Between Pembroke and the Deep Blue Sea

Adventuring on the sea cliffs of southern Wales
Author:
Publish date:
Melanie Michon in a dramatic position above the sea on Keelhaul (E2 5c/5.10d). The vibrant-red cliffs at Bosherston Head’s Keelhaul Slab offer a plethora of sharp, fingery climbs on bulletproof limestone. The magical setting above a large tidal rock platform adds a sense of urgency, as the seas rise and the waves crash ever closer—most lines here require a rappel approach, with the easiest escape routes starting at 5.10. The only way out is up … unless you like swimming to the pub.

Melanie Michon in a dramatic position above the sea on Keelhaul (E2 5c/5.10d). The vibrant-red cliffs at Bosherston Head’s Keelhaul Slab offer a plethora of sharp, fingery climbs on bulletproof limestone. The magical setting above a large tidal rock platform adds a sense of urgency, as the seas rise and the waves crash ever closer—most lines here require a rappel approach, with the easiest escape routes starting at 5.10. The only way out is up … unless you like swimming to the pub.

On the sleepy southern peninsula of Pembrokeshire, Wales, you’ll find a promised land: colossal swathes of fine limestone plunging into the foaming Atlantic. This magical, six-mile-long coastline has over 50 sectors boasting 3,000 routes, including some of the best stamina climbs in the country. Forgotten zawns, murky sea caves, and fossil-embossed walls lord over sunbaked rock platforms in biblical quantities. The diversity of climbing is such that anyone can find what they fancy, from the easy-angled Crystal Slabs to the overhanging walls of Huntsman’s Leap to the soaring cracks of The Castle. While this article features a selection of the best venues, you could stray to the lesser-known spots for a slice of paradise away from the mayhem of a busy weekend.

Not surprisingly, Pembroke has become the epicenter of adventure sea-cliff climbing in the United Kingdom. Strangely, it wasn’t always held in such high regard. Sea-cliff maestro Pat Littlejohn, after his visit to the collapsed cave of the Cauldron in 1970, was rumored to have said, “These single-pitch cliffs will never amount to much.” In the 1960s, Jim Perrin had the cunning idea of using a sea kayak to scour the cliffs. Using this approach, he, with Colin Mortlock, unveiled many of the area’s king lines.

I have neglected thus far to mention that much of the cliff-top access goes through a Ministry of Defence training ground. The abundance of tanks, shells, and continual live firing did in the past call for occasional covert missions to explore the rock. As the Pembroke guidebook author Paul Donnithorne recalls, of venturing onto the firing range back in the day, “We had to do the four-mile walk before sunrise, only leaving after dark so we weren’t detected by the patrols.” On one such outing,
“[O]ur dogs chewed through their leads and started chasing rabbits, which alerted the military to our abseil line. We were marched off-site!”

Pembroke has seen its share of disasters. In 2004, a wave struck with such force that it cleaved off a monumental piece of the most popular cliff, St. Govan’s Head. It was a sad day when climbers awoke to discover that many of Pat Littlejohn’s routes (at some point he must have figured the cliff might amount to something) had been washed away. In 1980, the firing range was, thanks to entreaties from the British Mountaineering Council, finally opened to all. Afterward, new routes sprayed the walls like machine-gun bullets, and Pembroke quickly became the mecca for UK trad. Now, besides having more routes than anyone could ever do, Pembroke has seen a wealth of recent deep-water solos. For the latter, it’s common to see climbers heading out armed with dinghies and rope ladders to access the waterline during the summer months.

Whether you’re a novice about to embark on your first lead or a hardened pioneer questing for new routes, Pembroke will deliver. This place of calm, where you hear little more than the cry of sea birds and the splash of waves at your feet, will beg you to return time and time again.

Photo Gallery

_MG_1225_StGovansHead_Pembroke_MikeHutton_web

Ed Booth enjoys the golden hour as he contemplates the next move on Blucher (E5 6a/5.11c) at St. Govan’s Head. The 1,000-foot-long wall is the most celebrated at Pembrokeshire. Between the climber in the photo and the distant Ministry of Defence radar station are some 100 routes from E1/5.9 to E5/5.11. Combine this with the easy access and non-tidal bases, and it’s easy to see why climbers flock to St. Govan’s Head for a first taste of Pembrokeshire trad. As a direct consequence, St. Govan’s witnesses its fair share of accidents, and it’s not uncommon to see a helicopter rescue during a holiday weekend.

_MG_8883_TheCastle_Pembroke_MikeHutton_web

Heat of the Moment (E5 6b/5.12b) on the south face of The Castle, a fascinating fortress of rock with some of Pembroke’s finest rock architecture. A collection of sea caves, blowholes, and defined fins make The Castle a connoisseur’s location. The wall in this photo features three of Pembroke’s finest finger cracks—an E4/5.11, E5/5.12, and E6/5.13 all side by side. The protection is good, but the demanding lines require bags of stamina to place numerous fiddly wires. The rightmost of the three cracks, the 5.13, has been free-soloed by the talented Julian Lines.

_MG_6951_BosherstonHead_Pembroke_MikeHutton_web

Top UK climber Maddy Cope goes all out on the incredibly steep and sustained The Big Issue (E9 6c/5.13c R) at Bosherton Head. The vision of this remarkable bastion of rock as it projects out of the roaring ocean sends shivers down the spines of most who witness it. The unrelenting angle and sheer situations are so mind-blowing it seems inconceivable that a mere mortal could ever cling to this monstrosity of a cliff.

This futuristic line was bolted by the southwest pioneer Pete Oxley, but the bolts were later removed in an act of war by an enraged John Harwood. After multiple attempts, the Yorkshire strongman John Dunne sent the line in 1996, adding the first E9 to the area. The hideously steep crack-line at the start makes gear placements a challenge, but soon a thread is reached and an intense sequence on the smallest of pockets spits off most who attempt it. Above, the fun really starts as the pump sets in on the never-ending wall to the top.

_MG_7142_Trevellan_Pembroke_MikeHutton_web

Goodness knows what was on Pat Littlejohn’s mind when he named this quality route after Barbarella, the 1960s science-fiction film starring Jane Fonda, who in the movie is threatened with death by oversupply of pleasure in a fearful contraption called the “Orgasmatron.” Regardless, Barbarella is the benchmark E5/5.12 at Pembroke. I liken the route to a pack of sweets where you get to sample many flavors, from the technical starting groove that demands intense bridging to the main event above: a pulverizing crack. Procrastinate on this baby and you will be spat out; place your wires sloppily and you may very well end up on the deck.

The talented climber Harriet Ridley’s account of grounding out and being whisked away by a rescue helicopter paints a gruesome picture of what can go wrong when the wires just won’t go in, the rock is too hot, and your forearms feel the strain of multiple days of climbing. The route takes no prisoners, and neither did the crag when Steve Findlay’s dog fell from the top, sadly losing its life when it landed near the base. In this photo, the North Wales trad climber and professional route-setter Emma Twyford takes a breather on Barbarella.

_34A3338_StennisHead_Pembroke_MikeHutton_web

A climber soaking up the gorgeous evening light on Pembrokeshire’s four-star-classic sea-cliff traverse Riders on the Storm (5a/5.9) at Stennis Head. Although Stennis Head is known for its plethora of mellow classics above a delightful non-tidal platform, it has a hidden secret of the highest calibre.

Riders on the Storm involves a sensational 100-foot traverse above the ocean on rock of Carborundum-like properties. The holds just keep coming, but the position above the sea is a constant reminder that a freak wave could take you or your partner out at any point. For the ultimate experience, this can be enjoyed in “deep-water-solo” style on a summer evening, with just the birds and the waves for company.

113_1389_web

No trip to Pembroke is complete without a stop at the Olde Worlde Café in the village of Bosherston, population 300. The café is run by Ma Weston, aka “Auntie Vi,” who was recognized by the queen for her 70 years of service and made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or MBE. Many Pembroke first ascents have been fueled by one of Ma Weston’s hearty breakfasts and tea brewed so stout it can leave you sweating and jittery. Best get over that before grappling with tiny holds above a pounding surf.

_34A4654_SnakeCharmer_E5_HuntsmansLeap_web

Venture down into the remarkable zawn of Huntsman’s Leap and you’ll encounter a labyrinth of impeccable limestone. The larger-than-life lines in this intimidating venue boast some of the best climbing challenges in the country. The stone’s variegated color palette is exquisite, and the west wall could be likened to an artistic masterpiece, with its lavish swirls of pink and yellow flowstone. The narrow canyon has even been jumped on horseback; more recently, a Polish climber who failed to clear the void made a crash landing on a trapped mid-height boulder before falling again, clear to the sea. Miraculously, he survived.

In this photo, Maddy Cope is about to experience the venomous bite on Snake Charmer (E5 6c/5.12b), a Gary Gibson modern classic that sees a disproportionate level of difficulty concentrated into one almighty reach. The crux moves on the overlap have stopped many of the UK’s best climbers, though are fortuitously protected by the world’s best in-situ thread, seen just above Cope’s hands.

The steep nature of Huntsman’s Leap is handy in that you can attempt difficult climbs knowing that there is nothing to hit, making it popular with elite sport climbers looking to break into the upper traditional grades—several of the best routes here are E8/5.14a R. But the zawn collects more than difficult routes. Guidebook writer Paul Donnithorne recalls that, after one harsh winter storm, a shipping container wedged in the narrow seaward inlet and exploded its inventory of washing machines, dryers, and packing foam. Donnithorne and friends borrowed a 100-ton crane and removed the debris so climbers could return to the cliffs.  

_34A6451_OverExposed_E4_StennisFord_web

Elite mountain guide Mike “Twid” Turner feels the burn near the top of Overexposed (E4 6a or DWS S2 6c/5.11) in Stennis Ford. The route’s setting is spectacular, with a hanging belay above the turquoise sea and a delicious soaring flake line leading up the wall above. The tenuous crux sequence (often damp) hits you immediately after leaving the belay, but the difficulties ease the higher you get. This must have been a relief for Mike Robertson, who soloed this 80-foot line in 2001 above terrifying shallow water for its first ascent. The following day, Robertson led the utterly blank wall to the left using a scant two pieces of protection in 75 feet. Living on Air (E8 6b/5.13a) became one of the area’s boldest lines.

The open zawn of Stennis Ford is a focal point of great historical significance relating to some of the bolting antics of the pioneering Gary Gibson. In the 1980s, Gibson controversially bolted many of the lines and claimed the first ascents. Steve Monks and others were outraged by this act—rap bolting and sport climbing were new then, and still not widely accepted—ripping the offensive metalwork from the cliffs and repeating the routes on gear. The boldest lines like Point Blank (E8 6c/5.13b R) have recently received much attention from the top wads due to their relatively safe falls, though they’re still mainly climbed in headpoint style. When Tim Emmett put up Muy Caliente! (E10 6c/5.14a R) in 2010, it became Pembroke’s first E10.

Mike Hutton (mikehuttonimages.com) is a UK-based adventure photographer who specializes in photos of climbers and people in wild landscapes.