Gogarth South: frightening climbers for 50 years

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 30/10/2015
Red Walls, photo: Alex Messenger

Forget ghosts and ghouls. We all know the real scare stories are from Gogarth South. To celebrate the new guide, a selection of North Wales diehards share their experiences of Gogarth South - from poetic Nick Bullock to straightforward James McHaffie.

The awe-inspiring, big, bold – and often loose – walls at this infamously atmospheric venue are home to some of the UK's most classic adventurous routes and the new guidebook Gogarth South is available now in the BMC shop

Nick Bullock - Helmet Boiler (Garden of Earthly Delights), Mousetrap Zawn, E5 5c

The wall above me was overhanging. Ripples of damp mud coated the soft grey rock. The ropes ran to my left in a long, nearly unprotected arc; a quartz boss with a sling wrapped around it and a 25-year-old peg were all that stood between me and a yellow helicopter ride.

I dug and scraped looking for some gear, digging like a deranged person searching for a miracle in a world of madness. I craved solid. If there were a God, he, or she, was easing back into a big comfy chair and cracking a beer... "Bet you want to believe now?"

My mind went down into a Hieronymus Bosch-painted world of soft and loose – white guano splattered, red and yellow and grey metamorphosed quartzite. Seagulls shrieked on the wind, flight feathers ripping. Waves crashed and washed in orange fishing floats, green tangled nylon nets, yellow bubbled scum and for one second, just one second, I saw my body washing in and out also.

Strength of mind in this world of convoluted twisted seams is the greatest asset to a climber, closely followed by a monster rack of gear. Unfortunately, for once in Mousetrap Zawn, a rack was surplus to requirements and, as I stood stranded on my little island of rock surrounded by a sea of overhanging mud, I could feel a tidal wave of panic starting to roll in.

Charlie Woodburn - Me, Yellow Wall, E6 6a

It was a memorable day at Yellow Wall with the young and bold Neil Dickson. The plan was Isis Is Angry, and we were vying each other for who was gonna get the top crux pitch, but quite comically we both ended up backing off the first 5c pitch in a muddle of crumbling choss.

As a serendipitous plan B we decided to do Me. It's an outstanding climb, which slowly builds in intensity and difficulty, culminating in a steep and uncompromising top pitch. Hanging from the belay below this pitch, I took the sharp end. While looking up scanning for gear amongst the brittle quartz veins, I remember Neil grinning devilishly: “I hope you’re feeling fit!”

True: there’s only so much that laps down the climbing wall can prepare you for hanging off suspect quartzite jugs protruding from soft clay above an angry sea, while trying to fiddle in passable protection; enjoying the insecurity and intensity of it all while staying unruffled before the egg-timer of pump gets the better of you.

I remember the long diagonal groove. A glorious haze of slings wrapped round spikes and hefty runouts above wire placements buried into doubtful rock. Dropping round to swing a heel up, or pulling over to find the occasional knee bar kept the pump at bay. I was perpetually distracting myself from the debatable nature of the protection by searching ever-upward.

As it turned out I was fit enough to onsight Me, but not fit enough to top-out without a fight. To me these are the best climbing experiences: a classic bit of jeopardy with a happy ending. One of the best plan B’s I’ve ever had. Gogarth at its finest.

James McHaffie - Surreal Appeal, Painted Wall, E7

If they be chosen an E4, E5 and E6 I'll go for a 7 then.
 
I'd walked past this lovely wall for years and written it off for climbing, thinking it was too peg-reliant and crumbly-looking, although the beach nearby had been good for Andy Scott's annual party.
 
I'd watched some friends try it on a cold dreary day in 2004; they hadn't made it look appealing.
 
Surreal Appeal is handily non-tidal, and this year curiosity caught up with me. After climbing halfway up I found good natural gear before the crux, which is on excellent rock.
 
It felt a bit like a hard Pembroke route at Gogarth.

Esther Bott - Hysteresis, Mousetrap Zawn, E4 5c

When your new beau gives you the Swanage guidebook early on in the relationship, and promptly sends you down a line into Boulder Ruckle to sample the delights of Dorset’s finest choss, there’s only one way to follow that up: get a copy of Gogarth South on the day of release and take him straight into Mousetrap Zawn.

Looking up at the black streaks running through the first crux section of Hysteresis elicited nothing more than tantalised smiles and a rare quiet that fell between us. This quiet persisted throughout pitch one, taking the first significant band of fragile, sandy quartzite, over the damp, blackened bulge above and across a hand traverse of inch-thick seagull shit to the stance.

Then on through the colossal nest of possibly a pterodactyl, and finally through hard, long moves into rock of laughable quality leading to the ‘belay’ of pitch two, where I found said beau, beautifully equalised between five points of optimism spanning as many metres, wearing a look of twisted pleasure and relief that I didn’t take a swing getting across to him.

The quiet was only broken by a family of onlookers peering through a gap in the wall leading down to the lighthouse behind us. In a surreal moment I remember wondering how it was that they could even see us over here in this other world, and how it was that we could hear their warm Scouse heckles, way over there, light years away…

The top pitch was unfortunately mine, leaving the comparative safety of the stance to teeter up an easy but completely crumbling, unprotected arête and into the sloping boulder field that greets all proud/relieved Gogarth-toppers. We didn’t even consider a second route that day; one is usually enough. But we’ve hardly been able to stay away from South Stack since, sometimes even finding ourselves saddened and disappointed by the cheer and rock stability on offer elsewhere. 

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