Friday, 4 April 2014

Carpetbagging on Lliwedd

A few days later came news from Holland and I. A. R. that made me jump. There had been great doings after I left. More ascents of the Holly-Tree Wall, a new and apparently hair-raising climb—the Oblique Buttress—on Glyder Fach and a series of climbs on Lliwedd. It was the final episode on Lliwedd that gave me the shock. Holland, always very adroit with knee-jam methods in climbing, had been destroying the knees of his breeches at an alarming rate. Blodwen, the chambermaid at Pen-y-Gwyrd, used to get half a crown from him for each repairing job she did. This was becoming, since he tore them through every second day, a serious drain upon his pocket, so he gave her instructions to find something to patch with that would be guaranteed not to wear through again. What she found was a piece of excellent Axminster carpet, and for a while Holland was very proud of a red and green decoration that distinguished him from all other visitors in the region. It had its disadvantages, however, and from these derives my story.

He and I. A. R. had been climbing without a pause through a long spell of fine weather. Perhaps they grew stale. Whatever the reason, they were suddenly attacked by a fit of 'out of form' mistakes that nearly put an end to them both. One evening after a long day on the East Peak—up and down the Shallow Gully, the Great Chimney and Route II—they had gone up the Central Chimney as far as the Summer House. Puzzled, as others have been, by the route ahead, they came down with the intention of working it out thoroughly on another day. And next morning they were back early at the foot of the climb. The Central Chimney Route starts with a steep fifty-foot groove, then comes a traverse to the right with a tricky step up over a very steep exposed corner. Now the evening before they had been twice across the passage, up and down, without trouble or hesitation.

This morning, however, I. A. R. when leading found himself suddenly and without warning at a loss in the very middle of the tricky movement. As he wrote to me, the experience was utterly unexpected, something he had never known when leading before. It was like forgetting a familiar name. In a flash he forgot everything about the pitch, he didn't know where any of the holds were, or what he had done, or what he should do, and this in a position half-way between one balance and another, a position in which it was impossible to stop and wait. He was just beginning to fall off when his hand, wandering over the rock behind him and out of his sight, happened on a hold and saved him. Now unexpected holds are not common on such pitches on Lliwedd. He lost no time in rejoining Holland in the Chimney and explaining that he was 'off' leading for the day, and they agreed that they had better go to something easier.

They chose the Far East Cracks on Lliwedd's Eastern-most peak, partly because Holland had lately been fre­quenting it with Odell and others, and it was new to I. A. R. Holland had invented a special direct finish of his own that he was anxious to demonstrate. So down they went; I. A. R., still rather shaken, going first so as to have the rope above him. He had hardly come to the first halting-place when, with an exclamation, down came Holland sailing through the air on top of him! What had happened was this. He had begun his descent by curling his carpet-clad knee into the recesses of the groove in his favourite fashion, quite forgetting that it was not as his knees usually were. It slipped out, and, as at that instant he had no other holds, off he came. He landed luckily astride I. A. R.'s neck and the two of them managed to stay where they were. Though the distance they had to fall is not very great, it might have been quite enough!

It has often been remarked that mischances tend to come in threes. They agreed that they had better be very careful indeed about the third as they walked over to the Far East Peak. All went well up the climb, Holland leading, until they reached the beginning of his new direct finish. The whole thing is a long V-shaped groove, of the type so characteristic of Lliwedd, like a slightly opened book and very steep. It is punctuated by little patches of grass in the back of the V, which make ledges on which the leader can rest and the second man join him. At the top, the groove is closed by a wall, but there are ways of escaping to easier ground on the right and left which are usually taken.

Holland's direct finish went up quite straight for sixty feet or so, very exposed and even steeper than the groove below. The crags underneath plunge down for 400 feet and the steep screes at their foot make the height seem much greater.I. A. R. was placed in the last reach of the groove, standing on an earth patch which is about the size of a dinner plate, playing the rope round a belay as big as his thumb. Holland went on to attack the wall above. He had climbed up about fifty-five feet when I. A. R. was alarmed to notice that the method required for finishing the pitch was that very identical knee-jamming that had led to the' mischance in the Central Chimney. The rope meanwhile was finding the belay most unaccommodating and kept slipping off as it was paid out. The leader's progress now came to a halt and I. A. R. became more and more uneasy. Holland was stretched out, his hands high up on what were evidently none good holds. The carpet-clad knee was writhing and writhing in a shallow furrow, the other toe at full stretch wason a small hold below. Then it was brought slowly up to a sloping nick to the side; it slipped off; and. I. A. R. could see Holland's whole body shake with the extra tension.

His own position was then that described by Archer Thompson, a connoisseur in exposed situations, as follows...

 The spot thus reached is hardly a landing-place—it accom­modates one foot only, but the desired rest can be obtained by leaning well back against a projection; in this half-recumbent attitude above and athwart the crack we are in a good position to enjoy the circumambient air, a wide view of the face, and an unobstructed outlook over Cwm Dyli 

He was beginning to expect bad trouble and fortunately just then caught sight of a flange of rock on the right of his groove at about the level of his shoulders. Quickly he levered himself across the groove until he was lying braced with both feet on one wall and a shoulder on the other. Then he looked again to see how the leader was getting on. Holland was still in the same position wrestling with the same problem. Up again came the toe to the sloping nick, wavered on it, then the whole body lifted and the toe slipped off! Out came the carpet knee that should have taken the weight and the jolt plucked his straining finger-tips from their holds. Without a word Holland slipped down a little, then fell out backwards and came like a loose sack, head-over-heels, down the wall. At this instant I. A. R. noticed that the rope had again worked off the belay.A body is travelling fast by the time it has fallen fifty feet down cliffs of the angle of these. I. A. R. avers that Holland was making quite a loud whizzing noise in his fall before he caught him, and that he swerved a good deal in his flight. There was no use now in worrying about the rope, the thing to do was to catch the climber. Actually he landed, head down, face out, between the cliff and I. A. R., who clutched him wildly round the thighs. Then a moment passed during which, rather slowly, they realized that they had not gone; they were still on the crags and alive; and
then Holland began to climb up round the outside of I. A. R.'s bridged body and re-establish himself right-side up on the little grass ledge.

The first thing now was a solemn lighting of Holland's pipe. I. A. R. says that Holland's hands were absolutely steady as he sheltered the match. Then the vitally important question of the plaster-cast round Holland's arm had to he looked into. It proved to be a good deal chipped, but the arm inside was all right. Holland now was for having 'another shot' at the pitch. He always seemed to me not to know what fear is, and this was an example of his indomitability. But I. A. R. had been watching and had had enough. So he vetoed the motion. They went down instead, as quickly as they knew how, to easy ground. This evidently was right, for in ten minutes' time the effect of the shock showed. Though Holland remained as cheerful and composed as ever, puffing his pipe tranquilly as he worked his way down, every muscle soon began to shake and shiver. They were glad to get off the climb, coil up the rope and go off to Gorphwysfa for a soothing drink.

Later I came to know the scenes of these adventures better. Easter days, when there were snow-banks at the foot of the gullies, Whitsuntide days, when hawthorn whitened Cwm Dyli and overhung the bathing-pool. Odd week-ends whenever I could fit them in, framed between night journeys in which the endless serried lights of Crewe shunting-yards seemed the great gateway to the hills. Through a week of cloudless June weather, with Holland, with H. M. and Pat Kelly, I almost lived on Lliwedd's East Peak. We would get to the foot of the Avalanche Route or Paradise while it was still early, go up and down all the summer day, and would be lingering by the summit cairn late into the dusk. The sea-gleams turned from gold to silver, ' Siabod and the Glyders grew smooth and blue with haze before we ran down back to Pen-y-Gwryd for a specially arranged cold ten-o'clock supper. It seemed impossible to go down while the shadow of Crib Goch was still creeping up and the crest of Lliwedd glowing in the last sunshine.

How could one sit at a dinner-table through the most beautiful hour of the day? We went up most of the well-known Lliwedd climbs, though not the Far East Cracks! I remem­ber once the string of Holland's sack breaking, while I was struggling to move quickly down the Shallow Gully, and thinking my last hour had come as a shower of missiles began to bound and whizz past me. There is not much room to share with an avalanche in the Shallow Gully. But they were nothing more than oranges and we picked them up `good and juicy' on the scree.

Halcyon days, sunny, windless, the rocks dry and clean under our rubbers and Holland climbing tirelessly and magnificently, up the most hopeless-looking reaches of the slabs. His air of a Roman legionary fitted well with his iron con­fidence and grim cheerfulness. I shall never visit Lliwedd without thinking of him. I owe him some of my very best climbing days. To each group of climbers who are exploring Lliwedd extensively for themselves for the first time, its climbs—with their own variations—come to seem in a sense their possession. No mountain seizes hold of its devotees more strongly, and the bond is capable of appearing reciprocal. The very diffi­culty of identifying many of the routes, exactly, makes a climb seem more one's own, and it may reasonably be wished that detailed descriptions of them did not exist. Then every fresh visitor would taste more fully the savour of exploration.

Mallory once remarked as much to I. A. R. Coming from one who had put so many splendid new climbs on the crags, and in the. Climbers' Club Book at Gorphwysfa, he had to admit that it was perhaps Satan rebuking sin. This was just before he left for that last time for Everest in 1924 to reach, as Odell, who saw him last, still thinks possible, the supreme point of any climber's ambition.

Dorothy Pilley: Climbing Days-1935