On my drive towards Portsmouth I realised that there was a good chance of letting Jon down. As a serving RAF officer my climbing partner would be expecting a high standard of organisation. Sadly, the distraction of a family holiday had meant that I had little prepared. Unfortunately climbing Skeleton Ridge on the Isle of Wight is not like popping up to Stanage with a few metres of rope and a battered copy of Rockfax. At worst, poor organisation can lead to an unplanned trip in a helicopter or lifeboat, at best, it might result in disappointment and little more than a good view of the Needle's Lighthouse from the nearby cafe. So as I made my way to our rendezvous point I thought I’d better get to work...
Jon Naylor preparing to make the 90m abseil to the start of Skeleton Ridge (HVS 5a). The route climbs the most westerly point of the the Isle of Wight and is described in the guidebook as, "a very impressive and committing climb up one of Britain's finest coastal features".
First, I needed to check the weather forecast. Fortunately, a blue sky day with light winds was predicted. As climbers with limited ability nothing else would do - the steep chalk cliffs are far from their best in rain and anything more than the calmest breeze would have us wobbling in some very precarious positions!
The ridge is joined by climbing the slab above the yellow helmet. The first pitch can only be reached at low tide. Timing is everything!
Next, the tide times. Unfortunately the start of the first pitch is under water for most of the day. An 0845 low tide therefore sounded perfectly reasonable. In the past I'd heard of teams resorting to a night ascent. On more than one occasion, this had triggered the attention of passing ships and the launch of the Yarmouth lifeboat. Hopefully, our early low tide would mean that we'd be finished by nightfall and wouldn't trigger any similar disturbances.
A view down the first pitch. Whilst the climbing is not much harder than VDiff or Sev the chalk is often loose, smooth and difficult to protect! A couple of chipped holds on the first pitch were a great help. In the past teams have used ice screws for protection.
The next step was to make a few phone calls. First, the Solent Coastguard in order to let them know of our plans. Second, the National Trust staff to discuss gaining access to their property. In order to reach the abseil point it is necessary to enter the grounds of the Old Battery. Fortunately, the staff couldn’t have been more helpful and decided to turn up a little early and let us in!
Jon making light work of the easier climbing. We took a full climbing rack and a single 60m rope on the climb. To make the 90m abseil we tied together a pair of 60m half ropes and retrieved them once we'd finished. We also ran out a 40m single rope from the viewing area at the Old Battery down towards the top of the climb. This provided a welcome belay on the long final pitch!
Finally, there was the small matter of booking the ferry and finding accommodation in Portsmouth. I reckoned we would need at least 2 hours to drive across the island and get to the start of our route. Therefore, with some reluctance, I booked us on the 0600 ferry.
Jon leading the crux pitch. The steep pinnacle hovers somewhere between 4a and 4c - depending upon the weather, condition of the chalk and the confidence of the leader. Fortunately there are several pegs in place which can help calm the nerves!
As for accommodation I turned towards one of my favourite chains for help – Travelodge. Over the last few years I’ve used them increasingly on climbing trips. They’re the only cheap chain I can remember the name of and without exception, the staff bend over backwards to help. The other residents can add some interest too. I was not to be let down. Standing beside the car checking the climbing gear (all 4 ropes!) a middle aged man in a bright pink onesie and bows in his hair passed by and said “Good Night”. Normally I wouldn’t have been surprised, however his long beard and missing front tooth made a lasting impression.
And with that, the preparation was done. With a few minutes to spare I claimed the room's best bed and headed off to Portsmouth Harbour station. Everything was now in place. All we had to do was climb it!
Jon Naylor and Jeremy Windsor celebrating the completion of Skeleton Ridge (August 2019)
There are a number of very good short films about climbing Skeleton Ridge.
Here's one of the best...