Monday, 16 April 2012

North Wales Trip

We started late at nearly 1 in the afternoon, the route was polished to buggery, and Lurch (‘So awesome he can take his coat off and put it in his coat pocket’) fell off the first pitch. It really wasn’t going fantastically well.

“I think we’re off route,” I said to Pat as he struggled up a greasy corner to the belay stance.


We were two pitches up the East Face of Tryfan, on what we hoped was a classic route called Grooved Arête. The weather was unpredictable, sunny one minute and cold and windy the next. Heavy traffic had rendered most of the footholds smooth and glassy, hence Lurch’s impromptu test of my belaying abilities. I knew we’d started in the right place, due to the letters ‘GA’ scratched onto the rock, but now it was all beginning to look the same. Maybe they actually meant ‘Go Away’...

“I’m going up there,” I said, pointing upwards at nothing in particular.

“Are you sure?” sighed Pat, showing a justified lack of faith in my route finding skills.

I shrugged and started vaguely climbing up the face. A few moves past a slab led me to a grassy path. Feeling like an utter prat with a full rack and half ropes, I walked up it. There were no gear placements, so I just ran it out. The crux was a slightly more slippery bit of grass.

“Badly protected but the climbing’s easy!” I yelled down to Pat and Lurch. They’d been watching the rope shoot out with alarm, not happy about the prospect of a 50m pitch with no gear. Lurch followed up the path in a daze, probably wondering what the hell was going on. This was his first proper mountain climb. I’d dragged Pat up stuff like this before however, and he simply followed with the weak resignation of a condemned man on his way to the gallows.

A quick scan of the guidebook revealed that we were definitely on route now. I led up the fourth or fifth pitch, a kind of groove/arête thing (funnily enough). It was a bit harder so I actually placed some gear. A tricky step onto the arête brought me to the next stance, a sloping ledge with a boulder to anchor to at the back. By now the weather was decidedly bad, with fine snow billowing all around the crag. It was starting to get properly cold and we still had to do the crux ‘Knight’s Pitch’ and find our way onto the north ridge and down.

The rock was getting harder to grip, and it was with some trepidation that I made my way onto the chessboard-like slab. I clipped an abandoned nut and looked for footholds. Nothing. We didn’t have any time to waste so I just yanked on the gear and hauled myself higher. Oh, the shame! A supposed HVS leader using aid on a VDiff...

I didn’t really give a toss though. You don’t get points for style in the mountains when the weather’s crap and daylight’s running out. Fortunately, the rest of the slab was OK, and I climbed up on jugs to the next belay stance. Which was a horrible, sloping ledge covered with wet snow. Chuffing excellent, I thought, that’s just what we need.

“The stance isn’t big enough for all of us,” I shouted down.

Unbeknownst to me, just moments before Lurch had said to Pat something like “I’ll kill myself if the next stance is rubbish.”

I brought a traumatised Lurch up, then led the final chimney pitch to a thankfully bigger ledge. Lurch then belayed Pat, who’d been hanging around for ages now, up to the cramped stance. Finally, in a full on whiteout, I brought them both up the last pitch. Lurch, Captain Footwork himself, dispatched one bit with a dyno because he couldn’t bridge on the soaking wet rock.

“Bet no one else has done it like that before,” he said proudly as he crawled onto the ledge.

We were all freezing cold, and started yanking off tight rock shoes to massage numb toes. It was a relief to get back into proper boots and start trudging down the north ridge. A further pitch of climbing would have taken us up to the penultimate summit tower of Tryfan, but none of us were particularly bothered about it. We needed to get down as soon as possible, and not just because the pub in Nant Peris would probably stop serving food at 9. I’d been up the peak a few times before, and always found the descent a pain in the arse. You can’t just switch off and follow a definite path, and it seems to take forever to get back to the road. It was about half 8 by the time we eventually staggered into the pub. Never have fish and chips and a pint felt so satisfying. Despite the weather, Grooved Arête was a fantastic experience. It had all the sense of scale and commitment of a proper mountain route, whilst still being manageable, even for a bunch of idiots like us. The snow just made it more interesting.

The next day we hit sunny Holyhead Mountain. I had a go at a harder route, but still felt tired from Tryfan, so duly slumped onto gear and lowered off. Lurch sunbathed and took pictures of lizards. Pat and I soloed up a few slabby VDiffs then called it good. We headed back down south, via both a McDonalds and a KFC, greedy bastards that we are, already planning the next big mountain trip.

Pat briefly claimed ‘The Spanner Award’ for leaving the car door open overnight in the campsite, but given our excellent teamwork on Tryfan, we declared it null and void for now. He’ll get it back again soon, we have faith in him.

Lurch earned the nickname of ‘Penguin’ for his hilarious, stiff-legged, ‘I’ve just shat myself’ walk after the long hike down the north ridge.

I managed to spill half a bottle of coke down my trousers in the car.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Struck by Lightning

Boulder Ruckle always scares the crap out of me. It’s a huge cliff, made up of vertical, crumbling limestone. The top out invariably involves scrambling up unprotected choss held together by dirt. Every time I abseil in (40m, free hanging, fairly committing) I feel humbled by the place. Still, the climbing’s good, the gear's all there, and you’ve got to do something a bit hardcore every now and again, right?

I was partnered with a guy called Mick, who I’d got in touch with via the forums on UKC. He was the perfect person for Boulder Ruckle; wise, steady, seen it all before a million times. Just the match for my wide eyed, enthusiastic ineptitude. I wanted to have a go at a classic HVS called Lightning Wall, so he handed me the rack and in we went.

“How you doing, Boulder Ruckle?” I said as my feet touched the bottom. I hadn’t been here since last August, which, incidentally, involved a rescue epic. Boulder Ruckle didn’t respond. I looked up (and up and up and up), and felt a familiar sense of ‘Oh god, what the hell am I doing here’. Lightning Wall was a pretty intimidating route, climbed in a single long pitch, with a big traverse over the lip of a roof halfway. Nervously, I tied in and got going.

It was easy to the fault line, and I tried to extend my runners to avoid rope drag across the traverse. This didn’t work. I fumbled around on a small ledge before the crux bulge for quite a while. The gear was solid, albeit extended down to my feet, so I went for it. A couple of steep moves later I found myself clinging to a juggy undercut hold. Most relieving, until I gave it a tap and realised it was hollow. Brilliant.

My gear was way below me now, and can you guess where the only placement was? That’s right, behind the block. I wedged in a large nut and decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to fall off. So onwards, to the traverse! I made a committing step around a sort of arête, and found some very small, pinchy holds. And no gear. The rope drag was already hellish. I was making an absolute dogs arse of this, and it wasn’t hard to imagine Mick thinking the same; ‘Who is this idiot? I’ve got to stop climbing with random strangers off the internet...’

I gibbered my way across the traverse, still not finding any placements. For each move I had to balance on tiny holds and yank some slack for the left rope. After each tenuous step across the void, I was greeted with a distinct lack of protection opportunities. Mick belayed, perhaps wondering what he’d tell my mother.

Eventually, I reached the security of an arête, and thank god, some gear. Now it was just a case of keeping my head together and dealing with the rope drag. I clawed my way up, giving myself a stern talking to, until I finally made it to the usual choss and the top of the cliff. Mick followed easily enough.

I was fairly pumped after this, so I happily seconded Mick up a couple of routes, the last of which we only just got up before the sun went down. I’d never seen anyone climb so quickly or smoothly before. By the end he looked just about warmed up, while I was a panting, dribbling mess, dragging my arms weakly along the ground as we walked back to the car park.

Good old Boulder Ruckle, I fucking hate you.