In his Hard Rock essay on Extol, Chris Bonington quips that the route is much like its first ascensionist, Don Whillans: "direct, uncompromising, and hard". Now I wouldn't suggest that every route mirrors the personality traits of those who climb it first. However, certain climbers do seem to have a particular style: Ed Drummond's futuristic, yet often flawed creations, or the bold, gymnastic direttissimas of Johnny Dawes.
In this new series, I'll profile five significant first ascensionists whose routes represent some of the finest throughout the UK and Ireland. Each of these individuals appear to have imbued something of their own character in their routes, something that makes them stand out due to their distinct style. I'll also be asking six climbers to share their experiences on their favourite route.
Round two, Pat Littlejohn...
Pat Littlejohn is something of new routing phenomena. Originally from Devon, he has been climbing and new routing since the mid-sixties. This career notably kicked-off when he made the first ascent of Berry Head's Moonraker along with Pete Biven in 1967, aged just sixteen. There was still a lot of unexplored coastline back then and routes like Moonraker showed Pat that the South West sea cliffs were able to produce routes equal to any others in the UK. Pat claims to be motivated not by difficulty alone, but by doing "high quality lines, in good style." For him the urge to explore has been almost as great as the desire to climb. For many yearS Pat was a leading member of the 'Clean Hand Gang'; an informal group of climbers who didn't use chalk. Pat onsighted new routes right up to E7 (Terminal Twilight in Huntsman's Leap) without resorting to using chalk. Eventually he succumbed, first using chalk on the White Hotel, again in the Leap.
Although there are a great many Littlejohn routes on crags and outcrops, it is the sea cliffs where he has really left his mark, particularly in Devon and Cornwall, but equally in Pembrokeshire, Lundy, Gogarth, the Llyn Peninsula, and Fair Head. For Pat, rock quality does not take precedence over adventure.
Pat Littlejohn is also an accomplished alpinist and IFMGA Mountain Guide. He counts his ascent of the Eiger North Wall with Steve Jones in 1979 as one of his most satisfying. Other alpine exploits include an early ascent of American Route on the South Face of the Fou, again with Steve Jones, and using only one point of aid. (It is worth reading Tom Livingstone's account of climbing this route with Tony Stone to get an idea of the difficulty, neither of them are slouches and neither had an easy ride!)
Further afield he has made first ascents of big walls in Kenya, and the NE Buttress of Tawoche in Nepal, with Mick Fowler - Including the (in)famous 'torture tube' bivi. These days Pat lives in North Wales, is climbing regularly and putting up new, adventurous routes. Check out this article about a crop of new routes Pat climbed in North Wales in 2017.
Alan James - UKC head honcho, and author to two guide books to Pembroke
I am going to be greedy and choose two routes, mainly because they embody the beginning and end of my most active period of climbing in Pembroke.
In the summer of 1987 my friend Nigel and I joined my mate Tudor from Cardiff and decided to head to Pembroke to see what all the fuss was about. Being a relative local, Tudor was already totally sold on the place. Luckily our relative abilities were matched (at this point) and we were all after the same bracket of routes in the low E-grades. Talk about kids in a sweet shop!
Day one we spent at St. Govan's, then on day two we headed to Stennis Head. After a brief warm-up I won the toss for the big route of the day: Pleasure Dome. For my description in the first Pembroke Rockfax - "one of the things that makes a route truly great is when it goes somewhere that you don't think is possible at the grade. Pleasure Dome must be one of the most classic examples of such a route." To put that in context, this route is top-end E3, and whilst you can get into some pretty spectacular positions on E3s, this one tops the lot. The rising traverse above the ducking pool has gear and hand-holds but nowhere near enough footholds. This builds the pump.
At the end of the traverse there is a semi-rest, below the perfect crux. No matter how many times you do these moves they always appear to be baffling at first. It is not unknown for people to spend ages on the semi-rest. Just imagine what it must have been like on the first ascent when Pat launched across that traverse without knowing what was to come. Such was his ability that he probably barely noticed their difficulty, but what a classic he created!
Wind forward seven years and an initial interest had turned into an obsession. By this time I had done most of the major classics up to E5, but such is the richness of this mother lode that there was still plenty to discover. Huntsman's Leap had become a focal point, particularly the West Wall. I have often described it as my desert island crag. The well-named Darkness at Noon had only two stars in the 1985 guidebook, which either means that Pat didn't think it was that good, or that Jon de Montjoye (the author of the '85 guide) had done it in bad conditions. Two stars had kept it off my tick list, so it was with no particular expectations that my mate Tim and I approached it in May 1994. The tide was very low and there was a light, fresh breeze - perfect conditions. I set off up the ramp to an impasse. This is where you realise what makes Pat Littlejohn such a great new route climber. The description said move down and left. Why would you do that? But it works and propels you into a crack line that takes exclusively the same size of small wire (of which I had four, luckily). The next section up the glorious runnel is probably what Pat had been aiming for when he came up with the route in the first place. A quick belay and an equally good second pitch, made more committing by the fact that the tide has almost always come in to block your retreat at this point. All the time you feel the presence of the opposite wall - too far away to be of help, but close enough to make you feel both exposed and claustrophobic at the same time!
Sam Leary - North Wales based WMCI, and co-owner of Leading Edge
Lucky Strike, E1
Lucky Strike is composed of all the ingredients to deliver a grand experience: a committing approach, great rock, a striking line and all in a superb position. The added element is the fact that retreating (lowering off) from this rising traverse would be very difficult indeed. Feeling confident after leading Beast from the Undergrowth the day before I was keen to try it, though little did I realise there are even more intimidating places to climb than Huntsman's Leap!
Abseiling down to routes in Pembroke can feel committing; you can prusik back up the rope but that's never easy. The Lucky Strike abseil lands you on a nice safe ledge, which takes courage to leave, particularly to head out sideways across the blank looking wall, perched above a cave so enormous that you are almost glad you can't see into it.
The sky was so blue that day but it wasn't matched by the sea which was angry, ginormous, and foaming at the mouth. Why oh why did I think this was a good idea? The booms from the concussion of the waves were so loud It made us wonder if we had got the firing times wrong! My super calm, capable and supportive partner was unfazed by it all, but nonchalance is always easy when it's not your lead! To be fair, he had done the route before and was there just for me - such a generous chap, how lucky am I?
Getting going was hard. There is a tricky section quite close to the belay, and delaying tactics were employed with lots of faffing. I almost convinced myself it was a bad idea and nearly handed Alan the ropes. As ever he let the comments slide away and just offered quiet reassurance and endless patience. Finally I committed, carrying on was easier than going back, before I really knew what was happening I was heading out above the seething maelstrom.
Once past that first crux the climbing is positive, absorbing, and the position incredible. The crashes under my feet got closer as the route teeters out over the huge overhangs. It felt like the whole rock face was vibrating every time a wave hit the back of the cave below. The only reason I managed the moves onto the main wall was because I knew reversing was quite impossible.
Fear can be a wonderful motivator, I pulled through the next tricky move, up to a rest on mini jugs, and was now established on the main wall. There was delight (and relief) as the route now goes mostly upwards, rather than sideways, but it's not all over. The top is guarded by a series of overhangs that I had been trying hard not to look at. Thankfully they proved to be surprisingly amenable; almost as if the power of the waves carried me over the top. Alan flowed up the route making it look a lot easier, but that's always case. We were soon back at Ma Weston's cafe, enjoying cake and picking tea leaves out of our cups, the sound of the waves still ringing in our ears.
An incredible first ascent by Pat and Charlie. They then went on to do Planet Waves that same day, another stunning looking line that's still on my list. I will need to be feeling brave and strong for that one, a calmer sea might help too.
Jon de Montjoye - Author of the 1985 Pembroke Guidebook, and IFMGA Mountain Guide
Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you have to wonder why on earth you are there. This was one of those occasions...
However, for a little more context I should go back a couple of days, when by coincidence I'd been climbing with Littlejohn. We'd had two harrowing days (well, for me, anyway), firstly making a largely free ascent of Rowland Edwards' old six pitch aid route, Detritus on the Little Orme. Pat used four points of aid (two rests, two direct aid points). I just used two - cunningly missing out the two rest points on the long traverse by the most enormous pendulum. It was an almost onsight ascent – I say almost, as Pat had swum underneath it to recce a few days previously and had noted some old tat, which seemed to encourage him. If Detritus wasn't enough, the following day we climbed Heart of Gold on Gogarth's Left Hand Red Walls. My one vivid memory of this was of removing one of Pat's quickdraws from an old peg without actually having to open the gate of the krab...
So, back to my present predicament, with the utter trauma of the last couple of days so fresh in my mind, why on earth would Hilary, Jamie Holding and I now be uncoiling our ropes at the bottom of Pagan, a three pitch E4 5c, down and right of Heart of Gold, on Left Hand Red Walls, on a bitterly cold and windy October day? Yep, I've no idea.
The first pitch, whilst not too hard, has very little in the way of protection, which is of course not usually too worrying to second, except that this is an almost horizontal 20m traverse and the grassy ramp it starts from drops steeply down right, giving instant exposure. I lead, Hilary and Jamie follow with trepidation. As all this was 35 years ago, my memory inevitably has holes in it and Hilary seems to have erased it completely from her mind. I asked Jamie to fill in the odd missing bit: 'The ropes made an arc with no runners to tether them, giving the prospect of a pendulum on a 9ml, with the promontory opposite looking like it was on a collision trajectory. A good incentive not to muff it'. Also, according to Jamie I apparently led all three pitches, which I had forgotten. I do recall, however, some very uncomfortable and contorted shuffling around on the two stances, the first of which is more or less hanging, which probably confirms this. I think maybe this first belay, which is in common with Deygo, had an old bolt... or maybe it was long gone and I just remember reading that (ed. it's still there - and still awful!).
The second pitch wanders around a bit on steep and at times dodgy rock, up, left, up, then takes a rightward trending ramp line to the second belay lashed to a big block, which looked like it would be downward bound into the sea, sooner rather than later. By the time all three of us were reunited here, I remember I was shaking with the cold – as indeed they must have been on the previous stance. I think Jamie had a windproof, but I remember Hilary's multi-coloured sweater, implying she hadn't.
Completely committed now – abseiling from here, even if the rope reached, would only lead to the sea... The top pitch, as well as being the crux, is rather blind, requiring a slow, methodical approach. Not that easy with white-cold fingers... and even colder belayers, burning holes in my back. The old cliché 'the only way down is up' was so apt at that moment. Up right, zag back left, then right again to the top in a big Z. I've done harder Littlejohn routes, probably with better rock, maybe more enjoyable even, but for adventure Pagan's hard to beat - just don't underestimate it.
Ian Parnell - Alpinist, loose rock specialist, and editor of the 2020 edition of Hard Rock
My first choice college to study art was Sheffield, but I let slip that I was a climber. The look on my interviewers' faces made it obvious they didn't want another waster skiving off to the crag. My back-up college down in Exeter proved a real blessing opening up a new view on many aspects of life – not least climbing. If I'd got in at Sheffield I'm sure my early heroes would have been Brown and Whillans, or Livesey and Fawcett. But down in the Southwest there was one dominating name – Pat Littlejohn.
Almost all the big beefy great lines in the area seemed to be his: Moonraker, Lunakhod, Eroica or Fay, Il Duce and America. But it wasn't just the sheer quantity of brilliant routes, it was the stories surrounding them, emanating from the highly adventurous (often ground up or chalk free) way Pat approached his first ascents.
Climbing folklore, particularly to an impressionable youngster like myself, easily builds heroes, and as it would be years before I met him, Pat remained a mythical figure, with ascents of his routes prized milestones in my own climbing development. The fact that Pat has managed to continue to add copious high standard new routes through 6 different decades, leaves me still wondering to this day if he is made of slightly different stuff than the rest of us.
In choosing his best, it's tempting to choose one of Pat's tougher routes – the list of Littlejohn South West E5s, for example, includes many top ten contenders for the best in the UK. However, I'm going to cheat slightly and choose two more modestly graded routes at Blackchurch on the North Devon coast. Sacre Coeur climbs the highly aesthetic thin crack up the seaward slab of the twin arched stack of Blackchurch Rock. If the tide is on the way out, climb this one first. Then let the sea chase you back towards the dark brooding main cliff and the compelling groove/offwidth of Archtempter. Together the combination of routes showcases contrasting sides of the Culm coast experience – immaculate quality and deep adventure – both hallmarks of Pat's best routes.
Mick Fowler - Former tax man, cancer survivor, choss climber extraordinaire, and multiple Piolet d'Or winner
Choose your favourite Pat Littlejohn route? Oooh er … The problem is that Pat has put up so many fantastic routes. To choose just one would almost be rude to the others. Oh dear.
I slept on the matter. By morning my mind had slipped back to the 1970s and the North Cornwall coast. Pat was the master, 'hero Patrick' we called him. In that part of the world no-one else came close in terms of his ability and eye for a line. Eroica, Darkinbad, Savage God, Il Duce, Mercury, Andromeda Strain, America - an article in Mountain Magazine had given the world an insight but there were few takers. The typical timeline would be first ascent by Pat, second ascent by Ed Hart and that was it. The routes acquired a tremendous reputation. I remember being in a pub in West Penwith having climbed Il Duce on the way down. When the name of the climb was mentioned a local climber misunderstood and thought we wanted to climb it. "You won't do that,' he said. As simple as that. Pat's routes were viewed as exceptional. He was the undoubted master.
As my love of the coast grew and I climbed more of his routes, one in particular fascinated and repeatedly eluded me. America at Carn Gowla. Dead low tide, calm seas and competence at rope moves are all essential for success. On my first attempt we were stopped by a deep, sea-filled cleft cleaving the cliff. Our description suggested lassoing a spike on the far side but there just didn't seem to be anything to lasso, so Mike Morrison and I retreated with tails firmly between our legs. At the next attempt we spotted the rounded bulge masquerading as a spike and managed to complete the rope move. But having pulled the rope across we then realised that the tide was too far in to access the foot of the climb. We couldn't reverse the rope move and had to escape by HVS climbing up the unclimbed buttress above. For my third attempt, with Phill Thomas, we abseiled in from the top and completed the climb, three wonderful pitches – greasy and technical on the first, bold and delicate on the second and stunningly steep and impressive on the third. But it felt like we had cheated. America is an experience, not just a climb. And the approach is such a key part of the package. And so I had to go back again, with Andy Meyers this time, to complete the full approach… and traverse even further along the wave-washed cliff base to climb Mausoleum. Surprise, surprise yet another magnificent contribution from 'hero Patrick'.
Tom Livingstone - Britain's second-poshest climber
The Axe, E4
There's something about arêtes… Whether it's their position which pushes you out into space, like an insect stuck to a knife blade, or the explosion of exposure beneath your heels… there is something about feeling like you're on the very edge of the world. The Axe is arguably the definitive arête, high on Wales' greatest and most historic crag.
I've always found that these strong lines draw the eye, and walking in to Clowgwn Du'r Arddu (Cloggy) on a fine summer's day, my gaze caught The Pinnacle. High on this section of the cliff hangs The Axe, an archetypal Littlejohn route: adventurous and striking.
The route is slightly undercut, appearing to hover a full 50 metres high, and ready to chop. Beneath this perfect 90-degree edge, Angus and I uncoiled the ropes in the leafy jungle, whilst I made inappropriate jokes about tumbling down the broad gully below. 'There's not much for a belay here,' Angus said, discarding a few bits of 'solid mountain rock' in the process. 'Better get some gear in quick!' I replied, fiddling in good wires behind a giant booming flake. My fingers had already started the brush-brush-crimp dance on the dirty green starting holds.
Before long, I was there: riding the arête of The Axe, sliced on the knife blade. A warm updraft sent plumes of chalk rising as my fingertips curled around suspicious spikes. The ropes hung straight down, billowing out from the rock, as I swung left and right. I've always wondered if arêtes are powerful features because you've got twice the holds to play with - or twice the chances of falling off!
A glance down the guillotine and I realised how spectacular this position was; to be hanging out here, hands either side of this square-cut edge, looking down to Llyn Arddu, and Llanberis. Angus's encouragement echoed around, and I quested higher, revelling in the atmosphere. The dark rock of Cloggy took on a more friendly colour as I pulled over the top of the crag and into hot sunlight. I looked down and smiled… what a line!
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