Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Learning to Headpoint

At a rarely visited crag tucked away on the Penwith coast quality 3 star lines lie between sections of unclimbed Greenstone. We approach the top of the cliff while a raging sea jostles for attention down below but for once the rock reflects a matt dryness back to the eye. For reasons known only to the fickle conditions gods neither condensation nor spray will affect the crag today. We set up an anchor through which I thread the half ropes and watch them unfurl down the length of the crag, their ends slithering inevitably into a pristine rock pool to lie patiently alongside the limpets.
I abseil down, spinning slowly in the cool air as gravity drags me away from the face and deposits me a few metres out from the base of the cliff. Alexis slithers down the rope after me placing gear on his way to keep his rope close to the route. He reaches the bottom, assembles the necessary gear and sets off again, acting out the performance of removing gear, replacing it and removing it again, re-practising pre-practised moves and chuckling at the run-out from the comfort of the top-rope.

Soon he returns to the increasingly wave-washed platform and we swap roles. A different route but the same routine: I place gear, test it, remove it, memorise footholds, refresh my memory of the sequence and try to stay calm.

Back on the ground an air of nervousness prevails, an almost audible crackle of excitement, of fear, enhanced by the sound of the waves pounding the shoreline. The ropes are pulled, Alexis ties in and organises his gear into the correct sequence on his harness. He sets off and I belay standing in close to the cliff, one wary eye on the raging sea sending waves crashing over the platform ever closer to me. He climbs, executing the moves precisely, placing gear and leaving it below his feet to face the 5 or 6 metre run-out seemingly unconcerned. He reaches the top without so much as a power scream and between waves I edge out tentatively across the rock platform to take a photo; confirmation and a memento of his new route.  After a moment he lowers down, cleans the gear and takes the swing into space, floating for a moment above the foamy sea before gravity swings him back onto dry land.

Now it’s my turn. For a short while I can lose myself in the comfort of the pre-climb routine – ropes, gear, helmet, shoes, chalk – and forget about the pressure of the ‘tick’, stop worrying about how it’ll feel to be on lead with the safety of the top-rope notable only by its absence. Then I step off the ground and automatically relax, it’s just climbing after all. The first section passes easily and at the rest under the roof I realise I’m grinning, I feel comfortable leading, in control, alive. I take a deep breath and swing out across the lip of the roof and up the moves above it, I refrain from worrying about the potentially unpleasant fall onto the gear placed below the roof – the decision to take the risk had been made on the ground, a lifetime ago.

I place a small wire, seat it, clip it to my left rope and carry on, a few moves and then two cams, yellow one first, then red. Now for the crux, one hard move with the cams at my feet, a blind cam slot then another hard move but my body works on autopilot, it has done this before. The meat of the route is now over just a few more well practised moves, a wire and an unpractised top-out; I tell myself not to relax, not to panic, just to climb...

High as a kite I sit on the top and watch the waves.

Monday, 9 April 2012


The long Easter weekend dawned bright and early as we made our way up the M5. Being, as I am, a full-time climbing bum, who is only employed in the vaguest sense of the word, the concepts of Bank Holidays or even weekends are alien to me – marked only by the crags being busier that mid-week. Justin, however, is constrained by a full time job and as a result it's Easter and we're heading to Pembroke.

Day 1: Stennis Head
A few hours later and we were peering into Huntsman’s Leap, a terrifying looking crag filled with routes ranging from hard to HARD! I fancied a gentler warm up to Pembroke trad and headed down to Stennis Head to get on a truly awesome looking route – Pleasure Dome.

Pleasure Dome has everything you need from a route: a perfect line on a pristine section of rock, guaranteed exposure with a drop to the sea beneath your feet and holds and gear galore. It was a perfect wake up after hours in a van and the route didn't disappoint. I topped-out revelling in the un-Swanage-like nature of the rock – it’s not even loose!
Enjoying Pleasure Dome
Justin’s lead and he picked the mean-looking line of Flash. One smooth lead later with only one, very controlled shout of ‘watch me’ and he reached at the top. I climbed it and got the fear, seconding is a scary business.

It was my lead again and true to the rules of ‘Add a Grade’ I had to climb something harder than Justin’s last lead. I flicked through the guide looking for a low in the grade E5 that I could check out from the bottom before committing to, that doesn’t have words like  ‘outrageously strenuous’ or  ‘finger-shredding’ in the description and that isn’t accompanied by any of the following symbols in the Rockfax guide:
Unsurprisingly this narrowed the field somewhat.

Yellow Pearls at Trevallen fitted the description – apart, possibly, from the low in the grade bit but the guide says it’s French 7a+ and I can climb 7a+ right? Wrong! The route started well; I performed the vertical bellyflopping move that is required when the route, and the cliff, start over a metre off the ground, I mantled with surprising ease, I even climbed some moves and placed some gear. Soon, however, I reached a point where I needed to place a wire in the slot that I was eye-balling but couldn’t take a hand off to do so due to the irritating lack of footholds. I considered ignoring the gear and carrying on, citing the old motto ‘if in doubt: run it out’ but I felt too close to the ground to justify it. I settled on the only option left open to me and fell off.

A few more attempts later and I surrendered the lead to Justin who found the same difficulties but reach the top via a few quick-draw shaped holds. I seconded it with some rests and much fighting with firmly wedged-in gear. I was annoyed at falling off but pleased that I had got on the route to start with and psyched for some serious endurance training.

The day ended with a typical camper’s diet of beer, pasta surprise and mini eggs but I felt lost without my trusty van that, at present, is in the garage having the engine re-attached.

Day 2: St Govan’s
We woke to drizzle and the sounds of an entire campsite complaining that 'this wasn’t on the forecast' but after a brief trip to stock up on supplies of cake and tea it cleared up enough to risk an abseil. Strong offshore winds hassled us as we sorted our kit at the top of St Govan’s Head; at the cliff bottom it was another world, in the lee of the wind with the sun sneaking out from behind the clouds to warm our backs and dry the rock it felt like paradise.

Justin led first, climbing The Butcher (E2.5) a lovely climb which made me feel that I was about to barn-door off around the arĂȘte on nearly every move. Back down, out of the wind, I eyed up Charisma; the guidebook description suggested that it was a bit of a one-move wonder with the move protected by an aging peg and had upped the grade accordingly.

The route went well until The Move; from a good rest I placed some gear, ignored the rusty peg and tried to figure out The Move. I must have spent 30mins climbing up and down, trying to ignore the increasingly apparent fact that The Move was a big, committing slap to a flat hold. I don’t like big committing slaps, I don’t like them above a bouldering mat, I don’t like them above a bolt and I especially don’t like them above (admittedly bomber) gear. Eventually I had faffed enough and had nothing left to do apart from commit to The Move, which I did. I hit the hold and didn’t fall off, a bit of an anti-climax really. The rest of the route passed in an over-gripped and pumped blur.

Justin’s lead and sticking true to the game of Add a Grade, he found a classic E5, Get Some In, and set off. The route looked pumpy and greasy, rests were taken. My experience of the route was made far more pleasant by chalked holds and the absence of a lead-fall potential but I still fell off.

We abbed in one last time to retrieve the bag and escaped up Army Dreamers, a classic HVS, which had both holds and gear and was delightful. More beer, pasta surprise and mini eggs followed.

Day 3: Stennis Head
Easter Sunday dawned grey and cold, we started the day by a recce of a couple of committing routes that Justin and I had our eyes on: Out of my Mind at Stennis Head and Star Wars at Bosherston respectively. We managed to talk ourselves out of both routes due to the lingering sea grease experienced on our first climb of the day, Stuntsman.

A wee while later and I was staring at the bottom section of Trevallen Pillar eyeing up the grease and psyching myself up. The grease didn’t prove to be problematic and the first half of the route (originally the first pitch) went well; technical climbing, enough gear and a pleasantly committing crux. Then a ledge offered a welcome rest and a slab above offered a far less welcome series of unprotectable, unreversable moves on spaced crimps. I tried, I failed, I got scared and ran off, sideways, to belay around the corner leaving a 5b pitch for Justin.
Contemplating Barbarella
Justin’s lead and after a brief contemplation of the horrors of Barbarella he led the neighbouring Sunlover and we skipped away over Pembrokeshire moorland to the promise of tea, warm showers and a real bed.