A Pembroke Adventure

A sea cliff, route finding, commitment, adventure…

Ian Thurgood – July 2009

“We really must do Blue Sky – the 3 star, 2 pitch classic VS at Saddle Head”,
says I.

So, we turned up in the morning on an incoming neap tide with high water due
around 13:40hrs – clearly not the time to abseil into Blue Sky, but we knew
that. Plenty of time to tick off a few warm up routes off the non-tidal ledge –

Now, picture the scene. Come mid-afternoon the tide was very much on the ebb, so
nothing for it but to get that ab line down and do the business. We knew it was
a neap tide so the platform from where the first pitch truly starts was never
going to be exposed, but if you read the guide books, they all say you can ab
down to a ledge about 5m above the high tide line and not take anything away
from the whole experience – there, what could possibly go wrong!

The first pitch is described in the guide book as following the corner from the
platform (or 5m ledge in this case) then moving right on to a wall to a cave and
ledge stance – VS4a. Having spoken to some lads earlier in the day after they
topped out on Blue Sky, I followed their beta and threw the ab rope down the
left hand side (looking out to sea) of the buttress, as they said you abseil
past the first stance. Well, I don’t know if we were just too far left or what,
and I did ab past a small cave and ledge stance to what could, I guess, be
euphemistically described as a ledge above high water line, but the first pitch
that followed was not as described nor was it anywhere near VS4a!

Having got down to the aforementioned un-ledge (I did manage to place one No.3
nut to attach the belayer) – not before noticing, as I was abseiling, that the
end of the rope was drifting a good 15m out to sea. So I dragged it out of the
water before it could get itself wrapped around any submerged rocks and
continued to abseil with one hand whilst holding and paying out soggy coils of
rope with the other! I radioed to Christina that the ab line was free.
Walkie-talkies on sea cliffs – an absolute flippin’ god send I tell ya.
Christina started abbing down and as she did so the ebbing neap tide decided it
wanted to have some fun with us and push the waves just that little bit higher
up the cliff – resulting in the inevitable salt water rinse – 3 times!! You look
like King Canute – or at least that’s what it sounded like Christina was saying
to me, but with all the noise from the seas crashing around and below us it was
difficult to be certain!

Christina got half way between the espied cave and ledge stance and a slightly
damp around the edges Ian before making the decision that further descent was
inadvisable. Trouble is, the foot ledge she was dangling near was not suitable
as a belay – a sloping ledge and bulging wall coupled with only one piece of
protection. So, I decided to climb up to Christina without placing gear but
using a sling prusik round the ab rope as my leader placed protection.*
Fortunately the climbing was pretty straightforward so I was soon standing next
to Christina, whereupon, as Fagin would say, we reviewed the situation. Having
reviewed, it was decided that this really wasn’t a good place to set up a dodgy
belay! So, Christina stayed where she was connected to a No.6 nut and the abseil
rope whilst I transferred my prusik to the ab rope above her and carried on
climbing using the ab rope as pro. I carried on climbing, that is until
prevented by an absolutely desperate move out of a lovely secure corner onto a
wall to the right – gotta be British 5b/5c in anyone’s money! I know that
because I was unable to make the move without pulling the prusik really tight
and hand over handing up the ab rope for a few feet – horrible! Not to mention
the admiring audience from their nice dry, flat, non-tidal ledge round the
corner – no round of applause though ☹. Anyway, I had got to the cave and ledge
area we passed on the abseil down, which now seemed very small for 2 people and
2 ropes. But, this is where we would have to stay as Christina would have to
follow the line of the abseil rope, due to the fact that I would be belaying her
on said rope – yes, we still hadn’t flaked out the climbing ropes at this stage.
I managed to find two OK gear placements to anchor myself, flake out the rope I
was carrying (what a relief to finally get that weight off my back) and tie
myself onto the climbing end. All went well until Christina reached the horrible
move right. Bear in mind that not only was Christina climbing with 50m of 8.6mm
rope tied to her back, she was also tied in along the ab rope as the loose end
was soaking wet, so she had the added weight of several metres of 10.5mm sports
rope hanging off her waist loop! Not only was it a horrible, difficult move, but
I couldn’t take her on a tight rope as it would pull her away from the corner.
Eventually, after much investigation of alternatives, Christina stepped out of
the corner on to as tight a rope as I could reasonably give her and by a process
of combined tactics (including huffing and swearing) she arrived at the ‘stance’
– and was able to sit in the small cave to regain some composure!

After a little breather we flaked out the second rope, much to Christina’s
relief, tied on, and I set off to find the second pitch. I was not sure that the
stance we were at was the correct one, so I moved up and left of our stance to a
much larger, and I have to say more people friendly, cave and ledge stance –
damn! The route went up the corner from this stance then right across a short
wall under some overhangs. Looking up at the rightwards traverse from the
stance, the angle of viewing makes it look desperate, but once there, it is an
absolute gem. A flake running at hand height with positive holds all the way
along it’s length, coupled with a fantastic break at foot height (suitable for
the tall or the vertically challenged) made this one of the most pleasant
traverses I have ever come across – the only trouble being that it was over all
too quickly. On exiting the traverse, you are right out there on the arête
enjoying the most stunning climbing position with easy, protectable climbing to
finish. A pitch that deserves all of the 3 stars it is rightly given. If the
second pitch is as good as this what must the correct first pitch be like?

The belay was easy – just use the ab rope anchors! So I made safe and radioed
down to Christina to start climbing.

“ Shall I pull the ab rope up to this stance?” asked Christina

“ No, there are a couple of girls wanting to use it while we finish climbing.”
Replied Ian

“Ooh, hang on, where does this go?” said Girl 1

“Down to Blue Sky.” I replied

“ Oh, no, I don’t want to do Blue Sky” said Girl 2 running away!

By which time Christina had begun climbing, so the ab rope was left hanging and
coiled in a nice neat pile (we hoped!) way down at the first un-ledge I was at
about 2.5 hours ago! Christina made short work of the fabulous pitch – for those
that know Christina prepare to be shocked – she enjoyed the traverse!! – and
appeared on the arête wearing that smile that only a happy climber can wear.

As Christina started sorting out the climbing ropes, I stayed anchored in and
began tentatively pulling up the abseil rope. I knew I had untied the stopper
figure of eight so that wouldn’t catch on any rock. All was going to plan until
………. uh-oh resistance, the rope is stuck! If only those girls had got their
bearings upon arrival and I hadn’t stopped Christina from pulling it up to the
first stance. Luckily, letting out a bit of slack and gently teasing it back up,
the rat’s nest responsible for the scare appeared, swiftly followed by the end
of the rope and the end of our Pembroke adventure.

Fun and adventurous as it was, half a route is not the full tick, so we’ll be
back! Not so much sayonara Aozora (goodbye Blue Sky) as Ciel à bientôt Bleu
(until we meet again Blue Sky!)


* Editor’s note: Ian is well aware that a prusik isn’t safe in the case of a fall
onto it. So, if you didn’t know that, please don’t get the idea that it’s a
recommended method of self-protection. If, on the other hand, you did, then
you’ll know that it’s up to you to weigh-up the pros and cons according to the
particular case.

Leave a Reply