Climbers drawn to danger by the allure of virgin rock

AT CILAN HEAD, erosion has made the rock so fragile it can crumble in the hand, yet a band of dedicated climbers has been drawn to these 350ft high sea cliffs on the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales by their continuing obsession: new routes.

Rock climbing's explosion in popularity in recent years has led to an abundance of outdoor pursuit centres teaching the sport, and to many schools now offering rock climbing in preference to more traditional games. It has meant popular routes up the rock face have become overcrowded. For the dedicated climber it is harder than ever to find virgin rock in the United Kingdom.

In the past, the nature of the rock at Cilan Head discouraged climbers. Many of the unwary who tackled the cliffs found them too difficult: some have been forced to hang all night on the rock as the light faded and they were unable to reach the summit.

But the danger adds to the thrill. "This is the cutting edge of rock climbing" said Elfyn Jones, 31, who lives at Bethesda, Gwynedd. "You have to be the mountaineering equivalent of streetwise to tackle Cilan Head. One thing's for sure, there's no worry about crowds."

As a warden with the National Trust in Snowdonia he is aware of the popularity of rock climbing in the region - and the fears about erosion and the problems with land owners because of the number of people involved. Within an hour's drive of his office there are 100 outdoor pursuit centres.

"There is nothing wrong with those who want to follow the routes in the guide book or go in for indoor competition climbing. But for me, finding new rock and climbing it without any prior knowledge is rock climbing at its purest," he said.

With fellow climber Dick Griffiths, he sometimes has to swim or use a boat to get to the base of cliffs to climb. Mr Griffiths, 38, from Porthmadog, has already forged more than 20 new routes at Cilan Head.

He has had some lucky escapes. Recently he abseiled down a cliff to gauge the best route before making an attempt - something he tries to avoid because it makes the climb easier - only to dislodge tons of boulders. An overhang protected him but he was forced to lower himself into the water and swim to safety.

"That was too close for comfort, but the element of danger is always there. There is a real buzz in being the first. Hopefully, if a guide book is produced for the area my routes will be in it," he said.

Nationwide there is a small band of climbers tackling new routes - following the tradition of legends like Joe Brown and his regular climbing partner Don Whillans, who gave the sport widespread recognition in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dick Griffiths said: "In the 1960s there were huge areas of rock to go at and major routes to put down. We are not in the same league as Joe Brown. Some of those guys were years ahead of their time. But the spirit of what we are trying to do is the same. The search for unclimbed rock goes on."

Roger Payne, general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, said once they reached a certain level of expertise, climbers will start to look for new routes.

"Most people who are climbing are following a guide book. To climbers, the sport is all about exploration and for some that means exploring unclimbed rock with a certain degree of risk or danger" he said.

"It is what climbing is about: exploration and adventure. A step into the unknown for personal satisfaction."