Hunched conspiratorially around the old oak table, Tim Neill, Phil Dowthwaite, and I whispered over the Gogarth guidebook. Phil pulled the cork from a third bottle of wine. Squeezed into the dark corner of the kitchen, I felt small. Tim and Phil towered above me, and a spiral staircase covered with hanging ivy towered over us all. Shelves full of climbing guidebooks and climbing magazines lined the room. The stove roared. John Redhead, the previous owner of this place, the Old Schoolhouse, would have rejoiced in our bacchanal.
Tim and I laughed as the description of the climb was read aloud. Phil looked on bemused, knowing he was working in the morning and wouldn’t be joining us.
“The top pitch is yours,” Tim said with his soft Irish lilt.
“No problem,” I replied with curt Staffordshire syllables. I had drunk more wine than Tim.
The swallowing blue of the sea dazzles. My eyes sting as if full of tiny steel splinters, a result, no doubt, of too much ultraviolet at altitude. Tears run down my unshaven face. I’ve just done the easy first pitch, which means the last and hardest pitch is mine, and the second and the third are the Big Guy’s. I settle on the small belay ledge with my shoes off, wiggling toes and sunbathing, letting the rope snake through my hands. I revel in the heat of the early summer sun, knowing that an afternoon storm is forecast.
A chance meeting with Twid Turner and Stu McAleese in the South Stack café this morning brought about a ripple of concern.
“What are you boys up to?” asked Twid.
“Thought we’d try Me, on Yellow Wall,” I ventured. “What’s it like?” I regretted asking the question as soon as it fell from my mouth.
“It’s so good, I’ve done it twice,” Twid said, throwing down the gauntlet with an evil glint in his eye.
Tim moves into the overhanging second pitch, hanging from the steep yellow wall. Seagulls swoop with ease as he makes blind, sideways shuffl es around arêtes and into corners, his long legs wafting. Cams, wires, and slings litter his path. Disappearing from view, he drops into the strenuous but more popular line of The Cow. At least the rock here has been pulled more often.
I follow the pitch, urged forward by the knowledge that every step sideways is one meter less to swing should I fall.
“Weird!” says the Big Guy, swinging around beneath me and attempting to begin the third pitch. His hands grip the thin fin of quartz I am standing on. “I haven’t got the first idea how this works,” he says as he cuts loose his feet, dropping his larger-than-average frame into a tendon-pulling lurch. A leg is thrown toward a foothold out to the right, and misses. He swings the leg again. Dark green slime coats the cliff where welcoming arms of crumbling rock—the zawn—meet the open sea. Blue water laps against yellow rock, and the salt-thick air clutches at his flapping legs. He swings again, and sticky rubber finds dirt. He shuffles sideways and belays beneath the final pitch.
Fear is absent. I am in control, and confidence flows. The full undertaking of the horror above is not apparent.
Dust-covered fins, worn from centuries of rain, stand proud from the overhanging channel of clay, but crumble as I touch them. Black shoe rubber grinds into the cigarette ash coating the rock. Rock slivers spiral into the air, spinning out toward a black bank of cumulus that is rolling in on the wind. The storm is coming.
My hand wraps over the top of a flat hold. Sand crunches between skin and rock, greasing my palm. There are no footholds to bridge. There is no friction. Feet slide in the clay. My hand is slipping. A voice in my head, entwined with dehydration’s aching jabs, screams: “Idiot, stop drinking red wine!”
I’m aiming for two rusty pegs that were placed on the first ascent. Time and salt have stripped them down to remnant stubs of rotten steel. The Big Guy shouts, “Lasso the peg!” I slap with a sling. Sling misses. Slap. Misses again. Pumped, gasping, grasping. Slap. Miss. Look down. Ropes arc into space uninterrupted. Slap. Miss again.
The Big Guy hangs from five equalized pieces of gear. There is no gear between him and me. I look down at him gazing up, like a cup brimming full of worry. Below, the angry Irish Channel roars into the zawn.
“Make the move, do it, do it now,” I say to myself. “Make the move and clip the pegs.”
The voice in my head mixes with the sucking noise of the zawn. I move up, laybacking a groove. I want gear, but there is none. I throw a heel hook into dirt. “Make the move, do it, do it now. Make the move and clip the pegs.”
I release the heel hook, my leg swings into space, and I smear a toe onto a murky edge. Pull and go—pull and throw—pull and go. Desperate but precise.
I wrap a worthless sling around one of the pegs, wasting strength. My ability to lock off is gone, putting the second peg out of reach. Eye to eye with the lower peg, I can smell the ravaged state of its metal. It’s as if its rusty fatigue has seeped straight into my muscles.
Stuffing a cam in mud and fiddling a small wire into a crumbling crack, I move on. I fight and slap, throwing poor gear at the rock, never finding a decent placement. There is no rest. My arms finally go, like twigs in fire.
“I’M OFF!” I kick out from the rock, throwing myself back. There is nothing to hit—the cliff overhangs so far. But how far will I fall? The ropes stretch. A wire rips with a twang of the lefthand rope. A cam pulls with the right. I’m falling through expanding space. The best gear has all ripped. And then I stop.
A small wire placed as an afterthought, level with the pegs, has held my fall.
Hanging on the rope, I am unhurt but wrecked. The sky has filled with heavy clouds. The first large drops of rain pound into a sudden swell of sea. I hang suspended by the small wire. Wind whips up the rain, but we remain mostly dry in our overhanging domain of yellow. Hanging on the rope, I begin to escape from my purple Cabernet haze. I can see my mistake. I climbed too far to the right, I think.
I hand-over-hand up the rope and launch myself back up the curling yellow overhang. Incorporating every trick to conserve energy, I back-foot a seam, getting in close and intimate with the rock. I place three nuts, a cam, and a sling on a spike. All useless. Two moves, three, four, five, each taking me that much higher above the little wire that held my fall.
As I slap, heel hook, and thrutch, it comes to me that the best, and yet also the very worst, placement I’d made so far was that shiny point screwed into the cork on the third bottle of Cabernet at the Old Schoolhouse. And of course that placement had popped. I smell wine in my sweat. Nearly into the groove, I slap for the next flat hold to the right, run feet high, and commit to a huge throw round a corner.
I hit the hold. It’s flat and sandy. An appalling scream escapes my mouth: “OFF!!”
Exploding pieces of metal hit me like bullets. I’m dropping through swift jerks of ripping gear. All of the protection pulls... except for one wire behind a wobbling spike. Rain lashes beyond our yellow world. Caught on updrafts, spume flies, mixing with the pouring rain. The Big Guy looks on, huddled against the wet now licking at him. I pull carefully back up the rope. The rock is out of reach. The wind buffets and spins me. A wave of nausea hits as I notice the gear that has held me.
If I stop and contemplate, I will not continue. Terror is threatening to overwhelm. Grabbing clay and muck, I yell into the face of the gale, “Back on!” The words nearly choke me.
The small rest from falling and hanging has given my arms just enough recovery to carry me past the point of my previous fall. Shaking with effort and fear, I latch a completely detached block wedged into an overhanging groove.
The ropes run for years without gear. The last placement that I reasonably trust is the piece I first fell on, now nearly 30 meters below. In a flash, I see myself falling while still holding the block, stripping the whole pitch.
Grasping the top of the block with both hands, I try to pull over. Cramps rip through my arms. Like a scared animal, I scuttle beneath the block once more. The climb has finally sucked all the alcohol from me. I’m trembling. The cold wind nips at me like a terrier. Once more I move out from under the block, desperate to pull over as my strength ebbs to nothing. Then I’m up, and the rain driving across the cliff top hits me hard, cold, and fresh. Then I’m wallowing in the wet grass below the South Stack café. I whoop against the roar of the wind, glad to have escaped Me with my life.
Imagine a sea cliff that covers the whole headland of the large island of Anglesey, on the west tip of Wales. Imagine coves, inlets, and caves, overhanging walls, fins, and arches, cormorants skimming white-tipped waves, and fat seals swimming in the turbulent Irish Channel. Every bay has a different character and color. The stone is variously crumbling, solid, sandy, muddy, lichen-covered, and guano-sprayed.
Imagine that on some walls you find bomber protection in solid quartzite, if you can hang on long enough to place it. But imagine that on others you will be plugging cams into sand and nuts into clay, clipping rusty pegs, wrapping slings around quartz protrusions, placing sky hooks for protection, and fi ddling in RPs as if your life depends on it (and it will). Imagine a half dozen such pieces equalized for your belay anchor. Imagine that there is only one bolt on the whole cliff—and that is a chopped, rusty relic.
The crumbling brink is an easy stroll for climbers and sightseers alike, but your experience below will be far beyond anything comprehensible to the tourists—or even to many climbers. When you finally pull the lip with a thousand-mile stare, you will find that you were not imagining it at all. Your abseil rope had simply transported you to another world, to Gogarth, the biggest, baddest trad cliff in the U.K.
Nick Bullock now drinks red wine only in moderation before climbing at Gogarth. This story is adapted from his upcoming book, Echoes, to be published next year.