During the 1930s the brilliant climber Colin Kirkus remarked to his close friend, Alf Bridges, that “going to the right place, at the right time, with the right people is all that matters, what one does is purely incidental”. I have often pondered this statement as I have battled with driving rain on a mountainside, sat on a belay shivering in the cold or coped with disappointment when a rock climb hasn’t quite lived up to the guidebook writer’s enthusiasm. Climbing in good company is important to me and many a miserable situation has been turned into a fun one with the right people, but surely when all things are equal, the route matters…doesn’t it?
My home is in Pembrokeshire, a quiet and beautiful corner of South West Wales that has miles and miles of pale coloured limestone rising steeply from the Irish Sea. Storms, huge waves and giant tides constantly batter the coast carving the soft rock into a plethora of sea caves, steep walls and deep zawns. The striking cliffs are home to some of the UK’s most rare sea birds such as puffins, razorbills and choughs, but what brought me to live here was not the beautiful wildlife but the five thousand world class rock climbs sprinkled along the entire coast. There is not a single bolt in sight and they are truly adventurous. The most wonderful thing about climbing here is that twenty minutes after leaving the car park one can be totally committed to getting to the top of a climb, where retreat is difficult and the outcome is not certain. This adventurous quality means that the history of climbing here is riddled with the names of some of the UK’s best adventure climbers – Pat Littlejohn, Ben Wintringham, Richard Harrison, Martin Crocker, Crispin Waddy, Paul Donnithorne, Emma Alsford, John Dunne, Tim Emmett, Ben Bransby, Hazel Findlay to name just a few.
The cliffs of Pembrokeshire have given me plenty of opportunity to test Colin Kirkus’s statement and to try an answer the question “does the route really matters or does it all come down to simply who you are with”?
I had only been climbing for a few years on my first visit. My close friend Alan and I were quietly pushing the grades from the ignorance of our own experiences. With forgotten ropes and inadequate equipment It is not always a quick way to learn, but it is definitely a rapid way to have adventures! It was possibly our innocence that led us to climb a route, that was so brilliant, that immediately we had finished it we abseiled back down and did it again. Pembroke climbs are not big, but what they lack in height they more than make up for in steepness and exposure. With careful ropework most Pembrokeshire climbs can be done, in one long pitch, but that would miss out on the joy and excitement of a hanging belaying over a deep turquoise sea.
The route we had our sights on is found at Mother Carey’s Kitchen, a small cove close to the popular seaside town of Tenby. It is a beautiful place to climb – steep but peppered with good holds and protection, but with a reputation for the tide literally chasing some climbers up the cliff! The crag is named after the ‘Mother Careys’ or kittiwakes that glide, stiff-winged, like a paper aeroplane past the climbers clinging to the steep faces. It is often referred to as Mother Scarey’s due to the gravity defying ‘Space Face’ and the effect it has on climbers when they first visit it.
Like many of the truly adventurous routes in Pembrokeshire this climb is gained from an exciting abseil from a large block at the top of the east side of the south face. I can still see the rope fluttering into the unknown as I threw it off the edge of the cliff. I knew the rope was long enough but I had no idea whether the ends were in the sea. To reduce the chances of the ropes becoming jammed around boulders and trapped under the sea I hadn’t tied knots in the end. It is the requirement to abseil to reach routes that makes Pembrokeshire climbing spectacularly committing especially when you can’t get back to the rope after starting your route! I remember one climb where I let go of the abseil rope only to watch it spiral away and hang thirty feet out from the cliff and ten feet above the sea. It certainly focused our mind on getting to the top of the route that is for sure. Nowadays I usually take a pair of jumars with me and leave them attached to the abseil rope.
Our route didn’t start from the bottom of the abseil; it climbs the landward side of a deep cleft where the wall starts to curve round into the wildly overhanging ‘Space Face’. The cleft is actually a small through sea cave situated behind the ‘South Face’ that you have just abseiled down. The start of a climb can bring a variety of emotions to the surface, anxiety, excitement, nervousness, laughter, calm and sometimes all of them. On this day Alan and I were full of confidence and the sounds of banter echoed around the rock that surrounded us. We uncoiled the ropes carefully to avoid the pools of water and tried not to look too intently upwards at the series of short cracks and pockets that lead almost all the way to a belay in a small cave below the roof.
We were too stupid to do a warm up route so I got the first pitch. I always like leading first to get rid of any nerves, plus I don’t climb well when seconding. The first few moves up a groove and wall felt tricky and my feet tried to find the drier sections of rock that had lost their veneer of dampness left by the receding tide. I was soon climbing the line of pockets via sustained but ‘juggy’ moves and the compact rock, large holds and perfect gear more than compensated for my nervousness. You could probably protect the whole of the first pitch using threads, but some of them are a little more difficult to place than nuts and cams because your hand or arm is holding blocking the hole! It wasn’t long before the way forward was barred by a large overlap or roof so a few feet below it I started a tricky blind move out over the sea. I scuttled back the first time too aware of the space below my feet and the prospect of a backwards pendulum. I placed another piece of gear to add to the already immaculate protection I had. Made a blind grope for a good hold and scuttled my feet out over the drop. Luckily the moves were over quickly and the security of a small cave and an exposed hanging belay could be enjoyed.
I watched Alan getting ready to climb and took a few moments to absorb the vista around me. I could see small fish weaving amongst the kelp in the clear waters below and gannets were dislocating their wings to enter the water after a dive from 60m. I was in heaven. I scanned the horizon for another UK sea cliff climbing paradise – the small island of Lundy. I am sure the island moves, on a weekly basis, to a new place along the coast, it is never seems to be in the same place that I last saw it that’s for sure.
Alan climbed confidently to meet me, which was reassuring as he had the second pitch – a brutal, but short-lived start over a daunting roof and then some fine wall climbing and bridging. We swopped gear and had the usual friendly banter that two climbers have when hanging in an exposed situation with a big roof above them. From the hanging belay, I watched as he traversed slightly leftwards on holds that were like grabbing large frisbees. Selecting the best ones to use can prove problematic and more than one climber has floundered trying to find the combination of holds that make the pitch 5a and not 5b. Once the holds over the roof had been grasped, Alan quickly scuttled his feet up and over so the handholds became his footholds and breathed a sigh of relief. His mood changed from one of being unsure of his abilities to one of “well that was easier than it looked”. The last time he had said that he had fallen from the top of a VS climb in the peak district when soloing and broke both ankles, so I held the ropes tightly.
The exposure is now huge for the leader and I know of one climber who felt sick when they looked down between their feet at the drop below. You can make the exposure even greater by traversing rightwards to the ‘Fresh Air Finish’ that follows the right edge of the wall. I couldn’t see Alan now apart from the odd foot fluttering onto the back wall, but I could just here his echoed mumblings about good gear or nice moves. The standard route continues up the wall to reach a chimney and then a finishing corner. As I seconded the pitch I found it quite sustained until I realised the back of the cave was close enough to bridge across. It is a ridiculous position to be in – looking down between your legs at the sea lapping the boulders you have recently left. Once you are established over the roof you won’t fail as the climbing is a little easier, but bear a thought for climbers on harder routes where if it gets too hard it is either lower into the sea and swim or get to the top anyway you can.
The final escape from the shaded chimney/corner brings welcome sunlight and a soft grass slope to lie on. We hugged in a manly-blokey sort of way and smiled. We had climbed a great route together and had a lot of fun, so much in fact that we decided to go and do it again, but swop the pitches.
Did the route matter? I doubt that we would have laughed and smiled as much if the route hadn’t been of such a high quality, but maybe Colin Kirkus is right the experience of having an adventure with a close a friend is all that really matters. Whether I would have enjoyed the experience as much with someone else, is something I can only ponder because I can never repeat the experience of climbing this route for the first time..
Pembrokeshire is certainly the right place, but whether it’s the right time with the right people will depend on your choice of climbing partners. I will let you decide if the route matters as you lie in the grass and bask in the warm glow of an ascent of a great route and if you have anything left in the tank go back and do it again just for the joy of it.