Somewhere the two vastly different pursuits of climbing and surfing intersect. The place where it happens in not obvious, but it exists. You just have to delve deep.
Every surfer has experienced it. After every session you’re left with frozen moments that are locked into your consciousness – instantaneous images that crystallise in your mind with a vague yet powerful tangibility. These moments evoke the kind of immediate nostalgia as that of Polaroid prints. You lean into your bottom turn and see the wall of the wave reeling up ahead of you. Click. You hold a stylish body position while attempting to cutback to the power source from out on the wave’s slackening shoulder. Click.
The sensorial cacophony that accompanies the union of man, ocean and earth is particularly evocative of these moments and results easily in the mystic leap between brain chemistry and muscle memory. Out there on the crag, though, a hundred miles from the coast, climbers experience these moments too.
There is an ache and a fear and a pounding of your heart and an increased intensity of perception. When your body and your mind are stretched to extremes hard-won physical knowledge takes over. The climber’s world is distilled to the square centimetres that surrounds that finger hold. The universe becomes the angle and camber and extension of that crux move.
“It defines for me my dedication to both surfing and climbing. It’s the moment when you seem to step outside yourself and your body appears to act instinctively, your movements seeming to flow without any premeditation.”
But it’s not just the physical mechanics of surfing and climbing that differ wildly. At first sight it might seem difficult to draw parallels between rock climbers and surfers as individuals, too. Hard-core rock monkeys, rangy-limbed and wiry-framed denizens of the inland hills and stony escarpments of the planet are jangling for most of their leisure time with a full rack of gear, swathed in wind stopper fleece and Capilene. These cats don’t necessarily dig all that is fluid and wax-encrusted.
And surfers meanwhile are tow-headed, jargon-droppers. People intensely focused on the wave’s fleeting form who avoid being away too long from the whiff of coastal ozone. Something as tangible as a fifty-metre high wall of limestone would surely give them the horrors. Surely they are an entirely separate genus of Homo Outdoorsicus?
But no. Between these twin poles of subcultural cliché exists a whole constituency of surfers who climb and climbers who surf. The geography and meteorology of Britain, in particular has something to do with it. Britons are blessed with a coastline that includes an incredible variety of rideable reefs, points and beaches – and many are lined with cliffs.
But take the plethora of high quality coastal rock routes out of the equation for a moment. You are in those islands so the oft-shared saying goes, never more than sixty miles away from the sea.
At the height of summer at Stanage Edge deep in the heart of the English Peak District, it is thus still eminently possible to climb until lunchtime, then stack the car with a quiver of surfboards, wind down westerly over the Welsh border and score the clemently peeling boulder point breaks of South Pembrokeshire in the late evening light. If the swell has dropped by next morning (and if it’s the summertime, then it probably will have) then you can break out the ropes and the rack again and enjoy some of the most spectacular cliff climbing in the country.
“That’s the thing about being a surfer in Britain.” Dan Massey tells me. “You have to be adaptable.” Dan is a Bristol-based graphic designer who along with partner Millie climbs passionately and surfs whenever the conditions are right. “I was a climber before I was a surfer, “ he tells me over a between-problem coffee at the Undercover Rock climbing centre in Bristol. “It was initially that lonely challenge, that isolation in the environment, either on your own or with a really close buddy – that appealed to me. You experience that sort of challenging, existential loneliness in surfing as well as climbing.”
Every UK based climber or surfer knows that it’s the variability of wind, swell, sun and precipitation that makes Britain the ideal place to practice vastly different disciplines as climbing and waveriding. Embrace both as passions and you turn Britain’s notoriously unpredictable weather into a positive. Dan continues, “Actual wave conditions are often perfect in the winter, when the big low pressure systems develop out in the North Atlantic and send big, ‘long period’ swells toward the UK’s continental shelf. But it’s often too cold to surf for more than an hour or so per day, especially in the depths of January or February. On the other hand, in the summer, the waves are rarely up to much and the crowds are horrendous. That’s when our little crew often head to the hills to get some climbing in.”
Bristol is not only a great place to base yourself to access the hills of Wales – but is brilliantly located for accessing at least five different surfing coastlines, four of which are also prime sea-cliff climbing locations. “We can boulder all through the week at St Werbergs,” Millie chips in, “and at the weekends we can make a call on whether we’ll head to the South or North Coast of Devon and Cornwall, or over to Pembrokeshire or the Gower for a surf. The climbing gear always goes with us, of course, because if the forecasts get it wrong, there’s always the option of ticking off some routes.”
But it’s not just the lucky geographical situation of the British Isles that produces the abstract but tangible affinity between these two sports. There’s something deep in the psychophysical experience of surfing and climbing that are related, no matter where on the planet you might find yourself.
“What I liked about climbing was the eccentric characters involved,” says photographer Rick Smee. Rick is an accomplished climber who was sponsored and pushed some of the boundaries back in the semi-professional sport in the ’80s and ’90s. He’s also relocated to Portugal to be closer to his newer passion, surfing. “By the time of my involvement climbing was undergoing many schisms,” he says. “There was the trad climbing movement led by the legend Ron Fawcett and that self-proclaimed stone monkey Johnny Dawes. There were also the ‘sport-climbers’ like Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat and a hardcore bouldering scene as well as the nutty winter climbers hanging out in Fort William for the right conditions.
“Like climbing, surfing has it’s own cast of off-the-wall individual characters,” Rick goes on, “as well as enough schisms to rival the Christian Church – there’s longboarders and the shortboarders of course, but also the über cool retro-progressives, the full on foamy-riding newbies and the moody locals that sneer at anyone they haven’t known since birth. But the thing is as well is that it too has an allure of danger and of individuality.”
“But it’s the physical relationship between the two sports that is fascinating,” he says. “I remember one moment when I was climbing at Llanberis Pass when it became clear. My heart was beating so fast and so loudly. My mind was racing, playing tricks with me and the internal dialogue wasn’t helping particularly. I’m 200 foot up in a really exposed position and not feeling good. I was an hour from the nearest town, and still another 100 foot from safety. All these things were cluttering my mind and I could feel a rising panic, stuck there at the start of a really difficult move that was the maker or the breaker. Then all of a sudden I became aware of a smaller, much more rational voice inside me telling me what to do. I took a deep breath and focused on my heartbeat, trying to slow it down. For the briefest moment I forgot my situation and then it happened – I started to move onward and upward. I was acting purely on instinct and I can remember those moments as if they happened to me yesterday.”
In Sports Psychology, this sort of thing is referred to variously as ‘beginner’s mind’ or ‘flow state’.
“Insofar as I understand it that defines for me my dedication to both surfing and climbing. It’s the moment when you seem to step outside yourself and your body appears to act instinctively, your movements seeming to flow without any premeditation.”
It is at the point where this fundamental truth resides that the intersection of climbing and surfing exists. A fallible individual, when faced with an explosion of physical phenomena, reacts purely instinctively. This instinctive has to be developed, nurtured and practiced to the point where it happens automatically. Getting down to this sought-after reality is what motivated climbers, as well as their surfing cousins.
And if you think about it, could it not be that there is something even more fundamentally similar about the two ways of life? A wave is deeply ephemeral. It never truly exists in space and time, but is simply a manifestation of accumulated energy given form in liquid by the interaction of the sea floor and the energy itself. A rock face is an accumulation of energy too, but a formation of energy over geological time, warped and cracked and effected by environmental conditions that stretch over aeons rather than the moments that form a ridden wave. It might be overstating it that surfers and climbers do one and the same thing. But is it too great a leap of the imagination to acknowledge that they are both outriders of the human race’s deep instinct to dance with the elements, to play in the beauty and menace of the planet?
Surf. Climb. Explore. Four Prime locations to practice the arcane arts of wave and rock riding.
Surf: The far south western tip of the peninsular is home to some of the most consistent and beautiful surf spots in the nation. Sennen Cove on the North side of Land’s End is gorgeous, sweeping series of peaks that light up on almost any swell, and just round the headland to the south is the incredible Porthcurno, which is a rare but crisp and lovely big swell treat.
Climb: The stretch of coast between Sennen cove and St Ives contains a huge amount of possibilities of climbing granite sea cliffs. Bosinen and Sennen to the north are two of the three main crags in the area. Chair Ladder is on round the peninsular to the south. Numerous bouldering opportunities exist between the well-trodden main routes.
Surf: Both the southern and northerly sides of the Pembrokeshire peninsular contain a huge variety of spots, which work particularly well in the big swells of winter when many of the beachbreaks of Cornwall and Devon are too big and stormy to surf. South Pembs highlights are the reef and beach breaks at Manorbier (pronounced ‘man o’ beer’), whilst out around the headland the area around Freshwater West contains numerous high quality spots.
Climb: North Pembrokeshire is the place for sea cliff climbing on Sandstone, Gabbro and volcanic rock, ranging from simple 10M beginner climbs to multi-pitch routes up to 90M. To the south of the Peninsular the climbing is exemplified by steep limestone cliffs around Stackpole, Bosherton and Castle Martin, with a concentration of super technical climbs all the way up to E9.
Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides
Surf: This is not one for dilettante of either disciplines – but if you are committed it’s a great place to visit. The Isle of Lewis is home to some truly challenging surf exposed as it is to the full fury of the North Atlantic. An incredibly variegated coastline makes access difficult in some places, so a default setting is the wide-open, sweeping bay at the far north western corner of the Island called Europie. Approach with a spirit of adventure and the possibilities are endless.
Climb: Unreal sea cliff bouldering as well as extensive traditional routes litter the cliffs of Lewis, tidal overhangs, caves and freestanding boulders abound in the west of the island’s prehistoric landscape. Seek and ye shall find!
County Clare, Ireland
Surf: The west of Ireland has some of the highest quality, most powerful waves in the whole of the European continent and the beautifully craggy geomorphology of County Clare produces a wonderful choice of reefs, points and beachbreaks that are legendary in the surf community. Many of these are in the immediate vicinity of the Lahinch and Doolin area , including the devastating big wave spot known as Aileen’s, which is at the foot of the Cliffs of Moher.
Climb: as well as little documented possibilities on the cliffs of Moher and other sea cliff sites in the Doolin area, the real gem in Clare is the Burren. This is some 300 square kilometres of otherworldy Limestone landscape right on the coast, where there is unlimited high-quality bouldering and some longer routes too.