Conan the Librarian (E6 6b) defines sea-cliff climbing at Gogarth - which is a defining part of UK traditional climbing. The route climbs from sea level to the top of Wen Zawn, via some of the steepest, wildest, juggiest, loosest rock. It’s just the best type of adventure you can have, and one of the routes I’d saved for a very long time.
Together with Ben Silvestre, I’m glad we saved the route…
My arms screamed. I slapped at chunky pitches as 90 metres of air snatched at my screaming heels. A black sea frothed and licked at the base of Wen Zawn, anticipating my fall. The sunny fireball, the thing we’d been trying so hard to avoid - and then chase all day - ignited in delicious orange and turned the quartzite the same colour. Our white blobs of chalk dot-to-dotted back underneath the overhanging wall of choss, spiralling into the depths and down into the sea. It was the perfect mix - a beautiful evening with fantastic climbing, and we were so close to the top… but our arms were toasted arms and our minds fried.
‘Go on,’ Ben Silvestre shouted, and I knew I had to move otherwise I’d fall off. This final pitch, meant to be 5c or something enjoyable, was like the leftovers that nobody wanted. We could’ve escaped out of Dream of White Horses but Ben suggested a direct finish. We eyed the grassy top longingly, from where we’d be able to safely untie, away from the wall. I also knew Ben was now encouraging me because he wanted me to hurry up, as I’d said to him on the previous pitch.
Ironically, I’d climbed past a film crew of friends and acquaintances whilst on this pitch. Gatecrashing a shoot wasn’t what we’d expected to find up here, back in the light. It felt bizarre to change from otherworldly , ‘subterranean’ sea-cliff climbing, full of intimidation and tucked out of sight under the cliff, in our own private experience… to being surrounded by cameras. ‘Sorry,’ we mumbled as we climbed past everyone.
Ben traversed right from the belay, quickly changing from spooky choss to solid rock. He stepped around the rock scars at my belay (six - or maybe seven? - pieces of gear). Partly as a game, and partly to clean the route, I’d been picking, teasing, kicking off loose blocks in a one metre radius from my belay. The dirty brown scars were the only remaining evidence of my fun; I’d enjoyed seeing the rocks tumble… free-falling… spinning… then crash! into the sea far below.
Ben placed a cam in the solid quartzite, a different texture and colour to the earlier pitches. The rich orange takes good gear, and he climbed quickly now, more relaxed. He made a joke in a Scottish accent (we’d been shouting in terrible Scottish all day). ‘Aye, piece of pish with this bomber geeeeeear!’ I whooped in reply and he traversed right, into the sunshine. I vicariously felt it: warmth prickled my skin, I tasted the texture, I relaxed in the soft evening light.
Despite the reassuring gear, Ben still shook out his arms regularly, climbing with care. A fall from here might still leave the climber in space. Our arms obviously weren’t fresh and Ben stopped to place more gear.
In the shade of the zawn, I shivered, but soon Ben was moving again, climbing in the light.
‘Steve Long took a “sure-fire 60-footer” on this pitch’ I thought as I racked up. Whilst climbing with Calum Muskett, Steve had climbed almost the entire pitch until he’d got pumped, so tried to sit on some gear. Everything - the in situ pegs, his gear - had ripped except for a cam next to Calum’s belay. Steve had time to scream three times as he fell through the air and ended up miles below the belay, hanging in space, eyes on stalks. The watching seals must’ve had a field day!
Ben hung from the belay, satisfied with his lead on the first pitch. I was anxious about what lay ahead, the flakey rock un-peeling like an onion skin under my fingers. It was still pretty greasy, and we’d probably started an hour too late. We’d waited for the route to go into the shade, but I guess it would’ve been best whilst still in sunshine.
Everyone knows about the first pitch of Conan the Librarian - it’s the pitch. But when I read the guide, I was shocked to discover the second pitch was also 6b, and a shorter length. This meant the climbing was likely to be bouldery, packing a punch. I glanced at Ben on his hanging belay, the ropes in giant loops hanging in space, and launched into the climbing.
Ben tip-toed through the grease, the rock covered in slime. I guess it never gets the sun this far down here, in the ethereal sea-land zone at the base of the zawn. Ben’s dark, thoughtful eyes searched for the most incut edges to crimp and stand on. He barely spoke, perhaps concentrating, or perhaps aware of the weight of the route. We’d both wanted to onsight Conan, ‘a contender for the best route in Britain.’ The history and quality made this one of the few routes I’d actually saved. It was the archetypal Gogarth route. I’d been going well recently and this was my last day in Wales for a month or two. This was the right day with the right friend - this had to be the day. I know a lot of people want to climb Conan, but not many have actually done it!
The rock arced way over our heads, like a 90 metre breaking wave, frozen by calcification. ‘Oh goodness!’ I thought. Ben was halfway through the pitch already, putting in some gear before the hanging corner. His yellow Robocop helmet kept falling backwards off his head, and he habitually pushed it forwards again. Johnny Dawes was on this section on the front cover photograph of the ‘White Cliff’ book about Gogarth: it’s the obvious crux section and coolest part of the wall. Ben fiddled in more gear.
We’d agreed the best way to settle the debate - who gets the first pitch - was to play Rock Paper Scissors. I’d been thinking about it a lot over the past few days, trying to psycho-analyse Ben so I could win. On the walk in, we’d joked in the sunshine, giddy with excitement for the route. Would Ben go straight to Paper, expecting me to go for the classic Rock? We dumped our bags at the top of Wen Zawn and Ben smiled broadly at me - it was time to decide. Suddenly I wasn’t sure as we bounced our fists in the air, and I really wanted this first pitch. ‘One… two… three!’
Ben threw the classic and my Scissors was punched into the air. ‘Nooooo!’ I shouted as I laughed, Ben’s smile growing even bigger. My curses echoed around Wen Zawn and we chuckled at our game. ‘Well played. I thought you were a Paper kind of man, but it turns out you’re a Rock!’ I said.
Now, Ben looked down at me from high on the first pitch and I knew he was going for it. The crux section of the route, the onsight all that matters. He committed to the corner, bridged out wide and chalking up fast, quick dips with his hands. The yellow Robocop helmet slipped, then pushed back into place. I almost held my breath in anticipation, willing Ben on through the ropes in my hands. Little flakes of rock crunched and broke under his feet, and he jerked his palmed upwards. ‘Go onnnnn!’ I shouted, and suddenly the Irish ferry waves boomed and crashed into the zawn. This felt like a perfectly synchronised theatre, the tension and noise cranked to the maximum. Intimidating, much?
Ben let out a power scream, his hands snatching and feet shaking. ‘Ahhhhh!’ The climbing looked nails, all side-pulls and undercuts, greasy and awkward. Ben’s last wire good wire was a few metres below. His disco legs were out, the ropes quivering down towards me. ‘Come on mate!’ and I was fully there, with him all the way, willing him to stay on. The waves smashed, the zawn roared, and Ben screamed.
‘Phew. F*ck. Saaaaaaaaaafe!’ I let out a whoop in reply, and pulled on my rock shoes.