BOSIGRAN, CARN GALVER & COMMANDO RIDGE, WEST CORNWALL
January 1987: In the wake of last week’s blizzards, the moors above Madron and the coastland to the north looked more like Dartmoor under snow than mild-mannered West Cornwall. By Friday, the snow lay in deep drifts against banks and hedges. The condition of the footpaths that led to the Four Parishes Stone at the heart of the moor made for hard going through the snow. It was easier to walk on the raised edges to either side. In such conditions, it pays to be familiar with the ground.
At Four Parishes, you can stand on a whale-backed boulder with the old parishes of Gulval, Madron, Morvah and Zennor at heel and toe. The boulder was swept clear of snow by the wind. To the north of the stone, ‘White Downs’, with its heavy covering of snow, lived up to its name for once. The rocky pinnacles of the Galvers at Hannibal’s Carn looked like a perfect miniature of a Scottish midwinter peak.
Nothing moved in this winter landscape where fox tracks criss-crossed the easier ground. Most birds had edged down from the moor during previous snowfalls. Snipe sheltered in the lee of the few buildings on the coast. They tapped at the frozen ground where the polar winds had left grass exposed. Starlings bullied their way onto our frequently replenished bird table and there were reports of a big dog fox scouting between barns and snow-covered mowhays in the early light, caught between hunger and a need for caution.
The track that leads down to Bosigran from the saddle between Watch Croft and Carn Galver was deep in snow that was too soft and irregular for ski-ing but was difficult enough for walking. The snow on top of the Galver ridge was still crisp but each descent of one hundred feet saw the snow melting slowly. Bosigran cliff lay stark and grey-faced in the dull light with only thin fingers of snow lying in the cold shadow of huge boulders.
The fields along the coastal shelf were more green than white by now and the grass was alive with plovers, their wintry cries piping forlornly through the chill air. On the coastal path beyond Commando Ridge, there was still deep snow but the path itself was inches deep in melt water. Even the sea looked warm although the vast water-scoured cliffs at Great Moor Zawn and Chypraze were still sheeted with ice. A hundred yards offshore, Cormorants powered above the waves unconcerned with such land-locked problems as frost and snow.
Bosigran/Commando Ridge: An Update
The mid-1980s saw substantial snowfalls in West Cornwall. In February of 1985 there were similar blizzards that buried the north coast and moors under blankets of deep snow. During the decade, there were also periods of heavy frost, the likes of which have not been seen in recent years when warm wet winters seem to have been the norm. The snow of January 1987 was particularly heavy. The piece above was written about a week after the initial blizzards when the drifts had fallen back. On the day following the first heavy fall, I ploughed my way along the fields to Bosigran. It was easier crossing fields than wading through the waist-deep snow that had built up on the road. The fierce winds blew spindrift from off the fields and left an icy but supportive surface to walk on.
I realised that the famous Bosigran/Commando Ridge was plastered in snow. In Scotland and to a lesser degree in North Wales and the Lakes, winter snow and ice climbing is part of the general mountaineering and climbing cycle. Where Scotland’s great cliffs sport rock climbs in summer they become coated with snow and ice in winter. Then, the rock climbs pose the fresh challenge of becoming snow and ice climbs demanding different clothing and equipment; insulated boots with spiked crampons strapped on to them. Modern ice axes are now futuristic in design but in the 1980s, the traditional long or short-shafted Alpine style axes were the norm. For some odd reason I had brought my old winter boots, crampons and ice axe with me when I moved to Cornwall in the 1960s in search of the sun. I had clung on to this winter gear out of nostalgia.
Bosigran Ridge rises from the sea for 750 feet in a series of knife-edge crests and shapely pinnacles. It is a splendid adventure as a summer rock climb. The ridge was first climbed in 1902 by Arthur and Elsie Andrews who lived at Eagle’s Nest above Zennor. Arthur Andrews was a remarkable polymath and athlete. He is credited with popularising sea cliff climbing in Britain at a time, in the Victorian/Edwardian era, when climbing meant Alpinism and when rock climbs on British mountains were seen as little more than practice runs for the Alps. Bosigran Ridge was thus first climbed 114 years ago. Cornish Heritage, therefore.
The ridge has been enjoyed by thousands of climbers since. It earned the additional nickname of Commando Ridge after its walls and crests were used by trainees of the Mountain Warfare Training Cadre that was based at St Ives in preparation for D-Day. After 1945, the group became the Commando Cliff Assault Wing.
The ridge had never been climbed in snow and ice conditions because over the years there had been few instances of proper deep-freeze conditions in Cornwall coinciding with climbers being on the ground. Now, my climbing friends John and Janet Atherton were on the phone to me suggesting a first winter ascent of the ridge the next day. The Athertons lived in Mousehole and another climbing friend, the late Dennis Bateman, lived in Penzance. A couple of days had passed since the first big snowfall and now the roads were cleared and gritted to a reasonable extent. I prayed all night that there would not be a sudden thaw and woke with relief the next morning to clear skies, little wind, a light dusting of fresh snow on the deeper drifts and still freezing temperatures. Ideal conditions for a ‘winter’ ascent of Commando Ridge.
WEST CORNWALL CLIMBERS
John, Janet and Dennis made it to Bosigran. All three were experienced West Cornwall climbers. John and Janet had been climbing and trekking for years both in the UK and abroad. Dennis Bateman was in his sixties in 1987 and was still going strong as a pioneer of new routes on remote and little-known Cornish cliffs. Dennis was a typically modest adventurer. If you met him in Penzance, he would always be immaculately dressed like a gent out of a Country Living advert. Yet, he was never happier than when on the cliffs in rough and ready climbing gear.
The Athertons and Dennis knew the vertical and sea level world of West Penwith’s cliffs better than most. They had snow and ice gear from winter trips elsewhere and so we gathered in full kit outside the Climbers’ Club’s Bosigran Count House ready for what would be a unique challenge – snow and ice climbing above the sea and a first for Cornwall.
There had been little sign of the biting easterly winds of the preceding days that had brought the snow and had kept it fresh and frozen. Now, it was as if an oven door had opened as a steadily increasing breeze from the south huffed and puffed over the moors and fields. By the time we had walked down to the top of the ridge and to the start of the steep descent path to the base of Bosigran Ridge, all round us the snow seemed to be shrinking in upon itself and the cliffs were streaked with the snail trails of melting snow. The flanks of Bosigran Ridge ran with water. Our disappointment was complete.
All that was left to us was a shortened descent to the midway ridge from where we traversed onto the crest and toddled up on bare and very wet rock. No first for snow and ice climbing then, but, unbeknown to us, another old climbing friend of ours, the mountaineering doctor David Hillebrandt, who was a GP in Holsworthy, had snatched a unique ascent of the 300 foot frozen waterfall at Yeol Mouth in North Cornwall on possibly the very day we lost the snow on Bosigran Ridge.
Our Atlantic Alpine challenge would have to wait for another winter’s day. It never came.
All photographs (except the Watch Croft/Carn Galver path and Bosigran Ridge in summer) by Janet Atherton, scanned from slides