Friday, 28 May 2010

Sluething up Snoopy.

Fuar Tholl.

The Mainreachan Buttress at last jutted out from among the northern spurs of Fuar Tholl, near Achnashellach, like a giant stone ton­gue rooted in the throat of the corrie. Would it be worth the miles of steep path and orien­teering through thick pine forest? Happy Hamish's Bumper Joke Book had turned us on with its talk of the "wonderful" Main­reachan Buttress. 'Wonderful' compared with what? The towering scarps of shattered rock, oozing black peat clumps, and wind-tattered heather that they seem to like climbing in Scotland? We'd been caught before, by Norman Tennent's guide to climbing in the Islands. It uses expressions like "about 300 feet up" and in general lures you helplessly onto colossal dripping faces best left to the buzzards. But Hamish's photos were appertising. As you enter the corrie, you compare the Buttress with the book, trying to pick out the major ramps and chimneys which should be the signposts to the route. But only the main grain of the strata can be identified for sure.
The But­tress is too big, too riddled with features of all kinds — deep black chimneys, massive ribs, little hanging gardens of rain-fed weeds — for it to be decoded yet. All we can make out is a gallery of wet gangways that zig-zag upwards from the right-hand bot­tom corner where the roots of the Buttress are deeply buried in a million chunks of rock swept down from the mountain.
To save time we carry the ropes up the first hundred feet without uncoiling or tying on. We pad over beds of sopping plants, reluctant to wet our PA soles, not feeling too secure as we move out onto the cliff and our fingers grovel on the water worn slabs beside us, which are coated with primitive rust coloured plant life. As the gangway zigs back rightwards and rears more steeply we look for a belay. Pete will lead the first pitch. I'm always slow to gear my nerves and anyway he's spied plum pitch from the book description and has clearly been working out which series of earlier leads will put him in place to lead the plum. I'm resigned to being outmanoeuvred by youth, flair, and skill.

After two false starts Pete pulls up mossy little wall and disappears. The rope begins to run out almost uncomfortably fast. Fuck!... he must be waltzing up the next stage the gangway. No comments come echoing down. The pitch must be too easy; to me either the ravings of the happy climber...Gemsville!... Lovely stuff!... You'll like this (usually sarcastic) — or the grunt remarks a leader makes to vent his tension.
Twenty-five feet of rope left — fifteen-ten. I give him a call: "Ten feet to go." No reply. I call  again. He shouts "OK" but the rope still pays out and starts to drag at the knots in front of my  harness. "Pete!"- irritably- Pete ! 'That's me'
He pauses, shouts -irritably 'No belays in this fucking place' and moves upwards more slowly.
I untie myself at top speed telling myself he'd never slip on rock this easy He stops. feeling the impossible rope drag and presently the ropes are taken in and a word­less shout urges me to get moving. I pull up steeply, with the usual feeling of ineptitude on the first exposed and awkward moves of the day. And as usual it goes in passable style and limbs become supple as though cold lubricant were warming up.
I join Pete on his little landing up on the second storey and find him absentmindedly taking in coils of rope while he eyes the next few moves. It's up to me to lead through, and I fancy, maybe too suspiciously, that Pete is working out whether this will defi­nitely put him in line for the more impres­sive stretches of clean steep rock that wait for us above our heads. I finish the remain­ing straightforward climbing and find some sharp-edged vertical cracks for nuts to belay on. The only trouble is that the rock on the right or outer side of the cracks is not solidly part of the mother crag, it's a big poised pillar cracked through at its base. The rock parts slightly as I wedge in a Moac. The Buttress is starting to show its rotten teeth. None of the homely solidity of Lakeland rock — sound, gardened and tidied by thousands of climbers. This particular high, damp, north-facing chunk of the Scottish Highlands is so rarely climbed, so often probed and prised-at by long-lasting winter ice- that it is one monumental ruin, ready to fall apart.

The gangway has reached a dead end. The grain of the rock has changed. Above us hang overlaps, slabs, and nearly vertical walls, dozens of them, like scales on a great stone dragon. Lines are not obvious, though three fine routes (Investigator, Sherlock, and our own Snoopy) are supposed to con­verge and parallel near here like tracks in a goods yard. The book points us at an "obvi­ous black corner". We've learned to dread that word "obvious". There are approx­imately two hundred black corners, all of them no doubt obvious from one angle or another. All we can do is keep moving upwards — the serrated vertical blades of rock round to our right do not invite an exploratory traverse. Pete, now purged of his ill humour at the messy start to the climb, pulls up into a shallow groove, helped by cracked blocks on either side, and moves deliberately, without bafflement but with much care, up a 30-foot wall immediately above us, pausing often, at his ease on very small footholds, to put in wires (not the smallest) and small hexes. It looks quite technical. As usual I try to memorise the moves, as usual they scramble in my head, and I remind myself it's more fun working it out for yourself anyway. He moves unex­pectedly right off the wall onto a series of airy little shoulders, moves back left using features too small to make out from below, pulls over onto a ledge, and then spends so long fixing the belay that I know it must be exposed up there. Clearly the real climbing has begun.
In a minute or two I move up, admiring the lead. It isn't desperate, holds do arrive, small flakes to reach for, sharp-edged cracks for side pulls, but they must have been small and balacey to stay poised on while choosing and putting in the nuts. The system of tensions and balances I'm using often feels improbable, but it's not too hard to climb smoothly on the security of the top rope. I join Pete to find him looking along the crag in a surmising way. As we face the crag, to our left the stance ends in a drop with a blank face above it. Just above us are more off-putting dragon-scales with no hint of helpful cracks or spikes, just evil little greenish slopes ready to throw us back down. To the right is a precarious pile of spurs — fingers and bones of rock jammed into each other like off-cuts in a timber yard. A ledge leads towards this. It would go. But the looseness! Pete says, "This is pure gannet shit," and looks witheringly at the waste of stony rubbish that towers and falls around us, dwarfing us. On a bad day, if it was cold, late, or otherwise an ill-starred time, the feeling might well begin to niggle: "This is no place to be," and then I might get to envying the saner species that frequent the mountains, ravens and hares and goats and peregrines. But today is good. The But­tress is so imposing. The vistas of the Tor­ridon mountains are so tremendously sculpted. The joy of getting stuck in with Pete on yet another hard crag is so keen that nothing can baffle our momentum. I give him back the gear that I took off the previous pitch as I climbed and eat a piece of mint cake. Pete shows his mistrust of the gannet shit by saying, "Try and get to that corner and then have a look" . It's true that we're now following our noses, the line has become very uncertain, and if the broken corner won't go, some very dodgy abseils might have to be embarked on.
I set the inside edge of my right foot on the ledge and ease myself along it, curling my fingers round various spikes and letting go again when they rattle about like old door handles. I could now drop, not throw, a stone three hundred feet straight down on to the scree slopes that wash the right-hand (west) face of the Buttress. Have I led a whole pitch? If so, this must be a stance. My feet are as much on air as on rock, only my left hand is on anything sizeable or solid, and when I put a wire into the only crack available- like a dentist probing a bad mouth- I realise I'm only comforting, not safeguarding myself, because it's another Mainreachan Special. The right-hand jamb of the crack is formed by an undercut block that would. knock off with one swing of a sledgehammer.

I call to Pete, "I can't stop here." Do I mean I want to reverse the last 25 feet? Or that I expect him miraculously to reassure me that this little perch is indeed a stance? He says, "What's it like round the corner?" I lean out from my good left-hand hold and peer round the shattered rib to my right. It is like a badly bombed cathedral, with stubs of flying buttresses far below, cracked walls angling out of sight at my eye-level, broken gutters spilling debris onto us from above and out of sight. Twenty feet below there are little ledges with some grass. But it would take Extreme. maybe impossible, climbing to reach them. The arete above me which runs down to my shattered rib might go but it would be desperate to start. I'd have to pull up on those terrifying loose pinnacles. And who knows what's up there? It's a perfect case of the devil you know. A ragged crack-line leads off on a traverse at our level. It makes sense to at least set out across the 25-foot bay of nearly vertical rock between my corner and its counterpart across the way. I shout to Pete, "I'll try to traverse from here," and set off, wishing I had something real as an anchor instead of that wee wire in shaky rock — if I fall, Pete will hold me, but if the corner collapses it could cut the ropes . . . It is so sheerly necessary to move, in the teeth of whatever risks. that the risks themselves shrink into finite factors. Each one is no less but no more dominating than the things that are going for us. We know that the line has been climbed before. by Boysen and Alcock (but which line. exactly?). 'We have plenty of gear and we know how to use it. Above all, the flow of momentum draws us upwards, mag­netized by the grand size and shaping of this scarp that rears into the blue summer sky powered from below by memories of how often we've set off upwards and usually made it.
I still can't believe this looseness. The crack-line is there but the holds it links are mostly loosely-wedged spikes far gone in some long process of parting from the crag and rattling down onto the spoil-heap below. They're also far apart; I have to move by stretching my night foot as far as I can stride, lodging it on a spike that moves a little, gripping another such loose thing in my right hand, and balancing alone the wall. Never before have I entertained for a moment the idea of trusting my weight to stuff like this. There is nothing else to do. The route is here to be followed, the crag to be climbed, and we're marooned in the middle of it. Each precarious move is no more thinkable, no more possible, than the last. Each is thought of and then done. Instability becomes normal, like settling down to live on ground being shaken and broken by an earthquake.
Chris Dale on the first winter ascent of Snoopy: Andy Nisbet©

No point in putting in nuts. If they didn't pop out, it would be be putting stress on loose stones. which would tear out and fall. In these conditions.You can so distribute your weight that no one shaky stone is tak­ing the whole stress (or so you tell yourself). This needs such concentration that I can feel my brain starting to flag. And the fear is eating in, although touch and muscle-power go on functioning smoothly — they've got to. I even manage to pause, crucified on nails of wobbling rock, to spy out the remaining feet of the traverse. I hate this insecurity. The position is so exposed, the holds so unconvincing, that the great space of air behind and below me has begun to seem more real than the rock-face. This is more like hang-gliding than climbing! But six feet above, the rock now looks better. There's a stratum of pocked and bubbly material like a slab of Aero two feet thick. Is it friable or solid? Pulling up more than I like on a loose spike, I lodge the fingers of my right hand on the strange rock and tug at it. Solid as can be. Much less for the fingers to grip than the shaky spikes but secure, secure. I pull up some more, at last get two points of firmness, continue to do the splits sideways along the face but now I'm hang­ing from this solid stuff above my head, the danger is waning, I make it to the far corner, to a little platform with room for a pair of PA soles, and anchor thankfully on a secure Moac.
I shout "Taking in" and pull rope along the face until I'm ankle deep in it, not daring to drop the slack in case it jams in the cre­vices below. Sweat runs down my brow from below my helmet and nips my eyes. A shout from Pete: "That's me." I check the belay. "Climb when you're ready." A couple of minutes and his face peers round the shat­tered rib. He scans the traverse and smiles a weird smile. "Killer, eh?" he says. "All good stuff," I say. He plucks the wire out of the rock, racks it, and steps round onto the face. He doesn't move across it fast, and when he reaches the last section he makes to move downwards a little before seeing it to be an impasse and trending up towards the bubbly stratum. Has this pitch been climbed before? It doesn't match the book too well, but how would you define 700 feet of rock like this in ten lines of clear prose? If not the route, is it a hard variation? or a new line? or have we strayed off Snoopy onto Inves­tigator? (It doesn't match it either.) We say little as Pete joins me on the stance. All thought has to be for the tidy managing of the ropes and the picking of some line up the bulging array of dragon-scales above us. Pete leads a 50-foot pitch that turns out more sustained and technical than its fore­runner two pitches ago — bridging with holds for the left foot but the right relying on hope and friction; running out of jugs and juglets and laying away from sharp but small cracks; finding it hard (Hard VS) but sens­ing that the climb is about to yield its last defences.
When I follow, I feel so tired in my head that I don't mind asking for advice on a few of the moves. In any case the previous 600 feet of climbing have served as a whole week-end's work-out forced into three hours, and my limbs now feel as though they could find a way up anything. The belay is a solid ledge which actually gives us room to stretch a bit and wiggle our bruised toes. Above us are heaps of scree ready to spill off the summit edges like slates off a roof. To the right, prows like gargoyles jut out from a point near the true skyline of the Buttress. Normally the situation would still be awe­some, but there's a limit to how many qualms you can feel in a day. I diagonal quickly upwards towards the prows, enjoy­ing the feel of sun-dried sound rock as though it were new-baked bread after a meal of dubious meat. My arms and back are tired — how many pull-ups could I do now? But strength is reflected back into them by the solidity of this last rock, the sunshine we're climbing into out of the cor­rie's shadow, the goal and the safety and the rest that are waiting for us just above. We virtually bracheate alone and up those final overhangs, hardly bothering about pro­tection, as though we had made it back into the ape world we evolved from, and lie down on the parched moss of the summit. Above us clouds drift past and normality flows in on us like water into thirsty soil.

The Mainreachan Buttress of Fuar Tholl.Andy Nisbet©
















David Craig©:

A potted biography of the author can be found in the October archives-'Falling about-and not laughing'.

Thanks to Andy Nisbet for the photographs of Mainreachan and Snoopy.


Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Coming Up: David Craig gets 'the fear' in the far north!

Chris Dale on the first winter ascent of Snoopy:VII.Mainreachan Buttress,Fuar Thuall:Photo Andy Nisbet©

" I call to Pete, "I can't stop here." Do I mean I want to reverse the last 25 feet? Or that I expect him miraculously to reassure me that this little perch is indeed a stance? He says, "What's it like round the corner?" I lean out from my good left-hand hold and peer round the shattered rib to my right. It is like a badly bombed cathedral, with stubs of flying buttresses far below, cracked walls angling out of sight at my eye-level, broken gutters spilling debris onto us from above and out of sight. Twenty feet below there are little ledges with some grass. But it would take Extreme. maybe impossible, climbing to reach them. The arete above me which runs down to my shattered rib might go but it would be desperate to start. I'd have to pull up on those terrifying loose pinnacles. And who knows what's up there? It's a perfect case of the devil you know. A ragged crack-line leads off on a traverse at our level. It makes sense to at least set out across the 25-foot bay of nearly vertical rock between my corner and its counterpart across the way. I shout to Pete, "I'll try to traverse from here," and set off, wishing I had something real as an anchor instead of that wee wire in shaky rock — if I fall, Pete will hold me, but if the corner collapses it could cut the ropes . . . It is so sheerly necessary to move, in the teeth of whatever risks. that the risks themselves shrink into finite factors. Each one is no less but no more dominating than the things that are going for us. We know that the line has been climbed before. by Boysen and Alcock (but which line. exactly?). We have plenty gear and we know- to use it. Above all, the flow of momentum draws us upwards, mag­netised by the grand size and shaping of this scarp that rears into the blue summer sky powered from below by memories of how often we've set off upwards and usually made it.'

This Friday...David Craig suffers dry mouth syndrome riding the bare back of a Scottish giant.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Archibald Aeneas Robertson...The First Munroist ?

Richard Gilbert on Gannett Peak in the Wind Mountains,Wyoming.
Gilbert Collection©

Richard Gilbert has been an enthusiastic climber and hill walker all his life, starting in the 1940s when his family were evacuated to North Wales.In 1961 he was President of the OUMC and ten years later became the 101st Munroist.
He taught chemistry in North Yorkshire for 30 years and ran an active mounatineering club with expeditions to many ranges including, in 1977 the first ever school climbing to the Himalalaya for which he was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship. .He wrote a monthly column for High Magazine for 15 years and has published eleven books including " Exploring the Far North West of Scotland" which won the OWG gold medal as the best guidebook in 1995. His most enjoyable activities have been family holidays in the Alps and backpacking in the Highlands with his wife Trisha.

Archibald Aeneas Robertson.


Nowadays biographers have a tendency to rubbish schoolboy heroes and expose their human failings. Thus Captain Scott, Amunsden,
Menlove Edwards, Spencer Chapman and TE Lawrence do not attract quite the same amount of admiration as of old.
Sir Hugh Munro still stands aloof, a staunch pillar of the SMC and compiler of his historic tables, yet it is common knowledge that Munro's untimely death in France in 1919 left him just two mountains short of completion. That honour was first claimed by the Reverend Archibald Aeneas Robertson in 1901 when he ascended Meall Dearg above Glen Coe, with his wife and Lord Moncrieff, and reputedly kissed the cairn first and then his wife before they consumed a quart of Ayala champagne and descended the screes.
However, doubts have been cast on Robertson's claims.  From an examination of Robertson's hill-walking logs and diaries a strange entry was discovered for August 1928 (written retrospectively a decade later): 'I did B Wyvis, taking train to Auchtemeed from Tain. I followed the usual way up but near the top it came on heavy rain and as I did not want to get soaked I turned'.
This does not mean, of course, that Robertson did not return to climb Ben Wyvis but there is no record of his having done so. Having made several appallingly dull ascents of the mountain myself, if he did not return he wins a certain amount of sympathy.
The only 3,000ft peak that Robertson had definitely not climbed by 1901 was the Inaccessible Pinnacle because, until the 1921 revisions of the Tables, the adjacent Sgurr Dearg took prominence in spite of the fact that it is 16ft lower. Records show that Robertson climbed the In Pin in 1908, well before the second Munroist, the Rever­end ARG Burn, completed in 1923.
At the turn of the century, the leisured life and social status of gentlemen of the cloth gave them opportunities to take long holidays in the hills. Robertson's motivation seems to have come more from the ascents than 'nearer my God to thee' because he frequently climbed on Sundays, defying local opinion against exertions of any kind on the Sabbath. His logs never mentioned wild life or natural history but had much to say about the contents of his lunch box.
Robertson managed to arrange three month holidays in both 1898 and 1899 during which time he polished off nearly 150 Munros using a bicycle to reach inaccessible places such as the west end of Loch Mullardoch, Monar Lodge in Glen Strathfarrar and Kinlochquoich. He was an enthusiastic member of the Cyclists Touring Club. Robertson and his second wife, Winifred, used a tandem to travel around the High­lands. Winifred was also a keen hill-walker who climbed over 200 Munros.

Hector Munro:So near yet so far!


The biography of AE Robertson gives us a fascinat­ing insight into life in the Highlands 100 years ago. Middle-class travellers could obtain accommodation in the stalkers' cottages- many now ruined- at the flick of their fingers. Thus Robertson records Mrs Scott at Alltbeithe (now a Youth Hostel) sorting and carding wool, Mrs McCook at Ben Alder cottage greeting him at the door 'smiling and neat and clean' and others at Camban, Gorton. Glendessarry, Camach. Barrisdale, Farmich and Inchrory.
Robertson tooting on a tin horn at Totaig to summon the ferryman for a crossing of Loch Duich; running through the rain from the Basteir Tooth to Sligachan for a half tumbler of whisky, an hour's sleep and a hearty dinner. He also shows signs of a mischie­vous streak, 'I came upon a party of men supposed to be mending the path, but all sound asleep. I gave a shout,and how they jumped up — it afterwards transpired that the proprietor, Sir John Ramsden, was half-expected up that day'.
Apart from his ice-axe from Simond, aneroid from Lord Kelvin, compass from Whites of Glasgow and his hobnailed boots from Wrights, he travelled light, knowing that emergency accommoda­tion was never far away. For bad weather he used a heavy German Wettermantel cape which went everywhere with him.
Having finished the Munros, Robertson took up photography and lugged a whole plate camera plus heavy wooden tripod over the hills.His photo­graphs give us a chance to see thatched cottages and wooded glens and corries as they were before the great hydro-electric schemes were built and overgrazing put a stop to regeneration.
Robertson also developed a passion for woodworking and he made the table which still stands in the CIC Hut under the North Face of Ben Nevis.
He was very active in the Scottish Rights Of Way Society and fought hard in the 1930s to secure access to the important Coulin Pass in Torridon.
Robertson joined the SMC in 1893, was President from 1929 to 1932 and was made an Honorary Member in 1953. He died, aged 88, in 1958. Robertson's association with the SMC was nothing like as close as Sir Hugh Munro's, indeed for many years he never attended a meet. Sir Hugh, however, worshipped the SMC and on his election to President in 1894 he said that he held the honour in higher esteem than if he had been made Prime Minister of Great Britain.


Ben Wyvis: A ridge too far ?


Recommended further reading: The First Munroist,AE Robertson:His life, Munros and Photographs.
Peter Drummond & Ian Mitchell.
Ernest Press.




Richard Gilbert©: First published in High:09-93

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Coming Up: Richard Gilbert and the mystery of the first Munro completist.

Lagangarbh: The Scottish Mountaineering Club hut in Glencoe.Heart of Munro bagging country.

" Nowadays biographers have a tendency to rubbish schoolboy heroes and expose their human failings. Thus Captain Scott,Amunsden, Menlove Edwards, Spencer Chapman and TE Lawrence do not attract quite the same amount of admiration as of old.
Sir Hugh Munro still stands aloof, a staunch pillar of the SMC and compiler of his historic tables, yet it is common knowledge that Munro's untimely death in France in 1919 left him just two mountains short of completion. That honour was first claimed by the Reverend Archibald Aeneas Robertson in 1901 when he ascended Meall Dearg above Glen Coe, with his wife and Lord Moncrieff, and reputedly kissed the cairn first and then his wife before they consumed a quart of Ayala champagne and descended the screes.'

This Friday...Richard Gilbert and the mystery surrounding AA Robertson's claim to have been the first man the complete the Munros.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Obsession

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 rne 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 belicose 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'.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Coming Up: Terry Gifford realises a mid-Wales Obsession

Cader Magic! : Photo James Dexter©

" 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.'

This Friday,Terry Gifford describes an obsession....with Obsession !

Friday, 7 May 2010

Between the ridge and the beaten path


The East Face of Bristly Ridge: Al Leary©

So often we keep to the well known ways; so infrequently do we stray off them. On many occasions I had passed by, going up or down Bristly Ridge in summer and winter, or crossing the slopes of Cwm Tryfan in fell races, but never had I set foot upon the cliffs that rise from the screes to the ridge. Summer was drawing to a close and time was running short for completing field work for the Ogwen guidebook. We had given Tryfan a good going over, but the nearby cliffs of the East Face of Bristly Ridge had so far escaped scrutiny. It wouldn’t do to leave a whole crag unchecked, so when the opportunity came on a warm September day, off I went; ‘I’ being the operative word. Guidebook work is an often solitary business. Mention Tremadog or the Pass, Gogarth or Pen Trwyn, and you’ll find no shortage of willing companions, but suggest the Devil’s Kitchen Cliffs, Gallt yr Ogof, or other unfashionable venues, and you’ll find they’ve all got vitally important tasks that can’t possibly wait another day to be attended to. So it was that I ascended the rock staircase to Cwm Bochlwyd, cool in the morning shadow. Minutes later I was perspiring in the sunlight, the dark waters on my right unruffled by any breeze as I climbed towards Bwlch Tryfan. In preparation for the day’s work I had read up the climbs, and was looking forward to getting acquainted with them.

The development of the Bristly Ridge cliffs is compressed into an unusually short time line. Surprisingly, there is no record of the early pioneers, like Thomson, visiting the cliffs, and no routes were done prior to 1936, when Skyline Buttress was climbed by Taylor and Jenkins. Soon the Second World War intervened, curtailing climbing opportunities for most of the area’s activists. On 22nd August 1944, Steuart Palmer wrote in the Helyg logbook: First visit to Helyg for nearly 5 years. The exigencies of war and foreign service responsible. With John Bechervaise, two weeks of intensive new routing followed.  In addition to new climbs on Craig yr Ysfa and Gallt yr Ogof, they made a thorough exploration of the Bristly Ridge cliffs, naming the prominent features and climbing all the obvious lines.

 Mike Bailey on the impressive final pitch of Great Tower Buttress.

Fast forward sixty-three years, during which the climbs were described in several editions of the guide, yet I had heard no one speak with any knowledge of them. I arrived with an open mind, though my expectation was of old-style routes, holds smooth and rounded from nailed boot traffic, much as the Tryfan classics. Like the East Face of Tryfan, the Bristly Ridge Face is confusing on a first visit. Among the mass of rock ribs no helpful landmarks stand out. I read and reread the old guidebook description, glancing repeatedly down at the text, then back up at the cliff. Finally I found a reference point in the two massive chockstones of Big Boulder Gully. Confident at last of where I was, I worked across left to the foot of Central Gully, to find Great Tower Buttress, my first objective.

I could see what I took to be the “tough crack” of pitch 2 some way up. At close quarters it did indeed look tough for Severe, and steep too. From its depths an alloy hex winked at me, bereft of its cord. I felt an irrational affection for this artefact, confirming by its presence that others had been this way, but it was beyond the reach of my groping fingers, too deeply trapped in its fastness. With some regret I abandoned it to its lonely vigil. At first the crack gives solid hand jams, then widens, with holds inside, but a loose chockstone needs careful handling. A few strenuous pulls and I’m on a broad grass ledge. By now it’s dawning on me things aren’t quite as I expected: the grass is pristine; there are no bucket steps worn in it; none of the holds showed any trace of wear, still less polish. I sit down, scribbling notes, enjoying the sun’s warmth through my shirt. My train of thought is distracted by the voices of a party on the path below, heading up towards Glyder Fach summit. We exchange hollered greetings, then press on our separate ways. Easier climbing leads to the upper rocks below the Great Tower, where things look steeper. A shallow groove offers the best way, so I bridge up it via a jammed flake to a bulge. It fits the guidebook description, though you’d never know anyone had climbed here. The rock is sound, its texture rough and unmarked, and by now it has absorbed the heat of the sun. I’m warming to this route. I swing left below the bulge onto a ledge, and another groove appears; mossy at first, then more good moves take me up to a grass ledge below the Great Tower itself. The old guide talked of a crack splitting its face, and I had pictured a soaring hand crack, a longer version of pitch 2, but it’s nothing like that. Instead a wide groove, stuffed full of wedged blocks, leads up the Tower face. Glancing down, I realise the exposure has crept up on me, but the blocks are solid, and with a few steep pulls I’m up, almost on the crest of Bristly Ridge, jotting down notes while the memory is fresh. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a very good route. The old guide gave it one star. I’m inclined to be more generous, but defer judgement until I’ve seen the other routes. Loads more to do, so down Central Gully to find Two Tower Buttress over to the right. It’s a bit disappointing after the last route, but the finish is good and steep, probably harder than the V Diff given in the old guide.

Down again and right to Giant’s Steps Buttress, the first climb as you approach from Bwlch Tryfan. The Giant’s Steps are well named. The first two pitches climb huge rock steps, the lower of which is a flight of smaller steps. Once again the rock texture amazes me. It’s like drawing your fingertips over the teeth of a sharp file. I can almost feel its coarseness biting into the rubber of my old Scarpas. Pitch 3 is steep and cheeky for the grade; another one for the notebook.

Next a look at Dissected Buttress, a short climb in the Big Boulder Gully area. The write up in the Helyg log had caught my eye: Palmer and Bechervaise enthused about it, so a close look seemed in order. It’s easy to find – just right of the two big boulders is a tall buttress with a flake leaning against it. You start up the narrowing chimney between the flake and the buttress, move onto the front of the flake, and climb up to the exposed ledge at its top. Above, a crack rises up, with good holds until it opens to an offwidth. The angle lies back a little, so it doesn’t look too unfriendly. I can still feel the warmth of the afternoon sun, but any sensory pleasure is cancelled by the hunger pangs gnawing at my stomach. A few moves up, and helpful holds inside the crack run out, so it’s down to classic offwidth technique: one foot jammed across the crack, knee and cheek doing what they can, left arm barring from palm to elbow, and shuffle upwards. Once more the rock texture is my best friend. Small face holds for my right hand and foot give welcome assistance. It’s warm work. I flop over the rounded top, and know straight away it’s a little gem, noting mentally to give it a star.       

Just Skyline Buttress to check out now, but first some food and a few minutes to relax and take in the view. The long cwm drops away below me in tiers of rock and shelves of heather, now in full purple. Although it’s a weekday the brilliant weather has brought people out. A large party sunbathes down at the bwlch; shirt-sleeved walkers pass below on their way to the plateau, and from above on Bristly Ridge, disembodied voices drift down in the still air. I look across at Tryfan’s southern aspect: not the familiar three peaked profile, but a ragged cone, like a decaying pyramid ravaged by the desert winds.
The great corner on pitch three of the entertaining 'severe', Skyline Buttress: Mike Bailey©

Back to work. I know roughly where the route goes but the start takes some finding. It’s a grassy chimney and doesn’t look inviting. Consign that to history. A short rib above it looks more promising, and leads to the foot of a steep slab, unblemished by scratches or other evidence of use. It’s like climbing on an undiscovered cliff, and I wonder just how many repeats these routes have had; it can’t be many, despite their friendly grades. Another rib brings me to the final tower, rising abruptly from a grass terrace. I climb over blocks into a broad groove that funnels to a niche. The right wall drops plumb to the terrace; the holds are good though the growing exposure lends a serious feel to the pitch. Up above it’s all steepness and bulges, but out to the left, the wall of the groove eases back to a slab. Enticing holds lead me on; one delicate step and I’m sitting on a fine perch. If I wasn’t climbing alone I’d stop and belay here. You could continue, but it’s too fine a spot not to savour for a while, and share the enjoyment as your belayer moves up to join you. I’m anxious to get moving; time is getting on, but I make myself stop to assess the quality of this climb, realising I have enjoyed it as much as Great Tower Buttress four hours earlier. It has all the right qualities: good line, good rock, good positions, sustained climbing. It’s got to be two stars for both routes. I write it down in case my resolve wavers later at the keyboard. A sudden shiver focuses my attention on the celestial chronometer, now dipping close to the Nant Ffrancon skyline. Its warmth has gone. I zip up my fleece and climb the upper slab to the steep nose and final sharp arete connecting the buttress to the mountain side. The direct approach rebuffs my first attempt, but on the left things are more straightforward, I’m up, and the day’s work is nearly done.

Down again, I ease off my old Scarpas. Inside my sensible shoes my feet expand as I mark lines on the crag photo. Shadows are lengthening and now there’s a chill in the air. West facing slopes bathe in the pink evening light that marks the end of a day of perfect autumn weather. I shoulder my sack and jog down to the bwlch. Warm again, I descend into Cwm Bochlwyd, turning over the day’s work in my mind. The cliff offers a handful of good middle-grade climbs, which, evidence suggests, have been largely neglected. The long approach may not appeal to some; on the other hand, the cliff’s nearness to Tryfan’s East Face and Glyder Fach’s Main Cliff gives scope for a variety of mountain itineraries. I reflect on what the future may hold for this crag, whose acquaintance I have made in the course of a September day. Will better information and a crag topo attract more people here, and if so, will something have been lost? I can’t answer that. Only time will tell ?
Author Mike Bailey on pitch three of The Great Tower Buttress










Mike Bailey© 2010
A potted biog of the author can be found in the October archives 'Never on a Sunday'

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Coming up: Mike Bailey rediscovers some lost Welsh Classics !

The third pitch of the magnificent Great Tower Buttress: Mike Bailey©

This Friday....Mike Bailey-author of the soon to be published Climbers Club guide to Ogwen,describes one memorable day when, in the interests of guidebook research, he soloed every mountaineering route on the forgotten East Face of Bristly Ridge and discovered some absolute classics which have totally fallen off the modern climber's radar.
One of these routes...Great Tower Buttress- is possibly one of THE great mountaineering routes of north Wales and probably
deserves to be ranked with Main Wall, Creagh Ddu Wall and The Cracks as one of the area's classic Hard Severes. In Between the ridge and the beaten path Mike offers a seductive account of just why those of a mountaineering bent should consider this alternative venue to the honey-pot mountain crags of north Wales.