Friday, January 25, 2013

The Berwyns...A Pagan Place

Not being a big fan of early starts, I headed for the nearby Berwyn range around mid day yesterday. Intending to take advantage of the decent forecast and take in a peak or two. The Berwyns are outside of the Snowdonia National Park and despite rising to a respectable 2700'+ the mountains are something of habitue of a discerning handful of outdoor activists. Lacking the craggy grandeur of the northern peaks, the range has a reputation as being a boring expanse of rolling heathery upland. Few paths break the perceived monotony, leaving the more remote peaks as grueling heather and bog trots. However, the range does contain a lot of ground which does offer more than solid hillwalking. Look carefully and you'll find climbing crags, underground trips, waterfalls and winter gullies. Mountain bikers and ski tourers can also find some classic tours through the range.

Yesterday, however, it was just supposed to be a quick blast to the top and back down. Parking up in the Dee Valley between Cynwyd and Llandrillo I took off on a back lane which quickly becomes a good track heading up into the mountains. The heavy snow of the past 7 days had, however, left the track a sculpted maze of snow drifts. These were over head height in places. Progress was slow but by diverting out of the tracks and onto the fields,I could move at a better pace. Higher up though, it became impossible to circumnavigate the deep drifts. I reached a section where at every step I sank up to my thigh in soft snow. Eventually, I ended up crawling on my hands and knees in an attempt to spread my weight. Still, my arms would push through on occasion and I'd be left ploughing the snow with my chin!

This was hopeless. Snow shoes would have helped but it still would have been gruelling walking all the way to the top and back in snow shoes. Despite the clear blue skies, the wind was slicing through me and the poor dog was suffering with compacted snow between his pads. Tired by now-it had taken me about half an hour to cover 100 yards-I sat with my legs encased in frozen snow and swigged on an energy drink and stuffed a flapjack in my mouth. It's easy to see how people get hypothermic. The cold really sucks the energy out of you. With an energy boost through I struggled on until I reached a fence line. Hoping it would have meant a drift on one side and clear hard ground on the other.....Nope!

It was after three by now. At this rate it would be after midnight when I reached the summit. Checking my GPS, I was only at 1800'..nearly 1000' of height and about two miles of distance to cover. Impossible! No more food, no spare clothes and a limping dog...great stuff!

I can't remember the last time I was thwarted by the elements on a hill walk but there you go. Call it a learning experience. At least the light was good to get some shots of the ancient stone circle on the way back, although it was getting dark when I reached the car which rather confirms the futility of carrying on. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Scaling the Telegraph's Troll Wall

When Billy Connolly hit 50, he celebrated the event by getting his nipples you do. When it was done, the guy who did it turned to him and said...'well...that's one more of us and one less of them !'  'Them' being that great suffocating mass of stunted humanity who reside in that beige spiritual dead-zone.'Middle England'. Beige or 'Beige people' is another of Connolly's useful reference points to identify the dreaded straight society. Napoleon had the English as 'a Nation of Shopkeepers'. He had a point; at least he would have if he had referenced it to the South of England. The seat of political power and media control.

For those from the north or like Billy, from the Celtic fringes, the south represents something of spiritual heart of darkness. Not only in political terms but also in social and cultural values. This Middle England is a land of polite conformity. A land where a right wing, millionaire buffoon like Boris Johnson gets elected and re-elected as mayor of a great city. Can you imagine Johnson even scraping into double digits in a city like Liverpool or Glasgow!!!

Where is this going? Well, in a rather circuitous way I admit, I was heading up to Glencoe. That is, referencing the Glencoe Avalanche which claimed four lives this week and more to the point, examining the reaction it predictably provoked in the comments pages of the Conservative press. Notably the Daily Telegraph and the Mail. The Telegraph in fact, is a newspaper I read as much as much The Guardian despite its political stance. It is however, a gathering point for every reactionary fruitcake this side of Bedlam. Tory/UKIP/BNP  'Stupid Angry White Men' who inhabit a cold, cold dark land and vent their bile through their anonymous pseudonyms  . 

These cyber trolls with their silly EU flag with a hammer and sickle, John Bull, Britannia etc... are like a Christian Taliban and just HATE everyone and everything. To their long list of pet hates..The EU, single parents, gay people, immigrants, blacks, leftists, greens, artists,welfare recipients...we must now add mountaineers.

I'm not sure why a supposedly respectable newspaper like the DT would allow comments on a tragedy like Glencoe given the fact that the features may be read by friends and families of the deceased? However, the editor in his wisdom was only too happy to feed the trolls this week and the vile contempt and ridicule for the deceased was something to behold. Their confusion and bafflement that people would actually choose to do something that might endanger their lives, compelling in its brutal ignorance? How can this be...this is not how we live our lives in Beigeinstoke and Hemel Hempstead..these people are' thick'...'selfish'...risking the lives of others and furthermore, these 'climbers' deserved everything they got.

These comments coming from people for whom doing something edgy and daring is washing their Honda Civic on a Saturday instead of a Sunday! 

As a climber/mountaineer and occasional sea kayaker, I'm not someone who particularly wants to push the envelope to the limit every time I go out in the hills or on the sea. But really; I'd rather drop dead tomorrow than live another 40 years if I had to exist in the suburban dead zone. I don't know about 'Better dead than Red' but 'Better dead than Beige' definitely.

* I should add that to it's credit,the Telegraph has deleted a lot of the more inflammatory comments now, with entire sections now wiped. 

Billy Connolly..Not a resident of Beige-Shire

Friday, January 18, 2013

Snow Patrol

The author happens upon an abandoned North Korean listening post...actually,a local high point just as the snow started to kick in yesterday afternoon.

Red Alert! I lost count of the number of times BBC Wales'  weatherman Derek Brockway told us about the 'unusually' severe winter weather heading our way today. Yesterday afternoon I was up at a local high point in Clocaenog Forest,the 1600' top of Craig Bron Bannog and it was already snowing quite heavily but lower down it was just a dusting. 7.10am this morning and I took a look outside .....nothing doing. A thin cover on the fields but no sign of the promised blizzards.

By eight,the first specks of snow were coming down and the wind started kicking in. By Nine, it was snowing heavily and I was glad we had left our vehicles a mile away in the local village. We would have been snowed in by now. The wind has started creating drifts on the lane and work trips from here have had to be abandoned.

Friday morning...nine a.m.Shank's pony only on the back lanes.

Later on I might don full winter gear and walk over the hill to the next valley and take in another local high point-1550-' to see what gives. Given the wind and increasingly heavy snow fall, I wouldn't want to be out in the real mountains today though. In Snowdonia, I imagine it will be white out conditions at the moment. Tomorrow they are forecasting more snow in North Wales but I bet there will be thousands of winter warriors heading into the hills.  Given the likely conditions ,I just can't see the mountains offering much sport apart from swimming up routes, as it's going to be too soft and deep? That's if you can even get there.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Arenig Fawr and the loneliness of the Mid Wales pioneer

Mid 90's climbing chic! John and Liam Appleby pioneering on the northern fringes of Arenig Fawr

I was interested to read online about plans for a new Mid Wales guidebook from the CC, including for the first time, hundreds of new climbs and dozens of new crags way down south in Radnorshire. The last guidebook which covered this area was the 2000 Meirionydd guide which was equally extensive; covering John Sumner's old Mid Wales territory but also including the Moelwyns ,the crags around the Lledr Valley and Betws y Coed and making their first GB appearance, hundreds of new climbs on Arenig Fawr and in the wild Rhinogs. In truth, it was a bumper fun book too far. 

Geographically, it was a bit of a nonsense in that it covered too extensive an area and to my mind, it would have made more sense to publish it in two volumes covering the north and the south of the area. Now that's been rectified and although the guide has reverted more or less to John Sumner's original Mid-Wales area-with Radnorshire tacked on- The Moelwyns have been taken out and the Gwydyr Forest crags are going into the next Carneddau guide.

Climbing in mid Wales and my own experiences new routing on Arenig Fawr warrants a lengthy article in itself; however in this blog post I just wanted to pick up on comments made online regarding the lack of traffic on Mid-Wales routes. Again, you could write a lengthy article covering, the social and cultural reasons why some quality crags remain unfrequented while others become honeypots. Some of the reasons are obvious, others, less so. It is an eternal truth however, that climbing in Mid-Wales is, always has been, and always will be unpopular, regardless of its quality.

Back in the early 1990's I made a couple of first ascents with an old hippy friend called Ed Fisher, on a big vegetated but impressive buttress on the north western side of Arenig Fawr called Daear Fawr. Arenig was just on the cusp of a new routes explosion led by enthusiastic mid Wales climbing devotee Terry Taylor and the Lakes and Wales veteran Harold Drasdo. This was all unknown to me at the time when I climbed with Ed. During this period, all the new routing activity was taking place on the eastern Simddu Ddu cliffs.....again, unknown to me. Despite moving across the mountain to join the feast in the east, I did return back to what became known as the Pen Tyrau cliffs and with various partners- but mostly, by this time with fellow Arenig explorer Harold Drasdo-(See Harold's Too Cold for Crow). I went on to make the first recorded climbs on cliffs like Arrowhead Buttress and remote Craig Hyrddod.

This brings me to a UKC thread about the forthcoming guide. One of the first routes done on the aforementioned Craig Hyrddod was a HVS route called Hurricane Wall. I originally graded it E1 but it was downgraded by the guidebook writer...Hissss...but given two stars.. Yayyyy! Anyway...Hurricane Wall got a mention on the thread and the contributor told of how he had spent an hour trying to clean the route before giving up. This is strange for when I made the first ascent it was climbed ground up with no pre cleaning and didn't seem too dirty. What's going on? Some suggest global warming. Milder winters and wetter summers leading to a greening of the danker north facing cliffs? I don't know? Strange though,how these north western crags on Arenig- as elsewhere- have returned to nature apace.

Paul Ross...'repeat ascents?...frankly my dear I don't give a damn!':Photo PR Collection

Last year I was telling the Lakes veteran Paul Ross about a visit to this area and how neglected it was with probably,99% of the new routes I'd done here never receiving a second ascent. Paul who has plenty of experience climbing on dank north facing crags in his old stomping ground of Borrowdale, was philosophical. Claiming that he wasn't at all bothered if any of his new routes received a second ascent, as for him, it was all about the satisfaction of pulling off the project. Seeing a potential new route; throwing himself at it and feeling that blast of satisfaction when it comes together and he pulls over the top. Who cares if it returns to nature and no one else experiences it.

With that philosophy he would certainly feel at home new routing on Arenig. You've more chance of bumping into Lord Lucan than seeing a climber on the north western fringes!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Following ghosts and chasing shadows

Yet another 'Kerry Crag' discovered.

What a difference 24 hours can make. Yesterday I was out in Snowdonia on a cold but generally dry and bright day, doing some guidebook recce work. Today, I found myself walking in deathly quiet forest under a blanket of snow. Winding back to yesterday. The late Welsh climber John Kerry has been getting some long overdue publicity recently, not least through an article I did for Footless Crow (see Dead Climbers Society). He had come back into my orbit through the work we had been doing for the next Carneddau guidebook. It was not so much the quality of his 1960's and 70's climbs we had sampled, but the air of mystery surrounding his lost climbs and crags.

In fact,from other climbers like veteran activist Harold Drasdo we were aware of a number of unlisted crags were he had left his-unrecorded-mark. Indeed,there were so many of these 'lost' crags popping up that we routinely referred to them as ' a Kerry crag'. Yesterday we visited two of these venues and impressive they were too. From Harold, we had an idea of where one or two of his routes went but the overall quality of the venues which were relatively close to the road and therefore easily accessible, suggested that with some work and additional new routing, their inclusion in a guidebook complete with action photos and topos,couldn't fail to attract a new audience.

Around mid day today, with the temperatures around zero and an ominous grey sky suggesting the forecasters might be on to something when they suggested snow, I went off for a long dog walk on the outer western fringes of the huge Clocaenog Forest. No sooner had I left the car than small spits of snow drifted down. Within an hour I found myself walking into a steady fall of snow which was blanketing the trees and tracks and muffling my footfall. At the far side of the forest I came out onto a remote, rarely used back lane. Not a sign of traffic as to be expected. I stopped and just stood listening to the complete and absolute silence.

 I thought of the words of Alfred Wainwright when he contemplated a similar scene..."I felt like the last man alive in a dying world'.  Just before I got back to the car at about three o clock, I unexpectedly came across two mountain bikers heading  into the forest and to my mind,given the conditions, not exactly appropriately attired. From their tracks in the snow,they had come from the direction of the village of Llanfihangel and at a guess,they were a long way from where they had started. Given that even locals can become disorientated in this part of the forest with its myriad identical tracks looping off everywhichway, I sincerely hope they found their was back to their transport. With only an hour and a half of light left and with it snowing steadily It seems like they were pushing their luck but who knows. They might be staying in a local cottage or pub? I'll still watch the local news later though...... just in case they're still out there!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Access all areas

John Redhead on the trail of the white hare in St Melangell's churchyard

This time last year I went up to the remote Cwm Pennant with John Redhead to visit the ancient church of St Melangells which sits at the head of the cwm. We had come to take a look at a 15th century oak screen which features the story of Princess Melangell. An Irish lass who ended up in the valley and who became the stuff of legend when, according to a 17th Century manuscript translated by Professor Oliver Davies of Saint David’s College, Lampeter, tells the tale of the illustrious Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog of Pengwern Powys who in AD 604 whilst hunting in a place called Pennant started a hare and with his hounds gave chase. They came to a thicket of brambles and thorns wherein he found a beautiful maiden, given up to divine contemplation, with the hare lying boldly under the hem of her garments. Impressed by her piety and devotion,The prince gave the lands thereabouts to Melangell to act as a sanctuary and harbour for quiet devotion.

Oak Screen showing the Melangell legend

The 1600 year old legend has been adopted by the church which apart from its 15th century oak screen,includes many other beautiful sculptures and artifacts related to the story. Like most Christian churches,the site is undoubtedly pagan in origin with its magnificent 2000 year old yew trees far predating the church.
For John and I as non Christians,we were more interested in the pagan and aesthetic side of things. We were also aware that the hare was also important to the inspirational German artist Joseph Beuys- founder of De Grunen (The Green Party)- being one of his six sacred animals. Animals which embody an almost magical element. While we were in the churchyard and with John communing with a yew tree,  I took in the magnificent cwm which had an impressive waterfall contained by crags at its head. I registered it as a possible climbing venue and looked forward to getting back in the spring to take a closer look.

1964 Joseph Beuys painting featuring sacred hares

When I did return it was high summer when I parked up outside the church. After wandering down the lane expecting an easy trod through the valley- Google Earth shows a good track all the way-I was quickly directed 'to the waterfall' via an indistinct path across a field. Eventually it came out as a pleasant rising path cutting through the side of the valley. The problem came when I tried to descend. Towards the head of the cwm the path disappears into deep bracken and gorse and plunges down into gullies in places. Eventually, after a truly horrible descent down a gorse and bramble choked gully I crossed the river and scrambled up to the path. I was dirty,scratched and sweating like a pig! There was no way I was scrambling out the way I came in!

After cooling down under what is a magnificent fall, I decided I would walk out through the private estate which owns the lands within the cwm. The walk out was pleasant and easy but pretty soon I hit a ' private property-keep out' sign. Climbing over a fence I crossed a field and headed for another footpath I had spotted. More 'private-keep out' signs...bugger it...I'm coming through like it or not!

Eventually I sneaked through a large farmyard and in one bound I was free. I had passed the entrance to the estate without seeing a soul. In fact I had spent the whole afternoon alone in a fantastic cwm which anywhere else would have been a mecca for outdoor types and tourists. Normally this state of affairs would suit me down to the ground. The point is; despite the last Labour government's promise to give us a right to roam act, unfortunately,like most of the government's promises, what materialized was another half baked policy- the cRow act. A unsatisfactory compromise policy which still leaves many areas in the UK where we cannot freely roam. This estate being one of them. For non outdoor types, such as old people,families with children,the disabled... the waterfall of Blaen y Cwm is out of bounds as it requires a certain tenacity and dedication to reach via the dedicated path. In 2013 it's surely not acceptable to be denied access to some of our most beautiful areas by governments still kowtowing to a privileged elite. Benny Rothman...where are you now!

Pistyll Blaen y Cwm 

St Melangell Church of Cwm Pennant




Sunday, January 6, 2013

Ogwen Valley...where numpties roam.

Jamie's Route-The West Face of Tryfan.

No sooner had I posted about my experiences as a mountain rescue team member and outlined my reservations about state organisations indulging it's numpties, than my attention was drawn to a feature in Grough online outdoor journal. It revealed that the Ogwen MRT had been called out three times in a few hours to shepherd these....I'm trying to find the right word,numpties seems too about morons? off the mountain.'s mild, dank and calm in North Wales and if you are not familiar with North Wales I can tell you that despite it's wee mountains-the highest is a mere 3600'-and classic climbing crags, the Alaskan wilderness it aint!

I'm not sure which way the whole mountain rescue thing is going but I wouldn't be surprised if within ten years we have emergency phones like they have on motorways on popular mountains and US style finger posts and blazes to mark out trails. Is it the fear of litigation by the authorities which sees it pandering to these people; The expansion of outdoor leisure in the media, which promotes the great outdoors in the same way as it promotes barbeques and things to do before you die; the rise of Nanny State-ism???

Whatever happened to self reliance and the so called Bulldog Spirit? These days if someone breaks a fingernail they feel they are within their rights to call 999 and spring the emergency services into action. Credit to the north Wales MR teams though. They must have the patience and tolerance levels of his holiness the Dalai Lama to indulge this growing constituency of useless wusses!

Ideal MRT material

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hogmany Hangover

Sterling Work:Spanish owned power plants in The Ochils above the historic town.

The last day of 2012-a year of highs and lows-I headed North to Scotland to spend the Hogmany celebrations in the North East; just a few miles from The Moray Firth. It had been about four years since I last went to Scotland, staying on the Tay and heading back and forth to the Edinburgh Festival. This time the journey North involved a 452 mile trip from North Wales to a tiny hamlet-Geddes near Cawdor which apparently has links with Shakespeare's Macbeth. Macbeth aside,the most chilling part of the nine hour journey-I did stop for an hour in Penrith on the way-was seeing the huge wind farms which have taken root in Lanarkshire in particular.

I have to say,the aesthetic and emotional impact of these huge power plants torn across the uplands is jarring in the extreme! I've never understood it from an artist's perspective,when people say they find wind turbine's beautiful! We are not talking about Antony Gormley sculptures here.We are talking about 3/400' pale steel towers,each identical to every other wind turbine in the land. Apart from the savage ecological impact of siting power plants in fragile environments, the collective impact of a wind farm like Whitelee-the second largest in Europe with 140 power plants- is its sledgehammer effect on the senses. Driving along the motorway with these monstrosities enveloping me on either side, I felt physically sick as at one stage as a section of the huge wind farm appeared dead ahead. Their thrashing unsynchronized blades producing a similar effect as being in a rocking boat and feeling seasick.

Sadly,the global energy corporations who are profiting to the tune of billions of pounds from these heavily subsidized power plants,have the Scottish and UK governments firmly in their pocket. In fact, little wonder that it was revealed last week that over 40% of wind farm applications in Scotland that are rejected by local planning committees are passed on appeal by the Scottish government. If there are not palms being greased in the wind farm planning process then I'm Captain Ahab!

Anyway...on to spiritually more wholesome things. One of which being a visit to the epicentre of all things alternative on the Scottish east coast-The Findhorn Community. I had known about Findhorn for a long time but hadn't realized that the community which was founded in 1962 was originally Christian in it's ethos although now it's just claims to be 'spiritual' and embracive of all faiths. The Community practices an alternative,eco-friendly lifestyle which includes self sufficiency in food and energy production. Yes it does have wind turbines but only three and not on the industrial scale witnessed further south.  Despite being on the inhospitable east coast and subjected to biting easterly Siberian winds from time to time,the Findhorn Community has continually managed to baffle agricultural and horticultural experts by producing large healthy crops. Whether this is down to the power of prayer or horse shit is open to discussion? The centre hosts workshops and supports a thriving permanent community.

Findhorn Village

A number of other organisations have latched on to Findhorn's success and have moved into the area including Ekopia, Moray Steiner School, the Phoenix Community Store, Trees for Life (Scotland) and The Isle of Erraid. Collectively they now form an ecovillage which aims to demonstrate a positive model of a viable, sustainable human and planetary future. Findhorn Ecovillage has around 450 resident members, and its residents have the lowest recorded ecological footprint of any community in the industrialised or the developed world, and also half of the UK average.

Returning yesterday through the Cairngorms,it was striking how stripped of snow the mountains were. Just like here in North Wales, the weather is mild and wet. In fact,it was 50f when I left and with no sign of a freeze. So much for the annual predictions of the 'worst winter on record'. I'm not a gambling man but if I was, my money would be on more of the same. Mild and wet. Is it global warming or just a cycle we are in? I'm not convinced myself?

Beachcombing at Findhorn