I uncoiled my ropes with trepidation the first time I climbed at Gogarth. The cliff’s reputation had got to me despite the relaxing atmosphere in the warm evening sunlight, waves lapping gently below. I remember seeing Ben Pritchard going off around the corner, video camera in hand, ready to film Tim Emmet attempting ‘Extinction’. Our ambitions were much less extreme, although I’m sure I felt the same butterflies as Tim when I set off up the first pitch of ‘Gogarth’. The easy first pitch preceded a sustained struggle up the traditional cracks and corners found higher up the route. As I pulled over the top onto the steep grassy slope my sense of relief was balanced with a feeling of elation and I immediately felt the draw to return to Gogarth for the next adventure.
Gogarth is world renowned for its adventure climbing, despite the fact it lies on the tip of a small country known for its rain, sheep and green hillsides. Perhaps this is because of the vast amount of climbing found there with a diversity of routes rarely encountered in a single area. Or maybe the sheer quirkiness of watching the seals, kayakers and Irish ferries go by is enough to attract those in search of something a little different from the average day out as local activist Pete Robins explains:
“Lots of the routes are pretty three dimensional and involved affairs. I think spending a few hours sweating and fidgeting around above the sea is a special experience and sends people a bit euphoric and love struck with the place, and rightly so! Gogarth is the best place I know to spend so much time and so much effort to achieve so little and travel such short distances. A perfect pastime.”
Veteran Gogarth pioneer George Smith certainly has a penchant for the peculiarities the area has to offer. He described how he loves “the combination of wild terrain and potential feasibility”, whilst enthusing about how “the best stuff requires something outside of the normal power and stamina: chimneying, back-and-footing, weird bridging and generally massive holds!”
Wales is spoilt for good sea cliff climbing. There are currently ten definitive guidebooks covering all the different areas. But Gogarth is still the pre-eminent coastal venue. Pembroke may have some truly amazing climbing, but it lacks that extra element of commitment on offer at Gogarth, whilst over on the Lleyn Peninsula there are plenty of committing offerings but often without the same quality of climbing. Gogarth also has its own micro climate due to its position on the tip of Anglesey and is generally a safe bet when Snowdonia is being slammed by torrential rain!
My first encounters with Gogarth were a revelation after my apprenticeship in the slate quarries. It was a raw experience for me, getting pumped and scared above a swollen sea, all those different factors playing on my mind. This was in stark contrast to the controlled and thoughtful movement that climbing bold slabs and walls in the mountains had taught me. To focus on the climbing alone at Gogarth seemed to be outside of my bandwidth. The exposure, the chatter of seagulls and the pungent smell of guano exacerbated a rising panic in me, when combined with bold climbing, that was almost overwhelming on my first few visits to the crag until I became better acquainted with the Gogarth vibe.
All these influences induced a general uneasiness, a nagging doubt, that I still feel the need to experience, albeit only occasionally, in my climbing. John Redhead summed this feeling up in a whimsical manner:
“I always believed in doubt. You never know what strengths you have until presented with a situation where you have to somehow find it. For me, there was a release in opening a door in my head and peering in, which inspired my work as an artist. Sports climbing couldn’t give me that release – climbing for climbing’s sake is like being in a zoo – negotiating in the wilderness is where my animal rejoices!”
My earliest adventures at Gogarth were certainly my most memorable. Climbing many of the classics such as ‘The Strand’, ‘Emulator’ and ‘The Cad’ for the first time are memories that I will never forget. On each of these climbs I would reach the top both mentally and physically exhausted but also buzzing with the warm glow of success buoying me up for the following few days.
Even now, having climbed at Gogarth regularly over the last five years, I still enjoy re-climbing the classics, or discovering the many under-rated gems that were so often first climbed by the likes of George Smith or Stevie Haston. Recent jaunts have led me to discover the delights of some of their routes such as ‘Mister Softy’ and ‘Free Stonehenge’; well protected and extremely ‘out there’ offerings that should be on the list of anyone operating at the grade.
Gogarth is also the crag most regularly quoted as a ‘favourite’ amongst my friends. Dan Mcmanus loves the fact that:
“Gogarth has a bit of everything, it’s got good rock, choss, sea, seals, puffins, safe routes, bold routes, roofs, slabs… And there’s loads of it, I’ve probably been there more than any other crag and there are still whole zawns I’ve never been to.”
The early development of the cliffs wasn’t the rush that you might expect. A small group of protagonists, led by the likes of Martin Boysen, Baz Ingle and Pete Crew, developed some of the easier classics such as ‘Gogarth’, ‘Emulator’ and ‘The Gauntlet’ that are still amongst the most popular today. However it wasn’t long until Joe Brown discovered the potential for new routing here and he was followed swiftly by Ed Drummond. Development really started to step up a notch at this point when the great lines were cherry picked: Drummond’s ‘Dream of White Horses’, ‘The Moon’ and ‘The Strand’ were instant classics whilst Crew and Brown made some impressive foray’s onto Main Cliff climbing new routes and eliminating the aid from previous peg extravaganzas. Of special note was the first ascent of ‘Dinosaur’ in 1966. It was the first time that Joe Brown and Pete Crew had climbed together and the team was described, at the time, as the strongest to have ever climbed together in Britain. The line was mooted as a ‘last great problem’ and they got stuck into the loose (it is now relatively solid) and difficult climbing to finish at 9.30pm after an early start. Crew later described his first climb with Brown:
“At that time the old man was definitely short of a good partner, but that was the only route on which I ever really burned him off, or climbed better than he…every time since he’s definitely been the boss – I don’t mind admitting it.”
This period also coincided with a couple of outside broadcasts on the BBC- first ascents were made in front of huge audiences with some impressive footage of Brown dangling from the ‘Spider’s Web’ and new lines being forced on Red Wall such as the appropriately named ‘Television Route’.
The late seventies and early eighties were an exciting period for Gogarth seeing new routes sprouting left, right and centre. Standards had started to rise quickly and Jim Moran, Pete Whillance, John Redhead and Ron Fawcett lapped up the bold walls and strenuous cracks as well as freeing many of the aid climbs of the sixties and early seventies.
Routes of particular note were Moran’s ‘Barbarossa’ and Redhead’s ‘The Bells, The Bells!’, both of which are still considered to be major challenges for the modern generation, especially now that the pegs on them have deteriorated into useless extrusions of rust.
The development of North Stack Wall was one of the most significant steps of this period and perhaps outlined future ethics for the sea cliff. Fawcett made the first ascent of ‘The Cad’ but in so doing placed two bolts and a peg to safeguard his passage up this lonely wall. The first bolt and peg were quickly eliminated and subsequently removed but the remaining bolt stayed in place until a young Nick Dixon climbed the route without it. As if to prove a point, Jim Jewell then soloed the route later that same year and since then there have been no real moves to place bolts at Gogarth.
Stevie Haston was another ‘player’ at Gogarth during this period and he had begun to embark on the intimidating overhanging terrain offered by Yellow Walls. Routes like ‘Isis is Angry’ are seriously loose and with tough climbing to boot as Haston explains:
“A few of us were trying hard to keep real trad alive…. I was also exploring the limits of loose rock and my control. Going up into a vortex of loose rock with no knowledge or little preparation was a real test, obviously a bit of an adventure, 70 footers stripping gear, it doesn’t get better!”
George Smith spoke of how Haston had been an inspiration to him “leading the way” with new routes such as ‘Angel Dust’ that breached a new kind of territory previously left untouched by the former developers. These new lines tackled the unlikely looking roofs and overhangs that had previously been deemed too hard or too loose. Surprisingly many of these roofs and overhangs are very featured making them relatively amenable for their angle but often requiring creative techniques to get between holds.
This new era of development was perhaps epitomised by the new lines climbed in and around Wen Zawn, already home to the Dawes masterpiece ‘Conan the Librarian’. Smith, in his own words, described having an instant “fixation” with the back wall of Wen Zawn and rushed to climb the routes thereabouts. Both ‘Mister Softy’ and ‘The Mad Brown’ tackle outrageous and committing lines where escape would prove to be problematic with an abseil directly into the sea. Neither route has seen many repeat ascents which is a great shame as they do cover some of the most impressive ground found at Gogarth and are surprisingly relatively safe propositions. Many of Smith’s routes remain unrepeated to this day such as the stunning looking ‘Ultraviolet Exterminator’ which Smith described as a personal favourite.
So what’s left for the modern generation of Gogarth climbers? Well there are still stacks of impressive new lines to go as well as many unrepeated routes to get stuck into. The list of classic climbs seem to be ever growing and will surely keep Gogarth popular for many years to come.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to overcome though is the state of fixed protection on the sea cliff. On my last visit to Gogarth two pegs disintegrated when I clipped them and I’m sure a further two would have come out with a sharp outward tug. This stopped me right in my tracks on what was described in the guidebook as a safe but tricky climb. This problem is becoming more and more widespread at Gogarth. I have personally snapped the heads off around ten pegs, half of which were fairly crucial pieces of kit. I asked several leading activists from this generation and the past their opinion on pegs in sea cliffs and their answers were quite revealing. George Smith thinks that the use of pegs on his routes was a “difficult judgement call”, feeling that “a couple of pegs here and there might make something into a balanced route of a given grade rather than no route at all.” As well as raising the question: “when you put up a route are you setting an informal challenge or creating a long term recreational facility?”
Whilst Haston is more pragmatic in his response considering rusting pegs to be “part and parcel of the grip factor.” Before adding “pegs are good and bad. People forget that we didn’t have great racks of gear back then, and in really bad rock a bit of iron bashed in with a big hammer can be the answer.”
It must be said that racks in the eighties were more rudimentary than they are nowadays and that with a big precedent already set, people can’t be blamed for placing pegs. But have we really got any excuses to place pegs when we have access to such advanced protection technology? Pete Robins feels very strongly on the issue of pegs in sea cliffs both as a seasoned on-sight activist at Gogarth and one of the best sport climbers in the country:
“I think this is the most important issue in British climbing at the moment. The last fifty years have seen short sighted climbers bash pegs in all over Gogarth, like they’ve done all over the world.
“It’s Bizarre. We are now at the stage where the pegs are rotten and the routes are not getting climbed. To top it off, there’s no decent new trad routes for this generation to do because they were all done with pegs before. The pegs need to come out, that’s for sure. The routes should then either be climbed without pegs on natural gear, with no gear (eeek!), with long lasting bolts, or not climbed at all. Maybe we need to rethink the placing of selected bolts on trad routes, like they do in the rest of the world. The argument that this will spiral into grid bolting is naive. For an example, take ‘Rosebud’ in Mousetrap Zawn, a Stevie Haston E5 that has probably seen less than 5 repeats. When I did it, the peg was about to snap, I thought E6 at the time and a deck out with drowning scenes when the peg goes. What should we do? There’s no other kit. Bash in a peg which will do good for a few more years? Glue in a bolt? Leave it to rot? It’s a tricky debate!”
Pete raises some really interesting discussion points. Replacing pegs like for like is a very short sighted response to the issue, imagine what the cliffs will look like a hundred years from now with rust marks all over them. But maybe it’s best to leave the final say to a very reasoned argument from Dan Mcmanus:
“I don’t think hammered-in protection has a place in British trad climbing nowadays. I couldn’t justify placing protection that I knew would rot away in a few years, filling the placement and discolouring the surrounding rock. I also think that it makes trad climbing more dangerous as it’s difficult to assess the quality of protection that you haven’t placed yourself.
“Pegs on older routes are tricky though, I think that where possible they should be cleaned and climbed without. But there are some great routes that would be pretty unappealing without the pegs! Like ‘The Bells, The Bells!’ for example, I don’t think anyone would do that without the peg. But maybe that doesn’t matter; there are plenty of other good routes out there that don’t rely on pegs.”
Whatever your thoughts surrounding the debate on fixed gear, Gogarth has retained its atmosphere, its adventure and its unique charm both for both first timers and old hands. Gogarth remains a forcing ground for the modern climber, in much the same way that it was for the likes of Boysen, Crew and Brown in the 1960s; its enduring qualities and potential will continue to challenge and inspire climbers for generations to come.