Outdoor climbing is called sport by some, but it doesn't take place on a pitch or a track. Outdoor climbing takes place in the mountains, on edges, on the coast… and as the memories of movement fade, these places that have shaped us; their smells, sounds and landscapes, these things remain.
I first walked the rutted track from Breakwater Quarry, near Holyhead, to Ynys Arw, or as it is better known (or at least better known by non-Welsh speaking visitors), North Stack, over twenty years ago. That first visit was a disappointment: focused only on a climb, and the grade of a climb, I missed out. A few years passed, and with a mind more open after that first visit, I returned to this wind raked headland with Jules Cartwright. Jules didn't want to lead a climb on North Stack Wall, he wanted to climb in Wen Zawn, the welt cut into the grassy headland a short walk away, so happily, we agreed to belay each other on our respective climbs.
On that second visit to the northern edge of Gogarth Bay, I came to appreciate the more secretive cliffs, because in comparison to its neighbouring South Stack, with its road and cafe, this headland felt wild and untamed. There are many climbs on North Stack Wall and Wen Zawn, and in the years that followed, my visits became regular, and with each visit, my love of the land and sea, and the animals I shared this space, increased.
I once knew every step, each stone, each bramble, heather, gorse bush, every divot kicked into the dark earth, but a few weeks ago, almost twenty years since my visit with Jules, and after a break of four years, I returned to North Stack with Zylo Zylinski. On the approach, I couldn't remember the place to leave the track for the descent to Wen Zawn, so we stumbled through the heather in an attempt to see the coast and assess our whereabouts. Zylo suggested looking at the guidebook, but I could not allow myself to read approach notes, not for this place, this place was a part of me and I just didn't want to face forgetting, forgetting would confirm more to me than I was comfortable to accept. Looking at the coastline, it became apparent we had not walked far enough, and soon we were at the grassy col, staring out to sea, faces buffeted by wind. We made our way down the grassy slope until stood on the promontory above the climb Britomartis. The sea slurped around the brown boulders in the base of the zawn and above, the weak sun fingered the slabby grey and overhanging orange. Turning, I looked across the white caps to the sun lighting the zonation bands striping the base of North Stack Wall, and my eyes traced lines of climbs I was once intimate; from the solid black at the base, into the flaky brown and its slippery yellow maritime sunburst lichen. Through the spikey silvering green ramaliner and the delicate orange fairy cups, and almost always watched by the sad eyes of the grey seal, onto the flat top beneath the whitewashed wall of the old fog horn station. On numerous occasions, with ropes still attached, mentally exhausted, I had lain on my back, head surrounded by pink sea thrift, listening to the wind and the raucous razor bills nesting on the cliffs opposite.
Zylo and I geared up, walked to the opposite size of the zawn, abseiled, and fixed a belay forty metres above the sea. As I set off sideways on A Dream of White Horses, three grey seals swam beneath the arch, into the deep green at the back of the zawn. They rolled and twisted, a slippery knot of seals, before poking their shining heads clear of the water, watching me with dark eyes. They howled then, their voices echoing from the salty walls. Seals can live up to thirty five years and as I shuffled sideways the wind puckering at my aging face, I imagined they had recognised me.
all images © Nick Bullock
Crag Notes is a new series to UKC, focussing on people and place. Distilled down into short form, each piece will centre around our connection with the outdoors (and what's within it) in some way, shape or form. However, each will differ in their own unique way, as we'll be featuring a variety of contributors, some of whom will be familiar, others less so. Creativity is key, as is diversity, so expect something a little different with each one. We'll be publishing a new note each month, so watch this space for further scrawling.
- ARTICLE: Crag Notes: Dream of Dry 11 Jan
- ARTICLE: The Smell of Change 6 Apr, 2020
- ARTICLE: The Pitfalls of the Peroni Supermodel 25 Oct, 2018
- ARTICLE: Nick Bullock's Nightmayer 16 Jun, 2017
- Rock, Shock and Three Smoking Classics 26 Aug, 2014
- Nevermore - 'the New Mort' 14 Apr, 2013
- Echoes by Nick Bullock - Exclusive Excerpt 27 Aug, 2012
- That's Rowdy! BMC Scottish Winter Meet 2012 31 Jan, 2012
- Guest Editorial - Motivations? by Nick Bullock 18 May, 2008
- Alpine Reminiscence 2007 3 Feb, 2008