Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Postcards from the Edge



Drone shot of Cwm Pennaner from the summit of Moel Gydros

I was amused to see this from a Trip Advisor reviewer after a visit up 'Mount Snowdon'.

'I was so looking forward to taking the Snowdon Mountain Railway. I had climbed Snowdon as a kid and had very fond memories of the place. I was DEVASTATED to see how ruined it was with FAR too many people. At the bottom we wanted a bite of lunch. The cafe was disgusting. Dirty, poor food choice and service that was about the most miserable and rude that I had ever seen. Absolutely awful. Still I thought the railway journey would be exciting. How wrong I was. We were crammed into a carriage that should have taken a maximum of 6 people but they crammed 8 people in. We were like sardines in a tin which made the whole experience horrible. At the top we were greeted by the smell of sewage and literally hundred of people milling around. You actually had to wait to get space to reach the highest point. They had built a visitors center since I had last visited. It was disgusting. The toilets were a disgrace. It reminded me of facilities in 3rd world countries but probably even worse as the smell was overpowering. Whoever is responsible for the center should be ashamed of themselves as this gives Wales a really bad name. I will never go back and I highly recommend others to give it a miss.'


Apart from the fact that the contributor 'Harry from Edinburgh' doesn't see the irony of him complaining about the despoliation of a Welsh summit through the corrosive effects of over popularity and commercial exploitation when he is part of the problem. He does have a point about the summit caff which really is an eyesore. Although I don't think planning committees working within the SNPA and Welsh county councils have a Ruskin-esque appreciation of architecture and visual amenity so what can we expect!


Of course Yr Wyddfa is a special case. It's a tourist destination and most serious hill walkers wouldn't go near it with a barge pole. However, its still amazing how many people still repeat climbing summits they have ascended umpteen times before when even in a relatively small environment like North Wales or the Lake District, there are always smaller hills and mountains to be found off the beaten track. For some hill walkers there is often a reluctance in ascending something under 2000'; the magic number which unofficially at least, separates mountains from hills.


Its their loss as there are many fine, shapely peaks to be discovered in the 1/2000 range. As someone with the 'been there, done that, bought the T shirt' club of Snowdonia explorers, I rarely do anything which could be remotely described as popular these days. For a while now I've been picking off small peaks. Especially in North East Wales which is notably quieter than the North West. I hadn't appreciated just how many high points there were in that unfrequented part of Wales. The same applies to the old county of Radnorshire (Now Powys) which straddles the English border.


I recently went up the little 'Dewey' (A peak in the 500-600m range) of Moel Gydros which forms part of that rolling range of hills between the Arenigs and the Berwyns. Despite its modest 570 height, it proved to be a fine and obviously rarely visited peak with stunning views all around. Like neighbouring Garn Prys-another fine Dewey slightly to the north, evidence if evidence were needed, that there is life outside of Harry's world!

 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Climbing's Creature Features.

Harold Drasdo on a route called 'Wanda' Beware of black adders on this unfrequented Tremadog route!
I was shuffling through some photographic prints the other day when I found an image of Harold Drasdo on a totally obscure and rarely climbed Tremadog VS called ‘Wanda’. I had climbed the second pitch and pulled up to a narrow ledge with my eyes focused on the wall beyond. When I finally refocused on the ledge itself, I realized that I was looking into the eyes of an adder about six inches away! Thankfully, the handsome reptile slowly slithered off without first delivering a bite upon my sunburned face. With more of a weather eye now open for possible further reptilian intrusions, I climbed carefully on. By the time Harold reached the ledge, the adder had returned. I can imagine the poor creature must have become more than a little miffed at the constant interruptions to his basking routine. At least on this route called Wanda, snakes won’t be seeing too many vistors passing through!

It made me think of those rare, magical moments when climbing and the natural world come together and for a short time we can become part of the natural environment of the creatures for whom the cliffs and the surrounding moors, forests and caves are home. In the UK, we are not going to experience any ‘Climb to the lost world ‘ moments when Tarantulas and venomous snakes are part and parcel of an ascent. Nor do we risk standing on a rattlesnake, being mauled by a bear or sharing a sleeping bag with a black widow spider. The biggest risk we face is being hit by a flying sheep. Those fearless ruminants who regularly, it appears, nibble off more than they can chew when roaming across verdant cliffs in search of succulent greenery.

Despite the adder incident, I’ve seen hardly any native snakes when walking and climbing in the UK. Here in Wales a lot of their habitats have been destroyed over the years by farming and forestry practices. Seeing an adder or a grass snake in the wild is something that for the the majority of people in the UK will be an experience they will never go through. I have seen the odd slow worm which of course is snake like in appearance but which is classified as a lizard.

Of course, the most likely creature the climber will meet on the crag will be those of the feathered variety. The mountain environment is home to many of our most iconic bird species. From Eagles to Capercailles; Ravens to Red Kites, however, for me it is the incredible Peregrine Falcon who encapsulates the spirit of the mountain. I’ve had some amazing encounters with these masters of the air and each one has left an indelible mark. Climbing a new route in the Arenigs, I arrived with some difficulty at a cave on the line of what would become-with one or two deviations-a five pitch VS route called Automedon. Within the cave was what I can only describe as a sacrificial altar! Here, where no man had stood before was a flat topped boulder covered with small animal and bird bones. Amongst the bleached bones were dozens of coloured racing pigeon tags. A few weeks later, on the Black Cliff, I pulled up and the final moves of the climb and was face to face with a Peregrine.Once again, surrounded by bones. It seems as if Peregrines take their prey back to convenient ledges and sheltered rock features to consume their bounty.


The bird itself was no more than a foot away and appeared more curious than alarmed. We gazed at each other, scarcely moving for about 30 seconds before the peregrine decided I wasn’t going to disappear from his kitchen any time soon and took off into the fading early evening light. The plaintive cry of the peregrine is unmistakable and I often wonder if it strikes fear into creatures which falls within its purview? With its incredible vision and unmatchable speed-The Peregrine is the fastest creature on earth- no small mammal or bird stands a chance once its steely dark eyes have fixed upon it.

Another bird which while not matching the peregrine in the velocity stakes, nevertheless uses another natural sense-its hearing-to great effect is the owl. Although owls are usually to be found at less elevated sites as the peregrine, they nevertheless do nest on crags. An old Scotty Dwyer route, now named Excaliber’ above Llyn Gwynant includes ‘beware of tawny owls’ in the route description. Or at least it did. Apparently they used to nest in a subterranean fissure on the climb which the emaciated could squirm through. Never being of that build, I had to climb up the outside of the cleft. Not that I would want to intrude upon a nest of baby owls. However, when climbing down the valley on Dyffryn Mwbwr, I did indeed disturb an owl. I was concentrating on climbing deep crack. My body totally covering the defile when an owl came out of the gloom, climbed up onto my shoulder and flew off. I don’t know who would be the more shocked; me or the owl?

A more alarming encounter than the owl came in the shape of a stallion which came galloping down the hillside on Dyniewyd above Nantmor, in full snorting,bucking mode.It took a full blooded whack across his rear end with the remains of an old fence post to dissuade him from kicking our lights out! Encounters with wild ponies are common in north Wales’s Snowdonia uplands but this was the only time I’ve been charged at.

The fox is of course a common and oft seen inhabitant of the mountains and valleys. Sadly, I have come across a fox which had died a horrible death after being snared. I was so angry I went back the next day and took down the entire section of fence where the snare had been set with bolt cutters! At least on another occasion I was able to free a fox from a snare and witness him run off none the worse for wear. Climbing a new route at Clogwyn Gelli I once witnessed a fox bridging manfully up a vegetated neighbouring groove  to top out and run away up the hillside. It was quite an impressive feat of climbing for a creature who normally inhabits a horizontal world.

But of course, most encounters with creatures in the uplands are not threatening or tragic but simply a delight. Boxing hares and curious goat kids; sunbathing lizards and raucous rooks; startled badgers and bob tailed roe deer exploding into life when their forest reverie is disturbed.


 You won’t see any of that down at the Climbing Wall!
 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Ethnic diversity in climbing : An unscaled mountain.


Myles Washington
An article in the US edition of the Huffington Post caught my eye recently. It was about a young black teenager who was making waves in the US climbing scene. It was deemed unusual enough to warrant a feature in a national media. It seems that even in the US with its much larger black population compared to the UK, rock climbing/mountaineering is still overwhelmingly a white middle class sport.

Here in the UK, if you flick through the climbing glossies, attend a club meet, roll up at Tremadog or peruse the hardware in an outdoor shop, you will inevitably be white. Probably from the educated middle classes- as even white working class participants in the activity are dwindling-and your climbing circle will be inevitably resemble a Britain First cell. In ethnicity if not in dress sense and haircuts!


That's not to say there there are no climbers from ethnic minority backgrounds. But these individuals are notable in their isolation. I was considering from a social and cultural perspective why Asians for example have never really taken to rock climbing? Its not through lack of opportunity as ten of thousands of young Asian kids from the English West Midlands have attended outdoor activity courses at their LEA's outdoor centres in North Wales. Despite this, very few are entranced enough by the activity to take it up when they leave school.

Undoubtedly, there are cultural factors at play here. Peer pressure will play a part and we all know how merciless and cruel young people can be towards anyone who is seen as different and who deviates from the accepted cultural pathways. I know this from my own experience. Coming from a white, working class background on Merseyside, I attended a secondary modern school which had a hillwalking club. Despite loving the outdoors and being constantly encouraged by teachers to come along on one of their fell walking trips to the Lake District, I always declined the invitation.


It was the middle class kids from the A and B streams who did that sort of thing. I was a C streamer and we played football....morning noon and night. If I had joined the school fellwalking club, A..I would have no friends in the group and B...I would be ragged mercilessly by my working class mates. So its easy to see why young Asians from Birmingham and Wolverhampton just don't get involved.


However,what I have noticed is a steady rise in the number of people from non white backgrounds who are going hillwalking.Whether, its the rise in health and fitness awareness, the ease of access to the mountain areas from the cities or through the emergence of a growing educated Asian, Black, Chinese etc,middle class who now have the financial means and the confidence to go where previously their parents have feared to tread?


Perhaps this growing awareness and confidence will lead to those from the ethnic minorities taking up rock climbing and its associated activities? Certainly, one factor which will drive this forward will be the growth of the urban climbing wall. Throughout the towns and cities of the UK, people have been drawn to the wall in the same way as they have to gyms. Even people who have never set foot on a crag or even seen a mountain have slipped on a pair of climbing shoes, tied on to a rope and picked their way up the multi coloured holds. As much I imagine, as an exercise regime for many, rather than as is traditionally accepted, a way of pushing up their grades on the rock face.


It will be a long time before the numbers of climbers from ethnic backgrounds reflects  that percentage of the population from which they are drawn, but its likely that for many of the reasons outlined, that number will gradually increase year on year. And it will be driven, as most things are, by education and financial muscle which in turn brings rising self confidence. However,
it will be a slow evolution to be sure. The one important factor which will may slow this trend-and this applies to working class white kids as well-is the steady decline of the LEA outdoor centre. Sold off by cash strapped local authorities and thereby slamming the door of opportunity in the face of those who need it most. What this will mean sadly, is that it will only be those from the Asian, Black, Chinese middle classes who can afford to attend commercially run outdoor centres like Plas y Brenin, who will enter the sport.