Gurnard's Head and the routes described in this article are covered by the new Rockfax West Country Climbs guidebook by Mark Glaister.
I abseiled down the damp corner of Shark and landed on the tiny wet ledge, the sea biting at my feet. We were a party of four, so the ledge was going to be cramped. I unclipped from the rope, moved to the side and shouted to the others to come down.
A larger wave hit the ledge and my feet got wet. 'Shit' I thought, 'I'm stood on this ledge, 5 inches above the water line, and not tied on to anything! One rogue wave and I'm a goner.' I inched away from the water, the power of the booming ocean now acutely apparent.
The others came down and we clipped in to the ab rope as our belay.
Sarah and I were going to climb Mastodon, the classic E3 and a route I had wanted to do for years. The other pair were going to climb Shark, the E1 corner rising directly above the ledge. Both routes were wet.
Sarah strapped herself in and I set off up the route. Bruce, all sixteen stone of him, set off up Shark, directly above her.
At least I had the decency to traverse off to the side before I started sketching around on wet rock, as Sarah's nervous glance volleyed back and forth from worrying about me to worrying that Bruce was going to land on her head.
Luckily neither of us took a plunge and she soon became more relaxed as the rock dried off and several runners stood between Bruce and her belay ledge.
The crag of Gurnard's head is a slick-slate affair and very different to the golden granite we had become accustomed to. This was our first time on the Cornish greenstone, and grappling with its wet and seemingly frictionless nature had left me suspect of whether my feet would stick to anything. As the rock dried with height my confidence returned and the subtle friction of the rock became a joy to climb, more comfortable than the granular granite and requiring a delicate technique and precise footwork.
The corner of Behemoth slithered down to my left, its walls slick and angular and the rock glistening wet in the strong summer sunlight. I shuddered, and pulled both a face and the slack rope.
Where the crag meets the sea is a square cut cave which funnels the waves and creates a large swell, even in calm conditions. The constant booming of the water added to the sense of adventure and I hung nervously from my hastily composed belay.
Sarah arrived and we both sat back triumphantly on the runners. POP! One of the three pieces I had placed ripped out and we both swung like conkers, moving three feet to our left, dangling high above the roaring waves. Our hearts leapt out of our chests and I cursed myself for not backing up the small cam. A few seconds later and five solid pieces were stitched firmly in to the rock. Pulses slowed and Sarah's wide-eyes had returned to normal. We sorted the ropes ready for me to continue.
The second and crux pitch was a dream. Perfect but hidden crimps led, with some commitment, out left and then directly up a thin incipient crackline. Never desperate but never easing, the wonderful climbing led me on until a final 'au cheval' heave landed me sat astride the square block ledge. Phew.
With only 30ft of jamming crack to deal with I skipped the belay and stuffed hands and feet in to the fissure until I was sat atop the crag amongst the bushes and heather, drinking in the ocean view and dangling my tired feet in the sunshine.
As Sarah made her way up the wall below me, I thought back to the first ascensionists in 1978, Rowland Edwards and Sam Salmon, pioneering their way up this imposing bit of cliff, three years before I was born.
We tackled Behemoth later that day, and the damp initial corners were everything I expected and more. The slick rock pointed in all the wrong directions, and I crammed my long limbs impossibly in to positions that resembled things I swear I've seen in the Karma Sutra.
Of course when I arrived at the same belay stance - shared with Mastodon, I shoved the same cam in the same slot... but this time I chucked in a few more pieces just for good measure.
West Country Climbs (Jul 2010)
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