Thursday, December 19, 2013

Death rides a pale horse

The quiet hills surrounding  Nantmor have, historically, never attracted climbers, save a few indefatigable  locals activists like Showell Styles and Paul Work who, in the 40’s and 50’s, garnered  a few dozen climbs of a modest technical standard, on the bristling flanks of Yr Arddu, Moel y Dyniewyd and the Aberglaslyn Pass. As we approached the end of the century, a handful of new activists became drawn to these modest crags, outcrops and boulders. Not least because a new CC Tremadog  guidebook was in the offing ,which would finally include areas like Yr Arddu- never featured in a guidebook before.

Traditionally, the area had been described by Showell Styles as being more suited to the ‘rabbit than tiger’. However, a new breed of activist drawn to the area in the late 80’s, quickly began to put that theory to bed by exploiting steep new crags which offered micro routes up into the high extremes.

Towards the end of the last decade, I had begun to explore this beautiful backwater with various partners. Several first ascents were made on the Yr Arddu crags although in truth, I’m sure several of these lines had been done before and left unrecorded, or perhaps just lost from the records?

A year or two earlier, across the valley, I had done a direct version of one of Paul Work’s best known climbs. Christmas Climb - first done on Christmas day in 1947. My direct version came 50 years later although not, I’m sorry to say, on a Christmas day. After moseying on up the valley, I discovered another tier of rock which at the time was unclimbed and which-as it was unnamed-I described as, Craig y Mwyner (Crag of the Miner) in respect of the old copper mine at its base. (Since renamed Craig y  Wernas in the current CC Tremadog guide.) I’d been up with one of my sons and his friend and done a couple of easy routes and returned soon after with the veteran campaigner, Harold Drasdo.  A sharp, knife edge arête was a prominent feature on the crag and it cried out be climbed. A first attempt with HD was successful, in the fact that we got up most of the arête. However, at a break, half way up, a huge loose fang of rock prevented me from gaining the upper sharp edge. A rather cack handed, ascent up the back of the arête was successful and- as it turned out-harder than the direct line at-E1, but the purity of the line had been severely compromised.

On an overcast July day, a few weeks later, I returned with my then 14 year old son Liam, and his friend Henry Hobson-who did the first ascent of Ogwen’s lovely Red Slab Direct with me. With Henry ensconced across a defining gully on a neighbouring buttress with my Nikon, and with Liam anchored at the bottom, I took off with the initial aim of removing the offending flake and gaining the upper edge. Quickly reaching the half way break, I scrabbled around, looking for sound anchor points, and after satisfying myself that I could contort myself safely on my perch , I began to rock the metre+ fang with my foot.

Imperceptibly at first, it began to move. No more than a few centimetres at first but it was at least detached from the body of the cliff and not a fixed feature. Hanging off the rope from above, I used both feet and heard a dry crack. Back down on my perch and with one foot this time, I kicked hard with my heel. The rocking motion setting off a final irreversible shift in momentum. Like a rotten molar in a scabby jaw and with a final crack, the fang finally succumbed to gravity and began to topple over.

Then something totally unexpected happened. The fang ripped out of its core and twisted 90 degrees from its expected trajectory. The consequences of which became only too horrifyingly apparent. The rock was going to hit Liam! With events unwinding in slow motion I finally let out a yawl which echoed across the valley....LOOK OUT!!!. This was not the time or place for the climbers’ polite warning refrain.. ‘Below’ . Instinctively, Liam pulled himself into the rock as the flake hit once...hit twice...and at the last nanosecond, hit thrice and glanced off into space like a murderous prehistoric bird; passing over his head by mere inches and close enough for him to feel the terrible, sulphurous rush of air!

 From my perch I was stilled into silence. I couldn’t see or hear anything save the clatter of shifting scree. Finally, a voice rose up... ‘Christ...that was close!’ The words came like an echo of angels! The relief was overwhelming.  Certain death had been but a geological rift away. A indefinable tilting of the edge in earths’ molten dawn , just enough to cheat catastrophe.

On autopilot, I completed the climb which became Stonecrop. A modest VS climb, although the slides taken by Henry that day, show me looking lost and blank. I remember little of the climb except I have a vague idea that it is actually a good route. That night, I would awake several times in a blind panic, imagining-in the words of Captain Kurtz....the horror...the horror of what might have been.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of an instance in Norway with 2 friends below me. It was pitch black and I was throwing a rope down to them as they were slow lead climbing. Brennan was now attached to the rope and continuing his climb up. Its at this point the snow i was stood on began to move and I stumbled as it continued to slide downwards. i realised it was a boulder slipping towards my friends. BrenDan would be ok but what of Charlotte 80FT below?. i threw myself on top of the boulder and just stopped it from going but i couldn't move. i screamed to bren to hurry up quickly. He climbed up to me and we both just managed to push the boulder and prop it behind a tree it was that big. He made me promise never to tell Charlotte of this as she may never come Ice climbing again.