Sunday, 25 August 2013

Exposure Explosion (HVS, 5a), Ogmore

The nerves started to fray as early as the second pitch. The bulging section of rock only a short distance right of the belay was clammy. I moved onto the leaning rock, my feet undercutting my hands. Immediately the tips of my fingers were damp. I grasped the shallow holds that were filled with sandy moistness, my fingers seemingly slipping with each adjustment. Anxiously I retreated back left to safety in a corner. I leaned out rightwards and placed a cam at full reach in order to better protect the moves but my subsequent second attempt ended with the same outcome. Sweat was rolling down my brow. I wiped my forehead and arms, then chalked my fingers. It was time to wipe my brow again... I studied the rock. The moves looked moderate in principle so why was I struggling to execute? How much were the conditions playing a part and how much was the jaw-dropping exposure to blame? Worryingly for me the pitch was only 4b and technically moderate compared to those forthcoming. There could be no retreating off the moves for a third time I counselled myself as now I was confident there was no other way. I moved quickly from insecure hold to the next and soon it was over. Then dry rock presented with relief. Suddenly the moves felt easier and the climbing fluid. My mind de-stressed a notch.

The 2nd pitch
(Photo credit: Ivan Bicknall)
In-situ belayer - Ivan at the 1st belay
I was almost out of cams by the time I reached the belay. The pitch had swallowed them up and offered little else. Nuts were almost redundant. My 1.5 friend slotted into a gap at chest height but then scratched and twisted in the marginally friable rock each time I tried to load it. 'Bite!' I shouted. Soon it halted. My only other cam, a size 0 friend, slotted high above my head in a horizontal narrow crevice. I extended with a sling down and then cautiously leaned back to load both bits of gear. Not my finest belay but as good as was available I thought. Best not fidget too much.

Ivan on the 2nd pitch
Ivan's third pitch was comparatively short, leading into the back of a damp cave via a sequence of rapid moves. Then began the fun to exit the cave.

The obvious way looked to be along another line of holds on undercut rock. The third hold was slimy and so I quickly backed off in dismay. I tried to traverse lower down but now the holds were too thin and spaced. It seemed I would have to climb up into the dark roof a little and then descend. This proved an effective, albeit indirect way across. I stepped down unknowingly into a big puddle of seepage and then slipped on the next foot hold. I retreated then painstakingly dried the soles of my feet as best I could. My mind was starting to fry again. The sweat rushed down my forehead and arms. I rehearsed a long straddle to a foothold but with so much dampness under my feet out of the cave my commitment to the moves was showing fatigue. Time to place another cam. Time to get on with it more to the point. But only after I'd wiped my soles once more. The move passed quickly. Then more faffing preceded some tricky moves around an arête and finally to the belay. Time to breath.

Ivan on the 4th pitch leaving the cave
Now the climbing was easier as Ivan led a longer pitch that extended out of sight around another kink in the cliff face. Even easier climbing felt absorbing. From here it was a short pitch to a bottomless belay beneath Siren Corner. I bridged the rock either side of the empty space below and belayed Ivan across.

Ivan on the 5th pitch
Looking down between my legs at the 6th belay beneath Siren Corner
Ivan was content to finish up Siren Corner rather than step right 5m and finish up the steeper wall. Friendly bridging moves soon led us back to the surface. The only anti-climax being that after many hours of slow traversing left to right we were able to walk back along the cliff top to where we had started within minutes.

Rising to the surface
(Photo credit: Ivan Bicknall)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Wen Zawn, Gogarth

Anna had looked pretty comfortable on the VSs that we had climbed on the Upper Cliff yesterday. That was of course with the exception of The Rift for which it was impossible to be comfortable. It was time to head to Wen Zen and ‘see what happens’. Anna was still clocking mileage at VS and was yet to lead HVS but there were some ‘straight-up’ routes that would be safe for the second. Maybe the option for THAT route if things were going well.

Ab'ing into Wen Zawn
The seas were looking high and a little wild so we abseiled only as far as the ledge rather than to sea level. I watched the belayer of another team get lashed by a wave at the base of the cliff, which reassured me that we had made the right decision. It was a beautiful day and the rock was bone dry. Wen seemed the obvious route to start with as it went ‘straight-up’ for the large part and was supposed to be low in the grade for HVS. Anna led the pitch above the ledge, which felt sustained 4c but with plenty of gear and nothing particularly strenuous. The top pitch had a delicate 5a move toward the in order to gain the ledge that traversed left to exit the route but overall the climb felt more like VS 5a.

First pitch of Wen
Top of the second pitch
I had watched some climbers lead the final pitch of A Dream of White Horses from the upper belay of Wen and had noted how they had managed to lace it with gear. We both appeared to be climbing well and were enjoying the quartzite rock in particular so there were no major concerns on my mind other than protecting the final pitch adequately. But then it was only 4c so I was pretty confident that we would manage the route without drama. I popped the question to Anna and she obliged. A Dream of White Horse was ON!

We again started from the ledge. Anna climbed to the belay from where the rising left traverse began. The short second pitch felt thin with little protection. Maybe the most serious pitch of the route? Anna then led the third pitch with some good cam placements to protect. She looked in the zone but comfortable.

The second pitch
Third pitch of A Dream of White Horses
Time for the final pitch. The first few moves stepping down from the belay in the chimney needed some care but a couple of good gear placements soon settled the nerves. That was until a few metres further when a deep crunch/crack sound emanated from a undercut juggy flake that I was using to forcefully lay-backed off at the time. I quickly released the flake in horror. The flake formed the bottom edge of a large 40cm square block attached to a shallow roof, which I was positioned under. The block was lined with small natural crack lines on its remaining three sides. I gently checked it for obvious movement with great caution given that (a) gravity was definitely on it's side and (b) I was stood beneath it. The block would obviously be big enough to cause serious injury or cut a rope. I concluded that it was best treated with caution. No more aggressive undercut lay-back moves to bypass it, and definitely no gear in perimeter cracks.

The pitch was slightly concave and interspersed with prominent sections of rock that meant it was vital for a lot of gear to be extended in order to keep the ropes running freely. There was plenty of opportunity to lace the route as I had hoped with the main limiting factor being the number of slings that I was carrying (around six total). The climbing felt steadier the further I progressed with plenty of time to compose myself between moves. Anna made fine work of the climb on second. She looked in the zone all the way and to see her beaming smile at the top of the route was one of the highlights of the day. Not a bad venue to get your first HVS leads done.

Near the start of the final pitch of A Dream of White Horses

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Rift (VS, 4c), Gogarth

The mouth of the cleft repelled my attempts to enter her bowels. My pelvis wedged between the opposing walls but wouldn't pass. There was little room to adjust. I squirmed higher and found a slightly wider space to enter the confines of ‘The Rift’. The rope led up and left into the darkness. Virtually no gear separated me from my belayer but the chances of pendulum'ing within such a narrow cleft seemed almost impossible.

The space was only marginally wider than my girth. I spread my hips full width and flexed my knees like a frog. Wedging the inners of my knees against the rock I dropped the palms of my hands down to hip height and slowly shuffled myself higher as though climbing with four legs. My helmet clattered against the rock each time I surveyed my position. After ten minutes of fighting and I had moved a matter of metres. This was ‘traditional climbing’ in all its glory. I looked down at the rocks and saw blood. Was it my blood? How could I tell given that my visibility stopped largely at my chest? I climbed higher at a pathetic rate.

Anna entering 'The Rift'
The cleft widened a little around half-height but the rock became more friable. Desperately I inched my feet up to meet the occasional foot hold that I hoped would hasten my progress. Often the holds would break off, sometimes they wouldn't. Now the occasional hand hold but their presence offered little help given that I was heaving my bodyweight together with ample friction and with little foot purchase. Now past half-height I neared the first piece of gear. How had my climbing partner Anna led this pitch so calmly?

I breathed heavily as though I was climbing a Himalayan peak unacclimatised. Inhale-exhale-inhale… Sweat drenched my body and filled the surrounding air with vapour. My knees were becoming increasing sore and bruised. Bone wedged against rock… My body was not built with comfort in mind. I straightened my legs to given them rest bite knowing I was lessening my purchase against the walls. Awkwardly I pushed my chest and backside against the walls and let my legs hang for a moment. I stayed put, unclear where exactly my leverage was coming from. My breathing settled a little and it was time to push on.

An arête that formed the edge of one of the walls now presented. I tried to exit but the climbing on the arête was too steep and reluctantly I shuffled back into my dark hole. But now daylight shone into the top of the chimney and could see my belayer’s face clearly for the first time. Encouraged by this I picked up the pace with successive shuffling movements between each rest. Then my fingers met the top edge of the chimney and I pulled through to slump onto the belay platform in a wasted state.

My body felt exhausted. The second pitch was only 4b but it climbed a crack, which would require some degree of jamming. Or more to the point some degree of strength. Falling off seemed a realistic prospect until better recovered. I didn't want to fall off given the tremendous physical effort to complete the first pitch. Fifteen minutes passed before I felt ready to continue.

48 hours after 'The Rift'