Thursday, 10 October 2013

Angel Pavement

Terry Gifford on pitch two.Original image-Ian Smith/CC

The place possesses a distinct allure: nowhere in Wales could a more confused and romantically sculptured disarray of rock be found; loose it may be, but like many a loose climb it scarcely lacks character or attraction. Typical journey into Wales, away from the coastal sands towards the hills to the west of Snowdon and under threats of rain down the valley towards Nantlle, above which, on Craig y Bera, hangs a neglected gem of a route, Angel Pavement.

It was 13 years since my only ascent of it. As the years have passed, that climb has glowed with memories of delicate moves, serious situations and of the old team I used to climb with.Now, as I saw with relief that the heavy wet clouds seemed to rest just on the top of the route, I remembered that clear spring weather when we burst out of Sheffield on a day trip to do it. The chanting song on the car radio seemed to have got it exactly right: The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz, And the sky with no clouds.
The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sounds.We'd spent a weekend at Cwm Silyn and driving home up the valley from Nantlle we noticed this south-facing ramp of slab, nearly 500ft long, narrowing as it side-steps to the left of overhanging rock. Angel Pavement was in the new selected climbs guide 1970), where Ron James explained why we'd never heard of this long line of pinnacled rocks: 'This large cliff is composed (or decomposed!) of numerous totty ridges.' But here between them lay the irresistible line of Angel Pave­ment, the first of Tony Moulam's honourable list of new routes in Wales and graded by him Severe in nails. We had had to wait until the following Sunday to step on to that sunny pavement of slab.
Now, 13 years later, I was again driving from home to Craig y Bera, already late in the day and in the wettest August for years. `It's going to rain, can't you feel it?' Mrs Evlyn Jones told me, painting her gate at the farm below the crag, duffle-coat hood over her head, on the last day of August. A peregrine was calling above us.
`It's only rained in the mornings in Sheffield'
`Do they grow bananas in Sheffield?'

Haskett-Smith on the first ascent of neighbouring Pinnacle Ridge in 1911.

The guide warns that access to the crag is not allowed by the farmer living below it and that the situation is delicate, so I asked this diminutive lady with the round smile and ready wit how I should approach the crag and where to park.
`You can leave your car here and tell my husband I told you so. He's gathering stones on the hill there.' And he was, gathering stone into great molehills to make a scrap of cultivation on a level bit of hillside. 'In the villages that nestle on these slopes lived a special brand of people, little known to the brightly clad hordes that pour into Pen y Pass car park every weekend', wrote Dewi Jones. 'These are the Tyddynwyr (small-holders) and the quarry-men, an almost vanished race.' Gathering stones below this tottering mountain as we made our way up to the unstable scree was a tyddynwyr of the almost vanished race, straightening up to look at us as we passed above him. We didn't necessarily expect to be allowed these indulgences of access another time. But what indulgences? The direct approach to Angel Pavement is a moving pavement of scree on which you feel as if you're going up the down escalator.

It's still best to do as Tony Moulam did a week after I was born and traverse into the crag from the head of the valley. The route description of Angel Pavement is actually superfluous, such is the purity of its superb line. I had forgotten how easily it starts, scrambling up heathery rock ledges until a little route-finding linking the ledges is necessary. I found only one runner in a full rope run-out, but no move is more than Diff. The second guidebook pitch is harder and actually best taken as two 75ft pitches of good friction and square-cut little fingerholds. Whenever a straight-up approach meets steepening rock a solution is to be found on the left. The next stance is the crucial one, cramped under a dribbling roof in which you'll find two small chockstones, although nuts can be added easily to improve the confidence.
I remembered my former leader, John Driskell, disappearing left round the corner from here where the slab narrows and steepens to a little wall. The slab is undercut below and by this height has leaned a long way left. Now the evening light had shrunk to the bottom of the valley below the slab. John had had not one brain hemorrhage, but two since I watched him confidently step out on to the edge where the last light now gathered. He still comes camping up in the high cwms with us, watching his pulse-rate methodically, mocking our modern gear and our not climbing in 'a little light drizzle'. To him I owe a lot of my first VSs, as his enthusiasm pulled me upwards against my instinctive reluctance. And I owe to him my memory of this route and this little crux. It's certainly a Severe move on a route that is still graded V Diff,*( Now severe in the latest CC guide) although from here you'd fall off the slab and hang in air. Angel Pavement has a deep gutter and if you step off the edge of the pavement you'll need the wings and luck of an angel. Above this pitch the rock gives way to scrambling over grass and heather laced with gorse.

There is just one more move round a corner which causes you to work out how to finger the clean-cut angles of steep rock to the right. But the belays are big sociable eyries where, 13 years ago, I had chatted to Dave as he brought up Agnes behind John and I.
It must have been one of Agnes' first climbs.The rumour in the pub had been that Dave had met this girl at a campsite in the Alps. Since Dave was a confirmed, pipe-stinking bachelor, there was much doubt about the story. 
Then one Friday evening as we were assembled in the back room of the Nursery Tavern as usual, Dave appeared in the doorway with a small, shy girl who didn't speak a word of English. Dave had just brought her from East Midlands Airport on the back of his motorbike. At that precise moment, as she was having her first taste of Mrs Jenkins' best bitter, her parents thought she was at the pictures in Paris. She climbed Angel Pavement without hesitation too.
Back to the present — the light had now almost gone and what I'd not remembered was how to get down. I kept leading left, avoiding loose rock and the abyss below as much as possible, until the neck behind the buttress dipped down the other side to a scree descent to end all scree descents, unless you're careful.
We got down to the farm in the dark. Mrs Jones was shutting up the hens with a torch. She had obviously been keeping an eye out for us.
`You should have been here in the earthquake,' she said. 'I thought the mountain was going to fall down on us.'

Local climbers we spoke to the next day thought it was falling down already. It's this reputation of Craig y Bera that keeps Angel Pavement fairly untrodden. Between threats of rain and nightfall I'd snatched another angelic walk, although in the pub I began to wonder if maybe my memories had made it glow just a little more than it really deserves. Make the journey to the crag of pyramids and pinnacles yourself one day, when it's raining on the higher hills but the sun is playing on Angel Pavement. As we drove away, America began to retell a tale:

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rain.
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sounds.

Terry Gifford. The Joy Of Climbing: Whittle Publishing