Dover Soul (V)

The tide was far higher than expected by the time Jack and me reached the zigzag path. Low tide had only been just over an hour ago but already the water had almost reached the cliffs immediately East. We quickly descended the path for closer inspection, which indicated that there was just time to traverse the cliffs to the beach that we had visited last weekend. We hurried across the high boulders directly beneath the cliffs but were nearly halted by the waters immediately preceding the beech by their absence. We delicately padded our way across a sequence of smaller boulders that just about poked their head above the water, to the safety of the beech. Ten minutes later and we wouldn't have made it. There would certainly be no return by the way we had come until the next low tide.

Traversing beneath the cliffs
The tide nearly beat us
The obvious choice of route was a grade V called Dover Soul as there was gear to retrieve after last week's abseil retreat down its lower stretches. From the ground the route looked soft for the grade as the ramp only looked about 60-70 degrees steepness. Still, I was not complaining. Chalk somehow always proves to be steeper than it looks from the ground as we would find out.

We started slightly left of the ramp and made a long gradual rising traverse in its direction. I climbed only about 10m before we decided it would be best if I made a belay in order to avoid the tide sweeping Jack up.

Jack climbing the first few metres
Some quality chalk on the lower slopes quickly gave way to unstable grassy slopes higher up. I clipped onto the lower of two warthogs left last week. Further up an old warthog and tat suggested that we maybe were not the first to retreat by this way last week. I reached the second warthog with the rope at full stretch and set up belay. I looked out to the sea towards the cliffs of France. It was a beautiful day.

Me leaving the first belay. The steep ramp is in the background
(Photo by Jack Wooding)
Short distance above the first belay
(Photo by Jack Wooding)
View back to Jack at the first belay
We were still a short distance below and left of the ramp and so another pitch across increasingly unstable vegetated ground ensued. Turf began to peel away from the cliff as I delicately traversed across it. Unlike last week I felt it loosening so was able to react. I reached the base of the centre of the ramp before rope drag from the overgrowth became too much and I was forced to belay. The ground directly above me was now looking remarkably steeper than it had done from the ground. It was almost vertical in fact. With much of the surrounding cliffs overhung, the ramp's gradient had been disguised. What's more, the chalk was becoming harder to chip holds into the higher we climbed. I knew the climbing ahead would prove an exceptional physical test but I was fully committed to the challenge after last week's failure. I banged in a couple of warthogs in less than perfect chalk and brought Jack across whilst contemplating the climbing ahead. It was already 4pm with one hour's daylight remaining. We had torches so there was no cause for emergency.

The cause of my fall last week: Peeling vegetation
Traversing loose ground to our third belay
A look of apprehension below the steep final ramp
The centre of the ramp directly above us looked impossibly loose but fortunately a more compact seam of white chalk climbed its far left-hand side. Less steep, but equally loose ground would need to be climbed in order to reach this point. Every axe placement resulted in loose ground collapsing in Jack's direction. I detoured further left in the hope of better protecting my belayer. Runners were poor. I reached the steep wall of white chalk immediately left of the ramp. Any hope of finding a decent runner evaporated when huge section dinner plated off around both my axes and tumbled down the slopes, fortunately missing Jack. Somehow I did not take a tumble with it. The route seemed unjustifiable to continue if blocks this large were going to unexpectedly detach in the direction of my belayer. I probed around for more stable chalk further right. Better axe placements fortunately presented high up and I quickly hammered home a warthog. It still sank quicker than I would have liked. Would I trust it if I fell?

From this prospective the ramp looked less desperate and so my anxiety lessened a little. The start of the ramp was a gentle introduction. I quickly hammered another warthog to counteract the lack of trust in the previous placements. Dusk was now upon us. I switched my torch on. At least there was no cause to rush now that daylight was fading. The ramp soon reared up into a vertical wall of hard chalk and every placement was hard fought and physical. I stood at the top of the wall on a narrow ledge and took a deep breath. With only ten warthogs and two of these needed for each belay I was left with just six runners per pitch. General lack of confidence in the warthog placements forced me to place them in close succession, which quickly drained me of my supply. I belayed just 15m above Jack adjacent to a cave. It was 7pm by the time we were reunited.

Our first of two belays on the ramp - 7pm
The climbing ahead would need to swing slightly right to avoid a bulge littered with protruding pieces of flint. Sometimes the flint would offer good foot placements, other times it would easily break off. Rarely could it be trusted. The climbing was exhausting. The repeated chipping of holds combined with the swinging of my lump hammer in order to place gear left my forearms in tatters. Many hours of front-pointing were putting a huge strain on my calves. Only five metres above Jack my axes simultaneously popped. Fortunately by then I had already placed to two warthogs with the second at feet level. I didn't fall far. I looked down at my harness to see that lump hammer still lodged in one of the loops with relief. Dropping the hammer would have been a complication we could have done without at this hour.

The ground once again started repeatedly dinner plating no matter how many layers of chalk I removed. The only way to gain purchase was to remove enough dinner plates in the same region in order for a horizontal shelf to form beneath. I would then strike my axe into the back of this shelf. There was always the possibility that the chalk beneath the aforementioned shelf could also peel away... Protecting this sort of chalk was just fallacy. Fortunately adequate chalk always followed bad and nothing stayed the same for long though.

The ramp now forced me left into its extreme corner. I wedged myself in and chimneyed and bridged as best I could. I was soon out of warthogs again but at least I could see the top. My belay stance was poor but I would have to make do. Jack joined me at the belay and we banged in another warthog for good measure. Three warthogs and two axes should suffice. The belay was cramped and uncomfortable for two so there was no point hanging around.

Dover Soul (V): The route
There was of course a last sting in the tail that proved nothing could be taken for granted on this climb. Only a short distance above the belay another unstable chalk section presented. This one proved the most difficult to overcome. Wherever I placed my axes the chalk quickly broke down. I persevered without prevail. I couldn't believe my luck! Compromise was needed. I found the 'best' holds available, desperately kicked my front points in, and tried my best not to load any individual point excessively. Delicacy proved the order of the day. I managed to balance my way through the barrier and soon things improved. I traversed right to a sequence of reliable vegetated steps which I climbed quickly. The temptation was to continue to an arête to the far right of the ramp but I knew this might prove unstable. Beyond the steps the route steepened one final time and I was presented with some of the best chalk on the route. I quickly banged in a warthog. It was the first bomb proof placement for many hours. I climbed a little higher and placed another in order to rule out the possibility of having to climb the broken chalk barrier again in the event of a fall. The placement was equally strong. One more metre of steep ground and then it eased back for the final few metres. I was on top and happy to be on flat ground.

Ghosts in the night - happy to be on flat ground
It was 11.30pm, just over twelve hours since we had started the route. The first ascentists had taken two days so it could have been worse. The ramp had been no soft touch that we had anticipated. It was nearly always 80 degrees, often steeper. The gradient was not the crux though, it was the physical nature of the terrain. Nothing could be taken for granted, which made the completion of the route all the more special. The climb had been epic with everything thrown into the pot.

It was the early hours of Sunday by the time we were back in London. The car could get unloaded in the morning.

The morning after the day before


  1. Replies
    1. Yes, RIP Jack. I'm glad I have these posts to remind me of our crazy times together.

  2. I had no idea that chalk could dinner plate. Sounds nuts!

    1. Yes, it was a bit nuts. Multiple slabs of chalk repeatedly fracturing off deeper and deeper in the same locations. I think it might have been due to the heavy rains absorbed into the chalk freezing and destabilizing the chalk in certain areas. I'm no expert though.


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