Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Countdown Begins

Sunset over Harrington Sound (photo Davie Crawford)
In just over a month Julie and I will board a Gatwick- bound BA flight and leave Bermuda after nearly four years of expat life. Our temporary work permits are finito and we have no right to remain in Bermuda. We're actually ready to go back despite the attractions of life here. We've had an amazing time, we've found loads of new friends and had great adventures. We'll miss it, but it is time to move on.

For me, the best bit has been the climbing. It's been tremendous- if highly esoteric!

Bermuda is a small (20 square miles) sub- tropical archipelago situated atop an extinct volcano. It's in a very isolated position in the North Atlantic- more than 500 miles off the East coast of the US. This remote little outcrop features many miles of rocky coastline, white sandy beaches and clear turquoise ocean lapping the shores.

At first sight, it looks like there should be tons of climbing- but you change your mind when you actually touch the rock! This is not Yosemite. Most of the rock here is incredibly soft, sandy and has more in common with Weetabix than decent limestone. You really could excavate a cave with a tea spoon on most of the South Shore.
In fairness, most of it has been formed from petrified sand dunes- so it's not too surprising that locals tend to look very puzzled if you tell them you climb de rock.

When we arrived in May 2008 the Bermuda Rock Climbing wiki had been started by Grant Farquhar. This hosted route descriptions and photos of around 20 routes. These were mostly Grant's routes- his original DWS exploits at Admiralty House, the first sport climbs and a bit of beach bouldering. Many of these have become classics. Dave Macleod had been out here and while on holiday completed his 2004 roof climbing test piece 'Dark & Stormy' (V9). It was by far the hardest route on the island (and remains unrepeated to date despite some local attention over the years). He's been back since and established a V10- as if V9 wasn't hard enough....

We're currently totalling around 300 routes of all styles- most of them are DWS and Sport climbs.
There's a tiny active climbing community living in Bermuda, so whenever new venues and routes are discovered the news travels fast and everyone is excited to get involved.

In 4 years we've uncovered some great new places to climb. I've spent a lot of my own time trying to find the next holy grail of Bermuda rock. I've snorkelled and paddled miles of coastline in the pursuit of something worthwhile. Sometimes I got lucky, plenty of other times I ended up doing scrappy routes that nobody will ever climb again. Regardless of that, they all exist on the wiki as a record of fun times. As John Langston dryly observed, 'If you trip up in Bermuda, you record it.' Quite.

I'm glad to say that I did manage to unearth a few real gems amongst the choss. Here are some new routes I did that I like. I've done quite a few other good ones but these stick out as worth talking about-

Davie Crawford working Captain Caveman prior to the FA (photo Grant Farquhar)
Josh Hill cranking on Captain Caveman (photo Davie Crawford)
Captain Caveman (5.11a, 5m)- Davie Crawford. 19th September 2008. Clarence Cove.
In the couple of weeks prior to attempting this route I'd been successful (after plenty of work) on Grant's superb Atlantis (5.11b). Buoyed with confidence, I spied this unassuming looking unclimbed roof on the West side of Clarence Cove and announced to Grant that I thought I might be able to flash the first ascent...

Over the many subsequent days trying it I lost count of the unplanned splashdowns as my failure to flash it turned to into an epic battle! It became apparent that I was not only weak, but I had absolutely no idea how to climb steep ground. A long crux move crossing a horizontal section was proving desperate. I was collecting some serious air miles, and the swinging falls were so frequent that when I eventually found the key- a slightly unnerving heel toe jam that held the swing- I was as shocked as I was delighted to find myself stood on the top for the first time. Fantastic!

I was alone at the crag and my climb had not been witnessed. The next day I returned with Grant and Fabian Gysi and felt under pressure (from myself) to prove I'd actually done it. Luckily I topped it out again on my first try. Grant and Fabian then followed. As they're both honed rock gods they both flashed it- but I didn't care. They'd been gentlemen and let me slog out my siege of attempts when they could easily have pinched it from under my nose.

Captain Caveman has turned out to be a popular route at Clarence Cove. It's short, it looks relatively harmless but it's very action packed. I wasn't the only climber to take the plunge off it- as you'll see in the photos below. The Caveman has claimed many scalps over the years! A 5m long 5.11 might seem a wee bit ridiculous, but all DWS and Sport routes here are on the YDS system so I'll take the 5.11 over a V2, thank you.

The Captain Caveman crew- from top left- Greg Baird collecting air miles, Paddy 'Power Scream' Cunningham in full effect, Jazmyne Watson showing some typically gritty determination. In the centre- Marie- Pier Belanger hits the 'C' of YMCA before splashdown! (photos collage by Davie Crawford)

Grant Farquhar (left) and me doing the 'dynamic descent' off Somerset Sea Cliff. The route Craic Heads is directly behind me, with the finishing layback crack visible (photo Julie Crawford)
Craic Heads (5.10b R, 10m)- 4th June 2009. Davie Crawford & Grant Farquhar. Somerset Sea Cliff.
This route is found on an attractive white wall of limestone on Somerset Island. Like many of the crags, we discovered this one by boat on one of our DWS exploration/ beer voyages. We'd hire a boat, load it up with beers, bikini- wearing babes (hi to Julie and Eloise!)  and bob our way round the coastline looking for new venues.

Somerset Sea Cliff was a cracking discovery and it turned out to be the best crag in the Great Sound.
It's a decent height for DWS and the vertical rock is generally very good (by Bermuda standards). The only negative point is a shelf of fire coral sticking out a few feet directly under the routes. Falling climbers must be careful to push off the rock to clear the shelf and avoid injury- hence the 'R' rating.

Craic Heads is probably the best route of the crag and it gives a cracking climb of two halves- each with a different character. The immaculate lower wall is technical and sustained. It demands your full attention- especially with the fire coral looming below. On our ascent I remember finding this section pretty tricky. There were enough holds to keep moving but not so many that you could relax.

The layback crack came within reach at just the right point for me. Two more thin moves and I got both hands into the perfect crack. It was an enjoyable blast to the top from there- making a brilliant contrast to the hard start below.
According to Josh Hill who last repeated it, he commented it's likely more 10c than 10b. Whatever the grade is it's a great climb.

Grant seconding the FA of La Cucaracha. He looks like he may be trying to stare out the cockroach in this. (photo Davie Crawford)
La Cucaracha (5.11a, 15m)- Davie Crawford & Grant Farquhar 1st February, 2009. Tsunami Wall.
This is in a seaside cave on Hamilton Parish's North Shore, Grant spotted the cave from a friend's boat and named it Tsunami Wall. He described it in the wiki as an 'escapee from Thailand' with its impressive tufas everywhere.
He immediately set to developing it, climbing many impressively steep sport routes threading the stalactites and steep roofs.

This particular route gained its name from a huge, totally unimpressed cockroach that spectated on the FA near the top.
I equipped the route one morning before work, hanging from an abseil rope in the cave with a battery powered drill, trying (with limited success) to get decent expansion bolts placed into the pillar on the left of the wall. The rock had a hard crust but behind that initial inch or so it turned very, very soft. More like wet mud than stone. The bolts were tending to spin when I tried to tighten them. Not inspiring at all.....

My drilling and hammering attracted some unwanted attention. A female voice shouted 'who dere?' through the partially bricked up cave entrance. I hastily made up a tale of me being a Geologist collecting rock samples (easier than explaining what I was really up to, I reckoned). She seemed to buy that little story, but before she left she told me to be careful about some dangerous crack heads in a neighbouring house. Apparently these were 'real bad guys'. I took note. Eventually I managed to place 5 bolts and headed off to work. The bolts weren't ideal but they were as good as I could manage.

Most Bermudian routes are steep on big holds. La Cucaracha is unusual in that it's around vertical and features smeary bridging and generally crimpy moves.It took 2 red points attempts to get this route done. I got pretty close on the first one, but I was unwilling to commit to a fall and called 'take' at the last bolt.

The final go was a frantic affair. I knew I didn't have much left in the tank but I was desperate to get the route done. My climbing reflected this. I sprinted my way up to the last clip and got to the final hard rock over move below the skylight exit. I was pumped rigid but there was no time to stop now though. Just as the energy meter flashed red I made a desperate lunge and with some scrabbling action I flopped onto the top. Grant thought I was coming off.

Up on top the sun was shining as I set up a belay. I was delighted. I'd pushed hard and it had paid off. I may have been even happier that I hadn't tested the bolts. Looking back now, I'm also pleased to say the crack heads never showed their faces!
(John Langston re- equipped the line with beefy marine grade Jim Titt glue- in bolts in 2010- a big improvement!).

Clam-O-Rama first ascent (video still by Grant Farquhar)
CLAM-O-RAMA (5.10d 10m) Davie Crawford & Grant Farquhar. 26th May 2010. Ladies Chambers Crag.
The sea was warming up nicely and we still had a few more km of coast to check out. Grant and I pulled on our new routing trousers, pumped up my £30 Seahawk inflatable dinghy and set sail Eastwards.This venue was the find of the trip and remains one of the best DWS spots in Bermuda. It's named after a small park you have to walk down through to reach it.

It's a very steep crag and at more than 10m high it does feel like you're doing a proper route- as opposed to the bouldery feel of some places. There are crags with slightly better rock quality but the Chambers' combo of the height and steepness make this one to return to.

The rock is quite interesting here. Tightly, horizontally bedded layers of wafer thin fragile limestone- like fine china but more pound store china than fine stuff. This makes the climbing reasonably amenable- as long as you have stamina. The dinner plate holds provide good flat jugs- but they feel like they could snap at any point. Surprisingly they turn out to be strong enough. But you definitely can't get all dynamic and slap about. Delicate, wildly overhanging jug hauling sounds like it should be weird. It is weird but it's good.

I didn't have any stamina to speak of (a running theme with me) so Clam-o-rama took a few attempts before it was in the bag. On the day of ascent a local fisherman saw me and Grant scrambling around and drove his boat over to ask what de hell we were doing? If you watch the Climb de Rock 2 video you can hear Grant's replies.

To sum it up- I'm half way up and the guy starts asking Grant what I'm doing. Most locals don't have a clue about rock climbing so when Grant answers him back with 'he's climbing' the guy is none the wiser. The English language only provides one usable word to describe someone going up a rock face, so on the video you hear Grant trying to film me while simultaneously struggling to explain the alien concept of climbing to a Bermudian fisherman!

I topped out the route, totally unaware of anything that had been going on in the background. Watching the video later I was a bit alarmed to see how close the fisherman drove his boat to the crag. I wouldn't like to imagine what might have happened if I'd fallen at the wrong moment, and I bet the fisherman wouldn't have either!

Anyway, Clam-o-rama was done. I heartily recommend this pumpy little minx of a climb.

Climbing in Bermuda has been great. I can't envisage a time when virtually unlimited new climbing will available to me like it has here. It's been an incredible opportunity and I'd like to thank everyone I've climbed with here, particularly Grant.

Note to anyone interested-  it's great fun here, but it's also very, very expensive. Trust me.
There are a lot of better and easier options to choose for a climbing trip.

However, if you do happen to end up here (as many people have done) make sure you post a message on the wiki. Someone will be more than happy to show you around the spots. Enjoy!

If you want to check out the Clam-o-rama sequence it's featured on the film Climb de Rock 2 here-

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