Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Minor Epic 

Part One – Anticipation

In which, with accelerating drive countered by equivalent trepidation, we approach the goal and stand before it, hesitantly confident.

Grooved Arete:
One of the finest routes of its standard anywhere in Wales.
Paul Williams

The most inspiring and well-known route on Tryfan. The climbing is neat and always open. It steadily increases in difficulty until one is quite committed and high on the mountain.
Climbers Club Ogwen and Carneddau Guide
The rain began just as we approached the start of the climb. Not heavy rain, but a wetness steadily released from a dull grey sky to be taken up by the wind and spread liberally across the mountainside. There’s little shelter half way up a mountain, and the wind blew directly into the few likely looking alcoves amongst the buttresses and boulders. We found the best we could under a slight overhang, donned waterproofs, and waited.

Tryfan’s architect must have been a climber. The mountain’s east face – famous to the cognoscenti as the training ground, when under snow and ice, for many a Himalayan expedition - starts with a steep heather-covered slope rising out of the valley, above which rises a more precipitous rock wall: 800 feet of rough, sound rock, liberally supplied with gullies, corners, arêtes and the occasional ledge on which to rest.

Between these two, dividing the mountain’s upper and lower halves, runs the Heather Terrace – a broad rock-strewn ledge that gives climbers easy access to all the routes on the face. This was where we stood now. Tryfan is the most easterly peak in the Glyders range, standing a little apart from the rest, as befits its stature; even though we were only at half height, we were already higher than most of the surrounding landscape. The sudden scream of an RAF jet drew our eyes towards the valley; the sight of the plane flashing beneath us as the pilot practiced low-level manoeuvres emphasising our lofty position.

After a short while, the shower reduced to a light drizzle as the wind drove a mass of low cloud away out over the Ogwen valley, and the sky cleared a little, although the next shower-laden cloud was most likely not far away.

“So long as it doesn’t get any worse than this we should be okay”.

I may on occasion display masochistic tendencies, but I draw the line at rock climbing in pouring rain (although I did once climb through a hailstorm, which was interesting). Anything less than a downpour though might be tolerable; I was so determined to do this climb, that the pleasantness or otherwise of the conditions simply didn’t enter into the equation. The only reason to back off now would be if the conditions were so severe as to render it imprudent to proceed. I reached up, grasped the edge of a flake of rock with my fingertips, placed the toe of my shoe into a narrow crack and pulled up.

“It doesn’t feel too bad. The rock’s quite grippy even when it’s damp. Anyway, this is a ‘traditional’ route. That means it’s usually done in conditions like this.”

That sounded a fair justification for continuing; I almost believed it myself.

“Let’s get kitted up and make a final decision then. Might as well leave waterproofs on – my guess is that it’ll carry on with light showers like this throughout the day.”

Gearing up is one of the rituals of rock climbing. It probably looks slow and haphazard to an onlooker, but you don’t want to get this bit wrong – your life may depend on it. Besides, as well as physical preparation, it’s a time of mental preparation, getting psyched up for what lies ahead. First the harness; it ought to be simple enough, yet like as not it will transform itself into a tangle of webbing, so that putting it on proceeds through an intermediate stage where something somewhere is inverted, or twisted, or back-to-front – it’s not because they think climbers are dummies that manufacturers go the extent of stitching a tag labelled ‘L’ or ‘R’ into each leg loop. Then rock shoes. There’s something incongruous (or maybe it’s that masochistic streak again) about sitting half way up a mountain on a chilly, damp day, taking off boots or approach shoes and thick warm socks and squashing bare feet into thin, flimsy, toe-crunching rock shoes. By contrast with the heavy, clumpy boots normally worn for mountain walking this seems like setting out to the office wearing bedroom slippers. Next comes protection gear. Wires for the narrower cracks; hexes for the larger slots - chinking together with a sound like cowbells, reminiscent of an alpine pasture; cams – a wonderful life-saving invention for those desperate moments when nothing else will fit; quick-draws, krabs, belay plate, prussik loops, nut key; all racked in their customary places on the harness gear loops, turning the climber into a walking ironmongers – or should that be aluminium-alloy-mongers? Slings over a shoulder and helmet complete the preparations, and now that the body is properly equipped, mind is ready to exchange the world of the horizontal for that of the vertical.

The wait for the rain to stop had allowed my thoughts to drift away from the matter immediately at hand, and I noted, with some detachment, how a subtle change in my attitude to this climb had been taking place since the previous evening. For months, this had been a goal; a test piece, a way of proving myself. It’s not a technically difficult climb – the climbing itself is at hardly more than a beginner’s standard - but it’s committing, with over 600 feet of ascent approaching the vertical and no escape; the easiest way out is up, and if that should prove impassable, anything else could be trickier still; giving up half way is not an option. Should the weather turn foul or one of us be injured, things could turn nasty very quickly and it is this factor that lends the expedition an air of seriousness. This would be as much a test of all-round fitness for mountaineering – mental as much as physical - as it would be a straightforward exercise of rock climbing skills.

For months then, I’d dreamed of this as a goal, but always a distant one. Somewhere out there, somewhere in the future. Even yesterday, until the evening, I’d held back from making that firm decision to go for it; the ascent had remained as something we hoped to complete whilst we were here, something to build up to and attempt only when we were ready. We’d do some shorter climbs first, then if all went well we’d tackle The Big One. So it remained in the future; the near future, to be sure, but not quite yet. There was still a safe space of uncommitment separating the idea from the execution.

As we sat outside the tent that previous evening debating what to do the following day, I looked up at Tryfan, towering almost straight above us, its head lost in the clouds. In the crystal clarity of blue skies and bright sun (yes, they have both been known in north Wales, so rumour has it), and with the foreshortened perspective given by looking obliquely up the slope, the mountain can look quite benign, enticing even, and its summit ridge easily accessible.

But when its head vanishes into dark, threatening cloud and tongues of mist lick around its towers and gullies, it takes on a far more ominous air and the summit appears remote, another land, almost as if climbing that face and vanishing into the cloud would be like climbing Jack’s beanstalk, leading us into a strange land peopled by man-eating ogres.

“Of course, what I’ve really come to do is to climb Grooved Arete.”

“Well we’d better do that then.”

There it was; no messing. I was momentarily taken aback by having the decision thrust at me so directly as that. Suddenly it wasn’t something we might do in the future; it was offered to me right there and then. Moreover, I’d expected to have to do some persuading when it came to it; P. can be a reluctant climber, his preference is for mountain walks and scrambles, not adventures whose rewards are more about character-building than pleasure. The sudden disorientation, like pushing on a closed door thought to be stiff, only to find it swing easily open, threw me straight into the need for decision. Sometimes, another’s perceived reluctance serves as a convenient mask for our own.

For once, I seized the moment.

“Okay. We’ll pack rucksacks tonight ready for the climb and make a final decision in the morning when we’ve seen the weather.”

The last time I’d attempted this route, two years previously, I had no idea how long it was going to take and we hadn’t made an early enough start. It had been slow going, climbing as a group of three, and after only two pitches it became clear that, if we continued at that rate, it would be almost dark by the time we reached the top. The only sensible decision was to retreat whilst that was still possible – a story in itself, but one for another time – even so, it was well into the evening before we were off the mountain. This time round I was determined not to make the same mistake.

I was woken several times during the night by that tension which precedes events in whose outcome much is invested. It wasn’t fear of the climb itself that disturbed me, it was fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of not being good enough. In the darkness of the tent, those demons danced about my head, scattering their doubts across my dreams.

By 5.30 am the tent was becoming lighter, and thought became more coherent as the real world took form and substance, supplanting that night-time world of demons and doubts. I dozed fitfully and around 6.30 am sneaked a look outside – grey, but thankfully dry and not too windy. By the time I’d dressed, wandered over to the shower block for a wash, and spent long minutes gazing at the sky and at the mountain, it was clear that we were on. Final preparations were soberly made. One decision I was later to regret – to keep weight to an absolute minimum, I took only a small half-litre water bottle, choosing instead to carry water internally, as it were, by drinking as much as I could comfortably manage before setting out. It seems easier to carry it this way than on your back.

The initial way up the mountain is a straightforward slog up the side of the main Ogwen valley, until meeting the mouth of the higher hanging valley - Cwm Tryfan – that runs alongside the mountain and feeds at right-angles into the main valley. It was somewhere around here - physically half way between camp and the start of the climb, and also psychologically half way, having left the security of camp but not yet being committed to the climb proper – that searching questions surfaced unbidden in my mind. Was I really up to this? Had I the skill, the judgement to handle things if it all went wrong; had I the commitment to see it through? Or would we risk ending up a statistic on the annual report of the local mountain rescue team? The questions stood like a gatekeeper barring the path; only by considering them honestly and answering in the affirmative could we continue on our way.

Standing there at the foot of the climb, physically geared up and ready to go, I recognised the mental gearing up process that had also been taking place. My attitude had undergone a transition, step by step, though the months of hoping, yesterday’s decision and today’s preparation, culminating in our standing here, alone on a damp chilly Welsh mountainside, poised to set out – or up - and make a minor dream come true.

To be continued…

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