I visited Gogarth this weekend, for the first time in over 30 years. This place holds special memories for me; climbing here as a teenager for the first time was one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences I have ever had. It is a special place. Beautiful, iconic, intimidating, atmospheric, one can feel the climbing history of the place and to climb here is both an adventure and a privilege.
My partner for the day, Alison, and I had planned to do a route called A Dream of White Horses. Neither of us had done this iconic route, a route which is surely on the tick list of every trad climber in the UK if not the world – that is how famous this route is. I’ve wanted to do it ever since seeing the famous Ed Drummond picture from his first ascent, the waves (or white horses) crashing below him as he makes his way airily across the Wen Zawn slab.
We headed down towards the abseil point. I was chatty, I was nervous and yet so excited. But our excitement soon turned to disappointment. Five parties in front of us, three on it (at which stages we didn’t know) and two waiting, one of which was a party of three. We quickly made the decision that today would not be our day for this route; we had no idea what time we would be able to get on it and the thought of head torches on ‘Dream’, well, that wasn’t happening. So it was back to the car and a frantic search through the guide book for a plan B.
We settled on a route called ‘Blanco’, a 3 star HVS 5a on Castell Helen near South Stack lighthouse. This is a very touristy spot and it is quite amusing to see the bemused looks on the faces of those just here for the view as we headed down to the abseil point with our gear already racked up, ropes strapped to our backs. One can only imagine what was going through their heads, probably not far from my own thoughts: we must be mad!
There was another party ahead of us at the abseil, but luckily they were heading down for a different route. As the last of this party set off down the cliff, we attached ourselves to the belay anchors and waited for the abseil rope to go slack. The waiting is probably the most scary part, stood there on the edge of a precipice into the abyss, alone with one’s thoughts. It seemed like an age but after five minutes or so, the line went slack and Ali set off down the face and out of sight. So there was me, alone on a tiny ledge, it was eerily quiet, just the sound of the sea for company. The line went slack; it was my turn. Belay device fixed, Prusik fixed, double check, then off I went. Wow, what a feeling! Stepping over the edge, loading the rope, 80 metres of sheer drop below me into the sea.
About half way down, I found Ali on a ledge. There were two fixed abseil ropes and it turned out we had gone down the wrong one. This meant detaching ourselves from one rope, then re-rigging ourselves to the rope we should have come down.
Ali set off again and I followed soon after and then there we were, almost at sea level, those white horses crashing up against the cliff face just metres below our feet. This is why I climb. There is no other way at all that I could get the view from this ledge, looking along the whole cliff face, rocks poking up through the surf like dragons’ teeth. It is simply magical.
We set our belay up and Ali headed off up the first pitch, climbing steadily and in control as she always does. What would I be like? Was this too much? Would I freeze? The head games had started. I breathed, calmed myself, told myself I was fine, I’d climbed harder than this, it was just another route. Except it wasn’t, this was Gogarth!
“Safe!” came the cry from Alison above as she reached the top of the first pitch and had fixed her belay up. The coiled ropes at my feet soon began to uncoil and snake themselves up the cliff face as Ali began taking in. “That’s me,” I shouted up as the ropes went taut to my harness. This was it: time to set off back up the 80m face we had just ab’d down. I chalked up and headed off.
It was wonderful climbing, positive holds, I savoured every move, the fear always present but under control, concentrate on the climbing, look for feet, relax… or at least try! The only black spot was having to leave some gear I couldn’t retrieve, I hate having to do that but having battled with the nut for several minutes, I had to abandon it and continue up.
I reached Ali on the first belay ledge, a magnificent position, just superb! But as we swapped the ropes round for Ali to lead the crux second pitch, I looked up at the overhanging groove which the route takes with a sense of trepidation. Ali climbed it perfectly and soon enough the cry, “Climb when you’re ready,” came bouncing down the cliff and off I set.
It wasn’t as hard as it looked from below. Good holds and bridging either side of the groove kept the weight off the arms on this steep little section. A step right at the top of the groove, out into space in a fantastic position and then back left to reach the crux crack. Only short, but the moves up this were balancey and out there, a semi layback sequence being the key to success. Then easier ground is reached, steep but with marvellous, relief bringing juggy holds, up to the belay.
With just the final scrambly 4a pitch up to the top, we’d cracked it. I savoured the moment, perched on the arête belay ledge, the views across the bay to South Stack lighthouse simply awe-inspiring!
It was an unforgettable feeling topping out, a mixture of exhausted and dehydrated relief mixed with pure joy and elation. And do you know what, I found Gogarth to be just like the school bully. Big, intimidating, scary but if you stand up to him, front him out, you find him to be misunderstood and in need of love… and I love him!