I said I’d put a write up of my ascent of Pleasure Dome on here, so here it is! It’s a bit melodramatic and I’m not very keen on it if I’m honest, but it was a pretty significant moment for me to nail this route on the first attempt, even if it was by the skin of my teeth!
Pleasure Dome, at Stennis Head in Pembrokeshire, had been a goal of mine for many years. I’d seen photos of the route long before I ever saw it up close – in the pictures there was a huge jug rail stretching right through this terrifying face. I was constantly on the lookout for routes to aspire to; I didn’t really have any climbing mentors, so guidebooks and magazine photographs provided me with an idea of where I wanted my climbing to go.
Pleasure Dome went straight on my list. I’d never climbed in Pembroke, I’d hardly done any real climbing at all, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t really know what the grade meant – E3 5c was certainly harder than anything I’d done, but there were jugs in the picture! I hadn’t really grasped at this point that a) Most routes have easier sections and b) You weren’t really allowed to rest on gear. Unfortunately as my climbing progressed the prospect of climbing a route like Pleasure Dome only became scarier, in part because I knew I was getting closer to the point where I wouldn’t have a good excuse not to try.
On every single trip to Pembroke over the next 9 years I went to Stennis Head “for a look”. I never got any further than that. I looked from below, trying to imagine what climbing the flake-line would be like. All I envisaged was struggling to place gear, getting pumped and dropping my nuts into the sea, before taking an almighty whipper into the overhung space beneath the route. Everything about it terrified me and I couldn’t imagine having the stamina to do it. My inspections from the small headland which projects to the side revealed a steep and blank upper wall. I had no idea what I’d do when I got there, arms exploding and legs like jelly with my rack discarded for Neptune to collect. But still the most terrifying thing about the route was that I knew I could do it. I knew I would have to do it.
I spent years tormenting myself with this. Whenever I get on a route that I know I’ll find hard I spend some time evaluating the situation. I try to work out what the gear will be, if there are any sections where I should just go for it, whether I’ll be able to recover at any rests and how the moves will flow. I try to allow some room in my musings for the unexpected; a hold is bigger than I thought, or smaller, or I can’t reach it. I build in a margin for error. I picture this in some detail, if you lean in close you’d sense my heartbeat quicken and the faint, sweet smell of perspiration, the kind that only fear can produce. I spent so much time visualising this route in so much detail that I developed a complete block, I was too scared to get on it. I thought it was because I was scared of the route – I was, but I was more scared of failing.
“Houseman had to get rescued!” said Coleman with a chuckle in the St Govan’s Inn. Houseman’s pretty good; better than me. It must be hard. Without fail, you will meet an ex-president in the St Govan’s Inn, this time one chuckling over the misfortune of another. More tales of epics followed, from running out of gear to falls so big and so terrifying that only a fool would really believe them. The whole adventure was starting to sound misguided. I was more scared than ever. I knew it was on.
The next day I felt sick. I’d climbed plenty of routes at this grade, but none of them looked as imposing as this, none of them ventured across that flake-to-nowhere above the small zawn, with its gaping, sucking waves. I was trying to talk sense into myself, it’s just another route, I wouldn’t be this scared of attempting something else. The fear that had built up for 9 years was bubbling away in my belly and I tried helplessly to quieten my stomach, and my mind.
I finally made the first steps onto the route. No turning back now, but before I reached the start of the flake I was reversing. I climbed all the way back to the ground. An off balance move had made me lose my nerve. Not even a hard move, just one which led to the flake, from which I knew I would not be able to reverse. I was totally consumed by a fear of failure to the point where I didn’t want to commit to it, I didn’t want to admit that this had to be the right time. I genuinely thought I might sack it off again, but I managed to calm myself down, climbed back to my high point and made one more move. I was gone.
The flake passed in a blur, the holds were so good I thought they might be an illusion. I felt Ishouldn’t stop, but the flake finished all too soon. I thought about resting. I want to say I slappedthe temptation away, but instead I led it to the back door, with an embarrassed apology, as if I’d accidentally invited it to this party knowing the whole time that it wasn’t welcome and was being shown the way out for both our sakes. I threw myself into the next, long move, made an awkward cross through and felt the tension building and my concentration waning as I reached the “rest”.
I knew full well that it wasn’t a rest. It’s a small, angled and sloping platform with a bulging wall above it. You can pause and think, but you can’t rest. You can just pause well enough to make you think it’s a good idea to stop. You know the crux is coming. You know plenty of people who’ve fallen off here, or just been too scared to continue. You know that there’s no way you can stay here forever, and that with each passing second your chance of success is diminishing.
I delayed failure for as long as I could. I placed a runner above me and returned to my non-rest, for no reason other than solace. There was nothing to be gained from this, and I knew it. I was becoming progressively more tired and I reached the point where I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t do it at all. I wanted the wall to swallow me as I sucked on my teeth and sensed the faint ferrite taste of blood.
I pulled past that runner, remembering the guidebook’s advice to pull slightly further right than the obvious line. “Watch me Alex!” No holds materialised. I was locked off on my left arm and scrabbling above with my right, but I could find nothing. In desperation I spotted a small edge further right still. It looked too small, my feet would be on smears. Was this really the route? I was too pumped, convinced there was no way I could use the hold if I could get to it. Yet just at the moment a strange calm passed over me. I seemed to finally enter a mind-space where I could accept failure – at this point there was no alternative, I would certainly fail if I didn’t try. I went for it, by now my muscles were responding slightly out of sync. I held my breath as I threw my weight rightwards, convinced that my motion wouldn’t stop until I swung violently back into the face below. But I stuck the hold. I pressed my tips into it, the last of my strength lasting just a fraction longer than expected. Two more moves and I was in balance, I could recover. It was in the bag. I looked up at the remaining 30 feet of climbing while placing my last quickdraw on a nut. Finally, I reached the small ledge, able to recover properly. I improvised to get myself some final gear and then froze. Expelled from my bubble all I could think about was the prospect of falling off the last, easy section. I chastised myself for wasting time and energy earlier, I was so pumped it felt like I had hotaches in my forearms. Eventually I climbed cautiously up the groove, desperately aware that I had nothing left.
I felt sick when I topped out. I’d never been so close to failure on something and yet still pulled it off.
I’d never cared so much about a route for it to matter like this. I would’ve felt cheated if it had been easy, but it was everything I’d been waiting for.