John Redhead on Bittersweet Connection.Original Photo Keith Robinson/JR Collection.
When the rains came central Snowdonia might lay cloud banked and brooding for weeks on end. Its inhabitants displaying a type of innate pagan madness rarely seen in city dwellers; at parties people quasimodoed through slate lintelled lime washed doorways, questing along uneven passageways- searching out warmth from the hot knife stove.
Teams looking for rock action migrated from Llanberis to escape the debilitating drizzle, taking solace at Tremadog or Gogarth and whilst each of these enclaves retained a particular allure there was a growing realisation amongst climbers that the limestone crags surrounding Llandudno’s Great and Little Ormes situated within what Andy Pollit called ‘the rain shadow’, had slumbered largely unnoticed since the 1970s when some spirited exploratory probes where instigated by the Rev Bob Shepton and Rowland Edwards respectively. In particular Edwards’ routes on the Little Orme including Detritus and Wall of the Evening Light although largely aided, these where unquestionably big adventures. Out there on guano lashed 100 metre or more sea cliffs beyond the ken of twitching net curtains on local housing estates. At times alone except for the changing tide.
Looking in from sea it would become clear that the Little Orme crags rise dramatically from undercut caves towards grass embossed summit slopes reaching termination at a forlorn lookout bunker. They are, it would appear, colossal in comparison to the crags of the Great Orme maybe a mile a way to the right, yet this contradiction in terms is subdued in part when the eye rest on Castell y Gwynt nestling aloof in steepness sandwiched between almost vertical bank strata, off sided below the lighthouse.
Here Edwards embarked on a mostly free climbing campaign producing the spectacular New Dimensions with a few aid points before freeing it in 1976 at E3 5c 6A. Before this came Central Pillar in 1972, which eventually gave Ron Fawcett a testing E6 when he freed it in 1983. In 1977 with Paul Williams came Psychic Threshold. Again with a few aid points which when eliminated by visiting Australian Kim Karrigan in 1981 weighed in at E5 6b. Taking a continuously overhanging prow defining the edge of the buttress this phenomenally impressive route was thought E10 for position. For those who valued such positions the Gwynt exerted a magnetic pull drawing those with the necessary credentials in technique and psyche to further extend the Gwynt’s repertoire.
There is a photo a lean man in Helly Hansen fibre pile and EBs, bearded, his countenance reflects concern, the torso almost horizontal he is reaching over a roof high on the crag. Seldom seen, this image was taken in September 1979 by Keith Robinson and shows John Redhead on the second pitch of The Bittersweet Connection. That same autumn this team- on occasion accompanied by the Buddhist chanting of Malcolm Boater- also climbed Plas Berw another E5 on this steep testing ground which as the year rolled over into the 1980s firmly cemented the crag’s reputation as one of those places that went to the heart of the matter, which despite varying amounts of fixed gear could in any way be confused with a sport climbing venue. Such a factor could be easily discerned by standing shivering below New Dimensions in a light rain, taking care not to glissade wet grass slopes below the towering world of elephant tufas and confusingly angled grooves.
Such a slope, it should be mentioned, appears to end in an abrupt horror drop whose termination although concealed from sight nevertheless further imbues an all ready charged situation with an initial sense of lurking fear, especially if considering climbing here in less than ideal conditions.
If you were the type of climber daunted by high E grades but still comfortable within the VS range, it is likely you would ignore the Gwynt and gravitate towards The Little Orme’s great zawn in pursuit of imagined lengthy slab climbs (as long as Cloggy’s great slab it was said) since by the early 1980s Roland Edward’s interim guide, innocuous enough in it’s green cloth cover, presented such offers. One route, Rabble Rouser, involved the climber in depths of unstableness rarely plumbed, and after committing to marginal unpleasantness shared with the first few pictures of the great flake, becomes a sustained unrelenting grass nightmare where, despite it’s intention, the original description seems reluctant to divulge information.
Looking up it could just be that the ground above appears so uninviting that it is difficult to match reasoned documentation with territory encountered by the eye.
Experience on this territory requires a certain type of mindset and a great deal of steadiness by both members of the party lest the outcome descend into quagmires ordained by awkward retreat. It seems just to balance any merits apportioned during overall ascent if indeed they exist so that in so far that Rabble Rouser is concerned it might be said that all action takes place in a fantastic situation with degrees of exposure well loved by most exponents of this remarkable craft, yet here the plaudits end, and when embarking on pitch six I recall that we had recourse to using a peg hammer as if it were an ice pick, since in order to ‘send’ the last forty metres it seemed in survival’s best interest to treat the green severity now confronting us as a hybrid ice climb which when considered in the amber glow of hindsight, would probably benefit from the grade of hard very marvellous!
In essence it would be the places in between Little Orme’s adventurous great zawn and Great Orme’s wind blasted gothic sentinel at Castell y Gwynt which would receive most attention and occupy the thrust of much single pitch and new sport climbing on the Ormes in the 1980s. Entering climbers’ psyche most immediately in the form of Parisella’s Cave, Pen Trwyn and then of course the underworld in waiting hidden below the marine drive L.P.T..
“The Great Orme – with Pen Trwyn – is undeniably Britain’s most extensive roadside crag with nevermore than a five minute stroll to any particular buttress.” Andy Pollitt 1987.
There was however a toll gate at the beginning of the one way road Marine Drive so that if arriving by car a fee was extracted by eagle eyed attendants manning the booth who could rarely be persuaded to extend pity on impecunious climbing teams by waiving the extortionate ( as we saw it), levy of a few pounds. A few minutes after the toll booth was Parisella’s cave, then Mayfair Wall, which, containing some old bolts and pegs had obviously been the scene of practice aid routes before the appearance of Mel Griffiths and Lee McGinley in 1981 who started a new wave of free climbing with their now legendary Axle Attack at E5 6a. Prior to this, a couple of 16 year old schoolboys from nearby St David’s College had attacked the same wall by the line of a 1972 Roland Edward’s aid route, Mayfair, which they freed except for a couple of rests. Their names Andy Pollitt and Jerry Moffat. In July 1982 Pollitt would join forces with John Redhead for the D.S. Machine which they found right of Mayfair and on which they were forced to use one aid point until Pollit returned with master of ceremony’s Paul Williams in the next year’s boom to eliminate this slight flaw at E6 6b.
By 1983 there were people bivouacking in the caves then climbing all day, sometimes for weeks on end. Their yellow tattered karrimats adorned with names of their hitching destinations in big letter black and red marker so that one side might read Llandudno, North Wales, Llanberis, whilst the reverse, revealing their supersaver return choice typically signalled Sheffield or Leeds. Fully extended these scrolls often contained evidence of climbers pilgrimage and, if you understood the hieroglyphics that read Boux, La Pallud, Provence, their names might trigger memories of wine soaked toking scenes in star swept croissant mooned camp sites after days spent in opera vertical Edlinger dreams, pumping sun bleached white stone, Luna Bonged under the Ctullah cool Necronomicron rim.
The thousand mile of roads leading to continental lavender scented Nirvana did not come with a guarantee of safe passage and indeed might involve hitchers in realms of hassle rarely imagined before setting out, including bizarre sexual interviews whilst drivers ascertained their chances of re-enacting subtitled Midnight Cowboy scenes behind lonely Autoroute du Soleil services beyond the glare of heavy goods wagon trains. Then there were tales of cruising Mrs Robinson style femmes fatales seeking favours from robust youths and hasty marches via wrong turned slip roads escaping Moroccan sailors after dope deals gone wrong on the outskirts of Marseille.
Such episode were not of course the special preserve of Europe and whilst relatively rare, incidents of a similar ilk also occurred or were alleged to occur in the UK.Presenting hitchers in general with greater or lesser degrees of inconvenience in their time on the road.
Whatever the travel arrangements, by 1983 Pen Trwyn’s growing reputation as a hard climbing venue with plenty to go at together with it’s alternative status to Gogarth or Trem, drew various teams to what Paul Williams dubbed ‘ the Pen Trwyn patrol’, as they walked the ten minutes or so back and forth along the Marine Drive for rendezvous or refreshment at Parisella’s café where in their Italian welsh glory Mrs Parisella and her twin daughters were to become part of the scene and that least as sought after by some protagonists as the harsher technical challenges encountered on precipitous unstable top out limestone.
In contrast to generally secluded climbing experience within Llanberis slate enclaves, Pen Trwyn rendered climbers’ actions continually open to public scrutiny so that dog walkers, courting couples, strolling pensioners and bored children strapped back seat in curb crawling family saloons regarded or ignored climbers antics with equal measure. Such exposure led at times down roads of fanciful interaction, ‘why are you going up that rock?’ Reply, ‘It’s the first step in our Everest training’. Ludicrous and amusing as these interludes might be, all routes climbed or attempted above Marine Drive place onus on climbers to maximise extreme caution when encountering any loose rock or vegetation lest passers by suffered unexpected bombardment a scenario inevitably resulting in an all out climbing ban, Everest training or no, initially many lines were done without lower offs , involving leaders in heart stopping finishes over treacherous grassed mini tiers seldom less than ninety degrees with poor on non existent protection and inventive belays well back.
Once atop the cliff, teams either abseiled down or walked a ways off to find convenient descents which in the Trwyn enclave were unfortunately a rare commodity. This time consuming procedure pointed towards climbers’ traditional backgrounds where these tactics represented the status quo, so that for reasons best left to psychiatrists, lower offs either from makeshift loops in abseil ropes ( the cleaning of routes from the top down was not unusual) or strategically positioned bolts did not become the norm until a major crag overhaul spearheaded amongst others by Steve Mayers in the 1990s. Some early routes did however benefit from the odd bolt runner which marked a departure from purely traditional values whilst at the same time providing quality climbs where leaders still generally relied on natural ‘pro’ and personal involvement on Firefly in March 1983 proved this to be so.
Having made initial Trwyn acquaintance with Mel Griffiths, where after discussing bolt strength under various forces, we had conducted an experiment whose simple principle relied on clipping a 50 metre rope to a bolt on Mayfair before attaching its free end over a tow bar then driving off along Marine Drive so producing a sort of high tension catapult which amazingly did not pull out and decapitate onlookers- it was with some relief that a far less dangerous enterprise later that day culminated in an ascent of Plumb Line. Prior to this two climbs with John Redhead, the first an unusually loose flake line in a sheltered cave complex, The Separate Elephant would, I speculated, be rarely repeated and another all together more conventional though excellent quality fingery E5 6a near the remains of an old pillbox. The Homspunk was a ground up stamina test forced in bitterly cold January conditions when, on a day remaining strange from sunlight, a severe wind had chastened the crags which had unsurprisingly become our sole preserve.
Born on a steel blue sea these gales soon blew in the Ides of March and once subsided allowed hibernation release for candidates suffering winter withdrawal symptoms from the cult of the steep. Dave Towse had already placed a bolt on a line that cuts through overlaps and headed towards a fascinating groove which looked possible to fill with good wires. In exchange for belay penance on another project merely a two minute walk along the same terrace, Dave handed me the lead on the one bolt eyed undercut groove. Fantastic was the undercling that a climber could grasp, bouldery and bunched up at first but with just enough edge where it mattered. The rough limestone could be trespassed, despite initial seepage, by forceful pulls and careful foot tricks so that once beyond the double shot espresso start, a sort of swaying movement twisted sideways and reaching up as if to layback, found holds better suited for simple pull up, which drew me into the shallowness of the groove’s narrow finale. Here after placing bomber runners amidst the faintest hint of a pump, I carried on in finishing mode just as a car drove by, it’s stereo maxed out with Spandau Ballet’s Chant No1, such was the scene on Firefly which opened an account soon swelled by a gathering pace as teams keen on crimping down hard began making their mark.
Dave’s new line Flakeaway at E5 6b could be found on the wall right of Plumbline and involved tenuous climbing on roughly the same micro edges as those used for footholds. Harsh though this proved, we had far more trouble on it’s sister route which defined by a squiggle shaped groove,halfway, also attacked the wall right of Plumbline but this time starting only a few metres from it’s parent. Rappelling the line I took advantage of a small thread in an undercut flake and equipped it with a yellow taped sling (the canary’s tail). Kev Howitt had joined us in Bangor then had driven to the Orme as if an invisible lead weight was somehow gluing his foot hard down on the accelerator and though climbing well, neither he, Dave nor I could fathom out shapes required on the wall above the midway groove cracks. Lowering off small wires each climber in turn supported by shouts of encouragement and banter during their attempt, found themselves back on the ground. Desperate for a brew I resolved for one last try before café break and dispensing with the now practised lower section more easily found myself eyeing the thread with triple paranoia ( from the safety of the ab it had looked quite decent).
From here perhaps driven by fear of taking a big lob and closing on quality first ascent I somehow fluked over less than easy exit ground that had it sustained itself longer, may have rewarded onlookers with the spectacle of a long plummet. Easy to name The Scary Canary settled down at E5 6b and after several ascents it was perhaps inevitable that the thread runners holding power would be tested by flyers. In one such episode destruction was the result so that future ascentionists were rewarded with a more encouraging bolt runner in the placing of which our original team played no part yet hardly had cause to contest.
As the year wore on and the Pen Trwyn patrols extended their remit routes, doubled then tripled on both Ormes as climbers including the local Lyon brothers Dave and Chris, Norman Clacher, Jerry Moffatt, Ron Fawcett, Andy Pollitt, Bill Wyman, the Midlands based Crook brothers, Mel Griffiths and of course Master of Cermonies Paul Williams without whom no proper climbing scene in Wales during the 1980s could be complete, mingled with other brethren producing classics and pushing standards the likes of which had hitherto only been known in Roland Edwards’ dreams and as Menlove observed many years earlier, was in any case where all great climbing took place.
In a very real sense what few would dispute that great climbing took place that 1983 summer in a number of locations.Chief amongst these in Wales was Jerry Moffat’s solo visit to the ultra traditional walls on Dinas Cromlech in the Llanberis Pass the day after his contribution to the Master’s Wall saga on Clogwyn Durr Arddu’s hallowed alter. By the time Jerry descended the squeeze below the great open book on Cenotaph Corner he had soloed seven extremes including Right E5 6a and Left E3 5c wall, declaring that the Cromlech was ‘an old and outdated crag’. Whilst such immodesty could be ascribed to the confidence of youth there was a portent in Moffat’s words, serious or not, that left those firmly entrenched in traditional values asking an obvious question. If the Cromlech was old and outdated how then was a new crag defined? For the answer apart from the man made quarry arenas, we had only to hop over the wall opposite Parisella’s cave in the June of next year, descend a steepish path at low tide then traverse the pock marked natural pavement below LPT where Ben Moon had recently completed his superb 8a project Statement of Youth.
Fully bolted, it was as if the cliff was made for such athletic action, where the climber could concentrate entirely on intense moves, clipping secure in situ protection on the way. Whether you valued such action or not, it was clear that to complete such an ascent without recourse to hanging on the rope, even after much practice, presented impressive rock climbing challenge for which severe training regimes would probably have to be undertaken.
Realising that French style sport climbing had come to Wales we looked up and gazed into the future wondering what the rising tide might bring.
“If you know how to whistle just put your lipstick together and blow.” I had said in soliloquy.
Martin Crook:2015 (previously unpublished)