Sunday, 21 November 2010

Optimism 1:1 Reality

Winter is definitely upon us. Other than a very hungover ascent of Giant's Cave Buttress in the Avon Gorge at the end of October I hadn't climbed anything for over a month and was beginning to get a little bit stir-crazy. I was in the Northern Lakes this weekend, and this lack of climbing may have clouded my judgement slightly this morning when I decided that bouldering at Carrock Fell was definitely the right thing to do. Still, I had a willing partner in crime in Oli, and we managed to persuade the ladyfolk that going for a short walk and then sitting in a pub drinking tea was a fun way to pass the day.

As soon as we got out of the cars at the bottom of the hillside I began to have my doubts about quite how good an idea this was. It was absolutely freezing, and I had 5 layers and a pair of dachsteins on before I achieved any kind of thermal equilibrium. The rock also looked substantially damp, but I was still full of my usual blind optimism, so we wandered up to the first boulder to see what could be seen. Some of the rock looked dry, but we were both repelled from the easiest problem in the guide (font 3) by gopping holds, a frightening top-out and frozen fingers. This wasn't looking good.

We decided to have a last forage for some dry rock on the nearby Laurel and Hardy boulders, and this revealed a good and mostly dry looking font 6a+. The crux was low down and the landing good, so it seemed rude not to have a go. After a bit of a play I worked out a sequence using a ridiculous high step and after a few goes managed to hang the hideous tiny crimp, rockover onto the high foot and I was up. Oli had to work out his own, less elastic, plan of attack, but soon nailed it. We were both pretty pleased, not being regular English 6a climbers.

Oli giving it some on the traverse of justice

Our bubble was soon burst by successive problems we could barely get of the ground on (or not at all in the case of one font 6a slab), but we soon found a funky looking steep traverse to burn ourselves out on before it was home time. The handholds were all good, but the footholds started small and then disappeared. Oli managed to get to the same point a few times before falling off, so I gave it a go. To my great surprise, thanks to the cunning deployment of some stylish heel-hooks, I managed to huff and puff my way to the far end, where I effected a very ungainly mantel to finish the problem. Oli soon followed and we left the crag having snatched a rather unlikely victory from the jaws of certain defeat (although destroying our fingertips in the process - that gabbro is rough stuff).

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Pembroke 2: The Revenge

A triumph of late in the year spare holiday and optimistic forecast reading saw Andy and I barrelling down the M4 late one Friday evening in mid-October. A successful foray at this time last year had shown us that it was still possible to have a good time in the Pembroke sun this close to Christmas, so we'd arranged to meet Simon and Claire for a long weekend. Andy was claiming illness, but was doing his best to man up and get on with things. We arrived at around midnight to find the Vicar's field deserted except for Si and Claire's tent. What a change from a couple of months earlier when the whole field was full.

An advantage of trips at this time of year is that you get a bit of a lie in before the sun hits your tent. This, together with a touch general lethargy and a strong desire for industrial quantities of tea, meant that we were slow to get going, but eventually we all made our way to Bosherston Head. The guidebook helpfully informs you that it's hard to locate the routes here (something Andy had recent first-hand experience of) but offers little to assist you, so when I boldly claimed to think we were in the right place I was duly sent off down the abseil rope to see if I was right. Thankfully I was, and was soon perched just above the gently lapping sea at the base of a VS called Ocean Passage wishing I'd not put on that extra layer at the top of the crag. It was baking in the bright sun, but there are worse trials to endure than too much sun.

I'm not too hot in this thermal, oh no.

It was Andy's lead, and he made short work of the first half of the route, climbing a pleasant wall before traversing over to the base of an obvious corner. Entrance to this was guarded by some tricky laybacking, but relented soon above, and we were both soon lounging on the grass at the top of the crag enjoying our lunch in the midday sun. I wasn't too sure what to climb next, so Andy set about trying to 'persuade' me to lead Poltergeist, a nearby HVS. I wasn't feeling super-enthused about climbing anything too hard, but eventually I stopped pansying about and manned up. The route turned out to be excellent. Never too hard, but with plenty of thought-provoking climbing which constantly drew you onwards into the next moves. Great stuff. There was a moral in there somewhere about just getting on harder things, but I'm not much of a moraliser...

Suitably emboldened Andy decided he fancied a go at a nearby E1 slab called Baker's Door. The approach was by abseil to a commodious ledge at the base of the route, where I could bask in the sun and gaze in awe at the terrifying overhanging wall up which John Dunne's incredible route The Big Issue somehow finds its way. Inspiring stuff. Andy clearly meant business as he opted for his shoes of infinite power, and he duly set off upwards before reaching an apparent impasse a few metres up. After trying many approaches, one finally paid off and further progress was made, but soon afterwards an unhelpful steepening halted further progress. Andy was making unimpressed noises about the gear, and complaining vociferously about how much his feet were hurting. A few attempts to force the issue to reach the obviously better holds above were rebuffed, and retreat was called for. I lowered him gingerly onto the dubious gear, which to everyone's relief held, and he was soon back down on the ledge with me massaging the feeling back into his feet. After some respite, a further attempt was made in comfier shoes, but other than establishing some better gear, this achieved little else.

Andy trying the crux moves of Baker's Door on abseil whilst the Big Issue wall looms menacingly on the right

It was now beginning to get a little bit chilly at the base of the crag, as the sun had dipped behind the adjacent headland of Saddle Head. It was looking like prusiking might be beckoning, but I had heard a rumour that at low tide a scrambling approach could be effected round the side of the crag. We set off to investigate, and managed to negotiate safe passage over barnacles, lapping waves and steep grass to the top of the crag. Andy then faced a fun and exciting abseil to retrieve the gear. Whilst swinging around on the rope he tried the moves he had been unable to do on lead and subsequently proclaimed them to be substantially harder than the advertised 5b. Bloody but unbowed we decided to cheer ourselves up with fish and chips in Pembroke Dock and a few pints in the St Govan's Inn, which just about did the trick.

Sunday morning arrived with a few clouds in the sky, and still plenty of lethargy, but we managed to be slightly more efficient than the previous day, and were soon heading out from the Western end of Range East. Claire and Simon shot off towards Bow-Shaped Slab, whilst I started trying to talk Andy (and myself) into a VS called Toil And Trouble in an incredible feature called The Cauldron. This is basically a big hole in a headland, filled with water and with a couple of sea caves joining it to the sea. The guide promised “Reasonable climbing in an incredible situation” and we were soon sold on the idea. A few minutes later I was beginning to reconsider as we prepared to abseil from one slightly wobbly stake of unknown vintage. At the last minute, as I was trailing the rope towards the top of the route, I literally stumbled over another stake buried in the long grass. Suddenly everything was looking a little rosier.

These thoughts soon changed as I abseiled down the top pitch of the route. It looked fearsomely steep and it was hard to believe it would go at anywhere near the 4b that the guide claimed. The first pitch looked slightly more amenable, but still not pushover, and the mood was a little apprehensive when Andy joined me on the ledge at the bottom. From this ledge there was an incredible view out through a huge natural arch to the open sea. A sudden splash temporarily disrupted my awestruckness, but it turned out to be a massive bull seal eyeing us suspiciously, which only added to the general air of aceness. This was definitely a three star situation. As the guide only gave the route a single star this didn't exactly bode well for the actual climbing, but it was that or prusiking out, so climbing won the day.

The view out to sea from the base of The Cauldron

Andy scuttled off up the easy start to the first pitch, before encountering a section with some slightly worrying blocks of questionable attachedness. Pleasingly for both of us they remained attached, and he was soon enjoying the wide, knee-barry delights of the main corner, which led swiftly to the half way belay ledge. Amusingly this ledge was just out of the warming sunshine, which I was soon enjoying as I buried myself in the initial offwidth of the top pitch. This turned out (disappointingly or not depending on your point of view) to involve a lot of bridging and relatively little thrutching, and I was soon at the roof which had looked so frightening on abseil. Magically the powers of bridging rendered it relatively simple, and I was soon staring at a few feet of vertical grass which lay between me and the belay. After a brief moment of soul-searching I decided I'd done the route and didn't fancy sliding back down over the edge, so I just yarded on the ab rope to reach the top. A totally fantastic route. Two star climbing in a three star situation, with only a small amount of dubious rock to detract from the enjoyment. It turned out later that the first ascentionist was a certain P Littlejohn, which explained a lot (and added another route to my small but growing Littlejohn ticklist).

Next on our agenda was a visit to Crickmail point for the delights of Aero and B Team Buttress. Somehow it was my lead again, so I decided to give Aero a whirl. It looked pretty damn steep, but it was only VS, so how hard could it be? It turns out the answer is very hard indeed. I'm rubbish at steep climbing, and this was relentless. The gear was good, but the temptation was always to plough on rather than place it in the hope of easier ground above. Eventually (after a not insignificant amount of terror and wailing on my part and admirable encouragement on Andy's) I reached an easing in angle and a crack wide enough to stuff both my arms in for a rest. Phew. I certainly wouldn't argue with HVS, although it was very much not in my style. It was certainly the closest I'd come to failing on anything all year, but I was pleased to have fought my way up it instead of slumping lamely on my gear. Disappointingly Andy made short work of it on second, although was gracious enough to comment that it was “quite tricky”.

Simon and Claire arrived at the crag whilst we were sitting at the top and we somehow managed to persuade Claire that leading Aero was a good idea (in spite of my thousand-mile stare and warnings of steepness and terror), so we absolutely had to do B Team Buttress as this would afford us a grandstand view of Claire's travails. Plus the route looked massively ace, although the start looked worryingly steep again. Andy made it look relatively easy, although he did manage to cut himself and spent some time at the half way rest ledge bleeding profusely on all the holds. On second I found the start pretty tricky, and probably beyond me on lead, but it was a brilliant route. One to come back to when I'm finally a little bit fitter and stronger methinks. In the meantime Claire led Aero with a distinct lack of huffing and puffing (although she had Simon and I slightly worried at one point when a fall would have resulted in an unpleasant splat until she cheered us both up by stopping to place some more gear).

Andy and Claire on B Team Buttress and Aero respectively

After soloing the Severe under the ab rope to retrieve our guide from the base of the crag, Andy and I decided to attempt a speed ascent of a funky sounding HVS called Space. We soon located the top of the buttress, and abseiled in to the adjacent bay. On boulder-hopping over to the base of the route it quickly became apparent why the route warranted the grade in spite of being only 4c. It looked ludicrously overhanging, and I started to wonder about retreat being a good idea. The first few metres, however, looked easy and reversible, so I set off just to “have a look” at the first pitch. I soon found myself jugging over a roof on enormous holds to reach a slab made of crazy stratified rock, whence a short traverse led me to the belay. Somehow I appeared to be directly above Andy, in spite of having climbed only about 2m of overhanging rock in the whole 20m pitch. Very strange. The second pitch turned out to be more of the same improbable overhanging juggy madness, and it wasn't long before we were at the top congratulating ourselves on having managed the abseil and 2 pitches of climbing in under an hour. This was just as well as the sun had already set. Alas karma repaid us for celebrating our aceness a little prematurely, and the abseil rope got stuck when we tried to pull it up, leaving Andy the thankless task of shimmying down the rope and then prusiking back up to retrieve it, before a seemingly eternal stomp back to the car in the dark. The route had been utterly amazing, a real three star experience, and I would strongly urge anybody to go and give it a go. We spent the evening back in the almost deserted St Govan's Inn enjoying delicious food and ample beer, and hatched a plan to visit Mowing Word the following day.

The morning broke a little grey and overcast, but we struck camp and drove to the car park at Broad Haven. The beautiful beach was a trial to walk over as ever, but eventually we reached the other side and finally made it to the top of the crag. Claire and Andy both claimed illness and lay down feeling sorry for themselves, so Simon and I abseiled down to do Diedre Sud. At the bottom I prevailed upon Simon to lead it in one pitch to save time, and we discussed the three tug system of communication in case we couldn't hear each other. It was no surprise when the rope movements suggested he had reached the top, but I could hear nothing but the splash of the waves which were edging ever closer to my feet. There seemed to be a fair amount of drag on the rope, but eventually I felt three tugs and took Simon off belay. The rope started to snake upwards until eventually it came tight on me, so I gave it a tug. This only succeeded in bringing a great loop of slack down on my head, so I waited for it go tight and wondered if giving more tugs would only have the same effect. Whilst I was pondering I felt three slight tugs, and decided, so I stripped the belay and moved up a few feet. The rope got taken in, so I reasoned I must be on belay and began climbing.

The route was as brilliant as it had been when I first climbed it a year ago. The top half in particular is a delight, and I had one of those rare moments of total satisfaction, bridging up the corner in the sunshine feeling totally at peace with the world. This hippy nonsense was swiftly brought to a halt when I pulled over the top of the crag to find Claire laughing and Simon looking a little sheepish. It turns out that I wasn't on belay for most of the route, Si thought he was just taking the rope in. Still, nobody died, and we both learnt a lesson about communication.

As I was still alive, it seemed appropriate to celebrate this by pushing the boat out and having a crack at Snozwanger. Not just because it's a great name, but because it gets E1 in one of the guidebooks and it looked doable and good. Also, Simon had an irrational insistence that he was incapable of getting himself up an E1 in one piece, so it would be good to show him the error of his ways. The route takes the wall to the left of Diedre Sud in two pitches, given 4c and 5a/b (depending on which guide you believe), so we abseiled in and Simon quickly yomped up the first pitch. I followed and was immediately confronted with a tricky move at the start of the second pitch. After some hunting around I located some elusive good crimps and pulled hard on them. A loooong step right (was looking forwards to seeing Simon follow that with his slightly reduced leg-span) and I was on the wall proper. A few moves up some very friendly cracks led to a short steepening which looked to be the crux. I hung around for a while placing some gear, had a furtle of the next holds above and didn't like them, so I placed some more superfluous gear then realised I was getting a little pumped hanging around faffing and that I'd better get on with it. There was an obvious foothold on the crack to step up onto, but the handholds seemed to disappear above, so I stepped up with my left foot, waved my right foot in the vague direction of a small nubbin and stretched way up and right for a distant crack, hoping it was a) within reach, and b) any good. My fingers just tickled their way into the crack at the full extent of my reach, and lo, 'twas a jug. A quick pull up and step left and I was standing on a very welcome little ledge with just a few metres of inviting slabby cracks to go to the top. I bambered up these, and pulled over the top with a broad grin on my face. Simon was unsatisfyingly unperturbed by the long moves I'd made, and just managed to climb around them somehow like the killjoy that he is. Boo.

Mid-crux on Snozwanger

After some victory flapjack, Simon wasn't too bothered about what we climbed, so I suggested the neighbouring arĂȘte to the left of Snozwanger, Blowin' In The Wind, which was also given HVS in one guide and E1 in the other. Andy and Claire had by this stage woken up and were keen to do Snozwanger, so there was added sociability potential too. This was a plan. Accessing the first pitch of Blowin' In The Wind requires some traversing just above the high-tide line, and as the tide was pretty much in, we decided just to avoid this pitch and start from the half-way ledge. The very first move off the belay was the same as Snozwanger, but I knew where the secret crimps were this time, and I was then presented with a small bulge with a jug above it. I slotted in a quick runner to avoid any chance of landing on Simon's head should I fall off and a stiff pull and some high-steppin' later I was stood atop the jug. The route then traversed out left to the arĂȘte and followed it in a pretty sensational position. Every move looked like it was going to be tricky, but good holds always arrived on demand and I was soon stood back in the by now rather bracing wind at the top of the crag. Once the other three had joined me we decided it was definitely time to set off for home, as that was still a very long way away. Another brilliant weekend and even more Pembroke Psyche acquired for next year, maximum winness!