Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Rough Guide to Climbing at Dover

A Silly Game

Esoteric... intimidating... worrying... exhausting... are some of the words that I would best describe climbing on the white cliffs at Dover. It's one of the most unique and memorable places that I have climbed at and somewhere that has filled me with equal measures of dread and ambition. The style of climbing is far from perfect but it is partly the imperfections combined with the unique experiences and high levels of adventure that kept me returning.What's more the journey time of under two hours from my former London home made the area positively 'local' by London standards.

Mick Fowler's exploits were one of the main catalysts to me trying chalk climbing. I visited Saltdean a few times to climb the bolted chalk routes at Saltdean but was keen for bigger adventures away from in situ protection. An excellent article on Dover by Ian Parnell in Climb Magazine further raised my interest in the purely trad form, particularly in a route called The Tube, which followed a man-made runnel up the cliff. I was lacking partners for such a mission but fortunately somebody was silly enough to reply to a speculative post for a partner on UKC. I climbed most of the route in the dark, without a head torch, having grossly underestimated the time required. Midway up the runnel my ice axes pinged off what felt like a large sheet of metal wedged in the back of it. Carefully I bridged the steep walls of the runnel on either side of it until it was mounted. I was learning many of the intricacies of this climbing style entirely on the sharp end. Then on the way home I crashed the car out of exhaustion, burning a few of my lives in the process.

Beneath The Tube

I made eight visits to Dover in total, climbing a new route on the last occasion. Despite this respectable haul, I felt as though I had barely scratched the surface. Indeed it had taken almost this many visits to gain a sense of whereabouts, with some large sections of cliff still a mystery to me. Partly this was due the scale of the cliffs and partly because many routes had changed or had fallen down in relation the route descriptions that I was following.

Beyond Dover, I also climbed five of the unbolted lines at Saltdean. Somewhere more traditionally know for 'sport chalk' style routes, with in situ protection and lower-offs. Thirteen routes in total isn't a huge haul but it's probably thirteen more than most people and hopefully I've gained enough experiences to have something to share.

An excellent route called Relax at Saltdean

Climbing Style

The style is typically compared to ice climbing, except with protection from the 1970s. The cliffs naturally provide a unique atmosphere as you would expect with climbing on the south face of Kent. The sound of waves, seagulls and ferry horns suggest a positively friendly ambience compared to an average day in the Scottish hills but in reality Dover can feel more intimidating than probably any venue in the UK. The softer featureless chalk at Dover makes climbing with axes the most effective method, however the natural erosion of the cliffs far exceeds the impact of a very few ice climbers. Other areas such as Beachy Head and the Needles are better suited to conventional rock climbing techniques because the rock is harder, although I've no experience with these areas.

Climbing at Dover can be far more physical than climbing even the hardest ice. It often needs many more swings to gain sufficient purchase and the protection can be long-winded and tiring to place. Seconding requires less effect because the axe placements have been created, although removing the gear is still no easy task. It's generally been considered ethical to rest on axes in order to free up both hands to hammer the protection. This essentially means that resting is permitted under the guise of placing protection, although nothing about chalk climbing should really described as restful! Progress up a route can feel a hard fought affair and far more protracted than might be anticipated. The first ascent of South Face of Kent took three days for example, and first ascent of The Great White Freight took two days. Ian Parnell I know has tried to climb routes completely free but other semi-recent ascents I am not sure about. Some would say Dover is good training for hard winter climbs elsewhere, however this relies on a strong mind from the outset.

After dark climbing on Dover Soul with much of the crux climbing still to come 

Routes mainly follow steep walls, buttresses and corners, interspersed with slabbier sections, where the chalk is softer, looser and more vegetated. The cliffs are deceptively steep. What looks vertical from the ground can in fact often be overhanging at close quarters. Particular at the top of the cliffs, where routes are often at their steepest.

The chalk at Dover also contains bands of flint. The temptation can be to hook on protruding pieces in order to save energy with placements, but be warned, these often easily break loose without warning when weighted. They are at best untrustworthy.

Vegetated easy ground on The Real White Cliffs Experience

Chalk Characteristics

Loose, crumbly, brittle and unpredictable are probably most people's perceptions of chalk. Prone to falling down without warning, and lacking adequate protection. School blackboard chalk snapped with ease I remember. Chalk can be all these things but it can also be remarkably dense and homogeneous and harder to impale than the hardest ice. The chalk at Dover and Saltdean is often excellent but there are of course many chossy chalk quarries in the UK at the opposite end of the scale. I never fully understood the varying characteristics of chalk beyond simple observations, and what I observed fluctuated greatly.

As with ice, chalk is strongest when compact and featureless, and it is less prone to cracking or dinner plating where surfaces are convex. Cracks in chalk generally indicate weakness and sometimes even risk of collapse and therefore are best avoided. Such cracks are few and far between though. Gentle-angled chalk is usually softer and looser, sometimes with a grassy, earthy top layer. Presumably due to receiving more rainfall. It's easy to climb but the protection is often weaker. Steep chalk is a much harder density, and so better to protect but harder to climb. I've found some steep ground to be brittle and subject to comical levels of dinner-plating but cannot explain the reason for this, although generally it's been a localised problem.

The large cracks in this picture indicate local imminent collapse

Close to the water's edge the chalk is often soft and easy to penetrate with axes. Higher up the cliffs the chalk becomes drier and harder, often needing multiple swings in order to gain reliable purchase. Six swings is not uncommon. This can make for some very pumpy climbing, whoever you are. How much moderate rainfall affects the rock's hardness and difficulty to climb I am not sure, but extended periods of dry weather certainly makes the rock harder.

Chalk's porous nature means that large levels of rainfall can affect the general stability of the cliffs by increasing structural load. I made a habit to avoid Dover after periods of heavy rain in case of any major collapse. Many of the routes at Saltdean were washed into the English Channel during the appalling winter of 2013/2014 as a consequence of heavy rain and rough seas. During one period I fell off one of the 'sport chalk' routes at Saltdean after a foothold broke unexpectedly, with the preceding piece of in situ gear also ripping. Later that winter the entire route collapsed. It served as a warning to the damagers of heavy rainfall. My second climbed route at Dover, called Loose Living, also collapsed in dramatic style that winter, although it was a pretty terrible route and so no great loss. A chance encounter with a fox midway up the route was the most memorable moment. There were likely other casualties elsewhere.

Loose Living area August 2011
Loose Living area September 2013

I'm no expert how winter frosts affect things. My presumption has been that rain followed by frost leads to water expansion within the chalk and possibly increases the likelihood of collapse, in the similar way to how water pipes can crack. I'd welcome views from anybody more knowledgeable on the subject.


It's fair to say an ample degree of dedication is needed just to build a suitable rack for climbing trad chalk. Warthogs are the only real form of protection. In Scotland I carried one or two but for chalk an equivalent number to ice screws is needed. At currently £28.99 each via Needle Sports this is no light investment. I bought a couple of second-hand warthogs but made only a moderate saving and found their condition often to be substandard. Other forms of rock protection are unsuitable because of the absence of cracks (except where local weakness), and because of the softness of the rock.

Warthogs require a lot of effort to place in chalk and so a hammer with suitable weight in the head is called upon. Don't bother with claw hammers, or anything similar, for this reason. Hammers fitted to ice axes will also be close to useless, made worse by the curved shaft reducing hammer leverage. I bought a 2lb lump hammer from B&Q for about £10, which worked fine. Be sure to drill a hole in the handle so that it can threaded to your harness. I rested it in one of my harness loops. Aid hammers likely work well but I could not see what further benefits would warrant the high price tag.

View to the French coastline

Placement locations follow a similar criteria to screws into ice, in that lack of features makes for stronger placements. Where surfaces are convex or close to prominent edges the chalk is likely to be weaker and more prone to fracture during placement. As with ice screws it's easy to get a feel for the warthog's potential strength during its placement through a combination of feel and observation. The harder it is to place the stronger it will likely be during a fall.

Even with a good hammer it can take a lot of effort to fully sink a warthog. In fact placing warthogs can be more pumpy than the actual climbing. Gripping the hammer with two hands helps matters and for this reason clipping and hanging on axes to place warthogs has been generally considered ethical, as previously mentioned. Sometimes it can take five minutes of heavy handed smacking to sink a warthog, requiring patience and commitment. Removing them on second is no easy task either. I found the best technique was to knock the eye of the warthog a full 360 degrees in order to loosen the shaft slightly. I then to used the axe pick to leverage the warthog out via the eye hole. Hitting them side-to-side like a peg is useless because the chalk just absorbs the impact. It can also lead to warthogs becoming bent if they were not fully sunk in the first place.

Hammering home a warthog

Don't put too much reliance in one warthog. I once made the mistake of running an easy slab out to beneath a steep wall, only to find the chalk quality quickly diminished. I placed some mediocre warthogs in the wall but the more sensible approach would have been to place more protection in advance of the difficulties. I got into this habit with future climbs, which generally made for a happier climber.


Crampons are best set to mono points in order to more easily penetrate the chalk where hard. It also allows for points to be placed in axe placements so as to reduce the workload. Any axe suitable for ice climbing will be suitable for chalk. Sharp points help to more easily punch into chalk but pieces of flint hidden within the cliff can quickly blunt them. In Mick Fowler's era the flint could break a pick, however nowadays picks are suitably strong to avoid needing to carry a spare axe.

Chalk leads to corrosion, therefore all gear needs to be washed thoroughly after use as possible. Clothes often become covered in chalk dust, so this is no place for new expensive new Gore-tex or Softshell. It can sometimes also be difficult to keep boots away from sea water due residual pools remaining after high tide. Generally speaking it's good to use old gear where possible. On the plus side, the south facing aspect often means less layers are needed, although the cliffs naturally catch any wind coming up the channel.

Don't wear your best Gore-tex
White clothes

Wearing protective eye wear, or a visor is recommended as otherwise eyes can become clogged with small particles of chalk. One partner of mine needed to visit A&E after finishing a climb because of the amount of chalk in his eyes. Another parter appeared squint-eyed at the top of route with similar problems. It's more of a problem where the chalk is loose and the wind is breezy.

Hard for the Grade?

The CC Southern Sandstone uses 'ice grades from III to VIII'. Either Roman numerals have been used to unconventionally describe ice grades, or these are in fact Scottish adjective grades. What's more, only The Great White Fright has been graded higher than VI. Possibly there was confusion surrounding its published grade VIII, as Ian Parnell explained on his blog. 'Certainly worth Scottish VIII but definitely not WI8'. Whether this means all the routes at Dover are graded using the Scottish adjective grade, or that all the grades are WI, except The Great White Fright is not clear. The sensible approach is probably to climb a few routes at an amiable grade to get a feel for the grading.

Most of the climbs at Dover have seen few repeats and many have suffered erosion, meaning the original grade is often ballpark. This naturally increases the seriousness of many routes. I'd say it's best to assume changes have taken place, whatever the guidebook states, and allow for suitable headroom accordingly. Otherwise one can quickly themselves climbing at their very limit.

Routes up to Scottish grade IV I've found to approximate roughly to Scottish adjective grades in terms of difficulty. The ground is typically off-vertical and more prone to vegetation, which facilitates axe placements. The Tube is a difficult route to grade as the crux is short and steep and care is needed when transitioning back onto the slab above. It's probably a steady affair for anybody who has climbed routes at around grade C5 at Saltdean. 'Popular' routes, such as The Tube are also stepped-out, which helps matters.

Top of classic grade IV The Tube

From my limited experience grade V starts to feel ridiculously pumpy compared to the Scottish counterpart. The terrain is often steep, with limited features, and the chalk is harder, meaning more axe swings are needed to gain sufficient purchase. Maybe some of the routes have changed since their first ascent but generally speaking you won't read about Ian Parnell getting pumped on a V in Scotland as you do at Dover (see here). My ice climbing ability has improved since last visiting Dover but I'd casually suggest that some of the grade V routes are harder than WI5, and considerably harder and more serious than any Scottish V ice climb. Sadly I had no experience of the Dover VIs.

The top-out

A few things to be wary of when at the very top of a route...

Chalk cornices are a thing of nightmares. Chalk collapses from bottom up, sometimes creating a cornice at the very top of the route. It's really important to check for their presence as climbing through them could be close to impossible. Particularly given that the cliff directly beneath them may also be overhung and unstable. When a cornice exists it's best to avoid a route all together.

The top band of soil can also lead to a desperate exit. Often the chalk subsides in the last half metre and is replaced by earthy looseness. What's more the chalk leading up to this point can often be steep. I've found the best ploy has been to plant an axe over the top and sink it into the grass roots then throw and high leg and hope everything holds. This relies on a degree of hip flexibility of course!

Close to the top of Relax at Saltdean

Don't trust the small grassy ledges

I made this mistake and promptly fell 12m when a ledge peeled away beneath my feet. I at least demonstrated the strength of a well placed warthog in the process. Small grassy ledges can form on off-vertical cliffs from chalk debris drifting partly down the face before coming to rest. Grass seeds then germinate in this loose top surface. Appearances would suggest that these ledges offer an easy foot hold to relieve aching calves but often their bond with the more compact cliff is very weak. Sometimes these ledges will hold, sometimes they won't, but from experience there is little warning when they do give way underfoot.

Peeling vegetation underfoot whilst climbing Dover Soul

The Guidebook

The Climbers' Club Southern Sandstone guide covers the main south coast chalk venues. The Saltdean section is available online for free here, however many routes have changed or fallen down since its publication. The Dover section is comparatively simple, in that route descriptions and generally whereabouts are provided, however topos are absent. The majority of the routes have either the ϯ symbol to indicate no repeats, or ϯϯ to indicate major rockfall on the route. From experience it can be quite hard to match the guidebook descriptions to the cliff features, likely due to changes that have taken place. The TubeChannel Grooves and The Great Dover Experience are some obvious landmarks. Dry Ice had partly fallen down when last I visited a couple of years ago. After that it often gets a bit vague. The cycle of erosion of course means there are new route possibilities where old routes have been lost.

Tide Times

Dover is largely tidal, which adds to the level of seriousness and makes retreat a harder affair. Backing off from a route may well mean waiting a number of hours for the sea to suitably retreat. Note that the cliffs immediately east of the zigzag path quickly become cut off by the tide. Bare in mind the time needed to approach the routes and the slowness of climbing. An early morning start is highly advisable.

Tide tables are available here.

The tide rises quickly just East of the zigzag steps!
We needed to traverse this section above the waterline.


Information regarding general access and bird ban restrictions are detailed in the BMC Access database here.

Please abide by these restrictions as climbing at Dover is already a sensitive matter. The lack of climbers means that agreements with parties such as the National Trust or the RSBP are less likely to be reviewed as with other places and so a greater degree of personal responsibility and common sense is needed with regards general conduct. Whilst climbing is permitted it's sensible to keep a low profile as much as possible as climbing at Dover is not consider a 'normal' activity.

Also be aware that routes directly west of St. Margaret's Bay finish on private property (somebody's garden to be precise) so permission is best sought from the landowner in order to avoid possible access problems.

An unusual back drop drop for a climbing venue

Call the Coastguard

Finally! You may not get a TV crew gatecrashing a climb these days but the coastguard may still attempt to rescue you without your request if they are unaware that you are climbing. Be sure to ring them in advance. Also be aware that mobile signal can be poor once beneath the cliffs. Sometimes it's easier to pick-up a French network than it is a UK provider, and so it's best to call them from the car park if possible. They also like to be notified after you have finished the climb.

Sunrise over St. Margaret's Bay