Gypsy – A tale of grade-pushing at the IMC Pembroke weekend (at Swanage)

By Wednesday morning the forecast for the weekend was getting worse and worse, the forecast for Pembroke being particularly bad, and nervous emails were flying backwards and forwards. By Wednesday evening things had got so serious that people were actually talking to each other on the phone. Eventually Guy and I snuck off on Thursday night on the promise of good weather for the Friday at least. Halfway around the M25 and a final decision still hadn’t been made on whether to come off at the M4 for Pembroke (as they say, “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure”). Finally a call to the Ipswich weather service made our minds up and soon we were on the M3 heading to Swanage where the forecast was for dry weather all weekend.

Typical Swanage steepness
Typical Swanage steepness (click on any image to view in Flickr)

Now, Swanage was an interesting choice for both Guy and me as we both had a little “history” with the place. Guy in particular hadn’t been back since a big fall had put paid to most of last year’s climbing season. My memories were much better; Swanage is one of my favourite places to climb but, despite several very good trips, I still had some unfinished business.

The Way In
The Way In

A year ago I had been there on an early-season trip with Craig and we had decided to finish off our first day with something memorable; and in that I think I can fairly say we succeeded admirably. The aim was to do Gypsy, a *** classic E2 at Boulder Ruckle with 2 pitches of 5b and that worrying RockFax pumpy arm symbol. Now as some of you will know E2 has been a bit of a mission for me for several years, my previous experience involving either falling off or subsequently finding that the guidebooks have downgraded the route to E1. So, at 3.30 that Saturday it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I looked up pitch 1 at the overhanging start (and the steep middle section and the vertical final section). Just over an hour later, completely spent, I had just enough energy to claw my way over the finishing jugs on the first pitch and let out whoop after what felt like the hardest lead I’d ever done, complete with copious swearing, up-ing and down-ing, not to mention a little gibbering thrown in for good measure. By 5.30 Craig had followed up making leader-pleasing noises and had led off across the initial traverse on pitch 2 and was disappearing over an overhang. Time ticked by but given my shenanigans on pitch 1 I could hardly complain that Craig was going too slowly. Eventually though a yell came from above – ‘it’s too hard and there’s no gear’ and the comedy really started.

Now, the sensible option would have been to lower Craig off to the halfway break, reverse the traverse and then swap ropes on the belay. Far too simple of course, and so another half an hour later I had climbed up to Craig’s awkward hanging belay at his high point and was attempting various gyrations to clamber over his head and get to grips with the crux. It was at least 7.00 by now and the combination of a previous hard lead and pub opening time is enough to sap the will of nearly any leader. So that’s how it was that half an hour later we had jacked it in, abbed off and were standing back at the bottom of Boulder Ruckle with the sun setting, eyeing 40m of abseil rope that was our way out to civilisation.

A quick prussik and we’ll be out we decided, having temporarily lost our taste for Swanage limestone. Now I’d forgotten how strenuous (& slow) prussiking is so _ of the way up I stopped for a chat with some friendly students who were finishing an evening’s climbing with a quick E3. ‘Ah yes, Gypsy’ said one, ‘Tough second pitch eh?, crux of the route…’. We eventually packed up in the dark, long after the students had finished but at least in the end we made it to the pub before closing time.

Lightning Wall
Steve C warming up on Lightning Wall before the ‘main event’

A year later and I am standing at the bottom of the route again. I’ve been for a pee three times, so I am as light as I am going to get; this time it was 2.00 (I’ve learnt, see) and Guy is on the sharp end for pitch 1. That’s me just left with the crux then…. So, with phrases like ‘nothing ventured…’ and ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ on our lips Guy sets off on the 1st pitch and cruises steadily to the belay point in the break, bringing to mind again the old suspicions that he has a secret source of monkey gland (or perhaps Gecko gland?) extract stashed at the pharmacy – very impressive.

Now I’ve recently got a bit more cautious about repeating routes, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to myself, “it’ll be easy, you’ve done it before and you’re climbing much better now” only to scrape to the top by what feels like the skin of my teeth. So this time with my heart in my mouth, I set off to follow, hoping that I don’t embarrass myself on the 1st pitch. However, with the advantage of reassuring toprope and previous experience the pitch goes pretty smoothly and, amazingly, I reached the belay quite fresh.

A quick swap of gear and then it’s my turn on the sharp end. A few feet of traverse leaning out under an overhang, clip a rusty old peg from a reasonable jug, power up, feet on the lip of the overhang, reach up again; bugger, it’s not a jug, pull anyway and phew, I’m resting in a niche, 1st obstacle overcome. OK, so that was the easy bit, not far above is where Craig got stuck and, somewhere in the next 50 ft, the crux. So it’s up again and in with some gear until I’m contemplating gently overhanging terrain without any obvious gear, handholds or footholds – Hmmm. 30 minutes later the 1 gear placement at my waist has multiplied to 3, all within 4 inches, but I’ve still not worked out the move or found any higher gear. Suddenly I spot what looks to be a little ledge about 6 inches wide wayyyy up on the left, it looks a little polished and I can’t tell if it’s a jug or a sloper but it’s the only thing in sight; and level with it is a crack that should take gear too – result! Another mere 15 minutes and I’ve got a number 5 halfway in the crack and the excuses are running out.

OK, so it’s grab the solid sidepull, feet up, feet up again (best not to let my mind dwell on what), reaaaach for the ledge, not a jug, but it’ll do; uncurl the left foot onto a tiny spike, the right foot pops, hold the balance, match hands, rock over and up on the left foot and, phew, I’m in balance. But it’s not over yet. Right foot up high on that little ledge, another rockover and, oh yes! It is a jug. A number 9 nut later and I’m feeling much happier and those first dangerous thoughts of ‘bloody hell, it might be in the bag’ start to intrude. Still, it’s plumb vertical at this point and, jug or not, it’s not a rest so onwards and upwards. A blind reach round the corner and a good hold is revealed and I pull round rightwards into another overhang-capped, bottomless groove with a lot of air below my feet. I move up the groove to the overhang, reach up strenuously over the lip and … more jugs! A final welly up over the roof and it’s done – Result!! So there it is, a very pleased leader sitting in the sun at the top of the route. So was the 2nd pitch harder? – Well, no not really we both decided, so some of that fear was for nothing but it’s still one hell of a route!

I’d have been happy to call it a day with that but, as they say, ‘Needs must when Guy drives’ and I was chivvied down again for Guy to lead Elysium (E1) to finish the day’s climbing. All in all, I felt it was a well deserved few pints in the Kings Arms that evening!

E2 leader
E2 leader Steve C coils his rope

So, with an E2 ticked I can relax now and take it easy…. Though there is always Springbank on Gimmer and, now I think of it, I really ought to have a look at Vector at Tremadog…. and what about Left Wall? – I hear that’s supposed to be a classic….

Postscript: I was obviously on a mission to relive my entire previous episode that weekend. Simon Curtis and I abbed down again a few days later only to find the rock too wet to climb. The 40m prussik was just as hard work the 2nd time around.

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