The Cave and the Colonel

(by David Craig, from IMC Newsletter, Spring 2007)
"Sitting there, with one arse cheek on a ledge, my knees wedged under my chin, and my head lolling on the wall in front of me, listening to the sea booming away in the darkness, the scary truth dawned on me… we were NEVER going to live this down!"

With the two of us crouched on a belay ledge perched in the rafters of a sea cave in Pembroke, watching the water below lose the last of its light as it faded from a dark purple to merge with the blackness of the rest of the cave, the thought crossed my mind “isn’t this supposed to be a holiday”. Holidays have become an odd thing for me, not the holidays themselves, but trying to explain to work colleagues and other non-climber friends why one would rather spend a week struggling up crags and hills in wet and windy Wales rather then relaxing on sunny beaches in the Med.

This holiday was to prove no different. It started with a leisurely cruise from Rosslare to Pembroke, where we stocked up on supplies, had a bit of lunch and pondered our next move. This being a Thursday, and June, didn’t leave us much choice as a lot of the crags in the area have restrictions for climbers until late July, so they don’t disturb nesting birds, and mid week the army like to blow the be-Jaysus out of them since they are located in a military firing range. How you justify having these two things in the same place I’m not sure, but that’s how they do it. Eventually we settled on a route we thought wouldn’t give too much trouble, as a way of easing into things. There were no bird restrictions and the army would be finished firing by the time we got there, it was perfect. “Sure wouldn’t that be a grand, nice soft one to start with” we said, a quick, slightly rising traverse across the bottom of the crag to a cave, back into this, and then up and out a blow hole – “what fun”.

These being sea cliffs you arrive at them from the top, abseil into your route and climb back out. Finding said route was to prove difficult and time-consuming though, as it can’t be seen from the top. I think the phrase in the guide book for locating it was something like “from the westerly end of the crag look back eastwards and you can see a large cave” not our cave now but it means you’re at the abseil point. Not a mention of just how many crags with caves there actually are on the Pembroke coast. This led to a lot of to-ing and fro-ing atop the cliffs in the hopes of spying a crag similar to the one we should be at. Once it was located, finding its westerly end was much easier as the sun at this stage was kindly setting so as to indicate west for us. Undeterred, because we new we’d be quick, we set off with only a brief thought about the head torches we didn’t have. After spending ages on the traverse along the bottom, I found myself bridging back along the apex of the cave groping for holds in the dark. A voice came from behind me saying “maybe we shouldn’t be doing this in the dark, maybe you should come back”. I considered this and came to the conclusion that even if I make it to the next belay it’ll be pitch black for Síle to come out and then there would still be another pitch to do, or to put it another way, was bricking myself and willing to accept any excuse to go back to the safety of the belay. Forward wasn’t going to happen so Síle tried to get us back out, but at this stage it was well and truly dark outside the cave as well, so that was that, we were benighted, FEK!!

 Uncomfortable as it was we had managed to organise a decent belay and the sea was fairly calm despite the noise echoing around the cave, but no sleep was had which made for a long night. When it eventually started to brighten a quick foray was made into the cave, which showed it to be still quite dark and now wet and slippery to boot. Síle led us back out the way we had come which was also wet but at least there was daylight. After that an easy pitch should then have brought us back to safety, but on topping out the crackle of rifle fire let us know we had been out-flanked by the British army.

It didn’t take long for our presence to be noticed and the gate watchman to come careering out after us in his little white van, although he seemed more worried about the humor of the Colonel than about anyone getting shot or having spent the night in a cave. A lift back was offered and declined, and he rushed off to try to placate the Colonel. We gathered our gear and started sheepishly walking out, only to be met by a second vehicle, this one much fancier then the last, and out popped the much-feared Colonel. With the only thing more starched than his uniform being his upper lip. He launched his offensive “Spoilt the show you did, had to stop firing, still everyone’s all right, happy ending and all that, you’ll take a lift back?” My jaw dropped, only to clamp shut again as my teeth took a firm grip of my tongue as a surprised laugh tried to escape, we braced ourselves for the follow-up manoeuvre “not as bad as last week though, chap walked in front of the snipers, caused mayhem! Blighter!” He did, however, make it clear this lift wasn’t to be refused, so we jumped in as he ran off to investigate the remains of a caterpillar track on the cliff top, don’t ask me why. Leather seats though, it pays to be Colonel. A peculiar thing, sitting in the back of that truck as Síle related the story of our ordeal and the Colonel blathered on trying his best to be formidable, pondering the past 12 hours or so I found myself suppressing an overwhelming urge to sing … ’Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?’