Dreaming of Pembroke

Instead of being the heroine of a Jane Austen novel and dreaming of Pemberley and Mr Darcy I am a scruffy crag rat reminiscing about some classic climbing on trad. As Winter approaches I sit here watching Paul Donnithornes crazy video of some big waves crashing over the top of Bosherston Head; as I watch this my dreams of a return visit to Big Issue are washed away by Storm Ophelia, at least until next year.

I'm still smiling! I love trying hard - John Bunney
I’m still smiling! I love trying hard – John Bunney


I’d not been to Pembroke for a couple of years but in a year where I have been struggling for psych it was just what the good Dr ordered, it was much needed. In an impatient child like way I can’t wait for next years Pembroke trips, I’m sure I’ll soon be asking is it Spring yet! My first visit came to pass with James McHaffie, Maddy Cope, Ryan Pasquill and Mike Hutton hanging around to take some cool pictures.

After a very wet and adventurous first day climbing the classic Preposterous Tales (E2 5b) which felt like an atmospheric caving experience and an extremely wet Stargate (E3 5c) which felt nails, I think we made the most of the less than ideal Friday weather forecast.

Caving Scenes - James McHaffie
Caving Scenes – James McHaffie

Saturday arrived with some better weather conditions and I got my first foray into some of the classics; climbing Pleasure Dome (E3 5c) and seconding Caff up Mutiny on the Bounty (E6 6a). Fatboy then went on to lead this as his first E6 with Caffs recommendation of it being about E3, perhaps not that easy but still a great introduction at the grade.
We then headed for the main event, Big Issue. Caff got a bit over excited and set off in the sun (completely ignoring his own game plan) getting cooked on the crux and flying off. Caff and Ryan had tried to on-sight this route the weekend before but were now attempting it ground up. I’d wondered if I was on form for this route or not, and then I thought I’d never get past the first few metres trying it ground up. I watched Maddy and Ryan put in great efforts, then I had my first go. I surprised myself both times by getting into the crux and the seed was sown. I was psyched by the possibility of doing this classic route, but, the day was made by having fun trying it as a team, watching Caff cruise the route and better yet watching Ryan fight hard on his third attempt to make it to the top with chicken winging glory! After all we wouldn’t let him live it down if Caff burnt him off!

Group Camaraderie really helps on intimidating routes - Mike Hutton
Group Camaraderie really helps on intimidating routes – Mike Hutton

The next day was a tired one, my skin was sore and Caff was hungover. First up was a route that Caff had recommended but I approached it with some trepidation. A friend of mine had a bad accident on Barbarella (E5 6a) just over two years ago, she has recently written about it in Rock and Ice. I would describe Harriet as a strong climber with a great ‘go for it’ attitude, her gear ripped and she decked out, the result was lower vertebrae compression fractures and a broke wrist.
As I set off it was a little greasy and I was tense about following in Harriets footsteps; to battle this I placed as much kit as possible. I climbed down and rested, then I shook my way up the route getting over pumped and secretly cursing Caff for sandbagging me by sending me up this route for a ‘warm up’.

Trying not to look pumped or scared on Barbarella - Mike Hutton
Trying not to look pumped or scared on Barbarella – Mike Hutton

Next we visited Huntsman’s leap, somewhere I’d looked longingly at 13 years ago as a psyched18 year old but had never climbed on till now. Caff sent me off up Headhunter (E5), this time though it was a long endurance route with a bit of a bold start. Luckily for me this route was my style and the climbing was perfection, I loved every minute of it.
Caff then decided to tick another Leap route off his list with a spicy E5 6b called Woeful. I haven’t stopped being a Pembroke punter yet, I’d come down either just my climbing shoes so whilst Caff was cruising I was dancing around in the wet sand trying to stop pools of water soak into my shoes. I actually fell off seconding this rarely climbed route as the weird nature of it started to aggravate my shoulder, an impressive lead by Caff but not one I’ll be back for anytime soon.

What a beauty! - Mike Hutton
What a beauty! – Mike Hutton

A return trip was imminent, I’d got the psych to be back in Pembroke as quickly as possible. Usually on the bank holiday weekend in August I would have been competing at the DWS comp in Exeter but the guys at the Quay were having a well deserved break to freshen it up for next year. This also meant I could have a well deserved break from scaring myself above water, or so I thought. On the first day teaming up with fellow DWS competitors Simon Rawlinson and Rhoslyn Frugtinet, Simon thought it would only be fair to warm up on a DWS route! 😳 We head over to Breakfast Zawn where Simon told us there was a great 6b to get started on. The psyched led the blind up this ‘warm up’ route which felt tricky for the grade and actually turned out to be Black Mass (7b), naughty Simon! Whilst a little soft for 7b it wasn’t 6b either, perhaps somewhere in the middle.
After a little excitement Rhos went on to lead Pleasure Dome and I led the classic Bloody Sunday (E4 6a) giving Rhos an idea of how I place my gear and seat it as she is new to the trad climbing game.
Simon had done an amazing effort of setting up a top rope on Big Issue and we went down to check it out again. The moves are truly incredible, in the sun Simon had a hard time commenting that it was a big step up from Point Blank (E8 6c). Rhos looked strong on the route and I had some encouraging link ups, I was glad I checked out the top though as it is still pretty tricky. Simon had a second go, improving on the first in cooler conditions and making good progress.
Day 2 saw a return journey to the leap with Rhos cruising up Headhunter and I seconded a lovely guy called Russell up Minotaur (E5 6b) after he cruised up it for the on-sight win. I’d not led this one but sometimes you can see in the eyes of someone else how much the ascent would mean to them. Russell’s climbing partner was tired and Rhos had been stolen from me, I didn’t feel the need to lead this route and I was more than happy to see someone else achieve success on a route they wanted to do. Simon was checking out Dusk till Dawn (E8 6c) and suggested Terminal Twilight (E7 6b) to myself and Rhos. At this point I hadn’t learnt about leap conditions but I was quickly going to learn the hard way! I set off up the expectedly wet bit and slipped off, glad that Simon had placed a piece of kit to protect the damp start. Next go I made it through and got to the point where I expected it to dry off, it wasn’t super wet but it also wasn’t that dry. I fought for over half an hour hanging about trying to figure out a non-reachy way through the first hard bit without using soaking wet holds. I’m a stubborn git but in the end I was off, eventually I did the moves using wet holds and made slow progress until I hit a dodgy peg and a less than ideal cam. I set off up on wet undercuts not psyched about taking a dangerous whipper on to kit in greasy rock. In the end I shouted for Simon to give me the static rope to tie into, I’m glad I did because moments later I slipped of the aforementioned wet undercuts. I was knackered and it took all of my effort to just climb out at this point; sorry Rhos! Watching Rhos struggle a little bit to climb out did make me feel a bit better that I wasn’t being a wuss! I didn’t understand why it was so wet wet with such little rain and a beautiful sunny day until it dawned that whilst it was hot up on top it was very cold at the bottom of the leap causing the rock to condense, climbers beware!
Day 3 for me was a planned adventure with James Taylor that turned into a little bit of an unexpected epic. It all started off at a leisurely place; James led a Pleasure Dome (I seem to really like this route), then we climbed Mysteries (my first foray into Stennis Ford). After this James was keen to check out an E5 called Circus Circus which ended up being pretty wet, he instead made the very sensible decision to climb the classic Luck Strike (E1 5b).
The punter part of the day came just after this when we headed back to Stennis Ford. I abbed down From A Distance (E7 6b) checking the grease factor and brushing the bottom. I also placed in the first bit of low kit to protect the very start after some sensible advice.
As I set off up the route I made it through the first hard bit, I was then on the traverse rightwards between the two pegs. At this point I became aware of a crowd watching at the top, and I started to get nervous. The traverse run out to clip the next peg felt tricky and had whipper potential, I spent a long time shaking out on a variety of holds including a mono! The footholds felt slippy but I eventually managed to unlock the puzzle and clipped the peg, and relax. I could breathe I started to move up and my foot slipped, I was off, I lowered down frustrated with myself for not being patient. I wasn’t pumped so I felt like I hadn’t tried hard enough. James set off with my beta, glad that the traverse thread had a draw in it he managed to clip and make the next few moves before bingo wings kicked in and he was off. James asked if I wanted another go, my body was ready but the overriding concern now was that darkness seemed pretty imminent. Two guys who had been on the route the previous day were watching James, after he fell they upped and left, we were alone. James was too pumped to traverse into the E4 and climb out. His suggestion was to prusik and gri-gri out for 40 metres, I was not psyched as I knew this was how Dougie messed up his shoulder to the point it now needs surgery. I looked over to the grassy cross thinking we had just enough light to climb out. I suggested this to James, if he came down the ab rope and took the kit out we could bail pronto. How a head torch (at the top of the crag) and an ascender (in my car boot) would have been useful right now. As I set off up the choss it went dark, I couldn’t see enough to place gear and I’d just hit the potentially loose bit half way up. James was right, we should just take the hit and prusik as I imagined crashing to the boulders if I broke something off. All of a sudden some light and voices appeared at the top. My pride went out of the window and I shouted for help, I no longer cared. I’m sure it had only been minutes but it felt like hours hoping that the choss didn’t break on me. Suddenly I realised it was my amazing housemates (Tom and Bunney) who had come to our rescue. They grabbed the ab rope and attached a head torch to it, after a few attempts I got hold of it, tied on and safely climbed out. We made it out with a few valuable sea cliff lessons learnt and the one I was most glad of was that I had told them where we were most likely to be.

My hero John Bunney, glad they came to my rescue.
My hero John Bunney, glad they came to my rescue.
My hero, Tom Butel - John Bunney
My hero, Tom Butel – John Bunney

Day 4, I needed a break. I was mentally exhausted from the day before, I treated my amazing housemate to a birthday breakfast and off we went to Mother Carey! It made a lovely change to just sit, listening to Harry Potter on audiobook and taking pictures of my housemates climbing some classic routes.

Tom on Rock Idol - I took this one!
Tom on Rock Idol – I took this one!

Day 5 before heading home and the red flag was up! Whilst putting a little spin on my plans it did mean that Simon and I got to warm up and have some fun at St. Govans first. I belayed my housemate on his lead of The Butcher, Tom is normally more at home on a technical slate route so this was a fine effort. It was funny to see him tense up, I knew he was easily capable of climbing this route but he made it hard for himself. I thought he was off on the crux but he somehow managed to fight to hang on, one of the best feelings is when a friend tries hard and succeeds.

Tom trying hard on the Butcher - John Bunney
Tom trying hard on the Butcher – John Bunney


By this time the red flags were down it was my turn to try hard on Big Issue. I had decided to headpoint it with the gear in because I didn’t know the placements well enough, I thought I could come back again if I achieved this. I set off knowing I only had one shot before the drive home. I climbed tensely but somehow I made it to the crux and tried to relax, my foot slipped but I stayed on. I managed to reverse to the shake out, ok I just had to breathe. Weirdly in this moment I relaxed because I felt I how had no hope of getting up the route. I somehow managed to pounce my way through the crux in a scrappy fashion knowing that i had the rope in a bad place which could lead to a bad fall, and suddenly I was at the last few really hard moves. As I moved up my foot slipped but I stayed on, one big move down, I set up into the next and catch this awkward sidepull, I set up again to pounce for the next hold but I hit the slopey outside part of the hold instead of the jug and I’m off taking the ride. Well that wasn’t too bad for my first proper headpoint attempt, it wasn’t smooth because I didn’t have it dialled. I pull back up to my highest gear and after a short rest I pull back on and climb through the moves I just fell off to the top savagely pumped. I’m grinning when I top out, yes I’m a little frustrated I fell because I was close to doing it. I’m happy though because now I know I can do this route, I wasn’t at my fittest, I’m excited because I get to climb this superb route again and I’m determined that I will succeed. I think this route might come close to being one of the best trad routes I’ve ever had the privilege to climb on, sometimes it just needs a friend to plant the seeds of inspiration when you doubt your ability.

What have I let myself in for?! - John Bunney
What have I let myself in for?! – John Bunney
Good to have an attentive belayer - John Bunney
Good to have an attentive belayer – John Bunney
Trying Hard - John Bunney
Trying Hard – John Bunney
Big Issue (E9 6c) - John Bunney
Big Issue (E9 6c) – John Bunney
Tongues out for Power - John Bunney
Tongues out for Power – John Bunney
Yes it really is that steep! - John Bunney
Yes it really is that steep! – John Bunney

As Winter kicks in I will have fond memories of my Pembroke trips this year. I look forward to some training over the winter so I can complete Big Issue, hopefully being good enough to place the gear next time for a better style. It’s the Summer of fun times and adventures that keep me going over the Winter, that keep me psyched. What I live for is the next adventure whether it’s on the seacliffs or in the mountains or fighting the pump on a sport route; it’s where I feel that sparkle of something truly special.