Friday, 4 February 2011

Too Cold for Crow

 Arenig Fawr in its winter raiment seen from the West

After a little time,meeting two women I asked them
the name of the mountain to the south, "Arennig Vawr
 they replied or something like it. Presently meeting four men,
I put the same question to the foremost, a stout, burly,
intelligent-looking fellow, of about fifty.
He gave me the same name as the women. 
I asked him if anybody lived upon it
"No," said he, "too cold for man."
`Fox?" said I.
"No! too cold for fox."
"Crow?" said I.
"No, too cold for crow, crow would be starved upon it

George Borrow Wild Wales, 1862.

As the crow flies,if the crow won't take advice, Arenig Fawr is 15 miles due miles due south from my House. Driving, it's more like 30 and it plays hide-and-seek. Between Nebo and Pentrefoelas it stands in absolute independence to my right. I lose it near Ysbyty Ifan after a brief full-frontal flash. As I climb up on to the Migneint it moves off left and ducks behind its small but shapely consort, Arenig Fach. Looping down to what used to be the highest filling station in Wales it gets behind my back. As I descend into the Tryweryn valley it's straight ahead and then it's off to the right again. As I park above Llyn Celyn it hides its head behind a massive shoulder. I've taken you in by the back way and by car. It's an approach light years apart from that of earlier travellers who put their admiration of the hill on record. It's about 25 years since I first went up the Arenig.At the time it's possible that the only thing I'd heard about it was that there's a memorial tablet at the summit to the eight Amercans who died there when a Flying Fortress crashed in 1943.
My map showed neither right of way nor footpath. anywhere on the mountain so I took the entry nearly everybody takes the gated waterworks track serving the old embankment of Llyn Arenig Fawr. On a fine day this embankment is a fine place to loiter. On a bad day the old cabin close beneath is an equally delightful place to loiter. This cabin is now maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association and perfectly appointed to sleep two or three small dwarfs.

The Arenig bothy 'perfectly appointed to sleep two or three small dwarfs'.

As I came within sight of the lake on that first visit my attention was taken by the cliff above the far shore. At that distance I judged it about 300ft high over a frontage of more than a quar­ter-mile. Terraced, broken, vegetated, but show­ing very steep rock. The half-dozen parallel ledges of the lower part seemed strikingly continuous, like a bedded formation, unusual. Nevertheless, this rock looked attractive and the headwall showed some impressive towers. That was the main face- the east face. Round to the left there was a south face of clean-looking slabs. Twenty minutes later, following the stream up to the shoulder, a splendid zigzag crack suddenly opened in the lower wall of the slabs. From higher still I was able to see a continuation weakness leading to a final chimney, almost roofed over by a gi­gantic block. I knew then that sooner or later I'd have to get to grips with the place.

A bit of time went by before I read in Moun­tain that Martin Boysen had made a route there. No details were supplied. I walked up the hill a few times, reminding myself I'd better get on the cliff pretty soon. I checked guidebooks and made enquiries. Finally I began to climb there, recruiting in turn my brother, Neville, Ken Richards, Duncan Boston and Dave Wrennall. A bit more time had passed. Somehow, we'd reached 1994 before I got going. A quarter-cen­tury had slipped away whilst I'd been sitting read­ing.
I'd call the cliff Simdde Ddu. (Say it: Shim-the Dee, with a short e in the middle; something like that). This name appears against it on the 1:25,000 but it just means Black Chimney and refers to an obvious feature. I suppose I ought to say Craig Simdde Ddu but I'll use an English climber's neat if illogical contraction.
I'll describe the crag briefly and I'll start with the south face. The slabs and walls around the zigzag crack are divided into three tiers by two heather ramps. These fine slabs terminate on the left in a squalid chimney. Left of this an undercut buttress holding a central heather field advances. From a distance this buttress seems hardly worth notice but it offers some amenable climbs. The south face, then, has a main slab area and a ter­minal buttress.
Across to the right from the foot of the zigzag crack a ledge runs up against the ridge dividing the two main faces. This is a strategic position. From there we've watched peregrine making swift passes along the front of the cliff. Curi­ously, growing from a crack at ground level we discovered raspberry canes, a long way from home, descended perhaps from the survivors of some Victorian picnic basket. Beneath this ledge, later, we found the carcass of a fox. Too cold for fox? Straight overhead there's an impressive bulg­ing buttress. If we could have climbed it, unlikely, I could have written a bizarre description: 'Start between a dead fox and a raspberry bush'.
Glance around the nose and you'll find you're already at mid-height on the main face. First there's a broad vegetated depression. Right again, high up, a tower stands out. It is, in fact, a colos­sal detached pillar balanced on the face and I'll call it the Trojan Horse. (You could hide under it, it might be movable, it's beneath the final wall).
I won't attempt to describe the approaches ex­cept to say that it's been reached both from the present viewpoint and from the foot of the east face. The Horse is perched on a clean steep wall, slanting up leftwards.
Beyond this area the most obvious feature is the wide amphitheatre towards the right-hand end of the cliff. On walking up to it you find that the cirque of rock surrounding it, barely a rope-length high, shows two simple lines. At the top is Simdde Ddu itself, a vertical vegetated cleft blocked by a huge capstone. It's a bit like TwIl Du. The left wall presents a slanting crack satis­fying the main specification for a four star route. .(The climb must be flanked by unbroken mar­gins of more difficult rock as broad as they are high).
See 'Heart of Darkness'

The author on the first ascent of Left Aisle: Simddu Ddu.

From the foot of this crack walk across left to the edge and look round the corner. An exposed and attractive rock ledge, reminiscent of the vie aux bicylettes on the Grepon, extends for a rope length. Above is the Topless Tower, barely 80ft high but vertical and not giving much away. North of the amphitheatre, high up, there's another band of clean steep rock. However, I'll suspend this survey there.
Climbing on Simdde Ddu, two sensations have contended in me. First, a time warp has shifted me a century back to the beginnings of the sport. The thread of path along the base of the east face looks like the work of sheep. We've seen no trace of litter, no print of boot. Sitting on a ledge in the amphitheatre on a rainy day, the curtain of water from the overhangs falls well clear of us, it was easy to imagine Owen Glynn Jones scrambling wetly up to join us. The ledge on the top of the Trojan Horse so delighted us that, idiots, we built a small cairn there. It will have to be dismantled. Against this, there's been the con­viction that countless climbers have laid hands on the crag. A peg in the zigzag crack — surely a listed piton until the explorer steps forward? — stated a case. There was something that looked like a threaded sling in a difficult position on the steep little dome down by the stream. The cliff felt haunted. Surely this groove ought to hold a clump or two of heather; this scar might show where a climber removed a loose flake; the holds on this slab come too obviously to hand; these stones, overgrown by heather, might once have been a cairn.
This is a detective story. We'd had some great days but now I wanted information. Charles Evans, I'm told, started scrambling around here and developed agility by evading Welsh Black bulls, not in evidence nowadays, on the lower slopes. In 1960 Pyatt listed unexplored cliffs on the hill yet in 1962 Poucher said that Simdde Ddu is'the occasional resort of the rock-climber'. Which rock-climber? I couldn't ask Poucher now. There was a legend linking Nat Allen with the place. When I'd asked him he'd agreed that there's climbing there and he'd agreed that it hadn't been written up. He'd seemed disinclined to say more and I'd not pressed him, there being no hurry. Now I couldn't ask Nat. Boysen's climb I could identify from a verbal. Derek Walker had been mentioned. I'd chase him up later.

Back to the Sumner household. Ten years earlier Fritz hadn't been able to help. He listened in silence while I reminded him that guidebook boundaries give him the hill. He seemed less than delighted. A snowstorm of new route descrip­tions from all over Mid-Wales was falling on to him. He thought the area ought perhaps to be included with the Moelwynion. Finally he came up with a name and address. The information. At this point I made a disastrous mistake.
The address to hand was incomplete, no country or postcode and three places of that name in two counties. I was in a hurry anyway, wanting to talk, and I knew the name. I bluffed my way through a string of unlisted numbers (what's all the secrecy about, over there in the ghetto?), got through the cloak of smoke around the movements of members of the Guides' Ma­fia ("He might be in the Alps. His wife might be with him." "He might be back this weekend. Or next weekend.") and reached Terry Taylor.
Terry Taylor was puzzled. He hadn't done any climbing on the Arenigs. Then he mentioned that there'd been another Terry Taylor hanging around Llanberis, though he didn't know him. ("You might get him through The Heights. Or through Pete's Eats.") I tried to get things straight. Was it one of his routes I'd done in the quarries? Probably, but they'd both made new routes there. I pro­cured more unlisted numbers, consulted com­munity leaders in the ghetto ("I think I know this guy by sight. I don't know who he climbs with." "Haven't seen him around for a while. He sounded Irish.") and reached more dead ends.
Back to the Sumners. This time I got Jill. She was pretty sure where he was located and thought he worked in some sort of Centre, maybe an instructor. Now that was a network I still knew something about. My name might even be remembered. Distinguished author of the first of the Ladybird Books on Outdoor Education. There are lots of Mountain Centres in the area in question and I drew a few blanks. And then I was talking to a lady who gave me a number. He was at another kind of Centre, a Health Cen­tre. He'd be away for a week but I'd hunted down the ghost of Simdde Ddu, Dr Terry Taylor.

Terry Taylor supplied details of 20 routes, ranging from V Diff to E4, led by himself and Jason Cooper, from 1990 onwards. He also drew my attention to an article about the mountain by John Appleby. This had appeared two years pre­viously "in another magazine" as they say in the trade. A nice piece, I had to admit. He'd antici­pated me, both in the climbing and the writing. And my feelings about the climbing were copies of Appleby's and he'd done his homework on J D Innes, on whom I'd consulted shelf loads of books and whom I have to produce as a key witness.
Still, I'd been enquiring before he arrived. I knew what had happened since he left, this is my story.
I found Appleby with only the obligatory de­lay. ("John here. Can't talk right now but leave your number and I'll get back." Then a little melody; then the pips.) When we spoke I started to introduce myself and he reminded me he'd called me some years earlier about an article I'd written for this magazine. He came across as a romantic, engaging but hard to pin down. No, he hadn't any written descriptions. He hadn't named all his climbs. He might not be able to mark them up on a photograph. But he could point them out on the spot and, come to think of it, he'd like to get up there again. He'd done about 10 routes there in the late '80s.

John Appleby on the first ascent of Viridian Groove (HVS-5b US 5.10) Arenig Fawr

I went further back. The ex-BMC Derek Walker gave me useful directions allowing me to by-pass the Derek Walker who works for a climbing books' distributor and find the Derek Walker who's written a guide to the Pyrenees. No problem there. The routes, from the early '80s, were named, described and dated in a hut log book. Hard evidence. Then, as we got down to detail, we worked out that we were on an­other hill, Arenig Fach.
I considered my next step. I could convene a symposium at my house or organize a meet at'. the cliff. However, there remained the tantalis­ing mystery of the Arenig File, in the custody of Fritz Sumner. The Climbers' Club dinner was imminent. Did I have the muscle to ask the Presi­dent to instruct the Area Guidebook Editor to tell the Mid-Wales Guidebook Writer to let me see the file? Or, while everyone was in Llanberis, ought I to go housebreaking in Staffordshire? A chilling thought stopped me; suppose I simply asked Fritz for it and he eagerly complied but refused to take it back? It was the news I wanted, not the responsibilities.

The Arenig File. In the event it added noth­ing startling. So here is what I know and what I guess, there are over 30 routes on the moun­tain. Two of these are on Daear Fawr on the
north end of the spur but they've been ceded to peregrines. There's a route on Y Castell, the big escarpment to the south of Simdde Ddu, and there are a couple behind the east spur. There are about 10 post-modernist pieces on and near Craig Bryn Dyfrgi, the outcrop by the stream; these reach up to E4 and perhaps 80ft. There are at least a dozen routes on the south face of Simdde Ddu at all standards up to E3, some of­fering three pitches. There are only four or five climbs on the east face so far. All the extremes were first climbed by Taylor or Cooper. At least half the routes at HVS and below, known to Appleby, Cooper, Taylor and myself, may have had earlier ascents. Boysen's is the earliest yet attributed. However, the file is still open and in­vestigations continue. It shouldn't be impossible to find Nat's companions on any excursions there. There are one or two other leads. And any gear freak could glance at the two or three old pegs in place and say: "These pegs weren't placed be­fore such a year because these pegs weren't made before such a year."
Some will say this enquiry is against my own interests since I'm losing the delicious sense of mystery I enjoyed. I can't accept that. Years ago, when I was working in outdoor education, one of our parties brought back from Tryfan an as­tonishingly delicate barbed and tanged flint ar­rowhead, spotted emerging from the eroded bank of the path between Llyn Bochlwyd and Bwlch Tryfan. The County Archaeologist classi­fied and dated it at a glance: Conygar Hill type, about 1800 BC. All I'm asking for is the name of the man who was dropping gear on Tryfan 3,800 years ago. Oh, and from what hut was he oper­ating? And what club was he in? Then the mys­tery thickens.
The great thing about climbing there is the regal position, as open a view as from any high crag in Wales. Some early visitors made particu­lar note of the hill and the reason is obvious. In central Snowdonia the road walker sees a sum­mit for half an hour and then it's shut out by its satellites; without a good map he couldn't say which is the highest. To pass the Arenig, how­ever, on foot or by pony and trap by the normal approaches from east or west must have made a long day; the mountain rising in imposing auster­ity beyond seas of moorland, drawing closer very slowly, hanging on interminably behind the trav­eller's back. The very first tourists, heading for Snowdon to Cader Idris, usually by-passed this area. Pennay and Fenton simply name the hill as a feature in a distant skyline. In 1788, the year of his alarming adventure on the Eastern Terrace on Clogwyn du'r Arddu, the Rev William Bingley remarks on it as seen from the Rhinogion.
Later travellers left testimonials. On a dark night in the autumn of 1910, out of funds and exhausted, James Dickson Innes arrived at the isolated inn then existing at Rhyd y Fen. The inn­keeper, Washington Davies, fed him and cared for him on trust. Innes saw the mountain next morning and it hit him like a blow. He was only 23 but already knew that time wasn't on his side. He had tuberculosis. He returned early next spring and persuaded his friend Augustus John, already a celebrity, to come up to see what he'd found. As a base they rented a cottage at Nant­ddu, a mile to the west for £10 a year. An Aus­tralian colleague, Derwent Lees, subsequently arrived to strengthen the team. This was a nov­elty, the Slade's first expedition sieges Arenig Fawr. As was the fashion then, the three paint­ers had been taught that the big scene was the South of France, the colour, the light. Over the next two or three years, each in his own way, they tried to fix this moody northern hill.
This whole episode is extraordinary but it's mistaken to picture these hard drinking woman­ising Bohemians holed up in monastic seclusion. The tide of local economy hadn't yet ebbed from the valley. The long-dismantled railway was still running and there was a halt at Arenig. There was the inn nearby. John had a special interest in gypsies and a craving to paint incompletely dressed gypsy girls. He already spoke Romani, giving the three artists an entree with the Cwm Tryweryn band so that they were able to camp with them. A strange assortment of visitors came to Nant-ddu. They included John's companion Dorelia, with some of his six young sons. Euphemia Lamb — Lobelia, to her associates in the bisexual square-dance forming up around the early Bloomsbury Group — a beautiful girl with whom Innes had walked from Paris to the Pyr­enees, stayed for a while. In 1912 Innes buried her letters in a silver casket in the summit cairn. (Sit down: the old cairn was scattered and pul­verised in the air crash.) Derwent Lees com­peted gallantly in all activities. He was a less gifted artist and must have been cruelly handicapped on this rough terrain by his wooden leg but it's said that he was just as successful with women.... interesting. The cottage itself was demolished quite recently and now there's only a Eurobarn and a long-deserted chalet at this forlorn spot.

For John and for Lees, this was a happy inter­val in their lives. For Innes it was the last chance. He looked at the hill in all conditions, often com­pleting two paintings a day, oils on small wooden
panels. I've seen none of the originals, now widely dispersed, but I have a sense of them from re­productions. He admired Constable, the attack of Turner, Japanese mountain prints. He learned something from Cotman and Wilson Steer. But then, surprisingly, he brought to bear on this cool hill very hot colour, as in Derain and Matisse. No clear debt emerges. By a route of his own he found a style somewhere between Post-Im­pressionist and Fauvist, crude, brilliant, intense, firmly designed. No hill in Britain has had so large a legacy from a single hand. 'Mynydd Arenig re­mained ever his sacred mountain and the slopes of Migneint his spiritual home', John wrote later.

Augustus John: Arenig Fawr

"Ah, Innes," my friend A K Richards, former head of an art faculty, murmurs reflectively; "an interesting minor figure." He's forgotten I do reassessments. 'Innes's Arenig scenes must be counted among the greatest achievements of Welsh art', a Phaidon Companion states: 'This in­tense working period has been cited as one of the most important in the development of modernism in British painting', another Art Dic­tionary says. Consider that: Modernism in Brit­ish painting began on Arenig Fawr. By the winter of 1913 Innes was gravely ill and went to Mo­rocco (where, desperate, he experimented with startling tobaccos) but returned to die in Eng­land. He was 27. 'When Innes died and the focus of John's interest shifted, something went out of English painting that left it colder and more pro­saic', Rothenstein wrote.
The elasticity of time defeats me. It can't just be counted in years, it stretches and contracts with change or the absence of change. A quar­ter-century since I saw the hill and a quarter-century again to the Boeing crash. Go back 30 years more and Innes was there. That's the odd one, an interval spanning a time when few mo­tor vehicles had been seen in these parts and an era of huge aircraft.
Ten years earlier, usually snubbed because he shows no trace of feeling and no sense of hu­mour, W G Fearnsides was examining the hill as closely as any climber, any artist, any shepherd. He saw through the hill. His paper of 1905, 'On the Geology of Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant', must have cost months of arduous and solitary work, patiently distinguishing volcanic intrusions from the basic material. That bedrock is so dis­tinctive in type that the oldest in the succession of Ordovician rocks in Wales became known as the Arenig Series.
Go back another half century and George Borrow, the one man Inquisition, is loping along the road at his customary five miles an hour, in­terrogating everybody, arguing, scaring the wits out of the locals. Miraculously he closes the gap, admiring the spectacular isolation of the hill ex­actly as we do and talking to us as directly as a close friend. Having satisfied himself on identity he remembered that he'd seen it described in an old Welsh poem as 'Arennig ddiffaith', barren Arenig. 'Arennig is certainly barren enough', he reflected, 'for there is neither tree nor shrub upon it, but there is something majestic in its huge bulk. Of all the hills I saw in Wales none made a greater impression on me'.

 Harold Drasdo: first published in High-September 96