Articles - Libby Peter's Crag Tour: Castell Helen
In this series I aim to unearth and demystify some of the lesser know or more awkward mid-grade crags. We'll explore and offer a flavour of venues where it's reassuring to have some inside info to back up the guidebook before your first visit. Places you've thought of visiting but haven't quite been brave enough plus ones maybe you've never heard of that you can add to your list.
We start our tour in North Wales where the Westerly tip of Ynys Mon (the Isle of Anglesey) drops into the Irish Sea in a convoluted fringe of steep cliffs and zawns. This chunk of coastline, known as Gogarth, provides some of our most adventurous and serious sea-cliff climbs, but dotted in amongst it all are a few more amenable targets. Castell Helen, which keeps its secrets entirely hidden from view until you've made a committing abseil, is one such gem. It's a perfect crag if you want climbs in the VS-E1 range but with the easiest route back out at VS you want to feel comfortable at that grade. In general the routes are 'steady' for their grade, in other words, there are few nasty surprises or hard moves but the intimidating approach to stances where the sea is lapping at your toes makes up for that. The Castell Helen climbing experience is delightful in it's own right but it also makes a tantalising introduction to the extensive Gogarth cliffs.
The compact crystalline quartzite at Castell Helen has the most solid and conventional feel of all the Gogarth cliffs, even though it's sandwiched between the legendary soft and crumbly Red and Yellow walls. The rock is remarkably clean and despite the thousands of guillemots and razorbills that colonise neighbouring Red Wall, Castell Helen stays virtually bird-free, the bigger ledges on Lighthouse Ar'te being the exception.
Most of the routes were first climbed in the Autumn of 1966, following that amazing long summer of prolific Gogarth development. Blanco and Atlantis were the first to be climbed by Joe Brown and Dave Alcock (of course) and the others soon followed.
There are no climbing restrictions on this part of Gogarth and given the right weather it's a year-round venue. The cliffs here are managed by the RSPB and there are rarely conflicts between climbers and birds as the agreed seasonal restrictions make complete sense - no one in their right mind would go anywhere near a crag in full nesting frenzy! However, if you do venture onto Yellow Wall be careful when running your abseil or belay ropes across the footpath.
The crag basks in sun from mid-morning until sunset so in hot weather climb early or prepare to fry as there are few places to seek shade. That said, this section of the coastline juts out and normally catches a puff of breeze even on calm days and in these conditions it's often more bearable here than tucked in Gogarth Bay.
Many of the horizontal breaks seep after heavy rain and although it tends to be less affected by the dreaded greasy conditions that all sea-cliffs are prone to, if you suspect such conditions let the sun get on the crag before you do.
The crag is easily found directly below the RSPB lookout Elin's Tower. Head for this from the parking at the end of the road rather than the cafÈ car park. From Elin's Tower there are two little paths through the heather, one heading directly downhill to the gearing up spot and another that goes to the left of Elin's Tower (looking out) before cutting sharply back right directly above the crag. A rocky step in the path tells you you're on track but be very aware of the huge gaping void below you at this point.
(N.B. if you go too far left along the cliff top path you may see an abseil rope in place on some big blocks - this takes you down to the grossly overhanging Yellow Wall where the easiest route is E1!)
The correct gearing up balcony is obvious and although there's no view of Castell Helen from here you'll be able to marvel at the rusty complexities of Red Wall. A lower ledge hosts the abseil anchors - a small slab with an array of pegs and nuts variously linked by slings. Check this set-up and back it up as required. A 50m rope isn't quite enough to get to the bottom of the cliff but 60m is perfect. Alternatively you can make a 30m abseil to the unmissable halfway ledge and then abseil again from here on your climbing ropes.
On your first visit you may choose to re-group on this ledge anyway just to get your bearings.
Recommended routes and route combos
Lighthouse Arete is gentle for the grade and a great journey. Occasionally the quality of the climbing wavers but the dramatic situations easily compensate. It starts from a roomy niche reached by a diagonal abseil; 60m from the top or 30 from the right end of the halfway ledge (looking out). You can split it into 3 or 4 pitches all landing you on ample and scenic perches. There is one steep but short-lived section and the gear is always good.
Combine the excellent first pitch of Atlantis with the top pitch of Rap for sheer VS delight or combine with True Moments/Freebird for a top E1/2 trip. The 5a corner pitch of Atlantis can be reached in 60m from the top or a 30m abseil from the left end (looking out) of the halfway ledge. At low-tide you can land on spacious slabs below the corner and at high tide or in big seas you can belay on a two-person ledge 3m higher. Enlist all your corner climbing techniques, remember to use your feet and savour the delight!
Blanco blazes an improbable trail up the steepest rock on the left side of the crag. As with many Castell Helen adventures the line doesn't become obvious until you've finished the pitch but the highly textured nature of the wall has a 'climb anywhere at 4c/5a' quality that is gentle on any route-finding confusions.
Guidebooks: Gogarth (Climbers' Club). Out of print but obtainable here and there.
North Wales Rock (Ground-Up) for a selected but up-to-date overview.
Gear tips: Although a heavyweight Gogarth rack isn't necessary here, some extra slings and a full set of cams are desirable and prusiks are essential. It takes a while to feel confident in Gogarth gear placements so you tend to put more in than normal for the grade, which is no bad thing!