Thursday, 19 June 2014

Once upon a time...Pen y Pass

Siegfried Herford and George Mallory outside Gorphwysfa (Pen y Pass: Photo The Alpine Club

The Rawson Owens moved up from Pen y Gwryd to Pen y Pass around 1902 and greatly enlarged what had been not much more than a cottage. Of the years before and immediately after the Great War I am not qualified to write, being rather like a substitute who is brought on around half-time. My first Visit being at Easter 1927. Pen y Gwryd had long had a regular contingent of hill walkers and scramblers, who also stayed at Owgen Cottage, or visited Wasdale Head or the old Dungeon Ghyll in the Lake District. The Pen y Gwryd pioneers stretch back to Charles Kingsley, Tom Hughes (who wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays) as well as the later Pilkington brothers, the Hopkinson family, Cecil Slingsby, Owen Glyn Jones and the Abrahams and Solly, who first led Eagles Nest Direct on Gable. In general,the development of rock climbing began first in the Lakes, but Snowdonia came soon after.

At the heart and centre of the Pen y Pass tradition was Geoffrey Winthrop Young, who, in the days before cars were more than rare freaks, describes being met by the landlord, Owen, at Betws station with his smart brake and high-stepping horses, all silver pipe clay and gleaming brown leather, as became the sometime whip of the Hussar regimental four-in-hand.’Round him Geoffrey Young gathered a remarkable group meeting at Pen y Pass usually at Easter and Christmas, who can fairly be said to have invented Welsh rock climbing.

Nowadays they would be dubbed an elite: there were the Etonians, Hugh Pope, H.O. Jones, Trev. Huxley, Claude Elliott, but it was climbing that brought them together, and they and most of the group that Geoffrey Young attracted were then or later greatly distinguished in their professions and influence, and by no means all because of their social origins. Geoffrey confesses that he adopted the newly enlarged Pen y Pass ‘since no mountaineer will walk where he can drive or sleep’, so to move there was to be nearer Lliwedd and the other great cliffs. And so Pen y Pass ‘became the very place to assemble friends.

It should be made clear that the Easter gatherings were just that of friends and the friends of friends. You didn’t join them unless specifically invited, or already automatically included through long and close acquaintance. Geoffrey and ’Len' Young (herself daughter of Cecil Slingsby) recruited many through their Sunday evening parties at their then Cambridge home,and the time when I was first asked to Pen y Pass (Easter 1927) coincided with a singular blossoming activity of the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club; so from about that time the Pen y Pass Easter would include usually Lawrence Wager, Wyn Harris, Ivan Waller, Peter Lloyd, George Lowthian Trevelyan, nearly all of whom were also found in the Alps every summer,climbing together or at the same resorts.
Bit by bit, as they grew old enough to start climbing, the children of Geoffrey’s friends came to Pen y Pass too, the Mallory son and daughters, Courtenay Young (Geoffrey’s nephew) and a cheerful gaggle of others. What their parents shared was a passion for the mountains, and Geoffrey Young’s benison. Unobtrusively but firmly Geoffrey Young sorted out the climbing parties, and saw that everyone, however young or inexperienced, enjoyed an appropriate climbing day. Lliwedd of course, instead of being today’s neglected lump, was a Mecca, and new climbs were made there almost every Easter.

And not only on Lliwedd. I can’t  remember how the party I had with me on the Javelin Blade took shape at Easter 1930, but I know it included a splendidly tough American novice, Coleman Williams, and one of Geoffrey’s young nieces - not bad for what was allegedly the first British Extreme climb. The West Buttress at Cloggy we had to take three bites over, but they all originated from Pen y Pass. The first two attempts by a party which included Frank Smythe, Graham Brown and Ivan Waller were defeated, the first by a howling wind that was tearing away those whole overhanging grass ledges by which the cliff was  then decorated, and the second by sheer difficulty, a gathering rainstorm, and perhaps because there wasn’t a single piton between the party.

But it was to Pen y Pass that we came back at Whitsun that same year of 1928, driven from Cambridge by Ivan in his legendary Alvis (a shortened version of which won the Phoenix Park T.T.few years later - Alf Bridge being the mechanic who miscounted, and forced Ivan to drive an unnecessary extra lap!) And, of course, Geoffrey Young came with us, striding across the moor with his peg leg; I remember envying him his dive into Llyn dur Arddu several hundred feet below me, as I wrestled with the intricacies of Faith and Friction’s slab! Once again, Pen y Pass lay very much at the heart of it all, and provided the champagne we drank together that evening!

Pen y Pass evenings were quite something special. It will shock today’s tigers, but I can’t remember that we drank much at any time - a pint and a half at most was all that seemed to be needed. There were other things to do - especially the singing! There were always songs after dinner, some of them led by musicians with really trained voices, and Geoffrey had a repertoire of his own mountain songs. In sober truth, some of us younger ones got a bit fed up with the singing, though we joined in: I remember my wife (then fiancee) confessing she was a bit bored with it. So we engineered indoor gymnastics as a substitute, for some evenings at least: jumping onto a highish mantelpiece without falling over backwards: balancing a half-full glass on your forehead, removing it on to the floor between your knees, drinking it without touch of hands,using knees again to put it back on your forehead, and then standing up again with the empty glass back on your forehead - my special trick: Oh, and of course, climbing around a kitchen chair, and back on the seat without the chair tilting over!

 Much climbing talk as well, those Easter evenings. I am not sure I have conveyed at all the general belief that climbing on Welsh crags was, in part at least, training for bigger ventures on the Alps and elsewhere.Himalayan expeditions were beyond our scope, unless luckily selected for a rare Everest party. But I suppose we were gradually absorbing the knowledge that British rock climbing was a game that stood in its own right, provided you didn’t cheat and that, as things then were (Everest 1933  kept me nearly seven months away from my job) the greater ranges were reserved for the professional mountaineers, such as my friend Frank Smythe. And for much of my active climbing, Pen y Pass lay at the heart of it. As Geoffrey’song puts it: 

GW Young and his wife Eleanor 'Len'.

When the Wind from Cwm Idwal,  Cwm Dyli, Cwm Glas,
Comes Whispering over the scree, 
Come back, mountain friend, to your home on the Pass,
Come back, mountain climber, to me....GWY

Jack Longland: First published in Mountain 123