Friday, 7 April 2017

The Huge Music

Dropping down from the craggy heights of Dyniewyd into the pastoral valley of Nantmor.
The car park near Gelli Iago was surprisingly full for the middle of the week. I had never considered this quiet land of modest whale backed hills and ewe sprinkled moors to be anything other than the haunt of the occasional iconoclastic rambler. After all, the nearby mountains of Yr Wyddfa, Moel Hebog and Moel Siabod would, I might have thought, offered themselves as more tempting targets for the typical Welsh peak bagger. I suppose the Gelli Iago track up Cnicht is a common approach to this popular wee peak so I reassured myself that most of the cars almost certainly belonged to walkers who at that very moment, were trudging up the rutted tracks and shifting scree which zig zagged up to Cnicht's crenellated ridge.

Nantmor ribbons through the quilted tapestry of Snowdonia like a gilded thread. A slumbering hint of wilderness which generally retains its character and tranquillity by virtue of its modest range of vertically challenged hills. Moel Meirch..Yr Arddu..Moel Dyniewyd and Mynydd Llyndy; minor stations of the cross when compared to the brooding massif to the north. Liam a son of fifteen years and a remarkably tolerant, accommodating and good humoured soul that you could wish to meet- considering the places I had dragged him up to!-accompanied me to this quiet backwater. Both encouraged by a rare window of good weather which had opened up within the generally dreary summer we had experienced so far. Leaving the old quarry we sheep tracked through the cropped pastures twixt Mynydd Llyndy and the shattered grey spoil heaps. Our destination hidden within the folding hummocks of bog cotton grasslands and the rusted outcrops where Nantmor's invasive rhododendrons wore their brightest colours.

The robust seed of these distant interlopers carried on the hard winds which came in from the Irish sea beyond the tapering mane of the Moelwynions and rooted within the poor earth in a display of tenacious colonisation. The land hereabouts is studded with old sheepfolds and the occasional crumbling hafod...a summer agrarian dwelling....which meld into the land like stone nests.Roofless and lifeless save the odd crow who preaches from the stone lintels and the world weary ewe who crawls in to die. One hafod we passed nestled impressively within the maw of a beetling cliff—both human and natural facades wrapped in the deep viridian cloak of rampant ivy. Tiny lizards exploded like rip-raps on the warm rocks as our passing shadows startled them into life. Striking west towards the sea, we fell under Llyndy's lower cliff..Craig Mwyner Crag of the miner..and continued up the purple slopes to reach the impressive upper cliff, now re-named Dyniewyd East by the Climbers' Club guide book team. 
Dyniewyd East: Paul Work's Llyndy Arete takes the obvious rib on the right 
The cliffs hereabouts were not known to me as a traditional climbing venue although I was aware that new router extrordinaire, Pat Littlejohn, who lived locally, had put up some new routes in the past five years. A new routes report in High had suggested that another team had put up the first new lines in nearly 50 years on Christmas Buttress. I vaguely recalled that an old Climbers' Club guide to South Snowdonia had mentioned something about Mynydd Llyndy but regardless of ancient and recent history, I was sure that Liam and I would get something new chalked up before the day was out. A bright sun set in and the clearest blue sky was not enough to overcome the westerly wind blowing in off the sea which cooled us to a degree where each was glad to have brought some warm togs. Pulling on an old baggy top and blowing on cold hands I weighed up the most obvious line, a short clean cracked arete which bookmarked the right edge of the cliff. It looked as if it must have been climbed before and turned out to be a little gem. I wrote this up as Spare Rib and felt it worthy of Mild VS before discovering that it was in fact a 1947 Paul Work route, Llyndy Arete which area guidebook compiler Dave Ferguson had graded at a more modest Severe. 

Paul Work was a minor figure in the Welsh climbing scene in the years around the second world war. A Merseysider who had the unique honour of being proposed and seconded for membership of The Climbers' Club by none other than Menlove Edwards and Colin Kirkus, fellow Merseysiders who dominated the pre-war climbing scene in North Wales. Paul Work lived with his wife Ruth Janette Ruck on an 83 acre smallholding in the shadow of Moel Dyniewyd. The harsh realities of wringing a life out of the poor earth of Dyniewyd's western fringes were recorded by Janette and published to popular acclaim in the 1960's. Place of Stones and Hill Farm Story chronicle lives of struggle yes, but also detail the ample rewards of living far from the urban sprawl. 

Time consuming as running a smallholding was, Ruth and Paul still found time to leave their agrarian responsibilities behind occasionally and climb amongst the red rocks of their enchanted valley. Paul Work's most popular climb - a relative term considering Nantmor's status as a climbing backwater - remains Christmas Climb, an excellent severe on Craig Dyniewyd, less than half a mile from their home at Carneddi. 

With Liam, I had the pleasure of putting up a direct VS version 12 months previously. This came fifty years after Paul Work had established the original. Culturally and philosophically, I felt a great empathy with Paul Work.The chronological dovetailing of our two routes gave me great satisfaction. Christmas Climb and Llyndy Arete were both put up in 1947, a time of ration books, bomb sites and the developing cold war. Political and social upheavals come and go but the stone remains. The climbers' words written indelibly upon a cold page. Apart from exploring Nantmor's lonely outcrops, Paul Work developed a serious - some would say perverse - interest in the equally unfashionable cliffs of Moel Hebog and Aberglaslyn Pass where he established the majority of his routes.

The empathy I felt with Paul Work extended beyond his enthusiasm for lonely, eternally neglected cliffs and outcrops to his rejection of the market orientated rat race where most of his contemporaries remained after the war. His rejection of the dominant social mores and lifestyle choices of that bleak era chimes with anyone who has ever been seduced by the lure of what we describe today as the alternative society. He may have been a minor figure in the climbing firmament but nevertheless, his life was an inspiration to anyone who values creativity and a quiet contented mind over material acquisitiveness and climbing the career ladder.

Liam Appleby leads Orbita watched by Henry Hobson
After completing the arete we tackled the capped left slab which gave another entertaining climb through the overhangs at 4c. An unusually clean edge which should have held a clump of vegetation alerted me to the fact that someone else had passed this way before? Later it transpired that guidebook contributor, Dave Ferguson had climbed this line although our lines had deviated above the overhangs. Finally we really did nail a new route. Tao of Stone was another VS which climbed a slab and shattered groove before finishing up a fine, airy arete. Two more new routes on the lower cliff were dispatched before we set off for home. Vasco VS and Orbita VD, were named after two ships my late father had served on. Both within site of Bryn Castell - Menlove's knoll -where I had scattered the old man's ashes and those of his trusty hound Gypsy, seven months previously.

The following week, Harold Drasdo was dragged along. My enthusiasm overcoming his well founded reservations based on previous experiences of my 'fantastic discoveries'! After completing Llyndy Arete I tried another couple of unclimbed lines but not without almost killing Harold when a ledge I was standing on suddenly departed from the cliff and just missed him by an arm's length! Giving up on the upper cliff we picked our way back down to the lower cliff to try out an obvious line which I noticed on the way up. This perfect, sharp edged arete was striking in its purity. It stood proud of the main body of the cliff like a serrated knife. Taking care with some more loose rock within the V groove at the base I bridged up and pulled out onto the arete. Easier climbing led to a half way ledge above which the arete narrowed to a razor's edge before gaining some girth near the top.

Unavoidable loose blocks prevented a direct ascent this time so I tackled a shallow groove on the left. Although short it was quite thin in places and demanded a long, committing reach to settle upon what appeared to be a good jug. When tired fingers finally grasped the thank-God hold it turned out to be a Jesus Christ! hold instead. That rattled alarmingly and threatened to cut short my pioneering activities in the blink of an eye. Affixed to the rock by faith and friction I managed to fiddle in a trusty moac and, breathing more easily, managed to swing up to reach better holds above. This line turned out to be Stonecrop El 5a.

It was clear that the line needed to be completed as first conceived. One week later I returned with Liam and his young friend Henry Hobson to straighten out Stonecrop. The fine line between life and death occasionally emerges from its cliché ridden lair to confront us with the chilling reality of its meaning. June 7th was just another summers day like any other—it could have been Liam's last on earth. I had decided to abseil down the arete to prise off the loose blocks which barred passage to the knife edge arete. Abseiling down a sharp arete is a tricky business. One slip and you find yourself hurtling into the confines of one of the retaining gullies. After struggling to find a sound anchor point I eventually set off and crept down towards the halfway ledge and began to prise loose the most prominent of the rotten flakes which stood like a fang at the base of the arete.

This fang, or perhaps tombstone, would have been more appropriate, rattled alarmingly in its socket. Some cursory pushing and pulling suggested that a good sharp shove should remove it from its root and send it spinning down towards the gully's scree fan 50' below. With Henry stationed across the gully taking photos, I instructed Liam at the base of the arete to take in the slack which trailed beneath me and tuck himself in around the corner at the foot of the arete. I gently rocked the flake back and forth until its unstoppable momentum gathered pace. Increasing the rocking action the fang finally was torn from its socket and, totally unexpectedly, took off on a gravity defying trajectory which was a full ninety degrees out of my calculations. Instead of exploding harmlessly in the gully below, the flake twisted and exploded into space, hurtling down the arete with the accuracy and intensity of a heat seeking missile. At the last nanosecond it glanced off the rock and exploded 'n a thousand sharp fragments through the branches of the holly tree at the base of the arete. 
Stonecrop Direct
Liam felt the screaming rush of air as the rock practically parted his hair. Despite being a fraction from certain death, Liam just brushed himself down and calmly stated ..that was a bit close! From my vantage point high above my heart pounded like a drum as the sulphurous smell of exploded rock drifted across the void between us. As calm descended I carried on and finished the line which turned out to be a fine little route...Stonecrop Direct VS-4b. The rest of the afternoon wound down as a series of repeat climbs and gentle rambling twixt crags. After repeating Paul Work's original Christmas Climb we followed the sheep tracks and streams to the old footpath which meanders through the oak woods beyond Carneddi, each lost in our own thoughts but gathered in the solidarity of our labours. Despite the scare I still love Nantmor as much as I ever did. Its texture woven from ancient skeins..its huge music filling an empty sky.

Through tumbled walls

Is accompanied
By lost jawbones of men
And lost fingernails of women
In the chapel of cloud
And the walled, horizon-woven choir
Of old cares
Darkening back to heather
The huge music of sightlines
Every step of the slopes
The messiah of opened rock  
Ted Hughes: Remains of Elmet- Faber & Faber

John Appleby: First published in Loose Scree. November 2005.