Friday, 1 April 2016

Magic Carpet Ride on Cloggy's Great Slab

On Snowdon there is a cliff called Clogwyn du'r Arddu. Its name is enough to frighten away many people. It is over 500ft. in height and mostly vertical;quite the most magnificent precipice in England and Wales. Up to 1931 there was only one route on each of the two main buttresses. It was the West Buttress that first attracted me. In 1927, Longland and Pigott and Morley Wood had succeeded in breaking across from the left, to make their magnificent West Buttress Route [Longland's Climb]. My friend, Dr. Graham Macphee, had led me in record time up this climb, and we were sunbathing by the dark little Llyn du'r Arddu. Macphee thought he had earned his rest, as indeed he had, but I had other ideas. I had designs on the middle of the West Buttress. On the upper half of the buttress was a huge slab. If only it could be reached!

Below, the rocks were almost vertical. But the main problem was in the first few feet. All the way along the foot of the cliff the rocks overhung. It was a genuine overhang too; it formed a kind of covered corridor, with a roof that projected in places for 20ft or more. Nobody had yet succeeded in overcoming this over-hang. There seemed to be a faint chance in the middle, where a pile of blocks formed a kind of natural ladder. A well-known climber had tried to climb straight up at this point and had fallen off, luckily without hurting himself. It looked a nasty place, but it seemed to me that, instead of climbing upwards, it might be possible to traverse out to the left above the overhang.

Don Whillans and Bill Peascod in'a nasty place'.Photo-Bill Birkett.

This would lead to a narrow slab, which ran up to the skyline and out of sight. It was impossible to guess what happened after that. The traverse was very severe. There was one sloping hold where my rubbers would not grip at all, so at last I took them off and managed to get across in my stockinged feet. I found myself on a tiny grass ledge, looking rather hopelessly up at the grim face above. I had crossed on to a higher part of the cliff and was already about 100ft above the bottom, with the overhang below me. I felt very small and isolated. I started up the narrow slab. It was far more difficult than it had looked, and wickedly rotten. I threw down every other hold. A thin ribbon of grass ran all the way up on the right, looking like a long and ragged caterpillar. I thought that even this might be safer than the rock and plunged into it. It wasn't at all a friendly kind of caterpillar; it began to peel off and slide down.

I left this moving staircase very hurriedly and took to the rocks again. I climbed on the extreme edge, where it seemed to be a little firmer. Below my left foot the rocks dropped, sheer and unclimbable, for 200ft. Macphee called up that I had run out nearly all of the 120ft line. There was no stance in sight, so I had to stand about uncomfortably while he tied on another 100ft. length. I went on and on, with things looking more and more hopeless. I wondered whether I should ever find a belay. At last the climbing began to get easier, and I was able to traverse to a sheltered grassy recess.
The 'Sheltered Grassy Recess'.Climbers Martin Davies and Dave Williams

 There was a perfect thread-belay, and Macphee soon joined me. It was wonderful to think that no one had ever been here before. It was still more interesting to wonder whether we should ever escape. I tried the slab immediately above, but did not dare to pass a big loose block, resting on a ledge. A few years later, an optimistic climber was more daring; he succeeded in pulling the block on top of himself, gashing his hand very badly. He had to abseil down, weak and faint from loss of blood. He got back very late, and search-parties were out all night looking for him. By this time he was safely in bed. Some one had made a muddle of things. We climbed a rib to a little stance. The big slab, for which we were aiming, was away on our right. It was very steep and smooth here; the far side looked much more hopeful. But could we reach it? 

I got a long way across, and then stuck. The next move might be possible, by a kind of jump. It would be dangerous, but— well, a new climb was worth a risk. I looked at it a long time. It seemed to grow more and more grim. The exposure was terrifying and I was a long way from my second. I came back. I managed to find an easier way across, at a lower level; but that meant that I still had the steep part of the slab ahead of me. The corner was a 20ft wall of literally vertical grass. I made a mad rush at it. I had to climb up more quickly than the grass fell down. It was nasty and dangerous, but I dug in my finger-nails and toes (I was still climbing in stockings) and clutched and scrabbled until I reached the top. I don't know what Macphee thought of all this?

He is a safe and careful climber himself. But he is an ideal second. He watches you carefully and says nothing, except to point out a hold now and again. You feel that he trusts you and expects you to get up, and so you jolly well do get up. Also, he is equally famous both as an alpinist and as a rock-climber, so that I knew I could not have had a better man to back me up. The next pitch was still grass, but not quite so steep. The turf split from the slab and curled up. It was rather like standing on a roll of carpet — with the carpet going on unrolling. It was very difficult and unpleasant.

But our reward was to come. We had two wonderful airy 100ft pitches, right up and across the Great Slab, to its top left-hand corner. The rock was warm and very rough, and we felt profoundly happy and exhilarated. All the thrill of conquest was ours. The climbing was just severe, but it was easy after what had gone before and we seemed to glide up without effort. Macphee said I deserved a kick in the pants or a potato medal, he didn't know which. Why only a potato medal I don't know; I felt I deserved more than that. But it had been a marvellous day. We had done 1,000ft. of rock-climbing, most of it in the very severe class. 

Colin Kirkus:LET'S GO CLIMBING 1941.