Friday 29 January 2010

The Heart of Darkness

It was a message from Harold Drasdo on my answerphone which rekindled my interest in climbing on Arenig Fawr. Despite several years having passed since I last laid hands on the rough, pale rock of Simddu Ddu and Ddaer Fawr, Harolds' call was to lead to one of the most satisfying and productive periods of new routing I have ever experienced.
Harold... whom I had only spoken to briefly a couple of years before... was looking for some illustrations for an article on Arenig he was doing for High. Fellow Arenig explorer, Terry Taylor had alerted him to an article I had written for Climber in 1992, detailing the vague, lost history of Arenig climbing and touching upon the mountain's unique place in British art. The mountain having become to dominant motif for the Edwardian art movement which became known as The Arenig School. This unique school which borrowed heavily from the impressionists on the continent had included the wonderful Augustus John amongst it's handful of activists. Unknown to myself, Harold and Terry Taylor had begun to make their respective marks on the mountain at roughly the same time; that is around the late 80's early 90's.
During my formative explorations I imagined that I was a true pioneer. Wandering over the viridian ramparts with just the crows and occasional suicidal ewe for company. Never imagining for a moment that 'my' crags had become the obscure objects of desire for other suitors !
In the course of our telephone conversation I arranged to drop off some slides and photos at Harold's home near Llanrwst which is about 20 miles from my abode. Within a short time we began to share a rope and our regular visits to Arenig where interspersed with visits to other crags of an esoteric character.

Despite his veteran status Harold still climbed well and in time we forged a pretty good partnership which suited our styles and standards perfectly. At this time Terry was the main man when it came to first ascents. Leading new lines up to E5, Terry's prodigious haul left Harold and I in the shade.
However, with Harold and I looking to unearth more accessible lines, our frequent excursions where not without success.
In the spring of 96 we produced half a dozen new routes on Simddu Ddu ranging from V Diff to VS and by May our thoughts had turned to the impressive amphitheatre where Harold had a longstanding project to complete.
This steep crackline which split the left wall of the amphitheatre surrendered as Left Aisle, a surprisingly ameinable V Diff given its ferocious aspect!.
It was whilst following Harold up this route that I began to study the gloomy black cleft which dominated the amphitheatre... Simddu Ddu.....The Black Chimney itself.
From his eyrie like stance at the top of Left Aisle, Harold too felt the irresistible attraction of this forbidding pagan place. In an unspoken affirmation of intent we coiled the rope at the foot of the cliff and stepped back into the sun.
On the way home, Harold joked that if we ever were able to climb what was probably one of the last unclimbed gullies in north Wales then we could quite rightly claim to have finally closed the gully epoch !
Never having closed an epoch before, I was drawn to the idea of directing our future efforts on a venture which was hopelessly anachronistic in the modern climbing climate.

I thought of one of my climbing heroes, Bill Peascod, the great Cumbrian pioneer who in his autobiography Journey After Dawn writes in hair raising detail about the epic venture he had with his partner Bill Beck in Y Gully on Haystacks.
In one of the books most entertaining chapters Bill describes how he led this disintegrating fissure which became more difficult and treacherous as he ascended. It was on this climb that partner Bill Beck swore that if they were to miraculously survive then he would never climb again. They did .... he did !
It was on a fine June day when we found ourselves entering the shadow haunted amphitheatre of Simddu Ddu. As a curtain raiser Harold led a fine meandering V Diff on the sloping shelf walls of Simddu Ddu which because of its unique structure provided Harold with a ready made route name Ziggurat *
*A rectangular temple tower or tired mound erected by Sumerians,Arkadians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia.
In character this was not unlike John Sumner's classic Will o the Wisp in the neighbouring Arans and made a fine companion climb to our Zalamander, an excellent VS wall and corner.
Pleased with our morning's activities we wended our way out of the sun and into the chilling confines of the amphitheatre. After observing the time honoured rituals of climbing procrastination, I flung myself like a man going to the gallows at the verdant constriction which slithered into the crow black cave far above.
Stripping off  vegetation as I climbed, I was pleased to discover fine sharp clean holds beneath the moss and grass. It was also a relief to discover that the steep right wall was as clean as a whistle and dry to boot.
However, the left wall was dripping wet and oozing with green slime which meant that our only feasible line of attack was a wide crack between the face and the right wall.
After 40ft of steep, dirty climbing which seemed to take an eternity I was faced with a difficult bulging wall which stopped me dead in my tracks. If only I had one of those cow-bell hexes with me to insert in the wide glistening crack.
Each burst of do-or-die enthusiasm founded upon the shores of fear and self doubt before that zen like state which all climbers have experienced kicked in and I was carried through the frankly insignificant barrier on autopilot.
I had finally reached the chockstone beyond which was the black cave which I imagined was a Tolkeinesque passage into the very heart of the mountain itself. Unfortunately my romantic rev­erie was extinguished when I saw that the cave was nothing more than a square cut short pas­sage from which glutinous mud ran down from the rear to spill over the chockstone lip.
From the chockstone the roof above extended a full 20ft out towards the searing glare of the June sky. Looking out, hand shielding my squinting eyes towards the swarthy dun heights of Mynydd Nodol, I attempted to find a line of escape from the gaping jaws which held me .
I could see that the steep wall to my right ... facing out ... was dripping wet and impossible, but I was delighted to discover that the wall to my left offered a dry, broken facade.
Although vertical and looking a wee bit friable, the left wall nevertheless would go I was sure. Without exploring further I fed a sling behind the chockstone and abseiled back to my long suffer­ing partner.
Six days later we returned with the full armoury of the Trad hard man. Pegs and peg hammer,old expendable slings,big hexes etc etc...
With the psychological advantage of having cleaned the first section of the route and having enjoyed a further six days of dry weather we had no excuses....this was it !
My confidence however dissipated as soon as I entered the chilling confines of the amphitheatre and felt the sun's rays lift from my back. Within these towering walls, cold winds and shadows snuffed out the promise of the warm blue yonder and drained my optimism. This was not a place to linger for longer than necessary .
Without employing any delaying tactics I was soon ensconced above the chockstone, scrap­ing mud with my peg hammer off the cave lip and contemplating my exit.
I gingerly stepped off the chockstone, expecting to make a furtive foray before retreating back to the dubious security of the cave.
However, discovering that the holds were satisfactory and my position high above Harold not too unnerving, I proceeded to head out of the wind and into the sun.
Reaching the halfway point I stepped down and kicked at a protruding flake. If it proved positive it would make a decent resting point. From this position I continued my crab like crawl across the wall towards a small shaft of sunlight which streamed in through a tiny slot where the left wall met the roof.
The geological upheavals which had created the mountain in the mists of time had, remarkably, placed a small letterbox slit in the roof just big enough for those of average girth to squeeze through just where it was needed.
With the left wall bulging out below and impossible, this fortuitous feature was the key to deliver­ance.
Grasping the final flake I whooped like a banshee as I pulled through into the sun and out onto a huge stepped block which led down as a giant's stairway onto a perfect lush ledge below.
This lonely citadel was a welcome sanctuary after the claustrophobic struggles which had gone before. Far below, Harold blew on his hands and followed up. Even down climbing a section to recover the hammer I had dropped from the chockstone. From the cave he employed a bridging technique where I had affected a jittery crawl, making light of a possible pendulum which would have seen him making an unscheduled inspection of Left Aisle before returning at great speed to the confines of the cave !

With the black cleft behind us we could luxuriate on our lush, virginal stance and contemplate the difficulties which lay ahead.
The continuation crack running above the cave looked like it would go at a reasonable standard even if it was outrageously exposed. However. It quickly ran into a vegetated bay which would have to be avoided by climbing out onto the steep left wall. Far better was a less direct but more interesting looking excursion directly above our stance. From here a short section of 4c/5a climb­ing quickly reached a classic corner groove which ran up to the top of the crag.
Stripping off great clods of vegetation as I climbed, the corner cleaned up beautifully to reveal a fine series of sharp clean holds es­calating right up to a grassy ledge strewn with the bleached white bones of a Perigrine's prey.
The corner was continuous 4b climbing on superb Arenig rock which as ever proved reliably sound. Looking back down I could see the corner juxtaposed against the green flecked chasm which plunged down into the ominous void. A delightful contrasting finale after the struggle to get up to and out of the cave.
As Harold followed up I felt a warm glow of satisfaction. By any crite­ria, our route had proved to be quite a unique adventure which was certainly beyond my expectations. The great black chimney of Arenig Fawr had thrown down its challenge and we had overcome it's impres­sively guarded features through a little guile and perseverance.
Although it's easy to inflate our achievements only to have them cru­elly deflated by others. I was pleased that my veteran partner who has fifty years of first ascents and guide book writing behind him con­curred that our route had the potential to be something of a minor classic. The greatest satisfaction however, is knowing that Heart of Darkness/The Black Chimney had yielded at a very accessible VS grade which means, I hope, that many more climbers of modest ability will come to Arenig and sample this and other climbs which lie outside of the orbit of most modern day climbers.

Footnote: On the first ascent I left a notebook and pencil in a screw topped jar in the cave. I won­der if anyone else has added their scrawl to ours ?
Photos: Middle shot-Harold Drasdo on Pitch One: Above John Appleby on the first ascent of 'Heart of Darkness' The Black Chimney

First published in the Mountaineering Club of North Wales Bulletin of June 2005

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Coming up: Return to the Heart of Darkness

"On the way home Harold joked that if we were ever to climb what was probably one of the last unclimbed gullies in north Wales then we could quite rightly claim to have finally closed the gully epoch' !

This Friday John Appleby returns to the Peregrine haunted dark cliffs of Arenig Fawr and describes how with Lakeland and Welsh veteran Harold Drasdo, they made the first ascent of the feature that gives the eastern cliffs of Arenig their name.'Simddu-Ddu'...The Black Chimney.
A campaign during the dry summer of 1996 which saw the pair bag their route just a few days before a rival team of Arenig explorers arrived to make an attempt.

Friday 22 January 2010

Fast Forward: Part Two.

Ken Latham recently on Ogwen's classic 'Pulpit Route': Latham Collection

In 1972 I went to help the lads at Ellis Brigham's shop in Bold Street for a weekend, this turned into a week which turned into 17 years, and by the late seventies we were climbing as regularly as was possible, mostly in Wales. We climbed on most of the crags in North Wales, but by some quirk of fate managed to avoid ever going to Castell Cidwm, “too hard..too steep..too risky' to get to. 'You could get shot at'... 'built upside down'..' all the holds are the wrong way up' etc, etc.So the crag was filed away in the hard drive somewhere and every now and then would resurface if you were looking through the guidebook. Must go to Cidwm sometime, we would utter as we ventured to Cwm Sylin or even Llechog. You would be hard pressed to find a youth today who would know where Llechog is let alone pronounce the name.

The eighties arrived and we continued to climb as much as we could, but domesticity was claiming a few of the team and many drifted away on to other things. I often wonder where they all went, John the Money, John the Hook, Gerry the Tremble, Gary the Pig (don’t ask), Mars Bar Martin and all those other sandstone stalwarts. 2.4 kids and a Ford Cortina no doubt?   But some of us soldiered on and survived the flared trousers and headbands era (I climbed Cemetery Gates wearing the widest pair of loons possible, I still can’t remember any of the foot holds, hidden as they were under the folds of cloth. We then entered the glam rock stage, all lycra and blond highlights. What was that all about?. By the end of the eighties my girlfriend Clare said that education was a good thing and that I might consider getting some, so I found a suitable course for old farts in Aberystwyth. I like the countryside and fancied a bit of management so off I went for three years to study Rural Resource Management, but don’t worry dear reader there is plenty of rock within striking distance of mid Wales ( and the beer was awful despite Aberystwyth's 26 pubs) so the old boots and chalk bag was well used. I managed to survive the course and eventually graduated and was flung into the cruel world of the “job seeker”, pretty bloody scary at the age of forty I can tell you. As luck would have it a post eventually turned up in the Local Authority in Gwynedd as a warden based at Padarn Country Park in Llanberis and I was lucky enough to get the job and on our patch were The Vivian Quarry and Bus Stop Quarry. Managing your own crag how cool is that !

The early nineties arrived as did two daughters but I was keen to find out if the skills of old would still get me up a route or two, luckily The Beacon Wall opened and was within walking distance of home so as a means of getting a bit of fitness back I joined up. It was at this time that I met Mike Bailey who would have more influence on my climbing career than anybody previously. We hit it off as soon as we met and he shared my Pythonesque sense of  humour so we were off to a good start straight away, Mike’s ability as a climber was and is supremely skilful. He undoubtedly was the best climbing partner I ever had and without his leading and patience I would never have been able to do all the routes that were on my tick list from way back. We regularly climbed at E2/ E3 and were out at least once or twice a week and managed routes like Ten Degrees North, Left Wall, Suicide Wall 1 and 2, (plus a new route on suicide wall area, Old Sparky at E3) The Dervish, Last Tango in Paris, a whole load of other slate routes including all the routes on the Gnat Attack slab in one evening , a grand way of scoring a load of E numbers in one fell swoop, Spectrum, Silly ArĂȘte, Vector ,etc,etc., they were heady days. 
 We climbed regularly at Tremadog and as we headed down the Gwyrfai Valley past Llyn Cwellyn Mike would glance across the lake and mention that he hadn’t been to Cidwm for a long time and that we must try and fit in a visit as soon as possible, I would also mention that I hadn’t been there either in the last thirty years and was trying to avoid the place out of good old cowardice, but we eventually plucked up the courage to go and “have a look”, as you do. As neither of us had been there for a long time and I was doing some work on the upcoming new Eifionnydd guide book for the Climbers Club it seemed the time to break the trend.
 We opted for The Straighter and at H.V.S should get us onto the swing of things. Ha! The innocence of trusting an old guide book and the fact that none of our climbing mates had ever done the route should have been enough of a warning. We duly arrived at the crag at about six pm on a glorious evening in July ( a distant branch of my family own the land that gains quick access to the base of the crag so a courtesy call gave us permission to cross via the Western end of the lake, this makes Cidwm almost a roadside venue) and geared up, we were the only ones there as is the norm with this crag, the only noise on an otherwise still evening was the rush of the stream into which I deposited a couple of beers to cool. I sat at the base of the crag belaying Mike and taking in the warm evening glow as the long shadows stretched across the lake and bathed the distant face of Aran in glorious sunshine. The route isn’t a long climb and I thought we could maybe stop for a pint at the pub on the way home. The first section of the route didn’t cause much problem and after much grunting and cursing and general up and downing Mike cracked the rest and eventually reached the top, by this time the long shadows had all but disappeared and dusk was fast approaching, the coolness was now having an effect and poor old Mike was dressed in only tracksters and a T shirt. I eventually managed the route and finished the top moves by the light of a full moon. We now had to descend in the dark, not a prospect I was looking forward to with Cidwms steep walls around us. We eventually found the gully on the edge of the crag and gingerly descended in what was by now pitch darkness. A few slides on the wet moss added to the excitement and we found ourselves back at the stream. The beer was searched for and drank in seconds ,we packed our sacks in haste and stumbled down the stream, as we reached the lake shore we had a feeling that we were not alone and that someone or something was close by. In the darkness we could just make out that something large was moving very close to us. “Kin el Mick, what the effin el is that?”  “Don’t know youth just keep heading for the river”, suddenly we could hear snorting and squelching of mud, a herd of 'very black’ Welsh Black cattle were investigating us!  We were relieved to reach the river and didn’t even bother to take our trainers off and just waded across to safety. Needless to say the pub was well shut by this time and our respective spouses were a little bit annoyed with the lateness of the day and the burnt offerings which constituted our tea.
Cidwm 1 The boys 1. A return match would have to be arranged. A few days later I spoke to Pat Littlejohn and mentioned we had done the route and thought the grade somewhat misleading, he gave a little laugh “aye youth a bugger that, at least E3 5c, you probably did the third ascent'!

Despite our minor epic Mike was up for another return the next month and mentioned
under a whisper “Central Wall”. ' Pardon!' I replied.' Central Wall youth, do you fancy it?' Aye we could go and have a look I suppose, just hope the grade is correct in the magic book. I knew that the route was still regarded with some awe and many of the lads I knew who had done it tended to sum it up in one word answers, 'Hard', 'Desperate','Thin'. However,the best description came from my mate John from Liverpool who just said 'Don’t!' So it was with some trepidation that we once more set out for the crag. I don’t normally suffer stage fright but I was a little apprehensive on this day. To reach the route one has to traverse the crag along a very steep and greasy grass covered ramp and belay under the short grove which starts the route proper, getting to the base of the route would put many people off and the consequences of slipping off this ledge would not give you much chance of survival so I was pleased to tie on to something fairly solid.
Mike made little effort with the grove and tackled the overhang without too much trouble and was on the stance in what seemed a very short time, he called down for me to climb and it was a case of now or never. The short grove was a little tricky and the overhang was more awkward than technical, what came as a bit of a shock was the state of the pegs( I think Cassin himself had made them as a lad) they were protruding out of the cracks or were very, very bendy and wouldn’t hold your washing let alone a fall .The belay was a sloping comfort and put the situation into perspective, we were slap bang in the middle of the wall and the ropes hung away from the rock by a country mile, but Mike was as happy as a sand boy and after some rearranging of the belay he was off into the distance, Zatopec in rock boots. Mike dispensed with the top pitch without much trouble and I duly followed, my arms were a little knackered and the body a little weary but we had managed the route without too much of an epic as compared to our escapade the previous visit. We were well pleased and that was one of my best ‘ticks’ ever, we even managed a pint on the way home.

 As with all good things there has to be a downside and it just happened to me so quickly that it was a bit of a shock to the system. I was feeling a slight twinge in my left shoulder and was having difficulty in raising my arm above head height, at first I thought nothing of it and hoped that it would heal itself and recover, I had also been climbing a fair bit with Paul Sivyer and as he was a relative newcomer we were doing the classics such as The Wrinkle and Tennis Shoe. It was great to return to these routes as I hadn’t done them for a long time and we were generally having a great time rediscovering them. It was after an ascent of Crackstone Rib that the pain became unbearable and a visit to the sawbones was in order.He recommended a visit to the hospital for a x-ray which diagnosed a totally worn out joint and the onset of osteoporosis. Despite several visits to the special unit at Gobowen  and a very painful cortisone injection onto the joint I’m still in the same boat and will require some major surgery to fix the problem, or as the physiotherapist said at the hospital “ what do you want to go hanging off rocks for at your age? Don’t see the point of that at all, wasting all that energy”.  Bloody cheek!   So we come full circle, Castell Cidwm will remain in the memory as a place of great fun and solitude and fear and Mike did mention’ The Girdle’ in passing . You never know ? Such a shame there is no rewind button on life.

Ken Latham©
First published in the Climbers Club journal 2005. Thanks to Ken for permission to republish and The Climbers Club for their cooperation.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Coming up: The Long Weekend.

This Friday, Ken Latham concludes Fast Forward by describing how his Scouse climbing education continued apace. Aided and abetted by the great and the good of the Liverpool scene before he finally returned to Wales for good and continued his campaign to climb as many of the hard Welsh classics as he could with new found friends.

Friday 15 January 2010

Fast Forward

Ken Latham was born on a traditional hill farm in the north Snowdonia village of Rhyd Ddu in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa and the Nantlle range. From an early age mountains became a powerful influence which drew Ken back to north Wales after his family moved to Liverpool when he was twelve. He began his climbing career in earnest when he was sixteen.
In Liverpool, Ken worked at the Ellis Brigham mountaineering shop during the 1970’s and early 80’s which had become the hub for local climbers. As a member of the local Vagabonds club he climbed with legendary figures from the contemporary Liverpool scene including Pete Minks and Al Rouse.
During the 70’s Ken climbed a lot on the local sandstone quarries on Merseyside such as Pex Hill where he was involved in over 20 first ascents and freed several other Pex classics which had previously been bolted and pegged.
After moving back to Wales in the late 70’s Ken lived in Llanberis and even survived a spell at Al Harris’s infamous house of fun, ‘Bigil’ !
He decided to return to full time education as a mature student and completed his degree at Aberystwrth after which he settled down for good in north Wales with his wife and two young daughters. It was at this time that Ken really indulged his passion for hard Welsh classics after teaming up with fellow FC contributor, Mike Bailey. Ticking off routes like Ten Degrees North, Left Wall, Vector and Castell Cidwm’s Central Wall.
 A member of The Climbers Club, he has contributed to the club’s journal and despite reining in his rock climbing activities in recent years due to some operable hand and shoulder problems, Ken still gets on the hill at every opportunity and has rekindled his passion for photography.   
Photo: Ken Latham climbing 'Satan's Slip'on Lundy Island. Latham Collection

Ken Latham with Mike Bailey on the first ascent of 'Old Sparky' E3( US 5-11) on Suicide Wall,Ogwen Valley,N Wales:(Latham Collection.)

In 1963 I was about to leave the comforts of my home in a small Welsh village to attend senior school in Liverpool, would the hills of Snowdonia, my playground, become a distant memory? As a small boy I liked nothing better than roaming the hills of home, my younger cousin John and I would be off on some grand jape somewhere, damming streams, building dens, exploring the many slate quarries that dotted the landscape and having great fun with the incendiary devices that had been discarded around the slopes of Snowdon by the armed forces during their training for the second world war. If you gathered enough of these rusting old bombs together you could blow apart a solid Welsh dry stone wall no bother. Believe me,I still carry the scar on my right knee to prove it !  Who remembers the old wooden signs by the side of the Rhyd Ddu path proclaiming in stark letters  'DANGER BOMBS KEEP OUT' ? If that wasn’t a sign to go exploring then I don’t know what was.
We were lucky that we didn’t come to too much harm but many of the gang had a few close calls, but the only great fear was getting a roasting when you got home, a rip in your pants or a hole in your shoe was a lot more fearful than sliding down the cables of the slate tips holding on to a thin strand of wire, hoping that your mate was on the ball to catch your legs as you went whizzing by at a great rate of knots. A memorable hill day that John and I had was an expedition to ascend Moel Hebog, on a glorious day in the long summer holidays we strode off up the hill, a bottle of Corona lemonade as emergency supplies, if we were ever stranded we could start a fire through the glass and reflect the suns rays directly to the house, what better piece of kit would a budding explorer need. None of our family members knew of the plan and probably assumed we were playing in the hayfield or off fishing at the lake, we figured that if you could see the summit of Moel Hebog from home then you could see home from the summit, it seemed a reasonable assumption, the trip was a great success and we planned to try a few more mountains before the holidays were over. I remember that I was nine and John was seven, today we would have the Mountain Rescue Services, the Child Protection Act, The Health and Safety Executive, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all to ensure that we were NOT in any way to venture out of sight of any responsible person owning a mobile phone (with internet access) and G.P.S navigation etc etc... But back to 1963, one of the last walks we did together was Mynydd Mawr we were going to ascend the mountain via the ridge from Drws Y Coed but even we, as Rhyd Ddu lads were in fear of the farmer who had and still has a hatred of anybody who might just want to go on the mountains to enjoy themselves so we decided to take the path through the forest on the edge of Llyn Cwellyn where we knew there was a small slate quarry(Chwarel Goch) where you could drop great slabs of wafer thin slate and watch them spin in slow motion through the water into the depths of the crystal clear pool .

It was this walk that bought the steep face of Castell Cidwm to my attention and I remember as an 11 year old being scared of it’s awesome steepness and the way it seemed to fall towards you as we stood at the base of the gully. We ascended the peak via the gully and were amazed to find wedged in the stream a complete propeller with the tips of the blades  twisted from impact with the ground. Some research later with my Uncle Jack revealed that during the war a De Haviland Mosquito had crashed on the summit of Mynydd Mawr with the loss of all the crew. For many years afterwards there was several parts of under carriage wedged between the stones of the summit cairn as a grim reminder and memorial to the event.  I climbed the peak with my family in February of 2005 and there was no sight of any metal from the crashed aircraft to be seen any where.(the aircraft was of course famous for its wings and fuselage being constructed mainly from timber which wouldn’t withstand the elements for long in such an exposed area).

In the early years of living in Liverpool climbing mountains was definitely put on the back burner, it was the late sixties and the magic of the big city was overwhelming to a country lad, besides there were loads of girls in town, there were more girls in our road than there was in the whole of north Wales! I tried my best to chat up a girl who was a member of our gang only to be rebuffed with “ I don’t go out with lads I’m a thespian”, I rushed home to consult The Usbourne School Dictionary. Years later I discovered she spoke with a lisp!
I owned a flashy racing bike to get from A to B, (Allison to Barbara) ,plus of course the place was buzzing with music, clubs, pubs and life was for living in the fast lane! Well Penny Lane anyway.
But there was that longing for the hills and it wasn’t long before we were heading back to Wales for the weekends and long summer holidays. Many great walks were done during this period but we noticed that there were other ways to get to the summits of many of these peaks and we did a lot of scrambling at this time and of course this naturally lead to rock climbing. Many of my mates and I would go bouldering at the local bridge which was built of sandstone and was ideal for this activity, apart from the risk of falling into the main road to be crushed under a corporation bus it turned out to be a good training spot, but we wanted to get into some real rock. One evening I was glancing through the local paper when I saw an advertisement for night school classes and listed amongst the various subjects (between the MacramĂ© and the Modelling (nude) for beginners), was Mountaineering. Bloody mountaineering in the middle of Liverpool!!! This I just had to find out about.

The class was taught by one Arthur Green who introduced me to rock climbing done  't’proper way', from this class grew the nucleus of a small club (The Childwall Climbing Club). We rented a cottage at the village of Nebo and drank many a pint in the White Horse in Capel Garmon and considered ourselves very lucky to be able to get out to Wales on most weekends. Furthermore, it enabled me to get some good routes done with Arthur, these included Cemetery Gates, Cobweb crack, and the usual classics at Tremadog. It was during this time that I got to hear of an overgrown and unused sandstone quarry near Widnes .John Bisson and I armed with a rough map and an A4 sheet of paper with some old route descriptions went to investigate. We took some basic rock gear with us just in case and rode around the area on John’s old Royal Enfield 350cc motorbike until we eventually found our quarry, of course it turned out to be Pexhill Quarry and we were amazed to find it obviously wasn’t climbed on much, there were some old rusting monster bolts (home made) and some routes with wooden wedges placed in the cracks but the place was crying out to be developed so Pex  became the centre of attention for many years. It was a superb spot for developing exceptional finger strength and deft footwork; I was involved in developing the quarry and was instrumental in over 25 first ascents in the first few years. We would climb there at least three times a week and had a great gang of climbers as regulars, amongst them Arthur, Chris Hunter (who went on to do the first solo ascent of The Beatnick at Helsby, a few weeks before Al Rouse did, but never publicised the fact) Phil Davidson, Gaz Healey and my regular climbing partner for many years Gary Dunne. In the dark old days we didn’t have the luxury of the fence at the top of the crag so we would utilise the back axle of our cars for belaying to. During one year the Water board emptied the reservoir at the top of the hill for major maintenance and decided in their wisdom to empty the water into the nearest large hole they could find. The quarry slowly began to fill up with the draining water and at one point reached some ten foot in depth, it was impossible to reach routes such as Dateline or Black Magic without the aid of a canoe, but the high level traverse to The Web corner (6a) became a highlight of the season, sea level traversing in the middle of Widnes, beat that!.

During one summers evening Gary and I were bouldering on the Web wall when a small body went flying through the air only to be followed closely by another. The local urchins had discovered cliff diving off the main wall,(imagine them returning home soaking wet and reeking of dank water, ”Oh and what have you been doing today Jimmy ?...  'Just a little cliff diving practice Mum'.... “Good lad off you go then and wash your hands”). A little disconcerting to say the least when you were well gripped up going for the crux move. One of the lads I climbed with a lot at the quarry was Robbie Mallinson and it was with Robbie that I once more set eyes on Castell Cidwm. We had planned a weekend in Wales and were staying at my parents house at Rhyd Ddu and having no transport had decided that a crag within walking distance would fit the bill, so armed with Ron James’s selected climbs guide book we opted for Cidwm.Well we would have a look anyway. The fly in the ointment to the whole plan was the fact that Robbie was having a nose job done on the Monday and needed to be at Arrowe Park Hospital early that morning, none the less we thought that we could maybe grab a route and then Robbie could get the train from Bangor to the Wirral in time for his pre med. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that. Things would not go according to schedule.
 We decided to have a go at the classics of the cliff  which are The Curver and Vertigo, not long routes and well within our grade I remember it was a cracking day and the crag was dry (Cidwm dry is different to every other crags dry, moistish if there is such a term would be better). Vertigo was done first and we encountered no problem on it so after a quick lunch we thought that we had time to do the Curver and Robbie could head for home, as many of you who have climbed at Cidwm will know thing don’t always go to plan. Our gear was not state of the art to say the least so we weren’t that well armed with protection but could muster at least a few smallish wires, three 8 foot slings and about ten MOACs on rope. What should have been a fairly steady route gave us a few problems, mainly in the form of good old rope drag. We didn’t come across this problem much at Pex or Helsby so we were a bit bothered to say the least. We could have eased the problem a little by climbing with double ropes but didn’t have that luxury, but with Robbies J.C.B arm strength and some acrobatic seconding from me we managed the route and were well pleased with our efforts, but of course time had taken its toll and there was not much chance of Robbie making it back to Liverpool that night unless he was to try and hitch home, so there was nothing for it but a quick pint in the Cwellyn Arms. The quick pint turned into several quick pints and of course the clock was ticking on Robbies chance of making it back for his surgery in the morning, “tell you what youth I’ll try and hitch home tonight otherwise my mum will have the rescue services after me” so a quick cup of tea and off into that dark night he went and I settled down for the evening, the beer and the climbing soon had me in a slumber but in the small hours a noise awoke me,”ey up youth I’m back” Robbies return!, he had failed miserably to get a lift and had decided to walk towards Bangor only to find out that after a few miles he was going in the wrong direction, there was nothing for it but to get a few hours sleep and attempt the hitch as early as possible on the Monday morning. He duly arrived at the hospital reception desk with a few moments to spare, rucksack on his back and a rope slung around his neck. The startled receptionist asked if she could be of any assistance and Robbie with his usual Scouse charm replied----” All’rite luv, iv’e come ter get me nose done “.  Enough said.... the seventies were drawing to a close.  To be continued.....................

Ken Latham ©

Part Two of Fast Forward: Friday January 22nd .

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Coming Up: Ken Latham goes back to the future

This Friday, North Walian Ken Latham recalls growing up in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) before moving to Liverpool and  well and truly catching the climbing bug ! Ken was one of the principal driving forces behind the development of the legendary Merseyside quarry Pex Hill -responsible for 25 first ascents- he was also active at one of Alan Rouses' local stomping grounds, Helsby in Cheshire before turning his attention to hard climbs in his native hills. Amongst them, the precipitous Castell Cidwm in North Snowdonia.

'Fast Forward' will be published in two parts and in part one Ken describes his discovery of Pex Hill and its development before making an early sortie on Cidwm.

Photo:Ken Latham climbing'The Candle'at Twistleton Scar,Yorkshire,England.Latham Collection

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Early days in Cwm Cywarch

I was born in Derby in 1927 but the birthday gift of a bicycle when I was 12 allowed me to widen my horizons. One day I rode to Dovedale and swept down the hill seeing ‘mountains’ Bunster and Thorpe Cloud which changed my life. I scrambled on the eastern buttresses of Bunster, determined to become a rock climber. That summer I went to Bemrose School, where I found ‘Let’s Go Climbing’ in the library and, a few years later, Peter Harding who was a prefect. The former excited my ambitions and the latter welcomed me on to his rope and into his Stonnis Mountaineering Club group.
We had soon done all the existing routes at Black Rocks, our local crag, and set about filling in the gaps for our guidebook.The first to succumb to our advances was the aptly named 'Green Crack' after I had pulled a lot of grass from it whilst held on a top rope. This enjoyment could not continue though as I had volunteered for the army. I was required to report to Norton Barracks in Worcester, on VJ day! This started another liberation as I climbed the Malvern Hills, was sent to Catterick (Crag Lough on the Roman Wall), Exeter University on a short course (Dartmoor), back to Catterick (The Lake District with army transport) and finally Vienna (skiing there and in the Styrian Alps) before demob and Manchester University, where I devoted more of my time to climbing than Electrical Engineering.
Manchester was equidistant from Wales and the Lakes, but the lack of forethought of the government meant that there was not yet an M6 motorway so that my main exploits were directed at the former. Following on from our Stonnis activities Peter and I wrote guidebooks and put up new routes in Wales
Many mountains and rock climbs on I still look upon those as my best days, before the hills were crowded and over run with people ‘learning to climb’. I preferred the quiet and solitude of those times, but relived them a little in the climbing in Cwm Cywarch in its early days.

An early Tony Moulam first ascent: Green Crack: Moulam Collection

Imagine a cliff nearly as big as Craig yr Ysfa, as vegetated, and relatively unexplored. When R E (Larry) Lambe first persuaded me to visit in 1956 there were only half a dozen routes recorded apart from three relatively inconsequential gullies climbed at Easter 1907, by a Rucksack Club party. Harding visited in 1950 with Norman Horsefield and scaled the short side of an obscure pinnacle, Kurzweg. An Oread party made their eponymous climb in September 1953 and little more than eighteen months later John(Fritz) Sumner , who was to have an enormous impact on Meirionnydd climbing produced Buzzard’s Balcony, and the stunning Stygian Wall, which follows a tortuous route up some very intimidating ground, and enjoys exhilarating climbing and stances.

I knew none of this when I finally arrived at Tyn-y-Twll, the Mountain Club of Stafford’s secluded cottage in the valley by 10 am on Good Friday. There was no one else there, probably due to the barbaric practice of the Stafford climbers’ having to work! Though I was disappointed to have no climbing partner I made good use of the day starting by scrambling up to the foot of the prominent North Buttress ridge. I traversed down by the foot rocks and entered a gully between the North Buttress and North Face, and escaped to the right and continued up to Bwlch Llywelyn before descending to my sack.

The rocky ridge of Pen yr Allt Uchaf  let me gain height quickly and I went on to Drosgl , and Aran Fawddwy then returned to the col at the head of Cwm Cowarch Here I met a vanguard of the Mountain Club party, two men clad only in big boots, rucksacks and dazzlingly white Y-fronts! I left them to continue their hot walk and ran down and to the cottage. By now one or two other people, including Larry, had arrived and we started talking about what to do next day.

As Larry was the local expert, and my brief reconnaissance had only served to confuse me, he led me off to the North Face, now called Ffenestr y Graig, where two climbs had been made the previous October. Neither of them appealed to me and, I was tempted into making a new route, on my first visit!
It turned out to be rather vegetated and not particularly inspiring, nor was its name, Hopsit as it rose between Hope Street and First Visit, the senior routes hereabouts. In fact the climbing had not been very satisfying so next day Larry took me to South Buttress (Now Tap y Graig), the Will o the Wisp Wall. We set off on the delightful slabs and walls of Oread, but rather than slink off along Will o the Wisp, as the original route did, we continued straight on up a nice pitch through overhangs, which improved the route considerably. As a finale we enjoyed Buzzard’s Balcony, even then a classic, winding its way easily through some steep and frightening places.

That night I met John Sumner for the first time. A momentous meeting which presaged many happy days together over the next six months. As a test for the visitor ‘Fritz’ set me off on what he told me was the second ascent of  Purge, an artificial route that he had invented a few weeks earlier. The current guidebook presents a little conundrum as this ascent was on 1 April 1956, whereas the first ascent list claims that he did it then with D G Chisholm! A case of mistaken date, or identity. We quickly descended Square Cut Gully and made our way over Sawdl y Graig to enjoy Stygian Wall, which should really have been my introduction to the crag. Delightful but not particularly hard climbing through overlapping ribs, with exposure reminiscent of a small scale ‘Cloggy’. We finished off the day with me leading John up ‘First Visit’ after which he remarked that he was surprised that anyone as old as me could lead such a difficult route! I was not yet 29. My log book comments ‘Marvellous fine sunny weather. Lovely holiday in secluded valley.

Having acquired a taste for this new venue I was keen to return and did so about a couple of months later. I had noticed the most prominent ridge on Craig Llywelyn and easily persuaded Larry that we should try it, particularly as it was such a marvellous blue-skied day, with just an early season nip in the air. As with all the routes at the time the initial pitch involved steep vegetation, which was luckily quite stable. I followed the groove (now taken by Vulcan) to an overhang. Larry joined me here without much trouble and, protected by him, I gained a groove on the left. Where it steepened I put in a peg and brought up Larry again, to give moral support. Although he was no doubt very uncomfortable he professed to be happy, and paid out the rope efficiently as I traversed delicately right back on to the ridge. I remember that my feet started to hurt, tightly laced in PAs so I didn’t want to hang about and quickly moved right and up again to another stance. Once more I avoided difficulty by moving left round the edge into a corner full of rattling flakes, which seemed remarkably sound, until I could regain the gully.

From here an easy crack up to and through an overhang brought us to a final stance, below some blocks and a chimney. This gave an awkward start, then another precarious move up a groove decorated with some vegetation reaching a little tree with some relief. Further to the right was a larger tree and a steep wall behind it led to the top. Again from my log book, ‘A good climb, not as direct as might be possible, but almost all hard’ We finished the day with a romp up a VD chimney, which we called Relaxation, and ended up descending in the dark!

We were late rising next day, the last of our holiday, and decided to visit Will o the Wisp wall again, as we had enjoyed climbing there on clean sound rock on our previous trip. The obvious start went up will o the wisp but soon veered off up left to a stance below an overhang. A corner crack enabled me to reach and climb an overhanging wall on good holds. This was the prelude to a delicate slab. I remember little more of the climb except the almost overpowering scent of the profusion of bluebells on every ledge to a fine finish up the summit tower. Once again we were late down and I had to divert to Stafford on my way home to Manchester, as Larry had missed his lift!

Cwm Cywarch: Steve Peak©