Friday, 20 April 2012

A day out on Woubits

Stand above the steep precipice, and cry out into the rift:
She is the peal of thunder in the stillness, the clamour in the cold void;though the fugitives keep a tight grip on their fraying ropes,
she is the one who saves us from falling into the vast silence.

From 'The Welsh Language' by Alan Llwyd.

Like many climbers, I have to admit to a particular fascination with the wonderful cliffs that make up Clogwyn Du'r Arddu: I first climbed there some thirty five years ago and my delight in revisiting this mysterious and atmospheric place has not diminished at all in that time. Such feelings are not of course unusual and to many of us in the climbing community it remains the absolute centrepiece of traditional climbing not only in Wales but in the whole of Britain. Many fine words have been written about Cloggy over the years, and it was even the subject of an entire book, The Black Cliff. in 1971. The last two guide books to the crag, both excellent, were produced by the late Paul Williams and by Nick Dixon and are hugely enjoyable reads. Both succeed in clearly demonstrating a deep love for the place, recalling great times there with good mates and a clear appreciation of the crag's complex history.

One of my favourite pieces about Cloggy was written almost fifty years ago and was published in the Fell and Rock and C.C. Journals. Jack Soper's "Still More of Arfon" is highly evocative and the concluding comments succeed in capturing the atmosphere of the place and something of the rhythm of its history:

'And although Arddu is, after all, only an unfeeling piece of rhyolite and the scratchings of the last few decades irrelevant to the larger scheme of things, there is an air of tradition about the place- of great deeds wrought in the past. On silent days when the cwm is deserted and the crags loom strangely through the mist it is easy to imagine the Abrahams peering in amazement down Shrike Wall, or one of the great teams of the nineteen thirties at work with the grass up on the west, or a young man from Manchester uncoiling his hemp rope below Vember.'
One of the best things about Cloggy is of course that it is really a collection of six different crags each with its own character and each with a different play of sunlight at various times of the day. The Pinnacle for instance has a totally different feel to The Boulder; the atmosphere of the East Buttress could not be more different to that of the Great Slabs of the West. Many of us have treasured memories of particular parts of the crag and the great classics of all levels of difficulty are highly desired for good reason. Some of my recent memories of the place are as dear to me as any; just making it to the top of the superb Silhouette as a huge storm broke over us and a winter ascent of the Eastern Terrace in deep snow when the air was utterly still in the bitter cold, lending the setting a particular majesty. We saw nobody there all day and later watched the sun set from Snowdon summit as the temperature plummeted.

Having been fortunate enough to have climbed all over the crag, there was nonetheless one notable exception. I had never been up to the Far East. Somehow, whenever we visited the place, there always seemed to be something more pressing to do on the more accessible parts of the crag. Woubits and Mostest got mentioned from time to time but somehow we'd never get round to making the extra effort to get up there. The relative inaccessibility of the Far East, tucked away high up to the left of the rest of the crag meant that only a few people made their way up there. During one particularly dry period Mick Wrigley and myself finally decided to go up and find out what Woubits was all about.

Getting to the Far East is somewhat more tiring than the normal approach to Cloggy from Halfway House and involves going almost to the top of Snowdon and then traversing across grassy slopes to the top of the crag. We were there midweek and the weather was pleasant enough if a little overcast. Having sorted out the gear and the ropes we descended the Far Eastern Terrace which ends abruptly above a huge drop. The position is impressive, already very exposed and this forms the starting point for Woubits and Mostest. The crag loomed above us, dark and unwelcoming. and we were not a little intimidated. The Far East is certainly no place for the faint hearted.

Woubits starts very abruptly, there is no gentle introduction. You are immediately confronted by a mean little overhang that has to be tackled on slippery holds with only mediocre protection. It is one of those situations that call for a bold, focused approach when the last thing you feel is bold. The rock is dark and unfriendly, and it is with some relief that you arrive at the foot of a groove. Much of the rock is dirty with the odd snappy hold; clean Tremadog dolerite this is not! The situation in the groove is impressive and the climbing steep, but better holds arrive and lead over a bulge to a stance and good belays, and a good place to get your breath back! Mick and I re-grouped at the stance and were well impressed by the somewhat oppressive nature of our surroundings. We did however agree on the quality of the first pitch, a sleep and exciting piece of climbing. Mick sorted cult, the gear and got ready lead to the second pitch. I watched as he moved up the steep groove to our left, muttering about the difficulty and awkwardness of the moves but managing to place some solid runners. After a rest he moved quickly up to the left and after a few rapid moves he was out of sight.

Now the stance on Woubits is an impressive spot and once Mick was out of sight, a lonely one. I could see or hear no-one else, and the outlook was wild and austere. It brought to mind the words of the Welsh poet Idris Davies:And I praised the unknown artist of crag and fern and stream; For the sunshine on the mountains, And the wonder of a dream.

Gradually I worked the ropes through the belay plate as Mick steadily worked his way up the pitch. Looking down from the stance, I realised just how steep the first pitch had been and acknowledged Joe Brown's bold determination in forcing that loose initial overhang on- sight back in 1955. After a while the ropes went tight, I heard Mick call out and it was my turn to get moving. As I stood on the stance I thought of the first ascent photo that Joe took of Don Whillans starting the second pitch. It appeared in "The Black Cliff' and always seemed to me to grasp the sinister atmosphere of this remote part of the crag. Jim Perrin describes it particularly well in "The Villain": :

"There is a photograph taken by Joe of Don as he contemplates the start of the sequence. A thin line runs out to him through a messy runner. In breeches and knee-length stockings, black rubber pumps on his feet, he's dark-clad, white balaclava, peering up into the groove above with his left knee dropped for balance. There is a suggestion of mist, the rock sombre and steep, without obvious holds. It has a certain chill and a certain mystery about it."

It is one of the most atmospheric images I know of climbing in Wales and it was on my mind as I started the pitch. Needless to say, the big pitch on Woubits was one I had particularly wanted to climb for years, and I wanted to climb it well. Alas, it was not to be. Having cruised up the first pitch without much trouble, I moved up with some confidence but soon struggled to remove a couple of awkward runners and once the steep and sustained nature of the pitch kicked in, I soon found that I was well pumped. The situation is very fine but on the day I was glad to have a rope above me and I was highly impressed by the bold nature of the climbing. Woubits retained a great reputation for a long time and for 1955 was impressive. Of the ten routes Joe and Don put up together on Cloggy between 1951 and 1956, it is to my mind the finest. As I struggled somewhat on the crux moves and then felt some relief as the difficulties eased, I thought of our mate, Richard McHardy, climbing the route solo in 1970    a lonelier spot in Wales Richard could not have chosen and it was an extraordinarily bold ascent. On the same day Al Rouse soloed The Boldest and emerged as one of the outstanding performers of his generation. Halcyon days indeed!

Mick was sitting at the top wearing a huge grin and we were both delighted to have bagged an absolute classic, although in my case it had been something of a struggle and it had certainly felt tough for E2 5b, as well as seeming neglected and dirty in places. Certainly this was not the clean rock of the East Buttress. As we coiled the ropes and sorted the gear out. I thought of Joe and Don on the first ascent more than fifty years ago. They were young men in their early twenties absolutely at the top of their game, Joe had just returned from making the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas while Don had earlier that year made the first ascent of the very serious Slanting Slab on the West buttress of Cloggy. I felt a huge gratitude for the great changes in attitude and the improvements in footwear and equipment over the years that now enabled Mick and myself to enjoy such an excellent climb when we were both aged almost sixty.

The ascent of Woubits opened up this huge area of rock and Joe was obviously drawn to its powerful atmosphere. He later returned to make first ascents of Mostest, Woubits Left Hand, The Key and Sinistra. Mostest probably still has some regular ascents, but I wonder how often these other routes see traffic these days as fashions in climbing tastes alter. Years ago in the dark, grim depths of The Bull in Deiniolen through the customary haze of Wem bitter and fag smoke, I remember two of the Burnley lads recounting in detail their day on Sinistra and saying what an excellent route it was. The modern additions either side of Woubits, Archaeopteryx and Hazy Days look superb (and extremely hard) but again I wonder how often people take the long walk up there to do them.

It was good to laze in the sun on the flat grass at the top of the crag. In an indolent mood, the idea of a second route was swiftly dispatched and we packed the sacs and set off down towards Clogwyn station and the path. By now it was a warm, hazy late afternoon and there was little desire to hurry. As we ambled along I thought back over the day's activities. In a strange way, notwithstanding that Woubits had always been a route I'd hugely desired, today had been for me at least, not so much about the actual climbing as about the almost overpowering atmosphere of the place itself. There had been a sense of loneliness, isolation and neglect about the Far East and a strong awareness that nature is rapidly claiming it back in its dark, shadowy setting. For some reason my mind drifted back to the chapters in Herbert Carr and George Lister's wonderful book "The Mountains of Snowdonia" describing the profusion of alpine flora and fauna to be found in the more remote parts of the area. In truth, places like the Far East on Cloggy would be an entomologists and botanist's paradise were so much of it not so inaccessible. It is indeed the haunt of the Raven, the Buzzard and the Peregrine Falcon and long may it remain so.

The sense of neglect I felt on the Far East set me thinking about the seeming shift away from the higher crags in recent years, an indication of how the sport is developing. Perhaps I'm there at the wrong times, but these days Cloggy always seems to be quiet, The Boulder and The Pinnacle particularly so. Go up to Cym Las and chances are the only climbers there (if any) will be on Main Wall or The Grooves. The two wings of Dinas Mot and Craig y Rhaeadr seem rarely visited these days and a few people seem to take the lovely walk along the Afon Llafar to the Gothic splendour of Llech Ddu. That crag in particular was the subject of an epic amount of cleaning by the Holliwell brothers back in the late sixties to produce a number of bold extreme routes. I wonder how often, if ever, those routes see much traffic as vegetation slowly claims them back. Don't get me wrong, this is in no way a criticism, more an observation of how things seem to have evolved. I suppose the real problem is that unless the routes on the remote high crags continue to be used by climbers, they will continue to fall into poor condition and warmer weather conditions certainly don't help. In time many fine routes may be lost to us, and looking back on the day, I'd been astonished at the poor condition of Woubits and how dirty much of the climb was.

As we walked down the hillside next to the railway track, I glanced back at the crag and up to the Far East and the striking upper groove of Woubits. Joe Brown once described it as "one of the finest lines on Cloggy" and I would agree wholeheartedly. We paused awhile on the ridge by the railway as cloud billowed down from the top of Snowdon. I have to admit over the years to having grown rather fond of the Snowdon Railway. Like most climbers, I have never travelled on it, but it does form an integral part of the climbing experience on Cloggy. The regular chuff chuff of the train echoing across Cwm Clogwyn, the sound fading then returning on the wind is something that most climbers will remember about the place. The railway opened in 1896 and was well established long before climbers turned their attention to the mysteries of Cloggy. I like the fact that when Fred Pigott, Jack Longland and Colin Kirkus put up the first major routes on the crag in the period 1927-1932, they too would have heard the trains chugging along less than a mile away. Some things have changed little to the present day.

I took a last look at the crag and then we crossed over the railway and dropped off the ridge straight down the hillside to Nant Peris. Of all our crags Cloggy is perhaps our greatest treasure and it has touched many lives deeply. I even know of people whose ashes are scattered there. Mick romped off down the hill ahead of me, while I nursed a sore knee and gradually dropped behind, Away to the west the sun was going down in a blaze of red and orange; it looked like the following day would be fine as well. Today had been a strange one. I had set off from Llanberis that morning with little on my mind but the likely technicalities of a much desired climb, yet the day had given us far more to remember than simply the physical act of climbing. To be honest I hadn't carried that out particularly well, but it didn't matter. Weather permitting, I have always been attracted to the higher mountain crags partly to avoid the crowds, but also to experience the sense of loneliness and otherness of these secretive places. To my mind, what sets the hills and crags in Snowdonia apart is a wonderful sense of mystery or as the Welsh say dirgelwch. Today up on the Far East Mick and I certainly sensed something of the mystery of the place and the way in which nature is steadily claiming parts of it back. Good Old Wales, a constant source of delight and surprise even after a lifetime of climbing there.

I looked on down the hillside to where Mick had already reached the fields at the bottom of the valley. I felt a cool breeze on my face, as the sun in the west pushed through the cloud and bathed the hillside opposite in low ochre light that picked out every boulder, tree and crag with startling clarity. I thought of the gentle words of R.S.Thomas in his poem "The Small Window":

In Wales there are jewels To gather, 
but with the eye Only.
A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles 
With colour and goes out 
In its turn;in one day 
You can witness the extent 
of the spectrum and grow rich

With looking. Have a care; 

This wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd 

A small window dirty it
With their breathing though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.

I caught up with Mick and we walked across the fields to the road and Nant Peris. That first pint of Double Hop in the Vaynol was going to taste good.

Steve Dean: 2012