Friday, 7 May 2010

Between the ridge and the beaten path

The East Face of Bristly Ridge:

So often we keep to the well known ways; so infrequently do we stray off them. On many occasions I had passed by, going up or down Bristly Ridge in summer and winter, or crossing the slopes of Cwm Tryfan in fell races, but never had I set foot upon the cliffs that rise from the screes to the ridge. Summer was drawing to a close and time was running short for completing field work for the Ogwen guidebook. We had given Tryfan a good going over, but the nearby cliffs of the East Face of Bristly Ridge had so far escaped scrutiny. It wouldn’t do to leave a whole crag unchecked, so when the opportunity came on a warm September day, off I went; ‘I’ being the operative word. Guidebook work is an often solitary business. Mention Tremadog or the Pass, Gogarth or Pen Trwyn, and you’ll find no shortage of willing companions, but suggest the Devil’s Kitchen Cliffs, Gallt yr Ogof, or other unfashionable venues, and you’ll find they’ve all got vitally important tasks that can’t possibly wait another day to be attended to. So it was that I ascended the rock staircase to Cwm Bochlwyd, cool in the morning shadow. Minutes later I was perspiring in the sunlight, the dark waters on my right unruffled by any breeze as I climbed towards Bwlch Tryfan. In preparation for the day’s work I had read up the climbs, and was looking forward to getting acquainted with them.

The development of the Bristly Ridge cliffs is compressed into an unusually short time line. Surprisingly, there is no record of the early pioneers, like Thomson, visiting the cliffs, and no routes were done prior to 1936, when Skyline Buttress was climbed by Taylor and Jenkins. Soon the Second World War intervened, curtailing climbing opportunities for most of the area’s activists. On 22nd August 1944, Steuart Palmer wrote in the Helyg logbook: First visit to Helyg for nearly 5 years. The exigencies of war and foreign service responsible. With John Bechervaise, two weeks of intensive new routing followed.  In addition to new climbs on Craig yr Ysfa and Gallt yr Ogof, they made a thorough exploration of the Bristly Ridge cliffs, naming the prominent features and climbing all the obvious lines.

Mike Bailey on the impressive final pitch of Great Tower Buttress.

Fast forward sixty-three years, during which the climbs were described in several editions of the guide, yet I had heard no one speak with any knowledge of them. I arrived with an open mind, though my expectation was of old-style routes, holds smooth and rounded from nailed boot traffic, much as the Tryfan classics. Like the East Face of Tryfan, the Bristly Ridge Face is confusing on a first visit. Among the mass of rock ribs no helpful landmarks stand out. I read and reread the old guidebook description, glancing repeatedly down at the text, then back up at the cliff. Finally I found a reference point in the two massive chockstones of Big Boulder Gully. Confident at last of where I was, I worked across left to the foot of Central Gully, to find Great Tower Buttress, my first objective.

I could see what I took to be the “tough crack” of pitch 2 some way up. At close quarters it did indeed look tough for Severe, and steep too. From its depths an alloy hex winked at me, bereft of its cord. I felt an irrational affection for this artifact, confirming by its presence that others had been this way, but it was beyond the reach of my groping fingers, too deeply trapped in its fastness. With some regret I abandoned it to its lonely vigil. At first the crack gives solid hand jams, then widens, with holds inside, but a loose chockstone needs careful handling. A few strenuous pulls and I’m on a broad grass ledge. By now it’s dawning on me things aren’t quite as I expected: the grass is pristine; there are no bucket steps worn in it; none of the holds showed any trace of wear, still less polish. I sit down, scribbling notes, enjoying the sun’s warmth through my shirt. My train of thought is distracted by the voices of a party on the path below, heading up towards Glyder Fach summit. We exchange hollered greetings, then press on our separate ways. Easier climbing leads to the upper rocks below the Great Tower, where things look steeper. A shallow groove offers the best way, so I bridge up it via a jammed flake to a bulge. It fits the guidebook description, though you’d never know anyone had climbed here. 

The rock is sound, its texture rough and unmarked, and by now it has absorbed the heat of the sun. I’m warming to this route. I swing left below the bulge onto a ledge, and another groove appears; mossy at first, then more good moves take me up to a grass ledge below the Great Tower itself. The old guide talked of a crack splitting its face, and I had pictured a soaring hand crack, a longer version of pitch 2, but it’s nothing like that. Instead a wide groove, stuffed full of wedged blocks, leads up the Tower face. Glancing down, I realise the exposure has crept up on me, but the blocks are solid, and with a few steep pulls I’m up, almost on the crest of Bristly Ridge, jotting down notes while the memory is fresh. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a very good route. The old guide gave it one star. I’m inclined to be more generous, but defer judgement until I’ve seen the other routes. Loads more to do, so down Central Gully to find Two Tower Buttress over to the right. It’s a bit disappointing after the last route, but the finish is good and steep, probably harder than the V Diff given in the old guide.

Down again and right to Giant’s Steps Buttress, the first climb as you approach from Bwlch Tryfan. The Giant’s Steps are well named. The first two pitches climb huge rock steps, the lower of which is a flight of smaller steps. Once again the rock texture amazes me. It’s like drawing your fingertips over the teeth of a sharp file. I can almost feel its coarseness biting into the rubber of my old Scarpas. Pitch 3 is steep and cheeky for the grade; another one for the notebook.

Next a look at Dissected Buttress, a short climb in the Big Boulder Gully area. The write up in the Helyg log had caught my eye: Palmer and Bechervaise enthused about it, so a close look seemed in order. It’s easy to find – just right of the two big boulders is a tall buttress with a flake leaning against it. You start up the narrowing chimney between the flake and the buttress, move onto the front of the flake, and climb up to the exposed ledge at its top. Above, a crack rises up, with good holds until it opens to an offwidth. The angle lies back a little, so it doesn’t look too unfriendly. I can still feel the warmth of the afternoon sun, but any sensory pleasure is cancelled by the hunger pangs gnawing at my stomach. A few moves up, and helpful holds inside the crack run out, so it’s down to classic offwidth technique: one foot jammed across the crack, knee and cheek doing what they can, left arm barring from palm to elbow, and shuffle upwards. Once more the rock texture is my best friend. Small face holds for my right hand and foot give welcome assistance. It’s warm work. I flop over the rounded top, and know straight away it’s a little gem, noting mentally to give it a star.       

Just Skyline Buttress to check out now, but first some food and a few minutes to relax and take in the view. The long cwm drops away below me in tiers of rock and shelves of heather, now in full purple. Although it’s a weekday the brilliant weather has brought people out. A large party sunbathes down at the bwlch; shirt-sleeved walkers pass below on their way to the plateau, and from above on Bristly Ridge, disembodied voices drift down in the still air. I look across at Tryfan’s southern aspect: not the familiar three peaked profile, but a ragged cone, like a decaying pyramid ravaged by the desert winds.

The great corner on pitch three of the entertaining 'severe', Skyline Buttress: Mike Bailey©

Back to work. I know roughly where the route goes but the start takes some finding. It’s a grassy chimney and doesn’t look inviting. Consign that to history. A short rib above it looks more promising, and leads to the foot of a steep slab, unblemished by scratches or other evidence of use. It’s like climbing on an undiscovered cliff, and I wonder just how many repeats these routes have had; it can’t be many, despite their friendly grades. Another rib brings me to the final tower, rising abruptly from a grass terrace. I climb over blocks into a broad groove that funnels to a niche. The right wall drops plumb to the terrace; the holds are good though the growing exposure lends a serious feel to the pitch. Up above it’s all steepness and bulges, but out to the left, the wall of the groove eases back to a slab. Enticing holds lead me on; one delicate step and I’m sitting on a fine perch. If I wasn’t climbing alone I’d stop and belay here. 

You could continue, but it’s too fine a spot not to savour for a while, and share the enjoyment as your belayer moves up to join you. I’m anxious to get moving; time is getting on, but I make myself stop to assess the quality of this climb, realising I have enjoyed it as much as Great Tower Buttress four hours earlier. It has all the right qualities: good line, good rock, good positions, sustained climbing. It’s got to be two stars for both routes. I write it down in case my resolve wavers later at the keyboard. A sudden shiver focuses my attention on the celestial chronometer, now dipping close to the Nant Ffrancon skyline. Its warmth has gone. I zip up my fleece and climb the upper slab to the steep nose and final sharp arete connecting the buttress to the mountain side. The direct approach rebuffs my first attempt, but on the left things are more straightforward, I’m up, and the day’s work is nearly done.

Down again, I ease off my old Scarpas. Inside my sensible shoes my feet expand as I mark lines on the crag photo. Shadows are lengthening and now there’s a chill in the air. West facing slopes bathe in the pink evening light that marks the end of a day of perfect autumn weather. I shoulder my sack and jog down to the bwlch. Warm again, I descend into Cwm Bochlwyd, turning over the day’s work in my mind. The cliff offers a handful of good middle-grade climbs, which, evidence suggests, have been largely neglected. The long approach may not appeal to some; on the other hand, the cliff’s nearness to Tryfan’s East Face and Glyder Fach’s Main Cliff gives scope for a variety of mountain itineraries. I reflect on what the future may hold for this crag, whose acquaintance I have made in the course of a September day. Will better information and a crag topo attract more people here, and if so, will something have been lost? I can’t answer that. Only time will tell ?

Author Mike Bailey on pitch three of The Great Tower Buttress

Mike Bailey© 2010