Bosigran – A Crag for Life
- Thursday 10th November 2022
An overview of one of Cornwall’s best and most popular cliffs
By Andy March
As your climbing career develops, you go through phases with crags. Places which once charmed and thrilled are set aside. But Bosigran has such a spread of quality across the grades that you can keep going back to find something new and challenging at your current grade. Don’t forget the well-nigh-perfect rock, easy access, and sea views without tidal complications. As a bonus, it’s one of the taller cliffs in the area.
The Landward Cliff is the perfect place to learn to climb, with a variety of Diffs and V Diffs. Some of these are two pitches, but it’s usually possible to walk off between pitches if it all gets too much. Alison Rib (D) stands out; this is the introductory drug of climbing, seemingly designed to get you hooked, with its gorgeous handholds, super friction and airy positions. Just to the left, Kate, In Between and Oread are a bit harder at VD and steeper. Once you’re confident, but before you get too complacent about V Diffs, be sure to do two of the best long ones: Ledge Climb only needs a better name, otherwise, it’s got everything, including a fascinating history, with its first pitch added by Mallory of Everest fame. It has some route-finding issues and a sensational exposed finish. Across from the main cliff you’d be hard-pressed to miss the spiked dinosaurs back of Bosigran Ridge (AKA Commando Ridge) which has a tricky scrambling approach and requires good sea conditions but is truly fantastic. The optional last pitch has a very safe but tricky 4b move – you can omit this pitch with a clear conscience and keep the grade consistent. Allow plenty of time for this route, late night epics are common.
In the Severe and Hard Severe grades, you can use the same tactic – start with the shorter and less serious routes, and progress to the bigger, more rewarding ones. You might start with Dong (S) on the Seaward Cliff (good luck with the ‘mantleshelf’ on the last pitch) or its neighbour Ochre Slab II (S), which may feel run-out on the first pitch, but it’s not too hard. Then move on to Doorpost (an all-time classic HS 4b) where any wet streaks on the first pitch can be negotiated with care at the given grade. Or choose Autumn Flakes (HS 4b), which has a very big feel, tackling the easiest line up the centre of the Main Cliff. Persevere, because it has good holds and protection.
Things really open out at VS – does any cliff in Southern England have a better selection? The ‘introductory’ routes may seem technically hard, but you will generally have good protection, as well as escape possibilities between pitches. On the right side of the Main Cliff, Little Brown Jug (VS 5a) is mainly delicate, but with a strenuous finale. The demise of an ancient peg runner is to be welcomed, as it was dangerously corroded, and good alternative protection is available nearby if you look hard. Anvil Chorus (VS 4c) is more strenuous, but with delicate moments. Don’t forget to place some gear as you yard away up the impressive corner pitch. Ochre Slab 1 (VS 5a) on the Seaward Cliff has a blind grope on the first pitch, and a ‘Marmite’ move on the second, which can turn back competent VS leaders who fail to see the trick. The single-pitch Sinistra (VS 4c) on the left side of the Main Cliff, is also worth seeking out. The stand-out longer VS is Zig Zag, which has a much bigger feel, and a mixture of wall and crack climbing. Nameless (VS 4c) has route-finding challenges and a tricky finish where retreat would be awkward. Spare a thought for Colin Kirkus, attempting the first ascent solo, who retreated from below the final pitch.
There isn’t a lot at HVS, but it’s good. You can thrash around on Trapeze (HVS 5a) all day, preferably with a small amount of large gear for protection, but Paragon (HVS 5a) is the one to aim at, four short pitches winding up the Main Cliff, offering all sorts of technical problems. You can debate which is the hardest when you’re sitting down later with some refreshments. A special mention for Hopeless Slab (HVS 4c). It’s remote and severely tidal, so you should get the away-from-it-all feeling as your cries for help go unanswered. Ideal if you like tiptoe moves on a slab with limited gear. The Armchair (HVS 5a) is a long lead, but is often wet and has nesting birds, so pick your moment.
The internet is filled with “which first E1?” questions, so here’s a suggestion: the west side wall of Bosigran Ridge has a good selection of short sunny climbs on excellent rock, and Gallipoli (E1 5c) is a good choice, particularly if you’ve got some tiny wires. Want something more strenuous and positive? Anzac Day (E1 5b) is equally reasonable for the grade. Both are non-tidal, although vulnerable to big seas. While in this area, you’re very close to The Great Zawn, so you could pop in and do Variety Show (HVS 5a). But the zawn’s a whole new chapter in your life.
Once you’re in the groove for E1, Bosigran itself has some unmissable routes: Visions of Joanna (E1 5b) and Thin Wall Special (E1 5b) are at the right side of the Main Cliff and offer technical climbing, generally well-protected, and with escape options. The top pitch of the latter will suit gritstone climbers on holiday, others will find it strenuous and awkward. The great E1 classic, Suicide Wall, is heading towards E2 territory and technically 5c, with slippery rock and sparse protection in uncompromising positions. If you enjoyed the atmosphere of the Hopeless Slab area, you shouldn’t miss nearby Geronimo (E1 5c), which shares the same isolation but offers more strenuous climbing with better protection.
Worth a day of your time is String of Pearls (E1 5b), one of the best girdle traverses. By now, you should know the cliff well enough to follow its devious line across the centre of the Main Cliff. The short section from Bow Wall to Doorpost looks very improbable, but press on and hope for the best, remembering to protect your poor second. (The other girdle, Diamond Tiara, HVS, is not as good, but harder.)
E2 is a great grade there. Diligent Hard Rock tickers will love Bow Wall (E2 5b), and can add it to their collection of Joe Brown routes. The first pitch catches many unaware, with a sudden transition from strenuous to delicate, and the second has some delicious exposure. Beowulf (E2 5c) is like a superior version of Suicide Wall, with bold delicate climbing on all the pitches. While contemplating the first hard move on the second pitch, you can try to spot the remains of one of Peter Biven’s bolts, an unfortunate error of judgement by one of the cliff’s great pioneers. This grade also admits you to the series of leaning corners at the left side of the Main Cliff. Patience (E2 5c) is a good introduction, with an easy start and a sustained and strenuous finish. If you’re in the Bosigran Ridge area, Imphal (E2 5c) is a good short-but-sharp challenge, where smooth rock and an unhelpful crack are balanced by excellent protection.
Once you’re competent at E3 and above, the attractions of Bosigran may wane compared to the delights of Pembroke and Gogarth. But remember, the world’s greatest climbs are made of granite, so you’ll need to brush up your granite skills for Freerider, Astroman, Motörhead, The Central Pillar of Freney, and The Ragni Route. Raven Wall is the classic E3 5c, but needs careful timing to get good conditions. Mornings are not great – the route seems to collect moisture (condensation?) which gives the already-smooth rock the friction of oiled soap. Pick a time late on a sunny, breezy afternoon, and enjoy a variety of bridging manoeuvres, well-protected with lots of small wires. Its near-neighbour Kafoozalem (E3 6a) also needs good conditions. It looks like a crack, but is more like a mineral vein, and requires forceful climbing. Top tip – don’t stop to place a runner every foot, you’ll run out of gas and gear.
Two E3s tackle the overhangs in the centre of the Main Cliff. The Ghost (E3 5b) spent some time at E2 and might, therefore, be reasonable for a first E3. The crucial traverse is bold for the leader and can be equally bold for the second without some careful ropework and choice of belay position. The Phantom (E3 6a) is a route for show-offs. Some delicate climbing leads to a tiny stance, where a couple of extra cams will be useful for the belay. Once you’ve placed the excellent jams in the roof crack, you can indulge in all sorts of foot-off tomfoolery.
Saddle Tramp (E4 6a), Pump It Up (E3 6a) and Evil Eye (E5 6b) take subtle lines up steep rock and are often overlooked. The start of the latter seems to involve some ludicrous contortions in an overhanging groove; not recommended for the elderly and infirm.
I know little of the very hard routes. The Absolution (E6 6c), Morgawr (E6 6b/c) and The Marksman (E7 6c) are more direct lines through the Main Overhang. I was lucky enough to watch James McHaffie tackle the first. Progress seemed to slow in the crux groove, and the conversation went as follows:
Belayer: What’s the problem?
JM: There’s no footholds. (pause) And there’s no handholds.
But needless to say, our man won through in style.
Teahupo’o (E8 7a) takes a striking diagonal line to the left of Kafoozalem, joining it higher up. And when you get really good, you can try the Last Great Problem, the direct line up the diamond wall left of Kafoozalem. Solve this in a good style, and your place in the crag history is assured.
With your climbing career waning, you’ll be drawn back to repeat old favourites and seek out obscure corners and routes you missed on the way up through the grades. Gendarme Ridge (D), where you find your own way through a succession of obstacles, is probably good Alpine training (apart from the lack of snow, darkness, crowds and overpriced beer). Simple Simon (HS 4b) with its desperate start and juggy finish, Venusberg (VS 4c) is a bit of everything near Anvil Chorus (try the first pitch without using your knees) and Belle (HVS 5a), which unfolds without drama until its slap-in-the-face finish. Paradise (E1 5c) has one pitch with surprising jugs, another pitch without. Lurch (E2 6a) has a very bouldery start, but have a plan for getting down from the ledge above the difficulties. My solution was to be rescued by a party on Beaker Route.
Climbing with friends, climbing solo, sitting amidst the gorse and honeysuckle and gazing westward down the coast…
The View from Bosigran
Belayers with time on their hands will appreciate the view westwards down the coast. What can you see?
In the foreground is the handsome feature of Porthmoina Island. This was climbed on extensively in the early days, but there is now a voluntary agreement to avoid climbing there so that it can be a sanctuary for wildlife, mostly seabirds.
Bosigran Ridge is the prominent rib on the other side of the cove. It’s easy to monitor the progress of aspirant parties, which can be impressively rapid or painfully slow. The ribs and walls to the left of the ridge have been climbed, but are never busy.
Try as you might, you can’t see The Great Zawn, which is the next major cliff. It hides away, which makes a visit there even more special. The nearest visible feature is the impressive yet unappealing wall of Horseman’s Zawn, which has a couple of unrepeated E5s which relied on fixed peg protection – your lead mate.
Just beyond is Rosemergy Cove, which has a range of decent routes from V Diff upwards, and faces northeast, offering some shelter from the prevailing wind. A tedious approach, seabirds, and a long drying time may deter.
The cliffs beyond Rosemergy Cove are as close to genuine wilderness as you’ll find in the south. Try them in late summer and wear stout trousers and footwear. A prominent thumb-like pinnacle is Brandy's Zawn Pinnacle. The adventurous could have a good day in this area, doing some sea-level routes and some on higher-level cliffs as the tide allows. Monolith Slab (more of a wall than a slab) was first explored in the early 1900s and gives some short testing pitches in the VS-HVS area.
Sharp eyesight will be needed to pick out the next two cliffs. Great Moor Zawn has Pat Littlejohn’s fabled Roirama, unrepeated since its first ascent in the drought year of 1976. But if you can climb E4 on wet rock, this could be the route for you. Trevowhan Cliff is remote and unvisited and all the more rewarding if you can get there.
The view is terminated by the headland of Pendeen. The lighthouse there is too far away to assist with late-night epics at Bosigran, but if you see it illuminated, it’s probably getting a bit late for one more route. The Pendeen cliffs would be a good place to get your first taste of climbing on the killas slate. The cliffs are friendly, with short and fairly easy access, but make sure your guidebook is up-to-date, as recent rockfalls have affected some routes.
On the way to the cliff
You can’t miss the two chimneys by the parking area. These were built in 1871 for Carn Galva Mine. The chimneys served the coal-fired boilers, which produced steam for the engines, the westerly one a pumping engine, and the other a winding engine. These engines only ran for a few years before the mine closed.
The ruined buildings on the left as you approach, by the stream, are the remains of water-powered tin stamps, where ore was crushed and refined. They closed in 1861, as the flow of water was insufficient. At the top of the cliff is an Iron Age hill fort (c 1300 BC). The walls are still visible, but would originally have been up to two metres high.
Where is it and where to stay
On the north coast of west Cornwall, about six miles west of St Ives. OS Ref: SW 417 369. The Climbers’ Club hut, The Count House, is less than half a mile away. There is camping at Trevaylor, which is less than five miles away. Smaller, pop-up campsites are nearer but only appear in the summer season. Wild camping is not allowed.
West Cornwall – Bosigran and the North Coast (Climbers’ Club, 2016); West Country Climbs (Rockfax 2010); South West Climbs (Climbers’ Club 2014).
Climbing Gear, Food and drink
Trevaylor campsite has guidebooks and chalk, otherwise it’s Cotswold Outdoor in Truro (30 miles). Chip shop and small convenience store in Pendeen, 3.5 miles. Three pubs in the Pendeen area, all serve food. The Radjel is recommended. There are more shops and pubs in St Just. Penzance has most facilities. Cream teas at Rosemergy Farm (remember jam first, cream on top in Cornwall).
Train or coach to Penzance or St Ives, bus to Gurnard’s Head Hotel (one mile), open top bus passes nearer in summer.
Tides mostly not a problem. Any dry and settled spell. Avoid strong west winds. Spring, summer, or early autumn may be best, but can be glorious on a fine winter day.
Rest day activities
Surfing at Sennen (not very restful), beaches at Sennen or Portheras, walk the coast path or the moors, visit an art gallery in St Ives or St Just, visit an old mine at Levant or Geevor.