First Ascent of Conchalktivitis Slab (IV), Dover

The chalk near the start of the slab was unexpectedly hard. I swung my axe repeatedly trying to chip reliable holds. Sometimes I would fail and would need to switch location. It had been a fine summer but was the chalk maybe too dry as a consequence? Usually the chalk at Dover is easier to climb low down where it is more saturated and therefore softer. What beckoned higher up? The top looked a long way off. My forearms worked overtime from the multiple axe swings. I paused to shake out my calves. My busy summer on rock provided little in the way of conditioning for this form of climbing. At least the first couple of warthog placements were adequate.

(About 7/10 I reckoned)


Beneath the slab
I veered right to avoid a mild steepening at the left edge of the slab at third height. The chalk quickly became softer and easier to climb but proportionally more crumbly, which triggered a steady flow of debris to tumble South. The surface chalk repeated cracked and peeled with little encouragement but behind this layer of mush were placements of better reliance. This process of clearance was also creating some adequate horizontal ledges for my crampons to rest and relieve my calves of burden.

Conchalktivitis Slab in the Centre of the photo
My warthogs were becoming progressively poorer. Warthogs repeated sunk with little resistance, which didn't bode well for their reliability. A solid warthog placement would usually take over a minute of two-handed pounding with my 2.5lb lump hammer to fully sink. These were taking maybe ten seconds with a lot less effort. Really they were just placebo warthogs but somehow good for the head game nonetheless.

(3/10)

I veered slightly left and quickly heard complaints from my belayer's direction as the rain of surplus chalk was now falling in his direction. Really he could have just left the scene given the state of my protection. I moved rightwards to better protect him from my incessant chalk shower. I placed my only Screamer... for what it was worth.

(About 2/10)

I was making steady progress and now the top was within reach. The slab steepened to vertical towards the cliff edge in a similar manner to Brighton Rock at Saltdean. This route had dealt me a particularly desperate escape through a loose top soil and I feared a repeat. It looked from the ground as though the easiest escape was going to be via the far right of the slab. This looked pretty chossy and unpredictable at closer quarters and so I chose the left side. This was steeper but bounded by a corner that would allow me to generate some opposition through bridging. The axe placements had thankfully firmed up as the ground steepened but my feet were meanwhile peddling in slow motion through a band of unstable chalk that crumbled at will.

I punched my last warthog in...

(6/10)

... that would do.

I launched my front points onto the opposing walls and quickly punched my picks successively higher into the chalk. My front points desperately fought to find purchase but my axes felt solid. Then the optimistic swing into the grass at the top of the cliff. The axe held and quickly I swung a leg over the top and belly flop-mantled onto the grass.

I belayed of a small bush... (about 9/10 under the circumstances)

It felt a proud moment. It hadn't been the perfect of climbs but it was a new route at Dover nonetheless, which felt something special, and good foundation for further fresh objectives. I knew I would need to be stronger though for the other routes I had in mind.

Laced - A view back down the route
Now it was Adam's turn to climb. My pitch had started amidst glorious sunshine but by the time I had reached the top the weather had transformed into light rain and blustery winds. Wind now whipped up the loose surface chalk but Adam made steady progress up the slab regardless. By the time he was at the top of the slab his eyes were clogged with chalk and his mouth rimed with the stuff. My message the previous day to buy some safety glasses had been a little bit short notice. Adam made the mistake of trying to 'rock climb' his way off the route. He clutched at some loose chalk bounding the crack in the exit corner, without warning it disintegrated, and Adam was soon weighting the rope. His chalk-filled eyes no doubt didn't help matters. Second attempt he used his axes to blindly pull through without problem. 'Maybe a little too esoteric' were Adam's general emotions. It seemed appropriate to name the route Conchalktivitis Slab.

Near the top
I first spotted the slab two years ago. It had formed as a result of a landslide at some point but did not look stable enough to climb at the time. Time would be needed for the chalk to consolidate. I had another look last year. The climbing now looked a realistic prospect but I could tell it would be bold as the gear would not be reliable. With a wet weekend forecast it was time to take another look at the slab. Things now looked better.

Since my last trip to the Dover cliffs in December there has been a big slide on the cliffs immediately North of St Margaret’s Bay. My second ever Dover route, called Loose Living, is largely gone. It was by far the worst climb I have done at Dover so no great loss. The freezing weather weakens the chalk cliffs and no doubt there more routes were lost during the exceptionally cold last winter.

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