After my little trad taster weekend, the next step clearly was to get out there with someone who knew what they were doing - find out what I was doing right, and more importantly what I was doing wrong.
Fortunately, I already had such a gentleman (I use the term loosely) in my quiver of sport climbing partners - and a super psyched one at that - in the form of Ramon. A quick e-mail on Monday morning enquiring of his plans for the next weekend gained a swift reply of "Trad climbing with you of course!". This was followed up a little later with a question: "You don't mind if I lead some harder routes do you?"... what sort of a stupid question was that? I didn't ask him out for his good looks!
The weather was looking a bit dicey for the weekend, with the forecast changing by the hour, but we came up with a plan - head to Bristol on Saturday morning for some climbing in Avon Gorge, then as the rain was coming in from the West overnight, drive up to Pembroke in the evening and camp - the weather front should clear us by early morning.
We arrived in Avon, and headed for the Suspension Bridge Buttress. Ramon lead an HVS called Suspense to warm up, then we moved onto a three pitch HVS called Hell Gates. Ramon strung the first two pitches together, and I lead the traverse at the top. There's a metal belay anchor for the four routes that end at this point, but that was already in use so I was going to have to build one. But off what? There was one thread on the back wall behind the belay stance so I clipped into that, but other than that nothing obvious stuck out. This was the one bit I was nervous of - doing myself in with dodgy gear placements would be one thing, but building an anchor you have your partners life in your hands as well. After standing around pondering for a while, suddenly with this (presumably competent) stranger belaying behind me, I started to feel a little foolish. I must look like a complete idiot standing there gawping at the rock. I felt compelled to point out to him that this was only my second weekend tradding, by way of explaining my behaviour. Then I found the stub of a cut tree trunk up above, and another thread, and eventually had a bomber equalised three way anchor in place. The stranger kindly made comment on the solidity of my anchor to ease my discomfort, as did Ramon when I finally woke him from his slumber in the afternoon sunshine to come on up the last pitch.
We finished the day with a two pitch E1 called The Earl of Perth - Ramon took the first (5b) pitch and I took the second (5a). My first E1 lead on my second day trad climbing - I was pretty stoked!
So off we went to Pembroke, and arrived in time for a nice pub dinner and a couple of ales. As it turned out we'd got the weather spot on - the rain stopped around 7am, and by the time we'd got up and fed ourselves the sun was shining and the rock was in perfect condition. Not only that - the place was deserted. We looked at each other in amazement - we'd rolled the dice and come up double sixes again!
We went to St Govans Head, and warmed up with a couple of goes on the classic HVS Army Dreamers (Ramon leading the first time, then I lead the second). By this point, Ramon was after something a bit more challenging, so he lead The Butcher (E3). I seconded it clean, and it's a great line with an amazing move out onto the arrete that's well protected, so I had half a mind to go for the lead, but common sense prevailed.
Next up was a sensational E1 called The Arrow. Again Ramon lead, so I was able to enjoy the surroundings and awesome climbing on second. Half way up, I realised that even on second I hadn't been feeling too relaxed up till this point - I guess because I was trusting an anchor I hadn't seen and knew nothing about, unlike a nice shiny pair of staple bolts - but suddenly I was climbing freely. The sun was getting low and casting a lovely light, the waves were pounding at the foot of the cliff, and I was climbing with a stupid grin on my face. This was what I came all the way from London for, and it was worth every minute of the drive.
Relaxed and full of confidence, when Ramon said "OK, your turn to lead the last climb of the day, there's an HVS there...or an E2 there called Vice is Nice" I barely hesitated. The first two thirds of the climb went pretty well, but it was the end of a long day's climbing and I was pretty tired. I was spending a lot of time faffing to get good gear placements, and even on good holds, I was struggling to get anything back. There was a crack in front of my nose, that I just couldn't seem to get anything to seat into properly, and one to the right that took a small offset that would probably stay in place as I climbed, but not necessarily hold a fall. I looked down at the gear below me - I had four good pieces stitched within a short distance of each other. I looked up at the top - it was still pretty far away. I had another go to get something to seat into the first crack, but nothing seemed to grip. I wanted this onsight badly, so I looked again at my gear and the runout - I was high enough up that even if these two bits of pro didn't hold I wouldn't hit the deck. The next ones were bomber. I had one of my most trusted belay partners on the other end of the rope. I made my decision - run it out. The first bit of gear pulled out as soon as I went past it - I knew that was likely anyway, but watching it slide down the rope got the adrenaline pumping even harder. No time for second thoughts - keep moving. Another few meters on easier ground and I topped out. My first E2 onsight!
I didn't stop smiling for the rest of the week.