Friday, 14 October 2016

Electric Letterbox

Craig yr Ysfa: John Petts engraving on wood

Of a mind to plunge my hands into Thomas Firbank's, 1940 novel- 'Bride to the Mountain'- to ooze potential clues of the events of the Giveen climbing incident in 1927 not conceded to in 'I Bought a Mountain', but almost thwarted by a holiday chlorine wash. It would take longer to reveal the three climbs, which, if accurate, could provide evidence for this local man who was perhaps privy to secret information from an adjacent Capel Curig valley resident. If the descriptions of the three climbs bore any resemblance to the Great Gully, Craig yr Ysfa, perhaps it will be prudent to consider his fictional twist with this opportunity to refresh the Giveen story.

Turning to Chapter 2 to focus on Grace, a man of modest private means of no occupation, a superb climber, delicate as a cat, strong as a bullock who travelled to the Alps or the Dolomites each year or if less fiscally flush, to Skye, the Lake District, or North Wales. Staying with his friend, Peter Prospect, son of a northern landowner, at the 'Clamberers' Climbers' Club hut in November. 'Late in the year for climbing' they were joined the next morning by a local man, Jim Dunne. Two hours walk over the 'Cader' range they reached 'Black Arete', a climb of a thousand feet, described as extremely difficult and rendered slippery by a thin drizzle. Grace's companion, as of 'novice' experience is likened to be exercised of his skill as inexperienced people are on such difficult rock-pitches by his own personal efforts.

Firbank regales why 'everything went wrong'. A late breakfast that delayed the start from the hut, an unhurried walk and a late lunch. Prospect, burdened of having a bad, off-day, held up the other two badly as he fell off twice. Soon cold and with climbing difficult the last pitch was completed in near darkness, where they collapsed, wet to the skin on the summit.

Grace had an alpine lantern and compass, necessary as the drizzle had turned to heavy rain driven by an icy wind; the night pitch black. The candle in the lantern gave out half way down but the three men 'knew the lie of the land' and stumbled on, falling over often. Unexpectedly Dunne fell into a small pond, where he splashed out to the side helped by his companions and collapsed on the grass, unconscious with Prospect little better. Grace, 'in a quandary' decided to save one and dragged Dunne to shelter behind a rock, and then half dragged, half carried Prospect down the valley. They reached the boundary fence of the valley road after midnight, with the hut still three quarters of a mile away. They struggled into the teeth of the funnel wind.

The key to the hut, usually hidden under under a stone, was not readily found by Grace in the wild blackness and he smashed the window, gained entry and then dragged his companion inside. He lit a fire, wrapped Prospect in blankets before the stove, while both drank some brandy, kept in the hut for emergencies. Grace changed his clothes whilst Prospect slept and went into the night to find Dunne's car, which eventually started. It was not until near dawn that he drew upon help when they returned to the valley, on the way knocking on the doors of three farms leaving word for men to follow for help. Dunne's body was found lying at the edge of the lake where he had fallen, the inquest on the next day credited Grace’s actions but for a short lecture on the impropriety of rock climbing in the winter.

One of the climb descriptions begins in Chapter 3. 'Craig Ddu', which started by a fairly direct route. To the west of the highest point a V-shaped nick 'Hollt Y Cawr' (Giant's cut), an eastward course was taken to reach the crest as the map revealed that the ridge, which ran back to from one wall of the 'Hanging Valley', was more accessible from that side. At the foot of the precipitous mountain, the slope, almost all of firm rock at an angle of fifty degrees or so, striated horizontally to give excellent holds. The ascent, no more difficult than a staircase was easy and the terraces were wider than they looked from below. It took two hours to climb the two thousand feet from the 'Marchlyn Valley' to the 'Craig Ddu' ridge. The next ascent was that to Craig yr Ogof, which started with a field of boulders at its foot. The next stretch was eight hundred feet of unbroken climbing, the top nearly sheer,at  eighty degrees.

The cave was found via a chimney, eight hundred feet above a turf ledge, where a rest was taken and then a slab afterwards to a Rowan tree. About eighty feet of good holds, then a traverse to the right. A nice arete, an easier angle and maybe another hundred feet, and an easy lot of slabs afterwards with plenty of quartz. Large holds then grass afterwards, within a hundred feet of the cave at the end of the grass. The foot of the climb was split by a great fissure. The chimney was not wide- two to three feet . The climber wedged himself inside and wriggled up and sometimes the chimney narrowed so much that he came right to the outside and used holds on the jagged edge. Out of the fissure on to a steep-sloping shelf had proved hard work.
Although much steeper the slab strata ran easily with moves afforded on three holds. A shelf was reached and with an arm on a Rowan tree a rest taken before the next long Arete. Here the cliff folded and left a sharp angle with a void beneath and also to right and left. The rock was sound, the holds sufficient in size and frequency. The entrance to the cave had to be approached to the east or above the bulge in the cliff which appeared to form a broad ledge until it merged into the floor of Hollt y Cawr. There was a stretch of three hundred and fifty feet, which lay back at an easier angle with areas ingrained with quartz and others of turf that overlaid the rock.
A crack then fifty feet up, only two or three feet wide, possibly good for hand holds which passes the end of ledge and by the side of the cave with no way across.

The only way forward was on up the crack until above the cave where the slope eased off and was easily scrambled down. The last pitch proved far different with holds far apart and small. A crevice to take the first joints of the little fingers, a wrinkle of the rock that gave a friction hold for the side of his stockinged foot and but too rarely forming solid rock for a healthy grip. The crack led westwards and upwards at an angle of forty five degrees across the vertical face with no footholds beneath. Almost a hand-traverse. There was little chance to relieve the weight with the feet. Level with the cave with twenty feet to go to the ledge the crack petered out and recommenced after an interval of two or three feet. Somewhere above the cave, pressed hard to the face just to the left there was a small niche, which allowed the toes to be inserted and a stretch across the blank space to where the crack opened again to fall onto the ledge in front of Ogof y Cawr.

In Chapter 7 another 'Craig Ddu' climb is described, that of the 'Great Wall'. Eight hundred feet climbing a huge rock slab, reached by a ridge between a great cleft and the peak, broken but twice by large terraces. The first eighty foot pitch- the steepest of the climb- ended on a ledge. The initial part of the next pitch- an awkward place at the continuation of the slab- fifty feet up, the few holds petered out with only a vertical chute on the right, as if a giant had sliced a 'ten-yard sliver of rock with a semi-circular chisel'. A smooth, shallow gully known as the Slide. Ahead was the smallest of rock areas, large enough only to take the toe of one shoe and giving time only to secure a handhold. The distance across the Slide precluded a tentative essay with the foot and once launched, there was no going back onto the opposite foothold. A second or two of balancing and a grab for the handhold followed by the short climb up to the terrace . The next long pitch, with no secure place to stop and belay, needed the full run of the hundred foot rope between each climber.

A stop was needed at a point half way up the great slab between the terraces, standing in a small projection whilst the next climber's rope was belayed over a blunt spike of rock, between the knob and the slab. A long chimney above with a fold in the face like a partly opened book, had so obtuse an angle as to allow the back to be wedged against one wall and the feet against the other. In the very angle of the groove the rock was spilt, a thin crack ran right the way up where the chimney gave on to a long, easy-sloping slab studded with white quatrz.

In places the crack in the corner allowed the toe of a shoe, in others a stone jammed provided a hand hold. The walls of the chimney, smooth, with occasional footholds and not difficult, gazed over a void below. At the quartz area a firm rock knob allowed a rope tie. Enough to belay a man around his own body and call for another to come along. The first of the next two easy pitches of the Black Slab was studded with quartz, which provided gargantuan holds, and part of striated rock. The last pitch, difficult initially but straightforward to within twenty feet of the crest of the ridge, followed by a bulge in the rock, which made a very slight overhang. Standing on a small foothold below the bulge, a hand slid over to seek a hold above it. Careful not to lose balance in the attempt. Pressed tight to the face and straightening up in small increments and then boldly to capture the hold above.

The 'Black Arête' climb of Chapter 12 associated with the accident earlier in the book is on the north side of the 'Caders'. Of one thousand feet it started in a dark, wet gully, steep enough in places to be called a chimney, lined with loose stones and patches of turf. The gully took up nearly half the climb before being forced on to the face. The steep arête, sometimes not far off the vertical then appeared for some three hundred feet. The climb on the apex of the angle with three parts very thin. The arête eventually got very smooth with work needed to work back into the three or four feet wide gully. The only way up was the ‘chimney’ by using feet on one side and the back of the neck of the other up a gap of about four feet. Forty feet later the top of the pitch led to a ledge, a foot traverse outwards to work out above the gully and a look down the way already climbed as if you’re seeing through the wrong end of a telescope. The ledge led to the mountain ridge between 'Cader Gwynt' and 'Cader Fronwen'.

Firbank's account of this 'accident climb' begins with Grace the leader who worked his way up the right wall of the gully close to its floor, which lay at seventy degrees. Several holds were cleared of earth or moss by him and a belay reached at eighty feet. The next pitch, a ‘beastly greasy wall' was ascended as if it were a staircase and then off again on a hundred foot lead where he belayed and then led upwards. There was a repeat of things for the rest of the gully part until they reached foot of the Black Arete. Here the gully had become a rock chute with damp sheer sides. There was no way forward but by climbing out on to the Arete. About five hundred feet up the ground at the foot of the climb fell away so sharply that looking outwards did not 'light on level ground' for perhaps fifteen hundred feet. The Arete was thin, steep, the rock beautifully sound, horribly smooth and an exposed place because when they moved out from the gully there was an overhang below the point where the Arete was joined with a clear view between the legs into clear space. The area subject to the full force of the wind.

A rope was looped over a little spike on the edge of the Arete, the belay not much more than a matter of form and it was dusk as they reached the last pitch. They worked their way back into the gully from the great wide chimney pitch. There was a grass ledge at the base of the chimney and Dunne backed his way up six feet, then horizontally he lay across the chimney and moved one boot at a time, no more than a few inches. With his feet a little higher than his head he pushed behind his back with his hands until his head was above his feet and then he reached the top. There was only the foot traverse left and the turf of the hillside sloped to meet the end of it in no more than twenty feet.

Mark Hughes:2016 
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