The Climber's Voice

Surviving XS in Pembroke


David Simmonite attempts his first ever XS graded route in Pembroke in the company of James Pearson.


Sometimes a throwaway comment can lead to an intense experience. It's a beautiful summer afternoon, the sun falling towards the horizon, the sky turning a fiery red and all is good with the world. We've been in Pembroke for a few glorious days with amazingly settled weather and an almost still, azure blue sea. It could have been the Mediterranean. Walking back to the Stack Rocks car park, having made a group ascent with James and Caro's family of a classic Hard Severe, we head around the rim of The Cauldron looking at potential lines to climb. The main part has plenty to do on mostly solid rock and is a place we hadn’t climbed on before and was a possibility. Skirting back to the coast path and around the square-shaped inlet a striking, almost zigzag, crack clinging to the side of the cliff catches our gaze. However, the rest of the cliff around it looks to be an amalgamation of rubble, mud and grass intertwined with what looked like solid rock. Out comes the guide, for nothing other than curiosity. Rockaway Beach XS 5b, 4c complete with a dagger symbol, inferring that it hadn’t received a second ascent since it was first climbed by Dave Scott-Maxwell way back in 1992. Reading the description should have put an end to any thoughts of climbing it. It begins with ‘a serious route climbing the crumbling wall at the back of the bay’ continuing with ‘serious with some loose rock’ and ending with ‘a frighteningly loose finale’… Fittingly it is described as to the east of Madman’s Point.

James makes the throwaway comment, "I've never done an XS before." Neither had I and whether it was the sun or dehydration, who knows, I reply, "Me neither, let’s do it, how bad can it be?” After all I did have a secret weapon in James, how hard can it be for a man who's climbed super scary routes up to E10? Should be a breeze and I'll be safe on the blunt end of the rope. Happy days.

However, there is a problem, the guide mentions that the belay stake at the top of the route has been removed. We look around for a belay but nothing, not even a hummock of soil to wrap a sling around. We were staying at May Cottage, the hut belonging to The Climbers' Club, and I remember there being some steel stakes under one of the bunks the last time I was there. Perhaps they are still there? Off we trot back to the cottage, via a re-hydration portal (pub), only to discover a lack of stakes or anything resembling one. The cottage had undergone a major refurbishment and they’d obviously been dispensed with. Oh well it was a 'good' idea whilst it lasted.

Dawn brings a new day with James having one final ferret in the storeroom and out he pops with a garden fork. Bit early for a bit of horticultural activity but whatever floats his boat. "We can abseil off this," he announces, everyone else thinks he's lost the plot. I inspect the shiny garden implement and think he may be on to something here; a fork has four prongs so in reality it's like four mini stakes, no?

Game on, garden fork in the car boot, off we drive to the cliff with AC/DC's Back in Black belting out from the car stereo to increase the psyche. A few metres back from the cliff top we find a suitable place to dig the fork in, tie the rope off and it pulls straight out, gulp! Perhaps we should forget it and abseil off Eddie, our friendly American photographer and a solid looking chap instead? Nothing ventured, nothing gained and I find a more solid piece of ground, jump up and down on the fork until it's as deep as possible and, bingo, this holds firm.

The rope is thrown down the route and being the senior member of the team I pull rank and send James down first, just to see if our improvised stake will hold. Luck was on our side (and in particular James's given his predicament) when his family turns up and his dad, an ex-rugby player grasps the length of unused rope attached to the fork and provides extra holding power and his sister stands on the fork. Safe as houses.

As James slides down the route all I can hear is a cacophony of crashing rock emanating from the zawn as he removes an abundance of loose rock. My turn and off I go over the rubble top, struggling to keep my footing on the dirt and loose rock slope. I pull off more rubble but leave the plant life in the hope that it's holding things together.

Given the belay on the beach would be in the fall-out zone I retire to the sanctuary of a cave a few metres away whilst James sets about pitch 1. The peace is shattered every couple of minutes by a whistling noise following by a dull thud in the sand as numerous lumps of rock join me on the beach but I’m happy in my cave. Progress is painfully slow and James takes up the story;

“It’s amazing how many times I can tell myself something and just five minutes later forget my own advice. Never trust the guidebook description, as the name says it’s just a guide. The rock looked terrible and was actually worse than it looked. I climbed the steep corner with extreme care and was thankful to place one or two reasonable runners and as the crux drew near, a delicate and serious traverse to the left, my heart picked up. The further away from the gear, the looser the rock becomes, but don’t worry, as around the corner is the sanctuary of a ledge and salvation in the form of a belay just above; or so I thought.

After turning the corner, the ledge was nothing more than a steep slope of loose dirt with some boulders and plants lodged in it. Everything gave way, I couldn’t trust a thing and as the pain in my feet from my over-tight shoes reached a crescendo, I realised the seriousness of where I was, where I had put myself. This was definitely not a game. With the last good gear several metres back in the corner and the ropes passing over a series of sharp loose blocks, falling off was not really an option. I had to go up. After a lot of rocking back and forth, I fiddled in a couple of poor wires and began wobbling up the wall. It went on forever, but in reality could have been no more than five metres, funny how time distorts when you’re in a world of hurt. Finally, better gear, in the form of two good Friends in an expanding crack, made me feel at ease. The only thing remaining was to not fall, to not break a hold and to not waste all that effort. It’s tempting to pull hard, to try to be secure on all the holds, but on choss the key is to tread lightly and relax. Easier said than done. I arrive at the belay, but have to stop after only one Friend in a sandy crack, just to take off my shoes.  Hours had passed since I left the beach, I’d climbed 30m of loose rubble and grass and put my life in mortal danger. Why would someone want to do this… because we are British.”

Following, it’s apparent why it took so long, the cliff is continually exfoliating. Gripped I eventually reach the sanctuary of the belay James has constructed – a spider's web of rope and slings all equalised in perfect unison to his harness. I stare at the runners to satisfy myself that he's done a good job in attaching us to the cliff. Most look reasonable, if the rock holds, a big if? One catches my eye and settles my nerves. A cam buried deep in a crack three or four metres above our head, for sure that will hold even if the others below. I calm down and clip in.

Above, all looks simple enough, a few moves to a grass-filled ledge before the wide crack above. It all looked easy on the abseil rope and it's only supposed to be 4c. Gingerly, I haul myself above the belay with a profound sense of apprehension and fear. My bravado and ego has got the better of me in opting to lead this pitch, after all I'm meant to be on the blunt end. This is compounded when I reach up for a hold and, satisfied it's solid, happily pull on it. Whack, the hold explodes and I'm off, landing a few feet lower and squarely on James's chest, large cams smashing into his shoulder resulting in a nice scar. A bad start but at least the belay held. James offers (pleads?) to take over but I compose myself enough to go again, this time taking his advice and putting more weight through my feet and less reliance on pulling on holds. Slowly I make progress, checking everything three times and breaking the pitch down into short sections. I reach the grass-filled ledge protected only by a cam wedged alongside a loose block and face the most terrifying move on the pitch – getting stood on the ledge. Feet skating on dirt sending a shower onto the belay, I pull on a tuft of grass and a slowly detaching flake. 'Please stay on, please stay on' became my mantra until I get a knee on the grass and sink a fist jam in to the dirty crack above, bring up the other knee and from a semi-kneeling position frantically sink a cam deep in the crack. Phew, finally, a piece of pro I'm happy with. Should be plain sailing now?

David Simmonite making his way up the off-width crack on the second pitch. Photo: Eddie Gianelloni

The crack is off-width and covered in a film of dirt making it difficult to jam but there are one or two holds in the back which aid progress. Slowly I shuffle up, sometimes pulling off loose rock on the edge of the crack. With a large rack of cams weighing me down, including a huge number 6 Friend, I feel inadequately equipped, the majority redundant as only one fits the crack, a shiny red number 5 Friend.  As I move I push the cam in front until I manage to place a small wire in a thin broken crack and, a little further up, a poor small cam on the equally broken wall to the left before the crack kicks right and widens further. It’s around here I say goodbye to the big red cam and leave it behind, wedged firmly in place. Annoyingly the number 6 proves to be too big from this point and as I gaze into the crack searching for protection I realise that you can see all the way though to the other side. The right side of the crack is completely detached. Its ‘deep breath’ time (an understatement indeed) and I switch into remote mode, convincing myself that it’s all okay and if I don’t push too hard on the right it won’t join countless others rocks on the beach. The top is close and soon it will be all over. Moving out onto the arête I painstakingly negotiate large, loose blocks, pushing them together like a jigsaw puzzle hoping they will stay in place until, finally, I reach the pre-placed rope hanging down the top few metres of rubble slope. 

Reaching solid ground, “I’m safe” takes on a whole new meaning and I empty a full bottle of water to quench my unbearable thirst and wash the dirt from my mouth. James follows, questioning my sanity for a moment as he hovers over the loose blocks on the arête. It’s all over and we sit back and relax for a moment, covered in dirt and sweat before coming to the conclusion, a terrible route but what an adventure, neither of us will do this again; life is too precious.


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