Friday, 26 March 2010

On a new mountain

George Abraham is of course, better known as being one half of the Abraham Brothers than as a mountain activist, writer and photographer in his own right. The aforementioned duo are of course ,central players in the early history of British rock climbing. Their beautifully crafted and haunting black and white photographs have become iconic images of the sport which today are instantly recognizable around the world. Although the brothers are best known for their photographic work, they were very much mountaineers and pioneers in the true sense of the word. Establishing new climbs and revisiting established climbs which were detailed in their well regarded and illustrated books.
After their co-operation with  the legendary OG Jones for his very successful Rock Climbing in the English Lake District (1897), they produced companion volumes, Rock Climbing in North Wales (George, in 1906) and Rock Climbing in Skye (Ashley, in 1907).
George was said to be the more thrusting and dynamic rock athlete if we can use that word to describe a climber who was already well established in the sport when Victoria was still monarch! Five years older than brother Ashley, it was George who usually took on the lead role on their cliff exploits, whilst the more stolid and genial Ashley took on himself the role of the enthusiastic and reliable second. Carting massive plate cameras up to the high cliffs was an effort in itself but once established, the pair took great pride in composing the rock stars of the day. People  like the dynamic Jones, Archer Thomson and Oscar Eckenstein in positions of high drama. Persuading them to pose in precarious positions whilst they balanced on rock ledges and captured what were to become in many cases, classic images which still have the power to impress today.
Although the Keswick brothers are of course best known as Lake District activists,they climbed and recorded all over the UK and Europe; establishing climbs which even today are considered classics,,,Crowberry Ridge Direct, New West Climb, Amphitheatre Buttress and Slanting Gully. Despite being older by five years,George outlived Ashley by 14 years. His long and active life closing in 1965. Hard to imagine that someone born in 1871 and who was in his forties by the time of the outbreak of world war one was still alive to witness the first manned flight into space, the Beatles, Coronation Street, the Vietnam War and the first computers !

The grey cliffs of Craigeu Gleision high above Nant Francon has always been one of north Wales's most mystifying venues, despite having once been described as 'the most important addition to the climber's domain since the annexation of Craig yr Ysfa in 1900'. The man who uttered those words, James Merryman Archer Thomson is one of the giants of the era. A local schoolmaster and obsessive explorer of the high crags of Snowdonia. A superb technician on rock,Thomson left the gully epoch behind and moved out onto the ridges and faces,establishing scores of new routes within Ogwen Valley, Lliwedd, Craig yr Ysfa and on the aforementioned Creigeu Gleision. Despite attracting many of the great and the good of that era, Thomson's enticing description of the cliffs inevitably proved to be something of an anti-climax when these visitors which included George Abraham actually arrived and attempted to fathom out the complex matrix of rock architecture held together in a green maw!
It is fair to say though-as George Abraham's following piece proves-that not all mountaineers were put off by the complex nature of Creigeu Gleision. Indeed, Abraham finds the rock quality and general climbing preferable to Lliwedd!
However,after Climbers Club editor H.E.L Porter rather snifflily suggested that Archer Thomson's description of Creigeu Gleision was rather over stated when writing an update to the 1921 Ogwen guide,the cliff started to drift off the radar of contemporary activists. Given it's remoteness and position as a high north facing complex crag then perhaps that is not surprising.
The final ignominy for Creigeu Gleision was when it was quietly dropped from Climbers Club guidebooks after it's final fully detailed appearance in Tony Moulam's 1966 Carneddau guide. In the 1982 guide Tom Leppert briefly mentions the cliffs but goes on-  When amongst the many isolated towers and pinnacles one is seemingly surrounded by ghostly multitudes that furtively drift into focus,to sink back once again into the mist and give no suggestion of their stone affinity. Thus,while the time has probably arrived to lay these individual climbs to rest,embalmed in the pages of antiquity,it is not without some lingering regret.  Tom has a surprisingly good stab at Edwardian writing here!
In the middle of this decade in the new millenium, The Climber's Club persuaded local activist Mike Bailey to take on the role as author of its latest Ogwen guidebook.To this end,it would be hard to find a more thorough and assiduous author. Leaving no stone unturned, Mike has unearthed lost crags and climbs by trawling through club notes and hut logs and brought in a team which would take on the task of re-climbing and re-evaluating climbs which in the past had not surprisingly been just described verbatim from previous guides. It is fair to say that the forthcoming Ogwen guide will be one of the most comprehensive CC guidebooks ever. As one of the guidebook team,I found myself satisfying a long term and some would say,unhealthy penchant for obscure and unfashionable cliffs and areas. One of these areas you will have guessed was Creigeu Gleision which was to be brought back into the fold after an absence of over forty years. My experiences have been detailed in an article 'Following Archer's Arrow' which appeared in the 2006 CC journal so it's not appropriate to re-jig that article here. However, one of the most interesting aspects of exploring and re-writing this area came when Mike sent me an email after I had completed all the routes hereabouts and written it all up in a new C y G section. He had found hidden away in a journal,a description of a route by George Abraham in 1913 called West Ridge which had never been written up in a guidebook after apparently being missed by successive guidebook editors.
In 2008 we tackled West Ridge- a 400' mountaineering V Diff ( US 5.5)- which we feel may well have been a second ascent....95 years after the first! Ironically, it wasn't to be too long before West Ridge received a 'third' ascent when recent Footless contributor, upland ecologist Barbara Jones, hot footed it up into Cwm Goch after Mike had suggested that we may have spotted the rare Snowdon Lily up there. False alarm I'm afraid.

When I was looking through some archive material recently I was delighted to find George Abraham's actual first hand account of visiting Creigeu Gleision and establishing West Ridge and re-climbing the dramatic Tower Ridge. What follows in two parts is that account. Despite the rather high flown Edwardian style of writing, Abraham's accurately captures the spirit of Creigeu Gleision and his route descriptions are spot on.

John Appleby

" There is a thrill of strange delight That passes quivering o'er me, When blue hills rise upon the sight ,like summer clouds before me"  Ruskin

STAND not upon the order of your going but go at once, is sound advice to the increasing numbers of British cragsmen who have hitherto found more than a full sufficiency of climbing amongst the mountains of the Lake country. Yet it is a wonderful revelation of the many interests of our mountain sport, and an education in its various technic­alities to turn from Cumbria to Cambria. Truly,  What do they know of Lakeland who only Lakeland know ?
The writer's recent " going " was by motor, and to one who has reached Snowdonia on foot, as well as by carriage and by rail, the new means of approach seemed best of all. Moreover, the advantages of the motor amongst the mountains were undoubted, a point which had been scarcely appreciated. It had not realized what vast, outlying attractions lie ranged a round every side of Snowdonia and in the widely scattered groups, especially those to seawards. Except for incidental visits by motor as part of the days outing  these latter crags might scarcely be worth the trouble involved in reaching them.
Moreover, now that the Snowdon Ranger Inn on the shore of Llyn Quellyn is closed, there is a difficulty in finding accommoda­tion. However, this is somewhat premature; let us first arrive !
Chester was far behind. We had come by Llangollen, through woodlands rich in the hill golden splendour of a wonderful autumn day, up and up to the grey moors above Pentre Voelas. Then came the sudden mountain revela­tion, one of those strange contrastful changes which form the greatest of the charms of motor wandering. Overhead was a grey sky, all round stretched the dark moors, olive and ochreous, and silent but for the plaintive call of the last lingering curlews. The long straights called for speed and not in vain.
A waning shower chased us feebly up to the heights, and on the crest the mountains stood forth ahead in wide array, an azure screen against tlie orange glow where distant sunshine flooded the western seaward littoral. The dimness of the nearer underlying lands added to the impression of great height.
Henry Hobson on Creigeu Glesion's entertaining Central Arete: V Diff ( US 5.5)
There on the left was shapely old Snowdon, unmistakable amongst a host of giants rendered disproportionately big and bulky by their contiguity. Moel Siabod, cloud shadowed and sombre was greatest and nearest of these; and then the Glyders led the eye around to the wonderful central dome of Tryfaen, with the deep northerly notch where ran the seaward road by Ogwen and its lake. Away to the right stretched the long, curving crests of the Carnedds to swerve finally down­ward to the valley of the Conway.
Surely it was a stirring sight, and one over which there was some temptation to linger. It stirred my companion in another way, for he belongs to that adventurous type of Briton who is only happy in a fierce speed draught, or on a steep crag with open heaven above and little else below. The forward call was irresistible. Down from the 750-foot levels we flew, the speedometer readings being such that one was sorely tempted to break the old rule, " Never speak to the driver ! " Then swiftly the pine trees came up to meet us, and we entered the mountain gateway where gaunt, grey rocks hung overhead, and far below us the Conway glistened amidst the tree-girt gorges.
It was a fascinating run up to Ogwen Cottage with welcoming mountain friends, crags of many a lofty endeavour of years ago greeting one on every hand. There was little change in the much-favoured climbing haunt. The incursion of Englishmen was represented by a well-filled climbing book recording new routes and varia­tions, mostly the latter ; the American invasion took the form of a motor-car, with which Mr. Jones, the genial landlord, meets his rail bourne patrons at Bethesda as smilingly as ever.

There was yet time, to pay an afternoon call on the Milestone Buttress, a place of pleasant memories', for it was one of the happiest dis­coveries made during the Easter of 1899, that last holiday before the Dent Blanche claimed the best of comrades and friends, 0. G. Jones. It was strange, after fourteen years, to grip many well-known holds which, during the interval, have probably served for the support of more cragsmen and cragswomen than any other in Wales. In fact, few climbs in Britain have served for the weaning of so many enthusiasts from the milder delights of fell-walking to the more solid delights of real rock-work.
There were innumerable evidences of the great popularity of the Milestone Buttress. The heathery lower glacis, up which we had floundered knee-deep in vegetation in early days, had dis­appeared, and the more solid rock, though polished with the tread of many nailed feet, afforded safe abiding. It has been written that the old route had been varied and improved, yet one found that the original way was followed exactly.There have been many variations made on the popular buttress and in its vicinity, some quite new, some otherwise. Amongst the latter the so-called Rowan Tree Route was used by one of the pioneering parties for the descent. The Castle Rocks were also visited more than once as a continuation from the finish of the buttress, and the descent from them was made on the west. The enthusiastic search of Dr. Guy Barlow, a member of one of the pioneering parties on the " Milestone, was rewarded by the discovery of several new and useful varia­tions. That up the true ridge line of the crag and to the right of the original route bore little signs of traffic. To expert parties this Direct Route would give about a hundred feet of excellent initial sport.
The principal object of our present visit to Ogwen Cottage was, however, the inspection of the climbs of Creigiau Gleision. Authorities have described these crags as " the most important addition to the climbers' domain since the annexation of Craig yr Ysfa in 190O."
The Creigiau proved a strangely intractable problem. First of all the attempts at the pro­nunciation were scarcely successful, which doubt­less accounted for the inability of some passing shepherds to understand our inquiries. Mrs. Jones came to our rescue, but though she could assure the natives of our polite intentions, neither her local knowledge nor that of the shepherds could reveal the whereabouts of the new crags.Fortunately, Mr. Jones had more information to offer, though this was characteristically vague, but we learnt eventually that Creigiau Gleision '­Cray-ge-i Glice-eon'---as the local pronunciation ran--were situated above Cwm Goch. They were invisible from near Ogwen Cottage, but their position was fairly obvious from tile fact that they faced the shoulder of Foel Goch  which sloped down from that shapely peak towards the Nant Francon Valley.
Thus we set forth along the old road towards Bethesda, little reckoning that the hardest problem of the " Grey Crags " was yet to come. The rough front of Y Garn loomed grandly overhead on the left ; a fine-looking buttress, which had been explored and climbed by Mr. F. H. G. Parker and his brother, looked especially alluring. A short descent of the grassy road brought us to the bridge over the stream which Came down from Cwm Cywion.
Immediately beyond this we left the road and turned upwards towards the unshapely looking mass which according to the 1 inch ordinance map, separated Cwm Perfedd and CwmGoch. It had be­come the modern practice to change the name of the former Cwm to that of Cwm Cywion. After crossing some wire railings a much-weathered wall was gained and followed on its farther side up steep, grassy slopes, as far as a large sheepfold. This should be an unmistakable landmark, even in misty weather, for those who have so often failed to find Creigiau Gleision.

The view from near this place was remarkably fine, and probably all the more attractive by reason of its unfamiliarity. Tryfaen lifted its purple pile grandly over the silver streak of Lake Ogwen. The sun flashed on the few foliaged knolls where the smoke of civilization curled lazily above the little cottage, and lower, the white cottage of Benglog trailed ribbon-like from the jaws of the pass, to find peace seaward-borne in the richly vestured bosom of the valley.
To the left, Carnedd Dafydd thrust forth a shadowy " black arm " whose side carried the straight high-way of communication between those mountain wilds and the great outside world. On the right, ridge beyond ridge, the Glyders upreared their wild recesses into the morning mist, their hidden beauties of crag-girt llyn as yet unrevealed.
Then the nearer scenes demanded attention. The crags we sought were at last partly in view. The grotesquely carved face was seen somewhat in profile, but nearer, and not far above us, were gathered the weirdest array of rocks that Wales possesses. Closer approach showed us the quaintest forms, stuck, as it seemed, on the scree-draped slope of the mountain. Here a colossal cat peeped pertly, and there a toppling toadstool overhung an upturned ogre-like face of felstone ; a crouching lion guarded a grassy knoll, and doll-shaped figures massed like a showman's array above the recesses of a storm-weathered gully.

This quaint portion of the mountain was named the " Mushroom Garden " by the pioneers, and somewhere midst the collection of shattered shapes stands " Grey Matilda." The name might aptly apply to dozens of these rocks, and we soon became tired of hunting her. Innumerable climbing problems could be found here, and ir­respective of this the bizarre groupings were well worth a close visit from all mountain wanderers. However, the real climbing had yet to be found. Thus we skirted along at the, base of the main mass of the bigger cliffs, working across the slopes of Cwm Goch. We carried with us the volume of the " Climbers' Guides " which deals with the Ogwen District, but, unfortunately, two days were required to find that its information was practically useless. There was a North Arete, a South Arete and a Vanishing Arete somewhere„ but all had acquired the latter tendency. The pioneers seemed to have mis­taken the orientation of the crags, which our Com­pass showed, to face in their main line of bulk just slightly west of due north. Thus, instead of being, as stated, on the southern flank, the Mushroom Garden was on the easterly end of the crags.
We followed diligently along to the westerly end, hoping to find some cairn or sign of the climbs but nothing was found. Surely this could not be Creigiau Gleision!

'When amongst the many isolated towers and pinnacles one is seemingly surrounded by ghostly multitudes that furtively drift into focus,to sink back once again into the mist'
Creigeu Gleision's surreal and complex rock architecture. Lower Cliff

To be continued next Friday: April 2nd.