A Pocket Full of Positrons

This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of Climb Magazine.


Gogarth’s Main Cliff is a veritable frontier between land and sea, rising straight from the turbulent ocean for nearly 100 metres. The physical nature of this famous arena of British traditional climbing remains hidden until stood directly beneath it; only once committed do you finally grasp the size and steepness of these walls. 

Leaning, chaotic grooves capped by roof after roof, the quartzite soars unrelentingly from aquamarine water to cerulean sky. As a tiny speck on an overhanging, rust-coloured canvas, it is easy to become intimidated by the aura of the stories. A journey on one of the Main Cliff routes will evoke emotions that you had hoped to keep bottled; instead, the fear and excitement come tumbling out. Memories of these routes are burnt vividly into the mind. 

Gulls wheel and scream in the wind. White waves crash, assaulting the cliff. Gaping zawns disappear into darkness, at the mercy of the relentless erosion from the ocean. Slings are draped over shallow spikes, open-hand pinches chalked. Looking down, the ropes arc wildly, down into the black. Folded and twisted, the rock gives ample protection to those who know it well. The routes that push upwards are always hard-fought; Gogarth’s gravity is forceful and greedy, eager to claim another defeat.

At first, affinity for Main Cliff is over-ruled by trepidation. That first completed route engenders a deep-seated relief to have succeeded, to have returned to the horizontal. But a rare few find themselves yearning. A subtle shift in perspective; perhaps a gradual, opaque change, and soon you feel the need to return to the west coast of Anglesey - to the cliffs known as ‘Gogarth.’

I confess to have been snared. Eager to intensify my new-found devotion for these sea-cliffs, I have recently returned to Gogarth - again, again and again. The routes that once scared me have become transformed into fond memories. I can nod with a knowing grin when people mention the famous ‘Gogarth grip’ - we’re now firm friends. I have groped my way through the ‘beard’ lichen that clings to the quartzite, felt the relief when the route descriptions make sense, and - finally - relaxed the six-inch-pinch. Too bad my gear is behind those hollow flakes...

Positron is one of the best E5s on Main Cliff - although it is impossible to agree which of the 17 routes of this grade is the finest. All offer several pitches of steep, pumpy climbing, scattered with good protection and fat quartzite pinches.

Even the approach down to Main Cliff - only accessible via a sea-level traverse at low tide - feels adventurous. The cool, damp earth squeezes between my toes and they struggle for purchase as we slide towards the base of the crag. Pilgrims on a downward path, we wade through ferns and they clutch at our legs. I can taste salt on the sea air. At the start of the traverse my heart rate rises, the doubts circling in my mind. Another deep breath, careful not to show my fear to my partner, Nathan, and we begin.

Positron starts from a raised platform with the sea foaming metres below. Flaking the ropes as quickly as our nervous hands allow, we are trapped. Below, the waves flick and splash at our feet. Above, the imposing walls overshadow us, daring us to venture upwards.

A testing first pitch induces a cold, hard pump in the forearms as they pull forcefully over short roofs. Initially, the fractured rock is carefully analysed, before selecting the best protection and gently seating it in place. Higher, over the deafening sea, this becomes more desperate and hurried, stuffing in gear at random, clipping with hope. Another roof is breached before gaining a sloping bookshelf - only just big enough for one foot. This hanging belay offers little emotional or physical comfort, but at least we have escaped the sea; for the moment, at least!

The second pitch is short and punchy: a technical crux which is better envisaged as a boulder problem, complete with spotters and a safe landing. Instead, dare to picture tiptoeing leftwards from the belay on the lip of a large roof, hands and feet on sidepulls and faint smears. The roar of the sea drowns pounding heart-beats as I pull around an arete, clawing at crimps. An exposure explosion; the mind is overwhelmed. Thankfully, the struggle is short-lived and the belay quickly reached.

The notorious, brilliant third pitch is a clean, overhanging headwall split by a diagonal crack. Dark orange in colour with disappointing, sloping holds, the soaring line is sustained and atmospheric. 35 metres of endurance climbing which has claimed many scalps, it is a fine balance between climbing urgently - forgoing ample protection - but still safely.

Racking up slowly, I suppress the butterflies and breathe calmly. Inhale; slow exhale. Sitting on my haunches, I shake out on a fin perched on the arete. Up and left, the crack plays out for metre after metre, taunting me to begin a game of control. Down and right, Nathan hangs on the belay. In keeping with the usual Gogarth theme, I am quickly out of sight, unable to retreat, alone. I nod to him and the game begins. 

A delicate sequence of moves, mid-way through the headwall crack. Pausing, pressing feet on sloping nubbins of rock, crossing hands, I notice the run-out and the ropes hanging clean. I choose to ignore this and layback the matchbox edge, before spanning left to continue playing. More slings - always slings - adorn the orange. The fins grow positive, to mirror my breathing. Inhale; slow exhale: the fight is easing. A surge of laughter, starting from my toes and shaking through my body, finally erupts into the air. I revel in the comfort of my position. Such exposure, a fall would be into space. I feel alive; right in this moment.

Sitting at the top of the crag, usually many hours later, I feel relief at first. We have only a death-heather scramble until unroping - success seems tangible now. The route has fought tooth and nail, but is nearly spent. I peel off chunks of the lichenous green beard and cast it out towards the sea, watching with childish glee as it floats downward, only to be plucked by the updraft and blown up the cliff behind me. It amuses me to see this little anti-gravity trick and gives me hope that I can do the same - only slower and with much greater effort.

Back at the scattered rucksacks, water passes through parched lips, food settles the rumbling stomach, tired limbs finally loosen. Sprawling on the soft grass by the bags, facing out to sea, I have the crag to my right, South Stack to my left. Straight ahead, centre stage, the sunset glows gently and illuminates the underside of the clouds, a pink and orange hue. I look to my partner and we share the same satisfaction. Here, right at the point of total relaxation, I finally feel content.

But soon, I will begin to wonder. Another good forecast, another calling, another route on Main Cliff.


Positron, E5 6a. Main Cliff, Gogarth.

Thanks to Dan Lane for photography and Niels Ernst-Williams for cruising Positron.

Tom LivingstoneComment