Mick Lovatt and I decided to head inland to the rolling hills and broadleaf canopies of Conwy. We drove through Old Colwyn; past the recently done-up Co-op, past the chippy and kebab house, past the Cuckoo pub, where a woman wearing cut-off jeans, and a vest stood smoking a cigarette and holding a black Staffordshire Bull Terrier on a lead. We drove past Aldi on the right, and up the hill, past the new flats on the left – a high-end development, all chrome and windows, balancing on the cliff edge above the little sport crag. Turning right, up the even steeper hill surrounded by modern houses, until a levelling and the sea behind, dotted with a multitude of wind turbines. Downhill and into the village of Llysfaen, before a turn left down the track and parking in the sheep field. Craig y Forwyn, a large chunk of gleaming limestone nestled amongst the trees.
Mick and I were hoping to lead a route called The Space Face, a line that climbs the front face of Great Wall and first climbed by Calum Muskett, and given the grade E8 6b. In some respect, the climb is an odd one, it starts up Great Wall, going into Space Case, leaving Space Case (for some direct moves of its own, including the crux), before once again joining Space Case at the bolt, and finishing the same as that route, including its crux. The bit of new climbing of Calum’s route is technical with small crimps and even smaller pockets, but with hardly any protection. It’s wonderful to climb directly up this scalloped shield of solid white limestone, while burying thoughts about how contrived climbing can be at times. I don’t mean this to belittle the climb, it’s a great climb, and on that day, both Mick and I led it and loved the experience, it’s just an observation. What is odder, when Mick posted on Facebook afterwards, that he had done the climb, were some comments.
Boring as this may be, I have to give a bit of background, so here goes…
Space Case is a brilliant three-star Andy Pollitt E6 6b that he climbed in 1982 with one bolt high on the climb to protect the crux. Andy was a superb climber who soloed loads of hard stuff and climbed a whole host of even harder stuff, he was no slouch and as bold as they come. I’m sure if Andy had wanted to, he could have climbed Space Case without the bolt, (or rope) but he chose to put one in, possibly because the route was more balanced and much better for it, and for those wanting to try to on-sight it, or climb it ground up, (without fear they would crater from the top of the crag) they could. Andy died on November 13th 2019 aged 56, a great loss to the climbing community and those who knew him.
Anyway, a load of years ago, I was more black and white and opinionated. With age and experience, I’d like to think I’m a tad more understanding and take a more nuanced approach these days, and I can see now, it’s better to take each case on its own merit. So, Space Case, a brilliant E6 6b with a bolt high-up, first climbed by Andy Pollitt in 82 and available for many people to climb on-sight, ground-up, or headpoint, until a few years ago when a local climber called Ryan Macconnell set his stall to work Space Case until he had it very dialled, before removing the bolt, and climbing it. I am told to do this he used an elaborate system of tensioned bungees, holding down the skyhook placements. Brilliant, bold and imaginative, and I really understand the personal challenge and dedication to a dream, but did it make Space Case a better climb for the bolt removal, I’m not sure it did? Fortunately, Ryan (good on him) chose not to fill in the bolt hole that meant anyone having a bolt and hanger could drop a line down the route, replace the bolt, and attempt it in whatever style they chose, and a lot of locals did just that, including myself. Unfortunately for anyone not in the know, or not local, they wouldn’t have the odd 8 mm bolt and hanger on their rack. They would also, possibly, not have the time for multiple visits to Craig y Forwyn to repeatedly work the climb on a top rope, so this great climb, a climb that had been available for around 25 years, was now, for most people, off limits.
A few years pass, and with access to the Great Wall area still sensitive, but less so than in previous years, the bolt has now been reinstated for good? I think for Forwyn, a crag that has always had a few bolts on a few climbs, and going back to what I said above, each climb has to be taken as a case by case, this was the correct decision.
Phew, so where were we. Yes, The Space Face. The day Mick and I climbed it the bolt was recently reinstated, and the route we climbed, (a direct line up the face) felt balanced, a good addition, a fine line for locals who wanted to pull on a few different holds as long as we kept the blinkers on. On Calum’s first ascent, the bolt had not been replaced, so at one point he traversed into Great Wall for protection, before traversing back, and continuing with the climb. I take nothing from Calum’s bold and creative ascent, a typical Muskrat endeavour, I can almost see him now bouncing up the cliff with abandon, but aesthetically, not that good when you have to leave the line to get gear in another route (a route quite a way to the side). Calum mentioned on Facebook he thought the route would be better with the bolt in, and Mick and I agree, because at one E grade less, it’s a much better climb when you climb the actual line without deviation.
Nick Dixon, a person I respect very much for his climbing, didn’t share Mick, Calum and my opinion though, and made a few comments on Facebook about how Calum’s climb had lost its challenge because the bolt had been replaced. Nick appeared to forget that fact the bolt was replaced in Space Case, the original route, not Calum’s route, a very recent addition. Did the challenge need making any more on that three-star piece of Andy Pollitt history? Yes, Ryan had climbed Space Case without the bolt, but no one has since, and I’m pretty sure they won’t again, because it’s not balanced and not the climb Andy Pollitt climbed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been into making routes consumer climbs. I love the quirky and individual, I understand there should always be climbs that folks will never do, or want to do, but I’m not sure affecting such an established three-star Pollitt climb is the way.
Nick also suggested the bolt had gone back in because Ryan was not a well-known climber, I’m also not sure about this, I think the bolt went back in to make Space Case the route it was when it was first climbed by Andy Pollitt. Replacing the bolt doesn’t make Ryan’s effort less, it’s just, I suppose, a more equitable and accessible experience for the many people who aspire to climb a great Pollitt E6, which there are many, and once again they now have the opportunity to try and climb it on-sight. [As a side note, I believe Ryan was asked about replacing the bolt in Space Case, which he said would be fine if someone else had repeated his effort. He asked two of the best local climbers around to repeat Space Case without the bolt, they both refused stating they would rather on-sight the route as an E6 with the bolt.]
Would people want to climb Calum’s route by traversing off into another line to get gear before reversing and continuing climbing? Nick said he had top roped it once, (a while ago) and he thought it was a good challenge, but he hasn’t been back, so maybe not that good a challenge to make it worth repeated visits? In my opinion, climbing The Space Face by traversing off route to get gear, before traversing back is not a challenge worth depriving people from attempting Space Case on-sight, or whatever?
So, anyway, Space Face, E7 6b, a great route for those who have done almost everything to do at Craig y Forwyn. Nick, I have a spanner and a bit of time, come over, I’ll hold your ropes, we can have a crack about the best style and experience of climbing Calum’s route, but I’m sure I’ll not change my opinion about the best way to climb Space Case, and that in the end is what it’s all about, a fantastic route from a great character and open to the many.