Strawberries - A British On Sight?by Jack Geldard - Consulting Editor Sep/2008
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Strawberries (E6 6b) is a fierce crack-line taking the challenge of the overhanging headwall at the top of the Vector Buttress on the famous Craig Bwlch y Moch area of Tremadog. Hard but safe, the route has reportedly never seen a British onsight ascent. The only known leader to climb the route first try, without a fall is Stefan Glowacz, the globe trotting German mega star. And many believe his ascent to be only myth and the rumours are that he abseiled the route and pre-placed the gear.
Here I speak to Stefan, both over the telephone and face to face in Germany. I explore the history of the route, from the first ascent in 1980, through to my abortive attempt in 2008. Along the way I speak to several important ascentionists, including Johnny Woodward and Al Murray. I also talk at length about the grade how can it 'only' be E6 when everyone falls off?
Dodgy tactics? Absolutely! But who cares, Strawberries is climbed and Ron secures his place at the top of the pack. Close behind is John Redhead, who was also in the running for the first ascent, but didn't quite get there in time:
"John would have done it months before if he had used the same tactics" Keith Robertson is quoted as saying in the CC guidebook history section.
Sometimes a bit of 'cheating' is the only way to win! A few years on and the crown of Britain's rock prince became up for grabs. Firing on to the scene was a very ambitious Jerry Moffatt who had designs on unseating Fawcett and becoming the reigning champion himself. A few years later and Jerry had proved himself to have taken climbing to a new level, but not on Strawberries. It took him four falls and two days, finally resorting to the yo-yo tactics of his predecessor to secure success.
Johnny Woodward stepped in in 1982 and according to the Climbers Club guide book, he climbed the route in the style it deserved - placing his gear as he went. But is that correct? I tracked Johnny down to a pet rescue centre, somewhere deep in Utah, USA. He told me his story of Strawberries, and although he made an impressive ascent, without placing gear from abseil the route is still far from having a true on sight flash:
"I first tried it in the Spring of '82 on a dismal, damp and grey day. I was less than motivated to try anything that hard on that particular day, but I was climbing with Jerry Moffatt and he is an enthusiastic and persuasive fellow. The attempt ended predictably, low on the pitch, at the technical crux.
My next try was during the International Exchange Meet with the American crew in September '82. I was with the late Alex Lowe that day, climbing pretty well and keen to try it. I think I fell from the crux twice, then got through it and made it really high on the pitch to a place where I could get a shake. At that point I was so gassed that I was not recovering at all, and after a few minutes it was clear that I was not going to make it that try.
There was a big peanut gallery above the Meshach wall, interested in witnessing some sort of spectacle. I remember being far enough above the gear that I was a bit gripped about breaking the RPs, so I asked Alex to keep taking in the rope till he eventually pulled me off, so that the slack was minimized.
The gear held just fine. I rested and did it the next go. Alex enjoyed telling people of how he once got to pull someone off a route at the end of a run-out. These were the days of placing gear as you went and yoyo-ing back to the belay after you fell. Redpointing was not widely practised in '82 and I do not recall whether I pulled the rope or not."
1987 was, shall we say, a good year for Stephan Glowacz. To give you an idea of his level at that time here are some of his accomplishments that year from the climbandmore.com website:
Stefan: 1986 or 87 [Aug '87 - Jack]. It was to finish off my book Rocks Around The World a photo book by the photographer Uli Wiesmeier. We had been travelling the world for the last 2 years and I was onsighting really well. Not my fittest, but still very fit and climbing extremely well, I had been doing competitions and climbing all the time.
Jack: And did you make a bee-line straight for Strawberries?
Stefan: No, no. Uli had a list of routes he wanted to photograph, and we started off in the Peak District. The weather was terrible we got so much rain, but we had to climb because we were under pressure to finish the book. We went to Wales and climbed in the Llanberis Pass Left Wall, Right Wall, Cenotaph Corner, that sort of thing. They were routes chosen by Uli.
Jack: Did Uli choose Strawberries?
Stefan: I made my first visit to Britain was when I was 17 and I mostly climbed around Llanberis, but we made a trip to Tremadog as we had terrible weather again! I saw the line of Strawberries and was inspired. So when I came back with Uli, Strawberries was the route that I chose the one I really wanted to do.
It was the perfect route for me, not too steep, just slightly overhanging and not all laybacks, I like some face climbing. There was a lot of psychological pressure from the route's reputation and history 'the gear is bad', 'the climbing is hard' that sort of thing, but I was super psyched. Uli rapped down to take photos.
I set off up the route completely on sight, and found the gear placements were solid, but hard to place, so I made a big run-out to the top I was very confident.
Jack: So Strawberries onsight placing the gear - wow! Did you come back to the UK?
Stefan: Yeah, I came back two years later to climb with Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat. We bouldered in the Peak District, but again the weather was bad. We made a trip to Lower Pen Trwyn to try Liquid Amber, but I didn't get to climb as the weather was terrible!
Jack: Do you come over to the UK often?
Stefan: With Red Chili I come to the Peak District for business about twice a year, as Wild Country are our partners and they are based there. I always try and squeeze in some climbing!
Stefan is the founder of Red Chili - the successful rock shoe company. You can read more about Stefan on the Wild Country Website
So why exactly does everyone fall off? Is there a 'trick' move? Is it super hard and a total sandbag at E6?
All in the name of research... I strapped myself on to the sharp end (and didn't get very far!). The route starts off with a big kick in the spuds a super-long reach from a flared finger slot gains the lower crack, meaning that right from the outset, reversing to the belay is not an option. Suddenly, you're on Strawberries... and the clock is ticking!
The first crack isn't too bad, but glassy and with no foot holds. (See on film Pete Robins karate kick from both feet spread out wide to both feet in the crack erm, I didn't do that!). The pump sets in fast as strenuous progress is fought up the hand and finger jams. Gear is great from hand sized cams down to RP's, the wall swallows anything.
Then, bam you're at the top of the first crack peering hopelessly leftward. There's no respite up there, just poor feet and glassy finger locks. A sequential section leads to the upper crack, which is when you realise, there is no 'upper crack'! If you're still not pumped, then some more 6b face moves give way to much easier ground, and for most a quick run out to the top.
The fall feels safe (I should know I took it three times) and the top 'run out' isn't what it seems, as the climbing gets progressively easier. I haven't been back to climb the pitch in one push but wow, it has got to be one of the very best routes in Wales.
And the grade? E6 6b. Remember, climbing is hard. On sighting tough E6's is hard, but at least if you can place good gear, you know you're safe.
The strenuous nature of the route, the lack of rests and the fact that it is super-safe, all add up to make Strawberries one very tough onsight. To climb the route on top rope the technical difficulties would be around F7c, to place the gear as you go makes it feel more like F7c+. I guess that means I better get training!
So will any Brit ever climb Strawberries on sight? Who will be the first? Steve McClure has shown more than just a passing interest, and there are others out there with the skill and fitness. But wait... STOP PRESS - Oh no, it was a 'nearly but not quite'!
Whilst I have been researching the history for this article, many people have commented that Strawberries can't 'only' be E6, as it is so hard that no-one can onsight it. The general consensus is that standards have rocketed since the late 80's and we all should be onsighting E7's before breakfast. This just simply isn't true. Back in the late 80's standards were high. We haven't seen any great technological advances since that period to catapult us forward, and the steel fingered sport climbers from that era were putting in amazing performances on the slightly over hanging faces.
These days, we have got a select few who are fitter (Sharma, McClure etc) but in general, have we improved much? Not at trad onsighting we haven't! We have specialised in the arena of hard bouldering and super-steep stamina limestone, but day to day UK trad climbing not much has changed.
To cut to the chase: On the 25th of July, 1989, Mike Owen and Al Murray, turned up at Tremadog with Strawberries firmly in their sights. They duly dispatched the route, but Mike had actually been on the route before, so knew the moves. So they're ascent wasn't on sight, but was a great effort - equal to most others.
Al Murray and Mike Owen tells there story:
Mike: "I went first, and I had been on the route before, so I knew the moves. It didn't take us long that day - I maybe had one fall and then yo-yo'ed it next go. Al did it after me and I think he had one fall and did it really quickly, second go."
Al: "I set off up the crack and got to some good jams. I climbed up to the high gear and reversed down to the jams and a semi-resting place. I remember climbing up and down a few times getting back to this rest, and then I went for it. I remember a hard bridging move and spanning out left, and a really high foot hold. We didn't think it was a big deal at the time."
Al: "We'd been climbing much harder routes, like various things at Pembroke. I'm not saying that in general our ethics were great we did what everyone else did back then, yo-yoing, swapping leaders after a fall, sort of combining redpointing with yo-yoing if you would."
Al: "I remember that it wasn't a scary route. When Mike topped out he decided to just take the lob from the top, so he stepped back down and jumped off on to the gear!"
Al: "I guess that was kind of funny, but I'd rather he'd done it on his ropes and not mine!"
Strawberries, E6 6b. First climbed in 1980 by Ron Fawcett. First ascent without pre-placed gear by Johnny Woodward in 1982 and first on sight by Stefan Glowacz in 1987, plus not the first and I would guess not the last 'frig' by Jack Geldard and many others in 2008!
Thanks to Adam Wainwright for his help with research. Thanks also to Al Lee from Posing Productions for the video footage and images. Thanks to all the other photographers - excellent shots and greatly appreciated.
You can see more footage of Pete Robins and Nico Favresse on Strawberries on the film On Sight, as well as interviews with Ron Fawcett and John Redhead.