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Letting Loose At Blackchurch

A few weeks ago, I was tidying up my office, and came across an article I had written in 1980 for the magazine of the Mountaineering Club of North Wales. Reading it again made me realise how mainstream climbing seems to have changed since then. With the advent of bolt protection on a lot of our outcrops and quarries, greatly enhanced gear for ‘natural’ protection, and detailed route descriptions, the focus seems more and more to be about the technical difficulty of a climb rather than the uncertainty of the outcome due to complex route finding/poor protection/suspect rock/etc which was formerly the case. I’m not complaining about this, and I’m a firm fan of the Costa Blanca, but of the climbs I have done over the years, a lot of the most memorable ascents have been where there was worry and doubt about the outcome, due to weather, incoming tides, or poor rock, etc, which turned the climb into an adventure. Poor/loose rock in particular has always been around and has its place; and the article below describes one of the classics of the genre.

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FIRST CLIMB AT BLACKCHURCH

I suppose, if we have been climbing long enough, we all have an ultimate loose, or nightmare climb, and of course, as time goes by, that ultimate gets more extreme. I well remember my first introduction to loose rock, in about 1970, when my mate Phil introduced me to Llanymynech Quarry, which you could then, only climb relatively safely (with a few pleasant exceptions like Blind Faith) by using gentle side pulls and delicate balance movements – a bit difficult on overhanging limestone. This was Number One for years, until we found Mousetrap, at Gogarth. We only climbed it because at the top of the first big pitch all five peg belays were too loose to consider abseiling from. Nowadays it doesn’t seem too bad, certainty it’s a lot sounder than its neighbour Green Slab: but anyway, it was soon demoted to second spot by Ercall Quarry, which has not yet received worldwide acclaim. It was, or is, if it hasn’t fallen down yet, about a mile from my former home in Wellington, and consisted of a couple of mercifully shallow angle one hundred foot slabs. They are, or were, composed, or decomposed of, badly baked digestive biscuit. Every climb there was a first ascent, even for the second person on the rope, not that a rope was much use. Here at last, I thought, I had found my ultimate loose rock…… but in 1979, Pat Littlejohn produced his guidebook “South West Climbs”, covering Devon and Cornwall. This is still, in my opinion the most inspiring climbing guide ever written, containing a lifetimes worth of vertical adventures on the coasts of the peninsular. We bought a copy; and in the summer of 1980, Phil and I discovered Blackchurch!

Blackchurch is a sea cliff, composed of “culm” (remember that name if you climb on the north coast of Devon or Cornwall). It’s about two miles from Clovelly. Approached by a pleasant wooded walk, it forms the back of a beach; a series of overlapping slabs two hundred and fifty feet high. It looks (or looked) rather like the west buttress of Cloggy, but there the comparison ends.

We decided to start off by having a look at “The Almighty”, a Littlejohn route, and recommended by him. It was also, perhaps more compellingly, the easiest route on the crag, at VS. It started with a wide crack up a wall. The crack took MOACs (one of the first commercially made nuts, in one size only, if you are too young to remember them), but the holds on the wall, although nice and square, were rather spaced. Far enough up to hurt myself, I realised that if you pulled up, or stood on them, they were all right, so long as you stood or pulled vertically. Any tiny outward or sideways pressure and off they came, along with quite q lot of the bedding plane below. A worried man, I pretended to belay about a hundred feet higher and silently awaited Phil’s arrival; I guessed he would be psyched out without verbal assistance from me. He was. “Well that’s it, I’m abbing off” was all he said. “Off what?” I queried, and let him look at the belay, including the peg he had already pulled out with one finger.

The first pitch had been bad, but the second was beyond belief. From the top of a pinnacle, which felt as if it was getting ready for the downward trip at any time, a stride took me on to a steepish arête. This arête was completely decayed. Everything I touched simply fell off. I think I hugged myself up it, but I’m not sure. My brain goes numb when I try to recall that forty feet without a runner. At the top, I clipped to a welcome piece of rust and started the rightwards traverse to the next belay. The traverse followed a series of overhanging ledges; the ledges gave good holds, but all off balance, which wasn’t good. Trying not to put too much weight on my hands, I leaned out and stood on the largest piece of the lower ledge. Then I put all my weight on my hands as the foot ledge whistled past Phil and shattered to fragments on the beach below. When I reopened my eyes I was still hanging from the handholds. So, on the assumption that they were good, and that I had no choice anyway, a few more heart fluttering moves made to the accompaniment of the sound of more rocks bouncing their way to the beach, got me to the stance and a relatively good belay. Phil didn’t comment on the pitch when he arrived, but he did make some comments about the state of my brain, with which I was inclined to agree.

The last pitch was of course, the crux. It looked it! Fifteen feet of rightwards traverse, across two overhanging corners, then a groove, and then, out of sight, a slab to the top. I was a long time getting started. I didn’t like what I saw. The only holds were small, very fragile, finger flakes, which in view of our experience on the previous two pitches, couldn’t seriously be expected to sustain the weight of an over large butterfly. Oddly enough though, they didn’t break off, and it was a very grateful and frightened leader who reached the glorious security of a mud plastered groove and slithered up a few feet to rest on a wholesome patch of grass. From the grass patch, the final eighty feet or so of slab looked magnificent, or at least, it would have done if the minute holds had been solid, and so far I hadn’t found another MOAC. I was therefore particularly timid, tiptoeing out left to the overhanging edge of the slab, and up. Up it to an old peg, but solid though! (God bless you Pat Littlejohn) Then, as the choir burst into the rousing bit of the Hallelujah chorus, more good runners appeared, as did solid holds, and an easy finish into a grove of stunted thorn bushes.

I won’t forget that climb!!!

Dave Laddiman

 


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