Most sensible people tend to give routes graded XS a wide berth. In some ways this is a shame, because routes in this category are some of the most powerful adventures on British rock, and compared to routes on solid rock they are generally not all that hard technically. This is particularly true of Mild' XS's
, which may be given that grade because the rock is too unconventional, the protection too dubious and the situations rather too serious for the route to sit well within the normal 'trad' grading system. And yet the climbing on these routes tends not to be extreme technically, demanding good judgement and experience rather than athleticism.
Steve Sustad on the spur below Hornblower.© Pat Littlejohn
Steve Sustad following pitch one of Hornblower.© Pat Littlejohn
The Lleyn Peninsula has more than its fair share of XS's, some of which rank with the more committing excursions on British sea cliffs. There are many which one could only recommend to the handful of devotees who regularly climb routes like this. But there are also routes which give a flavour of the XS grade without being too traumatic or lethally serious. In January of this year Steve Sustad and I discovered one which (with hand on heart but with all possible disclaimers) could almost be recommended as an 'introductory' XS. It's called Hornblower (400 feet, Mild Extremely Severe)
, it isn't in any guidebook yet and it ascends an extremely impressive precipice called Paitsh, on Cilan Head.
Paitsh lies roughly in the middle of the mile-long procession of crags forming the west side of Cilan Head. The only other routes here right now are Controlled Explosions, a hard and serious E5, and Nighty Night, an XS which builds to a ghastly climax of unprotected climbing on rotted shale. Compared to these, Hornblower is rather friendly and enjoyable, a fine 'journey' of a route whose hardest technical climbing is 5a and with only a few of those special ingredients which make it Mild XS rather than say E1 (which it might be if all the rock were to become magically solid).
Gearing up above the Cilan cliffs.© Pat Littlejohn
To approach Hornblower you need to get the tide times right, especially on short winter days. The northern end of Paitsh curls around to form a point which is one of the few places along the Cilan cliffs where it is possible to descend easily to sea level. You have about 3 hours around Low Tide to approach the climb. The first obstacle is a narrow zawn which can be crossed on boulders if the tide is low enough but more often will have to be passed by a high traverse of about Hard Severe standard. Next a little promontory is negotiated by a 'needles eye' through the rock then a greasy traverse to the boulder-filled cove beneath the mighty left-hand bay of Paitsh. This fearsome shale precipice has yet to be climbed or even attempted. Our objective is the great spur which divides Paitsh into two shallow amphitheatres, the right-hand being taller and broader and containing the routes mentioned above.
Needles eye on the approach to Hornblower.© Pat Littlejohn
A rising traverse on incut holds gains the spur, the base of which is a large and comfortable terrace, well above the sea, where you can take a break and enjoy the surroundings. Places like this are interesting to experience. They are superficially friendly - you can walk around, take a picnic or sunbathe - and yet any relaxation is tinged with anxiety, since retreat is quickly cut off and the only way out is upwards, into uncertainty.
The next pitch up the spur is fairly straightforward mixed ground, solid bands of sandstone interspersed with shaly sections, and then a more compact sandstone barrier is reached. Finding a way through this is the first key to success. You belay on the left at some hidden cracks - a good stance where you can enjoy the total commitment of the situation. By now, failure would mean abseiling into the sea and making some serious swims (the sea is rarely calm at Cilan and the rock is very slippery at sea level, making landings difficult). But barring a cloudburst you're not going to fail on this pitch - nice climbing on solid rock takes you rightwards to an obvious block on the skyline, then you step up before heading rightwards again to pull over on to an easy-angled ramp with decent belays.
Steve Sustad on pitch three of Hornblower.© Pat Littlejohn
From here it seems that the easiest way onwards is to climb directly from the top of the ramp, but this is a false trail leading to unstable dangerous ground. Option two, the only other at this grade, is to make a rising traverse out to the right, past a tricky groove and slab, the exposure steadily building till you reach a little stance in an impressive spot above lots of overhanging rock. Take time to set up this belay - it's an important one. At this point you really wouldn't want to retreat. The top is tantalisingly close and there is an obvious way to get there (a leftward-sloping ramp), but the rock takes a turn for the worse, demanding gentle use of available holds. Luckily there are one or two worthwhile bits of protection, and by now you will be highly motivated to top out. We certainly were as it was getting dark by the time Steve and I reached this point. With some relief you claw your way on to the steep grass slope above the cliff. There is no belay, but if you head up and leftwards you eventually reach some rabbit holes which can be threaded. I must go back and place a stake some time.
Even above the crags, Cilan is a serious place. The walk back to your gear - across steep grass slopes in rock shoes - demands full care and attention and even a belay if your nerves are frayed. You are pleased to see your rucksacks again, and once back to safety perhaps ready to appreciate the full beauty of the western tip of the Lleyn, where the craggy coast beyond Hell's Mouth stretches away to the Isle of Saints, Ynys Enlli, and more often than not the last glow of the sun in the western sky.
Guidebook (to locate the crag) - Lleyn (Climbers' Club Guides to Wales). NB. Paitsh is covered by a seasonal restriction from February 1st till July 31st.
About the author - Pat Littlejohn
Director of the International School of Mountaineering based in Leysin, Switzerland, Pat is a man of modest character and immense achievement. Pat is perhaps best known as creator of some of the UK's most memorable climbing voyages on superb and virgin cliffs lurking in remote and beautiful environments. Mention a Littlejohn route, and the word that most often comes to mind is 'commitment'. These are truly world-class adventure routes, often on remote sea-cliffs, usually climbed completely on sight into the unknown.
Pat has created new routes in many areas of the world, often at unconventional venues. Book Of Genesis in the Grand Canyon climbed in 1978 is an early example, the first serious free climbing in the Canyon. In 1991 he made the first free climb on the west face of Point John on Mt Kenya, an 11-pitch E5. In the Alps numerous first free ascents of climbs such as the South Face of the Fou. His 1995 new route on Taweche in Nepal with Mick Fowler was an epic affair with 43 technical pitches, desperate bivvies, little food and achieved over eight days in ultra-lightweight alpine style. With a sense of humour, too.
Pat's approach to climbing is clearly defined. He is totally convinced that the ground-up onsight approach is by far the most rewarding climbing experience to be had. He has also been prepared to speak out about the destruction of the adventure climbing ethic in the Alps. "If we allow the sport-climbing approach free rein in the mountains, we may wake up some day to realize that we've sold out our unique sport for... a synthetic substitute, offering virtual adventure where once we had the real thing."
For more information on The International School of Mountaineering, www.alpin-ism.com
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