Friday, 30 October 2009

Never on a Sunday...Pioneers on Tryfan and The Glyders

Mike Bailey was born in Yorkshire in 1950, but his school years were spent mainly in the Midlands. Completely unmoved by rugby, athletics, or cricket, the chance offer of a weekend climbing in Wales in 1965 showed him an activity that immediately grabbed him. A traditional ‘Ogwen Apprenticeship’ followed, along with an early introduction to climbing walls, when his school installed one of the first in the country. Four years in Stafford provided frequent opportunities for climbing in the Peak, then in 1974, after marrying his wife Sue, he moved permanently to Wales.  He has climbed in many parts of the UK, in France, and Australia, and for some years fitted in fell running alongside climbing. More recently he has been involved in work on the CC’s forthcoming Ogwen guidebook. On summer evenings, if he’s not out climbing, he’s likely to be riding his bike around Snowdonia. Despite now belonging to the old fart’s brigade, he still enjoys climbing walls in the winter months. His other interests include a long term fascination with Greece, reading, and struggling to work on a historical novel.

Mike Bailey on a recent Ogwen first ascent. 'Little Red Rooster': E1-5b(US 5.10) Nant y Gors

A summer afternoon on Tryfan. Beside the two upright monoliths that crown the summit area, two friends relax in the sunshine. They take in the panoramic views, and peer down the steep rocks of the East Face to the floor of the cwm far below. Presently, one of the young men climbs to the top of one of the massive stones. Standing upright he surveys the yawning gap. He leans forward, knees bent, heels raised, weight on the forefoot. His friend watches apprehensively. He hesitates; then summoning up his resolve, the shoulders dip, the arms are thrown forward as the legs straighten, propelling him forward. For a split second he’s airborne, then touches down on the other monolith, crouching at the knee, shoulders thrust back to check his forward momentum. A broad grin lights up his face. No camera is present to capture the moment, for the year is 1801; the Napoleonic Wars are in progress, and photography lies in the future.

We know of this day because one of the men was the Rev. William Bingley of Cambridge University, who travelled widely in Wales. His published journal includes the detailed account of this, the first recorded ascent of Tryfan. His friend, who made the leap between the as yet unnamed Adam & Eve, was likewise a clergyman, the Rev. Peter Williams, and their shared interest in observing botanical specimens was the reason for their day out. The two were already accomplished mountaineers, having made an ascent of Snowdon via the hazardous Eastern Terrace of Clogwyn du’r Arddu. Their day on Tryfan and the Glyders was to be long and challenging:

I rose early one morning to undertake in company with my friend Mr Williams, by far the most laborious walk that I ever ventured upon in the course of one day. This was no less than to ascend the summits of three mountains, Trivaen, Glyder Bach, and Glyder Vawr, none of them much inferior to Snowdon.’

Nowadays anyone walking over Tryfan will take one of the established routes; the North Ridge, Heather Terrace, or the South Ridge from Bwlch Tryfan. Beyond that, we don’t give a thought to the paths and tracks themselves, or the individuals who pioneered them. In our minds we know they will take the line of least resistance and be easy to follow, being well worn through years of traffic. There are few places left in these islands that can still be called trackless wildernesses, but in earlier times, all our upland areas were just that.
We are too absorbed in the day’s activity to reflect on times before man’s presence, or to picture the mountains as they were then – trackless and unexplored, but until the 19th Century that’s how they were. Prior to that time the idea of walking in the mountains for recreation was unheard of. For aeons they stood aloof; unvisited, unexplored, places of myth and legend. Only herdsmen ranged over the uplands guarding their goat flocks, but left no record of their wanderings. The mobility we take for granted was unimagined: none but the most determined explorers, with the means and inclination for arduous travel by coach or on horse back could conceive of reaching the mountains, let alone climbing them. Which brings us back to our two clergymen.

They started early, leaving Llanberis at 7 a.m., taking a route up the north-east side of the valley. Above Nant Peris they rested, gazing down on the church, the cluster of houses, trees and meadows, ‘as on a map.’ A steady climb up the southern flank of Y Garn brought them to Llyn y Cwn, the small pool on the col between Y Garn and Glyder Fawr. Ahead, across their intended route, lay the precipices of the Devil’s Kitchen cliffs, and far below the dark waters of Llyn Idwal. The descent of the South Syncline, taken by the present-day walkers’ path must have been arduous, with loose rocks and scree lying in abundance, but their route finding skills got them safely to the foot of the cliffs. Here they paused to admire the great cleft of the Devil’s Kitchen itself. Heavy rain had fallen the previous day, and they were much impressed by the crashing of the water within the narrow confines of the chasm:

Amongst the rocks at the bottom I observed a great number of circular holes of different sizes, from a few inches in diameter to two feet and upwards, which had been formed by the eddy of the torrent from above. These holes are frequently called by the Welsh people Devil’s Pots, and from this circumstance, the place itself is sometimes denominated the Devil’s Kitchen.

Descending further into the cwm, their route took them below the great sweep of rock now known as the Idwal Slabs, then via the eastern shore of Llyn Idwal, to a point overlooking the Nant Ffrancon pass. Now they turned east, then south, ascending to Cwm Bochlwyd. From beyond the lake the cone-like southern aspect of Tryfan reared up before them: ‘Its sides appeared not greatly inclining from a perpendicular.’ The way ahead looked formidable. Bingley’s account confides his unspoken doubts, but the pair were undaunted, even noting the presence of mosses, bilberries, and saxifrage among the rocks. Then followed three quarters of an hour of continuous ascent as they clambered upwards, picking their way through the rocks towards the summit. With no cairns to guide them, no trail of worn rocks, no scratches from the boot nails of 20th Century walkers, let alone maps or guide books, they had to find their own way. Perhaps they strayed into the odd blind alley, but their skill and experience saw them through. On top, elated, they admired the view, marvelling at the precipice below them. In their exuberance they trundled large rocks over the edge:

…these continued their thundering noise for several seconds, and by their friction and dashing into hundreds of pieces, emitted a strong sulphurous smell, which ascended even to our station.

It was then that Williams leapt across the gap between the two monoliths. It’s hardly a death-defying leap, but the landing below, amid jumbled blocks, would have been unforgiving had he misjudged it, and a broken limb could all too easily have been the result – then they really would have been in trouble. Williams informed his anxious friend that a local woman had often performed this feat, and he was determined to emulate the deed. History does not record the identity of the bold young woman, but she had evidently found her way up there before them, and started a tradition that continues to the present day, as countless photographs attest. Adam & Eve, the now popular names for the monoliths, are not mentioned in Bingley’s account. Williams, being Rector of Llanberis would have possessed local knowledge of any names in use, so we may deduce the names date from after their time.

The next stage of their route lay to the south-west, over Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr. Retracing their steps they descended the South Ridge to the bwlch. The steep rocks at the foot of Bristly Ridge present a daunting obstacle, but to the left, the scree slope below the east face of the ridge offers a less forbidding alternative; here they will have picked their way. No cairn or beaten track showed the route. Instead, a slope of loose, unstable scree lay before them. It must have been a toilsome ascent. Later they studied the characteristic piles of stones that litter the summit area, some upright, some lying flat:

In one place there is a particularly large one, laid over some others, and projecting far beyond them. My companion walked to the end, and evidently moved it by jumping on it.

Others had already passed this way. Thirty years earlier, in 1776, Thomas Pennant traversed the Glyders in the opposite direction, before descending to the Nant Ffrancon. He too stood on the Cantilever. His Tours in Wales, published in 1778, features a sketch of him on its tip, made by his servant and companion, Moses Griffiths. Bingley was familiar with Pennant’s account and makes reference to his observations on the geology of the mountain. The going across the plateau was now easier, as the pair proceeded to the summit of Glyder Fawr:

From this situation we had a grand and unbounded prospect. On one side, the immense mountains of Caernarvonshire and Meirionethshire, on the other side, towards the town of Caernarvon, we had the whole of the isle of Anglesea in sight, and at a great distance northward, we saw the Isle of Man, resembling a faintly formed cloud.

 Perfect weather had rewarded their efforts, and with no further summits to ascend, they allowed themselves time to admire the panorama. By now tiredness must have been setting in. They began their descent, first to Llyn y Cwn, and thence down to the valley, which they reached by 8.00 p.m., ‘not a little fatigued with our day’s excursion.’

* Quotations are from North Wales by Rev. William Bingley, published 1814. The original spellings of local place names in Bingley’s account are retained.

Mike Bailey 2009©:Adam and Eve photo Mike Bailey©