The Finest Crags in the UK & Ireland Rhoscolyn Words and Photos by Mike Hutton
Nestling on Holy Island's south west coast is a crag for connoisseurs. Hidden amongst the sparkling zawns, sea caves and secluded bays is a metamorphic masterpiece. Often overlooked in favour of its bigger brother Gogarth, this delightful venue has a handful of some of the highest quality sea cliff extremes in Wales.
Ethan Walker on Savage Sunbird (E2 5b)
Rhoscolyn is more of an experience than a place. Your first acquaintance will be with the delightful 18th century St Gwenfaen’s church as you park up. Legend has it that in 630 AD Gwenfaen was chased away from her cell by druids and escaped by climbing the rock stack off Rhoscolyn head. Unfortunately, the tide came in but angels managed to carry her away, which is how Saints Bay got its name.
Patchwork quilts of Erica cinerea (purple bell heather) and yellow gorse draw your eyes to the deep blue horizon at the end of the road. As you reach the cliff tops you will realise why Rhoscolyn has been designated a "Site of Specific Scientific Interest"
The colour palette of the quartzite rock encountered is exquisite and apart from Scotland’s Beinn Eighe this variety is pretty much restricted to our very Gogarth. So be thankful that Mother Nature has blessed us with its presence. The quartzite at Rhoscolyn is certainly more distinctive than that experienced on the rest of Gogarth with its deep purple orange lustre sometimes fooling the climber into thinking it’s seeping.
Lee Roberts on Centrefold (E3 5c) on Fallen Block Zawn
Developments elsewhere at Gogarth were well underway when Dave Durkan paid a fleeting visit to Sea Cave Zawn in 1970. He quickly added Symphony Crack which ranks as one of the all-time best Diff’s. Climbing the notoriously friable and scary Adrenalin (E3 5c) with a raging hangover possibly sucked away any enthusiasm he had for the place and developments halted until 1983 when Stevie Haston powered his way through the magnificent roof of Sea Cave Zawn to create Electric Blue (E4 5c).
It wasn’t till the summer of 1984 that things went riotous at Rhoscolyn when a local Kayaker by the name of Jadwat spotted some routes from his canoe. He told Paul Williams who returned with the legendary Jim Moran to literally demolish the place in one summer. Previously Jim had insisted that “there weren’t any 6a pitches on Cloggy yet as the rock has too many holds”, therefore an E4 6a was pretty hard by Moran scale, but not as way out as the Bancroft scale or as suicidal as the Ray Evans scale.
During an epic 1st ascent of The Jub-Jub Bird (E6 6b) Jim Moran’s second lobbed off the start of the overhang and swung so far out to sea that he came back with an Irish accent!
Sam Hamer on Electric Blue (E4 5c) at Sea Cave Zawn
Most likely this is where your adventures might start, though surprisingly the name is not of Welsh origin but actually one dreamt up by climbers for fun. It reads “Red Wall” in reverse! Being completely non-tidal and with a perfect promontory to view all the routes this isn’t a bad spot to initiate yourself. Stand and admire the unique concoction of mudstone, shale and quartzite glowing bright orange in the sun as it contrasts against the vivid blue sky. As you gaze up at the huge open corner of Icarus (HVS 5a) you may indeed feel like Icarus did as he flew too close to the sun (the route directly left) and melted the wax that coated his feathered wings. Hopefully, you won’t plunge into the sea like him as the finely chiselled crack takes nuts galore and is a great deal less intimidating than the offerings on the main cliff of Gogarth.
Takahe (E2 5b) aptly named after a now extinct New Zealand flightless bird, finishes up the arête to the right of the top section of Icarus.
It’s very possible that you too will be drawn in by the line of The Savage Sunbird (E2 5b) just as Paul Williams was in 1984. This route is in no doubt the best E2 at Rhoscolyn. The lower moves utilise a series of beautifully sculptured flakes; however, we have all been there when the holds keep coming and the gear isn’t having it. Just a bit of commitment is required to reach a sinker then you’re in for the ride of your life. What follows on the final groove represents all that’s wonderful about sea cliff climbing. None of the moves are easy but none are stoppers. Hidden nut placements that have to be earned and crimping on the most solid of quartzite will have you grinning all the way to the belay.
I was fortunate enough to be climbing with Dave Simmonite on our previous trip who I have to say has some pretty amazing footwork! As Dave pushed on through the maze of loose quartzite not daring to place a runner for fear of it pulling the crag down on us, I couldn’t but wonder how the story was going to end. At this point things weren’t looking great; the famous photographer had reached a large rattling pillar that he dared not use, a ground fall was on the cards and although it may have been good for my career as a photographer, Dave was a friend and I wanted to share a birthday beer with him later that evening. It soon became apparent, that even the talented Adam Long had struggled on it which takes some going and the route that we thought to be E2 was in fact The Cocktail Trip (E4 5c). Luckily a member of the team was on hand for a speedy haul out. A shaking Dave was rescued in the nick of time.
Ethan Walker on Savage Sunbird (E2 5c), Llawder.
If you’ve survived the wrath of the Sunbird then the chances are you’ve fallen in the love with the place and it may be time to tackle The Sun (E3 5c). This number couldn’t be more different in style. I remember vividly traversing leftwards with nothing for my feet and just one runner between the belay and me. What on earth was I doing? There were no obvious holds and the crack I was frantically heading for was as wet as an otter's pocket. The nature of the routes at Rhoscolyn seems to be that if you push on generally the holds arrive; fortunately for me, they did on this occasion. The wet crack proved to be avoidable and the gear was bomber.
There was only one problem though, this wasn’t the crux and there were 20 metres of a very steep crack left to climb before I could get to the sanctuary of the sunny cliff top. Of course, I could have stayed on the belay ledge and had just as good a day sunbathing, but we all know that’s not why we come to these places. I may have looked a spectacle as I plunged my hands into the depths of this lichen infested Rhoscolyn test piece not climbing it in the best style, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was with friends having a proper sea cliff adventure on my 40th birthday.
Dave Simmonite on The Mutiny (VS 4b)
Turning the clock back a year; we had been with friends in the winter sunshine during the weekend of the Llanberis film festival. It seemed madness to spend the day indoors watching other people's self-congratulatory films; so a decision to go to Rhoscolyn came easily and with common consent. Once there, we encountered a famous Pembroke climber having a monster epic on Mask of the Red Death (E3 5c). We retreated to a better encounter with some savage sunbird and left our hero well alone with his torment.
Fast forward a year and some of the same team were there; there was little else for it other than to follow in the footsteps of the anonymous and hung-over Pembroke pioneer (Paul Donnithorne) we’d witnessed a year earlier.
After years climbing at Fairhead my partner had learnt the joys of stringing 2 pitch routes into one - more movement, more flow, more fun! So it was on The Mask. The cautiousness of the initial traverse soon gave way to big pulls through steep ground, witnessed by whirling seabirds and gobsmacked tourists. “You’ll not catch me up there, like,” said the lady carrying three cameras. “No love, I don’t suppose I will,” was his unspoken reply.
Sam Hamer on Mask of Red Death (E3 5c).
The evolution of the TwinGate system continues with the double wire carabiner.
Super light carabiner with super light double wire gate.
Only 39 grams for the safest wire carabiner. A clever S-design of the first wire offers the key-lock benefit.
The Sigma Twingate is a classic offset carabiner for to be used in place of a normal snap link or wherever you want to add extra security like on your cams, hexes or on your last quick draw before a crux.
The main problem with the belay carabiner on the harness was always to keep it in the correct position. Grivel has designed a totally new carabiner where a simple second wire gate isolates the belay loop and keeps the proper orientation, both with and without the rope, even when the carabiner gate is open.
What lies beyond Llawder is not for the faint-hearted. If you venture down into the nearby Fallen Block Zawn you will encounter a monolith of over-hanging adventures. Lacking the relaxed atmosphere of Llawder this is certainly not a place for the weak. Apart from the appealing slabbiness of Traunt (VS 4b) the routes here require big biceps and plenty of stamina. Developed mainly by Paul Williams and Jim Moran in the eighties this area is home to the best hard routes at Rhoscolyn. Centrefold (E3 5c) is quite possibly one of the best E3’s anywhere. Godzilla (E4 5c), The Trail of Tears (E4 6a) and Magellan's Wall (E5 6a) require either bags of stamina or a bold approach for success. If you don’t feel like an upside-down escapade then you’re better cutting your losses and going for a swim.
This, however, was not the attitude of Nick Bullock and Streaky Desroy when they added The Frumious Bandersnatch (E7 6c). It took 6 visits to tame the beast. Nick’s words of “under-cut with much vigour hoping the holds don’t explode before your biceps” and “place gear in the slightly worrying booming rail before you reach a point of total meltdown” tell a story. Apart from a lob of biblical proportions that sent the leader plunging into outer space, no casualties were encountered and the team had cracked the route in a very acceptable style.
Sam Hamer on Magellan's Wall (E5 6a) on Fallen Block Zawn
If you’ve survived this far then Electric Blue (E4 5c) in Sea Cave Zawn might be the next challenge on your list. As I stared up at the chaotic palace of downward pointing pillars what was it to be? Get stupidly pumped leading the dam thing or embark on the best deep-water solo on Anglesey. The scary looking pink jellyfish in the raging blue foam below gave me the excuse I needed to abandon ship for quieter waters.
Dave insisted there was a neglected gem going by the name of Fan Fare (HVS 4c) in a much less intimidating region of the zawn. I couldn’t believe my luck; this was going to make the history books as the photographer himself was about to be shot at a rate of 10 frames per second. Covering some impressive ground on larger than life holds the route was just what we needed after Dave’s terrifying experience earlier.
So what’s it to be? Trapped forever by the delights of sun, sea and exotic rock or might you chance your escape like Icarus did when his wings melted causing him to plummet into the depths of the Aegean sea.
Dave Simmonite on Fanfare (HVS 4c) on Sea Cave Zawn
When to Climb
Since the majority of the cliffs are south facing and sheltered, the summer months can often be too hot. Fallen Block Zawn can be greasy in damp humid conditions because of its close proximity to the sea. Spring and autumn are the best seasons and even the winter on sunny still days can be very pleasant.
All the cliffs are non-tidal apart from Fallen Block Zawn where climbing isn’t possible for 2 hours either side of high tide.
Where to stay and eat
Excellent camping can be found at the Outdoor Alternative just down the road. The White Eagle pub in Rhoscolyn is excellent and in the past was visited by Prince William and his wife. If a few beers and a jolly good punch up is more your style then head for Holyhead.
Simon Witcher on The Viper (E4 5c) on Fallen Block Zawn
Two 50m ropes and a rack consisting of friends 0-3 and a double set of wires should suffice. For many of the routes in Fallen Block Zawn, Godzilla in particular, you will need plenty of slings to reduce drag over the roofs and a much larger rack. Many of the pegs are rotten and shouldn’t be trusted. Belays are often hard to find and require some imagination. I have found a removable stake to be really useful at this crag.
The new Gogarth South guide by Ground Up is the only definitive guide to the area.
North Wales Climbs by Rockfax contains a selection of the best routes as does the Ground Up North Wales Rock guide.
Sam Hamer on Warpath (E5 6a), Llawder.
Jack Lawdedge on Trail of Tears (E4 6a)
Mike Hutton is an Adventure Photographer and Writer working for the Outdoor Industry.
During the past decade, Mike has travelled to over 30 countries capturing images of climbers in places rarely visited by people. He has accumulated over 2000 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books and on national television. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Geographical Magazine, GQ Italia, Red Bulletin, Rock and Ice, Women's Adventure, The Outdoor Journal, Rockfax, Climbing, Derbyshire Life, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Vertical, Climax, Climber, Summitt, Outdoor Photography and Rock and Snow.
Mike has worked with sponsored athletes from many of the top commercial outdoors brands such as Casio, Berghaus, Patagonia, Rab, Wild Country, Mammut, Boreal, Edelweis, Scarpa, Five Ten, Sherpa and Sterling. His sporting background as a Climber, Runner and Cyclist has given him the edge to keep up with some of the best athletes.
Currently, Mike divides his time between editorial commissions, tutoring and working for commercial clients.
For commissioning work and print sales please contact Mike via his website