An Intimidating Introduction to the Heart of Darkness

An Intimidating Introduction to the Heart of Darkness

My first day on British sea cliffs lead to the outrageously exposed Heart of Darkness HVS 4c.  Hanging off a horizontal dusty break above an angry sea certainly put life’s regular stresses into perspective.  A ludicrous adventure finish by being benighted, fortunately at the top of a cliff and not on route.  A very fine introduction to the art of sea cliff climbing.

Heart of Darkness is a massive traverse across a section of the west cliff of Mowingword.  It is one of the best HVS’s in Britain and described as being similar to A Dream of White Horses.  The route has 3 pitches:

  • 4c, 30 m
  • 4c, 25 m
  • 4c, 15 m

The first 2 pitches traverse across the cliff face and the final finishes up the corner crack of Diedre Sud.  First climbed by J. Perrin and J. Greenland in August 1971, this route is never desperate with easy route finding, excellent holds and gripping exposure.  A real must on a trad climbers Wishlist. 

The East Face of Mowingword, a small section of the Pembrokeshire Cliffs.


Heart of Darkness is in Stackpole Head in the Diedre Sud Area of Mowingword.  Mowingword can be approached from either Broad Haven beach car park or Stackpole car park, in approximately 30 minutes.  I parked at the Stackpole car park and paid £5 for all day parking.  The car park is owed by the National Trust meaning there is a toilet, but overnight parking/van camping is not allowed. 

From the car park, a scenic path is followed towards Barafundle Bay and then back up onto the cliff tops. 

The start of the scenic walk from the car park
Barafundle Bay

There are numerous paths that lead across Stackpole Warren to Gun Cliff, Mowingword and Stackpole Head. 

Back up onto the cliffs in Stackpole Head

There are regular bird nesting restrictions all over Pembrokeshire’s cliffs, so it is very important to be up to date on the restrictions.  As always there is up to date information on the British Mountaineering Councils Regional Access Database (BMC RAD) which I have linked – here.  

There is also information for climbers published by the Pembrokeshire council which I have linked – here

When at the top of the cliffs, areas which have bird restrictions are often identified by cliff top markers in the form of red pots.  The pots have a directional arrow and a date, do not climb between the pots during the restriction time.   However, it is still your responsibility to be aware of restrictions and if you see protected birds, do not climb. 

As a large part of the Pembrokeshire Cliffs are owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), it is essential for your safety to be up to date on the firing ranges information.  MoD Castlemartin recorded information on firing times on Range East can be found by calling 01646 662367.

The Climb

I had planned an optimistic weekend in Pembroke in February several weeks earlier.  A weekend had been picked where a friend and I were both free and hoped for the best.  Somehow after storms Dudley and Eunice, the weekend we had picked was oddly calm.  Something was wrong, surely?

The plan had been to climb Heart of Darkness, HVA 4c, into New Morning E1 5b.  This combination is a Hardrock route and considered to be one of the best in the country.  We walked quickly across the cliff tops, feeling blessed by the weather gods who gave us blue skies.  When we approached the cliff edge to see the route and looked down at the belay ledge for the Heart of Darkness our faces dropped. 

My face was a look of horror at seeing the enormous swell

The tide was still high, and the swell was enormous.  The belay ledge was being doused by every wave.  Now was NOT the time to abseil into the west face of Mowingword.  We occupied the next couple of hours by climbing the more esoteric Corner Crack and Gargoyle Groove before returning to inspect The Heart of Darkness over a lunch break.

Jay topping out of Corner Crack
The abseil to Gargoyle Groove

We spotted a couple climbers, who we thought were abseiling into the route.  They were on a ledge sorting gear when suddenly, a giant wave came and soaked the pair.  It was a freak wave, right? 

We hurried back across the cliff tops and then descended their abseil rope down to the ledge only to find this was not the start of The Heart of Darkness.  Our start was a scramble across the wet ledges to the next area.

This was type 2 fun.  The scramble was precarious, the rocks were wet and there was the ever-present risk of getting a soaking and worse, being knocked into the sea.  After a pulse raising scramble, we were at the large and wet belay ledge.  Jay was going to climb the first pitch of The Heart of Darkness and I was going to climb the New Morning pitch. 

I built an anchor and we tied into either end of the rope.  He climbed up to the corner then down climbed back to me and said, “I need all of the cams”.  I instinctively handed them all over, accept the blue and yellow that I had used in the anchor.  As it turns out, they would have been very helpful.  Jay climbed back up to the corner and then he was gone.  I could not hear or see him from the belay stance, I just had to feed out the rope as the slack disappeared. 

After quite some time, I received the agreed 5 tugs on the rope to signal that Jay was safe.  I took him off belay then waited until the slack was taken up.  I became very aware of the distinct low hanging sun behind me.  We did not have much time.  The slack was taken, and another 5 rope tugs signalled that I was on belay.

I quickly climbed up to the corner and looked at the next section.  Nothing could have prepared me for what I could see.  Approximately 30 meters of traverse with the ropes dipping like telephone wire from the cams which had been place as protection.  The sea suddenly became a lot louder as I entered the crack system that would take me to the corner that was far far away. 

The moves were never desperate, and the holds were good.  In fact, the movement was quite repetitive, traversing from jug to jug with sometimes questionable feet.  Being off season, the holds were quite sandy which added to the insecure feel.  The omnipresent sound of the ocean beating the rocks below my feet made for an all-consuming climb. 

Shaking my arms regularly to limit the build up of lactic acid in my forearms, I was consciously aware of the ever-increasing gap between protection.  Clearly Jay had been running low on the right size cams and becoming increasingly pumped as he moved along the break.  It was not until I was on top of a yellow totem cam that I realised he had run it to the corner about 4 meters away.  If I fell now, I would have hit that corner of rock a few meters below the break.  A couple choice curse words for my climbing partner, I breathed deeply and removed the totem.  With full focus, I moved across the final section and towards the safety of the corner.  Adrenaline levels through the roof, I stopped to take a few deep breaths and recover before climbing around the corner to the belay ledge.

Grateful to be in relative safety, I noticed that Jay was looking antsy.  Looking back at the now even lower sun, we really did not have much light left.  The New Morning Crack was sweeping above me and looked so enticing but stupidly, neither of us had headtorches…

I could climb the route in the remaining light, I thought, but seconding the crux pitch in the dark would not have been an enjoyable experience.  We needed a fast escape plan.  Continuing the second pitch of Heart of Darkness, which follows a more broken traverse, leads to the corner of Diedre Sud HS 4b.  Another classic climb of it grade. 

I climbed across the second pitch of Heart of Darkness, but the line is not clear.  The description recommends climbing up from the belay before descending to the break.  I did not do this.  I downclimbed from the belay so my hands were level with Jay’s feet and then traversed before climbing over a blocky section and back onto the traverse until in the obvious corner for Diedre Sud. 

After the intense first pitch, Jay agreed to let me lead the final pitch.  Partially so I could climb more but I suspect also because that first pitch took a lot out of him.  No doubt, I would have been mentally fatigued after that pitch. 

In the fading light, I climbed up the lovely corner crack quickly.  Placing limited gear to speed up the climbing.  A really enjoyable pitch with no difficult moves.  Exactly what we needed after that traverse.  In final light, I topped out, located a spike, and built an anchor.  Before long, Jay had joined me at the cliff top where we exchanged a few whoops and obligatory high fives before escaping the cliff top. 

A shaky top out picture of Jay finishing Diedre Sud

This was an adventure in itself.  No headtorches and an active avoidance of cliff edges we found ourselves knee deep in brambles.  After a much slower return, we were back at the safety of our vans. 

A very close shave to becoming benighted on the cliff. A beautiful top out view

What an introduction to sea cliff climbing.  Heart of Darkness is sensational and I will be back to climb New Morning. 

Sea cliff belays are very special
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