Well, it looks like Winter is back with a vengeance. After a mild start to the year, there's been a sharp drop in temperature and even talk of snow falling, just up the road in Camelford, last night! It hasn't stopped me climbing though. I spent the weekend teaching Lead Climbing at Halldrine Cove and Roche Rock to some very capable students and future Outdoor Instructors. It's always a fun time and quite fulfilling too, especially as you can sense the excitement and realisation that comes from people when they complete their first lead climb. I always use easier climbs for teaching people how to lead, as even though many of my clients can climb really well, it's important that they can relax on the rock and concentrate on placing protection that will be meaningful, rather than pushing themselves with the climbing and not learning about good protection placements. Placing 'trad' gear, such as nuts, wires, stoppers and cams, is an art form and requires lots of experience to get it right. One should remember that every piece of protection you place needs to be placed well and good enough to hold a fall, therefore saving your life. One of my clients described the process as solving a very intricate puzzle and found lead climbing on 'trad gear' extremely satisfying and much better than any of the 'sport climbing' they had done before.
Last Friday saw me venturing across the Tamar and up to the big smoke of Bristol and the magnificent Avon Gorge, perhaps the UK's premier roadside crag. It is certainly a good choice as a climbing venue at this time of year, as it faces south and dries relatively quickly. It is also covered in classic climbs, both single and multipitch, at all grades. Ok, it's not everyone's cup of tea (the noise of the traffic on the A4 can be somewhat overpowering), but it has always provided me with lots of fun every time I have ventured onto it's limestone walls.
There had been heavy rain overnight and my client had wanted to climb Piton Route, a climb from the 1930s and one of the first climbs to breach the Central Buttress of the Gorge. It's strong natural line, good climbing and it's inclusion in the book "Classic Rock" has ensured it's popularity. Unfortunately, this has led to polishing of some of the holds. It also seeps after heavy rain, and the prospect of climbing on wet, polished limestone was not something either of us really fancied, so we decided to have a look at other options. Most of the Gorge was showing signs of seepage, but the Unknown Wall area was completely dry, so we opted for Unknown Wall, a 2 star Very Severe.
The first pitch was a bit of a jungle ramble, but above this, the walls steepened and was devoid of vegetation. It only seemed fair to let Simon lead the main pitch, as he was chomping at the bit (Simon is one of my regular clients and I am happy for him to lead). Moving confidently up the wall, Simon made short work of the crux moves and was soon anchored to the belay and bringing me up. Then it was my turn to lead. The climb moves up above the belay ledge to a huge roof, before scuttling leftwards, in a position of extreme exposure, before pulling into a groove splitting the roof and up the final wall, to arrive suddenly at the railings on the edge of Clifton Plain. It always seems strange to me, that as climbers battle with gravity on the sheer walls of the Gorge, people wander aimlessly on Clifton Plain, totally unaware of the drama unfolding just below their feet. What is even more bizarre is that there is always an ice cream van parked just by the finish of the routes on Unknown Wall, even in the depths of winter!
Having walked back down The Gully to the bottom of the cliff, we again assessed the conditions on the crag. Main Wall was drying fast..dare we attempt Malbogies? Malbogies was first climbed by a youthful Chris Bonnington (he of Everest fame) and a couple of friends, way back in 1957. Stories about it's seriousness meant that it didn't see a repeat for 5 years. Even today it is no pushover (Graded HVS, many consider it to be E1). I offered Simon the lead of the first pitch, but he declined, so it was up to me. Malbogies is included in Ken Wilson's Hard Rock, and as such, it gets many ascents. This leads to polishing of the soft limestone, just like on Piton Route, and which makes the climbing feel insecure. The first pitch weaves its way up the cliff, on a line that isn't immediately obvious and where the holds only reveal themselves at close quarters. The protection isn't great either and one has to climb slowly and carefully as there are many blind alleys. It is incredible to think what it must have been like on the first ascent, where Bonnington and his friends climbed in plimsolls and only placed one peg (piton). They didn't have all the kit we have today - sticky soled climbing shoes, stretchy ropes, harnesses, helmets, nuts, cams, chalk etc. so it must have been an extremely serious expedition. Today we know the grade because of guidebooks, but Bonnington didn't. The climb isn't hard by today's standards, but it still commands respect. It spoke volumes when Simon arrived at the belay, stating he was "glad I didn't lead that"! I offered him the lead on the second pitch - "No thanks", he said.
Pitch two offers easier climbing on rougher rock. The crux moves through a roof involves a search for the "mother of all jugs", while in a position of extreme exposure. With gravity snapping at your ankles, your fingers curl around the infamous hold which is on the left.....or was it the right? You know, in all the excitement, I kind of forgot....do you feel lucky? Well, you'll just have to go and find out for yourselves!
Malbogies is certainly an experience. Just remember that if you find it easy, just imagine what it must be like to have been Bonnington, stepping into the unknown, on the first ascent.