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!