Friday, 3 May 2013

Wild Mountain Time

Though the amount of our farm work had increased, we still climbed for pleasure and occasionally managed to go away for a night or two. One fine weekend, we went to climb the Great Gully on Craig yr Ysfa. As so often happened on a day in the mountains with Paul, time seemed to slow down. There was infinity between dawn and dusk on those days. We walked, ascending higher and higher into the sanctuary of the hills. There was no one else about. We ate our sandwiches on the bwlch looking down into Cwm Eigiau, and then descended to the foot of the crag. Here bilberries grew in profusion and we lingered, eating the ripe boot-button fruit and talking.

Now we were in shadow and the Great Gully looked formidable, an eight-hundred foot gorge up the face of the cliff. In places it cut in deeply and gripped enor­mous chock-stones between its walls. Even now, I had a sort of mountain stage-fright at the beginning of a climb and a feeling of awe at the magnificence of the crags. I began to imagine myself a little tired and half hoped that Paul would say it was too late to begin so long a climb. He had shown some inclination to dally, but now he was standing up. `Come on,' he said. 'Let's begin.'

We walked up the scree to the foot of the gully. It was so steep that the capstone at the top was visible from our position. We tied on the rope and then Paul was climbing upwards. My turn came and the feeling of lassitude disappeared as my boot nails engaged with rock, as a sense of elevation came with each careful move upwards. The climb was classed as very difficult or severe when conditions were wet but, with Paul leading, it did not seem hard. We were having a good day and now small feelings of happiness like champagne bubbles rose inside me. In the depths of the gully, deeply shadowed, the air was chill and the rock water-worn. Strange masses of greenery, not met with on the open hill, flourished here—cushions of moss like green sponges, parsley fern and reeds. The rock architecture was impressive, towering up on either side of the cleft and bridged by the jammed boulders.
Craig yr Ysfa

We looked out from the depths of the gully through the rock walls to a view of the opposite slopes, dazzling in the sunshine. The floor of Cwm Eigiau, the Valley of the Abysses, became more and more distant as we ascended and time seemed to stretch indefinitely to accommodate the length of the climb.
The last pitch, reached near evening, was the Great Cave Pitch. The gully cut deeply inwards and was bridged by huge hock-stones. The largest was about the size of a London bus, gripped firmly in the jaws of the mountain. We passed under it, stooping a little, into the near-darkness of the cave behind. Water trickled down the walls and planes of wet rock faintly reflected the light outside. There was a dank smell. It was now necessary to reach the top of the chock-stone from behind and this Paul did. Then he waited for me, jamming his body upright between the chock-stone and the ceiling of the cave.

It was difficult to launch himself from the floor of the gully and outwards on to the hold-less bulk of the boulder and then to wriggle upwards to its crest, but I managed to do so. I jammed myself as best I could while Paul attempted to walk out to where a narrow ledge on the left wall of the gully could be reached. The surface of the chock-stone sloped down and outwards to the immense drop which it overhung. It was smooth, hard and wet. Paul's boot nails skidded ominously :s he inched forward. There seemed to be no handholds. He balanced precariously and then stopped. 'I'm going to try it in socks,' he said. He removed his boots, first one and then the other, slowly and with care so as not to lose his balance. With stockinged feet he had a better grip and he crept outwards with the palms of his hands pressed against the low ceiling to give stability.

Then he stepped from the chock-stone to the ledge, found a belay and it was my turn. Bootless too, I followed in his footsteps. It was thrilling to balance out from the darkness to the light, across the bridge over nothingness, with the feel of damp-, smooth rock under stockinged feet, rock which was ready to shoot the climber out into kingdom-come if one ill-judged move were made. Then I stepped across on to the ledge and it was over. A few more yards of scram­bling brought us to the top and we walked out of shadow into the clear evening sunshine.. It was an exhilarating finish to a long and splendid climb.

We decided to go on to the top of Carnedd Llewellyn. The summit lay westwards, further along the ridge. Now the sunshine had a golden quality and a slight breeze was blowing from the Irish Sea. We seemed to be half way between earth and sky, with the world laid out at our feet. We paused on the top to watch the sun setting behind the bulk of Carnedd Dafydd. The Menai Strait away to our right were like a river of fire. It was unusual to see so rarified and so golden a scene and it stayed in our minds. Some distance below the summit, but above Llyn Llygwy, lay a small cwm in the fold of the hills. Here we decided to bivouac. We had our sleeping bags with us and, after a day of space, sun­shine and freedom, we could not depart from our dream of high places too abruptly. We put our few belongings on a small mound and squatting round the spirit stove, we made a meal of soup, biscuits and chocolate. We had been in shadow for some time and now the light was fading from the sky and the cool airs of evening were around us. The night would be calm and clear.

Then Paul said: 'Look, wild ponies.'
While we had been eating, a small herd had come over the shoulder of the hill and were grazing on the opposite slope four or five hundred yards away. There were a few foals among them. They looked beautiful in the fading light, wild and foot-loose on the open mountain. Their coming gave the final touch of enchantment to our lonely cwm. I wish we could have some ponies,' I said.
We considered the idea as we washed the soup mugs in the stream and cleaned our teeth, but there seemed no place for ponies in our schemes. Already, we had as much stock as the land could carry, with no spare grazing or hay. We had a tractor for farm work and there was little time for pleasure riding. Reluctantly, we decided that we could not have ponies on the farm. And yet I kept on watching the wild herd there on the hillside.

We laid our sleeping bags side by side and settled down. The night breeze was on our faces and there was no moon, but the Milky Way was a river of stars above us. A sheep in the cwm gave a hoarse, old man's cough and, infinitely high and far away, came the flutings of a curlew's call. I half woke in the hour of dawn when the air was heavy with dew and night thinning away from the hills. The silence of daybreak seemed to have a quality of echoing hollowness over the land. And then I slept again, and it was full day when I woke at last. The cwm was still in shadow but the sparkling morning sunshine lighted the upper slopes of the hills, winking from wet places on the rocks, or finding a diamond in a vein of quartz. It highlighted the glossy coats of the ponies as they grazed on the slopes. The foals were playing, filled with the joy of life and a fine summer morning. Little shrieks and neighs floated across to us as they frolicked. Paul was awake and talkative now. His face looked very young and alive.

`Let's not get up till the sunshine comes,' he said.
We could see the line of shadow retreating towards us as the sun rose higher and higher. We lay, two warm cocoons in sleeping bags, and waited delightedly for the sun to knock us up. At last it touched the sleeping bags, crept across them and was full and warm on our faces. Then we had breakfast and left the cwm, bathing in Llyn Llygwy on the way down.

Not all our mountain days were spent in fine weather. Some­times we went on the hills when it was too rough or cold to climb, went just for the fun of experiencing the weather. Sometimes we went hoping to climb, and were turned back. Whatever happened, each outing had its own special quality and was enjoyed. One December day we set off to climb Snowdon. It was unusually cold with lead-coloured clouds boiling round the shoulders of the mountains. Now and again, one of the peaks would come clear before the next mass of cloud gulped it down. A stiff, cold wind blew. We went to the foot of the Watkin path on Paul's motor­cycle, left it by the side of the lane and set off uphill towards the greyness of the heights above. The wind whipped cold in our faces and the waterfalls sang and splashed through a gag of early ice. The pools shone with a slaty reflection of the sky. There was a dramatic quality about the day and the weather which spurred us on to climb the path with greater speed.

We passed the Glad­stone Rock and the disused slate quarry with its roofless stone barracks, left Cwm Llan and climbed to the ridge of the south­west spur. From it, we had a magnificent view of valleys, lakes and mountains with their heads lost in the wrathful grey clouds. The ceiling of cloud was only a few hundred feet above us and streamers of mist, like hurrying ghosts, blew by. The wind was very cold and strengthening and so we decided not to go on to the top, where there would be nothing to see. After a last look at the wintry splendour, we turned down-hill over the frozen turf and ice-glazed shale. Now a few snowflakes whirled past. It would be a bad time to be benighted on the hills, but Paul was a safe guide.

Down in the cwm once more, Paul suggested that we brew tea in the shelter of the old quarry buildings; he had the necessary materials in the rucksack. We prowled round the derelict sheds and found a few bits of wood and roots of heather for a fire. Paul soon had it lighted in the angle of the wall, where some shreds of roof would protect us from the snowflakes, falling faster now. He found a long slate and made a little bench for us to sit on in front of the fire. The daylight was fading as the afternoon advanced and the wind moaned gently round the ruins, but inside it was sheltered. We sat companionably on our little bench, aware of the great mass of Yr Wyddfa beyond, and the remains of the once busy quarry around us in that lonely place. The fire burned up and a pan full of water from the stream was soon boiling.

Shadows flickered on the walls and the brightness of the flames seemed to increase the darkness outside.
We talked while the last of the daylight drained away and the snow came faster, great flakes dashing past, so that there was almost a blizzard blowing. A few flakes fell on the fire and hissed on the hot sticks. At last the fire was dying and all the wood had been used. A heap of white ash lay on our improvised hearth, glowing a little and stirring in the draught. We had talked for a long time. It was cold and nearly dark. The wind still whistled by, but the snow had stopped and a few stars showed through rents in the clouds. We packed up the tea things and left our shelter. Our bodies grew warm as we swung down the road but wintry air was on our cheeks. For a few hours we had enjoyed the desertion of the hills and now were returning to our own corner of comfort and activity on their slopes. As we walked downhill, my hand was in Paul's warm clasp.

Ruth Janette Ruck .
First published in Hill Farm Story. Faber 1966.


'Paul' Work is one of those virtually unknown romantic figures of Welsh climbing. Born on the flat Lancashire coastal belt in the pleasant little town of Formby, just outside Liverpool , he was a contemporary of the great Menlove Edwards-another Formbian-who attended the same school. He followed Menlove into climbing and was proposed and seconded for membership of the Climbers Club by Menlove himself and Colin Kirkus. Although he never matched the legendary pair in the technical department, he was a great explorer of the less frequented areas of Western Snowdonia where he established dozens of esoteric and infrequently climbed lower grade routes. In particular on the vegetated 400' cliffs of Diffwys on Moel Hebog, The equally verdant Aberglaslyn Pass, the cliffs of Moel Dyniewyd and Cwm Tregalen.
Probably his best known climbs-relatively speaking- are Christmas Climb on Dyniewyd and Canyon Rib above Aberglaslyn Pass. Paul Work and his wife Ruth lived in the shadow of Moel Dyniewyd where they ran a smallholding for many years until his death in the 1990's.