Friday, 14 May 2010


Tom Devas nears the top of Pitch 3: Photo James Dexter©

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us - in short, 'Mid-Wales, Michaelmas Term lately over and Lord Sumner sitting in Bryn Hafod Hall. Implacable January weather. Snow everywhere. Snow up the hill, where it drifts loosely across the moor to Aran Fawddwy; snow down the gully descent to Craiglyn Dyfi, where it crunches promisingly underfoot. Bits of aircraft everywhere in Aero Gully, where we pull up on plane parts and suppress ghoulish stories. But no ice in the Left-Hand Branch where axes sing off-key and crampons stub the turf.

A fire in the hearth, Driskell's old jokes and Kevin's elderberry wine can transform the season of darkness at Bryn Hafod hut into something approaching the hope of spring. And hidden in the dusty attic is a hollow-cheeked presence making mountaineering dreams for the spring lord of the turf, the wily old bookmaker himself, Lord Sumner of Hafod Hall. His cunning gamble of placing three stars on Pencoed Pillar had given us a run for our money, and he freely admitted that by the form book of North Wales the route lacked the distance. But, taking up our copy of his new turf guide, with the straightening of a line on the Cyfrwy course diagram and the correction of a 16 to a 14 on the list of starters below, he offered us a hot tip for the new season, straight from the horse's mouth in short, thus began our obsession with Obsession.

I've blown it. Layed away and stepped up, into a cul-de-sac. I eyeball slopers and slap at everything. A spike squats a mere universe away. I've been rumbled. Cranking down off one arm has it screaming objections. I fail to find the same foothold again and stem away on friction.Cruising. I thought I was cruising and stepped up without thinking. "That must be the 'awkward move to reach a spike."

Some second I've got here. Norman. He sounds a lot like that spaced-out guy in Paris, Texas. Except he adds, "Get some gear in, youth!" This is the big pitch. He wants me to lead it and he wants to lead it. Both. Above me stretches the smooth slab under the left-leaning corner. We glassed it from the tent. It soars 130ft to the top of the North Face of Cader Idris, the crux of Obsession. Now it's nerve-testing time! I'm leading at my limit and I'm doing it wrong. My quivering calves tell me I've got to crack this fast.

Way left is a tiny triangular incut. I reach out a toe, slowly, like a prehensile thumb. It docks first time. Carefully I lean my body over towards it, feeling every inch of the space falling free to the lake below. Neither of us is yawning. I reach left, palming back right, and lock my fingertips onto an edge. Gently I pull across, reaching up for a ledge and then swing back right onto the spike. It's a done thing! I get cruising again, jimmy in a Friend and clip on a long, long sling for the commitment to the slab. Suddenly I'm singing across it. 'Reach up and it shall be given unto you'. Edges turn at a touch into ledges and there's the sweet jamming crack to lift you to heaven. Blues. Bottleneck. Open tuning. Perfect pitch.

Pursued by a Shadow.Photo James Dexter©

Later that evening, in the broken way of friendship that is the Lebenslust of the sport, we fell in with two companions who shared with us the joys of their day on the Table Direct approach to the Cyfrwy Arete. I do not know their names. The young woman had led the curly-haired, smiling man on one of his first routes and he was all grins and amiability, redolent of nothing so much as newly-discovered delight. 

Here was a young apprentice about to join our obsession. He seemed blissfully unaware of the forms it could take, the choices he might make. Would he, I wondered, find himself on the path of self-assertion and will, the negative obsession with ego and grades? Or would he discover that joyous launch into the creative challenge the rock presents to body and mind? To put it another way, would he learn to know when to stop?

At the top of our route I'd asked Norman if he fancied doing another route. There was plenty of time. But he had said, "What can follow that?". There was a profound maturity in that reply. The previous weekend we had visited, for the first time, the bellicose charms of Den Lane Quarry and next weekend the resurgence of this absurd obsession would doubtless take us through the rain in search of some other obscure unvisited crag, whilst what this moment required was simply savouring. The sun was shining and below us there lay a lake. You will believe me when I say that the water beside the way is also of the way. And I make no apology for offending the miserable sham of decency that requires a costume. A swim can make the memory of a climb complete.

The conversation rattled along, as it does on these occasions, in an exchange of route names and a recollection of experiences. As the soft evening light slowly faded and a large white moon lifted over the mountain, we knew that, whatever went on in the magazines, we had shared a sport with dignity, without rancour. Before I slept I was up on that slab again, as though, waking, I had passed through the Gates of Idris, following an obsession. My head was singing and the words were already coming: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... 

The reflection of a mysterious promised land: The Cyfrwy Face of Cader Idris.

Terry Gifford©: First published in The Climbers Club journal.
A potted biography of the author can be found in the October archives. 'Ronnie's last long climb'.