Where to climb in Cornwall

My stomach dropped when I realized it was a police car flashing me to pull over. Alone on an unlit motorway, I had felt free to jam on the accelerator. The police Range Rover had emerged silently and its lights glared in my rear-view. Now, it seemed, they had me over a barrel.

I searched for an excuse to justify driving over a hundred miles-per-hour, but came up lacking. I signaled to the left and began to decelerate in anticipation of what was to come.

“Why me?” I thought. Is it such a crime to speed on a deserted road? I settled back into my seat as the police car passed by, doubtlessly to pull in front of me and lay down the law.

I glanced over with confusion, as the Range Rover rocketed on, paying me no mind.

I hollered in ecstasy when I realized I had slipped the chains and stepped right back on the gas.

There is, after all, no inherent immorality in driving at a high speeds, as long as it’s done with the necessary skill and caution. Look at the Germans, I thought. There are sections of the Autobahn with no speed limit and they have the safest roads in the world.

It is always refreshing to see the rulebook torn up as part of a higher sense of justice. Although of course, it is entirely possible there was no greater wisdom involved and the policeman simply wanted to get home to watch the football.

A white cottage by the sea

Cornwall has a mythical place in my mind – one of my first memories as a child was gazing into the sloshing, abyssal sea from a Cornish jetty. I have always found it to have a different feel to the rest of England, remote and enigmatic. An outpost of ancient and mysterious ways of living.

Not to say I expect the locals to be walking round with creepy Midsummer festival masks or anything – just that I wouldn’t be that surprised if they did. If you have any doubt about Cornwall’s ability to inspire an offbeat and dreamlike state of mind, just listen to a track by Aphex Twin.

Social climbing

I arrived at the campsite around ten. Most of the university climbing club members were sloppy drunk by then and were stumbling around the bar, joking and back-slapping.

I bought a drink and started socializing. After a few conversations I noticed a trend – almost every single person was a self-effacing engineering student. I had always assumed climbing, as an extreme sport, to be the scene of boisterous vest-wearers, but it was different here.

I noticed that their reserved behaviour soon degenerated once back with the regular members however. This was a tight group.

I strolled to the next room and noticed a woman with crutches slumped in the corner. She introduced herself as Beth.

“What happened?” I said, glancing at the sticks

“Oh these?” She said. “Torn meniscus. I did it a couple of years ago.”

She grinned. “I’ve just twisted it again, climbing.”

I winced then took a swig of beer.

“Not recommended.” She said. “I slipped and slammed my leg into a cliff coming down an overhang. It took hours for them to get me down.”

“And you’re back for more.” I said, with a smile.

I am always interested to discover an activity people will put themselves at immense personal risk to chase. Whose extreme upside renders injury and even death mere trivialities. Is it the rush of the flow state that brings people back to climbing or just poor memory of their bone-crunching injuries? Either way, we would be heading out to the cliffs tomorrow – Sennen Cove, near Land’s End.

Lost horizons

The sun glared down on Sennen Cove. We made our way down to the rocky shore and began to set up the ropes, sheer cliffs ahead. A group of islets known The Longships was visible offshore, touted as part of the mythical lost country of Lyonesse in Arthurian legend.

I sorted through all the climbing devices we would be using – carabiners, nuts, hexes, tricams and started to realize what was so attractive to the engineering mind.

Rock climbing is already a puzzle, with its need for thoughtful placement of the fingers and toes in cracks and crevices, or sometimes simply pressure on vertical surfaces. The equipment however opens up routes which require complex systems of ropes and anchors – a playground of forces and movement.

There is also, of course the more obvious return to the childhood joy of climbing a tree or swinging perilously from the playground climbing frame.

Josiah, an inquisitive man and another engineer, had climbed halfway up the cliff already as the lead climber. After he reached the top he signaled that the rest of us, one by one, could start our ascent.

After his girlfriend had become marooned on a rock which appeared to have zero hand or footholds and had to be lowered back to the ground, I tied myself in and began to propel myself up the face.

Fear of heights comes on quickly on a windy cliff and I pressed myself into the face for security, after a strong gust.

“Are you okay?” Josiah called from above.

I grunted in the affirmative and slowly relaxed my fingers.

I forced my focus away from the drop below and began to press on up the crag. What have I got to be scared of anyway, I thought, the rope will save me, but then remembered Beth’s description of being repeatedly smashed into the cliff-face like a pendulum and gulped.

Regaining composure I was able to crawl up the rockface and heave myself over the brink to safety.

A little while later on the clifftop, I was learning how to tie a specific anchor knot with a more experienced climber called Ali.

A group of three club members within earshot approached cockily.

“What, you don’t know?” their leader said and snorted. His sidekicks giggled.

I glared in disbelief. These men had reverted to high school bullying inside the confines of their group. The weirdest behaviour emerges when humans group together, especially one which requires some kind of specialist knowledge. I guess you have to carefully vet outsiders when they are the ones holding your the rope hundreds of feet above the ground. Although, I thought, it was probably more likely they were just morons.

Sometimes you get what you mead

Mead, an alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey, has been one of the finest ways of getting wasted, since time immemorial. In celebration of of the historical significance of the drink, our group of around thirty marched the two miles to the meadery in high spirits.

After a roast dinner and toasts to the club (led by the man who had mocked my rope tying skills), everyone settled in for some serious booze-sampling.

It was still light when we funneled out of the meadery and descended on the children’s playground, which was apparently an annual tradition. Mercifully there were no actual children there, as they would have almost certainly been bulldozed by the stampede of tipsy men and women staggering around and leaping across the apparatus.

Afterwards we filed into a nearby beer garden and continued the festivities. I noticed one of the club members who drove the minibus and obviously felt some kind of hauteur due to that fact had been rugby tackling some of the newer recruits, causing them to spill their beer. They had of course, due to his presumed seniority, been forced to laugh it off and his reign of terror continued.

He approached me with a grin and put his hand on my shoulder. “Are you one of the new members?”

“Yes.” I said, shooting him an icy smile. “I just started a new job in the engineering faculty.”

He look confused and laughed weakly, before making his excuses.

Dusk fell and everyone continued their descent into a slurred euphoria. I noticed Josiah was becoming increasingly aggressive towards a tree and when one of the club members attempted to drag him away from the one-sided fight, he had turned and lurched at them with venom.

I had joined a couple of others in restraining him and he relaxed and began to wail apologies.

“We’d better get you home.” one of the men, called Will said.

Josiah paused and squinted, as if seeing through the veil of reality, before launching a horizontal stream of vomit onto Will’s trousers.

At that point he appeared to lose all motor function and we leapt to prevent him from collapsing.

Carrying a drunken man two miles down a country road with vomit running down your leg is never going to be a pleasant experience, but needs must.

We dumped his body outside his girlfriend’s tent and advised her that it was now her responsibility if he died.

Interesting how alcohol is such an exception in our culture of mind-bending substance use, I thought. You can abandon a near unconscious man, vomiting and delerious, back at his lodgings without giving it a second thought and with no moral or legal penalty. ‘No, your honour, we never thought it’d come to this. We thought he’d just had one too many drinks.’

Nos da

It had been an interesting return to Cornwall for me and an impromptu immersion into the politics of the tight-knit university club. Looking back I considered that some of the weirder behaviour was little more than a misjudged attempt at the hazing traditions which have gone on in educational facilities since the days of yore. But so what? Most of the club members had been helpful and friendly and I had discovered some beautiful places. Backing out of the campsite I smiled as another trip to this strange, beautiful land came to an end.

3 Replies to “Where to climb in Cornwall”

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