Outside Edge Route
I have been thinking a lot lately about climbing and why I do it. I’m not very good at it and my nerves suffer terribly for it but I keep coming back for more. Most of the climbers I know are ambitious and strive to progress through the grades. In some ways I envy them for my cowardice has left me stuck at leading severe climbs, and that is on a very good day indeed, days which are few and far between. However, it is true to say that in their grade chasing, many of our brave and talented brethren miss out on climbs of rare quality; historic climbs which finish on the tops of mountains, my raison d’être.
I specialise in the big, old fashioned mountaineering routes put up by the bold fathers of our sport. After gibbering on the Holly Tree Wall I may slump onto the broad terrace above and ruminate on what a different breed those men were; their protection virtually non-existent, their vision and courage seemingly limitless. It is one thing, and admirable too, to test your mettle on a climb that is close to your limit armed with modern equipment, a guide book and the knowledge that many have come before, but quite another to go forth onto a big crag where the difficulties are unknown and the possibility of retreat uncertain. With meagre ability, much humility and a passion for our mountains, I climb through history with the ghosts of great men. That may be my lot, but with it I am more than satisfied.
My latest climb is possibly my greatest to date, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let me set the scene. Cwm Silyn, tucked away at the western end of the Nantlle Ridge and blessed with beautiful teardrop llynau is the haunt of the connoisseur. From the sea, over coastal plain via low fell the mountains rise abruptly and in Cwm Silyn their greatest expression is found in the formidable Craig yr Ogof and in particular the Great Slab. The Great Slab however may be a misnomer, for it is too steep for true slab climbing. In reality it is a mountain wall of perfect rock almost 500ft tall and any climber expecting to pad delicately up it will be in for a surprise, as we were, but for an altogether different reason.
Peter, Dangerous Croc and I were shocked to find seven teams in the Cwm, all on historic routes but most on our chosen course, Outside Edge. First climbed in 1931 by the brilliant but tragic J.M. Edwards, Outside Edge takes an improbable line for what is ‘only’ a VDiff. My last ‘Edwards’ route had been Flying Buttress on Dinas Cromlech which had felt somewhat ‘out there’ to say the least; I cast my mind back to the steep pitches, varied climbing and fantastic exposure which had left me babbling incoherently for days afterwards. I wondered if our climb could possibly be as sensational but we would have to wait for over an hour to find out, time enough to absorb the sombre atmosphere of the cwm and to admire the stature of the towering edifice we had come to scale. Time also to compare my transience and fragility against the ancient works of prehistory as dark clouds gathered above, urging me to consider what it was I was hoping to achieve and why. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
With the last party finally installed on the second pitch I took it upon myself to commence the climb. This gave insurance that Peter would get the second pitch, on which the previous leader had struggled. I climbed easily to the first stance at 27 metres, pausing only to place a token piece of protection. I then brought Croc up to join me where upon his arrival large spots of rain splashed off our helmets. After spending so much time thinking about our route I had become nervous and apprehensive, so much so that the rain came almost as a relief. Surely we would now bail out and go for a walk instead.
After a brief consultation Croc and I were in concurrence; it was the end of this particular road. Peter however had some thoughts of his own which he aired with force and conviction. There was no chance that he was going to be shoed away by a little bit of rain and offered up the suggestion that we “stop fannying around and just get on with it”. “Well” I thought, “If you put it like that”…Although the rain had for the moment come to nought, Croc was less than convinced so was duly lowered off and thus consigned to a lengthy vigil back at the car.
With Croc jettisoned from the crag Peter romped up to my stance and threw himself at the second pitch, an airy rising traverse on a steep wall. It proved to be a thought provoking exercise if not “Bloody mental”, even more so when the first of a fast moving pair of ‘alpinists’ caught up with him after climbing all over my belay. When it came for me to tackle the pitch ‘alpinist’ number 2 was hot on my heels, his partner’s rope rubbing all over me making balance moves over an increasing void a nervy proposition. Peter’s stance was miniscule so I led through to a good ledge 10 feet above and allowed the interloper below to pass. We could then take a few moments to enjoy the sun which had made a welcome return and catch our breath after a truly a magnificent piece of VDiff climbing.
Unfortunately our encounter with the merchants of speed had done an efficient job of discombobulating my already shaky equilibrium, rendering my efforts to reach Sunset Ledge futility incarnate. I yo yo’d repeatedly until succumbing to the inevitable, at which point I called for Peter to lead through which he did with vigour and plentiful exhortations including “Jug City”, “There’s gear everywhere” and my personal favourite “You’ve just missed the lead of your life”. And of course he was right. Nevertheless, with two more pitches of climbing before the final scramble to the summit I was ill inclined to further test his theory and sent him on his way. Bristling with confidence he was happy to comply and was soon out of sight, leaving me to a lonely and protracted session on Sunset Ledge with just a twitching rope for company and bomber anchors my only friend.
How many minutes passed I couldn’t rightly say, but they were in profusion and I began to grow impatient. The rope had been still for too long; the comings and goings of slack that signify an imminent belay on high were absent. “You ok Pete, what’s going on up there”? The news from upstairs was grim, “The rope drag is horrendous and I’m running out of ideas”. In keeping with his particular bent, Peter had run two pitches together and was struggling at the crux. Before long the rope started to move again, not smoothly but in urgent convulsions and accompanied by the sound of scraping and grunting until at last an oath split the air, turning it blue in the process. He was up and very happy to be so.
Soon it was time for me to see for myself the cause of all the fuss. Up into a groove, then a delicate step across a rib found me hovering in space, breathing heavily and marvelling at the size of Peter’s cajonies before reaching a shelf which I attained with a stylish walrus move. A torrent of good natured abuse rained down and I laughed hysterically, happy in the knowledge that the worst was behind me. I was wrong. “What’s this last pitch like Pete”? “Horrible” came the reply, halting the laughter as quickly as it had begun.
The way was obvious, though the how required some thought. A green corner capped with jutting blocks was the key, but how to get into it? The solution wasn’t pleasant. Quartz pinches for fingers and an overhung break for toes threw me off balance. I had to be quick and made a high step, rocking over and reaching blindly at full stretch only to find a two finger pocket. “VDiff my arse”! A hopeful smear on a detached flake and I was welcomed into the security of the corner from which a direct exit beckoned. However, a moustache of vegetation suggested that no man had ever passed that way; Peter confirmed my worst fears. I worked my way up with arm jams and hidden holds in a crack until no further could I go. I craved jugs but was left wanting and was forced to make a big stride out onto a ledge all of 1 x 5 inches in size. A foot swap then a gripping exchange of hands took me out onto the very nose where gravity strong and exposure implausible threatened to rip my trousers off. I had found my jugs in the most incredible position and paused for a while, hyperventilating on the verge of glorious release.
A few moves later it was all over bar the shouting and on the crest of the ridge we sat, completely wired and peaking on an adrenaline overdose washed down with endorphin chasers. I smoked as Peter regurgitated almost verbatim my private thoughts of days past; “Look where we are mate, what the hell are we doing here. What is the point”? I nodded with a knowing smile, “Madness isn’t it”? “Yes” he went on, “But doesn’t it feel great, no, not great, wonderful? Look at the sea, the sky and the mountains. Look at you and me sitting here and the llyns below and…. “, “I’ll have to stop you there, they’re llynau Pete, not llyns. Next you’ll be calling the Peak ‘The Peaks’ and Outside Edge a VDiff”. We fell about and the relieved, contented laughter known only to brothers of the rope rang out, reverberating around the deserted cwm.
Time had flown; it was 7pm but before returning to the car and a waiting Croc one final task remained. We scrambled upwards and then walked through a rapidly falling clag to the top of the mountain. Only then could we start to think about our descent and the delicious junk that would soon be filling our bellies. After all, anything less would have been a perversion but for once Peter and I made it down before darkness…though only just.