Fruitcakes and turtles

Forna Point in Gozo evokes images of bright yellow rock, smooth, carved by the wind into frozen waves of soft limestone.  Beneath, grey shadowy walls plunge to the heaving deep blue sea.  On a windy day the waves crash against the base,  white-capped, sweeping in relentlessly, smashing in outrage at the base of the cliff, impacts that can be felt vibrating through the rock itself, spitting their contempt at whoever dares to enter their domain, white foam and spray filling the air with their fury.

Sometimes the sea sleeps instead, calm as the proverbial oil, gently lapping at the sharp, brittle sea-level rock while fishing boats putter by, cutting paths that linger for a few seconds and then disappear as their wake fades.  Now and again a jet-ski or speedboat roars past, shattering the quiet, provoking negative thoughts about the intrusion of modern technology into the idyllic scenery. Nearby, fisherman stand on the edge of the yellow plateau, their hopeful baited lines curving down to the depths below, fastened to stone threads carved centuries ago by their forebears, baskets lying welcoming with their deadly bait on the seabed.  From time to time the baskets are pulled up, dripping, the catch shiny, jumping, twisting and turning, gasping for air as it rises to meet its fate in the world of man. Behind them, the fishermen’s pickup trucks carelessly parked on thin roofs over huge overhanging nothingness tempt fate, their weight perhaps widening thin, unseen cracks which will one day, inevitably, give in to the ceaseless pull of gravity plunging them to the depths below!

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An endless blue vista and superb seacliff climbing just metres from the track!

I first visited Forna about 4 years ago, taken there by Stevie Haston who was showing me some of the places he’d climbed or explored in Gozo over the years, going back to the 60s and 70s.  Hard trad lines led but often never repeated, unrecorded. Forgotten.  A parallel chapter of Malta’s climbing history that has so far mostly remained unwritten.  An autobiography is overdue and would fill in the gaps, making our climbing history and heritage more complete.  Forna point lies below the village of Ghasri and just west of Wied il-Ghasri, itself a beautiful narrow creek with a tiny pebbly beach, ideal for a dip in the summer.   The Forna seacliff is incredibly easy to access, just a few metres from the track linking Wied il-Ghasri to Wied Mielah, the latter crag a few hundred metres further west.

Stevie Haston comments: “Fruit cake land is only a small part of the climbable cliff from Wied Ghasri to the Azure window, it is however the bit that has an approach marked in seconds and some of the best quality on the islands! Theres 20 routes now all good, some extra good, and all with the zest of either a sea ledge belay or an airy hanging belay. Of my last 10 surprisingly half are in the low six range but stunning. “

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Route checking with Mark McGowan of Reach Climbing – the cave in the background has since been named “The Inner Sanctum of Hell!”

That day we walked along the cliff edge while he pointed out the lines he’d done and buttresses he’d explored years before.  We checked out new route potential too, as we lay on our stomachs at the edge, peering down the grooves, walls, overhangs and arêtes that offered so much promise.  Our joint imagination sketched in dotted lines ascending the cliff like on a virtual topo, each opening a doorway to adventure for those who would join the dots with rope, rubber, chalk and metal.
We returned later to the newly dubbed “Fruitcake Land”, named so after the curious weathered rocky plateau on the east side of the bay – the so-called “fruitcake”.  Armed with the Hilti, shiny new bolts, resin, brushes, pump, hammer and myriad odd bits of equipment that are the tools of the new router.  Modern technology can be useful too.  Determined to turn potential into sport climbing reality, we abseiled down many lines but focused on a central buttress that offered ledges at the bottom.  After a few visits we had created half a dozen routes including the classic Aero Rambla 6c, Forna Cajun Groove 6a+, Pak O’ Lies 5c and others. The 2013 guidebook was published and we didn’t go back for a while, our focus having shifted to other routes and crags whose call was louder.

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A climber checking out a superb arete bordering the Inner Sanctum of hell (!) cave. The face on the right was later led and bolted to give “Union City Blues” 6a+

 

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Aero Rambla 6c

Recently we’ve started revisiting the place, drawn particularly to the sunlit “point” or promontory itself and the stretch of cliff featuring caves and walls that curve round from the tip of the promontory to the always shady and precarious Forna Cajun Groove and caves to its left. That day we’d gone back and repeated FCG.  It was wet and slippery, shady and precarious.  The grade in those conditions feeling a lot harder than the 6a its given in the guidebook with a very cruxy, delicate move into the groove which we both “appreciated” fully.   Stevie took the opportunity to bounce around on abseil and check out the walls and grooves on both sides of the groove.  They looked promising so he initially focused his efforts on these.

Soon he’d bolted three routes on either side of FCG, two at 6a+ and the third Fade Away and Radiate confirmed to be about 6c+ by no less than “his legendariness” Stefan Glowacz  himself while on a recent photoshoot in the area for the 2016 Red Chili catalogue!

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Stefan Glowacz admires the spectacular seacliffs

Our attention eventually turned to the obvious crackline splitting the sunny walls further left.  This slanting line seemed to catch my attention every single time I’d been back since we first visited – one of the most visible and obvious features, begging to be climbed.  We sorted out a couple of natural belays on the platform on top then abbed down the easy walls left of our planned route to a large platform.  From there we could traversed easily round rightwards to gain the base of the desired groove and crackline.  The line looked great.  I was excited, this one was for me.  Stevie led us easily back out to the top taking a line close to the abseil line using slings for protection on random spikes.   We then threw a rope down the line and both toproped it.  Excellent climbing.  The following weekend I went back and soon Walkin’ on Sunshine was cleaned, bolted and led at a comfortable grade of 6a+.  A classic song name for a classic route.  It starts up a short chimney then follows an obvious crackline as it curves up to a small roof.  A stiff pull up this on good holds then a final finish up a short overhang.  Great stuff.  Recommended.

Walkin' on Sunshine

Stevie seems to be drawn obsessively to black holes and darkness and soon his violation of what he calls the “Inner Sanctum” had started – this is the cave near FCG referred to in his blog as “the Inner Sanctum of Hell”  (why are people scared of my routes he wonders?!  With crag names like that…)   He has dragged his sometimes unwilling minions into the cave, patient belayers who have braved waves, wind and precarious stances hanging on tiny threads to hold his ropes and help him develop some more exciting lines for the climbing community to enjoy.  Paul Sammut, a relative of Stevie and resident of New York, Alex Hancock and Jeffrey Camilleri all contributed. It’s in fact rumoured that Paul has since retired to a monastery where he sits in a darkened room taking daily medication. The exciting “Last Rhino” is partially aided and takes a line up a groove and traverses leftwards along the lip of the roof, pulling on quickdraws all the way.   The line will inevitably be freed at a much harder grade of course.  Any takers?

Stevie Haston:  “The route the Last Rhino is the one I recommend the most however as with a grade of 6 a+ and the ability to pull up on bolts you will go through a roof of 20 meters! It’s exciting on three pitches and the first one at 6a+ is a stunning improbable groove, its the must do adventure on the island.”  Check 0ut his blog comments and more pics here , here and here too!

The other main feature of the sunny promontory for me was the obvious yellow corner close to the tip.  Stevie had said he’d climbed an E7 route up the left wall, which is steep and overhangs at the top.  I knew there just had to be a good line up the corner itself.  (As some members of the MCC know very well, I do like corners 🙂 and possibly the walls to the right. I took a closer look.  At the top there were a couple of old bits of rope through stone threads as the “mysterious” Dutch had toproped a line or two here some years before.

The right wall looked immaculate, with a grey stucco groove running up the left side. I couldn’t wait to abseil down to check out the possibilities!  I abseiled down the easiest looking line on the right of the main wall and realized the most logical start would be further to the right, at some sharp black ledges about 5m above the sea.  This was the first route I bolted which turned out to be easier than I thought at just 5b but its great rock and a really nice warm up and introduction to the sector. I called it Down to the Waterline which seems appropriate!  From the ledges you move up and traverse left passing a groove to reach the wall and then follow its right edge on good holds to the top.

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At the start of “Down to the Waterline”, great atmosphere

Sitting on the top, new route completed,  Stevie spotted a strange, long, twisting shape at the surface.  Alive but probably not feeling very well, a large moray eel, its body yellow in colour was obviously in distress, floating at the unfamiliar surface instead of deep inside one of its protective holes amongst boulders or in a wreck.  Usually, divers get to the see just the head of the moray protruding from its lair, eyes following their movements, razor sharp teeth very much in evidence. This one was in trouble.

I remembered a similar situation, many years before, sitting at the top of Blue Wall at the Blue Grotto with John Codling. He’d just done the first ascent of a new trad line on the wall, while I belayed.  We spotted a turtle in distress, helplessly floating at the surface, caught in a mass of discarded fishing nets. So we  scrambled down the arch of the blue grotto and John courageously dived into the choppy sea to swim out to rescue the turtle which promptly bit him!  I was belaying John who was attached to a climbing rope, so he clipped the net to the rope and I hauled in the entangled turtle.  We managed to remove the net and throw him back into the water.  Thankfully, John survived the mauling.  Nowadays he claims it bit his testicles but I seem to remember that it was his thigh that was bleeding.  Anyway, his voice hasn’t changed pitch over the years so no lasting damage seems to have been done!  By the way, we called this route “A Dream of Blue Turtles” in honour of our little friend.

87 Blue Wall turtle rescue into sea

Fast forward to Forna, May 2015.  This time, we didn’t try to rescue the moray – wrestling with a writhing sharp toothed monster like that might have been a bit nasty!  But what a great photo opportunity it would have been had Stevie abbed down to do battle with the sea monster!  Unfortunately it never happened, we sat and watched the moray as it continued to drift away and then went for a beer instead.

Since then I’ve returned a couple more times to bolt and lead the corner and another route which takes a rising traverse across the face, both about 6a+.  As soon as I’m fit again I’ll be heading straight back there to complete some other lines I’ve cleaned up and fondled.

Forna is a great place to visit if you don’t mind seacliffs.  And even if you do feel uneasy about abseiling down a seacliff, many of the routes have a ledge or platform which provide a safe starting point at the bottom. It is however usually sensible to leave an abseil rope in place if one wants to avoid total commitment to the route so a spare rope would be useful.  The new area on the promontory is even more user friendly with, in the case of Walkin’ on Sunshine, a massive sea-level platform providing easy access to the start.  Currently the best time to go to the promontory sector is in the late afternoon, when the sun has had time to dry off the slight greasiness from the holds, while losing its intensity.

Great summer evening climbing in other words! What are you waiting for?

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