I could start this blog with a story that all went unremarkably perfectly to plan. But, generally speaking, the days that go to plan are not the ones that make for good stories. They’re often not the days we remember all that vividly, and the not the days we learn the most from.
The best stories come from the days where something happens, and it’s those days which really help us to learn about ourselves, and help us develop as climbers and mountaineers. Much of what we do in the mountains (or on the water, or whatever other remote and potentially dangerous environment you might be in) revolves around good decision making. It’s about knowing when and how to act to make the most of any given situation, or perhaps when to make the big call and do what you need to do to get you out of bother when it all starts to go a bit downhill.
As this blog grows and develops, I’m hoping to fill it with a variety of stories from some of my more interesting days out. In amongst that there’ll be some (hopefully!) useful hints, tips and advice as well as some more thought provoking pieces for discussion.
This particular story starts in a lecture theatre at Bangor University, watching the clock and waiting for the fascinating lecture on Thermodynamics to end. I dashed down the corridor, down the stairs, out of the building and into Ash’s car. As we set off under grey November skies there’s just one thing on our mind. Gogarth. And more specifically, Dream of White Horses.
Dream of White Horses is undeniably one of the very best rock climbs in the UK, taking a wild line across the overhanging back wall of Wen Zawn, but at a surprisingly amenable grade for the situation. First climbed by Ed Drummond and Dave Pearce in 1968 it was a real committing adventure then, and not a lot has changed since!
After sliding down the abseil line, Ash and I were perched on a ledge around 30m above the crashing waves of the Irish Sea. As always seems to be the way on the smaller and more cramped belay ledges, our ropes end up in the mother of all tangles as we uncoil them. A loop inside a knot, which is hooked over a little spike of rock. With each tangle or knot we undo, another seems to appear, but 20 minutes later we’re finally set up with both ropes neatly stacked and both of us desperate to climb.
Technically, we’ve started at the top of the first pitch because, as is often the case, the first pitch is damp and wave-washed. Nonetheless, it’s our first time in Wen Zawn; with the chilly November breeze is whipping off the sea and swirling around and our planned route out looming large above us, it’s fair to say we’re feeling rather intimidated!
The ‘second’ pitch goes pretty steadily. We’re cold, stiff and start off moving a bit like robots, but by the time we reach the belay we’re warming up and begin to climb a little more fluidly.
I set off on the third pitch, heading upwards across the seemingly blank quartzite wall, trending slightly left. One by one the holds appeared. Almost invisible until I lay a hand on them. The climbing is wonderful, and flows beautifully up the flake that’s now appeared, still trending left, heading for the faultline of Concrete Dream, and the sanctuary of the belay in a niche. It’s not quite that simple though. The last few moves into the belay comprise of a tricky little downwards traverse – not too bad for me, but I make a considered effort to place extra gear to protect my second as he comes across that same traverse. We’ve already got eyes on stalks, we don’t need to the potential of a big swing to spice it up even more!
Similarly, I know my belay is good with three pieces of gear, but I add a fourth anyway – we traversed into this belay, and we’re traversing out the other side to head up the last pitch, so multi-directional is good, and if nothing else, it helps to settle the nerves a little – we’ve got more than 60m of fresh air beneath our heels, and the route of the final pitch looks wildly improbably at the grade of HVS 4c. I’ve got a grade or two in hand, but with the exposure, the cold wind, and the now impending darkness I’ve got a feeling that we’re in for a memorable experience.
The final pitch is 40m long, and all but the last 5m traverse across the headwall. Not enough gear leaves Ash with some massive swing potential, and a swinging fall here is not a good idea. The rock below overhangs, so he’d be left hanging in space, 70m above the sea and unable to reach the rock to climb back up. I want to place enough gear to keep him safe, but place too much and I risk running out before I get to the end of the pitch. Equally, the more gear I place, the higher the chances of crippling rope drag. It’s a fine line to tread at the best of times, but I’ve got the added consideration of daylight…
It's a cloudy afternoon and the gloom is steadily approaching. I think to myself that it’ll be ‘headtorches on’ in 30 minutes, but our headtorches are in our bags…at the top of the cliff.
I’m the more experienced of the two of us, and have come to realise we’ve made a bit of a boo-boo. We’re out of time, and at least one of us is going to be climbing in the dark. I decide not to discuss the matter with Ash, thinking it’s probably better to just get climbing, and get climbing quickly!
Shuffling out leftwards, the space opens up even more below me. It’s wild, even more so given that the climbing is not as hard as it looks like it should be, but I can’t stop. I’ve got a job to do.
Move, move, gear. Move, step up, move, gear. Move, shuffle, gear. Better extending this one or I’ll get too much drag. Step across the hanging slab. Another piece of gear. Move quickly. Gear, move, gear, move.
Finally, the finishing groove beckons out of the gloom. I’m nearly there, just five more metres to the belay.
Suddenly, a flash takes me by surprise. Had Ash found a torch in his pocket after all? Was I dreaming?
Another flash! I didn’t dream it, but turning around I see nothing. Ash hasn’t found a torch, but he saw the flash too. We’re both confused, but switch our minds back to the task in hand anyway – we’ve got to get out of here ASAP – it’s already getting tricky to see, and I’m not at the belay yet. Ash is going to have a hard time.
I turn to Ash to let him know I’m nearly there, and catch the light in the corner of my eye again.
Of course – The Lighthouse!
From that moment on, I knew we’d be ok, it wouldn’t be without it’s challenges, but we’d get out. We had a flash of light every few seconds. Just enough light for Ash to spot the holds, then move for it on the next flash. Enough light to see where the gear was, and then fiddle it out in the darkness.
Slowly but surely I was taking the rope in. The drag reduced and the ropes got lighter. I was praying that Ash didn’t slip, and that he didn’t break a foothold. We were nearly there, the last thing we needed now was an epic swinging fall, and subsequent improvised rescue.
Thankfully, Ash was moving almost metronomically by the time he topped out.
Spot the handhold, pause, move. Pause. Spot the foothold, pause, move. Pause.
We were glad to get back to our bags, put a torch on and start the walk out. That was certainly memorable!
Suffice to say, we discussed the merits of appropriate route choice at length over our fish and chips on the way home.