Saturday 14th September on Crag X
When Stephen and I arrived at Harrisons Rocks car park it was clear the crag would be overcrowded. The car park was full ,not just with climbers cars, but with many mini buses no doubt having disgorged their cargo of eager youngsters and instructors keen to get to grips with sandstone. Indeed a crowd of about fifteen tiny excitable climbers were milling about -each with helmet and harness. So to avoid queuing for a climb we headed for Crag X.
If you recognise crag X from the photographs please do not tell anyone as it’s a great place to hide away on a hot afternoon when many other sandstone outcrops in the south east of England will be crowded.
Are you sure this is only 5a?
What causes this fascination with climbing on Southern sandstone? After all these outcrops are not very high by mountaineering standards and it is common to use 'top rope' protection where a preplaced rope is belayed at the top of the crag so that the climber always has fall protection above. This method would seem to take away much of the thrill of traditional or sport climbing. Well I can only try to tell you about the three main buttons sandstone climbing pushes for me.
Stephen on a 5b
Southern sandstone outcrops look mysterious. Many are in beautiful woodland settings with ancient trees often growing with their roots draped over the sandstone. The rock itself is beautifully eroded into every shape you can imagine. Added to this Southern sandtone is often coloured like an elephant’s skin and where little sun penetrates algae turns the rock green.
The wonderful range of shapes on display of course provides the climber with the challenge he/she seeks. Many beginners find climbing on this rock very difficult. Because the sandstone is so soft it wears away easily. Sand grains get between foot and rock causing a ball bearing effect and you can easily fall off. Added to this many of the holds seem to slope in the wrong direction! It is the special challenge of sandstone which kept me coming back for more and gradually with a little help from my friends I began to learn the techniques required by the sandstone climber. All those sloping holds improved my general fitness. So sandstone climbing proved a great training ground for climbing further afield.
Thirdly there is the all important camaraderie to be found in sandstone climbing. Your belayer has a special role to play while you try out this move and that, or even fall off. He/she needs to provide a slightly slack rope in order to allow the climber to ‘climb free’ and not feel they are being hauled up the rock face. However they need to be ready to provide a tight rope at moments of crisis (which when I climb are frequent). Too much instruction is a pain. The climber needs to be left to discover the climb for themselves. That is until it is clear the climber is, shall we say, flagging -in which case a few quietly spoken words of advice can work wonders.
Oh yes and of course, when muscles tendons and ligaments can stand no more there is the all important visit to the nearest hostelry and the restorative effects of real ale (preferably a pint or two of well kept Harvey’s best.)