It started a few weeks ago when Stevie took me to look at some of the projects he’s had in his sights for some time. 40 years to be exact, when as an energetic little lad he wandered around Gozo exploring every square inch of its seacliffs, boulders and inland valleys and buttresses. We had driven to the area of cliffs referred to as “Ta’ Saguna” which are west of Ta’ Cenc, below Sannat where he pointed out a line starting from the sea and taking a series of grooves and ledges up the side of the most obvious arete feature in the area. To me, it looked a bit loose, to put it mildly. Quite a bit of vegetation there too. But it was a big route. A very big route by Maltese standards. I pitied the poor sucker who would be climbing it with Stevie eventually.
Fast forward to March and Stevie was back in Malta. He texted me that he’d abseiled down the line. Checked it out. It was mega. A great route he said. He was very enthusiastic. Fast forward a couple more days and I was sitting in his apartment with Kyle, Stevie and Xavier, chatting about projects and climbing in general. Stevie mentioned that the route would go, but it would need a few bolts in strategic places as the rock wasn’t that great. Bolts at the belay stances as well as a few bolts along each pitch just to make the whole thing safer. We all agreed that this was the way to go. That was Sunday the 4th of March. The exchange of texts that followed a couple of days later is self-explanatory:
Simon: “ok u been working on big route”?
Stevie: “4 pitch route ready to go. It has a big feel u need a helmet 9mm ropes? ITS TRAD” (my capitals)
Trad I thought?? 😮
Simon: “I hv helmet and 70m 9.5mm…no bolts at stances??”
Stevie: “Bring 70m 9.5..good belays”
Ok so the route was going to go trad after all. I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy but he did say the belays were good! We had a weather window of opportunity on Thursday 8th so I duly took a day off and contacted Stephen Farrugia who was interested in taking some pics or video of the route. We made the crossing, drove over to Stevie’s apartment in Nadur and drank our ritual coffee, then headed over to the cliff. The weather was warm. It was going to be a good day!
We geared, up Stevie commented about my trad rack being, quote crap unquote. Ok ok so it was a bit old, but the nuts were brand new and he stopped whingeing once I pulled a bag of about 10 new cams from my rucksack. Mental note to get some new hexes! He hammered three pegs into a crackline on the plateau at the top of the cliff, tied his two 70m ropes end to end and abseiled down 140m to a sea level ledge and spike belay just left of the starting groove. I followed, had a bit of an epic passing the knot while bouncing in space, but eventually got down. Its an impressive abseil. High, often steep, and the surrounding cliffs seemingly swallow you up as they increasingly tower above and around you. At the bottom, a snoozing Stevie was waiting for me and we set to preparing for the lead. Down there, as is often the case when on Maltese seacliffs, the sea was beautiful, dark blues and emerald greens and the sound of the waves beating relentlessly against the base of the cliff giving a sense of being one with nature, whatever that means. It was a good place to be belaying although the towering cliff above still had to reveal its true nature.
I sat in my hanging belay as Stevie started to climb. Stevie has some interesting pieces of kit. The bit I was hanging on at the time was a cord looped over a spike. It resembles and feels like the cord my mum used to hang her washing out on. I tried not to think about it too much.
Stevie moved rightwards into the groove. He said the first 20ft of the route was on good rock. That’s 20ft out of 420! Indeed, the first 20ft were good. I leant back as much as possible to try and watch him climb the groove but only managed the occasional view of his bum bobbing around as he grunted and pulled himself up the moves.
He disappeared totally from view. Small bits of rock and dust occasionally floated downwards as he moved up then leftwards to a stance.
The abseil rope was out of reach so he couldn’t use it as a backup. He took in the slack while I removed the “washing line” and nut then moved easily rightwards into the groove on immaculate rock. The groove was great for the first few feet then it got …powdery. This was a taste of what was to come. The holds were coated in dust and each move released a small shower of fine particles that got into my eyes and coated my clothing. It was harder than I expected but not that hard so I soon arrived at the first stance, dirty but still excited about the route ahead.
Stevie reached for the peg from which he was belaying me, held it between his thumb and forefinger and pulled it easily out of the hole. Just so you’ll know, he said. I was relieved to see that there were a couple of cams in a crack backing the peg up too. Still… As the colour slowly came back to my face we swapped positions and he got ready to lead the next pitch. The first move off the ledge was a pull on unsurprisingly very brittle looking holds and it was undercut so you had to lean right back over space hanging onto bits of biscuit. He rummaged around and tried to place a cam in a hole in the undercut. No luck. He chucked a sling over one of the “biscuit” holds using it as a spike belay. At least it was something. Had he fallen from that position he’d have come off right onto my gear. And the peg. He then found a crap placement for another cam to the right, then did the moves…pulling hard on rock that could have snapped at any time. But it didn’t so he made it up ok and kept climbing out of sight. Relief.
I was alone on the stance again. Looking down. Squirming my feet trying to create space for my impossibly cramped toes. Looking at the peg. Daydreaming, looking around, passing the time, occasionally listening for sounds of clanking hardware or shouts from above. Now and again I’d give him some slack as he progressed upwards.
Eventually there was a tug on the rope signalling that I could start to climb, and I slid the peg back out…very easily, and took out the cams..and put my shoes back on! The move up the undercut was ok, nothing snapped, then a couple of leftward steps took me directly above my previous stance to an exposed position at the base of a crackline. The route followed this, again on steep powdery rock and then ledges to where Stevie waited…he then accidentally dropped his camera pouch down to a ledge a few metres below me. At first I thought it was his camera but I guess he would have been a lot louder if that was the case!. I reversed a couple of moves and picked it up for him then moved up to the second stance. This time he’d used the ab rope, which was comforting! I handed over the leading gear I’d retrieved from the previous pitch. Stevie told me to give him loads of slack just as he pulled on a rock which dislodged without warning hitting him in the shoulder and face. It hurt. There was blood and he was dazed. As the rock came off he fell back and pulled on my belay device which held him, although had he fallen back a step further he would have gone over the edge and swung round to the ledges below me. Luckily he stayed put. My hand bled a bit too as the fingers were caught between the rope and the rock. Nothing serious though.
Yep the rock in the pic above is the hold that came off…I forgot to stick my foot out as a point of reference for the size, but i would say it was about as big as a computer monitor..the old big ones not the flatscreen ones! Good thing it didn’t land on his foot or we’d still be there!
This was a bit of a shock and I think it seriously undermined our confidence at this point. The hold looked pretty solid. If THAT came off just about anything else we touched on the route could come off too. More care needed. A long way to go still. Stevie climbed on a lot more hesitantly this time. He was obviously more worried about the holds now and was shaken. Who can blame him!?
The next pitch was easy but still, the climbing had become nerve-wracking because now we half-expected any hold we pulled on to snap off. Soon it was my turn to climb again and I arrived quickly at the next belay stance without incident. Again, the abseil rope was out of reach so Stevie had wrapped his end of the rope round a large nose of suspiciously hollow sounding rock. The next pitch was the crux. From the stance, he had to traverse on very doubtful rock into a groove, then keep on traversing out of the groove leftwards in a very exposed position on really bad rock. He took a long time on this pitch cursing and messing around with a variety of cams, nuts and hexes trying to fix a couple of points of protection he could rely on to protect the traverse.
Finally after at least half an hour he’d placed a reasonably good nut in a solid looking crack at the back of the groove and a not very convincing cam and hex in thunky rock on the left wall. At one point he was trying to improve a hex placement by literally digging out the hole with his fingers! He then committed to the move as I clung to my belay point hoping it wasn’t all going to end in a mass of tangled rope, bodies and rock rocketing down into the sea a long way below. It turned out to be easy. Scary, yes, but easy. A couple of solid holds allowed a long step leftwards to easier ground. Phew! A few moves more and he was belayed to the ab rope and a peg again. He’d also managed to place a reasonable cam in the middle of the traverse which made me feel a lot better as I would have to do the traverse after removing all the other protective gear he’d placed in the groove!
I moved across without too many problems and nothing broke off. The thing is A LOT could have broken off if I hadn’t chosen my holds very carefully, but that’s the trick to doing a route like this. You have to move very gingerly, spread your weight without pulling too hard on anything. So I got to Stevie’s stance and tied in. He tried to pull up the bottom of the abseil rope at this point but the damn thing was stuck! There was no way in hell that we were going back down there so we decided to just tie it off to the peg and leave it there for retrieval later i.e. some other day! The next section was probably the nicest of the route…a steepish white groove and crack which looked ok but was still a bit brittle. Small stuff snaps off easily. Holds are dusty. Rocks in the back of the groove which perhaps lodged there 10million years ago are touched for the first time, and easily detach and fall below. It was probably grade V. Diff. but still you had to be very very careful. Stevie climbed it quickly, and I followed.
As I neared the top of the groove I stood up on a rock near the corner and suddenly the whole thing, again about the size of a TV if not bigger, just detached and tumbled down the cliff ending in a huge splash and roar as it hit the sea. Gulp. I managed to hang on to my handholds and climbed up to Stevie. The top was in sight. It was getting late. We were tired and hungry and cold. Stephen, on top, was probably brain dead by now. I realised that had Stevie pulled on the same block it would have bounced off my head on the way down. Hmm. Sometimes its better not to dwell too much on these things.
The next, and final stance was a comfortable platform on a nice terrace. I clipped into the anchors, took my shoes off and sat back to enjoy the action as Stevie set off to climb the yellow groove on what he called “elephants ears”. I never thought I’d hear Mr. “Hard Man” Haston, the 1000 pull-up a day man, the conqueror of hard unprotected routes all over the world, I never thought I’d hear him whimper like a little girl. But I did. Promise. Wish I’d recorded it but I was watching him intently and clutching his ropes firmly as he tackled the second of three bulges in this crack, when a foothold snapped. He yelled and flailed as he struggled to stay in contact with the rock. None of the holds could really be relied on, the gear was below him. Not a pleasant situation. At this point he used a technique that has been used only rarely, by top performers of our sport. He called it the “inverted three knees technique”. He’s clearly a master and it probably explains why he’s managed to climb 9a. You’ll have to ask him about it yourselves though. I’m not telling.
Finally he topped out and I soon tackled the “elephants ears” myself. This time I was the one cursing as various slings, wires and cams caught on just about every protuberance. At one point my Metolious cam managed to place itself perfectly in the crack without any assistance from myself whatsoever causing me to halt suddenly to try and extricate myself.
A final short wall and the route was over. It was about 5:30. We’d been on the route since about 11:30am. Since Stephen had been patiently waiting for us all day we offered to lower him down the top two pitches of the route so that he’d get some climbing done..which he did. I think he found it quite exciting and he is expected to make a complete emotional recovery. I sprained my ankle on the way back to the car. Sigh. Oh, the route is called “Alla Jhobbok” or “God Loves You”. Go for it!
Update: Here is a topo and pic of the climb..the bottom groove is missing from the pic but will update when a better pic is available.