Incognito (VS, 5a): An Accidental First Ascent and a Harrowing Escape

1) FUN

The CC description for the classic route on Lundy's largest sea stack, the Devil's Chimney, was baffling. Nothing completely matched up but after spending 30 minutes examining all aspects of the stack we convinced ourselves that the line climbed a faint crack near the right-hand side of the West wall.

Into the depths
(Anna bottom-right in the photo)
The initial wall was damp from sea spray and covered in small barnacles that cracked and fractured with pressure. But the handholds were positive albeit small, and footholds substantial enough to perch and fiddle with gear. Then an unnerving balancy move off a steep sloping barnacle-covered foot hold, which proved to be the crux of the route. A shallow ledge presented on the right-hand side. Not the "large platform" described in the CC guide but surely the belay.

Anna continued up easier cracks to a large platform on the left. Again not the "boulder-strewn platform" described by the cc guide but a substantial platform nonetheless. I led through a bulging wall above to a large platform and slinged a spike to my right. A steep wall led to the to top on large holds. I stopped at half height to try and place gear but the cracks were poor and so I pushed on regardless.

The summit
Having wasted time trying to find our route, and knowing we still needed to locate and climb an escape route to safety, our time on the summit was short-lived. Some brief congratulations were followed by a dramatic abseil down an overhung face to the boulder-strewn beach below. Time to plot our escape...

The abseil


We skipped between boulders trying to identify the surrounding cliffs, or more importantly a weakness in the cliffs that would allow escape. Some steep grassy slopes were in close proximity but these we anticipated would be loose and scary. We couldn't even identify the Devil's Chimney Cliff, which was supposed to neighbour the sea stack. The sea stack even cast a shadow over the cliff in the CC guide photo so surely we must be staring it in the face? Having followed the cliffs one way and then the other and still without clue we cut our losses and opted for some rock that looked stable enough to scramble up.

Rock hopping
Things followed the script until half height. I broke left up steeper rocky ground with the hope of meeting the top more directly only to come face-to-face with a fulmar. It grunted at me and the message was understand. Come any closer and expect to be hit with some projectile vomit. The fulmar sat right at the crossroads to my escape. I would need to literally climb over the bird were I to continue to the top. Reluctantly I descended back to Anna in waiting.

The way was blocked
We continued up a gentler slope, which gradually funnelled into a broken gully. Rocks rattled and turf broke off from under our feet without. There wasn't much ground to trust. Even the belay that Anna promptly made was best not tested to destruction. Escape out right was futile as too much steep slippery weak grass blocked the way. After a suitable dose of grass pulling horror I returned to my belayer and headed upwards and then left instead. This way at least offered a few pieces of rock that were stable enough to step on with confidence. Then I was amongst larger boulders again and apparently easier climbing to the top.

I faintly brushed a breeze block-sized rock to my left and it slid towards me then stopped in a delicately perched position. I missed a breath as my belayer was currently about 8 metres directly below me. It seemed sensible to try and wedge the rock in a safer place given its exposed position. As I moved it another rock stacked behind it, which was over a metre in diameter, nudged forward in my direction. Panic-stricken I slid the breeze-block sized rock back to its natural resting place to jam the considerably larger boulder behind for fear of Anna's exposed position below. Time to make a belay. I shoved 2.5 cam in the only stable crack I could find, cut my losses as to finding any further anchors and suggested Anna 'climb'! She stripped the belay and moved out of the firing line. Relief. Our bags were now only a short traverse left.

Loose blocks
Anna departing the exposed belay
But there would be one more twist. Later that afternoon, whilst walking North along the coast, we spied another sea stack. This one larger than the one we had climbed. Quickly we realised that this was in fact the Devil's Chimney and that we had climbed a smaller stack called Needle Rock further South. We had somehow managed to apply the CC description for the Devil's Chimney to Needle Rock, climbing the same aspect, and in the process accidentally making a first ascent. We named the route 'Incognito' for this reason. Our route had climbed directly to meet the mid-section of a three star HS called Integrity. Where this route passed back right onto the Southern Face we had continued directly to the summit bearing slightly left instead. The whole incident was laughable. I had mixed feelings. I one hand happy to have made a first ascent. On the other hand there was mild anxiety that start of the Devil's Chimney, and possible combined tactics to overcome the reported missing boulders at the start of the climb, was still to come another day.

Needle Rock


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