Perfidious Albion

(by Gerry Moss, from IMC Newsletter Spring 2004)
Climbing in Britain (why do they have so much great rock?) and around Ireland.

… the cruel Saxon rules us, from the mountains to the sea,
But God is not an Englishman, soon Ireland will be free …

I have me doubts. No, not about Ireland being free, that’s a no-no, there’s nothing free on this little green isle of ours, it’s one of the most expensive places around at the minute. But never mind that just now. It’s the other bit that bothers me – the part where it says that God is not an Englishman. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. At the very least, he must have strong British connections. Think about it.

Just look at the way Nature’s goodies were divvied out back at the very beginning, for instance. Take something as simple as the flora and fauna and compare the paucity of ours to the richness of theirs. Geologists and scientists try to explain this away with talk of the Ice Age, disappearing land-bridges and all that oul guff, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. I mean, if the bloody midges could make it over here why couldn’t the swallowtail butterfly? If the mouse made it, why didn’t the mole? We got the nettle, but missed out on the mistletoe. We can listen to the tuneless chirp of the house-sparrow, but not the song of the nightingale. Hardly equitable distribution.

Then there’s all those oil fields off their north-east coast; we could have done with a share of those. (During the eighties, when searches for oil off our coastline were proving fruitless and word came through of another oil find in the North Sea, Charlie, the then Taoiseach, sighed bitterly and asked "Is there no God in heaven?" Well, there is, Charlie, but I think He’s probably a Brit).

But all of these discrepancies pale into insignificance when we consider the biggest, most flagrant injustice of all: their abundance and our lack of one of the most essential elements in the life of man. I am, of course, speaking of rock. Climbable rock, that is. They’re up to their eyeballs in the stuff. Tripping over it. I shouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that God is an honorary life-member of the BMC. It’s enough to put one off religion.

Take the sea-cliffs of Cornwall, for example. Mile after mile of glorious, golden granite, giving climbs of up to four pitches in length. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the Beara peninsula could boast the same.

In early July I spent a week climbing in Cornwall with Liam. Now, mention Cornwall to Irish climbers and the response is often pursed lips, a sharp intake of breath and a shake of the head, followed by the remark that it’s a long, long way from here to there. Which it is. Truth to tell, Cornwall is a long way from anywhere, but that’s part of it’s charm. Look: on a glorious summer Sunday we climbed one of the great Cornish classics, the three-pitch Right Angle, and we not only had the climb all to ourselves, we were the only two on the crag. Where else in Britain on a summer week-end would you find such solitude on a three-star route only fifteen minutes from the road? Not in the Lakes, the Peaks or Wales. Not even in the Cuillins of Skye these days (which is just as far away as Cornwall).

I flew to Bristol to team up with Liam, as he was already in the area. Landing at lunch-time, and although still a fair step of the way from Cornwall, we had time enough to fit in a couple of hours climbing enroute. We were spoiled for choice. We could have climbed at Avon Gorge or Cheddar Gorge, but we opted for Chudleigh Rocks near Exeter. This crag juts out of the landscape like the prow of a jumbo oil tanker. A short stroll from the road brings you out on top-deck, with steep cliffs falling away on either side. The north face is uniformly steep, the south face has more character, offering slabs, corners, chimneys, cracks and overhangs, at a multitude of grades, all with excellent protection (you can check the crag out on the Planetfear website). The rock is limestone and is polished on the popular routes (we should be thankful for small mercies, if they have more rock, they have a hell of a lot more climbers using it). So, if you are ever in the Exeter area it’s worth having a look at Chudleigh, but remember to allow at least half a grade for polished rock.

For our stay in Cornwall we based ourselves at the Count House, the Climber’s Club hut at Bosigran. I had previously stayed in their hut in Pembroke, a small, cosy, three-roomed terraced cottage, but The Count House, in contrast, is a large, palatial building with lots of dorms (we had a dorm all to ourselves for our stay), and is only a ten-minute walk from the cliffs. Over the course of a week we sampled some of Cornwall’s finest, climbing at Chair Ladder, Sennen Cove, Gurnard’s Head and Bosigran. Delightful days, every one a pleasure, every one a scorcher, every one spent on some of the best sea-cliffs in Britain.

Although the first route at Cornwall was climbed over one hundred and fifty years ago, it is only within the last thirty years that Irish climbers began to show any real interest in the cliffs along our Atlantic coastline. In the early 1970’s attention was still very much focused on the mountain crags. So it was natural enough, then, that when Joss and Clare Sheridan came to Achill Island in search of unclimbed rock in 1973, it was to the crags on the slopes of Slieve More that they gravitated. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that any real exploration of Achill’s sea-cliffs took place, mainly by McQueen, Stelfox and others from the North. They developed Waterfall Cove, an area near Dooagh, putting up fourteen routes on good rock, ranging from Diff to E1, complete with abseil stakes.

But there are still large stretches of Achill’s coastline unexplored. A lot of the cliffs are of poor rock, but the geology of the area is so complicated that it would be foolish to write it all off as unclimbable; there are intermittent stretches of good rock scattered all along the coast. So, on a lovely week-end in August, seven of us gathered at the little Seal’s Cave campsite at the foot of Slieve More, on the northern side of the island. Frank and Ger came up from Kinvara; Peter and Rob, fresh from a successful Alpine trip; Ludmilla, on her first visit to this part of Ireland, and myself and Fran made up the group. We had a great week-end, with glorious weather that was, at times, almost too hot for climbing, putting up about a dozen routes, in a couple of wonderful locations. (It crossed my mind that Achill would be a splendid venue for one of our Spring or Summer Bank Holiday meets: plenty of good hillwalking, more than enough climbs to fill a weekend and lots of exploration still to be done). The indented nature of Achill’s coastline supplied a superb backdrop to our activities: hills and headlands, coves and caves, sandy beaches and steep cliffs and, out from it all, the boundless ocean. And we had all of this to ourselves, nothing more intrusive than a few canoeists.

Speaking of which, I had an interesting communication from a canoeist recently. Well, to call him a canoeist is somewhat inaccurate; canoeist-cum-climber would be nearer the mark or, better still, climber-cum-canoeist, as he was at the climbing long before the canoeing, being a member of the IMC since the beginning of the seventies. Anyone who was a Club member during the seventies, eighties or early nineties will remember Dave Walsh. He loomed large on the IMC scene, being heavily involved in climbing, mountaineering and hill-walking, as well as serving as Hut warden and Meets Sec. Dave is one of those rare birds, a climber who delights in putting up new routes. Take a look at the Malinbeg section of the Donegal guidebook, his name crops up regularly. Or, if you are climbing down in the Burren, look up Murroughkilly, he practically made it his own.

Nowadays he brings to canoeing the enthusiasm he once brought to climbing, but he hasn’t lost his eye for a good crag or climb. Why, he queried me, has no-one ever looked at Knockadoon Head on the Cork coastline? Well, the thing is, I had, but I had made a fundamental error. I had parked by the little harbour and took to the rocks along the shore and I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. Vegetated cliffs, capped by several meters of gravel and soil. I should have known better. I was coming at it from the wrong side. The very fact that the harbour was there should have been indication enough. I was approaching the Head from the sheltered side and shelter is the last thing you want on sea-cliffs. You need the scouring, cleansing power of the sea to provide clean, sound rock.

Using Dave’s directions I went back again on a wild day in February, when south-easterly gales were blowing spray thirty metres up the cliffs. Even so, I was delighted with what I saw.

I returned again in June, with Liam, and we put up eight routes, of up to Hard Severe in standard, and identified lots more possibilities, while sussing the crag out. I sent out the call in August and again a party of seven assembled, which, I am happy to report, included one of our newcomers, David Broderick, from Dungarvan. Shay and Fran came down on the Saturday morning and Peter, travelling over from Clonmel with Colm and John, provided the driving force. We recorded sixteen more routes, up to HVS 5a in difficulty, with everyone putting up at least one route. We lined up yet more for a future date. The rock is good, protection is excellent on most routes and the situation is delightful. Only five minutes from the car to the nearest climbs, yet the cliffs are well off the beaten track, and in a sunny, sheltered location.

Speaking of shelter, the low hills along the Wicklow coast are dissected at regular intervals by narrow, sheltered little valleys, ground out by glaciers in times long past. Many of these valleys contain steep rock outcrops of interest to climbers, as in The Bishop, Lover’s Leap, The Green Lizard and the Devil’s Glen, for example. In Britain, despite the fact that they have a wide selection of big crags to choose from, small outcrops such as these are highly valued, articles featuring them appearing regularly in the climbing magazines, and they are given their place in the overall scheme of things. Over here we tend to be more dismissive, which is a pity, as they can often offer an alternative to the wall during the winter months, or the higher crags during bad weather, and they are delightful places in their own right. Paddy O’Leary, a long-time resident of County Wicklow, has been doing a bit of searching around, and has come up with a couple of new outcrops not far from the N11, and they provided some enjoyable autumn days putting up new lines.

As August slipped into September the long dry spell continued, with hardly any let up. Liam and I have had our eye on some routes in Snowdonia for many a day so, with the weathermen threatening an end to the good weather, we made a snap decision at nine o’clock on a Monday night to have a go. We were on the boat the next morning. The track from Ogwen Cottage leading to the Idwal Slabs was buzzing with people as we walked up the valley in the afternoon sun. This area is habitually crowded with climbers and walkers, which is one of the reasons why I have always avoided it but, happily, the hordes were making their way out as we were coming in. There was only one other rope on the crag when we arrived. We set off up Tennis Shoe, one of the great Severes in Snowdonia, with no-one at our heels. As we moved up so too did the evening shadows, as the sun dropped behind the hill across the valley. Though the evening air was cool, the rock, having basked in the sun all day, exuded a gentle heat. It was not a day for rushing. We worked out way comfortably, steadily, up the six pitches, savouring the exposure and delicacy of the final crux pitch as we arrived at the perched block. The walk out was as pleasing as the climbing. The valley was deserted, in deep shadow, in deep silence. High above us the serrated summit ridge of Tryfan was bathed in golden light, every feature highlighted against the dark blue of the approaching night. It’s not often such peace and serenity can be found in such a popular area.

The following day we climbed on the north face of Lliwedd. The combination of Avalanche/Red Wall/Longlands Continuation provides a climb of almost 1000ft, finishing on top of the mountain, one of Snowdonia’s finest peaks. There was no-one ahead of us as we left the carpark at 9am and headed up the track for the hour-long walk-in. Receiving sunshine for only a short spell in the mornings, Lliwedd’s north face can be a cold, dank place at any time of year but, like everywhere else, it had benefited from the long hot summer and we had dry rock on all twelve pitches. We were tailed by two kindred spirits from Derbyshire, who, like Liam, were working their way through the climbs in "Classic Rock". They had tried this route before, but had retreated after spooking themselves out on the crux of the climb, a few poorly protected, thin moves high up on Red Wall, and were hoping to benefit from watching us tackle it. We left a couple of runners in for them, but they would have cracked it anyhow, as they were moving well.

The last pitch was one of the best, nice moves on perfect rock, made all the more pleasurable by the fact that it finished right on the summit, in bright sunshine. There was a stiff wind blowing from the south-west, a portent of change in the weather. It was, however, a warm wind, and it nudged us, pushed us, gently along the ridge as we made our leisurely way down at the end of a great mountain day.

Clogwyn Du Arrdu (better known as Cloggy) is Snowdonia’s most formidable cliff and, just like Lliwedd, is north-facing, a place to avoid in wet or cold weather. The 5-pitch VS, Great Slab, is one of the classics of the crag, one of the great mountain routes in Wales, and was our target for the following day. But it was not to be. The weather men got it right and we awoke to drizzling rain and cloud sitting down on The Pass. We debated whether Tremadog or Castell Helen at Gogarth might be outside the rain-shadow of the mountains, and opted for the latter. As we drove across Anglesey it looked like we might be lucky, but it was not to be. As we stood at the abseil point at the top of the cliff, sheets of fine rain came drifting in, putting an end to our plans. But not to our ambitions. We’ll be back.