If the images we see on social media are to be believed, most climbing takes place on dry, warm rock under brilliant blue skies. But this isn’t really the case. With limited time and an abundance of enthusiasm, many of us venture out in less than perfect conditions. Whilst it’s not easy, it can be safe and enormously satisfying. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of a day on wet rock…
It doesn’t take a genius to know that dropping a grade or two is a wise decision in damp conditions. However it’s easier said than done. An “all or nothing” attitude can often creep into the decision making process and lead teams to choose between a "rest day" and something that’s high up on their “wish list”. But wet conditions demand a bit of humility and a more relaxed, “let’s just go for a look” approach. With a little bit of planning it should be possible to have half a dozen options available on the day. In the Lakes, there’s always a handful of Wainwright’s to tick off or a grassy scramble that needs attention. Climbs need researching too. Pick out 2 or 3. Avoid the slate and limestone. Read their descriptions carefully – go for steep climbs that are sheltered from prevailing weather patterns and avoid friction slabs that are “slow to dry” after a few spots of rain. Think jugs and pockets rather than crimps and slopers. In the northern hemisphere, south facing routes offer the best chances of drying. Steep scrambles and easy rock climbs are best. Having narrowed down your options, all that's needed is a final inspection from the foot of the crag and you're good to go!
Here's Guy Wilson leading “Corvus” shortly after an impressive spell of wet weather. Whilst the day was dry, the north facing aspect meant that there was little chance of the rock drying. However the guidebook - Lake District Rock - provided us with some encouraging words, "A route for all seasons, traditionally in the rain..."
Left unattended, kit will get wet. Near running water even the best Goretex will struggle. Keep rucksacs on and ropes neatly coiled. A small square of foam matting can be useful to sit on at belays. Few things are more uncomfortable than a wet backside! I'll often wear waterproof trousers from the off - removing a harness 4 pitches off the ground is difficult and can sometimes upset partners! A full set of waterproofs are often not enough. Some go further - emergency shelters worn like ponchos on the lead, umbrellas and washing up gloves pulled out with a flourish when the heavens open. That sort of thing!
Don’t expect any help from chalk or your closest fitting climbing shoes. On wet rock, mountaineering boots are often best. They should fit snugly and will often need tightening before setting off on the lead. Check that the soles are stiff and their edges are sharp - you’ll need them. A set of cams, nuts and hexes will do. Take plenty of slings and remember - never ignore a gear placement!
Climbing in wet conditions is often possible but there are occasions when you'll be shut down. As we approached the Matterhorn's Carrell Hut last year Andy Tomlinson and I passed dozens of disappointed climbers heading back down to the valley. Showers the previous afternoon had been followed by an overnight frost causing verglas to form on the route. The Lion Ridge had iced over in August! Thanks to dry conditions overnight the route was clear for us the next day
The key to climbing wet rock is to stay off it as much as possible! Try to tip toe between heavily featured surfaces and the odd quick drying edge. When faced with nothing but wet rock seek out the best possible handholds and use whatever aids you can - elbows, knees and shoulders - for upward movement. Remember, most foot placements will be hard to trust and you’ll be relying heavily upon your upper body. To ease the strain place plenty of runners. Treat the climb as a top rope and always have something in above your head. Remember “Free French” is perfectly acceptable in damp conditions! Shorten the pitches wherever possible and avoid any temptation to link them together. You'll run out of gear quickly and don't forget that having your belayer nearby is good for psychological support!
Take your time, start early and give yourself as long as possible to complete the route. A daylight finish is to be encouraged - climbing wet rock in the dark is a different challenge altogether!
Scattered around the UK are a handful of climbs that stay dry in even the dampest of conditions. Here's Piers Harley battling his way through the crux of Lockwood's Chimney - an extraordinary route in Snowdonia that is equal parts caving and climbing!
We asked around to see if anyone else had good memories of wet rock. Surprisingly, we got one or two replies! Here’s Dr Jim Duff...
The current pandemic might be considered a dry run of what climate change has in store for us in the not too distant future, with limited air travel, restricted borders and essential car trips only a few portends. Whilst this must be a hell on Earth for young climbers today, those of us who climbed in the couple of decades after WW2 experienced similar conditions. We mainly climbed locally with distant crags being approached by hitch hiking, bus or motorbike, only a lucky few had four wheels. In bad weather there wasn't the indoor option or a cheap flight to warmer climes. This meant that when the clag prevailed and the fells became water features, you either stayed at home, went walking or, for the addicted, climbed in the rain!
Limited transport options to the crags!
The latter had several variations depending upon the moisture level. A light sprinkle might just add a little zest to reasonable grades, whilst a downpour would reduce one’s ambitions to the easiest of climbs with socks reversed (yes, we wore socks in our rock shoes and, worn over them, provided extra grip). Flooding meant a different approach along the lines of “if you can’t beat it, feature it” and into the ghylls we went.
In the summer, especially in drought, the ghylls were wonderful scrambles with the odd dip in a pool to be savoured. All this changed when weeks of rain charged the mountains and the ghylls became raging animals. Most of them impossible death traps but the discerning can still find minor courses, often of considerable length, that might be tameable!
The first rule of such an ascent is avoid drowning; the second, just try and stick to the water course but if the force is too much escaping up sodden turf or blackened rock alongside is permissible. The reality is you will get wet, not just damp but a drenched, soaked, an all pervasive kind of wet.
David Hillebrandt wrote on climbing in wet conditions, "I have memories of attempting Black Cleft (S) on Dinas Mot in the Llanberis Pass in the 70's during a storm with the now deceased Terry Taylor. He was a mountain guide with a rather mad reputation. I had been staying with a friend who had refused to go out but he lived close to Terry and put us in touch. We were the only people in the Pass. We did retreat, laughing, after one pitch and emptied our cags before retreating to warm fires and showers in Fachwen. At least we had got out!"*
Here’s a brief account of such an ascent...
It’s Langdale in the early sixties. We had ridden up from Kendal on Mike’s 500cc Norton. It’s been raining for weeks and even Middle Fell Buttress looks intimidating in the pissing rain. The clag is half way down to the valley floor and our unquenchable thirst for adventure means the only relief will be a ghyll. Crinkle Crags, it’s fellside now adorned with several ribbons of water hanging out of the cloud base, looks suitable.
Most of the ascent is solo with only occasional resort to the rope. The noise is overwhelming, achievement a few moves against the current, water flowing up cuffs, the biggest danger being hypothermia. But we are off the beaten path, ascending against the odds, a quixotic team, the rat, near drowned, satiated.
Jim in challenging conditions!
Now fate, that flying fickle finger, takes a hand; between us, nestled in a tussock, is a compass! One of those tiny ones that has a ring on the side, that might have been in a Christmas cracker, but it works! One of us is right and whooping we drop back down the weeping fellside into the valley.
What we had back then was a memorable epic, dredged out of a miserable November. So don’t be dismayed by limited options, use your imagination, seek out possibilities of routes repeated in adverse weather or lighting. It all comes in handy if you move on to alpinism when weather takes the upper hand more often.
The pandemic fire will burn out eventually, just another part of the ecological breakdown associated with the Anthropocene. Adopting a local response to the present Covid restrictions needs to be set against the need to mitigate and adapt to climatic ones. So here’s a call to anyone of us over 55 (the pig in the python generation). We have had our fun and exceeded our personal carbon budget x times. If, like me, you feel a little guilty with a degree of cognitive dissonance over the ‘dark knowledge’ v one’s actions I assure you that making some effort along the following lines will help you feel less conflicted. Just take a moment to think how much happier you will feel once you start!
• The best personal personal contribution is to follow the Eat-Lancet Commission recommendations (basically increase vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts, decrease red meat, sugar and refined grains). Better still go vegetarians OR if you really want a warm glow of satisfaction and better health adopt a whole food plant based diet (see this for further information).
• Limit your air, car and food miles (read Local is our Future by Helena Norberg Hodge).
• Insulate your home, put on grid-connected roofing with a battery for even more contentment.
• Now full of positivity jump up and down and annoy the shit out of everyone you know and especially those in power!
Those of you under 55 should accept that you can’t lead the profligate life we oldies did and start adapting your behaviour too, at least as far as possible. Your physical and mental wellbeing, and that of you children, depends upon it.
Read more about Jim’s thoughts on the climate emergency here.
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.
The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.
Further details can be found here.
*Here's the opening description of Black Cleft from the most recent Climber's Club Guide to Llanberis, "This classic gully, usually wet and repulsive, is the exclusive preserve of masochists and is generally deemed to be, "a fine climb in the traditional idiom". It ... has been known to turn grown men into quivering wrecks in all but the most perfect conditions..."