasse, I felt confident that had I had some more sound protection than ice screws I could have carried on.

"Tide's coming in," announced Lorraine while Andy and I dithered.

The truth of her words prompted a unanimous and undignified abseil into the sea. A good saltwater dosing of our crampons, boots and screws helped mark the occasion, but the 300-foot jumar out of Scratchells Bay in strong wind and drizzle made the day clearly and suitably memorable.

THE SKELETAL RIDGE NAGGED ME as I sat at my Tax Office desk, as no doubt the Beachy Head objectives had pecked at Crowley's mind ninety years before. When Lorrainne rang, I was not difficult to persuade. Andy couldn't make it, so a few weeks later, in beautiful weather, Lorrainne and I were back with rock shoes and nuts.

It appeared that we had misread the tide tables.

"A little sea-level traverse will be fine," I announced.

Soon I was wet; but the day was warm and drying out in the sun was pleasantly relaxing.

Back at our previous highpoint, calm, sunny conditions and rock gear made all the difference. After placing some welcome protection in a crack on the right side of the arete, I made a few delicate moves up an exposed, steep slab. Then I udged along the crest with a leg on either side to gain a fine ledge. Lorrainne followed, whooping.

Meanwhile we were creating much interest from passing leisure craft. I was glad we'd contacted the coast guard beforehand and thus avoided unwelcome rescue efforts. We signalled that all was well, and indeed it was: we were able to pass a steep and intimidating step surprisingly easily on the left. From the top of the step, a simple horizontal section and a short wall led to the lookout, and we were done.

After his Beachy Head climbs, Crowley felt carried away by the poetry of the moment, having "fulfilled all [his] ideals of romance and in addition... the particularly delightful feeling of complete originality." But I'm a taxman, not an occultist, so we just sat in the warmth of the sun and enjoyed our success.

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