Sea Cliff Climbing
So, you have some trad climbing experience and are thinking of having a go at sea cliff climbing. What an adventure you have let yourself in for. Here it is not a case of turning up when the weather is dry, and giving it a go. It is a little more involved than that.
The atmospheric cliffs and areas you may need to abseil into, with the waves lapping up at your feet, feeling like it almost wants to swallow you up. The prospect of your first sea cliff climb can feel very intimidating. So many more aspects to think about, than their inland and mountain counterparts.
Some of the aspects we may need to think about when going sea cliff climbing would be:
- weather conditions (i.e. wind direction, rain, which goes without saying)
- time and direction of the sun
- bird restrictions
- tide times
- escape route
- route finding
- the effect of the salty air/water on your climbing gear
- Land ownership
Finding out which direction the wind is coming from is important. When the wind is above a certain speed, you may choose a more sheltered spot, to stay warm. The wind can also blow your ropes around, which can be frustrating managing ropes, especially if you are on a hanging stance. The direction of the wind can also carry the spray up towards some of the lower belay stances. Climbing when wet is more like type 3 fun.
When its raining, wet rock is not great, makes climbing more insecure, much harder and less enjoyable. Although there have been times when I have climbed when its been raining and the wind has carried the rain over the rockface. The rock I climbed stayed dry.
Time and direction of the sun
Knowing when the sun hits the face, is important to decide where to climb. It can be nice to climb sunny rock in the cooler months. But can be too hot in the summer time, so shade may be the preferred option then. If the rock is slightly damp, the combination of wind and sun can warm it up, and evaporate the wetness.
Most of the UK sea cliffs are inhabited by an array of birds. Puffins, peregrines, kittiwakes, coughs to name a few. They choose the secluded cliffs, away from human beings and predators, to nest and start their own families. This means that certain times of the year, these cliffs are off bounds. Most guidebooks will have the restrictions mentioned in them. But you can always check the BMC RAD app, which is more up-to-date.
RAD BMC link
As the birds don’t have access to this information. If you happen to climb somewhere and you think there are birds nesting, or you are being attacked by birds, mention this to your BMC rep, they may need to update the database.
Bird nesting season tends to run from March through to July/August, but please check this on the BMC RAD database.
Other wildlife restrictions
Seals use small enclosed bays, caves, rocky ledges and beaches as a breeding ground and safe haven for their pups. Their breeding season usually starts around July and August time. And they can stay in these areas up until December to look after their pups, feeding and bonding with them. Avoid disturbing them at any cost. If you notice a seal pup nearby where you are looking to climb, choose another area to go to.
One very important factor to know, when going sea-cliff climbing, is that the access to the cliff face, or starting point, is tide dependant. Meaning that high tide may prevent you from accessing the lower section of the climb. The high and low tide difference is around 6 hours and 10 minutes. Another aspect is that some areas are know for big differences in sea level from high and low tide, like Pembroke where the difference can be up to almost 8 meters. Whereas other areas may not have such differences, and access may not be a limiting factor.
Neap and spring tides also have an effect on the size of the tides. These both occur twice a month. Spring tides cause the high tides to be a little higher, and the low tides to be a little lower. Due to the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. For further reading, check out the next link: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/springtide.html
Tide times website link
The state of the sea can play a big role in accessing a climb or not. Even at low tide, a big swell can prevent access to your goals. Whereas with calms seas at high tide, you may be lucky and access some of the climbs. So be sure to check some of the websites which state the swell size in the area you are looking to climb.
If you are unsure of your ability to climb a route, best leave an abseil rope in place. Just be sure you know how to ascend a rope. Whether you use prussiks or mechanical tools for the job. It could mean the difference between type 1, 2 and 3 fun (*).
Or in some areas where the top section of rock may be crumbling away, it may be worth using the abseil rope as a backup. Instead of free soloing choss. or dirt, unless you are carry some big stakes and a sledge hammer. I.e. Boulder Ruckle at Swanage is renowned for chossy and dirty top-outs, which can be very scary and insecure.
Unlike route finding for cragging on the mainland, you match the description or picture to the cliff. With sea cliffs, finding the route from the top can be difficult, as you are solely relying on the access description from a guidebook. These are usually pretty accurate, but sometimes need some deciphering. Or you may find a description from an old guidebook, which may be outdated.
Sometimes its just a case of having a look. Scramble down where you can, or use a fixed line attached to belay stakes, or set up your own anchor. Make sure the belay stakes look in good condition before attaching your life to them. Equalise two if you can. Also be comfortable with ascending a fixed line, as where you abseil, may not be the right area.
Some of the climbing areas around the UK are owned by the military or accessed through military land. For example, Range West in Pembrokeshire, where the land is owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Here the land can only be accessed if the range is not in use, or one has had an introductory session with them. Which requires you to have watched a video and completed some paperwork. The main reason is that there are unexploded ordinance lying around, and you cannot touch or go near them. Guess what!! Someone did, hence, they have these precautions in place.
Other areas may be owned by National Trust, RSPB or others. All of these come with restrictions and access requirements. So do your research before you go there.
Salt effects on climbing equipment
The salt from seawater or airborne sea spray can present a number of corrosion problems on your climbing metalware. Aqueous Chloride ions are responsible for the corrosive effects of the sea water. These can affect the moving parts such as the springs, gates, twist locks, or areas where two different metals are in contact.
It is not just metalware which is affected. Apparently when sea water dries in your textiles, it leaves behind crystals. These crystals have sharp edges, and could have a wearing effect on your ropes, harness and slings, etc…
After your sea-cliff adventure, wash all of your climbing kit with clean water, and leave to dry thoroughly. Once dry, lubricate the moveable joints and hinges on your kit. Making sure not to contaminate the textiles attached to them. Please check the manufacturer’s suggestions on what lubricant to use.
If you are interested in a sea cliff climbing course, we would be happy to help: