A Whirlwind Two Weeks on Gozo and Comino

There we were at the mouth of Wied il-Mielaħ, Sonnie Trotter, Tommy & Becca Caldwell, Corey Rich, Kurt Caligari, Roland Sultana and I, trying to make ourselves heard above the howling wind and wondering what to do with our day on Gozo since the sea seemed to want to claw everything and anything off the cliffs, should anyone be silly enough to venture over the edge. Of course this challenge was irresistible to the lads, so down they went, Sonnie and Tommy, onto Spunky Arete, a 6c+ sport route recently done by Mark McGowan. No sooner had they got to the belays below than the sea seemed to respond, actively increasing the tempo of the crashing waves, rising higher and higher up the face. Each time Sonnie tried to start leading up, the waves would crash up past the two of them at the belay and drench the route, spraying them as they waited in the slot at the start of the climb…

Sonnie, Tommy, Becca and Corey had already been on the island for a week when this scene played out…a week of howling winds, crashing seas and lashing rain. The Dream-Team had two weeks on Malta exploring the cliffs of Gozo, looking for amazing new routes and a dose of adventure – they found it by the bucket full!

Before their arrival, and as soon as Sonnie posted his intention of coming to Malta on his blog, I got in touch with Sonnie and offered the help of the MRCC and the MTA, which was gratefully accepted. The MRCC was able to organise vehicle (compliments of the MTA), accommodation and communication for the team, so they could concentrate on what they do best – put up hard, technical new routes on previously unexplored vertical territory. As soon as the gang were together in Malta they headed out to Gozo, where Sonnie had spotted some interesting sea-cliff caves the last time he was in Malta in 2005. He came back with this strong team with the specific aim of putting up some signature routes on Gozo. Their exploration began on the cliffs around Xlendi Bay.
Xlendi Dreaming

The new routing began east of Xlendi Bay in a cave tucked away under the cliffs. Here they set up their portaledge right of the cave and moved in for a few days to work a crazy line starting at the right of the cave and traversing left and up out above the cave. This resulted in Xlendi Pleasure, a 5.13a trad line (equivalent to E6 7a/ 8a+) which ends at an insitu sling above the cave mouth. The rock above this was not of sufficient quality to continue so the route stops here.
New Routing at the Fun Factory

Next the gang headed to the north cliffs of Gozo and west of Wied il-Mielaħ. Here after some exploration they came upon the cave of Halq Hamiem. This feature captured their imagination and they spent much of their remaining time working these cliffs, calling the area the Fun Factory! These efforts resulted in three great new lines of magnificent proportions – see pictures below.

The first to fall was When I Start to Panic 5.11 (E3 6a), a 45m line just right of the huge cave of Halq Hamiem. The abseil in is from the Mushroom Rock directly above the route. Tommy Caldwell led this one and the day after Kurt, Roland and I were invited to have a go…once on it I immediately understood why it got this name! It starts on some excellent rock close to sea level (I had to keep a little higher on the day because the waves were clawing up the cliff face trying to snatch at my heels!) but the higher you get, the scarier it gets. Gear is sketchy and the top 1/3 of the route is on Globigerina Limestone, friable and unreliable at the best of times. I encountered a few places where rocks had obviously come off in Tommy’s hands as he led the route on site the day before…yet despite dubious gear, long runouts and friable rock, the guys were still ‘stoked’ about their new line! “‘Managing’ the poor rock was all part of the challenge”, as Sonnie explained later.

As Roland, Kurt and I played on When I Start to Panic, Sonnie abseiled in for a quick inspection of another new line about 60 metres away. The beautiful arete he found rises 55m from the sea in a dramatic setting, especially given the howling winds on the day. Tommy took station at the belay about 15m above the sea while Sonnie prepared for the lead and Corey abseiled in to just above the pair, ready to document the line as it unfolded. The lead went well, Sonnie cruising it until just a few metres from the top. Here he hit an impasse – one move that just would not go. Up and down he went, again and again, hesitating every time at the crucial moment because of the possibility of coming off on the sketchy gear below. Finally, just when he thought he would have to give it up, a tiny ‘thank-god’ crystal appeared just where he needed it, he styled the crux and headed for the top-out, a beaming smile on his face. Yet another 5.11 was in the bag and christened Club Paradiso, Corey had enough material to fill a Black Diamond catalogue and everyone was happy, just as the sun set on Halq Hamiem and the time came for us to grab some supper in Marsalforn…
Douche on Spunky Arete

Wind back to the opening scene at Wied il-Mielaħ. After yet another wave had crashed up the cliff, Sonnie decided there was no way out but up, so off he went…and again the sea responded. It waited until he was at the crux of the arete and then whoosh! Up the wave came, higher than before, crashing up the face savagely, rising higher and higher until it geysered over the top of Wied il-Mielaħ and on for another 20 ft, drenching not only Sonnie on the arete but also Kurt, Roland and Corey who were at the top taking pictures. By some miracle Sonnie managed to hold on, though his laughter eventually forced him to take a rest on the bolts. Have a look at the footage below for an inkling of what it was like…(to be continued).

by Andrew Warrington

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