Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Bouldering trip to St. Bees Head

I can hear the waves lapping at the coastline. Fulmars, herring gulls and guillemots float through the air above, emitting squawks and squabbling over the sight of a fish or the dominance of a perch. The sun beats down on my back and warms my muscles. A breeze dances between the boulders, blown in from the Irish sea, and soothes my sore hands. It is peaceful here.

As far as bouldering settings go, you can't get much better than St. Bees Head in Cumbria. On beautiful, clear days like those experienced over the recent bank holiday weekend, it is the most stunning venue in which to indulge in a passion for grappling with powerful boulder problems. This was my first trip to St. Bees and it exceeded my expectations as a seaside climbing arena in many ways.

Leigh-Anne enjoying the views at the top of St Bees Head

The first time you climb over the fences, designed to keep the general populace of weekend walkers and bird watchers from danger, and descend over the cliff edge towards the ocean, using ropes and steps carved out of rock and mud, it can be a little overwhelming. Packs of food, water, climbing shoes, chalk, guidebooks and a bouldering pad weigh heavily on your shoulders and legs when the only thing keeping you from a 100ft plunge is your grip on a fisherman's old rope, lashed to rusting bolts and chains screwed and glued into rocks that feel precariously loose on weather beaten and crumbling cliff faces.

This is not a climbing destination for those prone to attacks of anxiety or fear of heights. A sure foot and strong nerve is needed to reach the boulders worth your attention. But be assured, your efforts are rewarded with a good day's climbing on world class boulder problems. 

The descent is not the only concern, as merely moving between sectors such as Apiary Wall to Fisherman's Steps can be a balancing act in itself. Early in the morning, when the sun has yet to breach the clifftop and shade still covers the rock platform at its base, a sheet of moisture and slime covers the ground and makes every step precarious. Make a wrong move and you'll be upended, as I was on several occasions, rubbing sore arms and legs after crashing into the floor. Practice makes perfect, it seems, as I slowly made my way through a jumble of boulders known as the Old Buoys Club, looking much like Bambi on ice, only to be overtaken by an overweight fisherman wearing army boots and hauling seven or eight rods and a bucket of bait, carrying himself across the seaweed and barnacle covered patinas with the confidence and grace of a ballerina.

As I said, though, it's all worth it when you're standing on top of a conquered sandstone boulder problem, comforted by the experience of figuring out a sequence of moves and then executing them with precision, dragging your body across a series of hand and footholds. It's a strange old sport.

Squeezing juice out of the left hand start hold on Headbanger at Apiary Wall, St Bees Head

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in St. Bees. It was a fantastic trip for a number of reasons, but chief among them being the climbing and, importantly, my successes. Indeed, I don't think I tried many boulders that I did not complete, which is a nice feeling in itself. But then again, there were many harder (and easier) lines that I neglected to even touch, with time, energy and skin being finite. 

For those interested, my tick list is as follows:

  • The Arete (6C), Fisherman's Steps - Climbed the tall person's way, hence the 6C grade. To watch how it should be done, see Leah Crane in action.
  • Headbanger LH (7A), Apiary Wall - There are two versions to this steep and powerful problem, both with the same crux… the first move. This version leads into an easier 6Bish top section, whereas…
  • Headbanger RH (7B), Apiary Wall - This version leads into more precarious and powerful climbing, gaining the hueco on the right and climbing into a pocketed pinch and an edge just below the top.
  • Problem 4 Bloc L (6A+), Apiary Wall - Looks rubbish but climbs better than it looks, thankfully. 
  • Slopey Arete (6C+/7A), Apiary Wall - Some say 6C+, some say 7A. I'm inclined towards the former, especially if you compare it with Headbanger LH, which is much harder.
  • Problem 5 Bloc K (6B), Apiary Wall - Nice sit down start moves into a heart flutter of an odd-mantle into the scoop. Worth doing.
  • Problem 4 Bloc M (6B+), Apiary Wall - A little bit boring, as it's shuffling along the lip, but worth doing to warm the forearms… if you're a proper boulderer you'll get a mild pump.
  • Phat Arete (6C), Apiary Wall - Another one that climbs better than it looks. Two powerful moves get you into jugs, from which you can top out or…
  • Phat Ramp (6C+/7A), Apiary Wall - Traverse right on slopers and poor feet, through the groove, before reaching the top. It's hard if you power through after reaching the jugs at the end of Phat Arete, instead of stopping for a cup o' tea.
  • Apiary Arete (6A+), Apiary Wall - A classic for good reason. Hard if you can't lock it off, as the footholds at the start are rather poor.
  • Problem 1 Bloc L (4+), Apiary Wall - Try calling that 4+ when the lower wall is covered in slime. 4+ it aint.
  • Problem 2 Bloc L (5+), Apiary Wall - A nice problem worthy of getting the climbing shoes on for a warm up.
  • The Rail (6C+), Apiary Wall - The bottom of the wall was wet, so I avoided putting my feet on it, and the Rail, when I finally reached it, was slimy. I slipped my way up and VERY precariously rocked over the top. Terrified, I was.
  • Bow Wow Prow (7B), Fisherman's Steps - A superb problem that initially looks like a fridge-hugger and actually climbs like a roof arete with a dyno finish. Felt hard - the hardest problem I climbed on the trip.
  • Fisherman's Dyno (6A+), Fisherman's Steps - A lovely problem, with a powerful campus start followed by a nice rock over and jugs to a high finish. 

Of course, there are a few problems I did not try and would like to in future - chiefly Hueco Crack (7A), which was recommended to me by more than one person. Unfortunately, this was wet and slimy all weekend, and a fear of snapping off holds as well as spending too much time waiting and trying to dry it kept me from dwelling beneath this fine line. Another would be The Dark Side of the Moon (7C) which was crustacean covered for most of our stay - finally being cleaned by some patient soul on our last day, but I hadn't noticed until the end of that day, when energy and psyche had long since departed.

I would recommend all of the above boulder problems, however. I could not find a single bad line between them. That's not to say the entirety of St. Bees offers superb climbing, though. There are thousands of boulders strewn along this stretch of coastline, some chossy, some tiny, some hit twice a day by the tide, some grim and slimy, some providing a home to the tiny creatures of the sea. Even established areas can be hard to reach and not worth it (in my view) but this is down to your personal preference. We spent hours walking (and attempting to walk) to certain areas and find certain boulder problems but we eventually had to call it quits and stick to what we could reach relatively easily. That's not to say any of it is easy to reach. It's not like getting to Trackside at Curbar. But there are some areas (Apiary Wall and Fisherman's Steps) that are far easier to find than others. Maybe you can put that down to my map and route reading ability. But paths are hidden and some non-existent. Add to that the constantly changing coastline, with landslides and rockfalls, as well as the powerful ocean changing the configuration of the boulder field at whim. All I can add is go with exploration and adventure in mind and you'll have a grand old time. I did.

If you are planning a trip, here's a few hints and tips:

Where to stay

We stayed at the Seacote caravan park in St. Bees. A tent bigger than one man will cost £18 a night, but the facilities are excellent. From here you can drive to Sandwith (pronounced Sanith, in case you're interested) within 10 minutes by car. Or you can walk to the different bouldering areas.

The Seacote Caravan Park, St Bees, Cumbria

Where to park

Tarn Flatt Hall farm in Sandwith has kindly given access to a small parking area not too far from the bouldering - saving an additional 30-40 minute walk in. Make sure you pay £2! The box is just inside the main gate, next to the front door. 

Access to the crag

As described above, it's not for the faint hearted. I would not take children or dogs. Saying that, we saw more than one person at Apiary with a four-legged friend. Also, please take heed of the bird restrictions. Full details can be found on the Fell and Rock Climbing Club website. I won't go into detail, you can read approaches and access in the guide book.

Guide book

There is a brilliant, free guide to the St. Bees Head bouldering on the LakesBloc website. The website also has loads of other useful info.