Friday, 19 November 2010

One Step in the Past

Dave Williams reaches the second overhanging chimney on pitch four

When the sky finally burst open like a rotten pear, it swept the streets of Llanrwst clean of life in seconds. All that remained was the flickering headlights of motorists who crawled through waterlogged streets, faces pressed against streaming windscreens, peering out into the unexpected autumnal monsoon.
Sanctuary for myself was a secondhand bookshop, an occasional port of call when I drift over the county line from my rural abode to sample the delights of this North Wales market town.

As always I scanned past the old favourites which appear to bulk out the mountaineering sections of every secondhand bookshop in the land - the Boningtons, Blackshaws, Hunts and Smythes - to an unfamiliar little, blue volume wedged between Lord Hunt's doorstop and a Showell Styles guidebook.
A 1920s rock climbing guide to Snowdonia, its yellowing pages boasting the occasional grainy black and white of a popular climb of the day. One caught my eye. An intrepid leader poised upon a clean, steep slabby wall. His attentive second belaying him from a spacious stance at the edge of the frame.
It appeared the leader had traversed out right and was about to ascend the clean lightning cracked slab. If memory serves the caption compared the pitch to Kern Knotts Crack in the Lake District. The route was Overhanging Chimneys on Trwyn y Graig in the Nantlle Valley. The seed was planted; I had to seek out this intriguing fragment of climbing history which geography and fashion had relegated to the backwaters of Welsh rock climbing.
Overhanging Chimneys lies within the Cwm Silyn area, and is now included in the Tremadog guide*. The current edition lends couple of pages to Trwyn y Graig and even in today's climate of over-hyped Extremes it gives Overhanging Chimneys a star.

I recalled that Ron James' influential 1970's guide for Constable, 'Rock Climbing in Wales', also includes the route although Paul Williams' up-dated version 'Rock Climbs in Snowdonia' excludes it. This 330ft Severe is described as  'an old fashioned and somewhat artificial route but well worthwhile and on excellent rock' in the current Climbers Club guidebook.
The last part of this statement was clearly encapsulated in the 1920's photograph and furthermore, I had already confirmed it with own eyes.
A couple of years before I had been on another obscure Cwm Silyn route, Engineers Climb on Craig Fawr, when the occasional break in the cloud revealed a clean impressive crag less than half a mile away to the east. This I later discovered was Trwyn y Graig ( Crag of the Nose), but I did not realise at the time that it held within its elegant ramparts Downes, Carr and McNaught's 1925 creation -Overhanging Chimneys.
It was during an early May heatwave that I persuaded erstwhile partner Dave Williams- stopping over in North Wales for a few weeks twixt Saudi Arabia and Argentina- to join me exploring in Trwyn y Graig. It was mid-week and the parking just beyond Bryn Gwyn Farm was deserted.Despite-or more likely because of its remoteness- this particular area had become a black spot for car crime in recent years.

All around lay evidence of broken windscreens and side windows. It appeared that at least five cars randomly parked around the site had been vandalised in the past few days.
Somewhat perturbed by the obvious risk factor, Dave approached a local farmer who was mending his fences along the lane and was  kindly given permission to park his borrowed car in a field opposite Bryn Gwyn. The farmer confirmed that the activities of the car thieves had led to a noticeable decline in the number of walkers and climbers coming to the area.
As we rounded the twin lakes of Llynau Cwm Silyn which lie beneath the majestic heights of Craig y Ogof, each footfall gradually lifted our destination from the jumbled mass of rock and heather which from a distance can appear a confusing matrix of indistinct mountainous features.
Toiling in the hot sun through the pathless heather and boulder fields, I was surprised at the scale and character of the crag. From below it looked extremely steep and intimidating. However, the rock did at least look clean and inviting. My anticipa­tion was growing by the minute. A cool breeze blowing in from the coast alleviated the worst effects of the burning sun. This was Wales in May for you: one week you are wrapped up against the sleet and rolling mist; the next, you are basting on a sun drenched crag!
The first pitch of Overhanging Chimneys begins beneath a short, cracked groove. From below it looked straightforward but as is so often the case, it proved quite awkward. The top of the route mean­dered across a heathery ledge before breaching a slabby wall via a rightward trending rampline. Although technically never more than 4a, it provided consistent interest and as I watched my friend reach the heather belt which marks the end of the first pitch, my eyes feasted upon the beautiful upper tier, capped by the impressive nose from which the crag derives its name. Certain climbs have a distinct agreeable ambience, this route was certainly one of them.

For traditional climbs such as this, grading appears at times to be an almost arbitrary affair. Most appear to be lumped in the V Diff category which can mean anything from a gentle, juggy stroll on a benign outcrop to a heartstopping excursion on one of Lliwedd's 700' mountaineer­ing routes. If a traditional route rates Severe or Hard Severe then you can usually expect some spice in the proceedings!

The author in Maurice's Crack. Choose your own innuendo laden caption !

The second pitch of Overhanging Chimneys proves the point. The leader has to ascend a thin ramp line to reach the ferociously steep 'Maurice's Crack' which leads a grassy bay. Despite its description the crack is not over generous the way of protection or positive holds. The unremitting precipitous nature means that screaming calves demand movement regardless of the paucity of holds or protection. " Christ.. I've climbed easier HVS's this!" I yelled down at my partner. My ascent was fueled by hysterical laughter at my own uselessness and gnawing frustration.

Despite their almost pantomime appearance in nailed boots, plus fours and tweed jackets, those old pioneers could certainly climb a bit!
The difficulties do ease at the top of the 40ft crack but it is fair to an overall technical grade of 4c would not be unreasonable. As assessment Big Dave, was quick to concur with after he had hauled himself up to join me.
From the grassy bay at the top of Maurice's Crack,the climb traverses left on small, positive holds to reach a massive ledge which at the point of departure is out of sight around the corner. For those who are vertically challenged the stride to reach the edge would be frustrating to say the least. For myself at 5ft 10" , I was just about able to plant my toes on the edge of the slab whilst hanging from thin hand holds.
For 6ft 2" Williams it was more amenable if not more gracefully executed! Despite the difficulties of the last pitch we could at least luxuriate on our spacious stance for a while and take in the complexities of of the first overhanging chimney through a haze of duty free cigarette smoke.

`Thrutchy — how else could you describe this most trad of pitches? The bold Williams overcame it in a symphony of sweat, curses and neanderthal grunts. For myself- I found it useful to dig  into my repertoire of almost forgotten climbing techniques and came up with that cobwebbed classic 'back and footing'. After reaching an overhang which halted further progress a long, blind reach meant a monster jug could be used to spin into the chimney and then apply some simple bridging before rocking out of the constriction on to the rib which delineated the left edge.
The fourth pitch was a pleasant amble up a cracked wall and on to a broad, clean rib which ended beneath the second over­hanging chimney. Despite its lack of stature
the chimney was, as expected, both awkward and interesting and delivered us to a superb stance beneath the final tower.

Dave Williams in the final overhanging chimney

As I reached the stance I moved out right across a broad heather ledge to take in the final pitch which at this point darted around the tower and up a narrow ramp-line. Im­mediately I was transported back 70 years for it was in this very spot that one of those early pioneers — was it Downes, Carr or McNaught? — had left the party to frame his photograph and caught for posterity the attentive second and his leader trans­fixed upon white,cracked rock.
From the stance the leader has to make a delicate step around the edge of a sharp, angled wall and reach a steep ramp. The climbing is absorbing and delicate but generously protected. The ramp gives out at a square, slightly sloping ledge about the size of a paving stone. The line then moves deviously around the ramp-line headwall and a long step across the void reaches a meagre foothold on the very edge of the final overhanging chimney.
Another heaving thrutch and you are in the chimney itself where easy climbing leaves you below the final steep crack which soon reaches the top of the nose. The moves are tricky and absorbing until the very end when the satiated leader pulls into the widening crack which brings you to the end of an immensely satisfying climb.
So, there it was. A climb which had cast its spell within a rain lashed Llanrwst book­shop had finally been consummated upon a scorching spring day. Would memory dull the experience or would it exaggerate the encounter?  On the negative side, I would have acknowledge the contrived nature of the line in that escape is possible along one of the heather breaks which seperate the pitches and also dilute the exposure. However, the same could be said for many Tryfan classics including Grooved Arete, Gashed Crag and Pinnacle Ridge?

Overhanging Chimneys was a highly enjoyable and satisfying climb that never lacked charm, character or interest throughout its six pitches. A classic climb? Yes, although perhaps not a three star classic, but certainly an excellent diversion from summer's heaving, honey-pot crags of North Wales.

 Trwyn y Craig

* Now in the Climbers Club guide to Cwm Silyn and Cwellyn

John Appleby© First published in Climber: July 1996.