Friday 28 October 2016

Things to do in Lleyn when you are daft.

I do believe that areas like the Lleyn could represent a facet that has all but disappeared from British climbing”, Steve “the general” Mayers commenting on the on-sight ethic in the early 90s. Al had said that the crack “looked about severe”, the tide was out and we stood beached between seaweeded rocks, cannon ball shined, wet from the outgoing tide. Having descended via a grass ridge into what was later described as Three Caves Zawn, such were the obvious topographical features undercutting the cliff that towered for fifty metres or so above us. Here then beyond Rhiw's lonely village and its queer crocodilian edge, where Bardsey Sound’s tide race conducts unknown depths with awesome power round the mouth of hell, cutting off main landmass from a small mysterious island bearing its name, where in 1188, Gerald of Wales had noted, lived an order of devout coldei monks (pilgrims, I knew, still journeyed there). We set out to worship at the vertical shrine of our won cult, watching our companion figures morph over far headland as we did so. Pure in line, our route lay in devil disguised disfigurement which, austere in its fractured neutrality soon proved a tortuous path where better judgement on a different day might have countenanced retreat.

Peculiar indeed were the seldom visited regions of unsoundness for which the Lleyn retained a certain infamy amongst rock climbers. Take for instance “Craig Dorys” where Stevie Haston had told a bemused farmer working fields above the cliffs abrupt drop, “Do you realise that the best route in North Wales in on your land”. Perhaps not a consensus view, the route in question “Tonight at Noon” features a severely overhanging crack composed of exfoliating mudstone at a modest E7. Longer expeditions are to be found at what might be described as the begging of the Lleyn on the massive earthenware buttresses of Trwyn y Gorlech and Craig y Llam. On the latter anyone climbing the 600' 'Fantan b' can suck in exposure when hidden jugs above a small roof on crux pitch 5 obligates a pullout waymarked by an unbroken plumbob drop straight back to sea level.

Rock type hereabouts is granodiorite and typified by a compact lichenous nature. It makes runners and belays difficult to arrange without pegs, though it generally provides solid holds. Thus the true heart of multi pitch adventure in its most testing form requires travelling further out down the peninsula’s long arching arm. Only then can one become familiar with the great orange slopes within the vicinity of the lead itself. Cilan. “No one goes too often to totter down the nightmare slopes- recuperative periods to re-temper frayed nerves are of an almost alpine necessity”, Dave Holmes commenting on the Cilan experience after the first ascent of New Moon (a four pitch E5) in 1989 with Ray Kay.
In fact if a mention of Cilan Main did not cause momentary shudder chances are you hadn’t yet experienced the bizarreness it represented, or were trying to forget it, perhaps in general withdrawal from everyday world. Big and serious, Cilan is where grit and shale horizontal bandstakes the eye before craning neck muscles allow a gaze to take in the massive capping black roofs two hundred feet above a tiny beach at the crags undercut base. Ray Kay said “It was as if holds were colour coded there”, red / yellow suspect or snappy; black / red for solid enough, yet even with such discernment, routes might not easily succumb, especially when suspicious holds combined with poor protection induced harrowing paranoia on ground that did not lack technical difficulty.

Indeed finding himself spread-eagled in a bluish black groove on Crow's second pitch, Ray had at one point considered simply jumping off, so untenable had his situation become. John Toombs, ever level headed under pressure, once informed of this strategy, counselled “Wouldn’t do that if I were you, Raymond”. Which then allowed Kay to gather himself and complete the pitch which left a lasting impression on both climbers. A clue as to what such an excursion might be like can be found in Crow’s description where on the introductory pitch it reads: “Go round the bulges on handfuls of slate”.
First climbed in 1971, remarkably with only one aide point, by Keith Myhill, Crow attacks the wall to the left of its perhaps more well-known neighbour, Vulture and received a free ascent in 1978 from Mick Fowler and Mick Morrison, one of the very few teams to seek out the Cilan atmosphere at this time.

Mostly the work of Jack Street and Chris Jackson circa late 60s, Cilan consciousness in the form of routes like Central Pillar (a HVS with a difference), that along with Gangway no longer exists in original form, gradually confronted the handful of climbers that went to repeat them with a growing respect, “these routes on the cliffs of the Lleyn Peninsula are perhaps the loosest and most serious yet discovered in Wales”.

World Climbing, 1980

By the late 80s and into the early 90s the roll call of climbers making exploratory routes or repeats began to increase and whist the Peninsula did not experience a trendy ‘place to be’ scenario a few Llanberis based teams initially spearheaded by Ray Kay and Dave ‘skinny’ Jones in the company of John Toombes and Lee McGinley did much to arouse a curiosity in other that would increase the Lleyn resume. Pat Littlejohn with various partners had also been quietly operating in the area for some time and thus with a Culm Coast seal of approval it was clear that those entering this lonely realm would be ill advised to do so without a certain apprehension. Sparsely documented, there seemed a magnetic charm purveyed by the only guide book, a slim off yellow paperback, published by the Climbers Club in 1979 and compiled by Trevor Jones, who after editing known information into forty eight pages reminded would be acolytes that “the descriptions and in particular the grades should therefore be considered as provisional and treated with some respect”. It was good advice.

After using this tome on a number of bitter sweet occasions, we had found a number of zawns apparently untouched by previous explorers. To reach these there were a times difficult sea level traverses and unfeasibly treacherous fishermen’s paths. It was in one of these arenas that I now confronted the so called ‘severe’ looking crack in the zawn of the three caves. 'Bytilith' it was marked on OS maps, yet a most defining feature signing our approach centred on a defunct pipeline emanating from a short red brick wall atop and left of the cliffs when looking out to sea. This forgotten edifice plunged in decay down a disturbing couloir for over a hundred feet ending its fall on beach boulders, from where at low tide it was also possible to get round in to the semi cauldron zawn in which rested out point of interest, a crack line whose apparent ascetic charm was difficult to ignore.

Anyone venturing out on short climbs offered by the ‘grit stone’ edge at Rhiw might be forgiven for thinking that sea cliffs in the vicinity might display a similar, generally solid, nature. Yet, this form of false consciousness, would be, above all hope, swiftly be annulled unless concentrating solely on sea rumbled boulders. Thus the crack once engaged rendered a gear shift on my part so that  the mind, hit with information, after architecture each side of the alarming fissure which saw designated footholds explode or de-laminate when nominally weighted, returned to Cilan mode. I think therefore I jamb, or, in a less than grand philosophical sense, which might nevertheless have great repercussions on a personal level, I thought how best jambs should be placed. It wasn’t that baffling technical difficulties suddenly caused a long pause in proceedings, but that typically such ascents rely on a slow probing up and down after securing, at least psychologically, any available protection. Of this, deep inside the crack’s mud butter, better crystallised rock gave home to a couple of friend placements and a big sideways hex biting the fracture’s doubtful outer edges backed them up. It was enough.

When leaders hardly move for half an hour, it might be no surprise to hear second shout in encouragement ‘go for it’ which whilst possible galvanising action in sound rock settings with bomber gear the matter in hand was more likely to succumb after a long mental war of attrition and knowing this Al, maintaining a silent vigil shuffled atop the highest boulders as turning tide began cutting off escape. Cruel were the impediments barring way to the imagined haven promised by a beckoning ledge where steepness was temporarily postponed. This was the belay out sloper, proportioned with a horizontal crumble line taking a friend and some nuts on which I overkilled the snug and braced to bring up the Ruper. A shipwrecked monk lamenting the stone boat’s sinking, no longer paying out.

Crouching and lashed in, maybe eighty feet from where the rock ended at the cave lips and their hollows underneath blew out wave wash over and over, the situation was dramatic. A grey rock pillar dominating the cliff’s upper reaches resembled in appearance Pembroke limestone yet its nature would probably diverge considerably when tested for the properties which Pems is famously known. To the left, the zawn’s concavity bent it round in windscreen flex where it rubbled in ghoul shapes and deep brown death blocks lurking and hanging like gargantuan bats roosting. It lent together in disturbing bulges threatening to drop. Al toiling with the revelation brought on by the crack’s true gravity at one point implored me to give assistance since a deeply seated friend, now inverted, required in a typical case both hand for trigger release least  it ‘walk’ towards loss in the crack’s innards. With great regret it was my solemn duty to inform him that no such assistance could be advanced. I did not like to say it, ‘that the belay might pull’. Yet, not long after this heart breaking news arrived, the friend, aided by a forceful extraction pull, think Popeye opening a can of spinach, and with something like flurry of blows Al soon exchanged jambs at the crack’s finale for a creaking welcome on the shelving perch and we hurriedly plugged in the extra cam shoring up the anchors.

On the lunatic fringe of the next pitch a crack / groove took a rock four, biting in solid first go. Bridge out- lean in- left shouldering and a reach with the right gains faulty finger locks. Moving in reptile shape I make a position under an overlap, where things- as Glenn Robbins was fond of saying, and George Smith would later name his Shale City test piece- were 'getting ugly’. Some wall shadows tell the sun is losing us and I can’t pull over.A man hanging forms the gallows of his own making. This surplomb was half mud, half biscuit, half past dead Whymper.... earth, and stuck below it, excavating fragile layers with one hand sapping, exposure bites as an invisible pig suckles strength away. But here now is the animal in most savage form and with survival its only goal, half standing amidst the left arête’s museum porcelain I commit, chest first, to a gaiter roll mantle and twist body parts over drip fed Hammer House horror, emerging a white faced phantom on the uber steps as uncloaked rock grass becomes airborne, famous amongst the shearwaters.

With our compadres return there are two figures forty feet above peering over and I shout them to fix a rope for the exit shoot at the only conceivable belay, a block diagonally distanced some forty feet away, it would have to do, we have no head torches and the overlord on the incubus steps is waiting. I the kick back before the top it feels like I am tread milling a smashed escalator and with the sky empty of birds I find a grim oasis, but there is no warning and suddenly you’re dead. Double vision? No, blood, only a little, but the hard baked pudding stone had struck me a direct skull hit and its bass rhythm sent a shock wave through the jaw, attempting to dwarf me,stunned, the torso as my knees buckled and I stepped for a moment off the round world’s edge... deaf.

'Relaxing after the climb':Image-Martin Crook

But I am okay apart from rope snag on non-extended runners, causing a final crawling technique which gains relief only after clipping in under the rim on the cold cliff, as Rutger Hauer says ‘not yet, not yet’ clenching his Roy Batty fist. Alive. In sort of muck lined crevasse formed by banks, rabbit warren honey combed, I face out towards the Irish Sea, ready to bring up Al from the cirque of the unclingables, and he comes on like a medieval abbot surveying monastery ruins. Schwarzenegger big in his coat, ‘an insensitive oaf’ a girlfriend once called him, but he picks a way through the Herculean jenga pillars without causing collapse when the merest indelicate touch would have caused regret. With wind blast, hoods go tight on the draw cord and below a crusader zeal fuels the oxygen of escape as he passes over the fairy-tale roof with hands hard grasping. ‘Extremely Severe’, he would later say. But then we are there avoiding the head landers, where there are none except those captured in memory. Burdened only by the hillside’s incline we must set a zig zag course away from the pipe wall and taking a breather, become conscious of the slopers at dusk in the R. S. Thomas necroscope night. Down in the dark the end of Wales.

An account of The First Ascent of Headlander 100 metres XS, April 1992, Martin Crook, Alistair Hughes

Martin Crook: 2016: Previously Unpublished.

Friday 21 October 2016

Reiff Uncovered

What if I live no more those kingly days?
 their night sleeps with me still.
 I dream my feet upon the starry way
my heart rests in the hill.
I may not grudge the little left undone;
 I hold the heights - I keep the dreams I won.

            G. Winthrop-Young

            (Last stanza from “I have not lost the magic of long days”)

Summer 1976, a year that was purgatory for river canoeists and fishermen, but one continual party for rock climbers and crag rats, and of course, I was proud to be both so it was a great opportunity for me to indulge my passion over the long summer break, before I finished at Uni and entered the rat race.

Sandy and I decided to go to Achiltibuie for three weeks before moving north to Cape Wrath for another few weeks, where she would pursue her passion – painting and sketching, and me mine – being alone in contact with rock as I moved up and across it.

I woke on the morning of the 23rd June (my 32nd birthday) and had a great breakfast sitting outside the lodge with binoculars in hand, seeking potential sea cliff routes on the Summer Isles, and noted some possible areas in my climbing log book for another year.

We had decided the previous evening to go for a long coastal walk northwards towards a point on the map called Rhu Coigach, as we were told by the local postman that otters were frequently seen among the kelp in that area. This was ideal, as Sandy was studying them with the intention of opening an otter rescue centre somewhere in Sutherland or Wester Ross when I finished my course at Durham.

We left the lodge expecting to have a long day out, hoping to be inundated with spectacular views along the way, and of course, to see some lutra lutra*.

As we approached the small hamlet of Reiff, just along the road from where we were staying, we met the local postman again, who when we told him where we were going, replied: “Old Tam MacPhearson, a local fisherman, was in the Am Fuaran Bar, near Altandhu last night, and said he saw a large family of otters, playing in the kelp just south of Rhu Coigach around 6pm” and suggested that we should time our arrival, mid to late afternoon.

We parted, feeling good that our day would a good one.

As the day was dry with a slight warm breeze blowing, the clear blue sky with its small fluffy clouds high above, added to the pleasure we got whilst walking northwards along the coast line. The waves were big and clearly took great delight in smashing into the rocks, sounding like a full orchestra tuning its instruments before a concert, no order, no synchronicity, just a jumbled yet pleasant thunderous noise. 

After fifteen to twenty minutes of ambling along, Sandy sat on some rocks whilst I inched my way out as far as I could, so that I could play dodgem with the waves as they try hard to soak me and I tried hard to prevent them from doing so; I was happy that the little child in me was still alive and well!

Looking up stopped me in my tracks, when I saw a line of sea cliffs further on some of which were of considerable height. I knew that there were no recorded climbs in this area and with my little boy to the fore, I ran back to Sandy to hurry her up so that we could get to the cliffs I had seen. 

The tide had just started to turn and the first cove we passed had some unusual blocks standing guard and were obviously resting sites for cormorants, shags, and a host of other sea birds by the look of white droppings that covered the rocks. Jelly fish were in abundance in all the coves although they all looked dead, but I had no wish to test out this theory so we walked on a little further until we came to a cove which definitely had great potential. I could not resist it so climbed down to the sea line and played around on the rocks, first climbing up then down several left ward slanting grooves, then ambling over to a large cliff face which sported a nice crack before moving around the cliff arête to find my birthday present. A large wall towering out of the sea and with the tide on the way out, it looked even bigger. This was rock to climb.

I talked it over with Sandy, and despite wearing an old pair of flared corduroy trousers and well-worn trainers, we agreed that as I was climbing at my best, it was well within my limits.

As I climbed down and across to the tidal area, noticing that at least ten to fifteen feet was covered in limpets and barnacles, Sandy sat down with a view of the cliff face and agreed to take photos of the climb for posterity.

The rock was firm to the touch and although the surface was rough on the fingers, I knew it would offer my trainers superb friction. As I slowly made my way to the high tide line, I looked up at the inviting rock face, and traced in my minds’ eye, the line I was going to follow up to the skyline and sensed that this was another moment in my life that I would remember all my days. 

I put my left hand out and took hold of some small protruding rugosities, placed my right toe on a large barnacle and stood up. My gazelle like movement thrilled my senses as I slowly eased my body upright so as to gain a higher hold for my right hand. I braced my muscles as I brought up the other foot to meet the right one perched precariously on another small protuberance which thankfully took my weight. I stood at this position and listened to the sweet music of the waves as they met the rocks behind and below and I knew, no I believed that this was where I should be at this moment in my life. Synchronicity of life, movement, belief, desire and truth, what more could a mere insignificant human being ask for!

I searched above for the next hand hold and moved in a slow rhythmic movement in tune with my heart beat, as it pulsated nectar of life around my sinews and muscles that were being tested to their limits. I was now on clean rock, no more limpets or barnacles as footholds, just the rough texture of the rock and my own ability to remain in contact with it.

There can be no doubt that when a climber chooses to climb alone, he cannot afford to make the slightest error of judgement, for there is no climbing partner and no rope to assist or arrest any possible slip or fall, let alone have someone to offer encouragement to make a daring move when upward movement appears impossibly. In essence, the end result of such an error would almost certainly lead to severe bodily injury or even the forfeit of life itself.

I had already made the conscious decision to risk everything on this climb, and although I had no death wish, I knew I had to climb well, safe and within my own limits. The problem was, that I had no idea what those limits were, which is what made solo climbing so appealing to me in the first place - the unknown, the potential danger, the ability to experience being truly alive on  all levels, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

As I passionately and purposefully moved upwards a little further, I saw above me a small scoop which had a sloping base, narrowing at the top. I made for it not knowing where I would go from there. This was exploration at its boundary limits of my human capability and it made me realise that right here, right now, I was doing what I was born to do, at least, this is what I convinced myself as I thought about my next upwards move.

As I rested in the scoop, I heard my heart beat as it increased to the sweet familiar adrenalin rush, as it coursed faster through my body. The temple muscles throbbed a delightful tune to the music being played within my veins, and I was loving every minute of it, especially when I felt that the crashing waves of the returning tide, were playing in tune with my very senses.

Trying to get up and past this scoop was both difficult and awkward, and at one stage I was spreadeagled in the shape of a crucifix, (which is what I eventually called the route). Whilst I was fleetingly enjoying being in that position, it became all too clear that I had no idea how I was going to extricate myself from such a precarious position. It felt like many minutes had passed before I came to a decision on what to do next, but in reality, I knew that it was only a few micro seconds as over the past twenty-three years of climbing, mostly alone, I had become attuned to be as one with the rock, so that movement came naturally, quickly and automatically as it had to do when soloing.

An awkward move using a knee, allowed me to gain another fault line leading off to the left and upwards and this gave me two choices of topping out. One route went direttissima that is taking a direct line straight up to the top and the other veered leftwards to some large angled steps then a short wall to the top. Both looked inviting although the direttissima route was without a doubt, a very severe undertaking.

I weighed up both routes and settled for the direttissima route which is what I expected my decision to be. However, when I saw Sandy across the cove taking pictures, I realised that sometimes being selfish and egocentric in my decision making, was not the right thing to do and that any error leading to my possible demise was not fair on her, so elected to do the easier finish.

Movement across to the steps on the left was done in a gazelle like fashion, as all my senses and my limbs became one unified movement of beauty, whilst a cacophony of nature’s sounds tried to sing in harmony with my movements. Upwards movement again, then a little more, a few grunts and groans, and I topped out to applause from Sandy. I felt chuffed at doing what I considered to be a first ascent on what I believed to be an unknown climbing area. Both Sandy and I were confident that I was climbing well and so I continued to climb another few routes nearby. 

When this was done, I climbed back down to the water line and traversed around the small jutting headland to the left. Some good friction was available and I made good progress climbing up, then back down and then traversing a little. At one point I was out of sight of Sandy, and whilst I was negotiating an awkward archway, I felt a wave of nostalgia flood over me. The wind went silent. The waves made no noise as they crashed constantly onto the rocks all around me. The hairs on my arms stood on end and my fingers tingled. I stopped moving across the rock and waited for whatever was going to happen; to happen.

Nothing happened so I tried to start climbing again, but my movement was sluggish as if some force was pulling me back and although I was in contact with the rock, I could not feel it under my finger-tips or with my toes. It felt like I was just standing there in the air, free from all contact with the rock, cocooned in a pocket of total silence.

Suddenly there was a thunderous noise as a huge wave crashed into the base of the cliff face making me leap out of my cocoon. The noise echoed, deafening me for a few seconds and without thinking, I started to climb upwards, across the arch, up a short wall and topping out. I was pleased to see Sandy sitting nearby, gave a wave and walked over to give her a long embracing cuddle.

I was taken aback when she asked where I had been for the past hour. I said I had been nowhere and had only just left her to climb down the rock face to the archway, when a huge wave crashed into the cliff so hurried up and finished the climb. Sandy assured me that I had been away for over an hour and was starting to get worried as she could not see or hear me.

As this was not the first time I had experiences such situations whilst solo climbing, I shrugged it off as just being another unexplained occurrence, and so we moved on further northwards where more rock presented itself, so much so, that I was spoilt for choice and was unable to settle on any particular cliff face. I climbed around a few more coves on our way to Rhu Coigach, but I could see that Sandy was getting bored with me going off to climb continually, so gave up and we walked together in silence to our destination where as we had a break, we peered intently into the kelp beds for signs of otters searching for crabs and fish.

Sandy did some sketching whilst I played around on the small cliffs around the headland, and whilst they were not as big as those further back the way we came, they offered me plenty of sport for which I was most grateful. 

Having to walk back to the lodge past the cliffs at Reiff was purgatory for me, but the sun was now hidden behind some dark clouds and the wind had turned cold and breezy and we wanted to get back before it started to rain. I asked Sandy how many photographs she had taken and was disappointed to find that after the first climb the film ran out and we had forgotten to take a replacement.  Ah well, memories remain.

* Sea Otter 

Frank Grant: 2016 (Previously unpublished)

Friday 14 October 2016

Electric Letterbox

Craig yr Ysfa: John Petts engraving on wood

Of a mind to plunge my hands into Thomas Firbank's, 1940 novel- 'Bride to the Mountain'- to ooze potential clues of the events of the Giveen climbing incident in 1927 not conceded to in 'I Bought a Mountain', but almost thwarted by a holiday chlorine wash. It would take longer to reveal the three climbs, which, if accurate, could provide evidence for this local man who was perhaps privy to secret information from an adjacent Capel Curig valley resident. If the descriptions of the three climbs bore any resemblance to the Great Gully, Craig yr Ysfa, perhaps it will be prudent to consider his fictional twist with this opportunity to refresh the Giveen story.

Turning to Chapter 2 to focus on Grace, a man of modest private means of no occupation, a superb climber, delicate as a cat, strong as a bullock who travelled to the Alps or the Dolomites each year or if less fiscally flush, to Skye, the Lake District, or North Wales. Staying with his friend, Peter Prospect, son of a northern landowner, at the 'Clamberers' Climbers' Club hut in November. 'Late in the year for climbing' they were joined the next morning by a local man, Jim Dunne. Two hours walk over the 'Cader' range they reached 'Black Arete', a climb of a thousand feet, described as extremely difficult and rendered slippery by a thin drizzle. Grace's companion, as of 'novice' experience is likened to be exercised of his skill as inexperienced people are on such difficult rock-pitches by his own personal efforts.

Firbank regales why 'everything went wrong'. A late breakfast that delayed the start from the hut, an unhurried walk and a late lunch. Prospect, burdened of having a bad, off-day, held up the other two badly as he fell off twice. Soon cold and with climbing difficult the last pitch was completed in near darkness, where they collapsed, wet to the skin on the summit.

Grace had an alpine lantern and compass, necessary as the drizzle had turned to heavy rain driven by an icy wind; the night pitch black. The candle in the lantern gave out half way down but the three men 'knew the lie of the land' and stumbled on, falling over often. Unexpectedly Dunne fell into a small pond, where he splashed out to the side helped by his companions and collapsed on the grass, unconscious with Prospect little better. Grace, 'in a quandary' decided to save one and dragged Dunne to shelter behind a rock, and then half dragged, half carried Prospect down the valley. They reached the boundary fence of the valley road after midnight, with the hut still three quarters of a mile away. They struggled into the teeth of the funnel wind.

The key to the hut, usually hidden under under a stone, was not readily found by Grace in the wild blackness and he smashed the window, gained entry and then dragged his companion inside. He lit a fire, wrapped Prospect in blankets before the stove, while both drank some brandy, kept in the hut for emergencies. Grace changed his clothes whilst Prospect slept and went into the night to find Dunne's car, which eventually started. It was not until near dawn that he drew upon help when they returned to the valley, on the way knocking on the doors of three farms leaving word for men to follow for help. Dunne's body was found lying at the edge of the lake where he had fallen, the inquest on the next day credited Grace’s actions but for a short lecture on the impropriety of rock climbing in the winter.

One of the climb descriptions begins in Chapter 3. 'Craig Ddu', which started by a fairly direct route. To the west of the highest point a V-shaped nick 'Hollt Y Cawr' (Giant's cut), an eastward course was taken to reach the crest as the map revealed that the ridge, which ran back to from one wall of the 'Hanging Valley', was more accessible from that side. At the foot of the precipitous mountain, the slope, almost all of firm rock at an angle of fifty degrees or so, striated horizontally to give excellent holds. The ascent, no more difficult than a staircase was easy and the terraces were wider than they looked from below. It took two hours to climb the two thousand feet from the 'Marchlyn Valley' to the 'Craig Ddu' ridge. The next ascent was that to Craig yr Ogof, which started with a field of boulders at its foot. The next stretch was eight hundred feet of unbroken climbing, the top nearly sheer,at  eighty degrees.

The cave was found via a chimney, eight hundred feet above a turf ledge, where a rest was taken and then a slab afterwards to a Rowan tree. About eighty feet of good holds, then a traverse to the right. A nice arete, an easier angle and maybe another hundred feet, and an easy lot of slabs afterwards with plenty of quartz. Large holds then grass afterwards, within a hundred feet of the cave at the end of the grass. The foot of the climb was split by a great fissure. The chimney was not wide- two to three feet . The climber wedged himself inside and wriggled up and sometimes the chimney narrowed so much that he came right to the outside and used holds on the jagged edge. Out of the fissure on to a steep-sloping shelf had proved hard work.
Although much steeper the slab strata ran easily with moves afforded on three holds. A shelf was reached and with an arm on a Rowan tree a rest taken before the next long Arete. Here the cliff folded and left a sharp angle with a void beneath and also to right and left. The rock was sound, the holds sufficient in size and frequency. The entrance to the cave had to be approached to the east or above the bulge in the cliff which appeared to form a broad ledge until it merged into the floor of Hollt y Cawr. There was a stretch of three hundred and fifty feet, which lay back at an easier angle with areas ingrained with quartz and others of turf that overlaid the rock.
A crack then fifty feet up, only two or three feet wide, possibly good for hand holds which passes the end of ledge and by the side of the cave with no way across.

The only way forward was on up the crack until above the cave where the slope eased off and was easily scrambled down. The last pitch proved far different with holds far apart and small. A crevice to take the first joints of the little fingers, a wrinkle of the rock that gave a friction hold for the side of his stockinged foot and but too rarely forming solid rock for a healthy grip. The crack led westwards and upwards at an angle of forty five degrees across the vertical face with no footholds beneath. Almost a hand-traverse. There was little chance to relieve the weight with the feet. Level with the cave with twenty feet to go to the ledge the crack petered out and recommenced after an interval of two or three feet. Somewhere above the cave, pressed hard to the face just to the left there was a small niche, which allowed the toes to be inserted and a stretch across the blank space to where the crack opened again to fall onto the ledge in front of Ogof y Cawr.

In Chapter 7 another 'Craig Ddu' climb is described, that of the 'Great Wall'. Eight hundred feet climbing a huge rock slab, reached by a ridge between a great cleft and the peak, broken but twice by large terraces. The first eighty foot pitch- the steepest of the climb- ended on a ledge. The initial part of the next pitch- an awkward place at the continuation of the slab- fifty feet up, the few holds petered out with only a vertical chute on the right, as if a giant had sliced a 'ten-yard sliver of rock with a semi-circular chisel'. A smooth, shallow gully known as the Slide. Ahead was the smallest of rock areas, large enough only to take the toe of one shoe and giving time only to secure a handhold. The distance across the Slide precluded a tentative essay with the foot and once launched, there was no going back onto the opposite foothold. A second or two of balancing and a grab for the handhold followed by the short climb up to the terrace . The next long pitch, with no secure place to stop and belay, needed the full run of the hundred foot rope between each climber.

A stop was needed at a point half way up the great slab between the terraces, standing in a small projection whilst the next climber's rope was belayed over a blunt spike of rock, between the knob and the slab. A long chimney above with a fold in the face like a partly opened book, had so obtuse an angle as to allow the back to be wedged against one wall and the feet against the other. In the very angle of the groove the rock was spilt, a thin crack ran right the way up where the chimney gave on to a long, easy-sloping slab studded with white quatrz.

In places the crack in the corner allowed the toe of a shoe, in others a stone jammed provided a hand hold. The walls of the chimney, smooth, with occasional footholds and not difficult, gazed over a void below. At the quartz area a firm rock knob allowed a rope tie. Enough to belay a man around his own body and call for another to come along. The first of the next two easy pitches of the Black Slab was studded with quartz, which provided gargantuan holds, and part of striated rock. The last pitch, difficult initially but straightforward to within twenty feet of the crest of the ridge, followed by a bulge in the rock, which made a very slight overhang. Standing on a small foothold below the bulge, a hand slid over to seek a hold above it. Careful not to lose balance in the attempt. Pressed tight to the face and straightening up in small increments and then boldly to capture the hold above.

The 'Black Arête' climb of Chapter 12 associated with the accident earlier in the book is on the north side of the 'Caders'. Of one thousand feet it started in a dark, wet gully, steep enough in places to be called a chimney, lined with loose stones and patches of turf. The gully took up nearly half the climb before being forced on to the face. The steep arête, sometimes not far off the vertical then appeared for some three hundred feet. The climb on the apex of the angle with three parts very thin. The arête eventually got very smooth with work needed to work back into the three or four feet wide gully. The only way up was the ‘chimney’ by using feet on one side and the back of the neck of the other up a gap of about four feet. Forty feet later the top of the pitch led to a ledge, a foot traverse outwards to work out above the gully and a look down the way already climbed as if you’re seeing through the wrong end of a telescope. The ledge led to the mountain ridge between 'Cader Gwynt' and 'Cader Fronwen'.

Firbank's account of this 'accident climb' begins with Grace the leader who worked his way up the right wall of the gully close to its floor, which lay at seventy degrees. Several holds were cleared of earth or moss by him and a belay reached at eighty feet. The next pitch, a ‘beastly greasy wall' was ascended as if it were a staircase and then off again on a hundred foot lead where he belayed and then led upwards. There was a repeat of things for the rest of the gully part until they reached foot of the Black Arete. Here the gully had become a rock chute with damp sheer sides. There was no way forward but by climbing out on to the Arete. About five hundred feet up the ground at the foot of the climb fell away so sharply that looking outwards did not 'light on level ground' for perhaps fifteen hundred feet. The Arete was thin, steep, the rock beautifully sound, horribly smooth and an exposed place because when they moved out from the gully there was an overhang below the point where the Arete was joined with a clear view between the legs into clear space. The area subject to the full force of the wind.

A rope was looped over a little spike on the edge of the Arete, the belay not much more than a matter of form and it was dusk as they reached the last pitch. They worked their way back into the gully from the great wide chimney pitch. There was a grass ledge at the base of the chimney and Dunne backed his way up six feet, then horizontally he lay across the chimney and moved one boot at a time, no more than a few inches. With his feet a little higher than his head he pushed behind his back with his hands until his head was above his feet and then he reached the top. There was only the foot traverse left and the turf of the hillside sloped to meet the end of it in no more than twenty feet.

Mark Hughes:2016 
If you wish comments please via the Electric Letterbox –

Friday 7 October 2016

Rob Collister's 'Days to Remember'....reviewed

Without ever becoming a household name in the wider climbing/outdoor world, Rob Collister is well respected by those who are aware of his climbing achievements and his passionate involvement in all aspects of conservation and environmental protection. A long term mountain guide and explorer of his native peaks,the Alps and the Greater Ranges, Rob has always managed to balance his professional role with an active position championing the protection of our wildest places. Not least here in the mountain region of north Wales.

Commuting between his family home above the Conwy Valley to fulfil his professional responsibilities as a mountain guide in the Alps and beyond, the environmental impact of global warming and its dramatic effects on glacier erosion combined with a growing awareness of his own contribution to the problem through his frequent use of air travel, has led the author to a Damascene conversion in recent years, towards greener forms of travel. This ‘think globally-act locally’ approach to environmentalism has drawn him to not only reshaping his own lifestyle to lessen his carbon footprint but opened his eyes to the myriad ecological problems brought about here in Wales through national and EU policies which have effected real and lasting damage on our fragile ecosystems.

But first things first; ‘Days to Remember’ is not just a green manifesto, it is brim full of evocative essays drawn from a lifetime of mountain activities. From his time as a young student at Cambridge, taking his first steps in the Scottish winter scene; early forays in the Alps and adventures in the greater ranges of the Himalaya and South America. Figures like Dougal Haston and Dick Isherwood slot into his outdoor life and like so many young tyros who took their first steps in the outdoor world in the sixties, the envelope is well and truly pushed on many an occasion. Adventures springing from boundless enthusiasm in those early years rather than gradually honed experience and natural ability. Surviving through luck rather than skill as when climbing in Zanskar he pulled a rock the size of a football onto to his bare head when abseiling and had to be lowered back to base camp by his companions.

‘Days to Remember’ is neatly sliced into three distinct sections. The first part ‘Home Ground-Wales’ really captures the spirit of place. Anyone like myself familiar with the Welsh uplands will instantly recognise with the areas described in the author’s peregrinations. The ancient church of Llangelynnin above the Conwy Valley; if it has grown out of its craggy surroundings; the fragile and ancient land of the Rhinogydd. An area of cascading streams,hidden llyns and described by legendary climber and archaeologist, Pete Crew as ‘one of the richest ancient landscapes in Britain’. The lonely Arans, in recent times an area of bitter conflict between farmers and outdoor folk who risked incurring their wrath by stepping a millimetre off the courtesy path over the summits, and wo betide anyone who walked directly to climb on Gist Ddu!

These evocative descriptions of our homeland are each framed within an activity which has opened to door to the imagination. The aforementioned Aran essay springing from an impulsive decision to complete a circular expedition of the Arans on foot and by bike. In another essay, the author wanders over to Craig Ysfa one fair morning and solos up Amphitheatre Buttress and then on to the summit of Carnedd Llewelyn;  whose summit beckoned and it was much to fine a day to ignore the summons. A winter climb above Fynnon Caseg in the Carneddau when... a projecting sphere of rock on Carreg y Garth Isaf was tipped gold by the sun, as if freshly drawn from the molten core of the world. Within each essay, Rob’s love of both the natural environment and those activities which bring him close to that fragile theatre of dreams-running, climbing,skiing,winter climbing and cycling-shine through.

Part Two, 'Further Afield’, as previously mentioned, describes the authors' further adventures across the world. Essays which encapsulate the essence of foreign travel. The bureaucratic frustrations,the frisson of excitement that being totally alone in a wilderness brings. Coping with illness and stress and of course, the very real pressure that comes with confinement. Trapped with companions for weeks on end, when even the closest friendships are tested and relationships inevitably become strained.

In Part 3, ‘Issues’, Rob returns to many of those subjects raised in Part One. Matters of environmental concern which have impacted on the author both in a physical and spiritual sense through human mismanagement of the land. Sadly, many of these depressing ecologically degrading elements, whilst being carried out by individual landowners, are being driven by political factors both home and abroad. Even the most enthusiastic EU-rophile cannot fail to see the negative impact that many EU agricultural policies have had upon the countryside. The subsidised overstocking of the uplands with sheep, leading inevitably to previously diverse eco-systems become bare monocultures. The erection of giant agribarns, the gouging out of tracks over the mountains, the draining of ponds and wetlands, the grubbing up of hedges and copses. All subsidised by an EU agricultural policy which has placed profits above environmental protection.

Nowhere is this more vividly seen than in the area of stock fencing. As the author says of his north Wales uplands home, ‘appearing where no fencing has ever appeared before’. It is a phenomena that I have noticed on my travels. Shiny green fencing topped with pointless and in the circumstances useless barbed wire! Winding and rolling across the undulating hillsides in even the wildest bleakest landscapes which are devoid of sheep. Why is this happening? As the author points out, farmers can receive £9.00 per metre in EU subsidies for erecting fence yet they can hire contractors who will erect fencing for just £3.00 a metre. As you’ve guessed, fencing is not just taming and aesthetically despoiling the uplands, its a money making scam to boot!

As touched upon in the second paragraph, the final essay ‘More Adventure- Less Impact’ we find the much travelled author now fretting about his Doc Marten Size 12 carbon footprint! As someone used to flying here there and everywhere, both in a professional and recreational capacity- like the travel writer and BBC Coast presenter, Nicolas Crane who now refuses to use air travel period-without totally following in the umbrella man's footsteps and going completely 'Cold Turkey', Rob has decided, as far as possible,to dramatically reduce his flying time. Instead using rail travel to reach places within reach like The Alps, and totally abandoning any future trips to remote places like Antarctica.

In conclusion, Days to Remember brings together a wonderful collection of essays by a seasoned outdoor campaigner at a stage when his mountain career is winding down and he can take stock of new horizons. Although far from collapsing into his rocking chair, the essays convey a sense of both contentment at a life lived to the full, tinged with a wistful melancholia which springs from a love of the natural world and his observations that the land lies bleeding. In this his essays act as a signpost for those who care to look. Pointing the way towards a better way of living.

John Appleby:2016 

Days to Remember is published and available to buy from Vertebrate Publishing