Pembroke Dreaming – Part 2

Another article from the university journal. I’m off to Pembroke again in 10 days, so seems appropriate to post this now.

A few years ago I wrote in this journal about my experience of finally climbing Pleasure Dome at Stennis Head. Getting up it onsight, by the skin of my teeth, was a big moment for me. The hardest thing about it was just getting off the deck. I was terrified to attempt it and when I did I was terrified of failing, and made poor choices on the route, leading me to be more pumped than I have ever been. I had the fight though – I really wanted it and as a result maintained the concentration I needed when it mattered. I was almost sick at the top.

Chapel Cove and St Govan’s Head
I learned a lot from the experience. Mainly about knowing how much to care about something. You have to get the balance of wanting to succeed coupled with not wanting to fail. It only just worked in my favour that day. The next day I led Test Case at St Govan’s – the two routes are at the top of the graded list for E3s in Pembroke – it went a lot smoother. The climbing was a little easier, but I was still really intimidated by the route – I found it a little easier, but only because I was prepared to accept failure on this one.

The following year I spent about 10 days in Pembroke again. The first trip really broke the spell of some of the routes. With the right partner it’s easy to feel confident, and Hamish just gave me the rack and pointed me at some E4s. I had a good go, we got up a couple of them, took a few falls and generally had a bit of an adventure. This being my first proper climbing trip after a serious injury I wasn’t quite fit enough for them, but I was mentally ready. An autumn trip proved less fruitful, but we had fun.Then I hardly returned for 2 years.

2014 saw just one weekend in Pembroke, but this time I was ready. Duncan and I woke up on a chilly Saturday in September, both with broad grins on our faces. We were as happy to see how excited the other person was as we were about the climbing. I’d recently started a new teaching post and had spent the car journey getting my lessons planned while Dunc drove. The tides for the weekend were perfect, and there were hardly any climbers around. I think we were the only people down there who weren’t sponsored!
We warmed up on Sunlover, the classic E3 arete at Trevallen. An enormous block has shifted underneath the start, which makes it a little easier, but the upper section still has a few tricky moves. I’d been scared of attempting this route for years, and now it’s a warm up. Times change!

The tide had moved out now, revealing the base of the routes in Huntsman’s Leap. The Leap is a magical crag. The atmosphere at the base of the zawn is incredible. The sound echoes like in a cathedral, the waves crash at the end of the zawn, the air temperature is a few degrees cooler than at the top, and the odd walker comes and pokes their head over to see what the hell you’re doing. The landward end of the zawn is about 30m wide, but as it approaches the sea it closes to a boulder choke about 30m above the water. At this point it is possible to jump across the zawn. Maybe that’s a 3-star experience for some, but take a look at it and you’ll see why I’ve never tried.

Dunc set off up the West Wall, an intimidating 45m face. The entry level is E4 on this side of the zawn – he stormed up the The Minotaur, an E5 with a famously reachy crux at the end of the hard climbing. He threw himself through the sequence and made it to a massive thread runner on a ledge at the end of the tricky climbing. From here I lowered him so he could strip the gear out ready for my go. The Minotaur hadn’t even been on my agenda until recently. Very few Pembroke E5s had, but this one looked ok, and Dunc made it look pretty steady, and there was loads of gear. I scrambled up the ledge at the start of the proper climbing. From here a line of good jugs and some thread runners leads to a traverse right to a large concretion flake. So far so good. Dunc had managed to get a “good cam” underneath the flake. All I could see was a mark in the dirt where the lobes had dug in. I placed it anyway, and looped a large sling over the top, which was blunt. I wasn’t convinced, but the next part didn’t look too hard and I figured I might not hit the ledge if I fell. I headed back up and left toward the crack again. The holds are good, but flat and slightly greasy, I was relieved to reach a large thread runner and a good resting position. The next 15m are quite steady, well protect climbing that wouldn’t be out of place on an E2, leading to a large jug below the steeper rock on the crux. There are excellent runners here, but the crux move is notoriously reachy and, I now realised, a bit blind. After resting for a long time I launched into the move. From the opposite side of the zawn it looks like there’s a big reach to a good 2 finger pocket. It’s definitely a long reach, but it’s not a pocket, the hold you can see is terrible, the good one is another 6 inches away. I built my feet on smears, desperately gaining any height I could until eventually my fingertips touched the edge of the jug. I had to lunge for it, and as I caught it my feet came off, now 35m off the deck on an overhanging section of rock. The next few moves are easy and I was soon at the top of the route, a little surprised at what I’d just done.

Our next objective took us deeper into the zawn, towards the boulder choke. Darkness at Noon made it into Rob Greenwood’s “Best E5s in the UK” on UKClimbing a couple of months later. Rob has a taste for adventurous routes, and this definitely fits well in that category. It’s a different proposition to The Minotaur, which feels like a sport route in comparison. Dunc led off up, down and sideways on the first, crux, pitch. It’s an ingenious line, a masterpiece of route finding. After climbing a relatively easy diagonal groove you fix high runners and then drop down and traverse across a blank, greasy wall. The holds aren’t very positive and the runners are a little sparse. He took his time, but eventually made it into the bizarre back and foot runnel high on the face. He stopped to rest before launching off up the final hard section, greasing off the last hard move on the pitch. His profanities echoed around the zawn as I watched the approaching tide nervously. After pulling back on he made it to the belay quickly, and I was relieved to escape the rising waters. I took a spectacular swing on the traverse, but was pleased not to fall off the hard finish. I took a long time to lead the second pitch, stupidly assuming it would be easy. The crux felt a long way from the gear and totally committing on slopers and smears for feet after leaving the security of some good undercuts.

On Sunday both our bodies were ruined. The insecure nature of the climbing on Darkness at Noon in particular had taken its toll. We thought we’d better just get on with our agenda anyway and see how we felt. The tide was still quite high in the morning, but moving out. We warmed up on Bloody Sunday, a classic E4 in the Leap, regarded as being a bit soft for the grade. It didn’t feel soft as I pulled on some greasy crimps and watched my nuts getting spat out by slippery cracks. My usual tactic on pumpy routes is to convince myself to do one more move than I want to before placing gear, but every time I did this the next hold was rubbish, or there was no gear! I kept having to squat down to place the wire I’d just climbed past.

At the top of the route we reconsidered our options and opted to seek out a few less pumpy classics than on the West Wall of the Leap. Ghost Ship at Bosherston Head is a great classic to do at low tide, fairly well protected, good rests and interesting climbing. It’s also next to a host of classic E1 and E2 slab routes, this time we did Intensive Scare, a great route, and a lot better protected than the name would suggest!

My key goal in Pembroke this year is just to try the routes I really want to do, if I succeed on a few then even better. One route in particular has inspired me for years. Shortly after our Pembroke trip last September I decided that it was a feasible goal, and would at least be worth putting the effort in to train hard ready to try it this year. Time will tell if I’m being totally unrealistic, but it’s important to enjoy the process of attempting these things, success doesn’t really change anything. It’s a little bizarre that we invest so much in succeeding as criteria of a good trip, when focussing on that can prevent you from having some of the most fulfilling experiences.

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