Saturday, 24 August 2013

Questing for Extremes

After returning to the right country (via the Alps, where I cycled up a big hill and saw some marmots), I spent a whole 2 hours at home before setting off westwards in yet another hired Panda. I collected l'Oswald and Julie en route and we made for the vast and slightly baffling Valley of the Rocks campsite near Holyhead, where we met up with Clurrr. The morning was dry and even a bit sunny, so we headed for South Stack and James and I abseiled into Castell Helen while the girls headed for Gogarth on Main Cliff. For a while I'd had this idea that the first pitch of Atlantis (a big 5a corner pitch, mmm) followed by the top pitch of North West Passage would make for a good combination, being rather more direct than most of the actual routes thereabouts. So that was what we did, and it was ace.
Pitch 1 of Atlantis. Not very hard, but very good.
Whilst we had the abseil rope there, we nipped back down so I could lead the big HVS pitch of Lighthouse Arete Direct/Blanco. It was very cool. A bit of slabby bambering, some funky steep bridging through an overlap, then a steep, bold finish pulling round a roof on huge weirdy quartz holds. We celebrated with a cuppa in the cafe, before deciding that it definitely wasn't too late to do a route at the other end of Main Cliff. Oh no. On the way over we passed the girls who had had so much fun on Gogarth that they decided not to do another route. It was both of our first venture beyond the very start of the approach traverse along the bottom of the crag, so it was just as well the tide was out and there was no swell so it all felt very non-serious. The lateness of the hour meant I couldn't stop for much sightseeing on the way, but we passed underneath a lot of impressive looking lines, whatever they were.

Eventually we arrived at a small pedestal that marked the start of Scavenger, our intended route. It had been top of my wishlist for a very long time, but some combination of time, tides and weather had always conspired to keep me away from it, so I wasn't going to let the incipient darkness spoil my fun. Oswald bimbled up the steeper than it looks starting crack and when I joined him I was surprised by just how tricky the start looked. Still, no time for dithering, so I grabbed the gear and got on with it. It turned out that it was quite tricky - thin bridging on small sloping edges - but big holds soon arrived. The really good stuff, however, was the next corner over. A short traverse past some monster pegs led to a steep, imposing corner filled with jugs and awesomeness. Ace. There was still plenty of daylight left when I reached the top, although Oswald did his best to find an epic all the same by eschewing the normal finishing chimney and instead opting for a never-travelled green, snappy offwidth of peril. Classic.

After some overnight rain the next day was dry again, so back to Gogarth we went. With an embarrassment of HVS riches, Wen slab seemed like a good place to go, although when we arrived there were 2 parties somehow managing to fill all of the routes. So we snuck up Dde, on the right side of the slab, which was fun, but too easy to be HVS. When we abseiled back down everybody was engaged in various stages of Dream of White Horses, so Wen, Concrete Chimney and Quartz Icicle were all free. I started off towards Concrete Chimney, having heard it was the best HVS on the slab, but James started heckling me to do Quartz Icicle instead. It did look good, and it was a slab, but having led no E1s all year, jumping on an E2 seemed a bit bold. I eventually resolved to 'have a look' and I was soon committed. Oops. About half way through the pitch the handholds suddenly got bigger and I assumed it was all over. I was wrong. I even managed to get a little bit pumped. On a slab. I got there in the end though. James led the original finish, which was actually quite good.

Sadly after that it was time to go, but I was back again the next day, having swapped Julie and James for young master Hobson. Andy was dead keen for The Moon and for some reason I let him talk me into it in spite of having previously climbed a single E3, and that certainly didn't involve any ultra-committing traversing above overhangs. Andy read John Cox's classic description of how to retreat from the crux pitch (involving many, many abseils, some swimming, and a solo of Lighthouse Arete) to get me more psyched. It didn't work. I spent a long time sitting at the bottom of the abseil in, fettling my prusiks and getting ready to use them in anger. The first, 4c pitch, did little to assuage my fears, with 5a monkeying around on steep ground above a single shonky wire, so I didn't fall off.
Andy spacewalking on The Moon
The belay felt like a very lonely place to be, especially once Andy had disappeared from view. Seeing the ropes dangling into space miles away as Andy flaked them over the next belay once he'd reached it didn't help either. As it happened the crux moves felt fairly steady, but the ground after them felt steep, and Andy laughed as I appeared round the corner, eyes on stalks, grasping desperately for holds. Mercifully they appeared, and I even found a rest, which allowed me to enjoy the ludicrous exposure of the rest of the pitch. The belay was a fairly mind-bending place to be, with roofs in seemingly every direction, as though the whole crag overhung in 4 dimensions. The last pitch traversed out before pulling steeply into a slanting groove and following this to the top in a truly incredible position. I did get quite pumped (again) and was quite grateful for the 3 pegs which I could pretend were good (they weren't) and plough on above, rather than stopping to place a proper runner and getting totally boxed in doing so. There's so much space below your feet by that stage that a fall would be totally safe, albeit it utterly terrifying, even if the pegs failed. The first proper runner after them was a very welcome relief. What a pitch. What a route. Maybe not quite the best one in the world, but not too far away.

After yet another cup of tea in the cafe, we ventured over to Red Walls, where I had an appointment with Anarchist, apparently a kind of 'Red Wall light' experience. The gear for the lower section was a bit sub-optimal, but the climbing was easy (once I'd stopped arsing up the sequence for the initial traverse), and I soon had the gigantic shiny peg clipped. I nearly fell off above this after muffing another sequence, but held it together and was soon desperately shovelling myself onto the belay ledge with no elegance but a big grin on my face. A very cool route, and we got a great view of some guys on Redshift, which looked like a whole different kettle of (very cool but quite exciting) fish.
An anarchist on Anarchist
Keen to climb some more weird red nonsense we headed to Rhoscolyn the next day. Conditions were a bit greasy when we first arrived, but they soon improved. The Savage Sunbird was pretty sustained and required a cool head from Andy to deal with the slightly uninspiring gear. By contrast Wild Rover was steady and pretty soft for the grade. Really pleasant slabby crimping up hidden holds all the way. Probably best not to fall off the start though. We finished the day with The Sun (well, after The Moon yesterday we had to really). It looked steep and Andy took a long time to lead it, even downclimbing the crux at one point, which was a pretty good effort. A tricky pull into the groove itself led immediately to a pumpy section, then a good rest before the crux, which looked innocuous enough, but felt hard and steep enough when I was on it. Another cracking route and my arms were feeling pretty battered by this stage

We woke up the next day to rain and an uninspiring forecast, so we drove South. Slowly. Very slowly. It seems they're digging up all of the roads in Wales. Bah. Eventually we reached Carreg-y-Barcud, where it had stopped raining and looked to be brightening up a bit. I decided to test out some new shoes on an E1, which was a terrible idea. It turns out I can't stand on anything small with the toes of them, so it was very fortunate that all the holds were quite wide (if very small) so I could stick the edge of my foot on them instead. Not a very enjoyable experience. I switched back to some sensible shoes after that and the next couple of routes (including the oddly named Be Brave, which boasts more runners than most of the other routes on the slab) were a whole lot easier. Then Andy manned up for a go at Kitten Claws, the classic E3 of the crag. There was some serious crimping required on some spectacularly small holds. Painful.
Generic awesome crimpy Barcud slab
The following day was rainy again. After an abortive morning attempt to climb we headed back to St Govan's in the late afternoon. I'd realised that neither of us had led anything sub extreme all week, so felt compelled to keep this up. I was under the impression that The Arrow was dead soft as long as you didn't fall off the start, so gave that a whirl. Conditions were awful, so the greasy start felt very hard indeed, but I assumed things would ease up once I reached the crack. I felt quite aggrieved when it didn't and I had to try quite hard not to fall off. It's probably a nice route if the holds aren't covered in butter and you aren't expecting a ladder of jugs...

Sunshine the next day brought slightly better conditions, although it was really a bit warm for comfort. I kicked things off with a romp up Cool For Cats, which wasn't as steep as I'd feared, but was really good, with interest maintained right to the top. Next up was a rematch for Andy with First Blood, which didn't end well, so I bimbled up a very soft E1 next to it, before falling my way up The Butcher on second. A good reminder that no amount of technical chicanery can make steep routes feel easy. And that I need to acquire some better arms from somewhere. I rounded things off by heading back to St Govan's East and wombling up Whispering Wind, which had a fiercer crux than I was expecting.

Another day of rain blew over and we were gifted with absolutely glorious conditions on our final day. With quite a swell running, and an incoming tide we headed for the not-very-tidal delights of the Keelhaul slab. Andy led the eponymous route, which was very nice before I set off up Baker's Door, a route Andy had backed off a few years ago. Conditions were much better this time, so it went fairly smoothly, although it nearly went a bit wrong near the top when a large foothold decided to part company with the crag whilst I was stood on it.  We finished our trip with Andy cruising his way up Pleasure Dome, which was a lot more than can be said for my inglorious failure to second it with any modicum of style. Or not falling off.

So, a very successful week all told. 15 E-points and a load of routes I've wanted to do for ages. I'm really psyched for a return to Barcud, and maybe the rest of Pembroke once I've got some proper arms. Hmm.

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