Monday, July 29, 2013

One thousand foot climbs in Betws y Coed and other tall tales.

The excellent third pitch of Kreen-Akrore above Swallow Falls

I was up in Capel Curig today,seeing friends, and after I said goodbye I went on a stroll with the hound up to Summerhouse Crag above Swallow Falls. Passing under the cliff which stands above the falls, I stopped to look and see if Traditional Route was getting any traffic. Didn’t look like it...shame. It got me thinking again about how some climbs and venues click but others don’t. If traditional Route was at Tremadog it would be a popular lower grade trade route like Poor Man's Pueterey or Christmas Curry. After all, it’s a lovely 15 minute level walk from a parking spot just above The Towers Outdoor Education Centre. It’s a amenable four pitch severe with nice steep climbing, short pitches, big stances and great atmosphere as the thundering waters of the falls far below offers an ominous soundtrack to the actual climbing. After saying that, it never feels anything other than nonthreatening and enjoyable. Probably because the verdant nature of the cliff breaks up the verticality.

I first did the climb about 17 years ago with one of its progenitors, Harold Drasdo who did the first ascent on Christmas Day in 1964. The actual story of the ascent is highly amusing but I think I might have written about it somewhere before so I won’t risk repeating it here. For an esoteric easy day or as a more challenging climb for a novice, Traditional Route ticks all the boxes. I’m sure the steep Kern Knotts-esque crack on the second pitch would have some Severe leaders sweating a bit when they first look up but it’s all nice and easy...maybe 4a at a pinch.

In about 2000 I did a slightly harder companion climb to TR- A  4 pitch VS climb called Kreen Akrore. Named after a lost Amazonian tribe and in recognition of the cliffs rain forest vibe. Like it’s easier neighbour, KA is pretty good really with an excellent 3rd pitch. A perfect clean open book corner which is 4c/5a-ish. These two climbs are the only climbs on the cliff. I’m sure other routes are there but is there any modern day climber willing to put in the spade work-probably literally!- to create a few new routes which will probably be unfashionably easy? Don’t think so.

 Final pitch of Traditional Route
Another interesting fact about Traditional Route is that it is a component of a unique 1000’ + climbing expedition.  The aforementioned chief instructor at The Towers told me that at one time instructors there would entertain themselves by climbing Traditional Route. From the top of which they would then wander across the forest track to a little cliff hidden in the trees. Climb a line up that and then gain yet another tier of cliff known as Summerhouse Crag- (the summit of which is a popular viewing platform which apparently, in days gone by was an actual crag top summerhouse owned by a local estate. Some foundation stones still remain.)

They would complete the expedition by climbing a final pitch up the pleasant south face and pull out onto the viewing platform.  I did this esoteric route once- undoubtedly one of the few people in north Wales who has- and it was very entertaining. So there you go; one of the longest climbing expeditions in Snowdonia and it’s not in any guidebook and it’s just outside Betws y Coed. Who would have thought it!
Instagram shot of Moel Siabod taken from Summerhouse Crag earlier today

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Beacons:Death in the afternoon.


I was sad and angry when I heard about the young soldiers who died in the Brecon Beacons last week due to heat exhaustion. Two died at the time and another remains seriously ill in hospital.*( Sadly, the third victim has died this morning 31/7/2013). Angry, because it happens all too often and ironically,recent victims who have died in Wales have come from Wales. It may be a tenuous link comparing recent incidents to what happened in WW1 but then as now, gormless chinless wonders wearing the stripes appear to have sent young working class men to avoidable deaths through sheer stupidity.

I was heartened to read that the Powys coroner believes that the victims’ families have a case against the MOD. According to a statement in the Independent.... ‘Louise Hunt, the Powys coroner, said that article two of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees a “right to life,” would play “an important part” in the inquest.She said: “The state has a duty to protect an individual’s life.“The importance of looking into the wider circumstances of these deaths is that article two of the Human Rights Act will come into play.“Any verdict must incorporate failings if any are identiļ¬ed.”

A few years ago another young man from Wales died of heat exhaustion through an army ritual known as ‘Beasting’. In the latest incident it was an exercise known as ‘The Fan Dance’- appertaining to the Brecon mountain, Tal y Fan where the ill fated 'exercise' took place. It seems that the clowns in the armed forces believe that giving these life taking exercises some sort of rugger-bugger name somehow makes it a bit of a laugh.

The very real debilitating effects of carrying out a mountain activity in what are by UK standards are ‘extreme’ temperatures is not an experience I’m unfamiliar with. A couple of decades ago I was in a North Wales mountain rescue team. I was up bright and early on a hot July morning and packing my rucksack for a day’s climbing with my partner Scott. We were planning to do the classic VS climb, Mur y Niwl in the Carneddau. I took a call just before I left from my MRT leader. There was a body which needed to be recovered from a flooded quarry pit known as The Blue Pool just down the road from where I was living. Could I organize the stretcher recovery of the body which because of the nature of the terrain was quite difficult.

Scott and I were the first to arrive and as we scrambled over the brow of the quarry, there he was. A middle aged male who through either a bizarre accident or bizarre suicide, had driven his moped over the edge of the 300’ cliffs and was now floating on the surface. Nothing we could do until the police divers from Widnes arrived and the rest of the MRT. To cut a long story short, after spending until early afternoon setting up a rope system to get the victim back up and packed off to the mortuary, Scott and I finally headed to Ogwen where we planned to start our walk up to Mur y Niwl.  A pretty tiring hour and a half plod in any circumstances, especially carrying a heavy rucksack full of climbing gear. As we approached the lake, we still had to get over the saddle which links Pen Helgi Ddu with Carnedd Llewellyn and from there, scramble down the steep mountainside to reach the amphitheatre beneath Mur y Niwl. By the time we reached the lake we said to ourselves.’sod this...let’s go and do a climb in The Pass’.  So we turned around...plodded back to the car and by three we were looking up at another classic VS, Brant.

By now I’d long since drained the last dregs of my water and had been out in the uplands under a blazing sun, walking, climbing and hauling up a body for over 8 hours. By the time I climbed the last pitch of Brant I was climbing on auto pilot. I was quickly losing the plot and wandered way off line and finished on something which felt a lot thinner and harder than VS. I practically tumbled down the descent gully and drove home in a cosmic haze. Stopping off at Spar-where Cotswold Rock Bottom is now located-two bottles of lucozade were guzzled down without touching the sides and immediately brought back up. By the time I got home I was delirious and rambling-nothing new there. Unable to drive, my wife was fortunately able to take the wheel and drive Scott to meet his lift while I lay on the floor,shivering, hallucinating and mumbling.

As I write, it’s been mostly dry, sunny and hot in North Wales for the most of July. The outside thermometer in the sun trap yard outside the house has reached 109f although the mean temperature in the shade is more usually in the high 70’s-low 80’sf. That’s around 25/26 in Celsius. The soldiers who died were being forced to ‘yomp’ over Tal y Fan in uniform, carrying rucksacks weighing up to 65lb and in full sun at 80f. That’s not an exercise, that’s torture! I would imagine that the families have a cast iron case against the MOD and the clowns who sent them to their deaths. It would be some compensation for them to think it couldn’t happen again to other families but you just know it will.

The Blue Pool: Thankfully,not another MRT fatality recovery but it could have been! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Beyond The Crow Road

The current re screening of the TV adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road on BBC4 evokes powerful bittersweet memories for me. Just after the original screening  I stayed with some of my kids and a female friend with her two youngsters in what in the series was the family home of the central characters; the cursed McHoan family. In reality, the McHoan's gothic pile was Ardpatrick House; a stunning Georgian mansion on the shores of West Loch Tarbet and set amidst 1500 rolling verdant acres at the very tip of the Knapdale Peninsular on Scotland's sublime Argyll coast.

It was an unbelievably perfect week in late May of beautiful weather-high temperatures and blue skies day after day- the estate exploding with wild flowers and fruit blossom set against a frieze of vibrant shades of green. Across the bay the islands of Gigha, Jura and Islay simmered  in the gloaming. Dream islands caught in a hanging fire. I fell in love with the place and returned most years until unfolding familial events made it no longer possible.

The estate was jointly owned by three brothers who were bohemian in their lifestyle and perhaps values. Admiral qualities in my book, but perhaps their lack of hard nosed business savvy and acumen, in hindsight, could be considered a distinct disadvantage when it comes to running a complex large Scottish estate. However, the dark clouds that were gathering over Ardpatrick had not arrived just yet and in our blissful ignorance my friend Debbie and I with our awestruck children, feasted on the rich marrow of the place. We were staying in the West Wing of the big house with some of the crofts on the estate also occupied as holiday lets. What with locals living on the edge of the estate and with guests and visitors,the place was alive with children.

Bill Patterson as Kenneth McHoan 
in The Crow Road

As we turned off the road which hugs the Knapdale coastline and swung up to Ardpatrick, we noticed some benders and buses in the trees with smoke curling through the pines. It was that sort of place. Ken Kesey had arrived here in his Psychedelic bus in the 70's with the Merry Pranksters: one evening I looked out of the window to see Vogue models dressed like 60's Sci-fi babe, Barbarella posing on the lawn. The late Rodger Deakin, environmentalist and writer records in his cult book Waterlog, how he swam across the cold loch and warmed up in one of Ardpatricks’ Victorian cast iron baths...soaking in the houses' typically brown peaty water! 

Ardpatrick House

Artist and writers washed up here like a creative tide and the enchanted vibe was tangible.

Too many memories of that week to offer more than a few but some magical moments stand out. Walking late at night along the seashore with Debbie and seeing two white horses cantering along through the surf. Rider less and ripping through the spray in just sheer joyful wild abandon. We could still hear their progress long after they had dissolved into the night ...Watching the red sky melt beyond Gigha (God's Island) until the island became just a distant dark smudge on a red and black Rothko canvas.The sky still a glowing ember after the midnight hour.

Setting off one early evening with young Luke to circumnavigate the jagged peninsular. We lay on a rock and watched sea otters weaving through the waving fronds of sea weed beneath the ice clear waters. Arriving late at a tiny hut on the tip of the peninsular- which was anchored down against the prevailing westerlies with steel cables-like the house in The Shipping News. I felt so weak with a raging thirst I drank a carton of tomato juice which I found there which was a year out of date. We got back to the big house after dark. They'd sent out a search party for us! 

 Hanging on to the back of Alisters’ little deux chevaux as we drove along the tow path and across thistle fields to the island where we would cast drift nets and catch mullet under the bright mid evening pink sky. The sea thrashing and foaming as the silver mullet were pulled in....Throwing a rucksack full of climbing gear in a little pea green boat and rowing across the loch to climb on the red mossy cliffs of Dun Skeig; we also climbed on The Coves, an area of sea cliffs looking out to Jura.... Drinking single malt by fire light in ‘Kenneth McHoan’s' study as a fox stood outside on the lawn looking in.

Six year old Luke Appleby's 
first climb at the Coves

Within a few years a simmering feud between the brothers had swallowed up a fortune in legal fees and eventually the court ordered the estate to be sold. Sadly, there was to be no millionaire bohemian knight in shining armour who would ride in and and keep the estate as an entity. Maintaining the magical vibe. For incurable romantics, the worst possible scenario came to pass. The estate was bought by an Edinburgh property company who,as to be expected,implemented a ‘ground zero’ refurb on the place. Converting the main Ardpatrick House into luxury apartments, tarting up the beautiful crofts until they resemble bland characterless Barrett Homes. Applying for and gaining planning permission from the feeble Highlands and Islands local planning dept to build equally unimaginative new homes. In short, tearing the guts and soul out of the place. The final nail. Finding out the other day that Maggie’s cottage’ a simple croft on the shores of the loch without any mains services and described as ‘an artist’s studio’ has been demolished with permission granted for a new build on the site.

I suppose a golden era is not a golden era if it lasts forever. Debbie died suddenly two years ago, the children grew into young adults and the house and estate were transformed from a blissful bohemian paradise into a Homes and Gardens Sunday supplement feature.So goodbye Ardpatrick, televisual home of Iain Bank’s doomed McHoan family and in real life, home to a family whose lives were as equally complex if not as tragic. I shall never return as I would find it to painful to see your heart ripped out and sacrificed on the alter of the market.In my mind though, forever the reflection of a dream.

Gone but not forgotten: Maggie's Cottage: Photo John Macfadyen 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

S4C's Mountain Season: Ioan Doyle-shepherd and climber

Given the paucity of television programmes dedicated to mountain activities on UK TV, it’s heartening to see the Welsh language channel Sianel Pedwar Cymru-(S4C) putting out a dedicated season of programmes this week. Last’s nights offerings included a profile of Everesteer, Charles Evans;  a 90 minute feature on young local hot shot, Ioan Doyle and Everest Diary. The first and latter I intend to watch on the S4c version of iPlayer this week. I did catch Defaid a Dringo (Shepherding and climbing), a subtitled profile of shiny happy Ioan Doyle who comes across not so much as a glass half full person, as a glass full to the brim and foaming down the sides person!

Ioan from Bethesda gave up on an academic life at Uni to concentrate on building a career in his local environs as an agricultural contractor. A career within which he is an accomplished dry stone waller. With a boundless enthusiasm to get his foot on the farming ladder, Ioan was seen building up his own small flock of sheep on loaned fields and with donated ewes. His dedication to his flock extended to taking one pet lamb with him to Parisella’s Cave where in between making the second attempt on a V12 boulder problem, he bottle fed his lamb.

The vast landscapes of the Carneddau were beautifully filmed. Showing the vastness of a rolling wilderness which runs down to the sea. Mostly unpopulated apart from the ubiquitous sheep and the wild ponies . The film did however,capture the catastrophic snow fall which engulfed the Welsh uplands in March and showed Ioan and family members engaged in the heartbreaking task of digging out pregnant ewes-mostly dead-from the vast snow drifts. Food for thought for those UKC-ers who wet themselves over the prospect of heavy snow in the mountains? Some people have to live with extreme weather episodes 24/7, not for a few hours at the weekend.

The climbing sequences filmed by amongst others, veteran Welsh action cameraman Alun Hughes, were pretty mind blowing. Highlights being his ascent with girlfriend ‘Helen Bach’ (Little Helen) no mean climber she-on one of Europes’ longest sports climbs. A thousand footer in the Spanish Riglos. ‘One of the best climbs I’ve ever done’.  declared Ioan. Not bad when you consider it was intended as a spot of easy recreational climbing after an old finger injury flared up and prevented him from doing any hard projects.

The final piece of climbing footage was closer to home but equally engaging. A second ascent of Sean Miles 86 pump fest-Ogwen Crack- a vicious E7 on Braich ty Du above the A5 near Ogwen Cottage. I had stiff little fingers and screaming tendons just watching it!

All in all, an excellent film which showed a highly talented young climber as an intelligent and rounded human being. Totally engaged with his natural environment, his friends and family and his local community...

Defaid a Dringo (with English subtitles available. Click on 'S')

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Chalk storm on The Indian Face!

The Tumbler-Craig Eithin
What have the Indian Face climb on Cloggy and London Buses got in common?  You wait umpteen years for an ascent and three come along at once.! It was great to see young Welsh hot shot Calum Muskett nailing a rare ascent of JD’s iconic route last week; following James McHaffie and George Ullrich's ascents in the same week. You couldn’t wish for better weather if you were planning to put your life on the line. Which you do of course if you try and lead a route which only offers psychological protection. 

We’ve now had ten days of continuous sunshine and dry weather and for the pale, washed out inhabitants of North Wales, the Mediterranean climate is obviously inducing strange behavior. In fact, I was considering celebrating the Indian Face ascents by setting foot on the route myself this week. Abseiling down, painting a small abstract acrylic mural at a key point on the route, taking a photograph of the work and then offering  limited edition signed prints.

Getting back to CM. I’d heard of this young lad who was making waves in the Welsh climbing scene, quite a while ago. Super keen and super talented, any new routing projects that were felt out of range where usually filed in the ‘leave that one for Calum’  draw. I finally met him when he joined a CC guidebook party heading up to a ‘new’ crag-Craig Eithin- near Capel Curig. I even had the honour of belaying him when he shot up a humble HVS called ‘The Tumbler’. After a few climbs he obviously thought 'what the hell am I doing here' and shot off across the valley to look at another unlisted crag that offered much harder routes and had had visits from George Smith and Martin Crook.

Now he’s looking all set to be one of the leading bright young things in the company of climbers like Hazel Findlay, James Pearson and the aforementioned Caff. Despite having to overcome personal tragedy in recent years, his boundless optimism, naked talent and raw enthusiasm should see him become a household name in UK climbing over the next few years. Which is nothing less than he deserves of course.

See the DMM site for the full story

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Yr Wyddfa: The annual sheep gathering takes place.

The summits of Yr Wyddfa and the Berwyns taken at roughly the same time at the weekend. Top Photo-Llanberis MRT.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A E Houseman

Houseman's 'Blue Remembered Hills' were in fact, the uplands of North Wales which he looked upon from the Shopshire hills around Church Stretton.These days,many of these peaks certainly are a 'land of lost content'. A few months ago I wrote about ‘the honeypot syndrome’. A curious outdoor social phenomenon where outdoor activists choose to eschew the wilderness experience in favour of the Tesco experience.  That is, a preference to gather in great numbers in our most despoliated mountain areas rather than seek out the wilder, less frequented mountains, crags and rivers.

Like Steptoe’s faithful old carthorse Hercules, the blinkers are firmly attached as they spill out of the packed car parks, don their boots...or in some cases flip flops...and pant their way up Yr Wyddfa, Scafell, Tryfan, Ben Nevis, Helvellyn and all thronged points north south east and west.

Of course a lot of these folk will not be outdoor activists but tourists who feel that bagging ‘Mount Snowdon’ is just another tourist experience; like a visit to Chester Zoo or Ikea. There still does though,appear to be a lot of walkers, and climbers...who prefer to follow the dusty worn trails that lead to crowded summits and teeming crags rather than seek out the backwaters.

For a lot of outdoor folk, it's somewhat incomprehensible and I'm sure they,like me, would have been horrified to see the photograph posted by the Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team at the weekend which showed Wales’ highest summit looking like Goodison Park at three o clock on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a hellish vision to be sure. Particularly when you consider that on a warm sunny day, when so many mountains would be basking in isolation, Yr Wyddfa- to use a rock climbing name-was being ‘raped by affection'!

When the photograph was taken, I was about 20 odd miles away-as the crow flies- on the Berwyn tops (see photo) and apart from meeting one guy on the 9k walk in who had somehow managed the complicated walk in from Llandrillo to Cader Berwyn with an AA roadmap- and one young guy who was on the summit sunbathing- all was quiet on the Western front. After wandering over to Moel Sych, I made a beeline down the ridge under Sych, gained a gully which looked like the only mammals who had ever set foot in it before were sheep, stripped off halfway to follow Gus-the dog- into a deep mountain pool, drained the last dregs from my bottle and eventually staggered back to the car, tired, dehydrated but satisfied after 7 hours and 20k of mountain walking in which I’d only seen two people.

Meanwhile...back in Northern Snowdonia!