Pleasure Dome

This article first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Climber Magazine.


The UK road trip was beginning to change us. Nearly 3 weeks of climbing with only one (enforced) rest day meant the dirt was beginning to look like a tan and the muscles in our forearms had found their form. The south of Britain wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Pembroke - endless limestone cliffs stretching along the coastline, eyes tracing lines up soaring aretes and blank faces as the sea crashes below. The climbing here also leaves it’s mark; your aching, scarred hands will remind you of the sharp, positive rock for days afterwards. Besides, it never rains in Pembroke.

The well-thumbed guidebooks sat on the dashboard as we raced west, classic routes being thrown around like the contents of the van every time we turned a corner. Penfro was locked in our sights.

‘What about Pleasure Dome? Three star classic. E3 5c’, Dan said, as the guide slid over towards me, the open page and the three blue stars already grabbing my attention. For the rest of the journey I was right there: high up on the grey bulk of the Dome buttress, bomber gear and a booming swell below. The description leaves you no choice - it’s more of an obligation than an invitation. ‘Iconic symbol of Pembrokshire climbing... superb line, good protection and magnificent atmosphere.’ Step right this way, but be warned: it’s no soft touch!

We arrived to spots of rain on the windscreen, youthful ignorance ignoring the dark clouds as they raced overhead. Shafts of sunlight swept over the rolling seas, but better weather was promised this afternoon. Peering over the edge of the crag, the wind funneled straight upwards, the sticky smell of sea spray blowing high into the air. The afternoon sun and calm would burn off any grease.

Pleasure Dome lies on Stennis Head, a smooth, bulging wall rising straight above the sea. The route follows a left-to-right traverse midway up the wall, before blasting up the steep groove to a top-out to glory. You won’t believe the airy, atmospheric positions until you’re on the route, and by then it’s too late - you’re committed now!

Looking above and below the route, there are few holds or placements visible. The rising traverse is the key to a safe passage across the wall, unfolding move by move. You will force yourself to rest and put in gear at regular occasions, for fear of the crux and total commitment. 

Scrambling down to the bottom of the crag in the afternoon sunshine, the route loomed above us. We couldn’t help but trace the line with our eyes, but it left us uncertain as it disappeared out of sight. What happens around the corner? Peering up at the steely grey rock, it’s so obvious yet so hidden. A classic Pembroke adventure into the unknown, with an exciting finish.

The start goes quickly as the mental calm begins to settle. Nerves and fear subside, replaced by a sense of focus and energy. The rough rock encouraged me onwards until I stood, eyes level with the traverse line and the ropes swinging below me. I extend the gear at the start, careful to avoid any killer rope drag. A voice in the back of my head chuckles, ‘imagine the swing you’d take with that four-foot sling on the gear!’. 

The first traverse moves are technically straightforward, leading you on easily. The door is quickly slammed shut with a momentary loss of footholds and a sudden, rising panic takes hold, flooding the systems. A loudspeaker in my head shouts ‘gear!’, only for jugs and edges to re-appear and calm to be restored. Arranging typically fiddly but bomber Pembroke gear on the rail, I allow a glance rightwards. There are certainly holds, and a few polished dinks for footholds, but after that...? Best put two pieces in, just to be sure.

Inventive resting positions in the middle of the wall may leave passers-by wondering if you’re having a mid-route nap or even a seizure, but you’ll need to climb quickly through the next section, so it’s worth milking them.

The moves rightwards provide the greatest enjoyment, but also the most likely possibility of taking some airtime. I hope you called the Devonshire coastguard before setting out, because if you come off here you might be leaving Wales! Suitable gear arranged, you start the perfect torture: climbing which is completely obvious but almost totally committing.

I bunch my hands as far rightwards as possible. Matching feet, I extend my right foot out and press hard on the small dink. Shifting my weight slowly to the right, I focus in on the small crozzly spike up and right and fire for it, my right arm outstretched above me, focused on the hold. The jug comes into range and I latch onto it, quickly swapping feet to establish myself on top of a sloping ramp. Extending bomber gear again, I hear the same voice chuckling. ‘Avoid rope drag, it’ll be a safe fall’, I mentally retort.

The chunky undercut and jug allow a brief shake-out, but the steep angle calls for urgent action. Moving up and rightwards to pull onto more vertical ground, the holds become thin crimps, like the slots in a parched, cracked earth. I thank my campus board training for allowing me to confidently pull through these, quickly building feet high in order to step back left to the shallow groove. Breathe deeply, for this is the last chance you’ll see the comforting face of your belayer for quite some time. 

Making precise and controlled movements I force myself upwards, thankfully free of rope drag but aware of the glorious, enveloping situation I find myself in. The isolation and quality of climbing that you are reeling from easily outweighs the pump in your forearms which was, only moments ago, a cause for concern.

You have passed the test and are now free to enjoy the final groove to the top. It continues with interest, but you’d be mad to let go here - imagine the air miles you’d clock up!

The feeling of contentment will last long enough for you to share your belayer’s grin as they finish the groove and pull onto sweet terra firma.

The true finish, however, does not exist. You’ll simply smile at each other as you coil the ropes and share a few simple words: ‘what’s next?’


Pleasure Dome. E3 5c. Stennis Head, Pembroke.

Tom LivingstoneComment