Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beware the Ides of March

The call of the wild!

As I write, I'm snowbound in NE Wales.Five days since like Patrick McGoohan's Number Six, I  got further than the boundaries of The Village! It's pretty extreme out there. Sub zero temps,a foot of snow or more on the flat and head high snow drifts. Everywhere hereabouts is locked down and as quiet as the grave. At least the power hasn't gone,despite suffering 60mph winds during this period,which whipped snow clouds across the fields, burying anything in it's path, including new born lambs. It's pretty grim for farmers who are fighting to get to their livestock through drifted lanes and access snow sculpted fields. It started snowing at the beginning of the week but rapidly thawed lower down but remained on the high ground( See Silent Spring last Wednesday). However, Thursday around 2200 hours it started snowing in earnest and carried on-with the occasional short break-until Saturday afternoon.

A walk to the nearest village a mile away was a snow plod.The snow ploughs had cleared the village road which accesses the main A5 but had left huge snow banks either side of the lane. I circuited back on a minor lane which passes the local primary school and found myself staring UP at the drifts.When the wind abates, all sounds are erased. No traffic, bleating ewes or birdsong. Even the farm dogs have fallen silent.Very few people out and all colour has been washed out of the land. It's like the brain can no longer process colour and everything appears monochromatic.

A Sunday afternoon wander down to the beautiful Afon Alwen Gorge and I noticed that a number of trees have fallen to reveal great black root balls which contrast sharply against the blinding whiteness. Oak branches as thick as a torso have snapped off like twigs, no longer able to bear the weight of snow. White water paddlers negotiating the grade 3 rapids will have to take evasive action when they round the final bend where two new barriers await.

With the forecast showing more snow and freezing temperatures in Wales,it looks like we'll be limping into April under a blanket of snow and with that most vibrant and magical harbinger of spring in the uplands, the daffodil erased the gardens and hedgerows until who knows when? 2014  maybe?

As George Harrison wrote 'It's been a long and lonely winter'.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Silent Spring

Mynydd Poeth

Following last weeks discovery of the Hiraethog Trail and two new-to me- little peaks within the Hiraethog area, I set off to take a peek at the intriguingly named Mynydd Poeth (Warm Mountain). I'm not sure how a pretty desolate, wind blasted peak gained that name but according to the OS Map, there are ancient settlements scattered around the slopes. For the past few mornings we've woken up to heavy snow in the NE Wales uplands and yesterday, we had the added winter ingredient of low lying mist. The landscape of Hiraethog was monochromatic with hardly a hint of colour between the snow covered fields and the blue grey clag which muted the light to the extent that cars travelling over the high roads needed their lights on.

I noticed that the OS map showed a footpath breaking off the main forest track to emerge on the open ground under Mynydd Poeth. Despite walking this track dozens of times, I'd never noticed anything suggesting a footpath through the dense forest at that point. Using a GPS I gauged the point were the footpath disappeared into the conifers. It did look possible and deeper into the forest there seemed to be a stream with a wider break heading off in the right direction. Sure enough it was indeed a path which emerged at a stile at a fence line which appeared to have been built in the middle of a had !

Beyond the bog, the lower slopes were caked in snow. Fergus the hound was in his element, running around following every scent and rolling on his back in ecstasy. We wandered up towards the clagged in top, passing several stone piles which I'm guessing are the remains of old homesteads? As for the summit- if you could describe a 460m top as a summit- it was rather spoilt by a fence line- sans stile- separating the lower western slopes from the nondescript top. A nice cairn occupied a position below the top. Not sure why it had been placed here? Looking east towards the little tops I had been on a week ago, revealed a desolate landscape. The mist muted all detail from the more distant points and everywhere was bathed in a strange blue light.

Behind us a wall of baaing sheep had gathered in expectation of a feed. It was lambing time and the upland farmers couldn't be having a worse time of it with the sub zero temperatures, Siberian winds and snow. Accompanied by a moving tide of ragged, noisy ewes, Gus and I headed back down. I'd worked out that Mynydd Poeth could be slotted into a decent circular walk, taking in last weeks peaks. It beats following a crocodile of walkers up the Pyg Track; for me anyway.

Monday, March 18, 2013

On the Edge: The mystery of the lost Welsh climbing series.

 On the Edge video still of  narrator Jim Perrin

Whatever happened to  On the Edge ? No...not the rock jock climbing publication which was the stable mate of the Geoff Birtles edited climbing magazine,High- both mags since having morphed into Climb- but the early 1990's climbing documentary shown on HTV-the Welsh commercial channel. Never heard of it? Probably because you either live outside of Wales,are too young, have never owned a TV or it just passed you by. A bit of background. On the Edge was made by a Welsh film company called Hiraethog and was a four part history of Welsh climbing and presented by Jim Perrin who narrates and conducts interviews throughout the two hour series.

Taking us from the early explorations of botanists and guides on the Welsh cliffs, through to Johnny Dawes doing his thing on The Quarryman, On the Edge mixes real life climbing footage and historic dramatic reconstructions interspersed with interviews with climbers like Joe Brown and Jack Longland.
I was recently rooting around in my loft and I came across an old box of VHS tapes which included the aforementioned documentary. Digging out an old Video player, I set it up, pressed play and waited. Nothing but grey fuzz but at least I could get the sound up. The tape itself didn't look too good. The centre core of the tape looked mildewed! Nothing for it but to put it on a cloth on top of a radiator for 10 minutes and see if moisture is the problem. Re-insert,press play and hey presto...we have sound and vision.

I've watched it through and despite the quality not exactly being High Definition, it's good enough to copy onto computer or DVD. It's a strange one. An entertaining two hour climbing film disappearing from circulation. I'm sure that even today,a reissue would have commercial potential or at least it could go out on Vimeo or You Tube. Given the enormous popularity of Whillans Last Climb- First linked here but picked up by UKC- I'm sure there would be a lot of interest from climbers. Especially those who are into climbing history. 

I have a feeling that the film company disappeared so I've no idea who has the original master copy? If anything comes up regarding the reappearance of the film in any media I'll be first to publicize it. In the mean time, if you can shed light on the mystery of 'On the Edge' feel free to post a comment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

High Plains Drifter

Bracing weather on the top of Craig yr Iyrchen

It's funny; you think you have a good knowledge of your local area and are au fait with the best walks and high points, but new trails and even peaks keep cropping up. Yesterday, on a bitterly cold day here in NE Wales, I went up towards the Alwen Dam area near Cerrigydrudion to walk through the furthest reaches of the vast Clocaenog Forest to gain a high point which I only discovered a couple of years ago and which offers superb open views of the North Wales mountain ranges.

It's a pleasant 4 or 5 mile return trip which I've been doing fairly regularly since I discovered it. An old track which runs down towards the little village of Cefn Brith emerges from the forest onto open rough ground. A few hundred metres to the north is an unnamed little top with a memorial cairn and bench. On a clear day it offers a fantastic view of the main Snowdonia peaks to the North and if you have a decent camera with a zoom lens, then you can really get right into the remote cwms of the Carneddau and Ogwen. To the west and south, The Arenig, Aran and Berwyns ranges stand out, while nearer to home lie the little peaks which contain the main A5 highway.

 To the West

The walk up through the forest was accompanied by snow flurries which were quite severe at one time and then, within five minutes, the sun would break through and everywhere would be bathed in a warm glow. I didn't spend much time on the top when I got there. The clouds had rolled in and obscured the mountains to the north. However, I noticed that the Berwyns had as usual, caught the snow and were currently basking in the sun. I decided to detour from the usual return leg and break out across the moors to get around a forest spur which was obscuring all but the tops. As I wandered across the moor with my springer Fergus enthusiastically investigating all odours fox related, I noticed a sizable cairn. From the cairn, the ground dropped away fairly steeply and the upper slopes offered a collection of boulders and outcrops. Perhaps this is how the nearby village of Cefn Brith gets it's name -'Speckled Ridge'? I believe this might be Craig yr Iyrchen which was the name I'd afforded to my original cairned peak.

By now I'd forgotten about taking a shot of the Berwyns and was more intrigued by a decent track which wound its way across the hillside. As it dropped down I noticed yet another cairned peak in the distance, by now catching the mid afternoon sun. Close to the top, a fence line offered a stile and footpath sign-brand new- which advised that I was on 'The Hiraethog Trail'. Never heard of it?

'New'unnamed peak to the south

This little top which like its neighbour was only a wee thing at around 450m- around 1500'- but in common with all the high points on this ridge, the view from the cairn was rather excellent.
Fingerposts pointed the way to a tiny back lane which was unexpected. Passing an old quarry,I reached a cottage which marked the dead end of the lane. I knew that it continued as a track into the forest beyond the cottage but a sign saying 'visitors by appointment only' dissuaded me to tramp through their yard. I wasn't sure if it was a public right of way?

The Hiraethog Trail sign pointed west,along the lane but after following it for a while there was no sign it would reappear and guide me back in the direction I wanted to go so I turned around and went back up to the quarry where, contrary to past experiences, I then plunged into the forest in an attempt to reach the track I knew was not far away.

It had turned out to be a rewarding walk. Two new little cairned peaks discovered, a new long distance-33 miles- trail unearthed, bracing winter weather and one well exercised dog and master. I now realise that the new peaks are just part of a long upland ridge which runs from the high point of Mwndwl Eithin to the south.( not to be confused with another Mwndwl Eithin a few miles to the north) and appears to have a natural termination at a peak called Mynydd Poeth ( warm mountain) near Cerrig. Mwndwl Eithin is the high point at 532m (1745') and sports one of the largest cairns I've seen in North Wales and a stone shelter. They certainly like their cairns on these hills. I imagine that to walk the ridge in it's entirety there and back would be a rewarding longish mountain day. In the mean time, I need to find out where the hell the Hiraethog Trail got to?

Friday, March 8, 2013

You're the one for me Fatty

Bonners and The Villain circa 1985.

I was watching 'Whillans last climb' the other night. If you haven't seen this classic piece of climbing footage, it features, rather poignantly, Don Whillans re-climbing Cemetery Gates on Dinas Cromlech with Joe Brown, 30 years after they made the first ascent. This is the mid 80's, a few months before Whillans died. Not romantically-if you can die a romantic death- like Bill Peascod, climbing with Don and Bill Birkett on Cloggy- but at home, in bed in Penmaenmawr.

Going back to the video; it emphasized just how far Whillans had let himself go from the height of his twentysomething powers into a fifty two year old, heavy drinking, chain smoking flabmeister. Unlike his former partner who remained svelte and superfit. It was sad in a way seeing Whillans '14 stone of fighting flab', following 10 stone JB up the Gates. It must have been somewhat humiliating for a proud man to struggle as a second up a route which at one time he would have cruised up.

It made me wonder, what exactly is the tipping point where being overweight really kicks in and begins to sabotage your technical ability? Personally, I've been carrying extra weight for years. Fortunately, not climbing at a particularly high standard it hasn't really bothered or affected me that much. I've also known lots of heavy climbers who don't appear to have suffered too much from being a bit porky. Of course at the leading edge of climbing, someone like James Pearson isn't going to lead an E10 if he's a climbing Robbie Coltrane or Hazel Findley won't be floating up routes if she had a Waynetta Slob physique. However, for mere mortals scrabbling around in the lower and middle grades, it seems you can lead at a decent standard and still be chunky....or can you?

Hazel Findlay:No Waynetta she.

For years I've hovered between 13 and 13.7 stone which for someone of 5-10”,according to the BMI index is a good stone overweight.. After a nasty dose of flu a few weeks ago, I lost my appetite to the degree that it hasn't returned and I'm finally eating less and losing weight. At this rate I'll soon have crept into my BMI range for the first time in years. Unfortunately, being at my statistical fighting weight has coincided with a general physical deterioration, crocked shoulder, stiff knee etc etc, so losing a stone probably won't really make much difference. But still...I'll feel better putting on a pair of 501's and not grimacing trying to button up!

The other side of carrying a few extra pounds yourself is when you find yourself partnering a lard arse.The trouble with partnering a fat partner on the rock face is the ever present dread you feel at the prospect of them falling off! In the old days before belay brakes came in and when climbers used waist and shoulder belays, it would have been like being a block of chedder being sliced by a cheese cutter if someone fell or you had to lower them. Some of those Edwardians were as fond of their food as their climbing.

 The 'well padded' author:Photo Al Leary

I remember lowering a chunky partner down from the top of a single pitch route from the ground and as he descended, I passed him going the opposite way at some speed. I don't know who was more surprised!

It makes you think though. Just who is the UK's best fat climber? Is there some 5-8”- 16 stone E8 leader out there? Answers on a Cornish Pasty to ' Britain's Best Fat Climber. Crow Towers, Llanbachofbeyond, North Wales.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fifteen year itch

Setting off on Blackadder, The HVS climb which spanned the Millennia: Photo Al Leary

Harold Drasdo once penned a famous article- 'The View from Platos Cave'- which was first published in High in the early 90's and republished on Footless Crow in 2010, which detailed a 15 year campaign to subdue a humble 200' VS climb above Llanberis Pass. Yesterday I had my own 'Plato' moment when a personal project which I had first tentatively fannied around on over 15 years ago, finally received it's first ascent on a bright March day.

In the mid 90's I had discovered a superb little outcrop in central Snowdonia which was a totally virgin and untainted by a climbers' chalky mitt. Hidden from view, this small steep crag was set amongst oak and birch woodland, south facing, sheltered and with a beautiful outlook from it's rounded dome above the woodland to take in the encircling mountains. Appropriately, two early routes were completed with the aforementioned HD who was amongst a small select group of friends who I took up to this secret white citadel in the forest.. One friend-a guy called Phil Livesey who is always mistaken for Pete on first ascents because of the shared initial- did an excellent HVS -Titania- with me on the day I first tried the line which first ascent spanned two millennia! 

The section of cliff here is deceptively steep. In fact, hanging a rope down from the top of the crag sees it swing about 8' out from the crag at the base. It's also has an equally deceptive rightward tilt which taken with an unhelpful run of sloping smooth holds and poor protection means that to get established on the face, you have to endure a gravity loaded skitter across the overhanging wall. The line itself was as natural and inviting as they come. A steep narrow chimney crack which looked juggy and well protected in the main but to it get to meant either a serious unprotected approach with a nasty landing or-the eventual solution- by following a rising diagonal weakness from the left. A start which had first been used by Carneddau guidebook editor Mike Bailey on a route he called 'Snakes Alive'  E1/2 and completed about 18 months previously.

March 3rd was the excuses. Two weeks of dry weather and with the sun set fair in a blue sky it was do or die. Midday and I finally stepped up onto the face and immediately felt gravity tugging at my heels. The break across the face is obvious but the holds are rubbish. Sloping down and following the crag's rightward tilt, they offer nothing more than a precarious sequence of moves where you find yourself out of balance and wondering when gravity will finally bite. I was getting pumped hanging around so instinctively I set off. At one stage my foot slipped off a tiny edge but momentum was carrying me across the face. It seemed no more than 50/50 that I would reach the crack...but I did... somehow? 

Hanging to another sloping block at the end of the traverse, I wangled a sling over a spike and found a nut placement. I could breathe- albeit heavily- a bit more easily. Above my head the crack looked steep but it suggested better holds and pro the higher up I got. And so it turned out. Just passed the half way mark, after pulling into the crack using a hollow sounding wedged flake it dawned on me that I was going to do it. It was just steep VS climbing by now and the higher I got the more I felt the sun washing down the face as I emerged out of the forest shadows. 

And finally that was that. I pulled over the top, let out a barely discernible 'Ye-Ha!' and wopped a sling around a small birch sapling ...finito.. 

With the main difficulties behind it's nearly 'Ye-Ha' time:Photo Al Leary

Provisionally called 'Blackadder' and at HVS-5a, it might seem excessive to spend so long on a line which a lot of modern climbers would consider little more than a scramble but then again, I'm no Dave Macleod and it pushed me close to my decrepit limit. 

It's a good natural line. Very trad and entertaining, providing you don't fall off the crux traverse at the bottom! Unfortunately, my weak right shoulder is wrecked this morning and I had to gobble strong codeine painkillers last night to try and get some sleep. But it was worth it. Look out for it when the crag and it's delectable routes are finally revealed in the new Carneddau guidebook.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Death on the Ben and jousting with Victor Meldrew

' I don't pay my taxes to support the likes of...blah blah'

I notice that describing someone as a 'Victor Meldrew' is an increasingly used term being used in the media, particularly in the comments pages of newspapers like The Telegraph and Independent, to describe someone from societies 'Stupid Angry White Men' constituency. Of course, US satirist Michael Moore first used the term 'Stupid White Men' in his eponymous best selling 1990's book  . In the US, these people are the backbone of the  Christian right who gather under the Tea Party/Republican umbrella. In the UK, they tend to congregate around the anti Europe UKIP flag. A party whose membership David Cameron accurately described as 'a bunch of racists, bigots and fruitcakes'. A couple of months ago I blogged a piece about the reaction from right wing bigots to the tragic events in the Scottish mountains this winter in 'Scaling theTelegraphs Troll Wall'. Sadly, the winter continues to heap tragedy upon tragedy in Scotland and predictably the same old tired and ignorant comments continue to fall like mouldy apples.

Following the death on Ben Nevis of a friend of a friend at the weekend, The Independent ran a story alleging malpractice by the RAF rescuers. The story itself appears somewhat suspect. However, it's impossible not to get angry to the point of apoplexy when you read the predictable comments from these 'Victor Meldrews'. 

From their position of supreme ignorance, these suburban, middle England coach potatoes- who wouldn't know a ice screw from a ice axe- moan about 'the taxpayer' having to foot the bill to rescue these foolhardy and selfish individuals. With calls to ban access to the mountains in winter altogether and make the victims of ill fortune foot the bill through compulsory mountain insurance  etc..etc, It's really infuriating when you think that the most adventurous thing these Daily Mail types ever do is drive the scenic route to a Harvester Grill where they'll sit with their sour faced partners and consume enough calories to sink a battleship! When they get cancer in their early 60's through their sedentary, booze soaked, junk food lifestyle they won't have too much to say about taxpayers footing the bill for their treatment I suspect !

Apparently, the average life expectancy of a member of one of the UK's leading climbing clubs is 88. That is of course far higher than the average UK life expectancy. It's a fact that mountaineering does attract a generally more educated middle class participant who will be more mindful of the effects of healthy eating, drinking in moderation and of course the value of regular exercise.
The ironic thing about these Middle England coach potatoes wagging their fat white fingers at the climbing constituency is that climbers, for all the risks they take and their lifetime involvement in a potentially dangerous activity, will still outlive these 'Victors' by a couple of decades!

In the immortal words of the late great US environmentalist Edward Abbey...

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”