I first heard about Divine Providence when I was 14. That same year I started climbing with a runner I met at some local fell races. I didn’t even realise he was a climber when I first met him, just an extremely fit fell runner with some exceedingly dodgy ankles that left him limping after every race. His name is Paul Jenkinson and I soon came to understand that his ankles were full of metalwork following a monster fall he had taken in the Llanberis Pass whilst attempting a new route in the early 90’s. Being an enthusiastic and persistent youth I was soon able to persuade Paul to take me climbing and I remember the first time we went out climbing together was at Ogwen on a bitterly cold day early in the year when most people would have chosen to stay indoors. Paul always amazed me because although he rarely climbs nowadays he would always come out and lead up to at least E4 with apparent ease. Despite theories about Paul secretly training hard behind my back I soon discovered that he had been a very good climber in his day and whenever I asked him about a route I wanted to do he’d in most cases done it ‘before I was born’!
That year I planned my first alpine trip and scoured through the pages of guidebooks looking for suitable challenges- predominantly rock routes. When you look at alpine rock climbing in the Chamonix area undoubtedly the best routes are found on the Grand Capucin, South face of the Midi and the rest of the Chamonix Aiguilles. One route stood out beside the classic rock routes and that was Divine Providence, taking the central line up the Grand Pilier d’Angle on the little frequented South East face of Mont Blanc. Famous for being called the most difficult Alpine route in the early 90s it still has a big reputation and probably remains to be the most difficult route up Mont Blanc. Divine Providence encapsulated all that I looked for in a route: A phenomenal line up an impressive wall- long, committing and difficult representing as much of a psychological challenge as a physical one. As soon as I saw it I set my heart on climbing it. I asked Paul if he knew anything about the route and yet again he’d climbed it ‘before I was born’ with none other than Andy Cave. The achievements of these two guys in the early 90s went largely unnoticed. They climbed what were at the time the hardest routes in the Alps and Dolomites in the same summer and they were both regularly climbing E6’s on-sight back in Britain. I remember being staggered at the number of hard on-sights Paul had made in the late 80s and early 90s, all under the radar during the sport climbing revolution of the period. To illustrate this point I remember Paul told me that Andy Cave was about to be interviewed by Dave Jones for his seminal book of interviews ‘The Power of Climbing’ until Dave realised that Andy hadn’t climbed 8a and therefore didn’t meet his criteria for a top climber!
I didn’t get round to attempting Divine Providence that year and it wasn’t until a couple of months ago when I asked Miles Perkin if he wanted to go to the Alps that I found a willing partner for the route. Fast forward to August and we had ten days in the Alps in which to try the route, eight if you exclude flying there and back. We arrived to bad weather but a promising forecast of five days of sun which left us feeling optimistic. We spent the first couple of days acclimatizing on the Grand Capucin and South face of the Aiguille du Midi before spending a morning re-packing in the valley and heading back up the cable car to walk in to The Grand Pilier. We took our time walking across to the Fourche bivouac hut on Frontier Ridge knowing full well that we hadn’t spent long acclimatizing and we would need energy in reserve the following day. From the hut we decided to abseil down that evening to the glacier below and cross it to the next col where a series of abseils down jenga like rock bring you to a reasonable bivi spot in full view of Divine Providence.
We set off at first light the following morning crossing swiftly beneath the Brenva Seracs over the detritus of multiple avalanches to the base of the route. The first 400m or so go fairly quickly with climbing up to about E1. From here the difficulty steps up a few notches and we soon reached the first hard pitch which Miles dispatched easily. The next pitch had a wet crux section but the climbing was reasonable enough to allow passage to the crux pitch. When we looked at the next pitch it was clear that our free and on-sight ambitions were over as the first half of the pitch was running with water. It was going to be my pitch but Miles volunteered to lead as he’d done more aid climbing than I. I attempted to free the pitch on second but quickly the combination of difficult climbing and icy cold water shut me down leaving me with a painful dose of hot aches. One more pitch landed us at a disappointingly snow covered bivi ledge which took a while to clear and provided us with a cold and sleepless night. The sun hits the wall at first light in the morning and after spending a while thawing we got back into the rhythm of climbing quite slowly, spending a while to work out which line to take. The final hurdle was the roof pitch graded at 7a+ at around 4000m. Miles looked solid leading up to the roof and dispatched the pitch easily with a woop once he reached the belay. I seconded and was happy to find the pitch quite amenable.
With all the hard climbing behind us we thought we’d motor to the top but the mixed climbing leading to the Peutrey ridge took us longer than expected and we finally reached the ridge late in the day. We un-roped and slogged our way up towards the summit of Mont Blanc for sunset. The long walk back to the midi left us feeling exhausted, myself in particular but we were both chuffed to have climbed such a brilliant and legendary route that we had both dreamed of doing for so long.
One of the best things about North Wales is that when the weather’s bad there are plenty of areas to go which might be in the rain shadow of the mountains, all within a 40 minute drive of Llanberis. With this summer being one of the wettest on record that’s meant a lot of journey’s to North Wales’ fine and varied collection of sea cliffs. Seeing as North Wales has roughly 400 miles of coastline it makes sense that there are many sea cliffs; in fact, enough to fill four climbing guidebooks! The climbing varies from single pitch sport climbing on excellent quality limestone to great big adventurous routes on shale cliffs equally as good but perhaps a little less to everybody’s liking.
My favourite sea cliff is undoubtedly Gogarth on the north-western tip of Anglesey. It is a true climber’s playground with a lifetime’s worth of climbing on mainly solid quartzite rock. It’s sunny aspect and often plentiful gear placements make it a good choice for a long day out whether you’re in search of a committing adventure or an easy day’s cragging. Perhaps the two most classic and sought after routes are the famous A Dream of White Horses and Conan the Librarian. A Dream of White Horses is famous for the wild position of its main pitch tackling ground normally associated with much more difficult routes and should be on every ambitious VS climbers tick list. Conan the Librarian on the other hand tackles probably the ultimate line of Gogarth up the big sea arch of Wen Zawn. Having climbed A Dream… years ago when I started climbing Conan had always cried out at me to be climbed and I finally found a climbing partner and picked a date to try it last month. We couldn’t really have picked a much worse day in terms of the greasy conditions that often plague this part of Gogarth but I decided that I might as well go for it then as I didn’t know when I’d be back to try it next.
The climbing is excellent, a lot more intricate than your typical Gogarth route with tenuous and well protected bridging up the first groove to an exposed and uncomfortable hanging belay in the break below the second pitch. Unfortunately I fell off the first pitch- and then pulled a big useful hold off higher up the pitch but it was still great fun. Steve seconded and racked up ready for the next pitch, a much easier but bold corner. I placed his first piece of gear a metre right of the belay to get him going and Steve made steady progress above placing quite a few wires, none of which he seemed happy with. He began to tackle the last difficult sequence of the pitch but ended up calling down to me to take in as his holds were so greasy he could barely hang on. He fell off stripping every piece of gear as he went apart from the first cam I placed in the break. A sure fire 60 footer leaving him stranded in the centre of the arch beneath me and directly above the sea. After a lot of faffing we retreated with our tails tucked between our legs having had a good adventure and keen to return at a future date.
Gogarth isn’t the only good adventurous sea cliff though, in fact for real adventure you need to go to the Lleyn Peninsula, an esoteric area which is always sunny and often scary! The rock quality in places is often poor requiring a connoisseur’s appreciation but some of the climbing and positions are excellent. I haven’t seen another climber there on one of my visits yet. Craig Dorys is the best developed crag on the Lleyn with many challenging routes and all are single pitches (not to be mistaken with Stanage though!). I’ve had a successful few visits there climbing most of the classics and repeating some of the harder routes; Cripple Creek (E3), Byzantium (E4), Trebizond (E5) and Tonight at Noon (E6 6b) are all fantastic routes and should be on the tick lists of those climbing at the respective grades. Dorys also requires a big rack of climbing gear. I placed around 40 pieces in a single pitch on both Rust Never Sleeps and The Gross Clinic E6 and E6/7 respectively. I also had a go at making the 2nd ascent of a Stevie Haston E7 called Harmony recently. I attempted the line on-sight originally getting up to the crux but simply couldn’t see what to do or where to go so down climbed. I ran to the top and abseiled down quickly in my trainers finding some hidden holds which I chalked up to help me out. I led the line next go and there’s an outrageous long reach on it but fortunately a well protected one. I later found out that this was in fact a new route as I’d started in the wrong place and headed out left from the crux of Harmony which might suggest why the climbing felt so dynamic. Anyway, it’s now called ‘Discord’ and graded E7 6c.
I’ve had other adventures on the Lleyn as well recently on even more impressive sea cliffs and I managed to make the first ascent of a really fun new route in Twll Mawr on the slate which I called ‘The Hunted’ and it weighs in at around E6 or 7 6c. Off to the Alps next- let’s hope the weather gods are kind!