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STOMPING GROUNDS: Emma Alsford and Pembroke
The miles of stunning limestone coastline of Pembroke have, for the last 30 years, been the ultimate British bank holiday climbing destination. But while on holiday there have you wondered what it would be like to have all those three star classics as your local crag? Emma Alsford is one such local having earned the title, with her partner Paul Donnithorne, of 'Mrs and Mr Pembroke'. Through the last two decades she's added an amazing 360 new routes as well as repeated masses of the area's routes up to E5. Here she gives us her personal favourites from this sea cliff climbing paradise.
Becks Bay is a much overlooked area of Pembrokeshire climbing, though not entirely surprising given the comparable stature of the routes further west. Even Paul and I took a while to discover the quirky and heavily water-worn gems that make up the majority of routes here, which are littered with threads, blow holes and miniature caverns.
In fact, it was as late as 1996 that we began wandering along the stretch of coastline east of Lydstep. However, first impressions and a high tide can give these cliffs a somewhat insignificant appearance, so it took merely a light drizzle to get me into the nearest café, while Paul and Stefan Doerr became the creators of Magic Flute, the first of many small gems to adorn the bay.
The route is water-worn but featured low down, with a ramp leading to a rather unique solution tube, and after some 'worm on a hook' manoeuvres up this, exits up a short but steep finish, with some much appreciated hidden holds.
I was most disappointed to miss out on the first ascent but have nevertheless climbed the route several times since, with an assortment of different partners. It was the most recent ascent that reminded me, it isn't only the big and remote routes that give birth to adventurous spirits... I was climbing with a friend Nina and my 18-year-old niece, Abigail, who was showing some real potential at the climbing wall, so I decided it was time for the real thing. My first mistake was wrongly remembering the route as an easy HVS, and my second was choosing to do it on an incoming tide. After commendable efforts on the crux, Abigail was nevertheless unable to advance and, with quick decisions having to be made, was promptly lowered into the sea! As if wading out waist deep in April seas (or is that fools?!) wasn't bad enough, she then had to negotiate a solid enough route up the slightly tottering and insecure gully on the west side of the bay, the only feasible access to the cliff top.
Glancing at an Ordnance Survey map of south west England, an alluring rusty stain spills across the middle of Devon. To the cartographer, it simply denotes high ground; to the climber or wilderness enthusiast, it signifies far more: empty spaces and wild light, quick shadows and craggy hills. On closer acquaintance, almost 400 square miles of granite upland is revealed, suddenly rising like a miniature Altiplano from the rolling hills of south Devon. It is scattered with jagged tors surrounded by orbital boulders, like the satellite moons of distant planets. Secret, steep-sided valleys plunge towards the coast from the perimeter of the Moor. And the sea itself is a continual presence here, glinting and flashing in the sun below the southern horizon. When a squall blows in from the west, you can sometimes smell salt in the air.
Few regions of open country remain as wrapped in myth and narrative as Dartmoor: Arthur Conan Doyle's gothic masterpiece The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most celebrated account of the Moor's supernatural powers, but by no means the most extravagant. Dartmoor is purportedly a haunt of pixies, a headless horseman, an entire pack of spectral hounds to outnumber Conan Doyle's single one, and a notorious pair of 'hairy hands' that are said to attack travellers on the B3212 near Two Bridges. In 1638 the Devil himself paid a fleeting visit, when the church of St Pancras in Widdecombe was struck by one of the earliest recorded cases of ball lightning during a severe thunderstorm, which killed several members of the congregation.
Such esoterica is not without interest, but is perhaps of less significance to the visiting climber than the 160 or so granite tors that lie strewn across the Moor. These range in size and prominence from the largest – the 50 metre west face of Low Man at Haytor and the leafy bulk of Dewerstone in the Plym Valley – to innumerable smaller outcrops. There are so many diminutive crags and tors on Dartmoor that to list them all individually would take up the rest of this article! Whilst the Moor's larger cliffs have been climbed on for decades, and virtually all of their major lines are now worked out, it is only in recent years that the colossal bouldering potential here has been acknowledged.
GEAR: CRAMPONS AND AXES
Some friends and I were having a small celebration at the end of a successful climbing trip in a bar in Kathmandu a couple of years ago.
Perhaps spurred by the intake of the local beverages and in a state of 'over-refreshment' we found ourselves in a heated conversation about what exactly is mountaineering. I'm sure you know the sort of thing. It could have been about football, politics, early Byzantine Ceramics, Celine Dion or anything. For us it was “what is mountaineering?” Fortunately, standing near us at the bar was a man who would know. It was Alan Hinkes.
“Scho, what izzz mountaineering Al?” I slurred. “When duzzz it stop being trekking or begin being climbing?” I slurred again.
Obviously a few beers behind us, he just calmly said that in the mountains we are all mountaineers.
A good answer, aside from getting picky about whether a shepherd or a helicopter pilot for example count, but it certainly shut me up!
For the sake of this article I am discussing crampons and ice axes that we would use in the mountains on all but the steepest and most technical terrain. It's the sort of gear that is great for most alpine climbing and for use on Scottish winter ridges and routes up to the grade II/III sort of ground. In fact it is the gear that most of us have for most of our mountaineering. I will be covering the other bit, tools for steep ice in a few months time.
To use the excellent classification system for crampons that was developed by mountain guide Brian Hall, I am talking about C1 and C2 crampons, where C1 are for winter hill walking and easy snow slopes, C2 are for general mountaineering and C3 are for steep ice and technical climbing. When it comes to axes I'm going to discuss general purpose tools. The type of thing you use as a third leg, to self-arrest or to climb on moderate terrain, either on its own or perhaps with another tool in the other hand.
Like lots of inventions, deciding who invented the crampon is a case of the winner takes all. Ideas do not often come out of the blue. Usually the final result is the work of many people who have contributed to the idea a bit until finally it works. People have been tying things onto their feet to assist them moving over snow and ice for hundreds of years. Specimens have been found that date from 500BC.The earliest mention in climbing according to Walt Unsworth's Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering is in 1689 when they were used to cross the Col du Geant. The winner of the credit for the invention in this case however was a British mountaineer with a rather unBritish name – Oscar Eckenstein who takes the prize in about 1910 as the inventor of the modern crampon.
In fact he only really redesigned them based on versions made by unnamed village blacksmiths in the Austrian Tyrol. Rather than people rushing up to him and shaking him by the hand and asking where they could buy a pair, the development/invention was rather controversial. Many experienced (read 'older') climbers thought it was cheating, dangerous and immoral. Step cutting was the true way. If you were climbing throughout the last two or three decades in the UK you may recognise the pattern. For us it has been chalk then competitions and then bolts that are cheating, dangerous and immoral.
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