Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Dark Side of the Moon

The West face of Tryfan

It's one of those questions which regularly pops up on climbing forums and stimu­lates intensive debate ... what's the longest climb in North Wales ? At this point everyone weighs in with their sugges­tions, which normally range far and wide from obscure traverses to contrived winter ascents.
If we are talking pure vertical rock climbs then the choice of venues containing these leviathans is limited to a rela­tively select band of less popular cliffs, Lliwedd, Carnedd Filiast Slabs ,Cader ldris's Pencoed Pillar. Maybe Craig Ysfa can throw a line into the mix ? An email from Mike Bailey, author of the Climbers Club guide to Ogwen offered a potential trump card by which I could see their Rocker Route or Hawkwind and raise them my 13 pitch, 1175 route on Tryfan's West Face!

Despite already covering areas in the guide which in terms of  popularity rivalled toxic waste dumps, in a fit of unchar­acteristic enthusiasm, I had offered to take on the equally un­popular West Face of Tryfan late in the day when the largely completed text was in the can, as it where. Still....not a lot to take up my time I thought. Only a dozen or so easy climbs and scrambles which I should knock off fairly quickly.
After an intensive first visit in which I managed over 2000' of ascent and descent including, it later transpired, a 400' new route in one short blast, it looked as if I could wrap it up before autumn.
At this point Eric Byne comes into the equation. Now  for those more seasoned campaigners in the UK, Eric Byne is something of a minor legend. A midlander who,Harold Drasdo tells me, was an exceptionally gifted gritstone climber and as a leading member of the MAM ( Midlands Mountaineering Club) club which has its Glan Dena base underneath Tryfan's North Face, was also something of a pioneer of obscure routes on the Mountain,
When Mike and I completed Columbyne and Pierot, two Byne routes which lie on the West Face just above the Milestone Buttress, I began to question certain aspects of his described lines, not least the actual length of these climbs. Incidentally, on the first ascent of Pierot, the first ascent party is listed as Eric Byne and 7 others including Bimbo..... Bimbo presumably was a pet dog and not some local good time gal from Bethesda !

Mike confirmed that Eric had claimed lots of routes that are in the old guides on Glan Dena crags twixt the aforementioned MAM hut and the Milestone Buttress, which were rather shorter than described. In truth Columbyne was a pretty good mountaineering route with a classic 120' hard, clean, final pitch. Unfortunately, the pitch was not the pitch originally described by Eric who - I have to say somewhat bizarrely -ignored the superb direct continuation to shoot off from a ledge beneath the final bold corner and traverse across broken ground to finish up a tower on the opposite side of the steep wall ?
It was as if Joe Brown on the first ascent of Cenotaph Cor­ner decided two thirds of the way up to detour across Right Wall and finish up Cemetery Gates instead !
Still, all credit to him for at least looking beyond the East Face and Milestone honeypots to establish his presence on the mountains'more isolated ramparts.

Enter 15 year old youngest son Luke who was pressed into service during the summer hols to help his old man look at the remaining routes which included a couple of unrecorded lines which looked promising.
It was time to look at Byne's terribly big adventure, the route which ostensibly was the longest vertical climb in Wales and indeed,one of the longest in the UK. The Cannon Ridge, 1175': V Diff. (US 5.4) First Ascent Eric Byne,Ursula White, Fred Tommey and Brian Thorneycroft on 9th August 1956.
I had previously scrambled up to its second pitch, intending to solo the route, but after taking one look at the green vertical chimney with some dubious looking flakes therein, I uttered the immortal and oft repeated climber's oath, "sod that!" and beat a hasty retreat to Helyg * for a brew.

The Wrinkled Tower

When Luke and I returned on a chilly but rare dry August day it was almost 51 years to the day since Eric and his cohorts had first ascended the ridge. After the 150'scram­ble to reach the meat of the route, I pulled on my fleece.... a fleece in August ! ... and set off up the initial easier cleft into the tightening constriction. It felt increasingly insecure the higher I got so without thugging it out up the chimney - I stepped out right onto a containing ramp line upon which were seated two rather large suspect flakes,and exited rather gingerly through the obstacles to reach a small stance beneath a tower.
As I brought Luke up I considered whether or not I should up the grade a bit but decided that if it was a bit cleaner, which hopefully it will be after the guide comes out, it will be just a good solid trad Vdiff. With Luke ensconced on the ledge, I set off via an awkward little bulge on friction and a prayer to reach a rather nice clean cut corner. Good holds but scraping feet brought a better ledge within hand.
Those averse to grade drift in route descriptions should look away now, for a route graded at Diff in my Tom Leppert guide,was eventually upgraded to a 'severe' US (5.5) in the new guide.
A short mantelshelf move led me to an impressive slabby tower directly above the stance. After checking and recheck­ing Eric Byne's original description there was no doubt. An­other steep rise which required a traverse out right to a spike followed by a bulge on sketchy holds. Traversing across to the spike was interesting, but not nearly as interesting as standing on the spike and feeling for the expected jugs whilst the merest tip of my left rock boot balanced on a feeble excuse for an edge. Unfortunately,to avoid the dreaded Elvis shakes, I had no option but to abandon this tiny barb and set off. Now committed, my fingers danced around the slab like Oscar Peterson on his 7th expresso whilst scraping toes found themselves rock-fast through friction rather than any suggestion of a foot hold.
When it was over, you think ... Oh.... that wasn't too bad actually. Still, upgrading it to Severe, 4a would not be an outrageous re-jig in the circumstances.

The pitch still had more to offer although without the excitement before pitch 4 threw in another 4a section. Byne had suggested that a steep chimney should be ascended via its left-hand branch as it proved to be the most interesting. Interesting or not, my rucksac prevented an ascent of this fissure as I just could not get in without jamming in its lower reaches. With some dubious looking flakes at the exit of the right-hand branch I was left with no choice but to shuffle delicately out of the cleft via friction moves and side pulls onto the containing rib on the right. Luke had taken it all in his stride and at this point we found ourselves beneath an easy broad rib which was taken via its centre point to reach broken ground.

The author on the first ascent of Boanerges.A direct VS start to The Wrinkled Tower.

If you were Eric Byne at this same spot in 1956 you would have pulled a crumpled packet of Woodbines out of your moleskin breeches and lit up. Your ex MOD rucsac stiff with sweat and mud would have been set upon a rock whilst you rummaged around for your corned beef sandwiches and flask of strong sweet tea .You would then survey the lay of the land before setting off to claim another 700 feet of ascent to the North Ridge of Tryfan. However, if you were a guidebook writer in 2007 you take one look at the explosion of disconnected rock features spread across the mountain in every direction and say to yourself in the immortal words of Mr Spock"this is most illogical!"

It was clear that the climbing was over to all intents and purposes. The steep and at times inescapable ridge line had melted into broken mountainside. Any continuation would be seriously contrived.What the hell! It might not have been the longest vertical route in Wales but it was still a 550' Severe mountaineering route which gets a star and that's got to be worth something if the alternative is queueing under Grooved Arete, on a bank holiday !

I was nearly there. All the routes on Tryfan's West Face had been ascended, accurately described and re-graded if neces­sary, Furthermore, the complicated structure of the face has now been detailed and described with one previously uncharted buttress, Buzzard's Buttress - Bwtres y Boncath – now listed and carrying two routes.
Within the week Luke and I returned and on separate days made two first ascents. Jamie's Route, a 460'severe on Buz­zard's Buttress was named in memory of my late second son and one of  Luke's elder brothers who had passed away nearly two years previously. The other route was Boanerges, a VS direct start on The Wrinkled Tower.

Hopefully, now that Tryfan's attractive West Face has finally been totally reassessed and accurately described a few adventurous souls might scan through the latest CC Ogwen guidebook and be tempted to pick their way up the scree and heather slopes and take a gander at what the West Face has to offer. A pleasant selection of long, easy climbs and scrambles with just the mountain goats for company ....any takers?

* Helyg-Climbers Club Hut in the Ogwen Valley.

Tryfan's West face

John Appleby: First published as 'Into the West' in The Climbers Club journal 2009.