Moonraker - Good and Bad?

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Sep 23, 2019

In September last year, Piers Harley and I climbed the Devon sea cliff classic Moonraker (HVS 5a). All went to plan and we had a brilliant time. Since nice days beside the seaside rarely make for an interesting read we thought it might be better to combine our photos with an account of a very different experience on Moonraker. Here's an excerpt from Mick Fowler's Vertical Pleasure - The Secret Life Of The Taxman that's well worth a read...

Goddess of Gloom (HVS 5a) in blue and Moonraker (HVS 5a) in red. Both of these climbs are accessed by a steep down climb and lengthy sea traverse from the right.

We had somehow squeezed four into the minivan and I ended up climbing with Mike Hunt, another keen enthusiast from the Croydon Club, with whom Mike Morrison had done a few climbs. One of the rumours about him was hat he'd climbed a HVS in the Avon Gorge with a rope around his neck! As Mike and I descended the tricky wall down to the platform at the start of the traverse, it became clear that we ha badly misjudged the tides and wee in for an attempt at the high level traverse. After our previous efforts, Pete Biven had assured us that Mike Morrison had previously passed the hardest section and that the whole of the upper traverse was about VS standard. After an hour or so of taking it in turns to get frightened on overhanging greasy rock five metres above a boiling sea, I could only conclude that neither of us were capable of soloing VS. with the tide well in now, an awkward section was necessary to cross a steep wall and regain the platform. Having wobbled my way across I paused to wait for Mike Hunt who was beginning to look distinctly cold and unhappy after an unexpectedly large wave had caught him unawares at the back of the cave.

The steep down climb to the start of the traverse. An intimidating proposition! A slip from here would result in a long fall into the sea.

At first, I thought it was hilarious when he lost contact with the rock altogether and laughed mercilessly at the floundering body struggling to retain contact. A panic stricken thrashing body suddenly convinced me that all was not well. Initially I thought that perhaps he could not swim and discarded my camera in order to prepare for an heroic rescue mission.

Fortunately for me though, before I launched myself gracefully into the water he was swept out on to a wave-washed rock about 3 metres clear of the platform. He seemed to have swallowed a lot of water and tolled around like an ungainly walrus trying to stand up. For the first time it struck me that something more serious might be wrong. There was no doubt about it - one shoulder was distinctly lower than the other, but then I had not exactly studied his physique closely and thought this might possibly be the norm.

Our first view of the traverse. Fortunately the sea was calm and the tide was out. Mick and his partner encountered very different conditions!

Mike was extremely controlled about the whole affair: "I've dislocated my shoulder", he spluttered.

It seemed that his deformity was not his usual physical state after all.

"Don't worry". It was all I could think to say and seemed a pitifully inappropriate comment, especially coming from a very poor swimmer in whom the injured had absolutely no option but to have complete faith.

Top priority was clearly to get him back to the relative safety of the platform. Tying him on to a rope and physically pulling him accrues seemed the best option and with this in mind I threw a rope end at the increasingly sorry looking figure. Mike decided my suggestion that he tie on round the waist was dangerous. He had worked as a lifeguard at one point and felt that a waist tie would make him unstable in the water and could turn him upside down. A wrist tie was, he assured me, much safer. This may well be the case, but while one-handed bowline knots around the waist are reasonably easy to tie, the same cannot be said for similar knots around the wrist. It looked distressingly clear that I was going to have to get wet as well. On the other hand it seemed mildly ridiculous for us both to end up on the wave washed rock unless there really was no alternative. Mike though was increasingly insistent and, trusting in his apparent expertise in water based activities (and keen for some progress in one direction or another), I acceded to his wishes. Having secured one end of the rope on the platform, I succeeded in floundering out to admire his predicament from close quarters. It was certainly an impressive dislocation an done which looked as if it would e a lot less painful if it could be popped back into place. There was a lull in the waves, and even Mike had to agree that a Fowler-on-the-spot operation could ease matters considerably.



Having placed my left wrist under the armpit I pushed his elbow hard against his body and lifted at the same time. Aside from Mike emitting a curious squeaking noise and looking very faint, there was no discernible change. A second attempt had similar results and prompted an admission that my doctoring abilities clearly fell short of the standard required. There was little choice left but to cajole him into the water, across to the ledge and up a short tricky wall to the clifftop car park. In line with his preference, the wrist of his good arm was securely tied to the rope (my suggestion that his injured arm should be tied and pulled in an effort to click the joint back in place went down very badly) and I returned hand over hand along the rope which I had fixed to the platform.

Piers leading the traverse to the start of the climb. The ledge on which he's standing would have been submerged at high tide and result in a very different proposition!

Mike stood there rather forlornly. He was looking a little less happy with the wrist tie (or perhaps with the situation in general) now that action was imminent.

"Go for it!" I shouted over the noise of the sea. 

The waves reverberating round the cave muffled any audible reply. I pulled hard as he stepped forward into the three-metre-wide stretch of deep water. Perhaps my handling of the rope was not as he intended or perhaps he himself had misjudged something. Whatever was wrong, the end result was that I was pulling his good arm, he was unable to use his bad arm to keep himself above water and he half sank beneath the waves with only one arm poking straight out of the water, looking something like a stricken submarine. By pulling furiously, I managed to sort of glide him across to the metre-high wall forming the edge of the platform where the swell scraped him mercilessly up and down against the rocks , whilst I wondered whether my efforts to get him out would result in the dislocation of his good wrist. It was a particularly soggy and uninspired version of the former exuberant Mr Hunt who finally lay gasping at my feet on the platform beneath the awkward wall and traverse leading to safety. 

Piers making light work of the crux first pitch (5a). The down climb and start of the traverse can be seen in the background.

For those with full control of their limbs it was little more than a tricky scramble to escape. For Mike, with one shoulder dislocated and the other wrist looking increasingly red and swollen, the prospect was daunting. Because it was a traverse and had large overhangs above, I was unable to give any direct assistance and could do little but place as many pieces of gear as possible and fix a back rope to make sure he did not swing too far if he fell off. Poor mike looked distinctly nonplussed at his predicament. It was October and with the chilling effect of the sea taking its toll, he sat miserably on the ledge, teeth chattering insistently as he contemplated the situation. Lending him my very baggy sweater, as knitted by my Auntie and extremely stretchy when wet did nothing to improve the slightly ridiculous atmosphere surrounding the whole incident.

Gerry (Mick's girlfriend) had arranged to come to the cliff as soon as she had finished work but a quick dash to the top revealed no sign of her and the look of disappointment on Mike's face when I returned was immediately obvious. Clearly he did not relish the prospect of having no on but me to rely on. Understandable as this was, things went relatively smoothly and a selection of precariously placed nuts with slings attached enabled our combined efforts to see him end up safe but cold and wet in the cliff top car park, where a friendly couple of pensioners sitting in their car to admire the view took pity on us and invited the dripping duo to share their Thermos on the back seat of an immaculately maintained Austin 1100 while we waited for Gerry. Our plight must have made a great yarn to tell around the Torbay rest-home circuit. They even had two muddy stains on their unblemished cloth upholstery to lend credence to their story.

Piers starting up the 3rd and final pitch (5a).

When Gerry arrived Mike was organised into hospital where he spent a lot of time stripped to his offensive fluorescent yellow underpants. being wheeled around the premises before a doctor twisted and thumped the arm in what looked to be exactly the same way as I had, but with distinctly improved results that by the evening, in Pete Biven's dry clothing, Mike was able to manage a complete round of the 7 Chudleigh pubs ( a favourite pastime of Exeter University climbers) and was pronounced recovered. He was not keen to return to the joys of Berry Head, however, and it was to be a few months before Mike Morrison and I completed the climb - albeit in a boringly epic-free style.

Many thanks to Mick Fowler for allowing us to reproduce this extract. His excellent new book "No Easy Way" can be bought here.

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