The Spectacular Antihero of Avon Gorge

The Spectacular Antihero of Avon Gorge

Unknown Wall VS 4c **

The Unknown Wall is a 55 metre Avon Gorge Classic.  The looming overhang gives the route an intimidating feel and combined exposed moves, it feels high in the grade. 

The Route

Albeit an Avon Gorge Classic, the Unknown Wall is not as frequently climbed compared to other routes of a similar grade.   The Unknown Wall is tucked to the far left of the Gorge in the Unknown Area. 

The 55 m are split across 3 pitches.  The first 10 metres are a scramble up to a belay ledge.  The second, 27 m 4c, follows a vague and exposed line to a triangular ledge.  Then climbs boldly leftwards to a small niche and finished by a short traverse right to a large belay ledge.

The final pitch, 18m 4c, traverses under the looming overhang which has been ever present during the climb.  A testing move is made to pull out of the overhang then an easy but potentially earth scramble to the top. 

The Unknown Area, with the omnipresent overhang taking centre stage in the middle of the photograph

At the top there is an ice cream van awaiting for some needed refreshment after completing the climb. 

Access

There is a car park at the bottom of Sea Walls, off the A4 which has room for roughly 20 cars.  Sea Walls Public car park, Clifton, Bristol BS6 6LS.  This car park fills up quickly on a good day so arrive early for the best chance of getting a space, alternatively, park at the top of Avon Gorge and take one of the paths to the base of the crag.  The parking is limited to 5 hours, Monday to Friday, 9am till 5pm.   

From the Sea Walls car park, walk away from the vehicle entrance over the grass.  When the path runs out, hop onto the road (in the bus lane) and walk 20 – 30 metres up the road until jumping over a stone wall on your right.  Once over the wall follow the narrow path towards the rock face then continue up the slope for another 10 – 20 metres until at the base of the route.  Clearly identified by the huge overhang high above!

There are regularly nesting birds in and around Avon Gorge so it is essential to check out current restrictions on the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) Regional Access Database (RAD) linked here.

NOTE – There is no formal access to the crag via the route described. The land at the base of the crag is privately owned whilst the cliff is owned by Bristol City Council. If you are challenged by the land owner, be polite and leave as soon as possible. An alternative to the walk in is to abseil from the top of the cliff.

The Climb

Larry and I tried attempted the climb a week earlier, but it was too wet.  This time, early on a January morning, we were lucky to find the route dry, all accept the starting 10 metre scramble which was damp and muddy (thankfully not frozen as we were stopped from climbing earlier in the month due to ice).  There looked to very limited, if any, protection to the trees on the belay ledge so we opted to solo up this.  The solo on damp rock was a bit disconcerting but straight forward. In hindsight, protection could be found to protect this first pitch.

The belay stance at the top of the dirty scramble

From here Larry and I played rock, paper, scissors to decide who lead the first pitch.  I won, so I racked up, got my rock shoes on, being careful to keep them dry, and was ready to climb.  The first few moves above the trees were easy but fairly run out up to a large borehole and a couple pitons.  I have seen pitons in better condition so was grateful there was 2. 

It was at about this point that I got uncontrollable disco in my calves.  I had not been standing on my toes for very long and here I was, with shaky legs not far above the belay.  This made the rest of the climb much slower and more cautious. From the twin pegs I moved into a corner, under the triangular ledge.  With a layback, high foot and a big pull, I quickly popped onto the ledge, shaky legs and all.  This move felt exposed and intimidating whilst above not the most confidence building gear.  Next I followed the route diagonally to the left into a niche.  Above, there was a little capped roof and a high piton, I reached up and to clip it, which in hindsight, I regretted as it was difficult for Larry to recover and left some swing potential if he fell.  Climbing direct above the piton is the Unknown Wall Direct HVS 4c variant of the route.  After clipping the piton, I dropped down and hand traversed on good holds across to the large belay ledge at the end of the pitch. 

Larry getting ready to second the first pitch. The second belay is a massive comfortable ledge!

I belayed Larry up to the start of the second pitch.  He found seconding the pitch nerve racking, due to the exposed and precarious feel of the route.  When he arrived, he disconcertedly looked up at the huge roof above.  The moves up to the roof seemed were okay but the traverse is sparsely protected by pitons.  After swapping the rack, and Larry doing some jumping around to hype himself up, he started.

The enormous projecting roof

He moved quickly up to the projecting roof and then found a comfortable position to try and figure out the traverse.  It appears that 1 of the pitons protecting the traverse has disappeared which means there is a sizable run out across the middle.  In the middle of the traverse is a disconcerting sloper which makes the traverse feel extra spicy.  Martin Crocker’s Avon Gorge: A Climbers’ Club Guide, describes this move as “perplexing”.  Larry moved out to the sloper then back again, tying to build the confidence to move across.  A couple deep breaths and he glided across to the other end of the traverse where he placed a bomber micro cam and clipped the pitons above. 

Larry checking and rechecking everything before comitting to the traverse.

From here there is a difficult move out of the break in the corner.  Larry fixated on the right side of the break and whilst trying to pull out, his feet cut foot loose and he fell.  Fortunately, the gear; both fixed and placed, was bomber and high enough so he did not fall far.  After composing himself and me shouting words of encouragement he focused on the left side of the break and quickly pulled through and out of sight.  A few minutes later, the customary 5 tugs on the rope signified he was safe, so I took him off belay, he pulled the slack and I got ready to climb.

I blasted up to the overhang, which with the rope running out in front of me, looked harrowing.  I inched as far forward as I could before unclipping the piton.  I reaching in front of me I found the unhelpful sloper, sadly, I could not reverse the move unlike Larry.  Instead, I dropped as low as I could, matched on the hold and delicately moved across to the other side where the holds improve.  I collected all the gear, and having seen Larry’s fall, I quickly climbed up the left side of the break and powered up to the belay which has been made on 2 of the main fence posts.

To my surprise, we had topped out into an area closed off to the public by the Avon and Somerset Fire Service as they were conducting a training exercise.  They had a lorry with a winch to evacuate injured people, which was anchored to a large van.  This made our anchor on a fence seem woefully inadequate.  We hopped over the fence, scooped up our gear, said thanks to the rescue team and got out of the way as quick as we could.  What a bizarre end to the climb. 

Snapping a quick selfie, feeling they ill prepared when compared with the team behind me

The Unknown Wall felt tough.  Some of the moves through the 2 main pitches felt both exposed and hard.  When recording my climb in my UKC logbook, I read that there had been some rock fall on the route which means in its current condition, it is seen as a potential HVS.  These things are subjective but, in my opinion, it is probably worthy of the grade HVS 4c/5a.

The route is still outstanding, and I now know the Avon and Somerset route are well trained.

The unmissable overhang

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