Dreadnought - Berry Head (E3 5c), by John Cox
We had obviously hopelessly misjudged the tide. Oily, solid masses of water were sweeping along the low level traverse on the far side of the cave before sluicing up the sloping ledges, slapping solidly into the back wall and hissing back down. There was clearly no possibility of getting across for some time.
Nonetheless, the situation called for careful handling: neither of us wanted to sit here for three hours but I knew Stefan was very keen to do this route and might propose any kind of lunacy. Moreover there is always face to consider, what the South Americans call mana. I didn't want to do the route at all, ever, if I could help it, and certainly not this afternoon. But it wouldn't do to say so.
"Well, that's a shame." I ventured, picking up my sac, turning to leave and pulling out the guidebook. "What about Hay Tor?".
But I was too late. Stefan was already putting on his harness. "We should be able to get round." he said. "We'll go the higher way. It's only 5b."
I yammered feebly. But he crushed me with a single blow. "We can put the rope on if you like." he said.
So we gear up, divide the rack (on our harnesses, of course, none of your poncey bandoliers. After all, we're not going to fall in, are we?), loop the ropes round our necks, skateboard across the sloping ledges between (or, in my case, during) waves, and start on the dark, dripping traverse up in the eaves of the cave, squawking gaily and lifting our feet up as the swell passes by. I can't see a thing - Stefan's huge form, swinging competently along, is blocking out the light - and all in all I can't help wondering if drowning is as pleasant as they say. The strain of continued merriment is definitely telling by the time we reach the little ledge out in the light, just above the waves.
But we're there, and in fact we get up the first pitch without any further incident except for a moment where I drop one of the ropes in the sea while attempting to demonstrate good hanging-belay technique, and Stefan patiently retrieves it and shows me how to stack it properly ("Of course, it's a bit harder when it's wet," is the nearest he comes to calling me an idiot).
Stefan led the traverse pitch in about ten minutes with no sign of effort. I don't know if you know this pitch? Imagine the overhanging bouldering section of your local climbing wall. Now suppose that it has been used as a hen roost for six months. Take away the mat and substitute a hundred feet of air above some choppy sea, and you have it.
Stefan's gear usually requires a jackhammer to remove, and the first piece is no exception. After a bitter struggle I am forced to rest on a sling attached to a bendy peg jammed into a break atop a rotting wooden wedge, quite possibly placed there by the sixteen year old hand of Master Littlejohn. It flexes and creaks as I sway in the breeze.
The next section is technical and gymnastic (unless you climb it free, of course). I tried pulling on the peg. No good. I tried standing in the sling. Definitely no good - only a miracle saved me from ending up dangling by one foot. In the end a sort of tension dyno landed me in a corner which for some reason was full of sump oil. At the top of this it is possible, at great cost to one's tailoring, to rest bridged between a buttock on one wall of the corner and a knee on the other.
On the right is a steep wall, undercut and overhung. I crabbed cautiously along it, head bent sideways by the roof, hands in the slimy break, feet on the lip, trying not to look down. The wall tapered. My feet got nearer and nearer to my hands. My neck pressed harder and harder against the roof. Eventually an arete blocked progress. I peered fearfully round it. There was obviously a jug, some way away. There was also a peg, closer. Descriptions I have read of this pitch have the climber cutting loose at this point while reaching the jug. I too cut loose, in the form of a half-slither, half-lunge for the sling on the peg while crying "Watch me, watch me" (all concern for face now abandoned, you will note). A pull-up and a one-armed lock off on the sling, some desperate scrabbling and the belay was in sight.
The belay is a ledge six inches wide by two feet long, set amid overhanging territory and piled high with fulmar vomit (Stefan had already kicked the nest into the sea). I clipped a wire and clung on next to it, trying not to shake too visibly. Stefan started to hand me the gear. I explained that this did not accord with my plans. If I was responsible for our future progress, I said, then we must abseil into the sea. Stefan sighed and began to rack up himself.
'If I'm going to do this next pitch we'll have to re-arrange the belay,' said he. 'Can you pull yourself up a bit while I shorten this? ................... Just a little bit longer................'[arms give out and I slump back on to the wire with a squeal of terror] "Oh, I hadn't quite got you clipped into the Friend. It's OK, the wire's good." [panic-stricken yelp as the wire shifts and I clutch at his leg] "Don't worry, I've got you. Can you take these coils of rope and wind them round your foot?.......... Oh. Well, never mind, they haven't quite reached the sea anyway." and so on.
I spare you the details, but after a prolonged and painful interlude I was finally hanging, suspended potatoes-like in my harness, looking down past the ropes swaying in the breeze to the sea. A romantic novelist would call this hungry. I can't say it really looked hungry, but it didn't look very welcoming either. Stefan bounded off up to the left, pausing only to scold me when I couldn't give him slack fast enough (I was trying hard to keep my eyes closed) and in about five minutes the ropes were tight. One of my legs had used this period to go completely to sleep. I literally couldn't move the muscles in the ankle enough to stop the foot drooping into space like some weird flower on its stalk. So I had to hang on for five minutes to take the weight off my harness, unable to use that foot, until circulation returned......
Not surprisingly, Stefan couldn't guess what was going on. He took the rope in with great gusto and hauled away like a good 'un, bellowing half heard questions. Eventually I regained the use of my leg. I stood on the ledge and tried feebly to undo the belay knots, which by this time were locked solid. I failed dismally, so I thought I'd take the Friends out first and sort them out when I got to the base of the groove on the left, where I could spot a rest. The moment I extracted the Friends a particularly hearty tug from Stefan whisked them away out of reach, still on their clovehitches. This left me with just the wire to remove. I clipped the pegs which Stefan had spurned, hung on those, leant over to take a closer look at the wire and one of the pegs snapped.
You know how they say that mice that cats are playing with eventually die not of their injuries but of heart failure brought on by terror? I've never before understood how that could happen, but I thought it was going to happen to me. I must have fallen all of six inches, on to the other peg, but the adrenalin surge was terrific. I could feel my heart, as it were, take a deep breath and push out everything it had with a great squeeze.
When the world stopped spinning I decided that the wire would have to stay: if I hung on where I was one moment longer I was never going to make it to the nice resting place I had spotted. (I have to admit that I may at this point have been committing the dreadful technical sin of overgripping.) So I launched out, cranked my way over the bulge on the left and into the little chapel of rest at the base of the groove.
Above me the Friends were stuck in the next runner by a little roof, jerking furiously as Stefan tried to pull them through the karabiner. There had been a lot of rope in the belay, and there was a fair loop between me and them. The other rope went off at 45', tugging like a hawser. A bit of shouting persuaded me that I wasn't going to get any slack, and anyway I could hardly muster the breath for a proper shout. I certainly couldn't stay where I was - it was all I could do to hold on never mind starting a tug-of-war with Stefan, who is 6'3" tall and has arms like thighs - so I took a deep breath (more of a fevered gasp) and hurled myself up the groove, whimpering with fear, until I reached the runner. I managed to recover the Friends, but one of the knots was a figure of eight and every time I tried to undo it my fingers were jammed against the karabiner by Stefan hauling. So I took the runner out; instantly it and its long sling were plucked from my nerveless fingers and disappeared up the crag.
This pitch isn't actually very hard, although character-building, but when I got to the belay I could see why Stefan hadn't wanted to let me fall very far. (There is in fact a cave, with a man-sized thread, which is supposed to be the belay, but Stefan had gone past it. I couldn't blame him - a large family of fulmars had clearly had a very recent food fight in it.). I did however feel that a more sensitive leader would not have taken one hand off the sticht plate, as I struggled knees first on to the stance, in order to wave the runner, figure of eight knot, long sling and twenty feet of slack in the air and ask, 'What on earth was going on with the ropes, John?'. Luckily I couldn't speak at the time, so the moment passed.
There is another pitch, which was also desperate. When we got to the top I confessed about the wire in the belay. Stefan looked as if he was about to cry, "But that's my favourite wire. It's been with me for ages. I found that on my first trip to the Alps......". I told him I didn't mind waiting while he abseiled for it and prussiked back out, or alternatively I'd replace it, but that was my best offer. He must have been fond of it because he actually spent a few moments looking for an anchor before sanity prevailed.
Read John's other UKC article - An Epic After Climbing