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,well..skin 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?


  1. I guess it gets developed as a dry tooling venue because the "skin and rubber" crowd never touched the place and didn't put any time into developing it. They sure could have, but I guess they had other things to do.
    Martin Kocsis

  2. Haha, I cleaned those walls in the bottom two photos, I'm glad you like them! What's stopping you sport climbing my routes in summer if you want to? I've even equipped them for you..
    ..could it be the gigantic wealth of good rock climbing to be done in North Wales before you die that's kept you away from developing White Goods as a rock-climbing crag. I suspect so.

  3. Hey Pete, Congrats on all the hard work that went into transforming the cliff I remember into a climbing venue. However,there I still a constituency in UK climbing who abhor the idea of pre placed bolts on any British cliff. Even in America they apparently use the term 'weak sauce' for bolted climbing. I was talking to a well respected climber the other night and telling him about WhiteGoods and he was horrified by the whole concept of climbing limestone on pre placed bolts using winter tools. In fact he was telling me 'you must go and chop them'. The bolts that is...not the activists! Don't worry, I've certainly no intention of doing anything of the sort and I'm definitely no Trad zealot like my friend and those of his ilk.It's an interesting ethical conundrum though.The effective colonization of a venue by a particular school of climbing.


    1. Most work was done by Dave Garry, Si Frost and Rob Gibson, plus a couple of others. I added a few routes on those vertical walls.
      It doesn't surprise me that there are still zealots, I know a couple myself. Idiotic as I find them there'll always be fanatics who think their way is the only or best way. I feel lucky to live in a country with so much good trad climbing but I also really enjoy every single genre of climbing for the different pleasure each brings and don't believe any is 'superior'. Trad will always remain predominant in the UK - not because of any silly zealots defending it but because of the unique variety of solid, well-featured rock that we're blessed with; if we lived in France we'd all predominantly climb sport routes, even your friend perhaps.
      Can't say I agree with your idea that different styles 'colonizing' crags (emotive label - how about 'on') present that much of an 'ethical conundrum' to be honest. It might have been a dilemma 20 years ago but these days the boundaries are fairly well understood and respected, of course grey areas exist but I think most route developers are fairly switched-on climbers who know the wider context. The whitegoods crag has been developed and drytooled for 5 years now and the fact no-one amongst your circle knew about it is testament to how uncontroversial it is. Cruddy little limestone quarries work as DT venues, even if they are a little worrying sometimes - your friend might feel an E grade is appropriate for some of the routes were he ever to try dry-tooling. The time has long past in this instance to have a reasonable justification for getting outraged at other people being creative by turning a grotty hole into something better. Save any outrage for people who drytool/mix climb in obviously inappropriate places, a whole other can of worms.