Crossing the Years

Nick Bullock | 29 March, 2020

During this COVID-19 crisis, climbers are having to get their fix vicariously. This early piece of Nick Bullock’s writing from around 2002/3 should help. At this time Nick was still working as a prison officer. Nick’s two books, Echoes (2012) and Tides (2018), were both short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Award, with the latter winning the Mountain Literature (non-fiction) category in the 2018 Banff Mountain Book Competition.

"Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, The Black Cliff, is nestled into the hillside beneath Yr Wyddfa, or as it is better known, Snowdon. The crowds that walk the laborious path from Llanberis to the summit of Snowdon, often forego the beauty of this dark and majestic crag in preference to a summit where they stand side-by-side with others.

Sliding down a grassy ramp, grey turrets force their way into a blue sky. Tufts of grass spring from rocky corners. The rock is coated in flaky lichen. Why climb? Why this climb? I hop around the large pool of water at the foot of an E2 called The Black Cleft. Water is running down a slimy corner. Water slips over green to enter the pool with a rumbling, eggs-in-a-pan turbulence. The Black Cleft is a hard climb with a traditional reputation—Brown and Whillans at their most adventurous. So, I slither further, until the start to Bow Shaped Slab is reached. Having never climbed on the West Buttress, I’m not certain this is the start of my climb, but from the guidebook description it looks about right.

My climbing year has been successful; in the mountains, new routes and hard repeats have been climbed, my name has appeared frequently in the climbing press. I’m possibly in danger of becoming a tad up-my-own-arse. The perfect time then for a traditional down-to-earth grovel. In these, what some may say are times of convenience, I also crave a little uncertainty. I want to climb something out of fashion. But maybe I’m just getting old like Joe and Don.

The West Buttress is a slab with creases, corners and arêtes. A tilted piece of corrugated card. I know it’s a slab because water doesn’t drip, it trickles; and the loose rock remains in place. Familiarisation, yes, that must be a part of the reason I have decided to attempt a solo of the 928ft West Buttress Girdle. Sixteen pitches of grovelling and route-finding, or maybe a fabulous journey following the handholds of climbing history?

I blame the ‘old boys’ staying at the Climbers’ Club hut, Ynys Ettws, for starting me on this tradition journey. Much talk of pioneering ascent, ropes made of hemp, pebbles, chockstones, drilled-out wheel nuts. I’d obviously been missing out. I felt I owed it to them, after all, spending time in their company made me feel young again.

The West Buttress of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu.
The West Buttress of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu. "A tilted piece of corrugated card". © Ray Wood

Leaving the grassy ramp and pulling around the first arête finds me on White Slab before tottering onto a ledge called Linnell’s Leap, the scene of a death-defying jump on the first ascent in 1933. The void makes me think I should climb up and forgo this crab-crawl, the exposure is sickening, but I remember that it was originally climbed in nailed boots, with hemp rope. The overall grade of the whole traverse is HVS. The technical grade of this pitch is 4c, which, in modern times, is quite easy. I hadn’t realised the grade 4c existed until recently, but it felt very real now.

Groping blindly around a bulging corner leaving Linnell’s Leap, pinching mouldy-sugar-coated-rock, the uncertainty I crave is now all too apparent—it grabs my intestines. I console myself that really the climb is easy and well within my grade, so avoiding another clod of well-watered grass, I inch while looking for a peg belay to convince myself I’m on route. Balancing, I reach down the front of my tee-shirt and peel the sweat sodden guidebook from my stomach. Turning pulpy pages with my teeth I realise I have climbed too high. I thought I had; the climbing had not been easy. And then realisation hits me, easy whether on or off route is not going to happen today.

Squeezing holds too hard, reversing—a mildew covered slab gets me back on the correct line. I pull and entrench myself in a dark, overhanging alcove and consult the guidebook for a second time. To my horror I realise the notch in the overhanging arête above, and behind me, is the way forward. “Come on for heaven’s sake, 4c, it’s easy.”

Facing out, bridging the alcove, I look to the boulders hundreds of feet below before smearing wet shoes on wet rock and leaning back, hanging into space, and stretching for what I hope is a hold. But I can’t reach. Reverse. I try a second time, with my feet a few inches higher, but now I can’t commit. Reverse. Psyche up, chalk up, look down, don’t look down idiot. Give up? No! Hopes are pinned to a single lump of rock that appears to be balanced on the crest of the arête. Is it solid or just a rock balancing? Where will it take me? This is certainly turning into the levelling experience I’ve been looking for. I just didn’t expect to be levelled quite this much.

I commit, fingers stretch and wrap the hold. Its clean and dry thank God. Clean and dry is my new salvation. Legs waft into space before crawling onto the overhanging arête.

Another wet and slimy slab follows until finally… a ledge large enough to sit. Ripping rock-shoes from swelling feet feels luxurious. Am I enjoying this? I’m not sure I am, but the fear from uncertainty is seductive, and the view from my eyrie is exceptional. The dark glassy water of Llyn Arddu mirrors mountains. Looking onto this view normally, from somewhere safe, would be a joy, but I’m full of dark thoughts.

Living life to a ripe old age, through careful and cautious calculation, with no risk, and as little uncertainty as possible, may lead to a long life—but does longevity mean happiness? For some, I suppose it must, but I’m not so sure myself, although maybe this is the arrogance of someone in their thirties.

And why do so many of the people I look after on a daily basis in the prison-gym, return time and time again? Drug addicts, joy-riders, fighters, gang members and armed robbers.

Growing up in run-down areas with limited or possibly no opportunity, whilst suffering the sickness of wanting, wanting material goods and wanting so far beyond their means—this must be the reason. But then there’s the thrill of the chase, the uncertainty, the tension and excitement—how much is that a part of their drive. Crime or climb? Are these ‘c’ words just two intoxicating drugs to get some of us through the sterility of modern life—a lifestyle we are taught by parents, TV, politicians, big bosses and millionaires; a lifestyle we are expected to lead.

Climbing can have fatal consequences—such a severe price to pay, but so obviously worth the risk for many. The criminal too faces severe consequences, and yet, so often returns to crime.

Forcing swollen feet once again into tight shoes dissipates the thinking before an enormous stride around another blind arête focuses me. I’m about half way through this self-inflicted torture, and I’m at last starting to get a feel for this style of climbing and the exposure. Onto the crux of Bow Shaped Slab, now with its tufts of grass and gleaming water streaks. A crack slicing the centre of the slab weeps. Passing pleasantries with a party climbing the crack of Bow traverse breaks the solitude. Their rope is running near me, and the second is struggling. If he falls, I’m scared the rope will take me, so I give him a few encouraging words until he’s in reach, then with a gentle hand on him, I pull past.

The technical crux of the whole climb was dry and clean; unfortunately, the easy pitch after the crux wasn’t. Moving directly up the forty-foot corner, one slippery wet hold follows another. Lay-backing greasy black, smearing green, skittering, reversing, I pat chalk onto wet edges in an attempt to dry them until reaching the top of the corner.

Several times I’ve questioned why I continue with this punishment. Several times I’ve wanted to run away, climb directly up and escape by following some clean classic. But there’s a voice in my head that won’t allow it. I know the taunting will start if I quit. But why should it bother me if I don’t complete this climb, who would know, who would care?

Down-climbing a corner places me at the foot of the Central Rib. Another classic, but it doesn’t look like it’s been climbed since its first ascent in 1946. The rock is once again covered in moss and dusty. The overhanging corner ahead is choked with dirt and grass. I pull on a block half way up the corner. It moves, so I reverse before trying again, but once more I retreat. Third go I make it, but the climbing is taking its toll and I feel about as levelled as I ever want to be.

Lay-backing a crack, I know the technical difficulties of the girdle are nearly over now as I’m two-thirds of the way up, and three-quarters of the way along the West Buttress. I feel my gritty trip of discovery is rapidly coming to an end. Finally, I’m following broken ground at the finish, four-and-a-half hours from the start. I sit, basking in afternoon sun on the summit ridge of the West Buttress.

In the distance, beyond the boulders and the dark waters of the llyn, dots continue to walk the path from Snowdon. I imagine them cream-smeared with sun-basted flesh. Do they care I have just soloed the girdle of The West Buttress? No. And would other climbers look on my successful ascent (or rather traverse) with respect … I doubt it? But I realise, sitting here alone, in the after peace of my climb, that I have travelled far in this time.

Actually, I know who’d be interested—the ‘old boys’. They would care about my day’s success. Maybe if I run fast enough, I can catch them before they leave the Climbers’ Club hut. Perhaps I can jog their foggy memories of adventures and freedom from forty years previous. I jump from sitting, straight to running. The ground feels springy under my feet. And even though the climb I’ve just done is already becoming just a memory of a brief experience, I feel re-charged now, and ready to face the imposition of my other life of regularity and acceptance… well, at least for another week… until next weekend’s release from jail."