Friday, 22 January 2010

Fast Forward: Part Two.

Ken Latham recently on Ogwen's classic 'Pulpit Route': Latham Collection

In 1972 I went to help the lads at Ellis Brigham's shop in Bold Street for a weekend, this turned into a week which turned into 17 years, and by the late seventies we were climbing as regularly as was possible, mostly in Wales. We climbed on most of the crags in North Wales, but by some quirk of fate managed to avoid ever going to Castell Cidwm, “too hard..too steep..too risky' to get to. 'You could get shot at'... 'built upside down'..' all the holds are the wrong way up' etc, etc.So the crag was filed away in the hard drive somewhere and every now and then would resurface if you were looking through the guidebook. Must go to Cidwm sometime, we would utter as we ventured to Cwm Sylin or even Llechog. You would be hard pressed to find a youth today who would know where Llechog is let alone pronounce the name.

The eighties arrived and we continued to climb as much as we could, but domesticity was claiming a few of the team and many drifted away on to other things. I often wonder where they all went, John the Money, John the Hook, Gerry the Tremble, Gary the Pig (don’t ask), Mars Bar Martin and all those other sandstone stalwarts. 2.4 kids and a Ford Cortina no doubt?   But some of us soldiered on and survived the flared trousers and headbands era (I climbed Cemetery Gates wearing the widest pair of loons possible, I still can’t remember any of the foot holds, hidden as they were under the folds of cloth. We then entered the glam rock stage, all lycra and blond highlights. What was that all about?. By the end of the eighties my girlfriend Clare said that education was a good thing and that I might consider getting some, so I found a suitable course for old farts in Aberystwyth. I like the countryside and fancied a bit of management so off I went for three years to study Rural Resource Management, but don’t worry dear reader there is plenty of rock within striking distance of mid Wales ( and the beer was awful despite Aberystwyth's 26 pubs) so the old boots and chalk bag was well used. I managed to survive the course and eventually graduated and was flung into the cruel world of the “job seeker”, pretty bloody scary at the age of forty I can tell you. As luck would have it a post eventually turned up in the Local Authority in Gwynedd as a warden based at Padarn Country Park in Llanberis and I was lucky enough to get the job and on our patch were The Vivian Quarry and Bus Stop Quarry. Managing your own crag how cool is that !

The early nineties arrived as did two daughters but I was keen to find out if the skills of old would still get me up a route or two, luckily The Beacon Wall opened and was within walking distance of home so as a means of getting a bit of fitness back I joined up. It was at this time that I met Mike Bailey who would have more influence on my climbing career than anybody previously. We hit it off as soon as we met and he shared my Pythonesque sense of  humour so we were off to a good start straight away, Mike’s ability as a climber was and is supremely skilful. He undoubtedly was the best climbing partner I ever had and without his leading and patience I would never have been able to do all the routes that were on my tick list from way back. We regularly climbed at E2/ E3 and were out at least once or twice a week and managed routes like Ten Degrees North, Left Wall, Suicide Wall 1 and 2, (plus a new route on suicide wall area, Old Sparky at E3) The Dervish, Last Tango in Paris, a whole load of other slate routes including all the routes on the Gnat Attack slab in one evening , a grand way of scoring a load of E numbers in one fell swoop, Spectrum, Silly ArĂȘte, Vector ,etc,etc., they were heady days. 
 We climbed regularly at Tremadog and as we headed down the Gwyrfai Valley past Llyn Cwellyn Mike would glance across the lake and mention that he hadn’t been to Cidwm for a long time and that we must try and fit in a visit as soon as possible, I would also mention that I hadn’t been there either in the last thirty years and was trying to avoid the place out of good old cowardice, but we eventually plucked up the courage to go and “have a look”, as you do. As neither of us had been there for a long time and I was doing some work on the upcoming new Eifionnydd guide book for the Climbers Club it seemed the time to break the trend.
 We opted for The Straighter and at H.V.S should get us onto the swing of things. Ha! The innocence of trusting an old guide book and the fact that none of our climbing mates had ever done the route should have been enough of a warning. We duly arrived at the crag at about six pm on a glorious evening in July ( a distant branch of my family own the land that gains quick access to the base of the crag so a courtesy call gave us permission to cross via the Western end of the lake, this makes Cidwm almost a roadside venue) and geared up, we were the only ones there as is the norm with this crag, the only noise on an otherwise still evening was the rush of the stream into which I deposited a couple of beers to cool. I sat at the base of the crag belaying Mike and taking in the warm evening glow as the long shadows stretched across the lake and bathed the distant face of Aran in glorious sunshine. The route isn’t a long climb and I thought we could maybe stop for a pint at the pub on the way home. The first section of the route didn’t cause much problem and after much grunting and cursing and general up and downing Mike cracked the rest and eventually reached the top, by this time the long shadows had all but disappeared and dusk was fast approaching, the coolness was now having an effect and poor old Mike was dressed in only tracksters and a T shirt. I eventually managed the route and finished the top moves by the light of a full moon. We now had to descend in the dark, not a prospect I was looking forward to with Cidwms steep walls around us. We eventually found the gully on the edge of the crag and gingerly descended in what was by now pitch darkness. A few slides on the wet moss added to the excitement and we found ourselves back at the stream. The beer was searched for and drank in seconds ,we packed our sacks in haste and stumbled down the stream, as we reached the lake shore we had a feeling that we were not alone and that someone or something was close by. In the darkness we could just make out that something large was moving very close to us. “Kin el Mick, what the effin el is that?”  “Don’t know youth just keep heading for the river”, suddenly we could hear snorting and squelching of mud, a herd of 'very black’ Welsh Black cattle were investigating us!  We were relieved to reach the river and didn’t even bother to take our trainers off and just waded across to safety. Needless to say the pub was well shut by this time and our respective spouses were a little bit annoyed with the lateness of the day and the burnt offerings which constituted our tea.
Cidwm 1 The boys 1. A return match would have to be arranged. A few days later I spoke to Pat Littlejohn and mentioned we had done the route and thought the grade somewhat misleading, he gave a little laugh “aye youth a bugger that, at least E3 5c, you probably did the third ascent'!

Despite our minor epic Mike was up for another return the next month and mentioned
under a whisper “Central Wall”. ' Pardon!' I replied.' Central Wall youth, do you fancy it?' Aye we could go and have a look I suppose, just hope the grade is correct in the magic book. I knew that the route was still regarded with some awe and many of the lads I knew who had done it tended to sum it up in one word answers, 'Hard', 'Desperate','Thin'. However,the best description came from my mate John from Liverpool who just said 'Don’t!' So it was with some trepidation that we once more set out for the crag. I don’t normally suffer stage fright but I was a little apprehensive on this day. To reach the route one has to traverse the crag along a very steep and greasy grass covered ramp and belay under the short grove which starts the route proper, getting to the base of the route would put many people off and the consequences of slipping off this ledge would not give you much chance of survival so I was pleased to tie on to something fairly solid.
Mike made little effort with the grove and tackled the overhang without too much trouble and was on the stance in what seemed a very short time, he called down for me to climb and it was a case of now or never. The short grove was a little tricky and the overhang was more awkward than technical, what came as a bit of a shock was the state of the pegs( I think Cassin himself had made them as a lad) they were protruding out of the cracks or were very, very bendy and wouldn’t hold your washing let alone a fall .The belay was a sloping comfort and put the situation into perspective, we were slap bang in the middle of the wall and the ropes hung away from the rock by a country mile, but Mike was as happy as a sand boy and after some rearranging of the belay he was off into the distance, Zatopec in rock boots. Mike dispensed with the top pitch without much trouble and I duly followed, my arms were a little knackered and the body a little weary but we had managed the route without too much of an epic as compared to our escapade the previous visit. We were well pleased and that was one of my best ‘ticks’ ever, we even managed a pint on the way home.

 As with all good things there has to be a downside and it just happened to me so quickly that it was a bit of a shock to the system. I was feeling a slight twinge in my left shoulder and was having difficulty in raising my arm above head height, at first I thought nothing of it and hoped that it would heal itself and recover, I had also been climbing a fair bit with Paul Sivyer and as he was a relative newcomer we were doing the classics such as The Wrinkle and Tennis Shoe. It was great to return to these routes as I hadn’t done them for a long time and we were generally having a great time rediscovering them. It was after an ascent of Crackstone Rib that the pain became unbearable and a visit to the sawbones was in order.He recommended a visit to the hospital for a x-ray which diagnosed a totally worn out joint and the onset of osteoporosis. Despite several visits to the special unit at Gobowen  and a very painful cortisone injection onto the joint I’m still in the same boat and will require some major surgery to fix the problem, or as the physiotherapist said at the hospital “ what do you want to go hanging off rocks for at your age? Don’t see the point of that at all, wasting all that energy”.  Bloody cheek!   So we come full circle, Castell Cidwm will remain in the memory as a place of great fun and solitude and fear and Mike did mention’ The Girdle’ in passing . You never know ? Such a shame there is no rewind button on life.

Ken Latham©
First published in the Climbers Club journal 2005. Thanks to Ken for permission to republish and The Climbers Club for their cooperation.