Friday, 18 September 2015


George Smith in turbo mode at Gogarth:Photo Tony Loxton

There are two ways to gain the area known as Easter Island and whilst one presents difficulties that might only be overcome by hard core boulderers or those prepared to swim when the relatively easy sea level traverse below main cliff suddenly peters out, the other- although more conventional- is nevertheless not without hazard. Gaining its name on account of some massive freestanding blocks a short distance down an initial descent gully which with some imagination bear resemblance to the carved heads of their Polynesian counter parts. These quartzite cubes can be identified after descending a less distinct path a short distance beyond departure for Wen Slab. Gearing up by The Heads, the next section, particularly when glistening with dew, has on occasion proved severe enough in its gripping insecurity inclined at an uncomfortable angle with mud footholds, to force some teams back up the malevolent slope before setting out retrospective rappel anchors or simply abandoning the process and going somewhere else.

Easter Island: Photo John Redhead
If however the hand of success has smiled then a narrow rocky promontory is reached, from where a thirty metre abseil gains sea washed rocks before the fabulous super crack, E2, to act as a landing pad from which it is possible to explore the surrounding zawns which contain routes on excellent rock.Golden quartz streaked and white with thin cracks like Neutrino 6a, deep overhanging chimneys like Ormuzd E4 and grooved walls rising majestically straight from the sea, E1, and some way to the left when looking from a canoe, Tumbling Dice, a Jim Moran E3, all bearing an unmistakable quality trade mark.

In a narrowness opposite the promontory from which the ab is conducted, few climbers could fail to notice two striking crack lines and whilst the right hand fissure diagonals into a horizontal quartz rail, joining the arête is Phagocyte, HVS. The central thinner incursion running the impending wall’s full length in lightning strike style with an overhang at maybe three quarters height, is Wonderwall. It was for this prize that Laurie Holliwell came in April 1969 with Dave Potts. Usually partnered with his brother Les but this time with another of the London based team they would drive the A5 at breakneck speeds in order to make the Padarn by last orders on Friday evenings before climbing all weekend. Invariably repeating the process throughout the year except when venturing to the Alps or Dolomites on midsummer holidays. In this sense they were the forerunners of a tradition later taken up by Mick Fowler often with Mike Morrison or Al Baker who would also come from the south with a zeal for adventure and a legacy of serious routes such as Heart of Gold on left hand Red Wall in 1978, on Death Trap 1982, also E5 in Mousetrap Zawn, showed that they did not fall short of finding it. 
Home on the Range:The author talks down to George Smith:Photo Tony Loxton

In 1969 armed with some pegs and perhaps other rudimentary nuts and slings, generally inadequate for the task ahead, Laurie set off on Wonderwall much to Dave Potts’s amazement, “It looked preposterous to me: it wasn’t as if he was making for anything, just more overhanging rock”. Laurie was firing up cracks and flakes which did appear to close out, so thin once in the short groove barred by overhangs, that it made the climb look impossible from below. Never easy the initial section does however succumb to forceful jamming and hauling by which climbers au fait with these burly techniques can gain benefit. Somehow overcoming the awkward predicament which the tight groove had forced upon him, Laurie got  a peg under the overlap then another out on the right wall from which, with aid, he was able to grasp what ‘Smiler’ Cuthbertson would later refer to as “ A Golden Wonder flake”, and semi laybacking its edge was able to continue on improving holds. Perhaps in the same way that he’d been caught in action on Park Lane in Ken Wilson’s iconic photo.

Wonderwall thus entered the psyche of the Gogarth cognoscenti, magnificent in line this fifty metre masterpiece boxed in Easter Island’s atmospheric ruggedness had by the early 1970s gathered a reputation as a mean strength sapping stamina test which had subsequently rejected many suitors in their desperate quest at aid reduction, including Alan Rowse who after slumping onto the peg concluded “ I knew I had become a mountaineer”. Alex Sharp then a student at Bangor University who would write the next Gogarth guide eleven years after Crews’ original 1966 version was the eventual all free leader of Wonderwall which he completed with Hank Pasquill in 1974.

Photo: Tony Loxton
Shortly after Alex’ s guide came out there was a blitz on Gogarth the next year in 1978 which also saw climbers armed with friend protection for the first time, the almost perfect protection device for Gogarth podded cracks and fins. Championed by Al Evans, Jim Moran and Geoff Milburn amongst others many fine routes were added all over the cliffs yet at its end even this onslaught left much untouched ground including a direct version of Wonderwall which after an ascent of the original route seemed at least worth considering. 

In good conditions I had noted that a climber in reasonable fitness with strong calves was able to maintain a semi rest position in Wonderwall’s slim groove under the overhang. From here it would surely be possible, barring bad rock, to probe over the roof searching for holds on which to pull over and, if lucky, place some micro wire protection in the form of tiny brass headed RPs that had for the last few years complemented Friends as revolutionary protection devices. Although due to their small size they never inspired as much confidence as a good Friend placement they nevertheless sufficed in hairline cracks where previously such features were deemed unprotectable. Familiar with finding suitable slots form many successful and unsuccessful slate episodes I figured Wonderwall’s extension might be better suited to ‘eat’ these mini lifesavers than soft parallel sided slate. No amount of speculation could prove if this was so and thus resolving to at least peer over the roof it was inevitable that this plan would at some point be galvanized into action.

George Smith and Martin Crook doing the bizz:Photo Tony Loxton
Although the summer of 1985 counted as little more than an unfortunate washout, Johnny Dawes had arrived on the Welsh scene by autumn and in 1986 was poised for meteoric reign not only on slate and Cloggy but also out at Gogarth and anywhere else for that matter there were tiny holds to cling. Thus the Llanberis dojo once again buzzed with expectation and many fine climbers influxed the locals to pump up the volume. If nothing came of proposals first ventured in pub talk by one half of the team failing to rendezvous next morning, it was hardly cause for concern since in a game akin to musical chairs those remaining keen simply went to Pete’s café, hung around for a while then after a meeting where the joint chiefs sat at the magic table discussing the days business, usually found themselves marching over slate footpaths bound for the quarries, or as unsuspecting passengers gripping tight in the back of the Dawes' Rascal van as it hurtled head long round blind bends and over humped backed bridges as if chasing the future on its way to Gogarth, up the pass, or Trem.

In the general melee Craig Smith had beamed down from Yorkshire, responsible for such slate enthrallment as Gin Palace in Vivian Quarry Craig would later in august partner Dawes on what most commentators would class as Gogarth's route of the year, Conan the Librarian, the obvious bottomless hanging groove which carves through the left hand side of the great sea arch opposite Wen slab which many had eyed but few had tried. Initially the top pitch had required an aid point but returning shortly afterwards a space walking horror in the form of Janitor finish was found at an equally terrifying version at E7. Before these events unfolded Craig had accompanied me in further exploring Easter Island during which he was to find intense technical challenges in the form of Boil all Irishmen E5 6b which follows incipient nano cracks in Hombres conspicuous right wall. The name being coined on the spur of a moment and refers to one Irishman in particular, who well known at the time acted as a sort of inebriated Llanberis Fagin.
Big George hanging out on Angelsey: Tony Loxton
Prone to making outrageous claims as to his climbing prowess, his only known Gogarth encounter ended barely ten metres from its beginning when, having descended part way down the aforementioned Easter Island gully the fear had come hard upon him and it was not until Stevie Haston, who he had gone to watch, emerged an hour or so later to effect kindly rescue that the Irishman’s ordeal came to a close. In his favour it must be said the Cuban heeled cowboy boots of the type worn by line dancers are not the most suitable footwear for over sea Gogarth descents. Also known as The Sex Lobster because of his reddish countenance it seemed only fair that we should immortalise him after swinging leads on the less difficult than it looks E3 arête spiralling down Super crack’s left wall termination. Marvellously exposed, the ‘Lobster’ was a route that the Irishman would later claim to have accompanied us on, and in some ways perhaps he had.

Anyone who has spent time climbing traditional routes will know there are two factors involved which influence the chosen routes outcome. One is the placing of runners and two is the actual movement upwards or sideways when facing technicalities as displayed by geological features on the rock face. Reasonable enough on paper the problem on more than rudimentary ascents is that it is very easy to become utterly pumped form placing runners especially if the correct size is not chosen first or second try. You could of course forget about a rack and tackle any given route solo, yet, as this was not my intention when setting off up WonderwallI was aware that any misplacements might easily result in retreat without even getting to venture on the proposed Dirrectissima.

Thus in June 1986 suspended from hand jambs after placing two good Friends on the introductory cracks I looked down to see Craig belaying slightly to seaward as small waves rushed towards the Zawn back then disappeared on outward pull somehow controlled by the moon. Pacing the crack and soon entering groove territory aiming for wedged shoulder semi rest, I became comfortable enough to clip an old peg then place some back up gear in the form of some welded in rock placements. Definitely good enough to hold a fall. Reaching over the roof’s apex and placing RP one and two about six inches apart, I noticed a sort of goblin eye pocket above the overhangs left wing. The awkward overlap now forced me chest backwards as if straining against a powerful frontal storm, yet holds such as could be found above, although small, allowed uncompromising moves to gain a strenuous standing pose weighted mostly on the left foot beyond the overlaps wings.

While John Redhead hangs out a dead crow.:JR Collection
Reaching for the RPs I swiftly gained two good placements in the head wall seam and also gained the first of excellent fins which despite the steepness could be exchanged for footholds. Chalking them first so as not to miss,at least they became amorphous, amongst the slightly sea grassed white wall. Pausing for a moment on the better holds there came some noise from the promontory which was now peopled by Trevor Carlos Hodgson and Skinny Dave shouting encouragement.

Had they arrived twenty minutes earlier they may have gained great amusement by watching the struggling leader scuffle to gain footholds in the eye pocket but as it was saw him set up for a final run, slings on flakes and ears, coming and going as Craig paid out, the nines in time honoured ritual, and I reached belay points whilst the great inanimate heads looked out to Ireland still a rope length away. ‘I wonder why’ they had seemed to say in the metaphysical void of their silent voices. Later any notions entertaining philosophic thought were soon impaled by urgent hunger, and as if as a reality check, after entering the tiger’s den of Holyhead where architects had not been kind and people endured, local girls out hunting for husbands on a Saturday night, traffic light gnarly in karaoke death masks not being complementary about our lurid attire. “Don’t think much of yours” they had said to each other laughing.

Author Martin Crook: Photo Tony Loxton. 

Martin Crook:2015.Previously unpublished