Friday, 9 March 2018

We Dented the Samovar....

'Just dangerous, stupid and scary. Underdressed, ill-equipped, no guidebook, blizzard, sub-zero.”

Филипп Петрович скорер.

We were staying at Wern, near Trawsfynydd. I drove fast up the narrow, tight-walled road  towards Ffestiniog, making Alice flinch and exclaim. I had only started driving last year. We sped through Capel and the glistening gash of Ogwen opened up. Everything was covered with snow.

“Just a dusting,” I said confidently, pointing our wives at the north ridge of Tryfan - “Kate, darling, Al, it goes up that way... roughly,” - and we told them we’d see them at the top in a couple of hours. Just a couple of hours, honestly...

Both married, not quite yet fathers, my best friend Philip and I had decided to climb Grooved Arête to celebrate his 30th birthday. An easy romp, with plentiful belay ledges to smoke on and admire the view. It was mid-April. It would be like a day at the beach, sunbathing like in the late 80s, when the naughty Dawlish girls would take their tops off for Helios - I digress... He had never done it before. The snow should make it more ‘interesting’.

We stamped our way up the Heather Terrace, the snow becoming more icy and solid.  I found the old scratched letters. It was nearly fifteen years since I’d last been at the foot of this route. With various accumulated gear and a whole pile of rope-access stuff - we even had full body harnesses as our old ones had vanished along the way - we looked up and saw about four parties abseiling off. Inevitably, the yellow helicopter turned up. For training purposes, apparently.

“Fuck it,” I said with a smile, and we began.


I suppose, like all self-taught young climbers, we had a history of idiocy. Or at least I did.

I was seven. I was taught a fist-jam. It was a six-foot high crack on Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire, a place where later I discovered a boulder named the Devil’s Table. A little later, I had climbed the more famous Devil’s Chimney many times in my teens, despite the Council having declared it was verboten. Getting off that quarriers’ phallic joke was always the hardest part, feeling for the foothold beneath the top overhang. When the council propped it with crude rebar and tonnes of concrete we concocted plans to demolish it, involving homemade gunpowder, or drilled-holes filled with acid, or at least paint it pink and purple, a giant cock. As with all plans, the design, not the execution, was the main thing.

We got up to many vaguely dangerous things in the 70s and 80s. We would pour lakes of petrol and douse our bicycles, set fire to the bike and pedal madly through the explosive ponds. Strangely, I was always the first moron to do it each night. Kids who were less skillful got set on fire. I got used to smothering flames. ‘Dads’ started to lock their garages.

We robbed stores for fags: “Forty B and H and forty JPS please, for my dad, please.” As soon as on the counter, grab and run with a mate holding the door open. Eventually the Police caught up.

For a bet - there were many, but it was usually me, I once slept in a three foot gap between the brick and the track under a railway bridge next to the main-line to London. Terrifyingly, I got some sleep between trains. I shall pass over the multiplicity of other stupidities. I was avoiding home, for the usual, splintering family reasons.

In my mid-teens, after finding Joe Brown’s The Hard Years in the library, bored with soloing the chossy edges above Gloucester and Cheltenham, and finally grasping the concept that climbing should be a social activity, I bought 50 feet of 6mm blue polypropylene ‘washing line’. I used part of it to unravel and thread some 6mm un-drilled nuts with 2mm strands. Three dog-lead clips for krabs.

I showed my more naive mates how to do a waist belay. I knew the leader never fell and I never placed one of those useless nuts. Yet the rope held even my large friends when they fell off - or, as was more common, lumps of the crag fell off. Yet my waist belays held, and I was tiny. On that same rope, I taught myself to do the classic abseil. I started from my bedroom window, and graduated to the fast lane of the M5 in the nighttime. You just had to time the headlights right.

In my late teens, I got a grant for poor kids doing A levels, and spent it on a ‘proper’ set of climbing gear. I had done some easy classics with ancient hemp and a Moac or two back in ‘86, but I finally had an RP, about six Rocks, the old Moac and its smaller mate on a most dubious piece of tat - though strangely, it was the most Zen piece of pro: sink that and one felt immortal - and two Hexes, a luxury undreamt of. Oh yes, and a rope.

A friend, Dan, and I came up with a backpacking itinerary that involved every mountain from Foel Fras to Cader. Sadly I came down with a dose of worms on Foel Grach. I apologise for our stoned scrawls in the logbook in the shelter. I still sprinted Tryfan’s north ridge for the first time in exhilarated exhaustion - we’d already pitched the tent up at Bochlwyd and ran direct down through the boulders. Hard work. I collapsed by the morning - there was nothing left in me but those wriggling parasites. We came back a month later, and did Grooved Arete. A simple romp. Big boots and easy, careless.
Later I obtained sticky boots and a Troll harness, and after a while one of the first flexible friends - the ones that got recalled immediately. We didn’t bother sending it back, nor did we ever trust it, so it hung impotently from our belts.

I had recently moved to Exeter, because the family was supposedly relocating there. I started my A levels, taught myself to cook and all the rest for a term while I waited for - as it turned out - some of them to turn up. And angrily, I started climbing properly.

It was that sort of time when you did a few V Diffs, and then did a few E1s. Then you discovered the middle grades were hard. (Littlejohn well and truly sandbagged that guidebook.)

Moonraker: traversing through the Great Cave, the tide a little too high, and we went round with legs finding holds underwater the first time. It wasn’t too rough, but the swell lifted and dropped and your toes had to find the holds. But the route… easy, but so wonderful.

The Spider: that overhang, where the crucial hold on the overhang broke into different pieces the three times I did it in a year, and then that slab. That slab was superb, so thin. I was lazy once, and Philip took a 60 foot pendulum. I was tied to a distant gorse bush and was dragged and ended up with my buttocks on the vertical watching him swing. I lowered him to a ledge and he swore a lot, untied, and soloed down some VS.

Aviation: the second pitch like a great steep buttcrack. One foot slip and you’re going to get hurt, but it eases, it lubes itself up in a perverse friction, and you keep going, admiring the lichens. Vandal and Ann is nearly as good but more dangerous, especially if you have a botanical interest in plants on the second pitch.

The Heart of the Sun: only did it once. We ate spam sarnies before setting off. We had no cams. I found myself about forty foot up with a dodgy RP 1 and a 0.5. Then my god, the finger-crack! A rock 4! There really is a god, for climbers at least. The grade changes every year I’ve heard, depending on whatever has fallen off. It was a dangerous E2 the version we did. Magical. But the last choss pitch... Poor Phil, I’d get him to lead it, including when we did the Void, but I never wore a helmet, so I think it was fair play.

Such fantastic routes when you’re seventeen and haven’t got a clue about safety.


We were both sybarites and naïvetés. We’d go to Font in August. The ferry, whisky and 7Up, Gare de Nord and the first café avec la fumée... Le Métro avec the stench de Gitanes that nauseated the duty-free hangover, and the trek from le Gare de Melun through the Forêt with our rucksacks, Vango Force 10 and all, until we’d pitch our spot at the old free camping ground at Cuvier, just near the great places for shitting. The weather was good, which was better than any modern ridiculous aspirations of ‘friction’.

The girls bathing naked under the Cuvier standpipe were gleaming, foreign and had that effortless assurance that the English rarely achieve. They were much more our idea of lubricious friction - sod the grades. After two weeks of our passing with our respective “B’jour ça va? Bien,” I forgot myself on the day we left. “Morning. We’re off today. Mais, mais… tu es tres joli...” as I smiled wanly with that farewell shrug. Their eyebrows shot up and slowly lowered, and then came the reply: “Oh! You’re English too! We’re from Bristol…” I sighed, a helpless clown, palms aloft in mute despair, that turned to laughter. Multiverses of missed opportunities.

As for climbing, very soon women intervened. Fucking was more fun. For nearly a decade I didn't climb, the odd route aside, when I was always surprised to find I could still do it.

“Fuck it,” I said, with an idiot smile, and we started up.


The snow was falling thick and fast. We helped with a couple of stuck ropes for the various retreating parties - one of them had a face like a horse, yet the others were nondescript - and then we got to it. Big boots, for the lower pitches were mostly clear. But once we’d got past the snowy traverse, the going became rapidly more difficult.

Big boots came off. Rock shoes came on. Rock shoes came off. Cold feet. Boots. Shoes. Rubbing of feet. Verglas everywhere, and every crack was choked with ice. We agreed it would be good to have some picks and crampons.

I was still full of confidence. I was at my physical yet immature prime. We were going up, I decided. Phil was more wise than me, but he still came too.

At some point, we went off route. There was no Haven to be found. We climbed the very edge of the rib above the gully, avoiding the worst patches of ice, but with most of the cracks choked with it. Protection was sparse, and that had to be chipped out. It felt bizarrely hard, even for the conditions. I strung it out somewhat, to Philip’s annoyance that if he slipped he could be falling into the space above Green Gully, the rope slicing against the blunt scythe of the rib. I felt for him, and knew he could do it, but (to use a climbing cliche) failure was not an option.

This wasn’t the same Grooved Arete I did that sunny day in ‘87. Wherever we had gone wrong, we had ended up some distance to the right of the Knight’s Move Slab, facing a completely different steep slab - which was a very different proposition. The snow whirled with spiteful flurries.

The yellow helicopter had been back for a couple of hours, watching us - me with my antiquated Helly Hansen onesie and a Harris Tweed on top, and Philip in a faded Berghaus that might once have been red and blue. I suppose we looked like idiots. I gave the chopper the finger several times, reasoning that would not be misinterpreted as a sign for help, or might be interpreted as “We’re going up!” but it still wouldn’t go away. Yet as we continued, it eventually buggered off.

But this slab. I remembered the Knight’s Move was upwards left to right. Apparently I kept swearing about where the fucking Knight’s Slab was. But this was wrong. It was all thick with white ice and thin with black ice. There were some vague horizontal bands, more ripples than holds. It looked impossible. The only ice-tools I had was a number 11 hex and a nut-key - did I even have the nut-key? But that was no good against the verglas. There was no friction. I remembered some of my childish reading, and took off my boots. Stockinged feet. They actually work. They seem to immediately freeze and add a little extra friction. I teetered and smeared somehow to below a corner. Needless to say, there was no protection to be found.

“V-F***ing-Diff?” I expostulated.

Below, Philip watched impassively, but I could see his concern. The belay could have been better, and it would have been a hard fall.

The corner crack was choked with ice, but at least after a few minutes of smashing and digging I found a placement. Moving up was straightforward up a slightly impending crack. Thick ice. Number 11 hex as an ice hammer. I put my boots back on, for I could not feel my feet. Then smash and clear holds - any holds - even a small crimp… on a V Diff? Somehow I clawed my way up, close to the North Summit. The blizzard and clag we’d climbed in fell away, and I found myself at the margin of a temperature inversion. All the peaks became icy and bright in the sun, and the world below didn’t exist in the least. Well, at least for me.

We grinned and laughed. On the main summit I did Adam and Eve both ways, which sounds kinky, but really wasn’t. We checked the time. It had been nine hours since we had bid farewell to our beloveds. How time flies. We sat and smoked, and took a few photographs, guessing what our reception would be, but I was trying to hang on to this moment of escape, this small severance of the world beneath the cloud.

We remembered we had an early mobile phone, and somehow found some signal  from the summit. There were some unsettling, angry noises at the other end. So, we ran down past Bochlwyd, back to the Milestone layby. I think we saw the black cloud of our furies a quarter of a mile away, which were truly unleashed when I unfeelingly laughed at the fact that they had called Mountain Rescue. It transpired they had retreated off the north ridge minutes after we said we’d see them in a couple of hours.

It was a very silent journey back. It had been one of my most rich, thin, and memorable climbs, with all the ghosts of Winthrop-Young, Mallory and Kirkus crossing my mind at times. But that silence that remained amongst the four of us in the car spoke of something lost. There was a new silence.


Postscript, by Philip Scorer.

Almost eighteen years ago it seemed like a good idea to go for a birthday climb up Grooved Arete. I’d not been up any routes that long before and was excited by the prospect. We packed our cumbersome gear, including, I think, at least one industrial rope access harness with steel karabiners, a 60m 11mm rope, a reasonable rack but with few slings/runners etc and lots of heavy clothes (no light weight trendy gear back then).

We set off to the foot of Tryfan, told our wives to go up the ridge and meet us in about three hours and then briskly marched off leaving them looking a bit bemused.

About an hour later we arrived at the foot of the climb, the skies darkened with a snow cloud. The noise of an RAF rescue helicopter made me a little wary at the conditions as climbers were descending from the route. But we knew better, and started climbing, following a fifteen-year old memory of a route done in the summer.

David had always been a good leader and he ploughed, chipped and smashed his way up the route with me tagging behind hauling our heavy rucksacks. Walking boots were changed to climbing slippers and back as terrain altered. The blizzard swirled and the three hours had elapsed and we were ‘lost’.

He could not find anything familiar, memory, off-route? I was just following. As a second it was mostly safe but not enjoyable in the moment, mostly feeling that we were too high to start retreating so simply had to go on. Another couple of hours elapsed as David climbed icy slabs in his socks, the boots and shoes giving no purchase.

One particular pitch was most certainly not a V.Diff. A technical slab overhanging  what seemed like an infinite drop into a black and white world of swirling snow and sharp rocks, the haul line tugging below, David holding the line tight above. Somehow I managed to get up to the stance impressed that he had managed to lead such a terrifying pitch.

The ground got easier, I may have even lead a pitch or two, and perhaps some alpine style scrambling to the top. At least it was still daylight as we emerged into clear blue sky and a stunning view. Happy to be alive we called our wives and raced down the mountain to find our desperate and angry spouses. They really had feared the worst, they had no idea how to get to the top, they had seen the RAF helicopter hovering around, and exhausted climbers retreat.

There is something to be said of the juxtaposition of fearful experiences, beautiful places and trials overcome, but on balance, I would have preferred a nice walk with my wife in the sunshine and snow of the hills. I don’t think I climbed with David again for at least thirteen years.

(There’s another story when I drove for nine hours to meet David to attempt ‘A Dream of White Horses’. When will I learn…?)

A few brief notes:

Memory is fickle. Off-route is even more so. I was probably a fool in the circumstances. Mike Bailey, author of the Ogwen Guide, has kindly suggested that we had probably wandered onto a route called Snowstorm, VS 5a. An extremely apt name, and I thoroughly approve. I must go back there and see - perhaps a 20th anniversary is in order. If the first ascentionists are known… I have - thanks to Mike - just found out it was Don Roscoe and Hamish MacInnes. I shall raise a glass to the Rock and Ice and the Creagh Dhu. Discovering that last night brought the broadest of smiles to my face.

The summit photographs remained in my trusty Olympus XA2 that eventually got soaked in the leaky footwell of Phil’s car. Years later I extracted the colour film and developed the negatives as black and white. There is a little detail: it belies its time, but it seems true to our style of ascent.

“Ill-equipped?” Vest, shirt, Helly Hansen onesie, jumper, trousers, harris tweed, gloves, big boots and socks, rock boots, helmet, whistle, (torch?), a decent rack, waterproofs, hat, water, (coffee?), and chocolate. Rather heavy in the rucksack I recall, having to take a lot of it off. Poor Philip. But yes, bloody cold, and we had no guidebook.

But, we had dented the samovar.

Thank you Philip for the memories; apologies, to you, Kate and Alice for the stress of that day, and finally thanks to Mick Ward for his constructive advice writing this piece.

David Alcock-2018