Stefan Glowacz making the first onsight of Strawberries in 1987.
Photo: Uli Wiesmeier
Monday, 25 May 2015
A subtle twist, a change in perspective, a flash of magic. A line of strength.
Tremadog rises from the trees as we start to hammer down the straight, a fortress overlooking the plain. Eyes lift from the road and onto the cliffs, tracing the lines.
Approaching Eric’s cafe the crag rises, grows, cleans into proud walls and strong features. The Vector headwall is the showpiece, sat high above the road, steeped in steepness. The line you can barely see, the faint crackline on the left side of the sliced face, holds the poisonous fruit.
We walk to the top of the crag, heavy packs through humid woods. Lying flat on my stomach, head poking over the top, my eyes gawp at the drop. Far below, oak sways in the wind and the updraft pulls at my hair. I inch out further and further, eager to see the line I’d heard so much about; but the line remained hidden.
Yes, I can see the start: the fat lip of a black and grey ledge at the base of the headwall. The finish: a jug just below the square top of the crag, hanging like a lure to pull me over. The beginning and end were obvious, but the middle? The rest of this infamous line? A bulge hid the secrets of Strawberries. ‘But where does it actually go?’ The blood ran to my head so I ran away.
Abseiling over the top, I hung in space, slowly kicking my legs in circles. The line looked desperate, fierce, steep. Rumours were confirmed. A line of most resistance, of pain, of true colours. It looked more angry red than soft blue. Bright, warning of poison. The sting in your fingers will last for days.
Nick and I tried the line ground-up, with some useful beta from Dave Evans. Initially, neither of us reached the second - higher - crack but I eventually topped out with a couple of falls. We concluded it was nails and dropped a rope to figure the moves. The line gave little away, only allowing success in tiny increments. By the end of the day I had found the moves but lost my fingers; they were throbbing and covered in blood.
An enforced rest day due to rain was all I needed. The day crawled by, moves floating through my mind over and over again. I must’ve climbed the route five times that day, getting more and more psyched for it. The more you wait, the more you want.
The next day was bright - ‘fat suns’ to be precise. We made the now-familiar pilgrimage to ‘Trem-dawg’ and the line glared down at us from the car park. I wanted to escape but was snared, condemned to walk the line until I climbed it.
I love the difference between feeling tired and fresh. The moves felt fine and I decided to go for a lead, choosing to place only three bits of gear in the meat of the route.
I nervously set off and fired through the jams. I placed my first two pieces of gear but couldn’t find a restful position for the top piece so just pressed on anyway. It would’ve been quite a pisser but I knew the fall was safe, so ignored the run-out and set up for the crux lunge. Autopilot kicked in (hop, hop, hop the right foot and ssstrechhh!) and in a quick second I was on the finishing jug and whooping with delight. Nick’s voice wafted up, keeping me focussed: ‘don’t fall now!’ I might’ve gone past the belay!
A subtle twist, a change in perspective, a flash of magic. What a fantastic line.
Now my fingers have stopped stinging with pain, my relationship with this line has been a strange one. It’s obviously very historic, brilliant climbing and has a notorious reputation. Big Ron Fawcett originally graded the line E5 7a, and I can see why. I’m pleased to have done it, but sad it’s over. I’m happy with the style, but perhaps should have continued with ground up. Part of me thinks I should’ve saved it for a flash attempt in the future, but perhaps that’s optimistic.
However, whilst briefly working it on a rope, Nick and I found so many specific and minor adjustments that made a massive difference in being able to climb it. These subtle twists and changes in perspective were enough to give us a ‘flash of magic’ and make the route much easier. As ever, the subtleties made the line.
I doubt these subtle changes would’ve been used in a flash attempt, since they were unique to our different strengths, techniques, heights etc. This could make the distinction between success and failure on a flash, and perhaps is why it’s so rarely onsighted and flashed. It just goes to show how impressive it is when people onsight/flash/second go this route! Respect to Stefan Glowacz, Jorg Verhoeven, Hansjorg Auer and Steve McClure for tasting ‘the poisonous fruit’ and coming away with the onsight!
Thanks to Nick Bullock, and good luck - I’m sure he’ll have also climbed it by the time you read this