Climbers Race Up 400-Foot Chalk Cliffs

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U.K. climber Greg Boswell partway up the Red Bull White Cliffs course. The route began by exiting the left side of the giant cave at the bottom. Photo by Calum Muskett.

U.K. climber Greg Boswell partway up the Red Bull White Cliffs course. The route began by exiting the left side of the giant cave at the bottom. Photo by Calum Muskett.

10/20/14 - Leave it to Red Bull to dream up this unique competition: The Red Bull White Cliffs event last weekend pitted 10 top mixed climbers against a nearly 400-foot vertical to overhanging wall of chalk in southern England. The friendly competition was staged as a race, but the route was so long, steep, and technical that most climbers took 20 minutes or more to complete the route.

Chalk climbing—though not exactly popular—has a long history in England, where climbers have headed to the white cliffs of Dover and the Isle of Wight since the 1970s, using ice gear to tap and pound their way up the soft chalk. At the Red Bull event, held above Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight, the climbers spent two days forerunning the route to get a feel for the medium and to create pick placements they could use during the race.

"The chalk on the Isle of Wight has a quite hard outer shell," says Will Mayo, the sole American competitor. "If we were to try to onsight a line, it would take multiple hours for a single ascent. We all had basically the same route, but chalk is an ever-changing medium, like ice, and so there was an adventurous aspect to the event typically not found in competitions."

The results. Photo by Will Mayo.

The competition route started from the beach and climbed the side of an enormous cave, then continued up vertical rock to the grassy headland on top. All competitors were top-roped. (When leading on chalk, climbers use Warthogs and other pound-in protection.) Fighting the pump was the biggest issue, though a broken hold could easily have led to a fall and DNF.

Russian Alexey Tomilov (ranked third in the world in UIAA Ice World Cups) won the comp with a time of 16 minutes 46 seconds. Frenchman Jeff Mercier was second at 19:08, and Mayo was third at just under 21:41.

Welsh climber Calum Muskett has a good account of the event and more photos at his blog.

Date: October 2014

Sources: Will Mayo, Calum Muskett