While writing the Nightmayer article that was published on UKC, I delved into the UKC logbook accounts, and in doing so was reminded of a climb Dr Jon Read and I had climbed the same day before heading to the Cromlech. Well, I say this, but in my non-ticking, non-recollection of climbs, non-recollection of moves and gear placements, non-recollection of partners and the non-recollection of the when and how, this is how I remember it. The climb Noah’s Ark also comes to mind, which we may or may not have climbed the same day, but who knows!
I have written about my climbing partnership with Dr Jon a few times before, but it still surprises me that we got on because we are very different in character. But we did get on, and I still look back on those times and laugh. How he must have despaired and fretted whenever we climbed together, Dr Jon, precise and calculating, me gung-ho and go for it, and the day we slowly squelched the steep and boggy hillside towards Clogwyn Gafr (aka Craig Fach), near the top of the Llanberis Pass, took our yin-yang to a new, more intense and dangerous level. For someone who remembers little about climbs, to remember generally means bad, and I do remember that day (or a part it) very well.
It was possibly Tim Neil, who in his best sandbagging ways, pointed me at the climb called Nectarine Run, E5 6b (J. De Montjoye, H Sharp, 25.6.86). Tim is tall, about 7ft in his thick red hill walking socks, but most of the time he chooses to forget that on many of the routes he has ever climbed he reaches beyond the crux using his albatross span. I admit his fifteen stone (maybe more) bodyweight does have repercussions should he fall onto an RP or a micro cam, but this very rarely happens, because he is usually seconding routes of that ilk. Eighteen years ago I was psyched, so psyched I was unable to see a sandbag even if one was thrown full force and hit me square in the face.
That “Go and do Nectarine Run, one of the best E5s/climbs in the Pass!” was no-doubt how Tim would have delivered it. And it is one of the best, on very fine rock, but would he have also mentioned it is one of the scariest? I’m not so sure! I do recall someone (it may have been Tim, but more likely not), tell me how they thought Nectarine run was closer to E6 than E5, and I do remember someone saying how technical the climbing was. But eighteen years ago, full of drive and ego and ambition, this information would have spurred me arrogantly on more than put me off. What a pillock!
It must have been warm and sunny as we would not have been there if it had been any other, because Clogwyn Gafr is north facing. Dr Jon and I reached the base of the crag, and I’m sure we would have dumped gear on the same big flat rock as I have dumped gear on several times since. I’m sure we would have looked up at the pristine grey Rhyolite sheets smattered with pockets and cracks, separated by dark folds and overhangs. I’m less sure about whether we warmed up on another climb or just jumped straight on Nectarine Run. When I say we I mean me, because Dr Jon with all of his brains and intelligence and grasp and love of life would have looked up – he would have spotted the compact nature of the rough rock and the rusty stains weeping from the pegs, first placed in 1967 from the girdle traverse, and decided he didn’t need to put himself through the trauma. I on the other hand would have looked up and seen nothing, assessed nothing and started to gear up. What a pillock.
August 1999 is the date Dr Jon put into his UKC logbook for this day, which is a different date for the day we were on Dinas Cromlech working Nightmayer, that date was logged as July 1999, so either Dr Jon with his super-scientific mind logged it wrong, or, more than likely, me, with my slightly altitude addled and agricultural brain, remembered the day wrong. I’m pretty sure I know which it is. What I remember is setting off and reaching the base of a short overhanging groove about a third of the way up the climb with hardly any gear placed in the wall below. And it’s here what my forgetful brain remembers very well…
… Sweating, overheating, desperately chalking-up, I stand on small edges while staring at a few RP placements without any RPs on my harness. RPs are pointless, that’s what I used to think, but I now stood wishing I had a rack of them. There is also an old RURP at the base of the groove, but to clip it takes ingenuity because it does not have a hole large enough to accept a carabiner, but ingenuity takes time and fiddle and at that time in my life, my time was limited, so most of the time I wasted no time, preferring to save energy by going up with gusto. I eyed the RURP: it was flaking red scabs of rusty metal and it smelt corrosive. Best leave it alone.
Dr Jon was beginning to make concerned noises about my lack of protection as I wrapped my fingers around the sharp and shiny arete, and began to layback into the slippery green groove. Smeared feet, body tension – pushing body parts onto the rock. Glittering flecks of white quartz. No gear. Thutching, squirming. Another slippery green inch. No gear. Another inch… “GET SOME GEAR!”, Dr Jon shouted. But there wasn’t any, not that I could see. Thrutch. Thrutch. Feet pressed onto sloping grey. Green slippery slimy. NO GEAR. “GET SOME GEAR!” Sweating. Red faced. ThrutchIng. Grappling. I managed to wedge myself into the top of the groove before a last-ditch lurch left, where I hung from small holds. Time was not as important now and as I shook out I looked down to see ropes dangling, almost uninterrupted by gear.
A stretch to the left and small cam can be placed behind a hollow flake, but I refused to make the step across where I could possibly stand because it was off route. A crack above the flake will also take gear- really good, lifesaving gear- but this is in the E6 Satsumo Wrestler and definitely off route. Nectarine Run moves down and right from the top of the groove, and the gear in the crack will give a sideways top-rope, but is off route.
“Is there gear above you?” Dr Jon shouted sounding almost hysterical.
“Well place it then!”
“It’s off route… and I’m too pumped to get there…”
Another of my philosophies from that time in my climbing life was that gear placements involving extra climbing would use extra energy, which may mean not getting up the climb without falling, so I would often forsake protection in preference to pushing on. Sometimes this philosophy even worked!
I could not hold on any longer, so exited the groove via a large hidden pocket in the almost vertical slab on the right. A very stretched leg transported me to a small, teetering, toe-ledge on the lip of the overhang. The initial wall was somewhere out of sight, but I was sure if I fell I would clear this, the cam behind the hollow flake would pull, and I would hit the ground. I had gone and done it now. Fuck. Committed. Pumped. Terrified. Apart from the pocket and a weird but positive scalloped hold by the side of the pocket, and the small toe-ledge that I was now stood, there were no other holds. More to the point there was no protection. Why, oh why did I forego the gear in Satsumo Wrestler? I stared at the rock almost wanting to head-butt it. Idiot, idiot, idiot… It became obvious that I had to stand in the pocket that my hands were holding.
Like many people, I began rock climbing in a time when instruction and coaching and indoor walls were not as popular or widespread as today. Self-taught, no-one had ever explained the finer mechanics of a high-step and rock-over. It was only about four years ago, while bouldering indoors, when the person I was climbing with said: “place your weight over your foot before standing up, don’t get greedy by reaching for the hold too soon”. Before this, this is what I had always done: I had been greedy, I had never actually weighted the toe, I had always used strength, making a rockover extremely powerful, and so it was in this occasion. I placed my toe really high into the base of the pocket and, by using the hold by the side of my toe, pulled like a train. But there was nothing for my left hand (or so I thought) so pulling as hard as possible, before pushing as hard as possible, was the technique I employed. Shaking, trembling, the force was almost too much: my shoulder almost dislocated, but somehow I managed to stand, and just there, just in front of my face, was a nut slot that at that moment was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Sometime later I pulled over the top of the crag and once again, with the terror over, I forget…
… Dr Jon has written in his logbook, “Glad to be seconding”, although my recollection is that he was so traumatised he didn’t even second it. I suppose this shows how bad my memory is.
Fast forward 18 years to a June heatwave. Zylo and I visited Clogwyn Gafr last week intending to climb the two E3s Sacred Idol and Pulsar. After climbing Pulsar and finding Sacred Idol covered in muck we still wanted to climb, so we decided to drop a rope down Nectarine Run. I was interested to safely see if it had become any easier and if the gear had improved. On a rope, and with 18 years climbing under my belt, I found the climb was still pretty tough, especially the groove, which would still be bold and committing, but not as bold or as committing with a few RPs, and even less so if the RURP was brought into play! The rock-over on the slab above the roof felt a lot easier with my more recently acquired skills, and with the gear placed in the crack of Satsumo it would feel relatively safe. So I returned two days later with TPM and after a warm up we both led Nectarine Run. I’m very pleased to say I did this without as nearly as much terror or trembling as the first time.
The following day I ran around Llyn Padarn, the large lake at the foot of the slate quarries near the centre of Llanberis. The heatwave continued and the small steam train pulled sweating tourists along the northeast edge of the water. Near the end of the track I ran towards a man walking his dog. The black and white collie barked and the man, leaning heavily on his walking stick, said something in Welsh to calm his dog. I called a hello. “That’ll save your life,” he said in a slow and strong Welsh accent. I stopped running and turned to the man and his dog. He continued, “I used to run every day. I would get on my mountain bike after running and do even more. People said I was mad, but it saved my life, kept me out of the ground.” I guessed he was about mid- to late-fifties with a slim build, but he leant heavily on his stick and the left side of his mouth drooped. “Had a massive stroke, my arm is useless,” he thumped his left arm with his right hand and I saw his left hand was a permanent fist, his arm flopping as he hit it. “I was so fit. Can’t do anything now, but running kept me out of the ground, you’re doing the best thing, keep it up, it’ll keep you out of the ground.”
I said goodbye, jogging slowly away. The heat was stifling. I thought back to climbing Nectarine Run and how it had nearly put me in the ground. Over the past 18 years there have been a few more climbs that have nearly put me in the ground, but many more that have kept me firmly above it.