Blackpool is a shithole. Don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t have it any other way, but compared to the Southerners go-to seaside retreat (which only has a few k’ed up bikini clad hipsters for you to contend with) Blackpool is as grim as it gets. The toothless alcoholics, the tuck-your-socks-in scooter gangs, screeching hen dos and that faded veneer of the once postcard-perfect Victorian holiday resort all mesh together to form some uniquely British, nay, Northern cocktail of borderline poverty, proud as punch and judy absurdity. There’s not many that really get the charm of this chaotic broth, and you probably need to have spent a few of those ‘summer’ weekends in your formative years being baptised in the sewage that used to coat the top half inch of the freezing Irish Sea, running terrified from the tortured donkeys and pedophile balloon venders to really know what the whole place is about. There really is nothing else like it.
Even if you’ve never been to Blackpool, you’ll still probably know about the dark red imitation Tour Eiffel that pins the city to the West Coast. In the age of Burj Khalifas, Freedom Towers and Shards, it still manages to hold its own as a mighty construction possibly bolstered by the fond childhood memories of all those who come back to see it. Like the afore mentioned super structures, it wasn’t built for any real practical purpose. It’s whole reason for being was to show off to the North West that Blackpool was where it was at, and it sort of succeeded.. When you think Blackpool, you think: Tower, and unlike those flashy glass mega buildings whose real purpose is to remind the great unwashed who is really in charge from every conceivable vantage point in the cities they inhabit, Blackpool tower really feels like it was built for the common man. There were no exclusive access rights, no first class tickets, no luxury treatments, and this is probably why the Tower and the whole city of Blackpool is still held so dearly by the inhabitants of the North West, so you shouldn’t really need an explanation of why someone who likes climbing buildings would want to get it climbed proper.
It took a few goes as well.
One of the hardest bits (or so we thought) was getting onto the 5 story ballroom base itself, but after a bit of a think we had a decent and well protected, pretty much 5+ sport route up one side of it. The first attempt was quickly curtailed by bad weather and we had to bail after getting to the roof of the ballroom, but we had a decent proof of concept.
On our second attempt, we made it to the overhang underneath the viewing platform at the top. Our plan was to just pop up through the emergency hatch located at the top of the ladder in the south west leg, but after all the fuss caused by the wronguns that went up in 2009/10 they now keep it locked firmly shut. We gave the overhang a good coat o’ looking at, but knew we’d not be able to climb it without some more gear and headed down.
The third attempt was a long time coming. We knew we’d have to deal with the treacherous overhang on the viewing platform to be able to ascend to the flag pole at the top, and due to the lack of any decent holds on the first move out over the 450ft abyss, we’d need some seriously special weapons and tactics. In the months that followed that second attempt, everything from electromagnets, clamps, remote control helicopters and even just popping up in the last lift of the day and hiding were mooted, but we kept coming back to the idea of suction cups. Mr ‘No Promise Of Safety(or updating his website!!!)’ had succeeded in scaling a huge glass slope on the side of a building in the USA a couple of years previous, and although I’ve not seen the making of Mission Impossible 4, I’m pretty sure they used 10 quid eBayed floor tile lifters as well….
We did a bit of testing on a couple of glass fronted buildings in town, and amazingly, the floor lifters worked a treat. The big quad ones are apparently rated at around 120kg a piece, which was more than enough to provide the stable hand hold we were looking for to enable us to get past the tricky bit on the first move of the overhang.
We also worked hard at our aiding, doing run after run up whatever steel we could find using only a pair of skyhooks and etriers to get us from the ground to the top, and every couple of weeks, we’d drop each other a text…
“Nahh, bad weather” or “can’t, seeing girlfriend”, or “can’t there’s an event on in the ballroom” etc etc etc.
When the time came though, it was obvious.
There was a large bank of low-lying fog predicted to cover Blackpool from 7pm right the way through till 4am the next morning. As well as looking super sick in all the photos, it would shield our silhouetted bodies from the whole of the city as we made the climb round the back-lit glass overhang.
As a bonus, the tower also had no events on and it was going to be a bit parky outside, meaning the street would be absent of all its usual pub crawlers and stag dos who’d have no doubt kicked up a fuss and had us pulled down by the dibble before we’d even gotten warmed up.
By this third go, we knew exactly what we were doing. The first pitch was lightening fast and within about 45 minutes we were making our way across the top of the ballroom building towards the base of the tower without a single soul spotting the pair of ballied up builderers hauling bags full of climbing gear.
After ascending the next 300ish foot, we were back at our old hangout under the overhang. It should be known that I’m not a super-mega climber. A proper Yorkshire HVS is enough to get me swearing when I’m out on the rocks, and even though Morse wouldn’t admit to being that good, he’s definitely better than I am. We’d previously used phrases such as ‘when *we* lead it’, but *we* both knew who was going up first. We roped up and put the aid rigs together, and fifteen minutes later, Morse stepped out into the clouds with a pair of bright orange suction pads dangling off his harness providing another stella-copper-bottomed-classic ‘is this real life…?’ double takes we all do this shit for.
The protection on this one was bomber. While a fall at this height would have been a pretty scary experience (and one we were both prepared for), the iron girders and bolts we’d rigged to were as solid as they come. The only thing really to worry about was if we had the chops to beat the overhang itself.
I’m not going to lie, it was tense 30 minutes. We kept in contact via mobile phone with ear pieces, and I got every huff, puff, ‘fucking hell’ and sigh of relief injected straight into my right lug as he slowly lead the way out over the overhang, up the glass frontage and finally to the second floor of the viewing gallery. He sorted a belay station on one of the huge steel lattice crowns and once he was comfy he dropped me down a suction pad, etrier and skyhook.
I tied in.
I made the first steps out onto the curved beam that loops upward to the glass face and slowly moved outwards over the 400 foot of cloud that lay between me and the Bruce Forsyth tributary pavement. This felt sort of ok, but it was the move out away from the psychological hug of the glass roof and iron girders that I’ll never forget. Being this high, gripping onto a one inch ledge of freezing cold steel by your finger tips knowing the slightest slip is going to see you drop into the cloud below is a pretty visceral feeling, and even though you know you have the safety of the top rope, it doesn’t alleviate the fear of falling.
In a couple of moves (thanks to the fortuitous placement of the skyhook and etrier morse had thrown down), I was stood by my toes on the tiny ledge of the steel girder just below the floor of the viewing platform hanging back on my left hand which was trying to retain positivity on the corner edge window frame of the massive glass panel. I had a good think about what aid gear I could place here to sort me out, but rather than faff with the suction cups I figured that as I was on a top rope I’d just man up and climb it proper.
I leant back on my left hand, got a foot hold on one of the tiny rivets and committed.
“TAKETAKETAKETAKETAKETAKETAKETAKE!” Was pretty much all that came out of my mouth for the next thirty seconds or so while I huffed and puffed up past the window ledge.
As my left foot came up to meet my left hand on the outer edge, steadied by a toe I’d gotten in under the windowsill, I pushed up with everything I had balanced on a quarter inch of steel. My fingers and toes were absolutely murdering from the cold damp breeze and the steel structure sucking all the heat out though my skin, and it was a real test to grip on to even the German Bomber jug of a hold of the first ledge of the upper platform.
I got my right knee into the top of the window with my left shoe at a higher spot on the out ledge and gave it one last go.
I pulled myself up onto the top cage and had a moment… What a route!
I scarpered up to the next level where I found morse lazily hanging on his belay point. We were both on such a high at having blitzed that overhang, he was considering not even bothering going to the absolute top.
“Are you mad..?!” I asked him, “The next bit is an absolute doddle!”
We were certainly not coming all this way *just* to get the geek points for that overhang. It doesn’t matter if you free solo the outside or take the stairs: You’ve not topped it till you’ve topped it. It didn’t take much persuading him anyway, and after a quick rope changeover and a super easy lead up past the crowns to the section above the public gallery, we were ascending the ladder to the flagpole, 500 feet above the sea level and a hundred feet above the clouds.
My only regret about the whole thing is that I still don’t own a parachute.