There's something disturbingly sinister and at the same time gigglingly innocent about standing for the first time in a huge empty cwm. In front of us the black curtain of Cwm Du was bristling with buttresses which were each lit at the top by the early evening light. The left-most of these is Eden Buttress and flaming like a candle was the crux top pitch of Adam Rib, a 400ft two-star Severe first climbed in 1911. But here was a whole cwm of delights, for up every buttress there held a starred Severe, sunlit, naked, and like Adam Rib, as dry as a bone. The cwm seemed newly created, an untouched Eden.
We searched for a spot flat enough for a tent,not realizing then how it would get in the way later on.
Of course, it came as no surprise to come over the lip of this cwm on the north side of Mynydd Mawr and find it deserted, even after weeks of dry weather. The previous week we had been the only climbers in the cwm when we climbed the Pencoed Pillar of Cader Idris. In the Moelwyns this very morning there had been queues of climbers on Mean Feat, but no one on the brilliant Hard Severe called The White Streak. These are the secrets really worth knowing.Adam Rib escaped the books and The White Streak escaped the stars. Both are full of surprises and routes of remarkable character. I don't mind sharing these secrets with you because Adam Rib in particular needs regular attention.
One of its surprises is loose rock.`What about doing one of these other ribs tonight and Adam Rib in the morning? It'll probably get the sun early on', I suggested to Norman.`No. If we're going to do it, we'll do it now. You don't know what the weather will be like in the morning.' All I could see was a blue sky and a wonderland of rock waiting to be climbed. It had not rained for three weeks and it was unlikely to rain in the morning. But Norman was already heading towards the scree.`Well I'm not carrying a sac,' I called as I scurried after him,just trainers.'
At last I stood where I'd wanted to be ever since I discovered the quality of Angel Pavement on the other side of this hill – and that was under Adam Rib. The evening was young and the tents were below There was no need to rush up the long reclining rib to the sunlight. And this was just as well, really, because it quickly became clear that it was not the climbing that was going to give us innocent fun, but the situation beside an amazing emergence of minarets on the left, and the beautiful basalt-type columns of Fluted Buttress on the right. Similarly it was not the shadowed presence of the black crag that would be sinister, but the loose nature of the holds that would give an edge of seriousness to this climb. We would need the time.
The rock of the first pitch so disturbed Norman that he belayed at half height, reducing the potential rockfall by 50ft. Leading the second half of this easy pitch I found the holds to be flat-topped blocks which sometimes eased free of the face. Then, in his turn, moaning with unease and his rucksack, Norman faced the prospect of a groove to the left of the arete, a traverse further left on to a subsidiary- rib followed by- a traverse back right again. He insisted that I belayed him directly below the groove (and in the line of fire) the better to hold him should he fall. My survival was assumed. I shivered in shorts, helmet less again. The serpent was beginning to uncoil on Eden Buttress.
Fortunately, Norman threw down more curses than rock. When I followed, I found that at every touch of a suspect hold there was one that was sound within reach. It was a matter of listening to the rock. I remembered a recent rope advert: 'Just you and the rope against Nature'. Whoever wrote that has not been here, or on Cloggy, or in Chee Dale, or on Pillar, or in Scotland. In fact Where have they been? Obviously only on the bolted sport climbers' crags. Perhaps this is the difference between the sport climbers and the rock climbers: the former have to fight against nature to win a hollow conquest, whilst the rock climber has to listen for hollow holds in order to tune in with nature, attentive rather than assertive, receiving rather than taking, reading what is given rather than problem solving with technology. This is why the art of placing runners is so integral to the rock climber's way of reading the rock.
Having said which, there now appears a peg in this story, at the start of the next pitch. It is ancient and unnecessary and I clipped it because it's there. On Eden Buttress this is not an original sin, merely an acknowledgement of the serpent's presence. I found the moves past the peg quite testing, but belaying above, on the narrow spine of the arete, I thought this next pitch was going to be the crux. Herbert Carr's 1926 guidebook description conveys something of the Alpine atmosphere of this final pitch: 'The rib narrows to a knife-edge which curls over on the left in a cornice of rock, leaving the straightest of paths set at an uncomfortably steep angle.' Belaying in the sun now, I watched Norman cunningly protect the moves above the cornice and teeter up, left toe on the edge of the overhang, right fingertips locked in the crack above his wires. Suddenly the rope was running out fast and he was shouting about what a brilliant pitch it was, how you really felt the exposure and how well Mallory did to climb it in December. I'll simply say that when my turn came it made me think a bit.
Dave Williams negotiates pitch three of Adam Rib
On the top we sat awhile, looking east to Snowdon's summit, then turning to the west to see blinding sunlight on the sea. To the south Y Garn's ridge stood stark and green. On the north side below us the land lay- open to the golden beaches of Anglesey. In Greek the word 'Adam' is made up of the four initial letters of the points of the compass, so Adam Rib can mean simply 'the rib leading to Adam – the viewpoint for everywhere'. But this is not the real significance of this route-name. That came to me only after a night under Adam Rib.
Camping is not allowed in Cwm Du. It is Crown Land to which the uncrowned may have access solely 'for air and exercise'. We'd fulfilled the exercise part of this requirement and, having unbuckled our harnesses, we lay where we fell, taking in air and alcohol. We got into our sleeping bags as the air chilled, and, one by one, we fell asleep beside our tents. We were therefore not actually camping, just taking maximum air after our exercise. I woke to find this tent pitched in the way of where my feet wanted to be.
To sleep out under Adam Rib after the experience of that climb is to rediscover an original state in which the world is whole.Adam Rib is an image that is both male and female. It is a climb om darkness into light that requires a certain fusion with nature to negotiate splintered rock. It is an experience of both the athletic and the aesthetic, just as it is an experience of both the sinister and the silly: This was the integrated art of rock climbing before the Fall.
And this is not a backward-looking nostalgic notion. Nor is it a flat-earth attitude to progress. It is simply to say to the sport climber, 'This is the way the rock is now. Before you bolt it, think about how you're going to take away the freedom of others to use and to see only what is given in this place. You don't have to be manipulated by the commercial interests into using equipment against nature.
The alternative, more demanding discipline, of listening and learning is still available.'In fact, the reintegrating art of rock climbing is available to anyone who stands under Adam Rib.
Top Photo: Terry Gifford Collection