Friday, 18 June 2010

The climb that time forgot.

Llyn Hywel betwixt Rhinog Fach and Y Llethr.

How quickly do times change. The following article was written and published in 1996 and detailed a mysterious mountaineering route in the heart of the wild Rhinog range. At the time of writing, this was a remote and uncharted territory for climbers. The only details offered of the route in question was in a 1960 climbing book by Edward Pyatt called Where to climb in the British Isles and tantalisingly suggesting that a route on Rhinog Fach was 'Once but no longer,the most interesting mountaineering route between Snowdon and Cader Idris'. Little did the author know at the time that the Rhinogs were on the cusp of an explosion of activity led by a super-charged trio of climbers which consisted of the King of Mid-Wales climbing, the late great John Sumner; someone who had already made a remarkable impact on Mid Wales climbing,Terry Taylor and the extraordinarily talented Martin Crocker who it seemed-despite living in the South West of England-could sniff out unclimbed Welsh crags from hundreds of miles away !
The gritstone of Y Rhinogau was about to yeild hundreds of new climbs.
During this period, The Climbers Club were in the process of compiling a new guidebook for the Mid-Wales area which turned out to be a regular 'bumper fun book' of 500 pages. Covering a huge swathe of Mid Wales stretching from Cader Idris to Betws y Coed and including entire mountain areas including the Rhinogs and Arenig Fawr for the first time. Martin Crocker found himself covering the Rhinog area for the guide and quickly discovered the the mysterious route was in fact 'The South Ridge of Rhinog Fach', put up in 1935 by that indefatigable Welsh explorer, Showell Styles accompanied by George Garrard. Incidentally, As I write in 2010; The new CC Ogwen guidebook publishes another 'lost' Showell Styles mountaineering route- 'Eaglet's Nest Ridge' on the Eastern side of Gallt Yr Ogof. One can but wonder when the next obscure Showell Styles mountaineering route will turn up !
In the current guidebook, Martin Crocker essentially uses the route description I offered in the fact-file acompanying the article but has nudged the grade up to 'severe' and awarded it a star.In the intervening years, South Ridge appears to have attracted a fairly regular and favourably inclined clientele.
It should be noted with relation to the history of Rhinog climbing that in fact former Plas y Brenin instructor Nick Gough established first ascents in the area-more especially on the table top plateau peak of Foel Penolau- in the 1960's. These were unrecorded so at the very least Nick should be accorded Rhinog pioneer status with the likes of Showell Styles.

john appleby 2010.

Scott Lloyd on the crux 4th pitch of the route

Once though no longer, 'the most interesting mountaineering route between Snowdon and Cader Idris. This intriguing extract from Edward Pyatt's 1960 regional climbing directory Where to Climb in the British Isles, describes a mountain­eering route which time and the fickle hand of climbing fashion had conspired to erase from the pages of contemporary climbing literature. It de­scribed an unnamed ridge climb on the South Face of Rhinog Fach, by Welsh standards a fairly remote mountain, which offers its 2,500ft peak as the northerly high point of a long mountain ridge which takes in two other distinct peaks of around the same height, Y Llethr and Diffwys. It is an area held in special affection by walkers and wild country campers who savour the wilder­ness experiences amongst the peregrine-echo­ing cliffs and the rugged heather moors which tumble down upon the myriad pools and deep black lakes which sparkle beneath the crags like diamonds in a necklace.
Despite the area's unique character which had always drawn the more discerning walker and backpacker away from the seared and cluttered mountains and valleys of northern Snowdonia, the area has never been renowned as a climbing arena despite the abundance of outcrops and unclimbed faces.
The only crags which have ever gained a men­tion in the Rhinog range are Craig y Cae on the East Face of Y Garn and Craig Bodlyn which stands above Llyn Bodlyn on a western spur of Diffwys. The central section of the range is to­tally excluded from all current guides including John Sumner's current Climbers' Club guide to Mid-Wales.
I was intrigued to discover why this unnamed mountaineering route had totally disappeared from view and keen to discover why it had once been deemed 'the most interesting mountain­eering route between Snowdon and Cader Idris'?
Trawling through my memory banks I recalled an impressive cliff face high above Llyn Hywel on the south side of Rhinog Fach. A delve into my photographic record revealed a reasonably an­gled, stepped ridge which ran parallel to a steep boulder field above the Llyn. The south face of the ridge looked as if it offered the potential for some fine, steep climbs on clean rock although, of course, the rock quality could not exactly be gauged from an old photograph. At its greatest height the main face dropped 300ft to the boul­ders and scree below. However, for much of its length the ridge lacked the depth or exposure that marks out most classic ridge and arete climbs.
Further news filtered through from one of my climbing partners, Dave Williams, who had just returned from climbing on the unique' gritstone slabs just to the south of Rhinog Fach beneath the ridge connecting Rhinog Fach with Y Llethr. A system of gritstone slabs of between 50 and 100ft apparently offered a wealth of easier graded climbs including a unique slab climb of no more than Severe which began just a few feet above the deep, black waters of Llyn Hywel it­self. Dave enthusiastically described tension tra­versing across the foot of the slab before he climbed directly up the centre of one of the long­est slab climbs in the vicinity.*( Walking on water: severe *) Dave had also stud­ied the long, broken ridge of Rhinog Fach and registered it as something to take a closer look at in the future.
With the August sun beating unmercifully down upon North Wales's solar sated citizens, Scott Lloyd and I set out from the pine shaded car park at the edge of the gloomy conifer forest of Coed y Brenin. Our sweat-stained sacs were weighted down with camping and climbing gear as we began the long tromp through Brenin's northernmost plantation towards the deep, barren pass of BwIch Drws Ardudwy which separates Rhinog Fach from Rhinog Fawr.
One and a half hours later we collapsed beneath our destination on the inviting shore Llyn Hywel. As I swam on my back in the refreshing mountain waters I studied the ridge in detail, picking out the best line which began more than 200ft above the lapping waters of Hywel and terminated just before the summit itself. It looked steeper from this angle with one or two awkward looking sections to overcome, However, what detracted from its charaacter was the area of grass, rock and heather to its left,an area which was always going to provide an escapable option from the main ridge. Notwithstanding this undermining feature, I had to conclude that the same could be said for many traditional mountaineering routes in Wales. Notably on Tryfan, where escape from the true line as an option was usually the rule rather than the exception.
With the cooling waters of Llyn Hywel behind us we wound our way through the jumbled boulders which lay beneath the mountain and were soon standing within a small alcove which seemed the best of the various options in the vicinity to begin our climb. A short, cracked slabby wall ran up to an overhang. With one of those `cowbell' hexes that could hold a number 69 bus inserted just beneath the overhang I over­came the barrier on the right and found myself on the right edge of a hanging slab. A step on to the slab and then pleasant, easy climbing up the slab ended on a spacious stance.
The climbing was never hard but the pull around the overhang was awkward. Despite that it never felt more than V Diff and as Scott puz­zled his way around the overhang I studied the next pitch. Some easy climbing brought Scott to a short cracked wall detached from the steeper wall behind. By torqueing his right leg in the deep crack he managed to overcome the paucity of handholds and pull up on to the flat top. Despite its lack of stature this short boulder problem was a lot harder than it looked and was difficult to grade. After easy climbing up the next short wall we were faced by a much steeper section. This offered really enjoyable climbing on perfect rough rock with good protection throughout.

The author tackles the steep little rib on pitch three

The rib was not more than 30ft in length and technically no more than Severe. It provided the hardest sustained standard so far. Pitch four of­fered nothing more demanding than 150ft of scrambling but with some exposure high above the scree fan below. The next pitch proved to be the penultimate and the crux of the route be­ing high above a deep, blind gully which cuts into the ridge close to the top. Climbing a steep, clean slab I was forced out right into a grassy bay by a large, overhanging roof. From the bay I was forced further right on to a blunt rib which was steep and exposed. The climbing felt precarious as for the first time on the route the rock felt some­what suspect and the protection was not overabundant. At this stage the climbing was no more technically demanding than Severe but the steepness and lack of protection made it feel more serious throughout its 60ft than anything previously encountered. With the fifth and final pure climbing pitch completed we were left with 200ft of scrambling to top out within spitting distance of the summit.
With the late afternoon sun still searing in its intensity, Scott and I drank in the vast tapes­try which lay beneath us. To the west the gentle sheltered waters of Tremadog Bay. To the east the sombre, dun hills and valleys of the Migneint stretching towards Bala. To the north, the rag­ged mountains of Rhinog Fawr and Moel Ysgyfarnogod reached out towards their more respectable Moelwyn neighbours beyond and to the south, the high mountain ridge switchbacked its course towards the peerless Mawddach Estu­ary and the ice cream parlours of Barmouth.
We had climbed the 'lost' ridge climb of Rhinog Fach and I pondered my conclusions? Apart from the obscure comments which Edward Pyatt repeats in his 1960 guide I have no idea when the climb was first done, who were the first ascensionists and how it was graded. Be­cause of its remoteness and with the area suffer­ing from extreme underexposure as a climbing ground it is clear that the Rhinogs were never going to draw a regular clientele to the area when there is so much better climbing to be had in the mountainous heart of Snowdonia to the north. The South Ridge of Rhinog Fawr is cer­tainly no Grooved Arete or Amphitheatre Buttress. As mountaineering routes go it is somewhat artificial,­
escapable and lacking technical continu­ity. Nevertheless, there are certainly worse re­corded routes receiving regular attention by tra­ditionalists in the more popular climbing honeypots of North Wales.
The route does throw down some interest­ing challenges at stages throughout the climb. Despite a lot of scrambling involved there is some good climbing to be had on four out of the six pitches and the outlook is never less than out­standing. If you can survive the strength-sapping walk in then the one thing you can be certain of, you won't find yourself queueing with other par­ties at the foot of the climb!

The south ridge of Rhinog Fach: First ascent-Showell Styles/George Garrard-1935

John Appleby©

First published in HIGH: Oct-96.