Monday, February 25, 2013

Dead man walking

 Llyn Bychan

Struggling with the after effects of a nasty flu virus, I decided I had to shake off the even more depressing symptoms of cabin fever and get out into the hills. It's been bitterly cold and grey in north Wales for the last week or so and I didn't feel up to any peak bagging but I should manage of low level shuffle somewhere. Where better than one of Snowdonia's best low level walks. A walk which probably doesn't get above 1300' but which has a real wild mountain atmosphere.

 It's a three hour walk which I've done loads of times but which never fails to deliver a mountain fix. It's starts at the Pont Cynfyg car park on the A5 near Capel Curig and heads up into the foothills above Crafnant Valley to return via Geirionydd. The first part through the NT woodlands is a real joy in the bluebell season. The oaklands peppered with a sea of mauve flowers and the drone of sleepy bees. Just before you leave the woodlands, the old abandoned cabin Nyth Bran hoves into view down in the hollow. Nyth Bran ( The Crow's Nest') is a traditional timber hut in an amazing position looking out to Moel Siabod but unfortunately, it looks not long for this world given it's state of advanced dereliction. Can I just say that anyone who owns a unique dwelling like this and who abandons it, wants their arse kicking... !

Having a nose inside The Crow's Nest last summer.

Leaving the Crow's Nest behind you cross the stile onto an open field and as you rise above the woodland the great mountainous plateau twixt Capel and Crafnant opens out. It's a fantastically craggy vista contained by little Crimpiau to the north and the little foothills which separate the valley from the Western fringes of the Gwydyr Forest. Many of the outcrops hereabouts have been climbed and cataloged in recent years and will appear for the first time in a climbing guidebook when they make their debut in the forthcoming Carneddau guide.

Walking over to the remote climbing hut of Waen Hir, I tarried a while, fiddling with cameras and zips before I crested the hill behind the hut and headed for the main path which is usually busy in season, but today, despite it being a weekend, the entire valley was quiet and empty. By now it had started snowing and the mountain's upper reaches fell behind wraiths of cloud. Soon you hit the top of the pass  as suddenly the path tumbles down the hillside into Crafnant. Three choices; One takes you up the flanks of Crimpiau,one drops down directly into the valley and the third-the one I followed- skirts the edge of the valley via an old quarry and picks its way through birch woods as the white washed houses and climbing huts emerge through the bare branches.

Instinctively, I followed an old quarry track and found myself standing on the edge of a dark pit which sported a climbing rope and bolts. Someone been new routing here although I can't say the surroundings spark anything other than bemusement. As crags go this is pretty horrible. Gloomy, loose slately rock, dank and miserable. 10/10 for effort though but given all the unclimbed rock above Crafnant Valley you have to ask...why ! * Since discovered it's a dry tooling venue. That would explain why anyone would want to 'climb' in a S Hole!

Walking a short distance along the main road...still not a soul return to the woodland and follow a tunnel through the trees to eventually reach the other fringes of Geirionyndd. Re-entering the main Gwydr Forest you happen upon the beautifully situated little lake of Llyn Bychan. It was frozen with a white coating of fresh snow. Very photogenic except the light as it had been all day, was still grey and flat.
From the lake you head back towards Cynfyg taking care you don't miss the correct forest track and end up on the Ugly House/ Nant BH road.

When I got back I'd been out for around three hours and not seen a soul. Unusual but not that I'm complaining. After a week of sickness and sloth it was just great to see something other than four walls.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Stoking the star maker machinery

Nigel Parry on the three star V Diff-Left Edge-above Nant Francon.Photo Dave Williams

A few weeks ago, an idea was tossed into the guidebook hat for discussion concerning the introduction of a new star system along the lines of a system apparently being used in Scottish climbing guidebook circles. That is, the introduction of a new 4 star grade at the top end which of course would see in effect all rock climbs falling into five categories. Those which fall outside of the star seal of quality and those in the 1/ 2/ 3 and 4 star grades.

Categorizing climbs according to the attribution of stars has always been controversial in guidebook circles. There is of course always debate about the merits or otherwise of those routes at the top of the pile while many un-starred climbs equally provoke comment from those who feel that many unattributed climbs are at least worthy of a lousy single star!
A few years ago The Climbers Club did away with stars altogether from one of its guides-Tremadog 2000-in the hope that it would encourage punters to halt their puerile star gathering and check out other routes which were falling into neglect. Of course that idea didn't work and CC guidebooks in common with the rest of the commercial and club publications are still using stars.

I think one advantage of extending the star range would be to bring some decent unstarred routes into range. However, it could be argued that the routes which remain outside the star system will receive an even more sniffy response from the guidebook buying public.
Furthermore, do stars dilute the sense of adventure when embarking on a climb? Certainly, on a popular crag, anyone climbing a three star route will have a good idea that the route will be clean, stripped of dirt and vegetation and no doubt sporting a  well marked chalk trail to follow, Whereas the un-starred climbed may well be so infrequently ascended that it's still loose and dirty. 

Of course the backdrop to all this is the undeniable fact that traditional adventure climbing on big mountain cliffs in particular is becoming less popular anyway due to significant changes in the habits and tastes of the climbing public. With sports climbing and bouldering now more popular than ever, throw in the average young climbers increasing predilection for sampling other 'extreme' sports like Snowboarding, surfing and mountain biking and you are left to wonder how much longer the traditional paper guidebook can continue in its current guise regardless of the star system ? 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Moon under Water.....The perfect climber's pub?

I re-read George Orwells ' The moon under water' essay the other night. If you are not familiar with the piece, it details Orwell's idea of the perfect pub. It got me thinking of what would constitute the perfect climbers' pub and if anything comes close in North Wales?

Firstly, let's 'do a George' and have a stab at my idea of the perfect climbers' pub. Well, it would have to be conveniently located and pleasantly situated. If not in the heart of the mountains then at least in close proximity to a decent crag. Aesthetically, it would be an interesting building of character. Old....certainly, and built in the vernacular style with local materials. Naturally, the hostelry would offer itself as a welcoming sight to the weary crag rat or hill-walker, ambling down from a day on the hill, drawn like a moth to a flame by the warm glow radiating out from the small shuttered windows.

Entering through heavy latched door, you would notice immediately, the huge slate flagstones, the roughly hewn dark beams, the yellowing walls which host original mountain art and black & white old climbing photographs. An old spaniel wanders through the bars, tail inevitably wagging while inside a group erupts in laughter. At the end of the corridor, a young women emerges backwards carrying two steaming plates and smiles.

Wandering inside you notice that this is the real McCoy. No faux rustication or intentional distressing has gone on here. This is a pub not a mountain theme bar. You take in the room, scanning for a seat. You notice the mismatched chapel chairs which compliment the big old pine tables which are big enough for six people to eat around and big enough to spread  out an OS map.

An open fire is blazing up the blackened chimney around which a sagging but still comfortable old sofa complimented by old armchairs is strategically arranged. You notice that an old walker has nodded off in one of the chairs. A newspaper folded across his lap. It's a given that the pub will carry a decent selection of reasonably priced micro brewery real ales, quaff-able wines and rare single malts. Of course it won't sell frothy gnat's piss like Fosters, Carlsberg, John Smiths and Strongbow. You have to discourage the riff-raff.....and mountain rescue team members.

The pub will have a spread of quality newspapers and journals to read. It will also have a selection of second hand outdoor related books and publications for sale. All proceeds going to a local animal rescue sanctuary. It will serve food of course. Nothing fancy. Just a small selection of traditional dishes like Lancashire hot pot, Lasagna, Curry (vegetarian option available) Liver & Bacon, Fish & Chips and big doorstep sandwiches. These will be knocked up in the back kitchen by Dave, a tattooed 20 stone ex roadie who used to make meals for Wishbone Ash when they were on tour. Ably assisted in the kitchen by Jason who is doing 100 hours of community service after breaking into Spar in Bethesda, and Brenda, a  feisty single Mum with a dragon tattoo on her bare arm,who lives down the road in a converted ex Crosville bus .

No TV's of course, showing SKY Sports or even a Juke Box; although there is a pool table in the back bar where you can be hustled by the local young farmers! You might hear a radio on in the kitchen- Dave can't work without Planet Rock- although it won't disturb your reverie.
The two bar-maids will be  Polish. It seems a given these days that all barmaids-certainly along the A5 corridor- will be Polish....” Zo..dat's a pint of Ode Spackled Han and von rad vine'. Overseeing proceedings will be Frank...old rambler and ex miner who bought the Free House with his savings and redundancy money. Genial and generous to a fault, the avuncular bearded mine host wanders amongst his punters, asking them what they've been up to and offering his sage advice on worthwhile outings and quiet backwaters worth seeking out. Frank keeps a couple of rooms for guests but of more interest to outdoor types, is the cheap and cheerful bothy he keeps, across the yard. A fiver a night including hot showers.

I know...there isn't a pub in north Wales or indeed England or Scotland within a million miles of this climber's 'Moon under water'. The nearest I ever found was The Crown at Llanfihangl Glyn Myfyr near Cerrigydrudion when it was run by Scouse Mike. Alas now long gone although the pub remains and has since undergone a tartification upgrading. Although camping and hut accomodation is available for those who want to stop off on the edge of the national park.

* In the orginal article, I listed what I thought were five half decent climbers pubs in north Wales. However, that was four years ago and things change. The Stables in Betws y Coed was once a fairly regular stopping off point, for despite its mock mountain bar interior, it did serve a decent range of nice beers...if somewhat overpriced. However, since the great kitten outrage when kitchen staff clubbed a stray kitten to death (see the orginal story) I, and I know hundreds of others, wouldn't go near the Stables for love nor money! So I've deleted these suggestions and leave it for others to decide if anything comes close?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dry Tooling on Clwyd Limestone: art or artless?

Clwyd Limestone; it's one of north Wales' more esoteric and hence, less frequented climbing domains. Given that Clwyd was a large North East Wales county which encompassed around six old counties,and stretched from Mid Wales to the coast and which ceased to exist more than ten years ago; the term is still applied though,to a specific area which essentially, is concentrated within the Llangollen, Mold and Ruthin triangle.

It was on this variable limestone that I first started my climbing career over 25 years ago. Stuart Cathcart's little paperback Cicerone guidebook from 1983, my constant reference work when it came to selecting venues. One of the areas not in the guide was a selection of crags in the Pwllglas area of Ruthin, although one crag- Ruthin Escarpment-did get a brief mention in the bouldering section. I did some easy climbs here at the time although the long and beautifully situated escarpment was mostly overgrown and shielded by an impenetrable barrier of Hawthorn, bramble, dog rose and blackthorn.

A year or so back I wandered back there and was amazed to see how it had been developed into a really neat sports crag. I was going to say 'little' sports crag but in fact,the escarpment stretches for several hundred yards and it's potential for further development and its climbing history is worthy of a blog piece in itself so I'll move across the valley to another limestone venue.
I remember taking a look at a decent sized crag just off a little back road from Pwllglas which leads to a local golf club. Despite it's size, I dismissed it as an area for development because frankly,it looked too loose and ivy covered. At the weekend, being in the area,I had a sudden urge to take another look-this is twenty years on- and as with the escarpment across the valley, I was amazed at what had been going down here! At first sight,it had been developed into a sizeable sports crag, with gleaming bolts and climbing tat liberally sprinkled across a face which in size, has to be in excess of a hundred feet

Despite the crag only being about 7 or 8 miles from where I live, I was really taken aback at the fact that I didn't know a thing about it. I wouldn't say I had my finger on the pulse of everything that's happening on the north Wales climbing scene but I generally have a rough idea about what's going on around and about. This development however, had really passed under the radar. Whipping out my iPhone, I excitedly posted an instagram shot detailing an 'awesome new sports crag' I'd discovered and even took some footage on the new Twitter Vine video loop app to post on the FC twitter page. This was exciting stuff!

Later that evening, I eventually discovered that my 'awesome sports crag' was in fact a dry tooling venue which goes under the bizarre name of 'Whitegoods'. Presumably because its roadside location encouraged fly tipping (although there is a council tip/recycle centre two miles away take note!)
Dry tooling... the merest mention of this dark art provokes controversy. Apparently developed originally by Stevie Haston as a way of reaching hanging frozen stuff. Dry Tooling now has developed into a sub sport of climbing in its own right and appears to have brought into its fold,a small but dedicated following who use it both for winter training and as a climbing sport in itself.

 Firstly, I have no problem with anyone wanting to mess around dry tooling and I take my Pakol hat off to those who have gone to considerable effort to clean and develop an unused crag. However, I was always under the impression that dry tooling venues were usually chossy crags and quarries which were unsuitable for 'proper' climbing? With regard to this crag though,much of it looks climbable using stuff like, and rubber! I was looking up at a classic corner groove and thinking,'why have they bolted that?' Looks no more than VS?

Taking a look at the UKC crag guide, I see Whitegoods is listed and sports 25 routes within the arcane 'M' grade. As I say...that's fine and dandy if that's your bag. My only question is, how is it decided that a crag is developed for dry tooling, for sports climbing or as a trad crag??? I can see that if it's loose and chossy, it might be seen as dangerous for trad climbing but surely you've more chance of pulling a rock on your head swinging an ice axe than wrapping your pinkies around a jug?. One for the climbing ethics police perhaps.

Nice looking corner. How would you like to climb it...using skin or metal?

Friday, February 1, 2013

The bright day is done

David Craig

Two weeks of snow and then the storms kicked in. Gale force winds and torrential rain culminating in the mother of all storms on  Wednesday night. Next morning the router had blown, the TV tuning had scrambled and for some reason, the water pressure in the house had dramatically changed with the cold tap pouring something which looked like Guinness! Turns out that I wasn't the only one to suffer. Apparently lots of folks hereabouts had seen their phone lines and routers knocked out with many more losing their water supply altogether. Appears the water pumping station took a hit, as did my friend's house over the hill which was also struck by lightning. Bizarrest thing I've heard so far was from an acquaintance I bumped  into yesterday who told me he had sparks firing out of his phone!

While I await  for a new router, I've managed to get online through my old desktop and an old router I managed recover amongst all the computer junk I hoard...for occasions such as this. Amidst the chaos, I received a letter and article from David Craig, one of my favourite climbing writers and someone with whom I've had the pleasure of climbing with and sharing letters and phone conversations over the years. David is old school to the point that he doesn't even own a computer and remains stubbornly wedded to the fountain pen and typewriter. The article he sent me was incredibly poignant and detailed his coming to terms with the end of his climbing career. After turning 80 this year and having suffered various health problems in the last ten years,-not least a debilitating heart condition- he had stumbled on. Climbing whenever he could and still retaining that 'hard fire inside'.

 For his 80th birthday he had hoped one of his climbing sons would lead him up a big old Lakeland mountain V Diff like Giants Crawl on Dow Crag. Alas, he has had to come to terms with the fact that his old carcass is just not up to it these days and with the deepest sadness and regret he has finally accepted that the time has come to hang up his Troll harness and kick off his old Fires.

Although you do hear of climbers in their 70's and 80's still going strong, I wonder how many climbers do continue to climb once they pass three score and ten? Ironically it is often those who have been the most active who tend to suffer the worst effects of the aging process. Dodgy knees, arthritis, replacement hips etc etc. I'm only too aware, as someone from the next generation down from David, that it will soon be my turn to feel the heavy hand of Father Time on my shoulder. I'm already getting a stiff left knee after activity, stiffness in my fingers and a shoulder problem that flares up when I strain it, even if it's just lifting the dog into the car! What can you do but keep on keeping on and hope that the inevitable deterioration is slow and gradual. At least buying enough time to chalk up a few more successes on the rock face before it's my turn, and like David Craig and thousands of others from his generation, I have to bite the bullet and accept as far as climbing and mountain activities go, 'the only thing to look forward to is the past'.

David Craig's article will appear on Footless Crow next week.