Traffic Jam

How the underside of one of the UK’s major roads became the temporary centre of the crack-climbing universe

Feature type Story

Read time 15 mins

Published Jul 22, 2022

Author Mark Bullock

Photographer Ray Wood

Mark Bullock Mark is a passionate climber, who’s dream days are spent soloing easy routes in the big hills, dashing down at last light for pizza. He’s a writer, qualified Mountain Leader & Climbing Instructor, and has even won a few photography awards.

In November 2021, professional climbers Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker made an audacious ‘ascent’ of the underside of a near kilometre long motorway bridge in Devon. And it caused a stir. So much so that it was documented by an international film crew, destined for the big screen and a global film tour. It was a text – part in jest – from local Mark Bullock that sparked the whole thing, and soon enough the project was unfolding in front of his eyes.

Waterlogged pasture at the westerly end of the M5 bridge on the outskirts of Exeter, Devon. This is where Tom and Pete started from.

His eyes widen when he looks at me. You know the look, when you can see white all the way around the irises. ‘Holy fucking shitballs, it’s freaking perfect!’ he half-shouts above the din. Tom is excited. He downclimbs the railing and picks up his phone from the small pile of jackets and gear on the metal grate gantry. He begins a video message, speaking into the phone selfie-style, retaining the mania in his expressions and the feverish excitement in his voice. ‘Pete, this is it, this is the big one, the Motherload, the one we’ve been searching for all these years, you won’t believe this thing, it’s absolutely frickin’ unreal. Book your flights!’ 

I’m relieved. Tom has already put what I considered to be an elaborate amount of time into what might popularly be described as a harebrained scheme. He’s just driven here (Devon) from Sheffield, via Bristol, off the back of a picture message. That’s a ten-hour round-trip, just to physically touch a crack in some concrete. He wanted to know this crack’s exact width, almost to the millimetre. And then he’d walk back to his van and drive home again.

We walked in, crossed some boggy dairy-farmed fields, then had to divert around a drainage dyke that was too wide to jump, and too deep and murky with thick silt to wade. The diversion led us into extremely dense undergrowth that I can only describe as jungle. But not pristine rainforest, this is grubby. There was litter but not from human passage. I don’t think anyone has been here for decades, this was litter that had fallen from the motorway above. Nettles and thick-thorned vines grab at our ankles and tare clothing and skin. Steep, slippery, sandy, earthy mudstone, almost like clay, makes grabbing at tree vines and hanging branches essential. 

I had cut my hands twice, and ripped my jacket, and was glad I’d opted for the rubber armour of wellies, even though they were wheel-spinning on the soil. ‘Do you think B&Q sell machetes?’ Tom wondered aloud. Throughout this sweaty, bloody bushwhack, I was acutely embarrassed. I’d clearly brought Tom on a wild goose chase. I kept expecting him to turn back, at which point I’d apologise profusely. But he didn’t. He thrashed on through the briar and brambles with determined vigour for what seemed a long time. Until suddenly there we were, right underneath the belly of the behemoth. This was recce 1.

Rewind three years to a photo I sent him. I’d been on a run, a gentle out and back along the Exe-Estuary trail. I frequently take this route on account of it being out of the city, relatively scenic – there are bird watchers, and the estuary opens up as you get closer to the coast giving views from Topsham to Powderham Castle. But I also run there because it’s easy, as the locals say it’s as ‘flat as a witches tit’.

As I passed under the enormous M5 bridge, which I’d been under many times before, I noticed the perfectly engineered gap that ran the entire length of the structure. The bridge towers over pasture, wetland reed-beds, river, cycle path and canal. It’s aesthetically appealing in the way that long lines often are. But on this occasion it occurred to me that Tom, a friend and professional rock climber, with a serious penchant for cracks, would be interested to see this one. So I photographed it. 

The climbing world is small, and I’ve been lucky enough over the years to befriend a few high profile athletes, some of them borderline legends. It’s a sort of fond sweetness of the sport. If you’re into football, you’ll never go to the park and bump into Ronaldo having a kick about, but the equivalent happens quite regularly in climbing. So I had genuine reservations sending Tom a photo of a motorway bridge. Can you climb that? felt like such a childish, almost fanboy suggestion. Like asking Ronaldo how many keepy-uppies he can do. But Tom liked the photo, said ‘wow!’ and was inquisitive, but I assumed he quickly forgot about it as a genuine proposition, and I chastised myself for being childish towards a hardcore pro.

In truth, Tom Randall has more than just a penchant for cracks, along with his most trusted partner Pete Whittaker, he’s one of the very best crack climbers in the world. Together Tom and Pete had become affectionately known as The Wide Boyz, after an eponymous film from 2012 telling the story of their ambitious attempts to ‘crack’ America, by climbing all of the USA’s hardest crack climbs. Since then they’d partnered up for many other climbing trips and adventures, all around the world from Norway to Canada. 

When lockdown happened, some UK climbers started climbing short urban bridges over canals. Exploring close to home became a real theme, and this curveball trend reignited the spark of inspiration. After seeing Tom on social media climbing canal bridges, I nudged him again about the M5 bridge and this time he was enthused enough to drive south and see it first hand. 

Tom about to place another cam device. It’s quite unusual to have the same size protection for 99% of a route but then so is the concept of climbing the underside of a bridge for nearly a kilometre.

The illustrious Americans are not going to see any of those sights, only the graffiti and litter, cobwebs and concrete, brambles and cow shit

 

On recce 2, we’d borrowed a friend’s SUP to wobble across the murky dyke and avoided the emotional bushwhack. Tom took some falls. Just me and him, I held the rope while he placed camming devices (a spring loaded device that has metal lobes mounted onto an axle, that, when pulled, expands to apply force outwards, essentially gripping harder to opposing surfaces) into the crack and made good progress before jumping off to test the cams. Most of them held. He was falling into the air under the bridge and taking a relatively safe swing, just experimenting with the cams reliability, bounce testing them from the gantry before setting off to test them for real. If they held in the slick concrete repeatedly, it was on.

On recce 3, Tom brought Pete, his long-term climbing partner, and cameraman Paul ‘Diff’ Diffley. Paul runs a production company called Hot Aches, and is kind of the Granddaddy of the British outdoor and climbing film world. Pete had flown over from Norway (where he lives with his girlfriend) after watching Tom’s wild-eyed video message. Things were starting to become a bit surreal, but they weren’t going to stop there. 

The next time the boys drove to Devon, they had Zac Barr and Brett Lowell of Reel Rock in tow. The American’s had flown in from, well, America. They were part of a globally successful production crew that had filmed multi-award winning films like The Dawn Wall and The Alpinist, climbing films that, along with Free Solo, had broken the mould and made it into mainstream cinemas. Now, fresh from El Capitan and red carpet premieres, they were standing in a field full of cow-pat in Devon.

As professional climbers, it’s in Tom and Pete’s interests that their exploits garner media attention. I knew they’d have wanted photos but an international film crew somehow made that initial photo start to feel even more absurd. This is getting out of hand, boys! 

The whole crew made the bushwhack approach and I cringed as I heard the American’s curse the thornfest. We passed underneath an old fashioned metal bathtub, the kind that has a handle on each end. It was 15 feet up in a tree, and I noticed it was suspended there by a branch that ran right through one of the handles. My mind asked firstly why that had been thrown from the motorway, and further questioned whether the tree branch had grown through the handle at ground level, essentially lifting it to its current position. How else had it managed to be hanging on the branch? Everything felt slightly odd, dreamlike.What on Earth are we doing here? 

Devon is home to some truly beautiful coast, some rugged and picturesque moorland, and boasts genuinely scenic and aesthetically beautiful rock climbs. The illustrious Americans are not going to see any of those sights, only the graffiti and litter, cobwebs and concrete, brambles and cow shit. No ocean soundscape for their movie, only the constant roar of a six lane motorway. Is this urban exploration? Why is it that climbing underneath a motorway is a feature-film-worthy exploit? Not only is this location not the best part of Devon, it’s not even the best part of Exeter. It’s a big bridge but it’s far from being iconic, and the surroundings are a literal backwater. It’s not the arse-end of the county, but it’s not far off. 

After they committed to the idea, they trained, strategised, and dedicated significant time to the project. Ultimately, even after months of dedicated training and the various logistical conundrums, it was still going to take them four herculean hard days. They’d sleep in a hanging portaledge, eating, peeing and pooping while suspended, climbing upwards of 12 hours per day. It was going to be extremely dirty, grimy, loud and physically strenuous, so to pull off the whole traverse they would have to really, really want it.

It was going to be extremely dirty, grimy, loud and physically strenuous, so to pull of the whole traverse they would have to really, really want it

At the end of day two on their first attempt, I was collecting pizza for the team when I got a text from Diff: ‘The Police are here.’ Zac and I had been taking turns to speak to intrigued passersby and without exception everyone was amused, bemused, curious and impressed. Cyclists and ramblers perhaps bound for the nearby Turf Locks pub went on their way wishing us well. But some people telephoned their concerns to the police, and by a twist of fate the climb was happening at the same time that Extinction Rebellion were protesting on motorways near London. The police feared a road closure and were straight on the scene.

Brett Lowell, the Brett Lowell, hid in a hedge, taking his SD cards out of his camera & drone and hiding them in his socks, for fear the footage would be confiscated. As I skulked back with seven large pizzas stacked into a duffel bag prepared to act as a stranger and walk on by, I found Tom’s friend Anna Hazelnutt also skulking in the trees about 50 metres away from the team and the police. 

The discourse that followed was slightly surreal. There was even perhaps a little fib from the police, saying the motorway would be closed, which spooked Zac. Professionally, he didn’t want his film company to be making the headlines for closing a motorway. During the radio comms to police HQ, a sergeant asked for the climbers’ names, and when he heard them he comically blurted, ‘I know who they are! Get their autographs and tell them I climb VS!’ The whole conversation was very amiable. The climbers descended, a bit dejected, and I thought that was game over. The police suggested we conclude our conversations in the Double Locks pub a little further down the canal. So, the team slouched to the pub in the gloaming. Tom and Pete snaffled the lukewarm pizza en route, we ordered beers and waited, but the police never showed.

Pete, Tori Taylor-Roberts (ground support crew) and Tom deliver their signature celebration on completing the full traverse.

Over the next few weeks Tom and Pete, turned their dejection into action. They stayed in touch with the supervising sergeant, asking how they could complete the climb ‘more legally’. That discussion eventually led to a green light of sorts, that, whilst not constituting official permission, essentially asked for an awareness of dates when the climb was going to take place, so that if the public called them, the police could say they were aware, and knew it wasn’t a protest or terrorist incident. They would essentially turn a blind-eye. 

Tom and Pete seized the window of opportunity to pull off what they’d later consider to be one of the finest climbs of their entire careers. Which, considering they’ve climbed at a cutting edge level all around the world for a decade and a half, in some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes and jaw-dropping National Parks imaginable, is really saying something. Something about opening our eyes to what’s around us, and getting stuck in. 

I was hugely impressed by both of the climbers’ capacity to realise a vision. To see something so huge and ambitious, that was hiding in plain sight, and then bring it to fruition. But more than the physical ability and logistical organisation, I was struck by seeing them go after their goal, which was about full-commitment, about not turning around because of a few brambles. It was about not giving up, making something happen however outlandish an idea it might seem. Maybe that’s something we could all do a little more of? Because you never know, whilst it might not end up being chronicled in an internationally acclaimed feature film, it may well lead to the pure childish joy of wide-eyed excitement and adventure.

This story first appeared in issue 07 of BASE. Be sure to subscribe in print to get stories like this first.

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