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Way Out West

Way Out West

David Pickford
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Bosigran, the proudest of all Cornish crags, is one of the finest granite cliffs in England. I first climbed there as a teenager, and every time I return I discover new dimensions in familiar spaces.   

South-West from Bosigran Head

Looking south-west from Bosigran Head © David Pickford

When I was nineteen, soloing a few routes was a logical way to finish a day’s climbing when my partner had already expended all their energy. Late one summer evening I ran from the Carn Galver mines to the top of the Great Zawn. As I arrived on the narrow col above the west wall, the heat of the day had given in to lengthening shadows. In a few minutes, I was sliding down the last few metres of rope to land on the boulders heaped at the base of the slab. Desolation Row follows the thin cracks splitting its left edge; a clean line rising to the apex of the zawn. 

I began climbing almost immediately. Soon I was high on the slab, balancing carefully on small edges below the crux section, where the crack thins into a spidery seam. 

The calm sea glinted darkly from the cavern below, sluicing in the narrow channel at the zawn’s entrance. Somewhere overhead, a peregrine shrieked and then swooped out to the west. Bob Dylan’s lines began to float in the zawn’s ether: 

Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow…
Nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row 

Lifted by that vision, I drifted through the crux and landed back on the col, half-dreaming. Out to sea, an offshore wind blew whorls in the dark water beyond Bosigran Head. 

On a roll, I raced back over to the Main Cliff for a quick  ascent of Joe Brown’s 1957 masterpiece, Bow Wall. The first climber to solo this route was 1980s British rock star Ron Fawcett, a teenage hero of mine, so setting off on the big, golden granite wall with only rock shoes and a chalkbag had a particular sense of occasion. On the crux, swinging from a perfect handjam at the end of the diagonal crack, a peregrine falcon swooped behind me, mobbed by a pair of clamourous ravens. By the time I’d got to the top, he’d shaken them off, and I watched him circling out to sea as a thin vein of cloud crossed the falling sun. 

In the spring of 2007, my thoughts returned to Bosigran and to a line that had seen attempts by two of the best climbers southwest England has ever produced, Ken Palmer and Mark Edwards: the extraordinary diagonal seam that bisects the heart of the Diamond Face. Over two days, as high seas driven by an intense low pressure off Iceland thundered into Porthmonia Cove, sending sheets of spray a hundred feet into the air, I unlocked the puzzle of how to gain the seam. Both Mark and Ken had been trying to gain it direct, via a desperately hard boulder problem.

Thundering swell

A huge swell thunders into Porthmoina Cove © David Pickford

I immediately discounted this as a viable option, but found a small crimp on the extreme lefthand side of the face, gained from the neighbouring HVS, that allowed an improbable horizontal dyno to be made out right to a very small undercut at the very base of the seam. The crux move itself remains the wildest and most unusual I have ever done on any route, including all the sport routes I’ve climbed. Launching out with a kind of sideways fencer’s lunge, I could just catch the tiny undercut as I was cartwheeling off the crag, and then clamp the barn-door shut by catching the left arête of the face with my left toe.

All that remained after this was the relative sanctuary of E6 laybacking up the seam proper. Teahupo’o (E8 7a) is named after the legendary reef break off Tahiti where Laird Hamilton surfed one of the heaviest waves ever ridden in August 2000. It seemed appropriate given the wave-like nature of the line, and the immense Atlantic swell thundering into the crag that day.

David Pickford on the first ascent of Teahupoo

David Pickford on the first ascent of Teahupo'o, Bosigran's hardest route, in 2007 © David Pickford

I’ll never forget the awestruck feeling of making the first ascent of the hardest route on one of my favourite cliffs in the world. Routes like these - Desolation Row, Bow Wall, Doorpost, Suicide Wall, Bosigran Ridge, Teahupo’o - all explain in different ways the reasons I love rock climbing in general, and climbing in Cornwall in particular. Once engaged in their mysteries, they also explain why Bosigran is simply one of the best crags in Britain.  

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