Written by Martin Beale, Bristol
I was back. Fred was there for the first time. The Great Cave of Berry Head swung before us, the roofs leaned out behind us. We started with a dainty little skip between the boulders, progressed to a worrying belly traverse and finished with a powerful traverse above the sea on great barnacle encrusted jugs. I had to hang around on the jugs for some time as a father and son team rearranged themselves on the Moonraker belay. Eventually, we were both there at the base of Moonraker. Moonraker looked really good, the queue for it looked really bad.
I have never seen anyone at Berry Head before. It seemed like a forgotten crag - away from it all. That day it was heaving. There were two parties on Moonraker and the father and son team were slowly uncoiling their ropes at the base. There was a guy hanging from a chockstone in the Moonraker crack as his leader took serial lobs from the traverse of Dreadnought. Every now and again, a party would come down into the Great Cave and traverse across the Mystery Tour or Rainbow Bridge. The father and son team on Moonraker were taking such an eternity uncoiling their ropes that we decided to partake of other fayre : Goddess of Gloom...
The tide was really low and we were able to uncoil our ropes at a friendly little ledge at sea level. We had one last look at the father and son team. Dad was pulling on gear on the initial traverse of the 'raker. It was evident that they would be some time. Fred wanted to get up in decent time so that we could go to Chudleigh and do some climbing with Theresa.
After a few stiff pulls on massive jugs, I was on the route. I bridged up the corner and placed some gear under an unfriendly roof. The roof forces you out right. This would normally be fine at Berry Head. However, the usual jugs aren't there on this section of Goddess. I pulled rightwards on jams. It was pretty strenuous - the wall beneath overhangs. By virtue of a horizontal finger jam, I was able to stretch right to a crack around the right hand end of the overhang. I reached to what was neither a hand jam, nor a jug. It didn't feel quite right. I backed down somewhat pumped to a resting position before the roof. When I summoned the courage, I launched out again. I knew it would go - I had done it before. I reached the crack beyond the overhang - half jamming, half jugging. I shuffled my feet along and then contemplated the corner above. I didn't have long. I saw a jug above and pulled on it. It hadn't looked that stout, but it did the business. I was in the corner. The corner was pretty easy. I stuffed in a load of gear and then launched rightwards out of the corner. This looks worse than it is. There are massive jugs / ledges on the right arete. It looks daunting to reach those ledges, but once you are there, everything eases. I stuffed a friend into a horizontal break and continued to the belay. By now, the father and son team were already on the 'raker belay - maybe we weren't that fast after all.
There was a good ledge and a load of horizontal breaks to belay on. The problem with the breaks were that they were slightly flaring and not particularly deep. I decided that safety in numbers would be the solution to this problem. Out came the rack and in went the friends. I was pretty pleased with two friends side by side - friends 1.5 and 2. This would be the basis of my belay. I then got a reasonable friend 3 out to the right and a reasonable quadcam 0 to the left. A rock 2 in a horizontal crack and a poor friend 2.5 and I was all set : "safe, take in". Well, I wasn't exactly sure about the safe bit. I wasn't too happy with the belay, but I felt that everything would be alright on the night.
I thought Fred followed the pitch in fine style. He took a while, but I thought that he was faster than I was. There didn't seem to be any strife as he made that daunting pull out of the corner and onto the juggy arete. Before I knew it, we were both at the belay. "I'm pumped stupid", said Fred. I thought he was exaggerating - he looked OK. We swapped gear and Fred prepared for the lead of the next pitch. "A bit of factor 2 avoidance gear would be good up there, Fred", I said (this was in retrospect something of an understatement).
Fred moved up and got some excellent looking gear in before a bulging section. A few moves later and he was on the gentle bulge. He clipped something. "in situ", he shouted. I assumed there must have been an in-situ wire. A high step and he was established around the bulge. I thought he had done the crux of the pitch. I could just see his feet over the top of the bulge.
"The holds are pretty muddy", said Fred.
"Yeah, but they're OK aren't they?", I replied.
"The holds are pretty bad".
"You'll be alright."
"I'm pumped stupid."
"Just go for it, you're nearly there".
"I'm going to come off", said Fred (he never yelled or seemed too terrified).
I was petrified - there was no way that Fred could fall off there - he was above the in situ gear and I was pretty unhappy about the belay. The shaly band of Berry Head is not the best place for woo-li - not by a long way.
"You can't fall off now".
"I'm coming off".
"Fred, don't fall now", I pleaded. I held the dead end of the rope tight. I now knew that Fred was coming off. It was unstoppable - inevitable.
He seemed to jump off. I watched him fall. In a second the rope would go tight and I would hold him. The rope went tight, I held him. I was pulled up from the belay. As the Viking was plummeting to the briny, I ascended to the heavens. I waited for the tug of the belay, but the tug never came, I was still rising. I sensed the friends ripping from the belay and could then feel them smacking against my legs. Surely, some part of the belay must have held.
We came to a stop. I didn't know what was happening. I hadn't known whether we'd come to a halt or not, but we did. I was trying to make sense of the situation.
"y-o-u-r b-e-l-a-y-'-s r-i-p-p-e-d" came a shout from the Moonraker stance (it seemed like everything was happening in slow motion). I surveyed the scene. Fred was 10 feet below me hanging on the rope, looking somewhat bemused. We were hanging off the in situ gear and a couple of nuts (though our weight was clearly on the in situ piece). I was in an unfamiliar part of the crag, the back of my hand was bleeding from a laceration caused by my belay hand scraping against the crag. It was clear : the belay had ripped.
"We've got to get back on the rock". I belayed Fred as he got onto the rock. I slammed in a couple of Friends (we know how good they are in these situations!). The friends were easy to find - they were dangling around my ankles. Fred sorted out a belay on the gear that had held. We were both somewhat shaken. I couldn't believe that the belay had failed. I knew it hadn't been the best belay, but I didn't think it was as bad as it had been - Fred hadn't taken a factor 2 onto the belay after all. I really couldn't believe what had happened.
The Moonraker team asked us whether we were alright. I knew we were. As a matter of good style, we had to finish Goddess. I assumed Fred didn't want another go (he really was pumped stupid now and was presumably in something of a nervous state). I led the pitch in nervous style. Wherever there was a piece that Fred was belaying on, I placed an extra piece (just to be sure). I got to the in-situ piece. It was a Peck peg. I clipped it. Just to be sure, I gave it a pull. The peg moved. Oh dear - that peg that we had been dangling from was actually not really attached to the crag at all. "You might as well pull this one out as a souvenir", I said to Fred. I moved to where Fred had lobbed. He was right - the holds were muddy and pretty poor. I gnarled in a friend 1 and then set to work with my nut remover. On excavating the mud, I was able to find a little finger jug. From the finger jug, a nervous move led me into the juggy vegetated crack above. It had been a worrying little lead, but I was at last on easier ground, above the moves that Fred had lobbed from.
At the second belay (shared with Moonraker), I had the chance to practice the art of belay creation once more. This time there was a good thread and peg to belay from. I also used a couple of friends in horizontal breaks. This time it was a good belay! I took the ropes in and then waited for Fred to come up. I watched him pretty carefully, especially at the point where he had lobbed before. He was fine on the blunt end. I think he was a little peeved with himself because he realised that he had fallen with his hands about two inches away from a good jug in the vegetated crack.
He showed me his trophy - the Peck peg. He had pulled it straight out. Having a 30 degree bend in it, it was in a sorry little state. It had probably been there for years waiting patiently for it's role in life to be fulfilled. Now it could retire in peace knowing that it's existence had been worthwhile. That bit of steel could have been made into some can - thrown into a dustbin once the baked beans had been eaten. Now it was the hero of the hour and had earned it's place on the mantlepiece for eternity.
The father and son team had long gone. They were presumably at the top, feeling pretty pleased with themselves and wondering how that party on Goddess could have been so slow and moose-like. A couple of south Devon activists had followed the father and son team up Moonraker. They were telling us tales of other belay ripping experiences on Berry Head - of the time that Pat Littlejohn had ended up dangling off a single peg when the Dreadnought stance had collapsed. We were clearly climbing in good company (styling our way up almost).
I was in charge of the third pitch. The adrenaline was flowing, but I knew that the third pitch was more normal climbing - we'd be alright. I pulled over the starting bulge (the pump was pleasing) and bridged upwards to the cave (what a cave - it is deep enough for a one man bivvy. It would be the perfect place for a falcon to nest - all that seabird food flying around too). There was a tricky section above the cave. I pulled rightwards to an exposed little ledge and then struggled back left on small holds to a knobbly crack that led to the top. It is all pretty exposed up here, though the holds are good and it is eventually possible to get some gear in. Theresa was peering over the top of the crag as I was climbing. "Did you see the lob?" I asked. She hadn't (maybe this was a good thing - it could be a little troubling to see your newly-wed husband take a 30 foot whipper off a south Devon sea cliff). I concentrated on executing the final few moves up the steep grassy corner, the pump pressing nicely by this stage. Eventually I was there - at the top. I shouted "YES". I was well pleased to have ticked Goddess of Gloom. I was pleased that we hadn't quiched onto Moonraker after our misfortune, I was pleased that I had led the whole route (Tom had led it mainly last time). I tied onto the massive post at the top and brought Fred up. I was just happy to be alive as I pulled in the ropes and looked out over the sea.
Both Fred and I were elated to be at the top. We were mentally drained. Chudleigh was no longer on our minds - we headed off for a great pub lunch near Exeter.
Any plans to go back for Moonraker?
We'll be back. The fire still burns.
Martin Beale, September 1999