Unlocked: Deep Water Soloing the Cliffs of Swanage

Lena Drapella, Tom Livingstone and Ben Corbey discovering the climbing potential of their backyards fresh out of lockdown

Feature type Story

Read time 6 min read

Published Jun 26, 2020

Author Lena Drapella

Photographer Lena Drapella

Lena Drapella
Lena Drapella A UK based commercial photographer, Lena can often be found climbing, skiing, surfing or glued to a screen with an editing software. She’s a passionate advocate for environmental progress from carbon offsetting to a circular economy.

‘Watch me!’ I heard Tom’s piercing shout 30 meters above my head. I could just about see his pumped arms and gritted teeth; he was about to enter the crux. Little pebbles and sand fell on my helmet as I anticipated the worst. Was the gear going to hold?

If you asked us four months ago what adventures we had planned, Tom [Livingstone] would be getting sunburnt on unclimbed peaks in Pakistan, while I’d be dreaming of a documentary shoot in Israel. If you were to ask us the same question two months ago, we’d probably be crazy to consider leaving the house due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fast forward to now and climbers are finally allowed to emerge from the shadows of their home built boards. Ironically we were forced to stay inside it what must have been one of the longest windows of good weather window in the UK in recent history. You could feel the discomfort and disbelief in peoples’ voices, ‘still no rain?’ At least it brought some diversity into the famous weather small talk.

The chains were unlocked though. While we considered the options to make the most of our new partial freedom, we had a few factors to consider. We needed something local, with safe but challenging climbing and an option to avoid the crowds. Swanage was the perfect option. With its classic deep water solo lines, ideal for the sunny days our decision was made.

Whilst packing, I glanced at my photography equipment. Ropes, ascenders, belay seat and camera had all collected a layer of dust; not something they were ever used to previously. The chances of a photoshoot were slim – it was just the two of us. ‘I can always leave it in the car’, is how I justified my decision as I stuffed the extra kilograms into an already full bag.

Approaching the crag, I wondered if my comfort zone had shrunk over the past few months; I felt as rusty as the stake we were about to abseil from into the unknown. Swanage abseils are not for the faint-hearted – the unique combination of loose rock, vegetation and sand keeps you on edge the whole time. I’ve never really been a fan of this rock – until I saw the Lean Machine Wall. It’s rare to see a sea-cliff as steep and sustained yet well protected.

Tom quickly set his objective: The Roaring Boys (E6 6b). He opted for a flash attempt, as to our knowledge it hadn’t had any recent ascents. He abseiled down to replace an old thread and brush a few holds, though the steepness of the wall made it a difficult task. A moment later, armed with two sets of wires and a selection of cams, he set off.

About 60 minutes in, Tom was finally committed to leave his rest position and set off to climb the last five meters which looked to be the crux. I heard a distinctive ‘Watch me!’ as if my neck didn’t remind me what I’d been doing that for the past hour. Woosh! I felt the wind on my face as I flew effortlessly up the wall. He fell off, but thankfully the gear stayed in place.

The next day, we abseiled off again. This time we had company – there were a few familiar faces on the route next to us as well as a photographer friend at the top. It was a much hotter day, and not without worries, Tom tied in yet again. An hour later I could just about hear his voice ‘I’m safe, Lena!’ I tied in.

I felt about as rusty as the stake we were about to abseil from

This evening I couldn’t stop thinking about the route. I simply couldn’t leave Swanage without photographing it. We managed to convince a local friend, Ben Corbey, to join us next time for a photoshoot. As the wall doesn’t come into shade until late afternoon, we decided to start the day with some deep water soloing. Ben had unfinished business with the route called The Vanishing which, until that day, he’d never found dry. The route is graded at a 7a+ but it is said to be anything between 6c and 7c, depending on conditions and your ability to climb upside down.

Ben and Tom disappeared into the depths of the cave while I aimlessly spun left and right, free-hanging on the rope unable to steady myself. ‘I should have set up an extra rope’ I thought, waving my arms and legs with full trust in my anchor, hoping  to face the action for at least a few seconds. The route looked like nothing else I’ve seen. Starting deep inside the cave it welcomed the climbers with a tricky boulder problem, followed by a technical arete. After gaining some significant height, it then traversed through a bizarre chimney like formations towards the light in the opening. It was a close fight, but both Ben and Tom managed to send it, celebrating the battle with a compulsory jump from the top.

Until recently, I didn’t believe there was much more to Swanage than Dancing Ledge. Being able to experience and photograph routes like The Surge Control,  The Roaring Boys and The Vanishing proved that even local places, which you have visited multiple times before, can have a lot more to offer. It draws me to the conclusion that adventure is less dependent on the location and more on the character, psyche and good company. So rather than asking ‘where?’, perhaps the questions should be ‘who with?’

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