I can still vividly recall the moment, back in ’87 I think it was, when I sat in my parents’ car clutching my brand new, just purchased, copy of the Littlejohn and O’Sullivan South Devon And Dartmoor guide – the one with Andy Meyers on the cover, hanging from Caveman’s roof whilst bedecked in his old blue Levis (funny how things come full circle – his attire seemed really dated back then in those lycra worshipping days) . Having only recently fallen under the climbing spell, but still hugely and wonderfully ignorant, I flicked through the pages, my mind conjuring up images of the immaculate Ceuse like South Face of Chudleigh and the Siuranaesque rockscapes of The Old Redoubt. In my imagination Hay Tor was only slightly less impressive than El Cap, Foggintor Quarry’s soaring aretes and technical faces akin to Millstone at its best and Anstey’s Cove was basically an earlier (and better) version of what Kalymnos has become. It turns out that most of these mental images were about right and in some cases it transpired that the Devonian version was superior to my wild imaginings. But, to be honest, the only venue of those listed that has held my interest, the one that I keep returning to, no matter how bruising our last encounter has been, no matter how much I manage to convince myself that we are totally incompatible bedfellows, is…well no doubt you’ve already guessed!
I think it’s probably fair to say that Anstey’s Cove is the beating heart of hard climbing in Devon. The Cove has evolved from a curious mess of slabby nonsense, loose trad and a smattering of aid pitches – as it was in the 1985 guide – to what is, ostensibly, the sports climbing epicentre of the South of England. Although that crown is nowadays challenged by the likes of Cheddar and Portland, the benchmarks – Empire of the Sun, Just Revenge, Cider Soak, Tuppence, Poppy and Brian – all reside just above the mediterranean waters off Redgate Beach – and few would argue that the routes listed would justly hold their own when compared with the best of the grade in the country. Admittedly Anstey’s is not perfect and it has a frankly embarrassing lack of choice for those operating between easy and hard but once the breakthrough has been made (more often than not with a successful ascent of Empire) there’s no looking back. I remember meeting a young Mark Campbell at the Cove way back in the early 90s as he struggled up The Lynch. Next time I saw him, he was lapping it! Similarly myself and Tim Emmett had a fun hour or two trying to boulder out the start of American Express (I recall him eventually being successfully…the first time (of many) he burnt me off!). The next thing I knew he was clipping the chains on The Cider Soak. As a forcing ground Anstey’s Cove has been one of the most important crags in the country for the past three decades; as a place for new talent to hone their skills, it’s second-to-none.
My own relationship with Anstey’s has, I imagine, followed a very different trajectory to most. You see, I always fancied onsighting Empire and so I saved it for years thinking that, at some point, I would get fit by projecting Just Revenge in preparation. So eventually that’s what I did. Of course, by the time I came to do Empire it was nowhere near an onsight but flashing the route has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my climbing life.
However, I have always harboured a little pang of regret when reminiscing on the approach I took to climbing Empire because at around about this time…2005 or so…I had spotted a monster unclimbed diagonal running from the bottom right to top left of the wall. I knew I couldn’t do it without climbing about one half of Empire and therefore blow the flash so I mentioned it to my good friend Jon Wilson who was unencumbered by such ridiculous, self imposed, restrictions. He promptly set to work on the line and, before too long, the wall had another route to add to its ever growing list of link ups. Helium does have a really cool 15 foot of previously unclimbed traversing that links Empire with Oozy, especially if the unnecessary friend placement is eschewed and the ride is taken – it’s about the most fun you can have whilst failing on a route! Jon opted to finish up Heathen Man which gives a tough final couple of moves and caps off a fine 20+m of sapping, but nowhere too hard, climbing.
And that’s where Jon’s line differed from the one I had originally spotted. The natural sweep of the rock on the Empire Wall, and the curve of the line climbed by Helium up to Oozy, draws the eye up and left from Heathen Man and it was always my intention to follow this sweeping line and try to finish up the short and obscure crack of Avant Garde….
Fast forward eight years and now in a position to do something about it having both climbed Empire and acquired a drill, I decided this Summer to check out Avant Garde on a top rope. Really unpleasant, fingery and hard, it seemed way out of keeping with the rest of the route. I was getting pretty dejected when it occurred to me that a line of unclimbed rock existed between Avant Garde and Heathen Man. It looked like there were holds and the line seemed independent…and so it proved. So I added a couple of new bolts and a new lower off and within a week or two I was hauling my unfit frame onto the finishing ledge of Fusion Reactor to surely close proceedings on the development of The Empire Wall. Fusion Reactor has about 27m of climbing on it – just under half the route contains moves that are only shared with Helium or are completely new. Harder for me than Helium but not hard enough for an increase in grade, Fusion Reactor must be the pumpiest route with no real hard moves on it around. I’m sure if you’re super fit it will feel like a path, but it certainly pushed me right to my limit and, as far as I am concerned, there’s no better place to be in climbing, especially whilst voyaging into previously unchartered terrain!