Thursday, 24 March 2011

Angel Pavement and other stories

Dave Williams on the long and virtually unprotected 150'first pitch of Angel Pavement.

In 1946 I happened to have the privilege of studying at Exeter University on a short course, seconded from the army. As I had done since my 13th birthday I took every possible opportunity to climb and one of the best occasions was at Whitsuntide when I arranged to stay at the Manchester University Mountaineering Club hut, Tyn y Weirglodd, in Waenfawr. As the sole member of the Exeter University Mountaineering Club, which I had just formed, Ken Pearson, Johnnie Lowe and Teddy Brown welcomed me along with many other MUMC members. On the Saturday, with some trepidation, I made my first foray onto Clogwyn du’r Arddu with Teddy, when we did Longland’s Route. It was wet and I remember taking off my nailed boots, and hanging them round my neck by their laces, to do ‘Faith and Friction’ slab in socks and being very worried that I would drop them as they impeded my movements and swung about hiding the holds. I wasted no time in putting them back on despite Teddy’s complaints when I stood on his shoulders to start the overhang on the next pitch. We had been watched from the shore of Llyn du’r Arddu by a party, which included Peter Harding, Mike Ward and John Barford who had already done Central Rib (which had been put up only a month earlier by Arnold Carsten and G G Macphee) and Curving Crack. I heard later that they had remarked on our slow progress, wondering whether we would need rescuing, but Peter had re assured his companions by pointing out that the leader involved was his “oppo” and therefore could not fail!
Next day the rain really poured down and we climbed Central Ridge on Llechog, which despite being graded Difficult, struck us as being as hard as the climb of the previous day. In the morning the weather was better and three of us made our way to Castell Cidwm, by fording the ice-cold stream behind the hut. We attacked the cliff to the right of the gully, removing a lot of vegetation but not making much progress. Eventually we gave it best and Ken Pearson, the leader, descended with the protection of a peg, hammered in at his high point. We swam in the blue watered quarry pool and then, to warm up again soloed the gully and made our way over to Craig y Bera. The crag of the kite. It is a cliff of romantic ridges a little like Great Gable, but a jerrybuilt version and we remarked that there were no birds, probably scared away by the threat of the unseen predators. Here Johnnie Lowe had his eye on a possible new route and we quickly romped up a series of easy slabs, in four pitches. The overhanging wall defining the right edge of the slabs gradually encroached until we were forced onto the brink of a vertiginous sweep of vegetated rock which drew our eyes to a scruffy gully bed and the plentiful reddish scree beyond. Above us the slab tilted up and became a narrow wall, barely ten feet wide, giving little scope for choice of line. As Teddy and I huddled on a small ledge whilst Johnny addressed the problem the nagging wind grew stronger and the air colder, so we decided to abandon the project and descended what we had climbed, intending to return.
So it is quite clear that Angel Pavement really belonged to Johnnie Lowe. He was one of the ‘Atherton Brothers’ with several good gritstone routes on the Peak District’s northern edges to his credit, and a younger contemporary of Arthur Birtwisle, who had led Dinas Mot’s Diagonal Route in 1938. In 1942 Johnnie’s Manx Wall on Clogwyn Du Ymhen y Glyder was an outstanding find and, a year later he excelled himself by leading Travesty, now graded E1 on that imposing cliff.

Tony Moulam in his Angel Pavement year-1946-playing around on the Capel Curig Pinnacles: AJ Moulam collection

But back to Tyn y Weirglodd, where I arrived for a second visit on 5 July. This time there was a strong presence of MAM members and Teddy Brown, N A Lewtas and I led various parties up the East Arete of Y Garn.  Still needing some exercise, and with the Craig y Bera Slab willing us to climb it, Teddy suggested we had another look at the route so we ran down to the road and toiled up the treadmill scree to the foot of our climb. The slab was a delight easily followed on good holds and we soon reached our high point of the previous attempt. Here there was a fine securely wedged chockstone in the wide crack to the right of the line. Above us it began to look serious; the slab narrowed and steepened into a wall and the flat holds forced me out to the left, to enjoy the suddenly revealed exposure over the scarp edge. It had all seemed light hearted to here but with nails skating on the glassy rock and fingers desperately searching for non-existent incut holds I suddenly realised that I had to climb. Luckily, after a few worryingly precarious moves things soon eased and I followed a blocky staircase to a small ledge, where I tied myself on, with a sense of achievement and relief.
I called to Teddy to follow me and he moved up rapidly to the crux, paused for a few seconds and then surged up as he found the key. A cold gust of air came up from our left and so I urged him on up the next pitch. The holds all seemed to be wrong, undercut in an awkward way, but his height told and he soon had his hands on a sizeable flake and was able to continue quickly, mainly up grass to a corner and a traverse left beneath steep walls to reach another ledge. The rest was easy broken rock and I soon stood at the top of my first Welsh first ascent!
Naturally we celebrated our success and so it was noon next day before we set off for another foray on Clogwyn du’r Arddu. We followed the Ranger path and enjoyed a belated lunch above the Far West Buttress. The sky was cloudless and we were soon joined by scavenging seagulls that must have spotted that there was food to be had from several miles away! Eventually we abandoned our comfortable rest and scrambled down the Western Terrace en route for Bow Shaped Slab. The reprinted interim guide by J M Edwards and J E Q Barford said it was only Vb, well protected and not such a serious undertaking as the other routes we had not yet done on the West Buttress. The climbs on the East Buttress were supposed to be much more strenuous and difficult, and we did not dream of tackling them.
Bow’s first short pitch gave us no trouble, nor did the second, after we had succeeded in lassoing the spike. The book said that there were two ways of tackling the next stretch and as the one recommended as normal (round the corner into the crack) was very greasy I took the direct option and after a few awkward moves continued up grassy ledges to the stance. Another long easy traverse on more grass ledges below Sheaf and Narrow to the edge of Great went well enough, as did the little crack, awkward at the top, to a small triangular mud stance on the arĂȘte. I couldn’t find the “further belays up some yards if wanted” so made do with the three small and loose spikes poking out of the grass. Teddy joined me and we had a few confused moments as we changed places but he eventually claimed that he was comfortable and satisfied that I could proceed. Away to the left the Bow dropped sheerly to the verdant ledges of our traverse and I obeyed the guidebook’s instructions to move ten feet left, I found myself perched on an uncomfortably sloping foothold in the middle of this steep and exposed slab. Above the right hand end of my ledge was a series of three widely spaced quartz rimmed pockets, then a holdless wrinkled wall leading to an apparent sharp edged handhold, the key to the upper slab.

Dave Williams sets off on pitch two of Angel Pavement

I took some time over the inevitable practice moves before I was able to step confidently up the pockets and stand with a toe jammed in the uppermost one. The problem was now clear. There were no more holds and however much I strained upwards I could not curl my fingers over the tantalisingly close edge. I was tiring now and the fifteen feet between me and Teddy seemed an awful long way.
Teddy is much taller than me so I said that I thought he might like to take a look as the book implied the pitch to be easier for those with a long reach. He demurred for some reason (possibly because I had made everything look difficult) but instead urged me to jump for it. I considered this idea for only a moment as the rope looked very thin and I remembered that our belays were all loose anyway.
The light was also beginning to go so I talked myself into abandoning our attempt. I wasted no more time, moving smoothly back to the belay and continuing down the crack we had climbed so long ago.
I tied on, made myself comfortable and called for Teddy to abseil, to save time. “How”, was his response so from my remote position I described the classical method and with little more ado he joined me. Perhaps the situation had speeded the learning process as he certainly cottoned on quickly. On the way up we had noticed various spikes and bollards decorated with black and rotting slings. We found later that they had been used in retreat by Arnold Carsten’s party whilst attempting the climb after he had fallen clutching a broken hold from my highest point. He had turned his second upside down but the belays held and after righting they had escaped from the cliff in the way we now proposed.
We had 160 feet of rope so the second pitch of 90 feet was going to cause trouble unless we could find an intermediate belay. We had only one spare sling so, as I gave Teddy a tight rope, he collected what he could on the way down. He stopped frequently and delved into the vegetation and earth in an effort to find a suitable spike. At last he found a useful prospect and started to exhume it. I heard the thump of turf hitting the scree far below and then a clatter of falling stones, a cry from Teddy and a pull on the rope. The spike had fallen off and as it struck rock on the way down an acrid smell of sulphur drifted up as he moved down and started civil engineering again. This time he stopped work before he had dug too deeply, and wasted no more time as he rushed to the next belay, and tied on very securely.
I started carefully to descend the muddy groove that had been revealed by Teddy’s gardening and thankfully reached his spike. It did not look very big to me, but perhaps that was because it was now nearly dark. However I did not fancy continuing to climb down the rest of the pitch, particularly the last move or two to negotiate the overhang, so I selected what looked like the best of the slings we had retrieved and draped it over the spike. I pulled up the spare end of rope and threaded it through the loop, and after one last check, committed myself to the void. Hell! The spike had broken. I jerked and fell about a foot, but then stopped, my heartbeat slowed and I realised that the old sling had stretched as I put my weight on to it. Sliding over the overhang I soon hung free and rotated in space like a spider on its thread. Alternate views of the dark sky and stygian rock until I touched the ledge with my feet and Teddy pulled me in to the stance.
One more pitch to go, down the groove now taken by White Slab, so I pulled down the rope and the rest was simple. Except our doubled rope did not quite reach the ground, so we had to drop the last eight or ten feet. Retrieving the rope was a little difficult but I eventually managed by standing shakily on my partner’s shoulders to be able to just reach its ends.
We put on our boots and went to the Far East Buttress to see whether friends who had intended to climb Jubilee were anywhere to be seen. We were rather concerned to find their boots at the foot of East Gully but we could hear or see nothing. The scramble up the Western Terrace proved a little unnerving in the dark On the ridge we came into pale moonlight and made our way back to the valley in its eerie but benevolent glow. An erratic torch twinkled towards us as we neared the road and it turned into a friend and would be rescuer who accompanied us back to the hut where he cooked us a very large and welcome meal.
In the early morning we recruited a party from the nearby Christian Endeavour Holiday Home to form a rescue party. Instead of taking the ridge above the cliff we crossed Bwlch Cwm Brwynog and dropped down below the Llyn so that we could scour the cwm and scan the inhospitable crags of the Far East Buttress. We eventually spied the missing men, comfortably ensconced on the huge grass terrace halfway up the cliff. We called off the rescue party and scrambled up the Far Eastern Terrace. Starting off loose and rotten this took some time and we arrived at the summit just as our friends completed their climb. It appeared that they had climbed as slowly as we and were overtaken by darkness and unable to advance or retreat. They had apparently slept quite well, but were ravenous now and wanted to get back to the hut as quickly as possible, to refuel.
A year later I joined the Climbers’ Club and from my first journal learnt that John Ball had done the third ascent of Bow Shaped Slab in June 1946. The party had experienced considerable difficulty, and came to the conclusion that it was much harder than Narrow Slab. This view was also expressed by others who had tried and abandoned the climb, so this news made me feel a little less ashamed of my failure.
It was not until May 1948 that George Dwyer and John Lawton solved the problem by the modern way, going straight up from the stance and traversing left on the high line, the way which I took, much later, when I tried the route again.

View of the main slab taken by Angel Pavement. Photographed before the first ascent from Y Garn by the author.AJ Moulam collection

Tony Moulam 2011©