Friday, 15 January 2010

Fast Forward

Ken Latham was born on a traditional hill farm in the north Snowdonia village of Rhyd Ddu in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa and the Nantlle range. From an early age mountains became a powerful influence which drew Ken back to north Wales after his family moved to Liverpool when he was twelve. He began his climbing career in earnest when he was sixteen.
In Liverpool, Ken worked at the Ellis Brigham mountaineering shop during the 1970’s and early 80’s which had become the hub for local climbers. As a member of the local Vagabonds club he climbed with legendary figures from the contemporary Liverpool scene including Pete Minks and Al Rouse.
During the 70’s Ken climbed a lot on the local sandstone quarries on Merseyside such as Pex Hill where he was involved in over 20 first ascents and freed several other Pex classics which had previously been bolted and pegged.
After moving back to Wales in the late 70’s Ken lived in Llanberis and even survived a spell at Al Harris’s infamous house of fun, ‘Bigil’ !
He decided to return to full time education as a mature student and completed his degree at Aberystwrth after which he settled down for good in north Wales with his wife and two young daughters. It was at this time that Ken really indulged his passion for hard Welsh classics after teaming up with fellow FC contributor, Mike Bailey. Ticking off routes like Ten Degrees North, Left Wall, Vector and Castell Cidwm’s Central Wall.
 A member of The Climbers Club, he has contributed to the club’s journal and despite reining in his rock climbing activities in recent years due to some operable hand and shoulder problems, Ken still gets on the hill at every opportunity and has rekindled his passion for photography.   
Photo: Ken Latham climbing 'Satan's Slip'on Lundy Island. Latham Collection

Ken Latham with Mike Bailey on the first ascent of 'Old Sparky' E3( US 5-11) on Suicide Wall,Ogwen Valley,N Wales:(Latham Collection.)

In 1963 I was about to leave the comforts of my home in a small Welsh village to attend senior school in Liverpool, would the hills of Snowdonia, my playground, become a distant memory? As a small boy I liked nothing better than roaming the hills of home, my younger cousin John and I would be off on some grand jape somewhere, damming streams, building dens, exploring the many slate quarries that dotted the landscape and having great fun with the incendiary devices that had been discarded around the slopes of Snowdon by the armed forces during their training for the second world war. If you gathered enough of these rusting old bombs together you could blow apart a solid Welsh dry stone wall no bother. Believe me,I still carry the scar on my right knee to prove it !  Who remembers the old wooden signs by the side of the Rhyd Ddu path proclaiming in stark letters  'DANGER BOMBS KEEP OUT' ? If that wasn’t a sign to go exploring then I don’t know what was.
We were lucky that we didn’t come to too much harm but many of the gang had a few close calls, but the only great fear was getting a roasting when you got home, a rip in your pants or a hole in your shoe was a lot more fearful than sliding down the cables of the slate tips holding on to a thin strand of wire, hoping that your mate was on the ball to catch your legs as you went whizzing by at a great rate of knots. A memorable hill day that John and I had was an expedition to ascend Moel Hebog, on a glorious day in the long summer holidays we strode off up the hill, a bottle of Corona lemonade as emergency supplies, if we were ever stranded we could start a fire through the glass and reflect the suns rays directly to the house, what better piece of kit would a budding explorer need. None of our family members knew of the plan and probably assumed we were playing in the hayfield or off fishing at the lake, we figured that if you could see the summit of Moel Hebog from home then you could see home from the summit, it seemed a reasonable assumption, the trip was a great success and we planned to try a few more mountains before the holidays were over. I remember that I was nine and John was seven, today we would have the Mountain Rescue Services, the Child Protection Act, The Health and Safety Executive, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all to ensure that we were NOT in any way to venture out of sight of any responsible person owning a mobile phone (with internet access) and G.P.S navigation etc etc... But back to 1963, one of the last walks we did together was Mynydd Mawr we were going to ascend the mountain via the ridge from Drws Y Coed but even we, as Rhyd Ddu lads were in fear of the farmer who had and still has a hatred of anybody who might just want to go on the mountains to enjoy themselves so we decided to take the path through the forest on the edge of Llyn Cwellyn where we knew there was a small slate quarry(Chwarel Goch) where you could drop great slabs of wafer thin slate and watch them spin in slow motion through the water into the depths of the crystal clear pool .

It was this walk that bought the steep face of Castell Cidwm to my attention and I remember as an 11 year old being scared of it’s awesome steepness and the way it seemed to fall towards you as we stood at the base of the gully. We ascended the peak via the gully and were amazed to find wedged in the stream a complete propeller with the tips of the blades  twisted from impact with the ground. Some research later with my Uncle Jack revealed that during the war a De Haviland Mosquito had crashed on the summit of Mynydd Mawr with the loss of all the crew. For many years afterwards there was several parts of under carriage wedged between the stones of the summit cairn as a grim reminder and memorial to the event.  I climbed the peak with my family in February of 2005 and there was no sight of any metal from the crashed aircraft to be seen any where.(the aircraft was of course famous for its wings and fuselage being constructed mainly from timber which wouldn’t withstand the elements for long in such an exposed area).

In the early years of living in Liverpool climbing mountains was definitely put on the back burner, it was the late sixties and the magic of the big city was overwhelming to a country lad, besides there were loads of girls in town, there were more girls in our road than there was in the whole of north Wales! I tried my best to chat up a girl who was a member of our gang only to be rebuffed with “ I don’t go out with lads I’m a thespian”, I rushed home to consult The Usbourne School Dictionary. Years later I discovered she spoke with a lisp!
I owned a flashy racing bike to get from A to B, (Allison to Barbara) ,plus of course the place was buzzing with music, clubs, pubs and life was for living in the fast lane! Well Penny Lane anyway.
But there was that longing for the hills and it wasn’t long before we were heading back to Wales for the weekends and long summer holidays. Many great walks were done during this period but we noticed that there were other ways to get to the summits of many of these peaks and we did a lot of scrambling at this time and of course this naturally lead to rock climbing. Many of my mates and I would go bouldering at the local bridge which was built of sandstone and was ideal for this activity, apart from the risk of falling into the main road to be crushed under a corporation bus it turned out to be a good training spot, but we wanted to get into some real rock. One evening I was glancing through the local paper when I saw an advertisement for night school classes and listed amongst the various subjects (between the Macramé and the Modelling (nude) for beginners), was Mountaineering. Bloody mountaineering in the middle of Liverpool!!! This I just had to find out about.

The class was taught by one Arthur Green who introduced me to rock climbing done  't’proper way', from this class grew the nucleus of a small club (The Childwall Climbing Club). We rented a cottage at the village of Nebo and drank many a pint in the White Horse in Capel Garmon and considered ourselves very lucky to be able to get out to Wales on most weekends. Furthermore, it enabled me to get some good routes done with Arthur, these included Cemetery Gates, Cobweb crack, and the usual classics at Tremadog. It was during this time that I got to hear of an overgrown and unused sandstone quarry near Widnes .John Bisson and I armed with a rough map and an A4 sheet of paper with some old route descriptions went to investigate. We took some basic rock gear with us just in case and rode around the area on John’s old Royal Enfield 350cc motorbike until we eventually found our quarry, of course it turned out to be Pexhill Quarry and we were amazed to find it obviously wasn’t climbed on much, there were some old rusting monster bolts (home made) and some routes with wooden wedges placed in the cracks but the place was crying out to be developed so Pex  became the centre of attention for many years. It was a superb spot for developing exceptional finger strength and deft footwork; I was involved in developing the quarry and was instrumental in over 25 first ascents in the first few years. We would climb there at least three times a week and had a great gang of climbers as regulars, amongst them Arthur, Chris Hunter (who went on to do the first solo ascent of The Beatnick at Helsby, a few weeks before Al Rouse did, but never publicised the fact) Phil Davidson, Gaz Healey and my regular climbing partner for many years Gary Dunne. In the dark old days we didn’t have the luxury of the fence at the top of the crag so we would utilise the back axle of our cars for belaying to. During one year the Water board emptied the reservoir at the top of the hill for major maintenance and decided in their wisdom to empty the water into the nearest large hole they could find. The quarry slowly began to fill up with the draining water and at one point reached some ten foot in depth, it was impossible to reach routes such as Dateline or Black Magic without the aid of a canoe, but the high level traverse to The Web corner (6a) became a highlight of the season, sea level traversing in the middle of Widnes, beat that!.

During one summers evening Gary and I were bouldering on the Web wall when a small body went flying through the air only to be followed closely by another. The local urchins had discovered cliff diving off the main wall,(imagine them returning home soaking wet and reeking of dank water, ”Oh and what have you been doing today Jimmy ?...  'Just a little cliff diving practice Mum'.... “Good lad off you go then and wash your hands”). A little disconcerting to say the least when you were well gripped up going for the crux move. One of the lads I climbed with a lot at the quarry was Robbie Mallinson and it was with Robbie that I once more set eyes on Castell Cidwm. We had planned a weekend in Wales and were staying at my parents house at Rhyd Ddu and having no transport had decided that a crag within walking distance would fit the bill, so armed with Ron James’s selected climbs guide book we opted for Cidwm.Well we would have a look anyway. The fly in the ointment to the whole plan was the fact that Robbie was having a nose job done on the Monday and needed to be at Arrowe Park Hospital early that morning, none the less we thought that we could maybe grab a route and then Robbie could get the train from Bangor to the Wirral in time for his pre med. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that. Things would not go according to schedule.
 We decided to have a go at the classics of the cliff  which are The Curver and Vertigo, not long routes and well within our grade I remember it was a cracking day and the crag was dry (Cidwm dry is different to every other crags dry, moistish if there is such a term would be better). Vertigo was done first and we encountered no problem on it so after a quick lunch we thought that we had time to do the Curver and Robbie could head for home, as many of you who have climbed at Cidwm will know thing don’t always go to plan. Our gear was not state of the art to say the least so we weren’t that well armed with protection but could muster at least a few smallish wires, three 8 foot slings and about ten MOACs on rope. What should have been a fairly steady route gave us a few problems, mainly in the form of good old rope drag. We didn’t come across this problem much at Pex or Helsby so we were a bit bothered to say the least. We could have eased the problem a little by climbing with double ropes but didn’t have that luxury, but with Robbies J.C.B arm strength and some acrobatic seconding from me we managed the route and were well pleased with our efforts, but of course time had taken its toll and there was not much chance of Robbie making it back to Liverpool that night unless he was to try and hitch home, so there was nothing for it but a quick pint in the Cwellyn Arms. The quick pint turned into several quick pints and of course the clock was ticking on Robbies chance of making it back for his surgery in the morning, “tell you what youth I’ll try and hitch home tonight otherwise my mum will have the rescue services after me” so a quick cup of tea and off into that dark night he went and I settled down for the evening, the beer and the climbing soon had me in a slumber but in the small hours a noise awoke me,”ey up youth I’m back” Robbies return!, he had failed miserably to get a lift and had decided to walk towards Bangor only to find out that after a few miles he was going in the wrong direction, there was nothing for it but to get a few hours sleep and attempt the hitch as early as possible on the Monday morning. He duly arrived at the hospital reception desk with a few moments to spare, rucksack on his back and a rope slung around his neck. The startled receptionist asked if she could be of any assistance and Robbie with his usual Scouse charm replied----” All’rite luv, iv’e come ter get me nose done “.  Enough said.... the seventies were drawing to a close.  To be continued.....................

Ken Latham ©

Part Two of Fast Forward: Friday January 22nd .