The White Stuff
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…"We need a fourth member of the party - the main criterion being someone who won't fall off…" Robin wasn't joking! Skeleton Ridge - a well named route comprising some 450 feet of climbing in 6 pitches, gaining about 250 feet in height - a bit like climbing up the back of a dinosaur, the route crossing its spine. This esoteric delight takes in the innermost needle on the Isle of Wight. Whilst not to everyone's taste, this 'adventure' route on chalk is climbed in traditional fashion - leave your ice gear at home.
A late ferry over with Robin's car transported us to the car park above Alum bay where we bivvied and bevvied.
Saturday dawned cloudless - it had been dry overnight and we ate and sorted gear before walking the ¾ mile to the Old Gun Battery above the Needles. We were early and walked up to the coastguard lookout, as our efforts to make contact by telephone had so far failed. It was deserted. Just before 9am, staff arrived at the old battery. They'd received no notice of climbers for that day - the message from Robin's midweek call, it seemed, hadn't been passed on and the gates were closed in our face. "Jobsworth, jobsworth, it's more than my job's worth..." began to sing out in my cranial juke-box. Tim furgled about in his wallet and produced a National Trust Card - this worked the required magic... "Well, if you pay your entry fee, I don't mind if you climb over the wall…". We paid up and did just that. We'd still had no luck contacting the Coastguard and the number the Battery staff had was the same as ours. Attempts on their landline met with the same 'number unobtainable' and a call to the operator with a request to be put through received the reply 'Operators don't do that any more…' begging the question - 'Well what do operators do?' Directory enquiries came up trumps and with a revised dialling code, Solent Coastguard were informed of our intentions with a request from them that we call back when we'd finished.
Back at the abseil point, Robin and I set up the ropes and Tim set off for Scratchell's Bay, untangling as he went. The changeover at about 150' down presented little problem as the rock was far from vertical but we were now some 40 minutes after low tide and concerned about the water level. On the beach I chased after Tim. He'd laid out his 9mm and was changing into rock shoes when I arrived. The water was calm and the approach 90% dry. I untangled my birds nest and Tim set off up the first pitch - a bomber Clog 10 at about 8 feet and nothing else for the 40' pitch to the saddle. Tim placed a peg and belayed. The pitch was not steep but I followed carefully - handholds consisting mainly of the small ledges my feet would be on in a couple of moves! At the saddle, I led through on the North side of the ridge as Adrian and Robin started from the floor. After passing a crack into which a large hex dropped, and a bulge, I belayed some 40' out around a chalky spike next to a nest and brought Tim across. The nest's two junior inhabitants were on the chalk ledges nearby and we did our utmost not to disturb them lest we suffer the wrath of angry parents. Tim led off toward the crux, placing a peg at the base of the arête. It was steep and gearless but a steady approach and good style saw him at the top where he gained the 'surprisingly good ledge' and belayed. The arête is climbed on its left before stepping out right and then left along a knife-edge to the ledge. Probably not 4c technically but with no protection and in an airy position, certainly HVS! I led through, traversing a poor foot ledge with my hands on the knife-edge for 50' or so to a ledge with sparse protection. I lassoed a couple of blunt chalk piles and equalised the result. Tim came across and led through for the long 120' pitch - a rising traverse along some good ledges to start with, degenerating into a loose slab and groove to reach a stance. This pitch turned out to be nearer 140' as there was only 5 feet of rope left when he stopped. I followed carefully, removing the two slings from the blocks he'd found as runners, managing to find a couple of brick-sized blocks that came away in my hand. On the belay, we read the description, which suggested two more pitches, heading firstly for a chimney/crack. This was not apparent. We deliberated and discussed with Robin and Adrian as they arrived on the stance, coming to the conclusion that the finish had changed. The 'mainland' could be seen 80' or so away but we were faced with a steep 20' arête, not dissimilar to the crux pitch. At the base of the arête I clipped the two ancient pegs and placed a new one, which sung reassuringly as I hammered it home. Ahead looked devoid of further protection so I clipped in and set off keeping just left of the arête. As I gained height, I could look round the arête to the south. A sheer wall of about 175' to the shore presented itself. I tried to put it out of my mind as I continued upwards. At the top, I stepped onto the arête and gingerly edged forward until I could straddle the knife-edge travelling forward 'a Cheval'. The much-used guidebook-writers' term, "In a fine position" came into my mind as I edged along the 10 inch thick chalk pile on my hands and bum, feet dangling either side for balance, the vertical face to the south and only just off vertical to the north adding nicely to the feeling of exposure. I arranged the rope over the edge behind me as some kind of protection and after 25' or so of progress, (passing a 4" gash into which I fruitlessly tried to place a huge hex), the edge rose and I eased cat-like up onto my hands and feet for the final moves onto the sanctuary of the top - flat and grassy with only a small bulge to place a knotted sling around. I found a vague crack and hammered a blade home, sitting with the belay in tension so as not to shock-load it. Tim followed giving a spectacular view of the Needles lighthouse over his shoulder, the accumulated adrenaline manifesting itself in a number of strange 'whooping' noises as we all assembled on the top in front of the caged visitors to the Old Battery lookout observing the spectacle. A few more pictures and we all shook hands after the 'experience' before traversing back to the abseil point to retrieve gear and call the coastguard, followed by a welcome pint or two in Yarmouth before catching the ferry back to the mainland.
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