Committing Sea Climb Gets Long-Awaited Repeat

Posted on: June 12, 2008

Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll on Pitch 2 of The Mad Brown (E7 6b [5.12- X], 4 pitches), Gogarth, North Wales. He and Nicolas Favresse made the second ascent of the chossy, committing line in May on their first try; though there is doubt about whether the ascent was truly an onsight, it is one of the most difficult multipitch routes ever climbed ground up in Britain. [Photo] Adam Wainwright

Invited to the BMC International Meet, Belgian climbers Nicolas Favresse and Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll climbed in Wales for the month of May 2008. The highlight of their stay was the second integral—and first ground-up onsight—ascent of The Mad Brown (E7 6b [5.12- X], 4 pitches), Gogarth, North Wales, which rises out of the sea and arches back to the sky.

The overhanging line had not seen a complete ascent since it was first opened in 1996 by Adam Wainwright and George Smith, who also had aimed to make a ground-up onsight. They eventually relied, however, on abseil inspection and four days of work to piece the route together. Until this year, only one other attempt—Leo Houlding's—had been recorded. He marked his high point on Pitch 2 with a quickdraw that remains in place today.


The Belgian team first caught glimpse of the route when climbing with local Nick Bullock on the back wall of Wen Zawn. Strangely inspired by the loose rock on routes such as Mr. Softy (E6 6b) and Conan the Librarian (E6), they decided to try The Mad Brown—characterized by loose flakes Favresse described as "overhanging cheese"—a few days later.

The line trends left, up the right side of a large grotto, then follows an imaginary pathway through questionable vertical and horizontal flakes. To help them stay on-route, first ascensionist Wainwright hung on a rope and shouted directions. Favresse described the route as sustained but varied: Pitches 1 and 3, which he led, were particularly chossy, while Pitch 2, led by O'Driscoll, was not as loose but more technical. Favresse linked the original fourth pitch with the third.

Favresse pulls through the final pitch of The Mad Brown. [Photo] Adam Wainwright

The Belgians carried two full racks of cams and nuts to place as much gear as possible, knowing the poor rock would offer suspect protection throughout. Due to the proximity of the ocean, the carabiners left by Leo Houlding in the pitons of the first anchor could not be removed. The Belgians, therefore, were forced to trust their lives to that rusting anchor. The second anchor was no better: two old, rusty ice pins pounded into mud.

"The hardest part of the climb," Favresse said, "was all the body tension required to try out so many holds to see which were not going to break." Beyond the rock quality, the pair were drawn to The Mad Brown's other adventurous side—the only way off the route is either to climb up or swim out.

Sources: Nicolas Favresse,,,,

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Adam Wainwright

No doubt in my mind whether this route was climbed on-sight by these guys - the info I gave them was nothing that wouldn't have been contained in the new guidebook, due out this summer. It was also pure coincidence that I was there that day - I abseiled into the zawn to climb a neighbouring route to find Nico finishing pitch 1.

Also the abseil approach is around 25m away so no help there in ruining your on-sight.

As to the first ascent we didn't aim to make a 'ground up on-sight' as this is impossible. A route is either climbed on-sight (ground up, no info, no falls), or ground up (tried on-sight but finally climbed after one or more falls). We also spent 5 days on the first ascent - the first 3 being spent on ground up attempts which got us to the crux on pitch 2.

I've also got to agree with Toms comments - Britain is full of adventures like this. What's great about Nico and Sean's visit is that we are finally getting some well deserved foreign attention to our 'traditional' climbs and not just our over-hyped headpoints.

2008-06-13 08:26:30
Tom Briggs

Superb effort but as to "a milestone ascent in British multi-pitch, ground-up climbing", that does smack of hype somewhat! I can think of a number of Scottish multi-pitch E7s that have been climbed ground-up and in good style with no beta.

2008-06-13 05:57:24

When you have to abseil to a sea-cliff to climb it only t@$$&^s would complain about it not being really an onsight. Favresse is a top notch climber with inspiring achievements and equal modesty. Great job for both lads!

2008-06-13 03:02:50
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