South Wales Sport Climbs Rockfax Review

© UKC Gear

The latest Rockfax guide to South Wales Sport Climbs has just been published and we have managed to get two reviews which complement each other nicely. The first is from South Wales devotee Rob Watt, and the second came from guidebook collector and aficianado Dave Price (UKC article about Dave and his amazing collection here). As is always the case with reviews for UKClimbing's sister company Rockfax, we just send them the book and publish what they write.

South Wales Sport Climbs reviewed by Rob Watt

I have looked forward to the publication of the South Wales Sport Climbs Rockfax for the last year or so, since discovering that it was being produced, so when the book arrived in the post it would have been inappropriate not to settle down and read it from cover to cover straight away!

Mark Glaister and the team of Roy Thomas, Goi Ashmore and Gary Gibson have produced a wonderful piece of work with this bumper edition containing around 1750 routes. The quality and the detail contained in the publication are second to none, the layout makes for easy reading, and locating each specific cliff via the detailed approach information is simple and quick. The book is a testament to the amount of effort that the new routers and equippers have put in, the time consuming work they have carried out and the routes they have provided for our enjoyment.

The majority of the photos are very good and, along with the written introductions, help give a broad impression as to what each area has to offer. The action photos also aid the enthusiastic, or even the jaded climber, choose their next project, route or crag that best meets their needs for the day.

The graded lists in the introduction  © Rockfax
The graded lists in the introduction

There is a plethora of quality climbing to be found in this area of diverse landscapes that range from seaside to mountaintop. I'm sure that, as it has proved to be for me, South Wales Sport Climbs will open up lots of possibilities for both the local climber and those travelling from further afield to explore and enjoy. From what I have experienced, whether up in the Valleys, or down on the coast, there is just so much to go at - something for all. Go and explore, I don't think you will be disappointed.

To give an idea of just some of what is on offer away from the better-known spots I have highlighted some of the more recently-developed areas covered in the guidebook.

On Gower at Rhossili, crags such as Black Buttress and Mermaid Wall (adjacent to the already well-travelled Shipwreck Cove) should become increasingly popular with teams looking for something a little different in terms of a lower grade sport venue. When timed correctly with a low tide, in sunny conditions, the wall becomes 'sport for all', an ideal location for teams of mixed ability looking to enjoy sport climbing in a fantastic beach setting. A little further along the coast is Free Lunchers Zawn - a must for the grade 6 leader with a great set of routes away from the crowds. There are many more gems tucked away on the coast which supplement the well-established spots of Foxhole and Minchen Hole; these include the exposed Third Sister and the tidal Golden and Bosco's Gulch.

The crags at Pendine in Carmarthenshire  © Rockfax
The crags at Pendine in Carmarthenshire

The seaside cliffs of Pendine and Morfa Bychan should offer plenty of challenges to keep you busy for many visits including some very recent additions. Although a little further away from the other South Wales locations, this part of Carmarthenshire is worth seeking out now that the routes are well documented. Flicking through the guide confirms that there are so many starred routes on quality rock that I'm already looking forward to the spring months to sample more. These walls should appeal to many climbers.

Closer to Cardiff the book covers the bulging walls and overhangs at Witches Point and on the other side of the headland Temple Bay. Both venues offer the potential for rewarding days out on sport routes from grade 4c to 8a+, with the benefit of fine beaches to relax on in between climbs.

Moving away from the coast the inland options are plentiful. The bastion of Dinas Rock is a must if you are searching for quality routes in the higher grades, whilst the Taff's Well cliffs, close to Cardiff and the M4, offer a good selection of routes to choose from – convenient but with an urban setting. To the north and easily reached from the pleasant towns of Crickhowell and Abergavenny, Gilwern and Gilwern East are two very pleasant quarries both holding some particularly nice routes on sound clean rock.

Plenty of superb small crags in the Valleys  © Rockfax
Plenty of superb small crags in the Valleys

The guide does justice to the quality and volume of routes that can be found on the quarried sandstone crags of the Valleys - these crags have been popular for a number of decades and have undergone a very positive makeover with lots of new routes and re-equipping. A few of my recent highlights have included days out at the small but perfectly formed Tirpentwys, the popular Sirhowy with its clean smart walls and the very pleasant Navigation Quarry that holds some very good lines.

I have named just a few crags, but the guidebook covers many more to explore and enjoy.

South Wales Sport reviewed by Dave Price

With its winning formula Rockfax has become synonymous with large photo topos, intelligent layout, stunning imagery and value for money. I wonder if in 1992, as Alan James penned his first Rockfax book Peak Limestone, could he have dreamed that the Rockfax brand would now be the market leader in selective guides, with twenty seven books in print? Rockfax has had a major influence on UK guidebook publication, with its style often replicated by its competitors.

The newly released South Wales Sport Climbs by Mark Glaister is the first Rockfax guide to sport climbing in South Wales. This milestone guide, the most comprehensive to bolted routes in South Wales ever produced, boasts a spine-busting 1750 routes. It is Mark's thirteenth book, and he has established himself as a first class guidebook author.

With over one hundred and fifty UK climbing guides in print, the task of creating original publications might seem an impossible task. However with a debut at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 climbing has never before seen such an explosion of rock virgins eager to try the sport. South Wales Sport Climbs' range is extensive, with limestone and sandstone sea cliffs and quarries spanning from the Welsh borders to Pembrokeshire. The area provides something for everyone, with grades from 3a to 8b+. It's just two and a half hours from the M25 via the M4, and an easy day destination from Bristol or Birmingham. For students or those living in Cardiff or Swansea the potential for year round accessible sport climbing is staggering. The guide is split into four areas Carmarthenshire, Gower, The Valleys Sandstone and Inland and Coastal Limestone. The images demonstrate just how diverse the climbing is, ranging from dramatic sea cliffs to urban quarries.

Mark Glaister on Hung Over (6a+) at Free Lunchers Zawn.  © Bridget Glaister
Mark Glaister on Hung Over (6a+) at Free Lunchers Zawn.
© Bridget Glaister

Talking with Mark I sensed a huge excitement over recent months. He told me, "Having climbed all over the world for many years I aim to produce guides that I wish I could have bought before I visited an area; a visual treat that both informs and inspires in a simple but effective format (and also crucially in print and easily available). Large photo topos with route descriptions on the same page is a given, flicking around from page to page just wont do! I believe the Rockfax format makes choosing a crag and climb not only simple but a pleasure. Often I talk with climbers who use our guides and the most frequent comment is how the guide's large topos combined with all that is Rockfax gives a winning combination".

Naomi Buys climbing Goosey Lucy (6c+) at Foxhole.  © Mike Hutton
Naomi Buys climbing Goosey Lucy (6c+) at Foxhole.
© Mike Hutton

As with all the Rockfax guides, large sharp photo topos dominate this book. Colour coding splits climbs into four groups by grade, and eleven symbols cover every aspect of individual route information. A further thirteen symbols cover useful crag information, for example, aspect and popularity which combine beautifully with the excellent maps.

Action photographs inspire with every turn of the page! Two thirds of the action shots are produced by Mark himself, my favourite being of Paul Cox on Hanger Them High (6a+) p164. Sadly there are only five images by my favourite photographer Mike Hutton - I was left wanting more. The pick of the action images is of Naomi Buys climbing Goose in Lucy (6c+) p80 by Mike Hutton. In addition Simon Rawlinson's superb cover shot is of real quality and Bridget Glaister's image of Hung Over (6a+) p122 very much hits the spot. The Valleys Sandstone images have an urban feel and remind me of the graffiti clad walls of Pex Hill and Frogsmouth Quarry.

Paul Cox on Hanger Them High (6a+) at Boscoe's Gulch.  © Mark Glaister
Paul Cox on Hanger Them High (6a+) at Boscoe's Gulch.
© Mark Glaister

Gary Gibson makes a contribution, his first outing with Rockfax. The Gibson family have made a major contribution to UK climbing over many years. With Gary responsible for over four thousand new routes, he's a man for whom Olympic gold would be a certainty if new routing were a discipline. Meanwhile his brother Phil has produced close to three hundred stunning crag diagrams for the Climbers Club and BMC. Gary is a major player in new route development in South Wales, and I counted over three hundred in which he played a part. Gary's pick is Dinas Rock, "The best cliff in South Wales".

Roy Thomas and Goi Ashmore also play a part with combined involvement in around nine hundred new routes. Roy led or seconded a boot-destroying eight hundred or so new lines. Jointly responsible for the SWMC Gower & S.E. Wales 2003 guide, Goi also produced Southeast Wales Sandstone 1991 and 1995. The trio of Gibson, Thomas and Ashmore leave their mark on a staggering fifty percent of the South Wales Sport Climbs routes.

One small criticism; I would like the return of the write in panel located on the title page with the words 'This book belongs to...' And possibly Rockfax may just consider just one drawn (schematic) crag diagram per edition. In doing so it would help keep the art alive.

South Wales Sport Climbs is a myriad of great images backed up with easy-to-follow symbols and information that will direct you to the right crag on the right day. Rockfax continues to be exceptional value for money, with South Wales Sport Climbs also soon to be available on the Rockfax App.

What Rockfax say...

South Wales Sport Climbs has been a great guide to produce. We have been lucky enough to work with three prolific local activists - Goi Ashmore, Roy Thomas and Gary Gibson, and their extensive knowledge has been a major help in putting everything together. We will be donating £1 from the first 1500 copies sold anywhere to the South Wales Bolt Fund, and then £1 per copy sold direct from the Rockfax website after that.

27 Dec, 2016
Not sure that a "first impressions" review can ever provide much depth. Comments on the quality of the photos snd the sharpness of crag topos are all very well but slightly superficial. That said, my copy is already on order but the issues that interest me are: What's the overall grade distribution in the guide? How does it compare to the well established Dorset guidebook? What's the route quality actually like, especially at the newer crags and those described for the first time? And more specific to the guidebook, how generous, or conservative is the star allocation, in particular in the lower (and highest) grades? How accurate is the grading? Is it soft, hard, consistent, highly variable? Out of the 1700+ routes, what percentage are likely to actually get regular traffic or in common with some definitive guides are there some that are 'filler' routes that are only included for completeness? What's the graded list like? Accurate? Skewed to the middle grades? Any extra ticklists (as per the latest Eastern Grit)? Is there any historical information? As I've said, not all of these questions can be answered immediately but I'd be interested in any opinions on them. PS Any good recommendations for 7c routes to try in 2017?
27 Dec, 2016
It is a good guide that has certainly whetted my appetite for some new crags: Temple Bay, Sirhowy and Gilwern East are on the early 2017 hitlist. The topos are great and there is certainly a good spread of grades in the guidebook area. In a previous thread on the guidebook I expressed slight disappointment with the cover shot (which is a minor quibble - the lighting is flat and the image doesn't really capture the essence of South Wales climbing). This led me to look more closely through the rest of the guide thinking "What would have made a better cover?" with this more critical eye I did reach the conclusion that the action photography is good, but not outstanding, some other recent guidebooks are clearly superior in this regard (Rockfax Dolomites springs to mind - the benefit of a dedicated photographer as author clearly apparent). The better shots in SW Sport are all Landscape in format and would lose their impact cropped for a portrait format cover shot, and to be honest there is not really an absolutely stunning shot anywhere in the book. Still I would rather have the guidebook in hand and start planning ventures than wait another 6-8 months to allow superior photographs to be taken. I guess as an Artist and consequently highly visual person I am likely to be more critical of this aspect than many, don't let it dissuade you from investing in a great guide.
27 Dec, 2016
Does that mean you've had just two reviews, which happen to complement each other nicely; or that you've had a larger number of reviews, from which you've selected two complementary ones? It could read either way. Not having a go - just curious :)
28 Dec, 2016
It means we received one which we had arranged and one unsolicited one. We don't normally receive reviews without asking for them. Alan
28 Dec, 2016
This sort of qualitative comment whilst positive doesn't really add much. What would be more useful is a direct comparison between the SWS and Dorset guidebooks in terms of Green, Orange, Red and Black routes. Dorset is amazing from 6b through to 7c and rather lacking below 6a and to some extent above 7c. If South Wales is potentially better at either end of the spectrum, it would be great to advertise this. The rest of your comments about having the guidebook in your hand being far more important than delaying for better photos certainly echo my sentiments. Also, I think it's not uncommon for landscape climbing shots to be better than portrait shots. In my experience nearly all good portrait shots (especially magazine cover shots) are staged whereas when not on an abseil rope and just walking around the crag it's often easier to get a decent composition in landscape.
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