Three winters ago, after bailing from an attempted repeat of Travesty Direct on Clogwyn Du, Dave Garry and I decide to take a quick look at an obvious enticing line to the right. A crack line through the steepest part of the cliff looked to provide all the ingredients we wanted in a mixed route – compelling line, hard climbing, impressive position, and a reasonable chance of gear. The hook was baited and we were reeled in and landed like helpless fishies. Since then, my winter climbing in Wales has stalled for what seems like an eternity on attempts at the new route on this deceptively steep cliff.
Tuesday’s conditions are looking excellent. It will be my seventh day of attempts but my first visit for nearly 12 months. If it doesn’t go today, I don’t know if I’ll be able to justify spending any longer trying and failing to climb one route.
Finding willing partners to climb a hard new mixed route with had proved hard. Another hurdle. Firstly, people are understandably reluctant to try something new and unknown when they could go and try a known quantity – winter conditions in Wales are fickle at the best of times; why risk not ticking anything? Secondly, the climbing scene in North Wales, like any walk of life, contains its share of people hamstrung by self-limiting beliefs, many of which seem to me to stem from accepting certain axioms which circulate like disabling parasites looking for a host. Allow one to get it’s teeth into you and you’re fucked by an atrophy of the belief organ that can be chronic. Luckily for me Tom Livingstone is keen for a look – the right mix of youth, cheerfulness, ambition and ability to contrast with my innumerable years, focus, and drive to see this project finished. Tom hasn’t been around long enough to dissuade himself from trying hard so I’m safe from any negativity other than my own.
On arrival at the cliff it’s obvious that the variables are set up in our favour. Fluffy thick rime coats the rock – dry rock with no verglas. Temps are easterly cold yet there’s hardly a breath of wind, making for comfortable climbing. The turf is frozen solid. The only unknown will be ourselves.
An age getting ready. Food, a little chat, hot juice, the usual. Racking up and going through the quiet psyching-up process inherent in trying something you know from previous attempts is going to be difficult and which is likely to involve falling off… silently mantra’ing, bigging up, constructing belief. Make-believe.
‘just go for it’, ‘most of the gear’s held every time’, ‘just go for it’, ‘don’t leave anything behind on the ground this time’, ‘you’re good enough’, ‘you’ve worked hard for this’, ‘100%’.
I set off. The gear crib sheet I’d written after last winter’s final attempt proves wrong at the first placement. And the next. No worries, plenty of time to rest before committing to the steepness above. Leaving the rest ledge I start to execute the moves as I’d rehearsed hundreds of times in my head. It’s obviously hard but feels ok. I start to struggle as I reach the point where rehearsal stutters into 12 months worth of faded memories. I’m on overhanging ground, on a tenuous right hook trying to find something useable for my left, strength ebbing, my borrowed time ends and I’m in flight as the tenuous hook pops. The gear holds, I hit the slab with a thud but it’s ok. I’ve now hit the slab in the same place seven times. There’ll soon be a 5’10” imprint of a mixed climber. I’m lowered to the ground. It’s over. Relatively unfit after weeks of bolting but zero climbing, I’m doubtful that I’ve got enough juice left in my arms for success this day.
Tom’s eager for a look. I silently wonder to myself if I’d be as keen if it was me in his place looking at the route for the first time. The eagerness of youth! He gets to the lip of the roof and tries my beta, as he starts to move leftwards a tenuous hook pops and he’s airborne. The slab below receives him. A recalcitrant axe needs retrieving from where it was left above the roof so Tom goes back up with one of mine. Impressively, as he reaches the in-situ axe he accurately deposits mine onto the ledge below and continues questing onward into the harder climbing.
And then he falls again, slightly further on than before. We’re both shut down by the steepness and blind hooks. It’s all oh so familiar, it’s never going to happen, and I’ve wasted 7 valuable days of Welsh winter climbing – a whole season! – on an over-ambitious dream.
An hour has passed. I absentmindedly re-rack, the process consigned to autopilot by now, expecting to be stripping the gear and bailing in 10 minutes time. Rhubarb and Custards provide momentary tangy pleasure and the sugar rush essential for a falsely confident approach.
Starting the stein pull feels more cumbersome than last time. Internally: ‘No chance, I’ll just have a little huff and puff and we’ll bail‘. Reach through to hook above the bulge and match. ‘Not feeling strong after last time‘. I decide in an instant to try something different to the moves which I know work and which I’d rehearsed a hundred times in my head over the last two years. I’m on steep ground on tenuous hooks but I’m making progress. Before I know it I’m at the crack, but pumped. ‘No chance of holding on for much longer‘. A wire goes in, but the angle’s steep and the position strenuous. ‘I could just slump‘. A move upwards is made. I change. The internal polarity instantly switches from – to +. Ice caps melt. The internal dialogue becomes fiercely positive, an affirmation of commitment, I am not going to fall until everything has been given.
Everything isn’t required. I prove myself right to have dreamed as I nervously reach the belay ledge and secure myself. Three winters on, I’m where I want to be.