Every other year the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) organises an international summer climbing meet in the British Isles. The BMC invites 30 climbers from partner organisations to experience trad climbing whilst under the guidance of local hosts. The Malta Climbing Club was once again invited to send a participant to Cornwall – our Media officer, Stephen Farrugia, was eager to experience trad climbing “on solid rock” so he took up the BMC’s call.
My Trad climbing background
I got into climbing at the end of 2011, just as the local climbing community was going through a change of tack, from a mainly British ethic of traditional climbing to the more popular continental avenue of sport climbing (clipping bolts even where plenty of protection is available). My early experiences of climbing included phrases like “you’d have to be crazy to trad climb”; “trad climbing is only for old farts with nothing better to do”; and the golden “don’t trad climb on limestone”.
It took me a while to get over those early warnings from dyed in the wool sport climbers, and under the guidance of Andy Hooper I started to practice green pointing – i.e. climbing sport routes using natural protection on relatively easy climbs. Over the last two years I’ve pushed my trad grade, climbing on sight routes up to E1 5b, and headpointing a grade harder at E2 5c. It doesn’t sound like much of an achievement when converted to a sport climbing grade, around 6b or 6b+, which is well below my personal best on bolts (French 7a+/b).
With a reasonable amount of experience under my belt I was eager to try out trad climbing on a rock type that seemed to be made for it – the legendary granite of Bosigran – and climb with less of a fear of gear popping out of doubtful rock.
Welcome to Great Britain
Cornwall is tucked away in the South West corner of the British Isles, and having flown to London I had a five hour train ride to get to Penzance. During these five hours I saw all sorts of weather – rain, sunshine, grey clouds, blue skies and gale force winds! Not a very good omen for a week of climbing at a “summer” festival… and sure enough, on arrival in Penzance we were greeted by 40km/h winds and a drizzle.
During the meet we were paired with a different host climber every two days, so I got to climb with three experienced climbers who were familiar with Cornish rock.
My first partner was Scott Titt, former president of the BMC and a prolific climber on all sorts of rock. I’d met Scott back in 2012 during the San Vito climbing festival, where the story is all about how many bolts you can clip. Here in Cornwall I got to learn (more) about placing gear, natural anchors and different belaying styles from him. Our second day in Cornwall dawned wet and cold – Scott and I jumped into the car with Diego Dellai, my Italian doppleganger, and we headed to Sennen cove, hoping that the weather might be clearer, and knowing that there was good cake to be had at the cafe if it was just as wet as in Bosigran. Despite the rain we managed to toprope some formidable routes, including the (wet) fist jam classic Zig Zag. As the name implies, the route takes a zig zagging crack which is just about fist wide, with a couple of body sized holes along the way to give your fists a rest. Soaked through and through, we retreated to the cafe for some hard earned cake and coffee.
As the week progressed the weather got worse, and it was so wet on day three that our only option was to head up the road from the Count House (our accommodation) to Rosemergy farm for some cream tea. Phil Thomas, my new host, recounted many adventures from his travels as a mountain guide to while away the hours. My second day climbing with Phil looked like it wouldn’t be a climbing day at all – the morning was soaking wet with not a break in the weather in sight. Luck turned on our side as the morning progressed, and we jumped into Phil’s campervan and sped down to Sennen for some proper climbing in dry weather. I had my eye on Demo Route, an impressive chimney climb that seems to gobble up the climber. Look up Demo Route (Sennen) on the UKC logbooks – it doesn’t get much love, but I guess that chimney climbs are like that, you either love them or you hate them. This was my most prolific day of climbing, in which Phil and I managed to climb five routes. The sun even deigned to show its face, and I remembered what it’s like to have a shadow!
My final host of the trip was Phil Gibson, another accomplished trad climber with many years of experience under his belt. Phil and I teamed up with Marcin from Poland and Odette from South Africa to head out to the seldom visited crag of St. Loy. St. Loy is a large granite outcropping sitting on a green slope above the Atlantic ocean. There wasn’t a soul in sight and the amount of vegetation on the routes made it obvious to us that people hadn’t climbed there in a while. Phil gave me the sharp end of the rope for some of the easier pitches on Chlorophyll Cluster, one of the crag classics.
On the final day Phil and I stayed close to base, taking the footpath from the Count House down to Bosigran for a few easy romps up the bigger sea cliffs. My resolve was dwindling on the sixth day of the trip, and I could only muster the gumption to lead up the easier pitches. It was none the less a brilliantly sunny, if cold, day spent climbing granite classics like Autumn Flakes.
A big shout out goes to Becky McGovern and Peter Burnside of the BMC for putting together a string of entertaining evening activities – anything from local DJs to traditional Cornish bands, a night at a fish and chip shop and a “traditional” British pub curry. The events went off without a hitch and all climbers were entertained, even on wet and windy evenings.
In between the music and the food we also had some inspiring talks by climbers, some showcasing the beauty of their country, others sharing stories of adventurous climbs, and a very poignant tale about living (and climbing) with diabetes.
The catering team (Team Peters) also deserve an honourable mention – they kept 60 odd climbers fuelled and fighting for seven days, feeding them three square meals a day (two of them hot!). Daisy, Iain, Will and Thom – we salute you!
I’d like to close off with a note of thanks to the BMC for organising, the Climbers Club (UK) for hosting us at their Count House, all the hosts for their patience, and the MCC for nominating me for this unforgettable trip.