I do believe that areas like the Lleyn could represent a facet that has all but disappeared from British climbing”, Steve “the general” Mayers commenting on the on-sight ethic in the early 90s. Al had said that the crack “looked about severe”, the tide was out and we stood beached between seaweeded rocks, cannon ball shined, wet from the outgoing tide. Having descended via a grass ridge into what was later described as Three Caves Zawn, such were the obvious topographical features undercutting the cliff that towered for fifty metres or so above us. Here then beyond Rhiw's lonely village and its queer crocodilian edge, where Bardsey Sound’s tide race conducts unknown depths with awesome power round the mouth of hell, cutting off main landmass from a small mysterious island bearing its name, where in 1188, Gerald of Wales had noted, lived an order of devout coldei monks (pilgrims, I knew, still journeyed there). We set out to worship at the vertical shrine of our won cult, watching our companion figures morph over far headland as we did so. Pure in line, our route lay in devil disguised disfigurement which, austere in its fractured neutrality soon proved a tortuous path where better judgement on a different day might have countenanced retreat.
Peculiar indeed were the seldom visited regions of unsoundness for which the Lleyn retained a certain infamy amongst rock climbers. Take for instance “Craig Dorys” where Stevie Haston had told a bemused farmer working fields above the cliffs abrupt drop, “Do you realise that the best route in North Wales in on your land”. Perhaps not a consensus view, the route in question “Tonight at Noon” features a severely overhanging crack composed of exfoliating mudstone at a modest E7. Longer expeditions are to be found at what might be described as the begging of the Lleyn on the massive earthenware buttresses of Trwyn y Gorlech and Craig y Llam. On the latter anyone climbing the 600' 'Fantan b' can suck in exposure when hidden jugs above a small roof on crux pitch 5 obligates a pullout waymarked by an unbroken plumbob drop straight back to sea level.
Rock type hereabouts is granodiorite and typified by a compact lichenous nature. It makes runners and belays difficult to arrange without pegs, though it generally provides solid holds. Thus the true heart of multi pitch adventure in its most testing form requires travelling further out down the peninsula’s long arching arm. Only then can one become familiar with the great orange slopes within the vicinity of the lead itself. Cilan. “No one goes too often to totter down the nightmare slopes- recuperative periods to re-temper frayed nerves are of an almost alpine necessity”, Dave Holmes commenting on the Cilan experience after the first ascent of New Moon (a four pitch E5) in 1989 with Ray Kay.
In fact if a mention of Cilan Main did not cause momentary shudder chances are you hadn’t yet experienced the bizarreness it represented, or were trying to forget it, perhaps in general withdrawal from everyday world. Big and serious, Cilan is where grit and shale horizontal bandstakes the eye before craning neck muscles allow a gaze to take in the massive capping black roofs two hundred feet above a tiny beach at the crags undercut base. Ray Kay said “It was as if holds were colour coded there”, red / yellow suspect or snappy; black / red for solid enough, yet even with such discernment, routes might not easily succumb, especially when suspicious holds combined with poor protection induced harrowing paranoia on ground that did not lack technical difficulty.
Indeed finding himself spread-eagled in a bluish black groove on Crow's second pitch, Ray had at one point considered simply jumping off, so untenable had his situation become. John Toombs, ever level headed under pressure, once informed of this strategy, counselled “Wouldn’t do that if I were you, Raymond”. Which then allowed Kay to gather himself and complete the pitch which left a lasting impression on both climbers. A clue as to what such an excursion might be like can be found in Crow’s description where on the introductory pitch it reads: “Go round the bulges on handfuls of slate”.
First climbed in 1971, remarkably with only one aide point, by Keith Myhill, Crow attacks the wall to the left of its perhaps more well-known neighbour, Vulture and received a free ascent in 1978 from Mick Fowler and Mick Morrison, one of the very few teams to seek out the Cilan atmosphere at this time.
Mostly the work of Jack Street and Chris Jackson circa late 60s, Cilan consciousness in the form of routes like Central Pillar (a HVS with a difference), that along with Gangway no longer exists in original form, gradually confronted the handful of climbers that went to repeat them with a growing respect, “these routes on the cliffs of the Lleyn Peninsula are perhaps the loosest and most serious yet discovered in Wales”.
World Climbing, 1980
By the late 80s and into the early 90s the roll call of climbers making exploratory routes or repeats began to increase and whist the Peninsula did not experience a trendy ‘place to be’ scenario a few Llanberis based teams initially spearheaded by Ray Kay and Dave ‘skinny’ Jones in the company of John Toombes and Lee McGinley did much to arouse a curiosity in other that would increase the Lleyn resume. Pat Littlejohn with various partners had also been quietly operating in the area for some time and thus with a Culm Coast seal of approval it was clear that those entering this lonely realm would be ill advised to do so without a certain apprehension. Sparsely documented, there seemed a magnetic charm purveyed by the only guide book, a slim off yellow paperback, published by the Climbers Club in 1979 and compiled by Trevor Jones, who after editing known information into forty eight pages reminded would be acolytes that “the descriptions and in particular the grades should therefore be considered as provisional and treated with some respect”. It was good advice.
After using this tome on a number of bitter sweet occasions, we had found a number of zawns apparently untouched by previous explorers. To reach these there were a times difficult sea level traverses and unfeasibly treacherous fishermen’s paths. It was in one of these arenas that I now confronted the so called ‘severe’ looking crack in the zawn of the three caves. 'Bytilith' it was marked on OS maps, yet a most defining feature signing our approach centred on a defunct pipeline emanating from a short red brick wall atop and left of the cliffs when looking out to sea. This forgotten edifice plunged in decay down a disturbing couloir for over a hundred feet ending its fall on beach boulders, from where at low tide it was also possible to get round in to the semi cauldron zawn in which rested out point of interest, a crack line whose apparent ascetic charm was difficult to ignore.
Anyone venturing out on short climbs offered by the ‘grit stone’ edge at Rhiw might be forgiven for thinking that sea cliffs in the vicinity might display a similar, generally solid, nature. Yet, this form of false consciousness, would be, above all hope, swiftly be annulled unless concentrating solely on sea rumbled boulders. Thus the crack once engaged rendered a gear shift on my part so that the mind, hit with information, after architecture each side of the alarming fissure which saw designated footholds explode or de-laminate when nominally weighted, returned to Cilan mode. I think therefore I jamb, or, in a less than grand philosophical sense, which might nevertheless have great repercussions on a personal level, I thought how best jambs should be placed. It wasn’t that baffling technical difficulties suddenly caused a long pause in proceedings, but that typically such ascents rely on a slow probing up and down after securing, at least psychologically, any available protection. Of this, deep inside the crack’s mud butter, better crystallised rock gave home to a couple of friend placements and a big sideways hex biting the fracture’s doubtful outer edges backed them up. It was enough.
When leaders hardly move for half an hour, it might be no surprise to hear second shout in encouragement ‘go for it’ which whilst possible galvanising action in sound rock settings with bomber gear the matter in hand was more likely to succumb after a long mental war of attrition and knowing this Al, maintaining a silent vigil shuffled atop the highest boulders as turning tide began cutting off escape. Cruel were the impediments barring way to the imagined haven promised by a beckoning ledge where steepness was temporarily postponed. This was the belay out sloper, proportioned with a horizontal crumble line taking a friend and some nuts on which I overkilled the snug and braced to bring up the Ruper. A shipwrecked monk lamenting the stone boat’s sinking, no longer paying out.
Crouching and lashed in, maybe eighty feet from where the rock ended at the cave lips and their hollows underneath blew out wave wash over and over, the situation was dramatic. A grey rock pillar dominating the cliff’s upper reaches resembled in appearance Pembroke limestone yet its nature would probably diverge considerably when tested for the properties which Pems is famously known. To the left, the zawn’s concavity bent it round in windscreen flex where it rubbled in ghoul shapes and deep brown death blocks lurking and hanging like gargantuan bats roosting. It lent together in disturbing bulges threatening to drop. Al toiling with the revelation brought on by the crack’s true gravity at one point implored me to give assistance since a deeply seated friend, now inverted, required in a typical case both hand for trigger release least it ‘walk’ towards loss in the crack’s innards. With great regret it was my solemn duty to inform him that no such assistance could be advanced. I did not like to say it, ‘that the belay might pull’. Yet, not long after this heart breaking news arrived, the friend, aided by a forceful extraction pull, think Popeye opening a can of spinach, and with something like flurry of blows Al soon exchanged jambs at the crack’s finale for a creaking welcome on the shelving perch and we hurriedly plugged in the extra cam shoring up the anchors.
On the lunatic fringe of the next pitch a crack / groove took a rock four, biting in solid first go. Bridge out- lean in- left shouldering and a reach with the right gains faulty finger locks. Moving in reptile shape I make a position under an overlap, where things- as Glenn Robbins was fond of saying, and George Smith would later name his Shale City test piece- were 'getting ugly’. Some wall shadows tell the sun is losing us and I can’t pull over.A man hanging forms the gallows of his own making. This surplomb was half mud, half biscuit, half past dead Whymper.... earth, and stuck below it, excavating fragile layers with one hand sapping, exposure bites as an invisible pig suckles strength away. But here now is the animal in most savage form and with survival its only goal, half standing amidst the left arête’s museum porcelain I commit, chest first, to a gaiter roll mantle and twist body parts over drip fed Hammer House horror, emerging a white faced phantom on the uber steps as uncloaked rock grass becomes airborne, famous amongst the shearwaters.
With our compadres return there are two figures forty feet above peering over and I shout them to fix a rope for the exit shoot at the only conceivable belay, a block diagonally distanced some forty feet away, it would have to do, we have no head torches and the overlord on the incubus steps is waiting. I the kick back before the top it feels like I am tread milling a smashed escalator and with the sky empty of birds I find a grim oasis, but there is no warning and suddenly you’re dead. Double vision? No, blood, only a little, but the hard baked pudding stone had struck me a direct skull hit and its bass rhythm sent a shock wave through the jaw, attempting to dwarf me,stunned, the torso as my knees buckled and I stepped for a moment off the round world’s edge... deaf.
'Relaxing after the climb':Image-Martin Crook
But I am okay apart from rope snag on non-extended runners, causing a final crawling technique which gains relief only after clipping in under the rim on the cold cliff, as Rutger Hauer says ‘not yet, not yet’ clenching his Roy Batty fist. Alive. In sort of muck lined crevasse formed by banks, rabbit warren honey combed, I face out towards the Irish Sea, ready to bring up Al from the cirque of the unclingables, and he comes on like a medieval abbot surveying monastery ruins. Schwarzenegger big in his coat, ‘an insensitive oaf’ a girlfriend once called him, but he picks a way through the Herculean jenga pillars without causing collapse when the merest indelicate touch would have caused regret. With wind blast, hoods go tight on the draw cord and below a crusader zeal fuels the oxygen of escape as he passes over the fairy-tale roof with hands hard grasping. ‘Extremely Severe’, he would later say. But then we are there avoiding the head landers, where there are none except those captured in memory. Burdened only by the hillside’s incline we must set a zig zag course away from the pipe wall and taking a breather, become conscious of the slopers at dusk in the R. S. Thomas necroscope night. Down in the dark zawn.....at the end of Wales.
An account of The First Ascent of Headlander 100 metres XS, April 1992, Martin Crook, Alistair Hughes
Martin Crook: 2016: Previously Unpublished.