Words by Tim Neill. Images by Chris Prescott.
Rhoscolyn, The Little Big Cliff
Mountain Guide Tim Neill on a North Wales hidden gem.
The Rhoscolyn cliffs out on Anglesey offer some of the most varied sea cliff trad climbing in North Wales. There’s 3 star outings from Diff to E6. None of the main 3 sections require abseil approaches although a couple of the zawns are best at low tide. It was described by its pioneers as “The Little Big Cliff” and generally it’s gives long satisfying single pitch climbs for the modern trad climber with a generous rack of gear (even though some of the longer routes are described in a couple of pitches). I always think of it as generally well protected (for sea cliffs) but with an airy atmosphere. It’s like the perfect combination of the best of Pembroke with a hint of Gogarth...
The rock on the whole is good quality red and orange Pre Cambrian Quartzite. It’s a visually really stunning place and is popular not just with climbers but birdwatchers, sea kayakers and walkers enjoying the Anglesey Coastal Path. There’s a beautiful dry stone wall around the headland made with uniform sizes blocks and it’s even got its own protected SSSI status.
You can follow the sun all day as the different crags face all aspects from SE through to NW. Like all sea cliffs a bit of sun makes all the difference to the friction as does a bit of a breeze from the west. However all time vintage conditions can be found in the spring and autumn with high pressure weather bringing a dry N or E wind and clear skies. Still summer humid days can lead to sweaty rock and the need for plenty of chalk and extra beans to hold on harder.
As you approach over the headland from the parking near Rhoscolyn church the first area called Llawder comes into view. This is a cheeky welsh sounding name but is just Red Wall spelt backwards. An easy path down to some big boulders leads to a good base camp from where non tidal classics are a plenty. This bit of crag has them from HVS to E5 with some really sought after lines. The popular warm ups are the HVS Icarus for the first time visiting party or the slightly run out but steady E2 called Savage Sunbird. Higher up off a ledge on the left is a neat slabby wall with a number of variations based around the original classic E1 called Wild Rover. Good crimpy climbing at everyone’s favourite angle.
Wild Rover, E1
'Higher up off a ledge on the left is a neat slabby wall with a number of variations based around the original classic E1 called Wild Rover. Good crimpy climbing at everyone’s favourite angle.'
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However, the main events are in the central bulging section where 3 total classics forge their way up inspiring strong lines. Both of the popular E3s called The Sun and The Mask of Red Death offer well protected and exposed climbing all the way. Locals ignore the descriptions and climb them both from a non tidal ledge in stunning huge single pitches. They each take strong cracks and grooves either side of an imposing prow which itself gives one of the most popular E5s in the UK called Warpath. My wife Lou loves this bit of crag. She once did The Sun and the nearby South Stack classic,The Moon, on the same day with her friend Libby just for the laughs. Another time she made her onsight lead of Warpath as her first outdoor lead of the year on a bright March day after a winter of building (too much) stamina on the indoor wall!
As the sun wheels around the sky in the afternoon it brightens up the atmosphere in the other 2 must visit zawns. The furthest, and least affected by the tide, is Sea Cave Zawn. It’s headland provides many with their first sea cliff experience with a romp up the short but fun Diff called Symphony Crack. It can be approached via an exposed scramble and gives mega climbing for the grade in an undercut corner with the sea below your feet and a hero finish around a big jammed block. Huge jugs and train stopping protection brings smiles all the way. Just across the bay and climbing the lip of the eponymous sea cave is the ultra classic Electric Blue. This also has big holds and great gear for its grade of E4. However for keen youngsters it’s one of the most sought after DWS lines in Britain at a rather high 6b+!! Sounds so easy doesn’t it?
Mask of Red Death, E3
'Both of the popular E3s called The Sun and The Mask of Red Death offer well protected and exposed climbing all the way. Locals ignore the descriptions and climb them both from a non tidal ledge in stunning huge single pitches. They each take strong cracks and grooves either side of an imposing prow... '
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Fallen Block Zawn
My favourite cliff of the trio is what’s called the Fallen Block Zawn. It’s hard to get a view of this from above as it’s so steep but it’s really visually impressive from below. It can be reached by a scramble that’s hard to spot down broken ground to the (climbers) left of the classic VS slab of Truant, although a simple abseil can be set up here down the same slab if you’re in any doubt. Otherwise a fun and easy sea level traverse on the lower half of the tide can be made from below the Llawder walls to the huge boulders in the bottom of the zawn. The back wall is heaven for the E3 to E6 climber with 3 star classics in each bracket. A perfectly timed visit is an evening on a low tide with sunny and fresh conditions. It’s amazing rock architecture here and is essentially a 40m concave wall with eye catching cracks, grooves and a wild hanging fin centre stage. All the routes are safe but at some point on each you have to set sail and climb well away from your safety net and test your commitment. The most popular is the aptly named Centrefold. This E3 is another strong line but has a couple of sections of blind climbing where a bit of route finding sense should be rewarded with your fingers curling behind sinkers and delving into solid jams. It’s really steep and well protected too...brilliant.
To its left are a couple of excellent E4s, The Viper and Godzilla...both safe and juggy and being pretty friendly are good bets for a first lead of the grade if stamina and a sense of adventure are in your skill set. Starting as for Centrefold and voyaging out right is the amazing E4/5 of Magellan’s Wall. This ones a bit of an anomaly in this bracket of difficulty at Rhoscolyn as there aren’t so many sinker nuts and cams too close to the crux but enough that it’s still in the exciting department rather than stepping into the dangerous one. Regardless it’s still every bit as good as Warpath if not a little bit better.
Finally and arguably the 2 king lines of this cliff are a couple of the most dreamed about and failed upon E6s on the coast. Dreams and Screams pulls out right of Centrefold and traces an ever steepening set of parallel cracks to an arm wilting finale of frantic lay backs. The other is the audacious line of The Jub Jub Bird. It gains the amazing hanging fin of rock in the centre of the cliff and has been the source of many a power scream echoing around the bay. One of the most inspiring displays of onsight climbing was watching ‘90s dark horse Craig Parnoby casually cruise both, one after the other, with minimum fuss and runners. I went to say hi and congratulate him as we’d all been amazed at such a sight. He apologised for being a little undergunned as he’d done the epic multi pitch Skinhead Moonstomp (E6) over at Gogarth in the morning! The following day he onsighted the infamous E7, The Bells, The Bells at North Stack in a 20 minute blitz of composure and crimping skill. This was nearly 25 years ago and I’m not sure I’ve heard of too many weekends of trad climbing that have surpassed that since...
Centrefold, E3 5c
' This E3 is another strong line but has a couple of sections of blind climbing where a bit of route finding sense should be rewarded with your fingers curling behind sinkers and delving into solid jams. It’s really steep and well protected too...brilliant.'
Products: Headpoint Vest. Cala Cop Leggings.
Of course there’s much more than what I’ve described above. It’s a real favourite place of mine and many of my friends. It’s a brilliant spot for a day trip or even a weekend with good campsites nearby and ice creams and beaches too. If you’re finding your feet with sea cliff climbing it’s an ideal stepping stone towards the much more committing cliffs of the nearby Gogarth and with a much more varied range of difficulty in a smaller area. There’s a sector called Porth Saint, aka Crag X, that’s even better in this category just a short 10 minute walk from the cliffs described above. On the nearby Painted Wall local wads at the other end of the spectrum are still adding and attempting hard test pieces. Watch this space...
Want to know more about climbing in North Wales? In our latest blog, Tim takes us through some of his favourite lesser travelled North Wales classics.
About the Author
Tim Neill is a hugely experienced British Mountain Guide renowned for his enthusiasm for all types of climbing. He began climbing in Snowdonia and over the years has amassed a vast tick list that’s given him an encyclopaedic knowledge of North Wales rock, from the easier mountain classics through to the most adventurous and esoteric lines of Anglesey’s sea cliffs. He’s available for instruction and guiding throughout the year.