Friday, 29 January 2010

The Heart of Darkness

It was a message from Harold Drasdo on my answerphone which rekindled my interest in climbing on Arenig Fawr. Despite several years having passed since I last laid hands on the rough, pale rock of Simddu Ddu and Ddaer Fawr, Harolds' call was to lead to one of the most satisfying and productive periods of new routing I have ever experienced.
Harold... whom I had only spoken to briefly a couple of years before... was looking for some illustrations for an article on Arenig he was doing for High. Fellow Arenig explorer, Terry Taylor had alerted him to an article I had written for Climber in 1992, detailing the vague, lost history of Arenig climbing and touching upon the mountain's unique place in British art. The mountain having become to dominant motif for the Edwardian art movement which became known as The Arenig School. This unique school which borrowed heavily from the impressionists on the continent had included the wonderful Augustus John amongst it's handful of activists. Unknown to myself, Harold and Terry Taylor had begun to make their respective marks on the mountain at roughly the same time; that is around the late 80's early 90's.
During my formative explorations I imagined that I was a true pioneer. Wandering over the viridian ramparts with just the crows and occasional suicidal ewe for company. Never imagining for a moment that 'my' crags had become the obscure objects of desire for other suitors !
In the course of our telephone conversation I arranged to drop off some slides and photos at Harold's home near Llanrwst which is about 20 miles from my abode. Within a short time we began to share a rope and our regular visits to Arenig where interspersed with visits to other crags of an esoteric character.

Despite his veteran status Harold still climbed well and in time we forged a pretty good partnership which suited our styles and standards perfectly. At this time Terry was the main man when it came to first ascents. Leading new lines up to E5, Terry's prodigious haul left Harold and I in the shade.
However, with Harold and I looking to unearth more accessible lines, our frequent excursions where not without success.
In the spring of 96 we produced half a dozen new routes on Simddu Ddu ranging from V Diff to VS and by May our thoughts had turned to the impressive amphitheatre where Harold had a longstanding project to complete.
This steep crackline which split the left wall of the amphitheatre surrendered as Left Aisle, a surprisingly ameinable V Diff given its ferocious aspect!.
It was whilst following Harold up this route that I began to study the gloomy black cleft which dominated the amphitheatre... Simddu Ddu.....The Black Chimney itself.
From his eyrie like stance at the top of Left Aisle, Harold too felt the irresistible attraction of this forbidding pagan place. In an unspoken affirmation of intent we coiled the rope at the foot of the cliff and stepped back into the sun.
On the way home, Harold joked that if we ever were able to climb what was probably one of the last unclimbed gullies in north Wales then we could quite rightly claim to have finally closed the gully epoch !
Never having closed an epoch before, I was drawn to the idea of directing our future efforts on a venture which was hopelessly anachronistic in the modern climbing climate.

I thought of one of my climbing heroes, Bill Peascod, the great Cumbrian pioneer who in his autobiography Journey After Dawn writes in hair raising detail about the epic venture he had with his partner Bill Beck in Y Gully on Haystacks.
In one of the books most entertaining chapters Bill describes how he led this disintegrating fissure which became more difficult and treacherous as he ascended. It was on this climb that partner Bill Beck swore that if they were to miraculously survive then he would never climb again. They did .... he did !
It was on a fine June day when we found ourselves entering the shadow haunted amphitheatre of Simddu Ddu. As a curtain raiser Harold led a fine meandering V Diff on the sloping shelf walls of Simddu Ddu which because of its unique structure provided Harold with a ready made route name Ziggurat *
*A rectangular temple tower or tired mound erected by Sumerians,Arkadians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia.
In character this was not unlike John Sumner's classic Will o the Wisp in the neighbouring Arans and made a fine companion climb to our Zalamander, an excellent VS wall and corner.
Pleased with our morning's activities we wended our way out of the sun and into the chilling confines of the amphitheatre. After observing the time honoured rituals of climbing procrastination, I flung myself like a man going to the gallows at the verdant constriction which slithered into the crow black cave far above.
Stripping off  vegetation as I climbed, I was pleased to discover fine sharp clean holds beneath the moss and grass. It was also a relief to discover that the steep right wall was as clean as a whistle and dry to boot.
However, the left wall was dripping wet and oozing with green slime which meant that our only feasible line of attack was a wide crack between the face and the right wall.
After 40ft of steep, dirty climbing which seemed to take an eternity I was faced with a difficult bulging wall which stopped me dead in my tracks. If only I had one of those cow-bell hexes with me to insert in the wide glistening crack.
Each burst of do-or-die enthusiasm founded upon the shores of fear and self doubt before that zen like state which all climbers have experienced kicked in and I was carried through the frankly insignificant barrier on autopilot.
I had finally reached the chockstone beyond which was the black cave which I imagined was a Tolkeinesque passage into the very heart of the mountain itself. Unfortunately my romantic rev­erie was extinguished when I saw that the cave was nothing more than a square cut short pas­sage from which glutinous mud ran down from the rear to spill over the chockstone lip.
From the chockstone the roof above extended a full 20ft out towards the searing glare of the June sky. Looking out, hand shielding my squinting eyes towards the swarthy dun heights of Mynydd Nodol, I attempted to find a line of escape from the gaping jaws which held me .
I could see that the steep wall to my right ... facing out ... was dripping wet and impossible, but I was delighted to discover that the wall to my left offered a dry, broken facade.
Although vertical and looking a wee bit friable, the left wall nevertheless would go I was sure. Without exploring further I fed a sling behind the chockstone and abseiled back to my long suffer­ing partner.
Six days later we returned with the full armoury of the Trad hard man. Pegs and peg hammer,old expendable slings,big hexes etc etc...
With the psychological advantage of having cleaned the first section of the route and having enjoyed a further six days of dry weather we had no excuses....this was it !
My confidence however dissipated as soon as I entered the chilling confines of the amphitheatre and felt the sun's rays lift from my back. Within these towering walls, cold winds and shadows snuffed out the promise of the warm blue yonder and drained my optimism. This was not a place to linger for longer than necessary .
Without employing any delaying tactics I was soon ensconced above the chockstone, scrap­ing mud with my peg hammer off the cave lip and contemplating my exit.
I gingerly stepped off the chockstone, expecting to make a furtive foray before retreating back to the dubious security of the cave.
However, discovering that the holds were satisfactory and my position high above Harold not too unnerving, I proceeded to head out of the wind and into the sun.
Reaching the halfway point I stepped down and kicked at a protruding flake. If it proved positive it would make a decent resting point. From this position I continued my crab like crawl across the wall towards a small shaft of sunlight which streamed in through a tiny slot where the left wall met the roof.
The geological upheavals which had created the mountain in the mists of time had, remarkably, placed a small letterbox slit in the roof just big enough for those of average girth to squeeze through just where it was needed.
With the left wall bulging out below and impossible, this fortuitous feature was the key to deliver­ance.
Grasping the final flake I whooped like a banshee as I pulled through into the sun and out onto a huge stepped block which led down as a giant's stairway onto a perfect lush ledge below.
This lonely citadel was a welcome sanctuary after the claustrophobic struggles which had gone before. Far below, Harold blew on his hands and followed up. Even down climbing a section to recover the hammer I had dropped from the chockstone. From the cave he employed a bridging technique where I had affected a jittery crawl, making light of a possible pendulum which would have seen him making an unscheduled inspection of Left Aisle before returning at great speed to the confines of the cave !

With the black cleft behind us we could luxuriate on our lush, virginal stance and contemplate the difficulties which lay ahead.
The continuation crack running above the cave looked like it would go at a reasonable standard even if it was outrageously exposed. However. It quickly ran into a vegetated bay which would have to be avoided by climbing out onto the steep left wall. Far better was a less direct but more interesting looking excursion directly above our stance. From here a short section of 4c/5a climb­ing quickly reached a classic corner groove which ran up to the top of the crag.
Stripping off great clods of vegetation as I climbed, the corner cleaned up beautifully to reveal a fine series of sharp clean holds es­calating right up to a grassy ledge strewn with the bleached white bones of a Perigrine's prey.
The corner was continuous 4b climbing on superb Arenig rock which as ever proved reliably sound. Looking back down I could see the corner juxtaposed against the green flecked chasm which plunged down into the ominous void. A delightful contrasting finale after the struggle to get up to and out of the cave.
As Harold followed up I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. By any crite­ria, our route had proved to be quite a unique adventure which was certainly beyond my expectations. The great black chimney of Arenig Fawr had thrown down its challenge and we had overcome it's impres­sively guarded features through a little guile and perseverance.
Although it's easy to inflate our achievements only to have them cru­elly deflated by others. I was pleased that my veteran partner who has fifty years of first ascents and guide book writing behind him con­curred that our route had the potential to be something of a minor classic. The greatest satisfaction however, is knowing that Heart of Darkness/The Black Chimney had yielded at a very accessible VS grade which means, I hope, that many more climbers of modest ability will come to Arenig and sample this and other climbs which lie outside of the orbit of most modern day climbers.

Footnote: On the first ascent I left a notebook and pencil in a screw topped jar in the cave. I won­der if anyone else has added their scrawl to ours ?
Photos: Middle shot-Harold Drasdo on Pitch One: Above John Appleby on the first ascent of 'Heart of Darkness' The Black Chimney

First published in the Mountaineering Club of North Wales Bulletin of June 2005