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Cyrn Las Topo
© Mark Reeves My life feels like a delicate balancing act of convenience versus adventure. I yearn for the mountain experience, but not the six hours drive north to Scotland. Living in Wales means I can nip up the Llanberis Pass for an after work dose of mountain rock emprise.
It's a beautiful valley, the Llanberis Pass, a myriad of cliffs strafe the steep sides, but the one that for me best captures the spirit of adventure is Cyrn Las.
On most grey, overcast days, the dark skull-like face towers over the steep walk-in, black eyes staring, sizing you up.
But, on a sunny spring afternoon, with newborn lambs littering the hillside, the mood of the crag can feel lifted. The dark rock features seem more inviting, more friendly even, and the steep hillside flies beneath your feet without a pant.
Cyrn Las is an impressive crag and your gaze is quickly drawn to whatever route you aspire to. For most this will be Main Wall, the easiest route on the cliff, and a well deserved classic, but looking up you will struggle to see 'an easy route', so devious is the line.
Main Wall (Hard Severe):
My first acquaintance with the Main Wall was on one of those rare sunny afternoons. I ran up alone, chalk bag and rock boots tied round my waist, sweat dripping on to my glasses. By the time I reached the base I was a mess. Settling myself down, cleaning my glasses and drying my hair on my shirt, I put on my shoes and started moving up, slowly developing a rhythm to my progress, a pace that allowed enough time to think of the next move but not of the situation.
I was over 200ft up when my rhythm was broken, as I climbed up behind another team. The reality of my situation was now apparent. My heart rate which had dropped since the jog in had started to rise again, my breathing deepened, as for the first time my mind realised what I had done. As I played follow my leader to the next ledge I tried to counteract the growing trepidation with the mantra; 'This is not the time, this is not the time, this is not the time...'.
They graciously handed over the rock to let me pass, and as I traversed out to the final exposed arÍte my rhythm started to return, allowing me to enjoy the setting at the edge of heaven. The route was one of those moments of madness, but one that has remained with me for years, as is quite often the powerful emotional experience of climbing unroped.
It was just another summers day, the sun rays slowly warming, the smell of coffee percolating through the house, and the faint aroma of bacon slowly wafting out of the window. Cards lay out out on the table ready to play, the loser makes the final brew before we head out on the rock.
Our peace was viciously destroyed by the arrival of another friend, tearful and full of sorrow.
"They have found Will, dead".
In the few moments it took the messenger to compose herself, my head began to spin with unanswerable questions. Instantly I run through scenarios; Will becoming a victim of his own judgement on a solo ascent, a car crash or some other unpredictable accident. The truth being far too difficult to comprehend.
I run through those times I have been climbing with him, times too numerous to remember all at once. One thought leads to another and we sob into each others shoulders. There is no comfort, no solace and no solution to our grief.
My memory is a little shaky, diluted through years of climbing, and through having been on the route before. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was to fail on every pitch of this route on three separate occasions. But this time, with Will, I was lucky. He rope-gunned up every pitch, after I wasted more time flailing, out of my depth like a child suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool.
The route was amazing, one of the reasons I had been back three times to attempt to lead at least one of the pitches. The last pitch is the most memorable of any on the cliff. Cutting through the nose of the skull, and out through the eye. The skeletal figurehead threatens to eat you, as you disappear deep in to an overhanging groove, bridging for your life as the drop snarls at your feet like pack of charging wolves.
I am lucky to have shared these precious moments with a dear friend, who is now only visible in the rear view mirror of life. A bright and warming light extinguished too early. A constant reminder to me that life is just too short.
Lubyanka (E3 5c):
My last time on the cliff was another hot day, baking would be a better description. We literally fried as we approached, ideal conditions for such a shady mountain crag. This time I was with Graeme, nearly exactly twenty years my senior. I used his 50th birthday party to celebrate my 30th. It was over this summer that we climbed this route.
Two ageing climbers on paper at least, trying to fight the inevitable downward arch of a flight through climbing. Struggling to maintain the status-quo. Our intended route was the classic Lubyanka. The great central corner/groove system that splits the crag, separating the men from the boys.
A flip of the coin decided the order for the day; I was to tackle the first crux, an obstinate groove with a bouldery start and a heart stopping finish. On the ledge we caught up with a friend out for the day with his son on Main Wall. As Steve traverses out of sight I am left in the company of his son. I feel jealously and sorrow for this young boy, jealous that he has the opportunity to experience the adventure of such an outstanding route, but sorrow that he has lost the opportunity to make such an ascent for himself in a few years times. For me it was one of those more memorable experiences, for him just another day out with his father.
My father and son moments are long since vanished, but I have the memories. Of my father taking me fishing on the South coast, of long nights casting out into the darkness, landing a 10lb cod on a shingle beach as the sun starts to over-power the yellow tinge of the Tilley lamp. Gone are those days, a dodgy heart and over-fishing making both elements impossible.
The continuation of the corner above led more pleasantly to the headwall. Our route avoids the issue by sneaking up the groove on the left until a line of quartz leads invitingly out right. This photogenic pitch appears to be a road to nowhere, the rail of quartz soon extinguishes itself without the merest hint of protection. As I watch Graeme scuttles rightwards, the ropes arch out into space.
Trying to capture that 'picture' Graeme manages to climb virtually all climbable rock other than the actual pitch, which he follows as a last resort. I belay, glad that the old man is on the sharp end.
We hobble down the descent to the valley, another route ticked.
Mark Reeves is a photographer, climbing instructor, writer and film maker. He is also a member of the Llanberis mountain rescue team. If you hurt yourself on a crag in the Llanberis pass, he may well be coming to your aid.
Summit of the Old Man of Hoy
© mark reeves
You can read more about Mark Reeves on his blog: Life in the Vertical
Mark is also a professional Mountaineering Instructor. You can find out more on his other site:
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Mark Reeves: