VIDEO: BD athletes Dave MacLeod and Tim Emmett climbing in Pembroke
This past fall, Black Diamond athletes Dave MacLeod and Tim Emmett ventured to the ultra-scenic crags of Pembroke, South Wales, a place known not only for its bold, beautiful lines on striking seaside cliffs, but for its notoriously finicky conditions that can make redpointing an exercise in extreme patience. Below is a write-up from Macleod, photos from David Pickford, and a video that give an intimate look at the intricacies of UK climbing and details Dave and Tim's efforts on some of Pembroke's best (and headiest) routes, including Dave Pickford's The Brother Karamazov (E9 6c).
In his book Preposterous Tales, about traveling the world in search of the best climbing venues he could find, Tim Emmett had one clear policy: he would visit no place twice. For a globetrotter like Tim, finding a base to live between trips better have some pretty good climbing to be worth it. For many years Tim chose to live in Bristol, England, as it was close to the sea cliffs of Pembroke. After climbing with Tim in various corners of my own backyard in the Scottish highlands, it was about time he showed me around his stomping ground.
British trad climbers certainly revel in the esoteric-weird routes, weird rock, weird placements for gear, and apparently keeping things as dangerous as possible. All fine pursuits, but Pembroke climbing, in general, is known for almost the opposite. It has thousands of super accessible routes on clean white limestone, well laced with cracks for gear placements. But the one of the most unique things about climbing in the U.K. is the weather. Some might say it's crap, but it's not really true. Sure, we have some of the most frustrating conditions of rain, mist and wind you'll find on this planet. But the opposite extremes are just as common. I've never experienced better friction than when the fresh gulf-stream breezes come in spring and autumn. They make up for all the rubbish days.
On the top of my list for the trip was the area's hardest route-Tim's own testpiece Muy Caliente (E10). It works out as a runout .13b into a no fall zone at around 20 meters above the boulders, to a good piece of gear, then straight into a .13d crux. Watching Tim on the first ascent, slapping and almost falling from the unprotected part was enough to put most people off. Tim seems to love this scenario-operating right at the limit of his powers with no reserve, even on really poorly protected climbs. Most trad climbers like this kind of experience in small doses, but Tim has apparently no problem doing this week-in, week-out. I hoped that the climbing style (steep, technical crimping) matching my own favorite style, together with a fair bit of practice would mean I could lead it a little more 'in the black' than Tim. So I arrived a couple of days early to get the work sessions in.
By the second day, I had an overdose of keenness. After a rainy summer in Scotland working on "The Great Climb" live BBC broadcast with Tim, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of dry rock everywhere that I hadn't climbed yet, the quality of the moves on Muy Caliente and the fine autumn conditions. I had an overwhelming urge to lead it after a good link on the rope and soon after, I found myself hanging from the finishing jug on lead, wide-eyed and truly reminded of the mega buzz provided by hard headpointing.
It was great to be able to tell Tim when he arrived later that I'd repeated his route and that I'd had such a good time on it. It meant that we could start anew on something neither of us had tried before. Next on the list was the two-pitch The Brothers Karamazov, which consists of an E8 to a hanging belay with an E7 wall pitch above. Dave Pickford, who made the first ascent, was with us and pointed out the obvious challenge to link the two pitches into one massive, 50-meter E9.
The Brothers Karamazov was totally different than Muy Caliente. I struggled on toprope with the route's big slopers and bulgy crux, I couldn't reach the crux hold, was greasing off in the warm southern sunshine I'm not used to, and produced various other excuses for not doing the business. At least Tim, who looked much better on the crux moves than I did, also opted to leave it for the day. Despite the day's poor conditions, an evening sampling some brilliant E5's and dodging waves got us back to a relaxed, confident mood. We would do The Brothers tomorrow, for sure!
Except that we wouldn't. It rained that day, and the next, and the next. With half a day left we were facing going home without the send. This prospect was getting under my skin. So when the sun came out finally, there was a bit of a panic to get everything ready. As the sun sank into the Atlantic there wasn't time for both of us to lead, so we flipped for the opportunity to go for it. Lose the toss and you don't get to do battle. Win it, and the pressure is on you not to waste the chance by blowing it! I won, for which I felt bad since I'd already got one hard route in, so I asked Tim if he was really sure. Of course he was, like a true sportsman.
Right then, lets get on with it. At the bulge, I fiddled with rubbish wires. I made a poor attempt to look in control through the crux, but Tim's encouragement fell briefly silent-he must have been eyeing up his jump zone to take enough rope to save me if I fell. The upper wall went a lot better once the sun had set and conditions immediately became much better! I felt much more at home, and as I brought Tim up while looking out across the rough sea, I completely forgot I wasn't in the remote and wild mountain crags I'm used to in Scotland. I was yards from the car and we would be chinking celebratory pints in the pub in about fifteen minutes. That's the beauty of sea cliff climbing.