Wild sea cliff journeys with Calum Muskett
It’s early February and I’m driving, once again, to the Llŷn Peninsula. The dismal winter weather of Snowdonia has led to my discovery of one of the wildest climbing areas in Wales and I’m flicking through the guidebook in search of a suitably exciting looking proposition for the day. This quiet backwater seems to hold more sunshine and dry weather than anywhere else in north Wales, and the climbing is some of the most interesting and varied I have ever come across. Situated on the northwestern most tip of Wales, the Llŷn Peninsula has a reputation for some of the most adventurous sea cliff climbing in the country. For example, it’s not often you reach the top of a cliff and thread your ropes through rabbit holes to form a belay. Nor is it common practice to carry three sets of cams and wires for a 40m pitch. The Llŷn certainly attracts the mavericks, but those delving a little deeper through the guidebook may be rewarded with some unforgettable experiences in Wales’ least developed climbing area.
I was first introduced to the Llŷn on a blustery autumnal day on the justifiably classic E3 The Path to Rome. Shuffling along the exposed break-lines above a booming sea, I distinctly remember my regret at only carrying a few cams on a route that is almost solely protected by them. Fortunately the rock on this pitch is some of the most conventional on this section of coastline and the difficulties are short-lived allowing an easy yet ‘airy’ traverse above the overhangs. You can even encounter surfers near the base of this cliff making use of the small point break formed by the headland.
Craig Dorys is the most popular of all the crags on the Llŷn. Simple access and a short approach have certainly popularised the spot, which is only a short drive from the cafes and hotels of Abersoch. With yachts and motor boats floating past at regular intervals you can even be excused for thinking you’re climbing somewhere in the Mediterranean on a hot summer's day. The climbing, however, suggests something quite different. There is a huge concentration of difficult routes at Dorys, especially after Stevie Haston’s recent additions, but there are also some utterly fantastic mid-grade trad climbs which can be enjoyed by those in pursuit of an exciting sea cliff adventure.
My first day of climbing at Dorys is ingrained in my memory as one of the most ‘full on’ climbing experiences I have ever had in Wales. Dorys, more than perhaps any other crag in Wales, has a reputation for extremely loose rock. The rock type is mudstone and it requires a considerable amount of care to climb – holds needing to be held in place as much as pulled on. The day started well for me, I was feeling strong and confident and had soon climbed the brilliant Rust Never Sleeps (E6) and followed Miles up one of the finest pitches on the Llŷn, Byzantium (E4). With things going well I decided that I should have a go at the deceptively steep groove of The Gross Clinic following a recommendation from James ‘Caff’ McHaffie.
I set off nonchalantly up the groove, expecting it to feel relatively straightforward, but was soon surprised by the awkward nature of the climbing. Although not particularly hard, an extra element of difficulty was added due to the need to weight at least three points as evenly as possible in order to prevent the holds I was using from disintegrating. The two pegs were now completely rusty and unreliable and whilst I struggled to place gear in a shallow, offset crack, my footholds began to crumble.
Having placed half my rack of gear in the first 15m of climbing with not a single piece I could rely on I began to curse Caff for such a terrible sandbag. Rapidly tiring arms forced me to get a move on; I jabbed my feet onto wafer like features, pushing thoughts aside of the gear ripping fall I was likely to take and in a very uncertain manner I rattled upwards, my disjointed climbing style reflecting my broken thought process. As my panic reached a crescendo I was finally greeted with better holds and some good gear at the belay. After a short rest I continued upwards, linking the first and second pitch in one, and though the climbing was much easier I inched upwards, dry mouthed, to finally pull over the top of the crag feeling dehydrated and exhausted. My climbing partner, Miles Perkin, seconded the pitch at an unusually slow pace and when he topped out we counted over 30 pieces of gear that I’d placed in a single pitch. I walked away from the route feeling like I had just experienced one of my closest shaves and decided that Caff was a very untrustworthy source of information.
Over the last five years, Dorys has undergone a period of development spearheaded by the evergreen Stevie Haston. The new routes that have been climbed are amongst the most dangerous and impressive in North Wales but at the time came under fire from some members of the climbing community for the style in which they were climbed. Haston abseil inspected, cleaned and occasionally pre-practised these routes prior to climbing them and the result was a series of outstanding additions such as Harmony (E7 6c), Bam Bam (E7 6b) and the outrageous overhang of Nightstalker (E9 6c?).
However, the Llŷn is considered by some, to be one of the last great bastions of British traditional climbing, and the Llŷn Peninsula guidebook states that: 'there has been an on-sight ethic employed on new routes... We request that this remain the case as there are few areas left with such an honourable history; let us not spoil this for the sake of fame and ego'.
Others argue that this statement should not be used to dictate the development of an entire area and potentially hold back the advancement of standards and new routes. Neither was this the first time that routes had been climbed after prior inspection. Chris Parkin was rebuked for using similar tactics and placing 10 pegs on a route that had previously been attempted on-sight. Parkin quipped back at his detractors with a question: “Name someone who had actually left the ground. If they did, did they put all the loose bits back?”
Much of the debate circles around ifs, buts and maybes with some considering that with the ever progressing standards of modern generations of climbers that these routes will at some point be climbed on-sight. Others, such as Haston, reject these ideas as fanciful in the extreme stating quite bluntly that: “On Bam Bam I would have died, as would anyone else had they got sufficiently high enough.”
But why should the prevailing ethics of an area be ignored by top level climbers and followed by the majority? Surely this is elitist in the extreme and is it really too much to ask to leave one area in its original and adventurous form as the Llŷn guide suggests: 'The modern trend for creating a designer climb is an anathema here. Nature has provided a playground for the climber with a nose for adventure. To alter this in any way would be to spoil a remarkable resource'.
I asked one of the Llŷn’s foremost activists Pat Littlejohn what formed his views on the on-sight ethic of the Llŷn and his response was very well considered: “The majority of my Llŷn routes were climbed on-sight as it’s what I enjoy most, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. I have cleaned routes where there is dangerous loose rock (often on the finishes/upper parts) and where the climbing is just too hard to clean on lead without hanging on gear. I have great respect for the on-sight milestones of Llŷn climbing, like Bobok (E5) and Birdie (E7), but Stevie Haston’s recent batch of routes on Craig Dorys are no less impressive in spite of being thoroughly prepared. The ideal is to climb all-free, on-sight, with no fixed gear and leaving a good quality route for others to follow, but few people are that perfect and if you can get three out of four that’s not too bad.”
The debate on ethics, particularly on the Llŷn, will go on ad infinitum, but it does go to show how this ragged coastline can create such passionate debates over such seemingly insignificant differences.
Perhaps the most prolific activist of the Llŷn Peninsula is Pat Littlejohn. Littlejohn is the author of the definitive guide and has probably climbed more routes in the area than anybody else. His routes are still very challenging propositions for top climbers today and have a reputation for harsh grades and memorable experiences. One of his most celebrated routes in the area is Other Realms, a daunting groove-line splitting the overhanging shale of Black Bay. Littlejohn originally suggested a grade of E5 for this route which is now estimated to be more like E7 following repeats by the likes of James McHaffie, Pete Robins and Dan McManus. When asked what he considered to be his finest routes in the area, Littlejohn struggled to pin down a single climb, enthusing about several very different excursions on this varied coastline: “You never have a dull day new routeing on Llŷn. War and Peace (E5) at Craig Dorys – 18 pitches of fantastic climbing across the best rock on the cliff. Other Realms (E6) in Black Bay – a superb line which took three attempts before the crucial crack was dry enough, each failure resulting in a different new route to get out. And Negative Equity (E6), the one I worked out in my sleep. It’s one of the harder on-sight routes I’ve done and the crux groove initially stumped me. There are a couple of tiny holds in the wrong place and you’re in a painfully wide bridge with very limited time to work out the sequence. I backed off it then woke up the following day knowing exactly what to do, and next try I cruised it.”
Littlejohn then went on to describe why the Llŷn is such a unique place to climb: “In one word, adventure. There are not many places where you can be at the base of a 250ft sea cliff where the easiest way out is E5 and no other climbers for miles. Also, there are big chunks of crag which are beyond the skills of current climbers, which is exciting. It also gets the best weather in North Wales, which is a bonus. The rock’s not to everyone’s taste but you can learn to love it.”
The Llŷn Peninsula has much more to offer than Craig Dorys and its neighbouring sea cliffs. On the far tip of the peninsula opposite Bardsey Island lie some small but interesting cliffs which, as well as being good for climbing, are great places to watch the wildlife. Many rare sea birds nest on Bardsey Island such as the Manx Shearwater and the lively offshore currents attract dolphins, porpoises and seals, all of which are regularly spotted from the crags. One route of note along this section of coastline is The Bardsey Ripple (E2), a really fun rising traverse splitting an imposing wall littered with positive hand holds.
Further along the coastline towards Caernarfon lies one of the Llŷn’s greatest adventure routes. First climbed in 1966 by Pete Crew and Ian McNaught-Davis, Fantan B ascends a 150m cliff rising directly above the sea. It’s certainly a route for those already initiated with coastal climbing as the route covers areas of poorly protected and loose rock, much of which is covered in many layers of guano. The climbing gradually increases in difficulty all the way to the final pitch in a position of outrageous exposure. Just as things appear to be getting a little bit too unrelenting in difficulty the angle eases before finally leading you up a steep grassy slope to some much deserved horizontal ground and a fine spot for a picnic.
The Llŷn certainly has its own very unique atmosphere and although it may not be to everybody’s taste it can provide some of the most memorable days climbing in the country. So if you’re after something a little different to your average day out, then head over to the sunny shores of the Llŷn Peninsula and have your own adventure on its quiet, rocky coastline.
Fantan B (HVS)
The Bardsey Ripple (E2 5b)
The Path to Rome (E3 5c)
Vulture (E4 5c)
Tonight at Noon (E6 6b)
The Apprentice (E6/7 6b)
Night Stalker (E9 6c?)
Many of the crags on the Llŷn Peninsula can be climbed on all-year round due to their southern aspects and milder coastal climate. Perhaps the best time of year though is late summer, when all the bird bans have been lifted allowing greater opportunities to enjoy the varied cliffs.
Places to Eat and Drink
Gwesty Ty Newydd in Aberdaron offers great meals in a stunning location and there are a plethora of fantastic cafes in Abersoch.
Photography by Calum Muskett
Top - Neil Dickson on the poorly protected Honey Dew (E5 5c) Craig Dorys.
Bottom - Ian Wilson climbing The Bardsey Ripple (E2 5b) on Trwyn Maen Melyn.
You can find out more about Calum at www.muskettmountaineering.co.uk
This article first appeared in Climber March 2014