The startled sheep trotted from beneath the shelter of the massive rhyolite boulder. Wool – greasy, matted, frozen – looked grey amongst the windblown snow. Belly deep, breathing hard – the sheep struggled to break trail. The blue sprayed branding on their back was partially hidden by fresh powder. They made no sound. Stealth. Did they fear?
Thick green spikes of marsh grass bent by the wind poked from beneath a mound of snow. A cold white Welsh Porcupine.
Austere. Apocalyptic. Seperated.
I imagined the central characters from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Gearing up beside the massive boulder Pete Harrison, my climbing partner screamed a curse, he had forgotten his axes.
“Well that’s it, game over.”
I began to pack and prepare for the walk, but Pete suggested we should go and try The Great Corner, the climb we had come for anyway.
“We can lower the axes to the second after each pitch.”
I thought it sounded crazy and foolish and time consuming.”
Wading up-hill-snow, every now and again breaking to a crust of scree, the voice in my head told me this was going to be another climb of epic proportion, something similar to three years ago – the last time I had climbed on Llech Ddu.
Tim Neill and I had climbed the first winter ascent of Central Route in 2010. A fourteen hour outing in heavy snow on the shortest day of the year. The climb turned into a desperate battle with heavy snow and dark and wind and difficulty, but the climb had been just one part of a very memorable outing. The sheep on that occasion struggled to follow the furrows that towered over their matted wool and on the walk-out, in a white-out, we were avalanched while stepping on a wind carved cornice. Being Wales, the slide was only five feet, which left both Tim and me covered in white, manically laughing – obviously we were still suffering new winter route euphoria.
Only two days before Pete and my present visit, my Central Wall partner from 2010 Tim Neill and I had climbed the summer line of Flanders on Ysgolian Duon making the second winter ascent. We had not been able to park in Gerlan, the small village of narrow lanes, limited parking and terrace houses, which signalled the start of the walk-in and eventually we had succumbed to a sit down start and parked at the Spar in the centre of Bethesda.
Returning to the van, at 7pm, after successfully climbing Flanders, I looked around feeling conscious of my attire – walking poles, rucksack, headtorch – while all the time negotiating the slippery, orange sparkling pavement.
“It feels just like walking through the centre of Chamonix having climbed a route from the valley Blanche doesn’t it?”
Closed-down shops – large windows with flapping flyposting and empty interiors – tired looking pubs guarded by weary looking smokers who shuffle cold feet while dragging smoke into lungs. Exhaling, a mixture of smoke and condensation poured into the bitter breeze. Busses struggled to drive through the congested town centre and diesel fumes mingle with the smokers smoke and the condensation. Ornate grade two listed building fronts – twisted metal, carved stone, three stories, slate, stained glass – was all around, but disguised in these modern, less affluent times. Youths and girls – parkas and leggings, thick make up and crew cuts, dense perfume – I couldn’t help think that the clothes both Tim and I wore possibly cost more money than the wage their parents made in a month.
Pete and I climbed the grassy rake with one axe each and tied-on before crossing an awkward step until we stood beneath the start of our climb.
In the cold, the God of Welsh winter had obviously placed giant hands, side by side, ready to blow warmth, but on seeing this magnificent feature made by the meeting of hands, he then decided to turn the hands to stone to give climbers something to inspire and challenge. A thin seam of turf led to a steepening at half way, this was where Chris Parkin’s bail out karabiner rocked in the wind. I set off not knowing how the day would turn, but knowing it was going to be memorable.
Walking off the top of Llech Ddu in the dusk having made the first winter ascent of The Great Corner, I looked down the glaciated valley of Cwm Llafar to the meandering silver thread of Afon Llafar and beyond to the orange glow of Bethesda. Once again climbing made me whole, the struggle had made me satisfied, content, enriched. I took another step and as the wind blasted into my face I found myself wishing and hoping the lives down below, down in that orange glow could reach, if they hadn’t already, a similar feeling to that I was now feeling.
Description below from V12 Outdoor site
On Wednesday Nick Bullock and Pete Harrison joined forces to climb a winter version of The Great Corner on Llech Ddu. The result of their inspired effort was a contender for one of the best mixed routes in Snowdonia.
Pete had first tried the line with Chris Parkin a couple of years ago. On that day Chris got two thirds of the way up the first pitch but fell and retreated from a wire.
Last Sunday Pete tried again with Ally Smith and got above Chris’ high point but the crucial turf placements were not properly frozen so he down climbed to Chris’ bail wire and retreated.
Returning a few days later with Nick, Pete discovered to his horror that he had forgotten to bring his ice tools. Despite the logistical problems that this would cause, the lads decided to go for it anyway with just Nick’s tools.
Nick lead the first pitch up the turfy groove, this time finding good frozen placements and Pete lead through on the traverse out left but had to take a belay on the arête so that they could do the axe exchange. Once sorted, Nick then lead through and completed the tough top pitch.
“We had intended doing it in two pitches but we had to belay to do the axe swap. It worked out though – it would be an absolute nightmare doing it in two pitches in winter on that top pitch, rope drag etc.”
Explained Pete before adding:
“It’s a perfect mixed route, one of the best in Wales. A total classic.”
Description: follow the summer line in three contrasting pitches, each challenging, with the last being a real stunner. The first pitch has crucial thin turf in the top section. Approach from the left up the slanting rake; there’s a short step across at the end which is worth roping-up for (good belay at base of Askant Chimney). Some mid-size cams are useful for the top pitch, as are at least two axes!
P1 6/7 30m The turfy corner gives a classic sustained pitch with plentiful gear; until it runs out. Belay at the large detached flake.
P2 7 12m Traverse out across the wall to the arete and down climb 5m to a small ledge, arrange a belay around the corner, a bit higher. Back-roping the second makes sense.
P3 8 30m The right-hand groove above the belay requires just the right mix of fitness and technique. Tenuous climbing seals the deal. A sustained pitch.