This article appeared in The Project Magazine in December 2017, and can be found here.
'You haven't been to Red Walls? What!'
John gave a warm Irish chuckle. It made me feel both guilty and excused at the same time.
But I knew it, too: not climbing a single route on one of the most famous cliffs at Gogarth was a glaring omission, especially considering how often I've climbed here. Time and time again, I've gripped those quartzite pinches, searched for a hold amongst the 'beard' lichen, and watched seals bob in the sea. But to tell the truth, I'd been putting off a visit to Red Walls, afraid of what I might find...
Driving north-west through Anglesey, green fields rushed past and my anticipation grew. Red Walls is a serious and adventurous crag, a chaotic border between the Welsh mountains and the Irish Sea. The rock has been sculpted with a cheese knife, and is about the same solidity; intricate spikes, curves, grooves and blobs are artfully dashed all over the wall. It's as if a master patisserie chef has crafted the top of a cake, then turned it to vertical and splashed it with red, gold and orange.
More green fields, and the road signs counted down like a timer. 12 miles to Holyhead. White lines flashed, the engine hummed. 10 miles. The clouds brightened, and suddenly we were in sunshine. 8 miles, and my thoughts began to tumble. I remembered the famous stories: holds breaking, ropes cutting, huge falls past the belay. And the pitches are long - that fall must've been quite a pisser!
For some reason, climbers feast on the Red Walls taste sensation, shuffling slowly upwards. Slings are draped on every possible horn of sandy rock. The seriousness creates a heady sugar-rush, even though you can place racks and racks worth of useless gear. Every delicious hold is a hold... but which hold will hold?
Sometimes, a hold will creak... shudder... and snap! and break free from the wall, gleefully plummeting into the sea below. Hopefully, the climber doesn't join it.
We arrived, and a few hours later, John and I popped my Red Walls cherry with a couple of classics: Cannibal (E4 5c), Mantrap (E3 5b), and Khmer Rouge (E5 6a). John's mind buzzed with the tune of, 'the buttery biscuit base,' while I imagined all the sandy, cheesy, biscuity holds to be real cakes and treats.
My past experience in loose, chossy rock helped me through the day, and suddenly I was addicted, craving another hit. But just like any addiction, the climbing here must be moderated. John laughed again; 'I've never done the same route twice! No way...'
For much of the year, the Red Walls cake belongs to the birds. They chatter, squawk, ak-ak-ak, generally shitting all over the place until flying south at the end of summer. And then - only then - do climbers slip and slide down their abseil rope, dropping further and further from the safety of the cafe. The twitchers bristle and point: 'look at those abseilers!'
Second time around, Big Tim and I made the drive through Anglesey. He was psyched and has done almost all the routes, while I was psyched and have barely done any. I had something in mind, though: Heart of Gold Direct combined with Ramalina. James McHaffie, one of Britain's best sandbaggers, climbed this while John and I were here, and commented on its quality. I knew HOGD was about E6 6a, and Ramalina bumped the grade into 6b. I figured just doing HOGD alone would be amazing; Ramalina would be a lucky bonus - a tasty dessert.
With Tim settled on the belay, I set off up Heart of Gold Direct, tiptoeing towards the middle of the wall. The rock was dubious here, a dark meringue colour, so every hold was inspected, tapped, gently weighted... then committed to. I crept upwards, almost in slow motion, aiming for big flakes of cake toppings. A micro-cam behind a booming flake; a brass offset; a sling over a shallow spike. If I took any of the protection in isolation, I'd have laughed in disbelief: 'what's that gonna do?!' But I had to put something in, because it's the best there was - and at least it might've slowed me down.
Days could've passed, the world could've ended, but still I was in my little bubble of inspect, tap, commit. Had Tim fallen asleep? Would I have noticed?
Into the crux of HOGD, and the route became wonderful face climbing on (relatively) solid rock, a deep rust colour. The holds were all incut crimps, perfect for my fingertips, and despite my gently burning forearms I found I was really enjoying myself.
At the junction between the HOGD exit and Ramalina, I shouted down to Tim. 'It's a shame I haven't got much gear left!' Below, swinging in the wind, was most of a double rack of cams, two and a half sets of wires and about 17 quickdraws. Above me was 'only' 20 metres of climbing and 'only' a 6b crux. From a distance, I saw Caff took his time on this pitch, so I knew it couldn't have been a cruise. I considered my options, and my recovered forearms answered for me: 'go!'
Climbing up toward the steepest section of the wall, I felt more anxious and alert. Inspect, tap, commit, a bit like winter climbing. I chalked up in preparation of chalking up - the holds were coated with a film of sand, and I wiped my fingers on my shirt. The closer I got to the crux bulge, the more I shook out, chalked up... commit... no, wait!
The crux was a series of small crimps and pockets, all perfectly placed and in sequence. The master patisserie chef must've taken great care over this section. If I fell, I would've gone for miles - probably ripping several pieces of gear - but I knew I'd stop eventually. With pump rising, I brushed off more Gogarth 'beard' lichen and searched for the next crimp. I forced myself to climb higher, further from my protection. I imagined the rock rushing up from beneath me if a hold broke, red and gold and orange blurring and the gear going, 'ping... ping... ping!' as it popped and then the crunch of my bones.
But the rock didn't break. I didn't feel the hit of gravity. Instead, I crimped my way higher, and once through the crux, I pressed on as fast and as carefully as I could. I didn't dare hang around any longer. All I could think was, 'get me out of this crazy chaos,' over and over.
Belaying at the cliff edge, 59 metres of rope beneath me, I watched as Tim climbed. The salty sea was far below; it frothed and foamed, eager to taste the Red Walls sugary topping. Water punched and licked at the rock's surface, and fluffs of lichen rose on the updraft. I could hardly believe I'd managed the pitch, psyched to have combined two routes into one giant monster. I gazed out to sea and grinned.
On the drive home, I felt whacked; I was suffering from a Red Walls sugar crash and I knew I needed some time out. The car engine hummed in a quieter tone, and the dusk light lengthened. We drifted back towards the mainland.
But, like a true addict, I knew I'd be back.