Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Early days in Cwm Cywarch

I was born in Derby in 1927 but the birthday gift of a bicycle when I was 12 allowed me to widen my horizons. One day I rode to Dovedale and swept down the hill seeing ‘mountains’ Bunster and Thorpe Cloud which changed my life. I scrambled on the eastern buttresses of Bunster, determined to become a rock climber. That summer I went to Bemrose School, where I found ‘Let’s Go Climbing’ in the library and, a few years later, Peter Harding who was a prefect. The former excited my ambitions and the latter welcomed me on to his rope and into his Stonnis Mountaineering Club group.
We had soon done all the existing routes at Black Rocks, our local crag, and set about filling in the gaps for our guidebook.
 The first to succumb to our advances was the aptly named 'Green Crack' after I had pulled a lot of grass from it whilst held on a top rope.
This enjoyment could not continue though as I had volunteered for the army. I was required to report to Norton Barracks in Worcester, on VJ day! This started another liberation as I climbed the Malvern Hills, was sent to Catterick (Crag Lough on the Roman Wall), Exeter University on a short course (Dartmoor), back to Catterick (The Lake District with army transport) and finally Vienna (skiing there and in the Styrian Alps) before demob and Manchester University, where I devoted more of my time to climbing than Electrical Engineering.

Manchester was equidistant from Wales and the Lakes, but the lack of forethought of the government meant that there was not yet an M6 motorway so that my main exploits were directed at the former. Following on from our Stonnis activities Peter and I wrote guidebooks and put up new routes in Wales
Many mountains and rock climbs on I still look upon those as my best days, before the hills were crowded and over run with people ‘learning to climb’. I preferred the quiet and solitude of those times, but relived them a little in the climbing in Cwm Cywarch in its early days.

Photo: Tony Moulam circa 1945. Moulam Collection

An early Tony Moulam first ascent: Green Crack: Moulam Collection

Imagine a cliff nearly as big as Craig yr Ysfa, as vegetated, and relatively unexplored. When R E (Larry) Lambe first persuaded me to visit in 1956 there were only half a dozen routes recorded apart from three relatively inconsequential gullies climbed at Easter 1907, by a Rucksack Club party. Harding visited in 1950 with Norman Horsefield and scaled the short side of an obscure pinnacle, Kurzweg. An Oread party made their eponymous climb in September 1953 and little more than eighteen months later John (Fritz) Sumner , who was to have an enormous impact on Meirionnydd climbing produced Buzzard’s Balcony, and the stunning Stygian Wall, which follows a tortuous route up some very intimidating ground, and enjoys exhilarating climbing and stances.

I knew none of this when I finally arrived at Tyn-y-Twll, the Mountain Club of Stafford’s secluded cottage in the valley by 10 am on Good Friday. There was no one else there, probably due to the barbaric practice of the Stafford climbers’ having to work! Though I was disappointed to have no climbing partner I made good use of the day starting by scrambling up to the foot of the prominent North Buttress ridge. I traversed down by the foot rocks and entered a gully between the North Buttress and North Face, and escaped to the right and continued up to Bwlch Llywelyn before descending to my sack.

The rocky ridge of Pen yr Allt Uchaf  let me gain height quickly and I went on to Drosgl , and Aran Fawddwy then returned to the col at the head of Cwm Cowarch Here I met a vanguard of the Mountain Club party, two men clad only in big boots, rucksacks and dazzlingly white Y-fronts! I left them to continue their hot walk and ran down and to the cottage. By now one or two other people, including Larry, had arrived and we started talking about what to do next day.

As Larry was the local expert, and my brief reconnaissance had only served to confuse me, he led me off to the North Face, now called Ffenestr y Graig, where two climbs had been made the previous October. Neither of them appealed to me and, I was tempted into making a new route, on my first visit!
It turned out to be rather vegetated and not particularly inspiring, nor was its name, Hopsit as it rose between Hope Street and First Visit, the senior routes hereabouts. In fact the climbing had not been very satisfying so next day Larry took me to South Buttress (Now Tap y Graig), the Will o the Wisp Wall. We set off on the delightful slabs and walls of Oread, but rather than slink off along Will o the Wisp, as the original route did, we continued straight on up a nice pitch through overhangs, which improved the route considerably. As a finale we enjoyed Buzzard’s Balcony, even then a classic, winding its way easily through some steep and frightening places.

That night I met John Sumner for the first time. A momentous meeting which presaged many happy days together over the next six months. As a test for the visitor ‘Fritz’ set me off on what he told me was the second ascent of  Purge, an artificial route that he had invented a few weeks earlier. The current guidebook presents a little conundrum as this ascent was on 1 April 1956, whereas the first ascent list claims that he did it then with D G Chisholm! A case of mistaken date, or identity. We quickly descended Square Cut Gully and made our way over Sawdl y Graig to enjoy Stygian Wall, which should really have been my introduction to the crag. Delightful but not particularly hard climbing through overlapping ribs, with exposure reminiscent of a small scale ‘Cloggy’. We finished off the day with me leading John up ‘First Visit’ after which he remarked that he was surprised that anyone as old as me could lead such a difficult route! I was not yet 29. My log book comments ‘Marvellous fine sunny weather. Lovely holiday in secluded valley.

Having acquired a taste for this new venue I was keen to return and did so about a couple of months later. I had noticed the most prominent ridge on Craig Llywelyn and easily persuaded Larry that we should try it, particularly as it was such a marvellous blue-skied day, with just an early season nip in the air. As with all the routes at the time the initial pitch involved steep vegetation, which was luckily quite stable. I followed the groove (now taken by Vulcan) to an overhang. Larry joined me here without much trouble and, protected by him, I gained a groove on the left. Where it steepened I put in a peg and brought up Larry again, to give moral support. Although he was no doubt very uncomfortable he professed to be happy, and paid out the rope efficiently as I traversed delicately right back on to the ridge. I remember that my feet started to hurt, tightly laced in PAs so I didn’t want to hang about and quickly moved right and up again to another stance. Once more I avoided difficulty by moving left round the edge into a corner full of rattling flakes, which seemed remarkably sound, until I could regain the gully.

From here an easy crack up to and through an overhang brought us to a final stance, below some blocks and a chimney. This gave an awkward start, then another precarious move up a groove decorated with some vegetation reaching a little tree with some relief. Further to the right was a larger tree and a steep wall behind it led to the top. Again from my log book, ‘A good climb, not as direct as might be possible, but almost all hard’ We finished the day with a romp up a VD chimney, which we called Relaxation, and ended up descending in the dark!

We were late rising next day, the last of our holiday, and decided to visit Will o the Wisp wall again, as we had enjoyed climbing there on clean sound rock on our previous trip. The obvious start went up will o the wisp but soon veered off up left to a stance below an overhang. A corner crack enabled me to reach and climb an overhanging wall on good holds. This was the prelude to a delicate slab. I remember little more of the climb except the almost overpowering scent of the profusion of bluebells on every ledge to a fine finish up the summit tower. Once again we were late down and I had to divert to Stafford on my way home to Manchester, as Larry had missed his lift!

Tony Moulam 2010©

Cwm Cywarch: Steve Peak©