Aqua-Alpinism and other adventures on Britain's Exmoor Coast
The heaving swell slaps at my feet, licking along the narrow sandstone shelf like a dragon's tongue before swirling into a through-cave. Reflected light glints on the water on the other side. Swimming across the cave, I point out to the psychiatrist, will cut off a few hundred metres of climbing, saving us precious time. The sun has started to sink into the sea with the coming of evening. Just then, a massive swell set slams into the cavern, and the constricted entrance takes on the form of a cataract on the upper Brahmaputra. The psychiatrist looks at me quizzically.
“Not such a good idea, perhaps?” he suggests. I look back at him, shiver, and laugh. This is the point we decide to abandon ship.
In case you're wondering, I’m not recounting a flashback from rehab. The psychiatrist is in fact my partner in crime, Dr. Grant Farquhar. He is also largely responsible for the fact that we're traversing towards the base of the highest cliff in England, the Great Hangman, three hours before sunset. It’s just after high tide, and we both have mild hypothermia. In early June 2013, when this mission took place, the waters of the Bristol Channel were still only 12 degrees Celsius after one of the coldest winters in a decade.
We've been on the move for eleven hours already on the Exmoor Coast Traverse, Britain's longest climb. We're attempting a one day ascent of the most demanding section of the route: Lynmouth to Combe Martin, a distance of some 17,000 metres: around twice the height of Everest from sea level. It's a mammoth undertaking, and has much of the atmosphere and seriousness of a big alpine climb on an unexplored peak. It had never previously been considered feasible – or indeed attempted - in a single, one-day push.
The history of the Exmoor Coast Traverse spans more than a century, and is as complex and convoluted as the route itself. Following the lead of Victorian pioneers James Hannington and Edward Arber, the route was first completed by Clement Archer and Cecil Agar in 1954, but only in different sections climbed on separate days.
A couple of decades later, in 1978, Terry Cheek, Trevor Simpson, Graham Rogers and Robert Simmons made the first continuous ascent over four and a half days, using ropes and an expedition-style approach with a support team. The route involves serious and in places difficult climbing on wet rock, with only a handful of safe exits in its entire length.
Our approach, by contrast, was fast, light, and totally unsupported. We climbed solo, wearing modified 2/3mm wetsuits and approach shoes, and carried compact dry bags for our food and water.
David Kester Webb and Elizabeth Webb explain the nature of this extraordinary route in their superb book The Hidden Edge of Exmoor:
“[This] is a serious mountaineering venture that is compounded by a tide that can rise vertically over six feet an hour and by cliffs that tower over six hundred feet in places. Out of sight of civilization, it is an awe-inspiring wilderness, boasting the highest cliff in England, a waterfall as high as Niagara, and a colony of ancient stunted yew trees that may prove to be the largest in Britain.”
The seriousness of the undertaking is multiplied by the fact there is no phone reception at the cliff base anywhere along this part of the Exmoor coast. In this respect, as in others, the traverse is actually more serious than a big climb in the Alps, where helicopter rescue is just a speed-dial away.
We made good progress, covering three quarters of the distance between Lynmouth and Combe Martin in eleven hours. The psychiatrist is a proficient surfer, and I’m an experienced open water paddler. But with mutual respect for the power of the sea, we called the 'Brahmaputra Cave' our full-time whistle, and made our escape up the steep incline of Red Cleave, a fine eleven-hundred foot, fifty-degree bramble-festooned couloir.
Lynmouth to Combe Martin in a day, or 'The Exmoor Coast Integral' as Dr. Farquhar and I have called it, is undoubtedly feasible by a highly proficient team of two or three, and under more favourable conditions than those in which we attempted it. This alpine-style adventure, completed without boat support, is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges of total physical endurance, logistics, commitment, and route-finding skill in Britain, and presents the possibility of a whole new sub-genre of climbing: the psychiatrist and I call it ‘aqua-alpinism’.
In the same way that para-alpinism links climbing or mountaineering with BASE jumping, ‘aqua-alpinism’ links rock climbing with extreme coasteering to produce challenges that are beyond the scope of either activity alone. In order to complete the Exmoor Coast Integral, you will need to be a strong, experienced climber and an equally strong and experienced coasteer and swimmer. You’ll also need to stay up all night and get lucky, as Daft Punk say.
When the late, great Swiss alpinist Erhard Loretan pioneered his 'night naked' approach for climbing hard routes with maximum efficiency in the Himalaya, it's unlikely he imagined his theory might be used on a sea level traverse of an obscure section of the southwest coast of England. The beauty of climbing in general, and alpinism in particular, is its stubborn refusal to conform to a single definition of what it might be. This is surely one of the many reasons I’m so drawn to these strange, dangerous, and exhausting activities.
Fast-forward four years, and the prize of the Exmoor Coast Integral remains a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked by a budding explorer. The psychiatrist’s family commitments mean it’s unlikely he can take the time off for a second attempt. Without the enthusiasm - or for that matter the courage - for a solo attempt at the whole Traverse, but with the Exmoor Coast still very much on my mind, I conjure up a more practical, less time-consuming, but nonetheless still highly adventurous means of exploring this awesome stretch of the southwest coast: a voyage by stand-up paddleboard (SUP).
After extensive testing over hundred of miles of open water, using various different boards, I’m convinced that a 14 foot touring SUP, piloted by a strong paddler, has very much the same capabilities as a sea kayak in all but the most extreme swell conditions. In big seas, a sea kayak will always be a wiser choice of vessel. But in smaller swells and smooth water, both craft are an equally viable option, having similar speeds and handling abilities.
With this knowledge in mind, and I set off for a solo ten mile paddle from Porlock Weir to Lynmouth in August 2017. I timed my trip well, passing under the awesome, lonely stockade of Glenthorne House just after mid-tide. This meant I could clear Foreland Point - where the most dangerous seas on the whole Exmoor coast can occur – just before dead low water, and therefore in the most favourable possible conditions. My presence off Foreland Point caused a degree of amazement in a fishing boat heading east (the fishing boat was only other vessel I met on this section of the trip).
As I flew past the boat, carried by a light easterly tailwind and the last half-hour of the ebb tide, one of the boat’s occupants exclaimed “I think you’re bloody mad”. I guess he didn’t expect to see a guy on a paddleboard gliding effortlessly past one of the more treacherous headlands in south west England.
The drone of the fishing boat’s inboard engine quickly faded as I entered the vast semi-circular sweep of Lynmouth Bay, and was replaced by just the quiet dip of my carbon fibre paddle in the blue-green water, and the cry of black-backed gulls soaring overhead; my ever-watchful companions on this journey.
A few weeks later, I took advantage of an exceptional high pressure window at the end of August to make the journey from Lynmouth to Combe Martin: the most westerly and arguably the most spectacular part of the entire coast.
By waiting for the right tide and a window of ideal weather to make the voyage, I took advantage of near-perfect sea conditions. A strong ebb stream took me along the most impressive section of the Exmoor Coast between Woody Bay and the Great Hangman, just east of Combe Martin. Passing Bull Point, another spot where a powerful tide race can occur, a big Atlantic Grey seal popped up ten metres from my board and stayed with me for the next mile. Flying around the jagged rocks offshore of the point itself, carried along by the powerful tidal stream, I remembered the challenging and time-consuming climbing along this section from four years before: it was hard to believe just how much easier this whole thing was on the water, as opposed to the tortuous challenge of the terrestrial version of the Exmoor Coast Traverse.
Just east of Bull Point, the shingle beach at Heddon’s Mouth provides a possible landing spot, although I continued past, needing to clear the Great Hangman four miles to the west before low water, otherwise I’d be in deep trouble. According to the testament of former German submariners, Heddon’s Mouth was used by U-boats during WW2 for restocking fresh water. It’s one of the more remote beaches in England, flanked by 1000 foot cliffs on both sides.
If you ever visit Heddon’s Mouth, just imagine landing here by dingy at 3 a.m. on a winter night in the early 1940s; you’d have to be quick filling your jerry cans from the river.
Westwards from Heddon’s Mouth, the coast becomes even more impressive, culminating in the epic 1200 foot sweep of Great Hangman, which is said to be the highest cliff on mainland Britain. It’s named after the striking hooded shape of its summit: a caped figure standing watch over this lonely coast.
Again, I timed the tide just right, and cleared the Hangman just before low water. This is the last bastion of the Exmoor cliffs before the coast falls away to the west, and the quaint fishing village of Combe Martin provides a welcome refuge and landing spot after the awesome terrain you’ve just passed through.
The final section of the coast that remained to explore was the easternmost part, from Minehead to Porlock Weir. Whilst not quite as high and less dramatic overall than the western part of Exmoor, the brooding cliffs that plunge straight into the sea around Hurlstone Point, which must be passed to enter the wide expanse of Porlock Bay, make up for the lack of real verticality elsewhere.
On this section - completed in October – my partner and I soon hit the first of the westerly swell barrelling out from Hurricane Ophelia as we left the sanctuary of Minehead Harbour, and were glad to be paddling together on the wild approach to Hurlstone Point. Half a mile off Hurlstone, the swell suddenly dropped away: we’d moved into the sheltering effect of Foreland Point 15 miles to the west, which I’d cleared on my first Exmoor paddle back in August.
Perhaps the best thing of all about this section of the Exmoor Coast is the fact it’s possible to land at Porlock Weir about thirty metres from the fifteenth century Ship Inn, one of Devon’s best pubs. As soon as we’d pulled the boards up the steep shingle, I began to think about doing the coast in two longer sections, the first from Minehead to Lynmouth, and the second from Lynmouth to Ilfracombe. Spring tides, prime sea conditions, and some serious motivation would be essential for these voyages.
And of course the uncompleted non-stop terrestrial traverse of this shoreline – the Exmoor Coast Integral – that the psychiatrist and I tried in 2013 still lurked at the back of my mind. This epic, multi-dimensional journey along England’s wildest stretch of coastline still remains for the taking. When it is finally completed in a single, aqua-alpine push, I think it’ll be one of the more impressive feats of adventuring achieved anywhere in the British Isles.
Notes on the Exmoor Coast
The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world after Canada’s Bay of Fundy, and this means the tidal stream acts as a supercharger to any long distance paddle. If you time it right, on spring tides you’ll experience a 3 knot (5 mph) advantage. This can be boosted to as much as 6 or 7 knots around headlands like Foreland Point and Bull Point, where serious tide races often occur, and where good paddling skills are essential.
A shorter version of this piece first appeared as an editorial in Climb magazine, and the full version appeared in LEGEND magazine in 2017