Words by Tom Livingstone
Tom has a penchant for trad, winter and alpine climbing. He’s psyched for big and inspiring mountain routes around the world, and devotes himself entirely to this way of life. He treasures the raw emotions at the end of a hard onsight, the pain of the hot aches and the flash of magic as the sun sets in the mountains.
Ah, Pembroke. Nowhere else evokes such contrasting emotions: sunshine and warmth; fear and bruising. I’m climbing beautifully sculpted limestone above a sandy cove, moving conﬁdently between solid holds and reassuring gear. And I sit at the top of the crag, looking out to sea, hot sunlight prickling my red cheeks.
Pembroke: a picturesque coastline with some of the ﬁnest trad climbing in the UK. But wait! Pembroke?
Suddenly, my mind remembers the other side; the fear when pushing yourself too far on an ambitious route. It’s too easy to get reeled in here. I’m climbing again – but I’d rather be anywhere else. My ﬁngers claw and legs gibber, and I’m scared. I look down and the ropes disappear far, far below.
Somewhere in the hazy middle-distance, a quickdraw hangs limply, as if it’s barely even there. In the dark depths of the zawn, I see my belayer, face turned up towards me. Concern. Wide eyes. Tense. I’m looking at the biggest fall of my life, at the end of the biggest runout, and I’m out of time. My foot slips and the rock starts to shoot upwards… Every summer, my thoughts drift to Pembroke.
Almost on auto-pilot, I can drive there from anywhere in the UK, subconsciously heading south and west; as long as the road signs are in two languages, you can’t miss it. The trad climbing is superb, and I’ll conﬁdently advise visiting Europeans: “‘Penfro’ is where you need to be.”
With every grade and every style, the relaxed and reliable venue is understandably popular. But I always seem to skip the ice creams and lazy days. I always ﬁnd myself high above my last piece of gear, looking at a huge fall, and wondering what went wrong…
In June 2016, James Taylor and I made our annual pilgrimage to Pembroke. We loaded our climbing kit into James’s van, along with Rosie the dog, and wound our way through the slow trafﬁc of south Wales, heading west. The kitchen door kept swinging open, wafting delicious-smelling herbs and spices into the driver’s cab. Rosie sat on a cushion between us and wagged her tail, eager for James’ attention. The guidebook on the dashboard slid backwards and forwards as we trundled along country lanes, its pages chalky and torn. Tales of hard-won onsights drifted around the van, blending with the exotic smells and crashing spice rack.
We made the most of Pembroke’s infamous tidal range during the ﬁrst couple of days, climbing rope-less above the sea: deep water soloing. Swinging like apes high above the azure water, the morning rush was far more exhilarating than our black coffees. After a timid and bleary-eyed start, rubbing our hands through greasy hair, we’d commit to the rock; to climbing.
As soon as I’d begin, I could feel my heart beat faster and my senses sharpen. The only stimulus came from my ﬁngers and toes – life paired down to the essential. Climbing higher and higher, the boom and hush of the waves would quieten and I’d ﬁnd myself fully waking up just as I approached the top of the cliff. Only then, with my chest rising and falling from the exertion and the sun hot on my back, did I feel the day had begun. This enjoyable experience is the Pembroke I love.
But soon I remember the Pembroke I really want to experience: the fear and the ﬁght.
Pure contentment at the top of the crag, in the height of summer, after an easy route. I’d be happy with this type of climbing for a day – maybe two, at most. But soon I remember the Pembroke I really want to experience: the fear and the ﬁght. We chased our spontaneous thoughts up and down the coastline, climbing (and falling off some) classics. Ghost Train (E6 6b) and White Heat (E7 6c) amongst many others, provided great entertainment and our forearms got accustomed to the style of climbing again. But I knew, deep down, there was only one route on my mind…
On a previous visit to Pembroke, I’d fallen from the crux of Boat to Naxos (E7 6c) during my onsight attempt. The crux was half-way up an eight metre run-out, and although I thought you wouldn’t hit the ﬂoor if you fell off at the top, I certainly didn’t want to test it. I remember the red and pink walls of Huntsman’s Leap rushing past me as I fell. I had time to scream twice in those long, long seconds of freefall, and when I ﬁnally came to a stop I wasn’t sure if I would return.
Now – with James and Lukasz – I wanted a rematch with this route. Rosie chased her wagging tail, full of energy. She charged around the grassy ﬁelds at the clifftop, dangerously skidding near the edge. I’d resigned myself to checking the crux moves of Boat to Naxos from the safety of a toprope, proffering my excuses. ‘The tides are high and I won’t have a dynamic belay; the route needs a brush anyway…’ I mumbled as James lowered me into the giant slot of ‘The Leap.’ My next words were lost as waves boomed and cracked in the bottom of the zawn.
The swell was being funnelled, growing into ﬁve-foot waves as it was forced through the narrows, before smashing onto the boulder beach. I hollered to James to stop lowering me when I was a few metres above the sea, but the rope kept inching down. I shouted again but my words were lost to the waves, and I desperately scrabbled at the greasy rock to stop my soaking. A metre above the foaming sea, and just as my shouts were turning into curses, the rope jolted to a stop.
I spun, kicking my legs in circles to stay close to the rock, and climbed out of the intimidating zawn as quick as I could. When my head popped back over the clifftop, James and Lukasz were lying in the sun and Rosie was darting between bramble bushes. ‘Well…?’ James asked, knowingly. We’ve climbed enough pitches and shared enough adventures together now. My only reply was, ‘well.’ I began to rack up the gear, and James uncoiled the ropes. I was intimidated by this route.
For a year, I’d been wondering if I’d return. Was it really worth it? Eight metres is a long way between islands of safety, and The Leap is no place to make mistakes. The committing nature of the deep-slotted zawn means there’s no easy rescue, or chance to escape. But, like the constant pull of the gravity we ﬁght, I knew it was not a question of ‘if,’ only ‘when.’ And now I’d cleaned the route and checked out the moves, I knew it was time. With James now on a hanging belay above the sea and Lukasz spinning like a spider in the middle of zawn, camera in hand, I threaded my belay plate into the abseil rope. I dropped slowly into The Leap, letting the rope slip through my ﬁngers. Down, into the cold air. Down, to the roar and crash of the waves. Down, where my demons began to wake.
I felt the familiar rush of adrenaline; this morning’s carefree soloing above the sea seemed like days ago. Why did I seek out this side of Pembroke again? From the hanging belay, only a few feet above the waves, I shouted to James over the noise. ‘Here goes!’ was all I managed, and took comfort in James’s reassuring smile. I climbed steadily through the ﬁrst half of the route, trying to stay relaxed and focussing on drawing my breath in… and out… like the heave and sigh of the waves on the boulder beach below.
Paranoia kept me checking the ﬁnal cluster of gear before the run-out. I didn’t want to leave. For the third time, I inspected the cams which would hold me if I took ‘the monster lob.’ They needed to be bomber, and I had to climb the next eight metres with a calm and focussed mind. Any mental doubts would boil over and I’d mess up my sequence. This was my last sanctuary of good gear until a thread, hanging like a lure, marked the end of the run-out. Looking up, the pink-stained walls and water-worn scoops of The Leap felt imposing, but I couldn’t delay any longer. ‘Alright!’ was all I could shout at the top of my lungs, and I launched into the crux. At four metres above the gear, I reached a junction. I reasoned I could jump off here, and still be totally safe.
The memory of my fall from this point last year was burned into my mind, and the chance to bottle it was tempting. This momentary pause made me lose my ﬂow, and I chalked up again, steeling my mind: this was the time, and I want this bloody route! I pulled through the crux scoop, crimping hard on small edges and pasting my feet high. Remembering my earlier practice but still wishing I’d been more thorough, I twisted my hips and rolled onto a chalky sidepull, which looked like a blocky ear of rock.
The waves boomed louder, my senses on overdrive and the ropes pulling at my waist. I knew how run-out I was; I didn’t need to look down to conﬁrm my fear. I hit the next hold and, as powerful as the waves below, I felt the weight of the route wash off me. I’d reached the end of the run-out, and the thread was suddenly within my reach. I’d been so absorbed in the climbing, I’d barely noticed my progress. Clipping the thread at the end of the run-out, I’d reached another sanctuary. The ropes hung limply between the thread and my cams far below, but I felt relief and elation.At last. With my heartbeat calming, and the realisation of my safety returning, I whooped down to James. It echoed around the zawn, amplifying my joy. This was the Pembroke I loved – needed, even. This was where I wanted to be, between the sky and the sea, at the end of a run-out. This was really what I came for, and anything less wouldn’t be enough. This was the Pembroke I knew. I looked up at the sunlight hitting the grass at the top, and started climbing to the top.