Friday, 15 March 2013

Punch up at the Lake Padarn

One weekend Dixon brought a group from London up to Wales. It was a first visit for a number of them and some had not climbed before. On the Saturday evening I was in the Padarn Lake Hotel- the clearing-house for information on recent climbing- with one of these lads standing beside me when in the generalised noise and disorder I found him pulling at my elbow and whispering seriously in my ear. It was a moment before I could catch his words and a moment again before I understood them. The urgent message was: "Will there be trouble later?"

He misinterpreted those beards and ragged clothes. He thought that two parties might at any second start smashing chairs or tables upon each others heads, and he was afraid that the whole com­pany would exuberantly join in. I tried to allay his anxiety. Them old men might look rough and talk dirty but they don't mean nobody no harm. It needed several such assurances before he was persuaded that violence was unlikely and a certain wariness showed in his sidelong glances all that night.

The punch-up did not take place but he was not to know that after some years of climbing, many of us find that our activities fit more often into the realm of the absurd than into that of the Heroic; at any rate, we have to treat our epics as comic epics. This article is about a crag which came off the secret list quite recently —the apparent irrelevance of the title and introduction, which may have misled the sensation-seeking reader, will be reverted to unless the editor's fifth reminder prevents the completion of these notes. The cliff is the quarry at Cae Coch, a mile north of Trefriw. It looks east over the Conway flood-plain and it is not seen from the road beneath, the quarry floor being flat and broad and the whole steep hillside afforested.

I saw it from the other side of the valley in 1965 and thought to walk up to it a year or so later; but I had not located it carefully enough and to my fury I spent over an hour in the trees before darkness came. A few weeks later I tried again and found a steep and well-built wall; but I did not know that I had not yet entered the main quarry. It required another visit before we discovered the incline which leads directly from the roadside to the top level and from then our quarry could elude us no longer.

 The amphitheatre proved to be an interesting place. Nature was locked in isometric exercises on the floor with a mob of healthy young birches pressing an assortment of taller conifers. (An in­former in the Forestry School slipped us a more prosaic note on ownership and on the surrounding hillside — "Compartment 26: planted in 1953 with beech and Japanese larch. . . .) Three sheep and a huge orange dog lay rotting in the trees and we had to steer tortuous lines through these obstacles. Later, with a correct com­passion, Swallow removed the dog's collar and read the inscription aloud. I have forgotten what it said. In every sod and behind each loose flake a worm was coiled; the whole place stank of death and rebirth. Evan Roberts was astonished when I described it to him and his old head nodded. He had been working there as a quarry­man when operations were abandoned just after the war and there was not a blade of grass to be seen then.

One wet week I persuaded Tony Moulam to come to look at it and so we laid hands on it at last. The first day we broke through the undergrowth and climbed the most cowardly line: Gwydir Gully, not easy in the rain to start or finish. A day or two later we got onto the slabby buttress on the right and climbed it in three pitches: Transect. (He says it happened the other way round and he's usually right.) Next I came back with Soper and Swallow. Jack did well to lead the first pitch which was a bit thin and was further defended from mid-height by a short but menacing shower. I went a fair distance up the second pitch but I could see that the finish was really dangerous so I came back and proposed Jim. Jack seconded and I went third—it seemed a characteristic situation and I believe the words have a familiar ring: but then they made me lead the last pitch.

Eventually I found an easy way out though I was told afterwards that at one point Swallow bent his head down­wards and slightly sideways and called, "Speed, speed," with emphasis but without malice, so showing consideration for every­one's feelings. That route tended rightwards and we called it Tendency. Later I did a more direct route to the same finish with Holroyd: Embargo. There was more excitement in these climbs than this paragraph gives away.

 This brings me to the climb we called The Nave. It is the line of the cliff. It is the junction between the main slab on the right—two hundred feet high, three hundred long, and still unclimbed, the cracked buttress left of it, giving the routes already named. The line is evidently inescapable: diagonally left up the steep, nearly featureless slab to the comer of the big overlap; along and up beneath the overlap to get into the main fault, and up that Garden of Eden to the top.

We were a party of three. Trevor Jones, full of enthusiasm and drive, kept saying so. Mouly, quietly keen and confident, kept edging Jones on but prepared to step in if things didn't go ahead as intended. The writer, sceptical but fascinated, wanting to com­bine irreconcilables by climbing a desperate new route without doing anything risky.
Jones led off in fine style but came to a halt after thirty feet just above a shallow niche. Said it was impossible but would only come down if someone else would go up. Mouly went up, put a nut into its proper place, and came down. I went up, stood in the sling in the nut, cleaned out a hold to allow further progress-, and came down.

Round two. Jones went up, got onto the hold, lurched upwards, knocked a peg in and came down.- While he was up there he reported several times that he was buggered; but when he found himself safely back on the ground his strength and optimism were miraculously restored. A change of order then and I went up to the peg and moved fractionally higher. It was barely fifteen feet to the overlap where a crack with vacancies for every sort of piton had been teasing us fora long time; but there was no wrinkle any­where in that gap on which hands or feet or hopes might rest. Since no movement in the right direction was possible it was neces­sary to stand still or descend, since we wanted the climb very badly it was inexcusable to go down, and since standing still for a long time looks foolish I had to find something to do.

Well, what happened was this. Only eighteen inches to my right there was a projecting penny-sized tuft of grass—we wanted to go leftwards. To make the place tidier I pulled it off. And it proved to be securely attached to a perfect core of earth a foot long, revealing a bore-hole into which the shaft of a hammer slotted perfectly. It was set at just that angle to give confidence and I was surprised to notice then that the weather was magnificent. With tension from a sling round the hammer I was able to precariously lay away and with the reach gained I could inspect a hairline crack marking the back of a small flake. So I forced the blade of a second hammer into it--a degree of brutality is admitted here-- and so split it as barbarously as the last infinitive. This done, a perfect hold for the archetypal steep mantelshelf was produced. It looked good. By this time Jones was extremely excited so I excused myself from a rather committing move, went down, tied him on, and had him hoisted halfway up before he realised I was taking advantage.

Well, he did the pitch. First he got to the overhang and supplied the crack with its peg. Then, with the determination of which he had spoken earlier, he slowly followed the stepped overlap up­wards, removing what was temporary and leaving behind a briefly spaced series of runners on which the eye was able to rest with some satisfaction. From time to time he called out that he was finished and at times we feared this might be true. But there was little that we could do to help him and as you know it gets to the point on a long and arduous pitch like this at which going on is desolately exhausting but at which the mere thought of trying to get back without leaving your gear or honour behind drains you completely. Your throat gets so dry.

With a hundred feet out he reached a sturdy little tree with a neat little ledge underneath it and without stopping to get his breath he lashed himself hard on to every possible point of attachment. Powerful stuff, boy. We tried to encourage him along the remaining thirty feet of overlap but it is impossible to pass a stance like that after such effort.

 Mouly went steadily up to join him and set out immediately on the remaining traverse. Again this proved difficult, the sort of irreducibly awkward passage that may be taken by two or three methods but no way easily. It needed cleaning and it was greasy and insecure. Mouly crossed it in his crabbed and painful but un­failingly effective style. Jones and I were both rather unhappy on it. It was a real bit of Moulamite. Coming last I allowed myself the luxury of a back rope round the little tree.

I caught up with them at the foot of the huge corner attached to two much bigger trees. These were ostensibly healthy but I sus­pected that their roots lay on stony ground. Everything seemed ready to peel off and I was forcibly restrained from setting a magic circle of pegs around the whole party. The corner was filled with grass and other matter -for its whole distance and it was steeper than we had expected. It proved deceptive at a couple of points and we thought that not all the decoration was there to stay. You dig your fingers in, make some sort of foothold, move up, and the stuff starts to pull away before your eyes. Gripping. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. But there was no stopping now and a typically gruesome quarry exit was avoided for a pleasant nose on the left.
We were all pleased at this result. Jones, who had led the crucial pitch and had incidentally snatched first place in an eventual list of first ascents; Mouly, who had directed the ascent and had used his authority to allow no one to chicken out; the writer, who had shown the way up a good eight or nine feet of difficult rock but who was easily able to persuade himself that his contribution had been a significant one. And now we have another communication from the editor — "a final despairing reminder!" . . .

"Certainly before I go to the Alps" and so on. An embarrassing thought strikes me. He asked me to write an account of how I wrote the new guide to Lliwedd. Alas, some six hundred inches of rain has wet that cliff since first I started work there; and I could still only present an Interim Report. But I comfort myself without difficulty. Only a half-dozen routes left to do. And this experience has not been of so digestible a kind as to lend itself to summary in the Climbers' Club Journal — it deserves a book- and this, I hope, will appear shortly.

A note in conclusion to set the record straight about Cae Coch. Jones' description of The Nave in the Ynys Ettws log sites it in "the quarry at Trefriw". Certainly the quarry -at Trefriw offers some remarkable lines but The Nave is not amongst them. In any case exploration in the Trefriw quarry should be discouraged since the intervals between blasting would allow only the very fastest parties to complete a climb.

In the 1980's, a massive rock fall occurred at Cae Goch Quarry which destroyed an extensive area of the face. Including the great slab which was the site of The Nave. Since that time, the venue has been shunned by climbers and the cliff has returned to nature. Peregrine Falcons nest on the face and much of the lower slopes have become dense woodland. North Wales rock master, Nick Dixon, did however,put up some hard routes on a lower wall at Cae Goch in the 1990's. These are included in the current Climbers Club guide to Meirionydd and will appear in the next Carneddau guidebook.

Harold Drasdo...First Published in the Climbers Club Journal-1968