Moonraker. One of the uberclassics. Anyone who's pored through Hard Rock or read Mick Fowler's Vertical Pleasure can't help but be inspired to at least take a look. Skirting the edge of the Great Cave on the Old Redoubt at Berry Head Moonraker lets us mere mortals gain a fleeting glimpse of the aura surrounding the Extremes that find their various ways out of the Cave. Steeped in all that's best of the traditions of British adventure climbing, how could anyone not want to climb it?
Having said that, it's taken a few years to get round to climbing at Berry Head. The usual reasons/excuses to blame – bird restrictions, work, weather, and on the rare occasions one of those didn't apply lack of fitness and/or climbing partner put paid to any attempts before they started. So when the idea came up from Mark I leapt at it. Minor worries flitted across my mind about how I'd been offshore working for the last five weeks, hadn't touched rock in as long a time and that a steep HVS probably wasn't the best route to leap straight onto after a month of too much food and no exercise but these were easily dismissed.
So Saturday morning came around, bombing down the A380 past Newton Abbott and Torquay in the blazing sunshine aiming to get to Berry Head for mid-tide, snarling at every traffic jam imagining another team getting to the first pitch minutes before us and having to follow their footsteps (& chalk marks). We split the pitches as we drove, Mark getting the first 5a pitch, leaving me with the two 4c pitches, this was fine by me given my previously mentioned weight issues! Finally we crawled into the Berry Head car park behind a van that could barely squeeze down the narrow lane. Gearing up quickly in the car park all the usual subjects went on the rack, Friends, a few tri-cams, nuts, a large selection of quickdraws, Mark taking his wires and Rockcentrics as well (we're both a little particular about how we rack our nuts...). Finally we're off, only about 40 minutes later than planned, good job the tide's going out, no obvious signs of climbers' cars in the car park, are we going to be first on the route?
Fifty yards along the path, close the gate in the fence behind you and down the grass slope to the start of the rocks, we've left touristville far behind, butterflies growing in my stomach about the so-called easy traverse down to the ledge from where we'll get our first sight of the Great Cave and of the route. A brief stop to put on the rock shoes (hint – put them on at the car, otherwise you've got to walk as far in them at the end of the route) and it's suddenly time for the first test. The first move of the traverse – stepping down onto a convex wall with only the rippling blue underneath, you can't see the holds below without leaning uncomfortably far out, the rock looks shiny and polished and feels slightly greasy and unfriendly. The first hand hold is one of those that feels great when you can swing below it and hang all your weight off it but moving down onto it from above doesn't inspire confidence. Then one more step down and across and the rock changes character and you're in a world of dry, rough jugs and a few steps before you're on the ledge and suddenly feeling very small with the Dali-esque mass of the Great Cave roof pressing down on you. It's time to take a breather, check out the route and get my head round the whole situation.
Ten minutes of lying on my back, basking in the sun and figuring out the lines of Caveman, Lip Trip and Dreadnaught (one for next time, honest!) as they weave in, out and across the twisted tormented overhanging limestone. There's no-one else on the whole crag so no delays and no need to rush, we can take our time but Moonraker is calling and finally we can't put it off anymore so it's into the gloom of the Cave for the traverse to the base of the route. The rock in the cave is dark, damp, green, slimy and unpleasant, and unsurprisingly my movements are hesitant and awkward. Luckily the holds are generally positive and there's barely a foot of swell running, this would not be a good place to be with any size sea. Coming round the far side of the cave, add one extra problem – the light from the entrance means I'm blind – can't see any of the holds to try the high level traverse (allegedly VS) so that means the low level (easy) traverse is the only option which today means wet feet... Cue more faffing and nervous laughter before we're both across and swinging along the huge positive jugs that lead back into the light and to the hanging stance at the bottom of the first pitch.
Sorting out the ropes, we're attracting too much attention from a fishing boat 50 yards offshore. A quick wave and thumbs up and hope that if we ignore them they'll take the hint and leave us to it. Mark leads off up the overhanging wall of the first pitch, leaving me to my thoughts and with a slick shiny half rope draped in loops over each foot, trying to feed them out without letting them run out of control and drop into the waiting sea below. Mark vanishes round the corner and soon there's a shout from above and it's my turn. The first moves are slow and awkward, blood still flowing back into my legs after the hanging belay, then diagonally up and right to the peg and the crux moves round the arête. All the holds slope the wrong way, the moves are out of balance and suddenly it's all very fingery. Glad I wasn't on the lead here, next time no problem but right here, right now it's good to be on the blunt end. Still, with a shuffle and a wobble the moves go and then what was a run-out layback up the crack with still too much weight on my arms to a monster thread. A chance for the leader to relax here before the final moves back left on flatties to the stinking guano covered belay ledge.
Pitch 2 – honest, straightforward crack climbing and bridging, no surprises, spoilt slightly by the dusty traverse to the next belay. This consists of a thread and a manky looking peg, perched on a ledge just under a small cave, alternatively, for a more comfortable seat, bring a large hex to stick behind the pedestal 10 feet to the left.
Pitch 3 – a slightly cramped traverse back into the corner, then superb bridging and jamming up the overhanging crack. It looks unlikely but everything's there where you need it. Then you work round the lip, back into the vertical and with the belayer out of sight you can look almost straight down into the water 100 odd feet below. At this point the holds vanish and it's a layback for 15 feet or so until holds appear on the right wall and as always, mid-crux, my brain stops, forgets everything else and demands I place some gear, NOW! Never mind the solid friend by my feet, the two moves until I can stand in balance, forget all of that. Instead, with fingers sweating leaning off the edge of the crack I try and fix a nut in the almost parallel sided crack. Finally getting a size 8 to stick, I reach for a quickdraw, hear a metallic 'clink' and look down to see the krab with all my large wires on bounce once and arc gracefully down, barely time for a strangled curse before they're swallowed by the hungry sea, one brief splash and then nothing. Now I do what I should have done to start with and fiddle in my favourite red tri-cam, then climb down through the crux again to rob Mark of his wires before returning to the fray (I'm still amazed he let me take them after my inept display of a few minutes before!).
Back through the crux again, the tri-cam stays in place and a little run-out round some dodgy looking blocks to arrive at the base of the final corner. Any gritstoner will be at home here, jamming, bridging, solid pro, and a final short impasse got round by my usual expedience of standing on my hand before reaching up high and right to a positive slanting slot. One last high step up, the angle falls back and I'm blinded by the sudden sunlight as I roll over the top, to the bemusement of a family sitting on the Redoubt wall 20 feet away. Time to lose the shoes and T-shirt, throw a sling round the steel pole that used to house a no climbing sign (wonder which club has that hanging on their hut wall) and settle down to bask in the sun while belaying Mark up the last pitch.
Finally the two minute stroll back to the car park, ropes slung over our backs, clanking with all the gear and being studiously ignored by all the tourists. Ice cream in the sun outside the visitor centre while planning the next target (Sacre Coeur at Blackchurch, I think).
Any advice? – don't wear new shoes, the dye runs when you get them wet, I had purple and yellow feet for the next few days! Tides – if you're prepared to do the high level traverse through the cave (take a headtorch) then mid-tide or lower on any tidal range will be fine. If you plan on doing the low level approach the neap tides don't go low enough, you'll probably need at least a two metre tidal range to only get wet to your knees. If there's much of a swell think twice before heading down there, however the Great Cave area is sheltered from all except Easterly swells. Rack, nothing unusual, medium to large wires, friends to about size 3. Smallish friends and tri-cams could be useful on the horizontal breaks on the first pitch. Take some long quickdraws and a couple of slings to reduce rope drag. Other than that, nothing much to say except get down there, if you're solid HVS it'll be a breeze, you've no excuses left, just do it! While you're there do some of the other routes on the left side, Goddess of Gloom and the like, the vegetation's gradually taking over again, it would be a shame to see these disappear.
The Old Redoubt at Berry Head is decribed in the UKC.com database The guidebook to get is South Devon and Dartmoor by Nick White (Cordee 1995).