What makes a great climb? A massive line on a big cliff, or a five-move crimp puzzle on a perfect boulder? A splitter sandstone crack or a glacier-polished granite slab? A remote peak in the Greater Ranges with a ten-day approach, or a redpoint project on a roadside crag twenty minutes from home? Regardless of the special characteristics that make our own greatest climbs, our answers to this question are the real stories of climbing folklore.
Editor of UKClimbing.com Jack Geldard begins this exciting new planetFear series with a tale of a classic British sea-cliff extreme, two very impressive young climbers, and different approaches to the dark art of chimneying.
Rat Race (E3 5c) – Autumn 2007
Dez Fineron on the first pitch of Rat Race
Giant waves crashed against the base of Main Cliff and the boys looked a little frightened. I waited a few seconds, timing the gap between the surges, then launched across the exposed rock shelf, just making it to safety before the next crash of seawater. Wizz took a wave on the legs, soaking him up to his waist. Dez stayed fairly dry, but looked as if the pounding sea may dampen his spirit any second. The deafening roar of the ocean meant all conversation had to be shouted; the strong wind whipped away our words like sea spray.
I looked at the boys and smiled what I hoped would be a reassuring smile. They looked back at me like I was completely mad. Maybe I was - what on earth was I doing at the foot of Gogarth's Main Cliff, battered by waves, strapped to two young boys? We failed to reach our intended route on the left side of the wall, as a giant wave smashed against the very place where I had envisaged a belay. This ensured our hasty and difficult retreat to the ledges beneath Rat Race. Dripping wet and freezing cold, I looked up with a damp, milksop face at the steep rock above.
All out of options, and not wanting to fail after promising the boys so much, I said “lets go up there”. Then, to pacify no-one but myself, I added quickly “It'll be fine”. Thus began the boys' first sea cliff adventure and introduction to the delights of Gogarth.
Wizz and Dez Fineron happy on the belay of Rat Race
At this stage I must introduce the two youngsters in my charge, so you won't think it completely unjustifiable to be taking them on a route such as Rat Race. Wizz, aged twelve and by this time soaked from head to toe, has led E3's in his local slate quarries and is the Welsh indoor climbing champion of his age group. Dez, his fourteen year old brother, wet up to the waist, also competes indoors and has climbed outcrop E3's and bouldered up to V7. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and offered to take them on their first trip to the coastal crags of Anglesey, where we made a beeline for Main Cliff.
Fate brought us to the base of Rat Race I'm sure, for around ten years earlier I had been in a very similar position on my first trip to Gogarth, in fact, on my first sea cliff route. I was a little older than Dez, maybe sixteen, and I was accompanying my friend Adrian - a little older and a little better than me - on the very same climb.
Adrian led off up the first (crux) pitch, which I thought was a noble gesture. I was soon to change my mind. Arriving at the first belay terrified and with eyes on stalks, I glanced up at what was supposed to be my lead. The chimney, an assiduous slot of sand and rubble, had obviously never been climbed. The guidebook said otherwise. I would like to write about how I'd taken a deep breath and made mince meat out of le fissure terrible; but I just followed the guidebook cop-out and skirted off to the right. After hours of epic-ing, mainly caused by me, we finally arrived at the to. At that point, I swore I would never climb at Gogarth again. So the next day we did T-Rex, and I swore a whole lot more!
Back to 2007, and three wet climbers stood below the first pitch of Rat Race. Infinitely more talented and able than I had been, the boys seemed non too phased by the steep wall above, but I hoped they wouldn't find it too easy. I led off and things were going smoothly until the overhanging crux, where the jamming crack was soaking wet. I, fancying myself as an 'experienced old man of trad' (a role I had adopted in front of the two youngsters), proceeded to throw in my fists and nonchalantly pulled up on the insecure jams. They slipped almost instantly and I quickly resorted to strenuous undercutting, cursing myself for nearly falling. The boys seconded fluidly, unaware of strange techniques such as jamming, and made themselves at home on the small belay ledge... by edging me off. They then proceeded to eat all of my food (a snickers bar) and drink all of my water. I then prepared for an attempt at the chimney.
Wizz Fineron enjoys a cramped stance!
Wizz glanced up at the pitch and asked “Does it go up THERE?!” – aha I thought, now he's getting a little of the 'Gogarth Grip'.
“Yep.” I quipped with a smile.
“Brilliant! I love chimneys.” came his beaming reply. I honestly could have wept.
They followed quickly and enthused about the situation on the next belay stance. The short corner that followed posed no problems and saw us all below the final pitch and at a junction with the classic E1, Gogarth. It looked better than the described pitch of Rat Race so we opted to sidle rightwards and attack the steep crack. The boys finally showed weakness, a little uncertain about the long traverse out from the belay, with the booming sea now several hundred feet below.
Wizz Fineron in his element on Rat Race, Gogarth
Tiredness had now taken hold: the three of us had spent several hours in the biting wind, dressed in wet clothes, with only half a litre of water and a snickers bar between three (make that two!). They were at last having a suitable Gogarth introduction.
I made an intermediate belay, so that I would still be in line of sight. This seemed to pacify all the grumbling from below and the boys shot upwards, like stones from a catapult. The rest of the pitch passed easily and we topped out on the obligatory mariners' lichen and loose, earthy rubble.
We reached our rucksacks as the golden evening light spilled over us, picking out the peaks of the Lleyn Peninsular beyond Gogarth Bay like the sail fins along the backbone of a lizard. Discussing the day's exploits on the car journey back to Llanberis, the boys were unsure. Had it been absolute terror? Or had they just experienced the best climbing day of their lives?
I smiled to myself and hoped that they would go on to have many, many more.