You would think that, being scared of sea cliffs, I wouldn’t have spent the last two climbing trips on sea cliffs. But what would I learn from that?
A weekend escape to Swanage with the climbing club gang was a necessary rest from rebuilding the van. I was shattered and after a mini emotional crisis on the Saturday when I thought I was abseiling a) into the sea and b) to the wrong part of the cliff (I wasn’t, we hadn’t); I was happy to call a rest day on Sunday. My balance was a bit shot anyway, probably due to a sinus infection, so I spent my day whittling wood in the sun watching the old crew and new crew rig abseils and spend their vertical day on the rock. I knew I had five days then a whole weeks climbing in Pembroke to look forward to.
A week of very very hard work followed. My parents demonstrated their astonishing skills and endless patience whilst we got the van in a fit state for a week away. Delighted but exhausted the last lock went in place 15 minutes before Kane arrived on the Friday evening. I’m going to do a mini photo log of the build so I’ll not go into details here, but I couldn’t help laughing with delight and amusement when we drove out on the Saturday morning. My Dad is now calling me gypsy rose spectacles. I’m not sure if the last bit was a typo or reference to a very old in joke but it’s sticking.
Delightfully Pembroke is only a couple of hours drive from my folks, making it feel a lot more relaxed than if you’re trekking down from London. This of course meant that we didn’t leave until after lunch and only made it down for Saturday evening. We were meeting Ben there and ended up being overtaken by Gemma (who had trekked down from London) just outside Camarthen. She hadn’t seen the van doors previously but on driving past a kooky looking BT van (what unusual doors!) and receiving a location update from me realised that she was the car in front of us..
We had already planned to stay in the van but on arriving at the slightly unusual (and still being built) bell tent accommodation at Warren farm, on a very very windy day, we were happy to be staying in the van overnight. After finally managing to get a fire and barbecue lit and bearing the cold as long as we could to enjoy the company, it was wonderful to climb into the van and shut the doors and realise the wind and cold and noise were all shut outside, the van was still warm and cosy.
We moved the following day out of the field and in front of the bunkhouse that would be homebase for the week but the van still came in handy for cooking bacon butties and pizzas.. and although we had beds in the bunkhouse the van was home out of choice.
The weather on the first two days was against us, but only for climbing. The Sea cliffs are spectacular and there is something incredibly eerie about the sea mist. A first days walk gave us a clear view of the slabs we wanted to climb at Flimston, five minutes drive from the bunkhouse. But the rain stopped play. An afternoon of spoon carving and a walk/run in what was really only a light summer wash entertained until pub o’clock and an hearty meal at St. Govan’s Inn. I was regretting my choice of Cawl (Welsh soup) whilst everyone else had gone for surf and turf, until it arrived and it was the sort of soup the spoon stands up vertically in – with a bowl of cheese to melt on top. It was the next day, when we were all together, when it was still wet, that the mists rolled in. Kane and I set off early, walking down to the crag. By the time we got there the troupe had caught up in the car, but as we moved onto the cliffs the mists rolled up, a beautiful if eerie meander through what felt like a completely different world to the day before and climbing was not looking likely. But that was underestimating us. We were now joined by Karl and Debbie and as the mists rose and the rain stopped, and the rock seemed to be relatively dry we set off to Bow Shaped Slab at the end of Flimston bay.
Tides, times and the sea
I knew there were underlying nerves and I nearly fudged up my abseil, but with Karl watching over me I didn’t (note for climbers: I’d missed my leg loop with the karabiner for the prussic and attached it to a gear loop instead. I actually extend my belay plate using a sling so the prussic can go on the main loop directly underneath it – meaning this slip, which I will now be double checking for, is much less likely).
We had a good couple of hours before we needed to worry about the tide and the rocks at the edge of the slab made easy standing ground, so I felt pretty comfortable as Kane started to climb. Tied into both ropes I knew the sea couldn’t get me, and with Ben and Gemma on my left and Karl and Debbie on the right I felt pretty secure. It was a pretty bleak climb for gear and sketchy for Kane at the top, but I was able to follow up comfortably and loved feeling more and more sure of my feet as I went up. After a bit of lunch, with the tide coming in and drizzle threatening rain I wasn’t freaking out at all, but I didn’t want to lead under time pressure. So Kane went down again, and we actually got what looked like the nicest route of the three on the slab. It was however the one that meant the belay was lowest and closest to the sea, and the speed of the tide does not account for the size of the waves. Kane was half way up the wall but Ben, being belayed by Gemma, hadn’t even set off when I got hit up to the knees by the first wave. Ben just looked at me with a calm ‘oh’ before setting off. I laughed it off and moved a little further up the rock next to Gemma, complaining about wet feet. Kane was about a third of the way up when I saw Karls face make an ‘oh dear’ look. I was hit full on the side; head, shoulders, knees and toes with salty cold. The look on Karl and Gemmas faces had me laughing, there was nothing I could do about it other than turn my back to the sea when larger waves appeared to be coming in. I got another three full ones before Kane had set up a belay and was absolutely dripping by the time I started climbing. Although there was some talk about another climb, I needed to get back and into the shower.
In hindsight and after a discussion with my parents we definitely need to add sea state i.e. wave height to our pre climb judgements!
Walking, Walk ins, Unexploded Bombs and E1 5b
One of the highlights / oddities of Pembroke is that a large section of the cliffs are only accessible in August due to the use of the land as a firing range for the MOD. The large signs stating ‘do not touch anything, it might explode and kill you’ are not to be misunderstood. It also means there are no roads or parking for a considerable stretch, so gear must be carried a good distance to some of the best climbs. We only walked for 40mins or so, but this is a good way with a trad pack. The cliff path is utterly beautiful, quiet and serene even in the height of the August holiday, it’s a real ‘off route’ location, even ten minutes from the car.
A good deal of scrambling and back and forth meandering were required and this never sets me up well, moving across the cliffs listening to the sea bashing beneath you. We found some lovely climbs however and I led a short Severe route; a triumph of returning mojo swiftly followed by bailing out of a second Severe route that traversed out over a massive drop with tiny crumbly holds.
But the highlight of the day was the E1 5b. Starting up the rancid HVS that was going to require me to belay on the wrong side of a greasy rock pool and appeared to have lost a chunk at the base; I was quite happy when Kane backed down and decided to go up the much nicer looking crack next to it. It was a lovely climb, technically hard but where the gear was needed it was there, and the fingertip balancy moves – although they took me a while to work out even on second – were enjoyable.
I knew if I could do it Gemma could, and she seemed super confident climbing with Ben. She’d already set her sights on an E1 (after two weeks earlier wondering if maybe sticking to Severe or VS for a bit would be a good plan…) and it was a great one to do. She climbed it smooth and clean – first E1! I am super super impressed.
Afraid of the sea
I love St Davids, the coastline is beautiful, a little calmer and less forbidding than that around Pembroke Dock, but still impressive.The colours are spectacular; the rock is rarely grey and ranges from rich purples to gold, with the deep green gorse, and multicoloured wildflowers topping the crags and the steel grey blue sea beneath. We climbed first at Craig Cairfai and then moved on around the coastline.
I was feeling nervous and a little under pressure to get my mojo back, which is an entirely unfair sentiment as I cannot ask for a more supportive and undemanding group of friends, the pressure was mostly of my own making. A grassy edge was made safer by Kane with a pre-prepared belay and we abseiled down to a hanging belay in a small purple cove. This was whilst being watched by the whole crew as the crag they had aimed for had apparently collapsed into the sea so they’d opted for sunbathing instead!
I got to the bottom of the line, descended further to rescue a fallen karabiner and scrambled back up above the incoming tide, slurping steadily at the rocks. Doing this I realised one very interesting thing; I am far more scared of the sea than I am of the rock. So even with everyone watching I set off to lead up what was the grottiest, grassy, chossy climb I’ve done since the rock fall in Morroco. Throughout the climb I was picking off loose rock thinking ‘this is the last thing I need’, and wondering if I could get in another piece of gear and belay Kane up, but just trying one step at a time and moving a little higher to see. Until at the top, realising that the stones underneath the steep turf were entirely unstable and praising Kane for having put an extended rope belay in place I was able to top out to the cheering from the other side of the cove. Even nervous the climbing was fine. I was then able to belay Kane up just before the tide started covering his feet…
The others had another days climbing in Pembroke, but as we had another night in Wales we decided on a rest day with climbing on Friday. We’re not very good at this and did too many things (Bosherton craft center, Barafundle Bay, Best Fish and Chips in Pendle) so by the time we arrived at the Gower I was exhausted. A wonderful evening on Oxwich bay but bad mussels turned our last day into a ‘rest day’ as well. We drove over to Rhossili and being us a ‘rest day’ involved a long walk, a brilliant bouldering session in ‘The Canyon’ on fall bay, before scrambling around and up the climbs on Kings Wall to go and see the Giants Cave. Kane has a new target – getting out of an E6 6b blowhole in the top of the cave, and I was definitely getting my balance back. We were able fortunately to wait another 10minutes and then the tide had gone out far enough to skip the scramble down and run around the headland along the beach. Icecream and lunch before we got in the van and headed home.
I feel as if I’m just starting to edge out of a bit of a hollow and desperately want to spend the next few weeks climbing. If I could get to a cliff right now I would. But I have other adventures in place. There’s no rush. Climbing is a lifelong thing I think, once you’ve got it you’ve got it good. I’m aiming for E2 in my forties, E3 by my fifties. No biggy, taking my time…