Friday, 21 February 2014

Postcard from Pembroke.....

Lentil powered Barry Owen on Midnight Express: Steve Ashton
My friend Barry Owen has never forgiven me for sneaking off to climb White Slab on Cloggy with someone else. That was 13 years ago, and like the unfaithful husband I've carried the guilt ever since. "Oh you enjoyed it did you?" he would say. "Don't worry about me, just you go off and do our routes with anyone you like. I won't be the one accused of holding you back." It was our golden age when crags were dry, summers long, and 5c lay near the edge of the known universe. Since going our separate ways he's climbed in Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, China, while for my part I've been to Windgather, Twistleton, Bochlwyd Buttress...

Yet I have no regrets. Exotic travel has aged him prematurely — he's already wrinkling up around the edges — while I've remained as fresh as a growing fruit.
This summer, for old time's sake, he offered to show me the delights of South Pembrokeshire. I'd been once before, to St Govan's, and found the routes over-graded, non-tidal and covered in big jugs. Paradise in fact. "Yes please," I said, rubbing my hands together like an innocent invited to an orgy. "I can fit you in during the first week in August," he said, flicking through his diary, "any later would conflict with Germany,and then of course there's Yosemite later in the month."' It was a good time for me too, slotting neatly between Parents' Evening and Capel Curig Car Boot Sale.We drove through Wales in afternoon rain, pinning hopes to a weather forecast of brighter tomorrow. 

At Llandissilio where we'd stopped to buy provisions, (chiefly because it was on a hill,the starter motor having clapped out) Barry put his hand on my shoulder and whispered his little secret into my ear. I was looking in a butcher's window at the time,slavering over a juicy assorted display of dead animals.) 'I'm a veggie he said'. We bought lentils, pasta, peppers and several-and I mean several-rolls of bog paper. I feared this culinary bombshell would reverberate throughout the week. Barry supplied the tent. No pegs. Was he afraid he might accidentally skewer a worm? We used screwdrivers from the tool bag instead. Barry wanted to know why I had six screwdrivers in the boot and yet a knackered starter motor under the bonnet?
Our first day began with over-graded, non-tidal routes covered in big jugs. All right. This is what we've come for. It ended with a tension traverse on the abseil rope to reach a spray spattered hanging stance below an under-graded and poorly protected fingertip wall while tide and dusk approached fast and simultaneously. Welcome to Pembroke. Next morning I fixed the starter motor while Barry listened to the cricket scores on the radio (these two tasks assume equal importance in his twisted mind). Mobile again, we drove to Lydstep and abseiled into Frontier Zawn on an ebbing tide. Among the boulders littering the zawn floor I found the partially decomposed body of a whippet. Probably an unwanted pet (most are). I also found a beach-ball, which I proceeded to punch against the wall.

"Excuse me, but that's our ball". I had hoped it might be a mermaid giving me the come-on, then I saw the face of a mature lady peering over the cliff-top. The situation demanded that I reply with cutting wit. "So?" I said, after a bit of thought. "So can we have it back please?" At that moment the little brat who had kicked the ball appeared alongside her, not without some risk of doing a whippet.
"I wish my brother Colin was here", he wailed, "he'd be able to climb down and get my ball." Yeah, you little runt, but Colin ain't here, is he? I tied the ball to the end of the abseil rope for Barry to haul up. Colin's brother cheered. Barry hauled some more. The ball got stuck. And I mean stuck; it wouldn't go up and it wouldn't go down. In his efforts to free it, he flicked out one of his contact lenses, which blew off and landed in an acre of bracken. With one final tug ball untied itself and fell into the zawn, where the whippet gave it a posthumous header into a rock pool.

Pigs on the wing: SA

Barry abseiled down promising to do what he could. Then Colin's mother had a bright idea and threw a child's pink rucksack into the zawn so Barry could carry the ball up on his back. He looked a right pillock, stemming up the dihedrels in a sun hat and shorts, a pink diddy pack over his shoulders and a myopic squint in his eye. He'll do anything to impress women.Then it was back to camp for a spare lens and a quickie to round off the evening. What better than The Hole on Trevallen Cliff? After a cracking little wall start I disappeared up the eponymous feature like a ferret up a drainpipe. Best thread runner in Wales. After that we tucked into a bucketful of lentils, courgettes, pasta and peppers, washed down with several —and I mean several — pints of best at the boozer.
It didn't rain the next day either. A pity, because I'd already used up a week's worth of stamina. Barry, conversely, was just starting to ripple. We made up for this discrepancy in performance by a judicious choice of routes. Thus while Barry bridged across a shorts-ripping gulch on to the precarious support of a greasy finger hold on his lead of Midnight Express, I wrapped elbows around jugs and threaded capstans on my lead of Malice Aforethought. Our arrangement went awry on the appropriately named Pigs on the Wing, a girdle of Triple Overhang Buttress. Pumped before the end of my pitch, I took a hanging stance under the roof in a position of maximum exposure. Barry's eyes popped out of his head when he came lurching round the corner and saw what I was up to. "I'm not happy," I said. He took this to mean the belays were rubbish and his eyes protruded so far I was in some doubt whether they would go back in.

In fact I was suspended from a Friend 2 and 3, a Rock 6, a Hex 5, and a number 4 Wallnut, all bombproof. Barry gave them an approving tug and brightened up considerably. "This is not the man I knew; do your children know their Dad has grown up a wimp?" he chided, gleefully embarking on the remaining 80ft of overhanging hand-traverse. At the end of it he hung from one hand and shouted, "Take my picture" But I was too busy working out the consequences of a 150ft pendulum should I slip and rip out all the gear...... Minced beef!

Talking of minced beef, for supper we had lentils, courgettes, pasta, peppers... Then it was down the boozer again for several — and I mean several — pints of the landlord's best, "and hold the lemonade top, my goodfellow". By Jove, he'd have us drinking from pint glasses by the end of the week. We must have had a few because on the walk back we gazed up at the stars and speculated about the meaning of life. Always a bad sign.

Next day the army were pooping off at at the day-glo practice target on the range (do the enemy really paint their tanks bright orange for ease of recognition?), so we diverted to Mowing Word where Barry had promised me Heart of Darkness and New Morning as a special treat. Barry abseiled down the tied-off spare rope. I abseiled down after him. We stood side by side on the starting ledge above the sea. Can you spot the difference? Yes, Barry had a coil of rope over his shoulder. I said I'd muddle through on a single nine. "Can't miss it," Barry said, sending me off around the arete, 'a hundred foot traverse along the break — most obvious line on the crag.' It was obvious all right: a mirror image of Pigs on the bloody Wing without footholds. I took a deep breath and launched out across the undercut, overhung wall, hand-traversing like a frantic ape, hanging from jams to place gear and deeply regretting leaving Barry with the prusik loops. After 60ft I came to a bridging rest in a corner from where I could look back across the concave wall. Whoops. Twenty feet above my hand-traverse was the true line of Heart of Darkness — a seaside saunter across a line of huge hand and foot holds. What a dick.


Barry's head appeared round the arete and the full impact of my mistake hit him square in the face: "What have you done, what have you done?" he groaned. He lunged across from jug to jug, pretending for my sake to find it difficult. "Hideous, hideous!" he cried, clearly enjoying every minute of it. After only three routes Barry unexpectedly announced that the day's quota had been filled. "Saving myself for tomorrow," he announced ominously. That night as I munched through another bowl of lentils, courgettes, pasta and peppers, I prayed for us to be struck down by a debilitating bowel complaint. Then we went to the pub for several beers — and I mean several —and on the way back we looked up at the stars and speculated on the meaning of life all over again. And after that I was ready for anything.
`Anything' was Mewsford. After abseiling from the flagpole, down and down and down, I looked up at the line of Daydreams from the sloping platform and concluded that here was a route possessed of none of the qualities that had brought me to Pembroke. I was on holiday, dammit. I could have been lying on Broad Haven beach surrounded by gorgeous girls; but no, I was cowering below Mewsford Point in the company of a wrinkly man with peculiar eating habits and a death wish.

It was hot — very, very hot — and the crux of my introductory pitch involved pulling up on a sloping pinch grip. I placed six wire runners and piled enough chalk on the pinch to turn it into a supportive, anatomically shaped knob. That was the easy bit. Now I had to watch Barry inch his way up the slanting delicacy of the main pitch while an inshore rescue boat kept station below. Were they expecting trouble? In the event Barry climbed the pitch like a well-oiled piece of machinery.
He was already celebrating when I arrived at the stance. I suggested this might be a little presumptuous given that I had one more pitch to lead. He sent me off with a cheery wave, utterly convinced of my crack climbing ability ever since the day I grovelled up Matinee at the Roaches. I got up the first crack but was stopped dead by the second —an offwidth splitting a roof. I tried everything, but still couldn't reach through to the jug above. In the end I took off my helmet so I could wedge my head inside the crack to gain a vital three inches.

Off route on Heart of Darkness:SA

I left the helmet clipped to a runner and finished with a bit of softly-softly up a pile of solidified mud and rubble. Barry came up muttering about helmets and beach-balls but inwardly enchanted with his Daydreams. Secretly I'd promised myself this would be the final route if God saw fit to spare our lives. So had Barry. We shared our secret and sat awhile on the flagpole base — he frayed at the edges like an overcooked pasta shell, me lean and wholesome like a piece of prime beef.

Steve Ashton: First published in HIGH 189.

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