Range West

It’s been an undeniably dreadful year, so it seems almost perverse to flag up the occasional positive from the pandemic, like neighbourliness, vaccines and birdsong. There have also been huge leaps in virtual / digital stuff, and one tiny silver-lining spin-off has been the current access arrangements for Range West. Up until now, this has required attendance at a briefing (held a few times a year) but in these socially distanced times this has been replaced by an online video briefing and a downloadable form.

We’d been meaning to explore this exciting area for years, but the chance of the alignment of briefing / availability / weather etc all coinciding to make the 10 hrs round-trip worthwhile meant that it never happened – until now! The process now is really streamlined (details here: https://www.thebmc.co.uk/pembroke-range-west-goes-virtual) and once you’ve watched the video (which spells out the obvious hazards and necessary precautions of accessing a live firing range!) you just hand in your form at the guardhouse (easily spotted next to this Chieftain Tank!) and you’re good to go for the rest of the year. You just sign in (and out!) each visit. The guards were really helpful and friendly and the MoD, BMC and the National Park are to be congratulated on engineering such a slick arrangement – hopefully it outlives the pandemic and becomes the norm.

Access is most easily gained from the Stacks Rocks carpark (subject to the normal range opening times). Arriving on a Sunday late afternoon, just as the rain was stopping, it seemed worthwhile to use our newly accredited status to have a quick exploration whilst the range was open – stopping briefly to admire the iconic Green Bridge, and take in the view of the usual Range East honeypots from the opposite side.

It’s almost worth the admin just for the smug feeling you get, hopping over the fence into Range West, secure in the knowledge that you have got an MoD pass…

We were operating with fairly limited info, as we only had the Wired guide which of course is only able to cover a minority of the crags. Factor in a big sea, and limited time, and we were scratching around for a suitable objective. 40ft Wall is a handy, generally amenable, and usually non-tidal spot, but the ledge at its base was being liberally sprayed. Instead we back-tracked to Greenham Common, which in addition to the impressive Main Face (entry grade E4 and up)

… hosts some easier climbing on the wings. It also benefits from a commodious ledge at its foot.

A whif of mobile data allowed us to grab a photo of the starred VS, Peace Dividend, off UKC, but this came with the health warning that the bottom few meters had disappeared. It did, however, serve as a useful landmark, so I used my mountaineering judgement to pick out the other VS a few lines to the right (an obvious leaning flake / corner line). That’d do…

Suffice to say that this turned out to be a somewhat harrowing ascent – straightforward climbing, but the upper half is on a tower of huge Jenga blocks with no obvious connection to each other or the cliff face. Topping out, I knitted together a belay across multiple bits of hillside (casting an envious glance at the array of shiny belay stakes above the hard routes) and settled down, taking great care to avoid the various bits of military detritus scattered around. If that was VS then perhaps we’d save ourselves £25 and not buy the CC volume for the West!

Helen followed in short order and we topped out just in time to phone through our food order to Jake and Leah who were waiting anxiously at the St Govans Inn as our appointed meeting time came and went…

After a pint, we threw caution to the wind and stumped up for the guide anyway – and were encouraged to find we’d done Shell Hole, E1 5b “a rockfall has removed the start of the next rib leaving unstable overhangs…” So much for my mountaineering judgement!

Bosherston campsite empty in the middle of May – where is everyone?

Our next opportunity to head “out West” came on Wednesday evening (an unfortunately-scheduled work zoom had eaten into the best day of weather – Aaargh!) The range opens on Monday, Wednesday and Friday after mid-week firing, and sure enough a friendly guard was along to lower the red flag at 16:45 on the dot. With a much more docile sea, we took another look at 40ft Wall – like many of the main areas in Range West this is marked by a handy yellow flower pot:

Tranquility… The only people anywhere on this 5-mile stretch of stupendous coastline.

Much of Range West, including this modest wall, is composed of continuous horizontal strata, with square-cut features and sharp edges (in contrast to much of Range East).

We did the fun arete of Rachmaninov (definitely the easier end of E1 but well worth a star) and the excellent, and exposed, Route Galore:

Fab spot!

Sadly, the following couple of days were pretty much a washout. An inch of rain each day with 60mph winds playing havoc with the fixtures and fittings…

It still left us and the other surviving team with a portaloo each.

At least Thursday afforded a couple of hours gap in the rain; actually the perfect schedule to make a pub-lunch with Tony a respectable option and also allowing for a blustery bimble through the lilly ponds to Mowing Word and back. Not a day for Widowmaker, unless you wanted a surf-assisted ascent – the waves were breaking level with the top of the south face!

Friday just as grim – normally if it rains for two days in a row, we start driving, but it wasn’t great anywhere so we went for Plan B and typed “microbrewery” into Google maps. The Harbwr Brewery in Tenby is worth a visit.

Sunshine returned on Saturday with the prospect of a full day on Range West, though still with a big sea to contend with and an unhelpfully early low tide (9.30am). An early start (at least by Rockaroundtheworld standards) had us on the crag not long after the tide turned, checking out the appealingly named Juggy Point. Sadly, the spray from the biggest of the breakers was still reaching half way up the crag.

Mount Sion Central was never on the agenda, but looks like somewhere that might merit a future look. Impressive!

We were starting to despair, cursing the Sea Gods, but then spotted a couple of handy looking E1s on the East face of Greenham Common.

Wilson’s Wobbler takes the slanting corner / crack to the right of Helen in the picture below, whilst H Bomb takes the thin arete. They couldn’t be more different: steep, well-protected thuggery V thin, run-out crimping.

Here’s me just after the crux of the former

… watched over by a couple of inquisitive seals.

Wanting to make the most of the day, but definitely in need of a bit of a gap between us and the sea, we wandered over to Crystal Slabs for a couple of low-trauma HVSs – Crystal Edge and Crystal Arete. Both worth doing and watch out for the sting in the tail on the latter!

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