Llanberis Slate QuarriesWALES
Climbs 904 – Crags 11
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The Llanberis slate quarries are home to some of the boldest, finest, hardest and weirdest climbs in Wales. The routes' considerable reputations are well matched by the despoiled mountainsides geology, history and the climbing culture of the area. In this article local instructor, photographer, writer and all-round good guy Mark Reeves explains all.
A Brief History of the Slate
The story of the Llanberis slate starts around 500 million years ago, when layer upon layer of mudstone - deposited over millennia in a shallow sea - eventually became overlain and intruded by volcanic rock, lava and ash. The heat and pressure that these applied to the shale type rock, transformed it over aeons into what is now considered the best slate in the world.
"The routes considerable reputations are well matched by the despoiled mountainsides geology, history and the climbing culture"
Slate is virtually impervious to water, and is easily split into tiles making it excellent for roofing and of course in its raw form climbing upon. Post formation the slate lay dormant for another age waiting for the next event in its long history - the collision of what is now the UK with Nova Scotia caused the mountains to rise above sea level and the Snowdonia mountain range was born.
And there it would have ended for the slate, buried under a mountain of rock, but the earth had different ideas and around 100,000 years ago the earth was plunged into a glacial period - glaciers shaped the landscape of North Wales into the dramatic mountainscape that we see today. Jump forwards to 10,000 years ago and the globe started to heat up, the ice retreated and the world we know today started to emerge.
"the owners not only kept the welsh workforce in poverty, but used the ships that transported the slate all over the world to engage in the slave triangle"
Whilst limited mining occurred in early times - the most notable a Roman fort who's remains on the outskirts of Caernarfon was roofed in slate - it wasn't until much later during the industrial revolution that slate mining expanded rapidly. Factory building and rapid urban growth led to the need for an effective roofing material, and that's where slate and the Welsh quarries associated with it came into being.
The retro-bolted Horse Latitudes 6a+ gives a great and grippy route.
© Mark Reeves, Apr 2011
In 1890 the industry peaked, with over 17,000 men being employed in the mines and quarries of North Wales. The subsequent decline in the industry was to have a major effect on the locals and workers alike. When, in an effort to employ its workers with disregard for new Health and Safety Laws the owners of the quarries essentially locked the workers out for nearly a year with no pay, times became very hard and when the mine owners eventually opened the gates to the capitulating workers, they only took on half the original workforce.
Similarly it is only just coming to light after the Penrhyn family finally released historic papers from the time - after the last living relative of those times passed away - that the owners not only kept the welsh workforce in poverty, but used the ships that transported the slate all over the world to engage in the slave triangle. It was this transportation to global destinations that gave birth to some of the names of the areas in the quarries, however it has been suggested that some of these have been misnamed by climbers, although the general theme is still there.
After the Second World War new technology in roofing, which was cheaper and easier to manufacture than slate was born - the ceramic tile. So despite more mechanization the quarries went through a steady decline until in 1969 when the Dinorwig quarries finally closed. By the end of the mining in Dinorwig, 362 quarrymen had lost their lives extracting the grey gold.
Pull My Daisy (E2 5c) on the Rainbow Slab, Llanberis Slate
© Mark Glaister - Assistant Editor, May 2011
The Early Forays
The history of climbing in the quarries started, in 1969, with Joe Brown who seemed to have been waiting for the workers to leave so he could step in. Joe was of course a pioneer of steep and intimidating lines up big cliffs throughout the UK and abroad. So it seems fitting that he set his sights on the biggest cliff of all, the back wall of Twll Mawr (Big Hole), putting up the compelling and rarely ascended Opening Gambit. This route has been greatly altered over the years through rockfalls that have been both small and colossal. The route also exacted a high price on two students who fell to their death when attempting the line, a route that should never be underestimated, and despite the lowly grade of HVS, is probably more of an XS - standing for extremely stupid.
Another local Al Harris - whose house on Fachwen overlooked Gideon Quarry - was to make an early exploration of this slab producing Gideon. This is a smart little HVS although somewhat bold as gear is both sparse and at times imaginative, and generally involves exploring the limits of friction on what feels like Teflon.
Whilst other routes were climbed, the quarries were something of a backwater that failed to spark the imagination of those that explored the myriad of levels, holes and workings.
Mark Reeves' Recommended Slate routes
Best sport graded 4s, 5s and 6s.
• Emerald Dyke - F3 - Dali's Hole
Top quality E1s
• Bella Lugosi is Dead – A cracking pitch up a thin crack, avoid passing any gear as it does run out for a while.
Monster Kitten is a super E1 5c and can be done as a second pitch after Mental Lentils HVS 5b
UKC Articles, Apr 2011
© Mark Reeves
The Slate Boom & The Birth of the Slatehead
Twelve years after Joe Brown's epic route it was the rising climbing legend Stevie Haston who was to take up the baton and redefine climbing on the slate with Comes the Dervish; famously cleaned with a 'borrowed knife' from Pete's Eats. Comes the Dervish is a route that any wannabe Slatehead needs to put at the top of their ticklist, originally graded E5, the line has cleaned up considerably, and is now one of the best E3's in the UK. If you have not climbed this route then you are not a slate climber, just a climber who's climbed on slate.
"It was now climbing legend Stevie Haston who was to take the baton and redefine climbing on the medium; When he famously 'borrowed a knife' from Pete's Eats to clean what is now the iconic route of the quarries"
For a trend to really take a hold you need more than just a route, you need a context into which that trend can explode, and whilst it is widely written that this route sparked the revolution, there is more to it than simply the ascent of Comes the Dervish, and that something had as much to do with the socio-economic situation of the times as it did that clean fresh line on a slate blackboard.
Top Extreme Slate routes
• Massambula - Rippled Slab – Bus Stop Quarry - E2 – Another runout slab which will get the blood pumping.
• Poetry Pink/Released from treatment - Rainbow Slab - This is a stella combo and possible the easiest of the E5 on this Slab.
James McHafie attempts the desperate New Slatesman (F8b)
UKC Articles, Apr 2011
© Mark Reeves
What acted as a springboard was the rise of unemployment in the early 1980s - Maggie's Millions was the name for this army of unemployed, and from these battalions of jobseekers rose a new boom in the quarries, although this time it wasn't from quarryman's soft explosives. The rock and dole generation where spawned.
What this meant was that if you were a climber, and you wanted to live off of benefits and climb, the world was your oyster. You could sign on by post, and spend all your available time climbing and engaging in all manner of socially irresponsible activities. The year was 1983, the BBC started their first ever breakfast show, The Austin Metro was the most popular selling car in the UK, two new MP's were voted into the House of Commons - a Mr Tony Blair and Mr Gordon Brown, the British Thrust II set a new world land speed record, the first cruise missiles arrived at Greenham Common amid mass protests, the Brink-MAT gold robbery took place, the Compact Disc arrived, Maggie Thatcher won a landslide victory after a short and bloody campaign to regain the Falkland Islands and ..... the major boom in slate climbing started.
"The year was 1983, the BBC started their first ever breakfast show, The Austin Metro was the most popular selling car in the UK, The first cruise missiles arrive at Greenham Common amid mass protests, the Compact Disc arrived, Thatcher wins a landslide victory ........ and major boom in slate climbing starts."
As acres of virgin rock became known to the ballooning population of dole-men, climbers started to migrated to Llanberis to get involved with this new almost punk like movement. The stage was set for slate to make a big impact on UK climbing, along with mullets, bad moustaches and even worse - lycra tights.
The ever popular midgrade cracks Seamtress (VS) and Seams The Same (E1)
UKC Articles, Apr 2011
© Mark Reeves
Designer Danger: Myths and Legends
The routes of the early years were to revolve around the exact type of ground that Stevie had stumbled upon when he climbed perhaps the most conspicuous slab in the quarries. Elsewhere the slabs were devoid of such luxurious cracks, and meant that the ethos turned to bolting. Whether or not you believe that the likes of Redhead and his cohorts applied Joe Brown's rule of two bolts a pitch to the immaculate Rainbow Slab or that the hard economic times led to the minimalistic approach to fixed gear, who cares. What the quarries got was some serious routes with almost astronomical runouts. This was a time of hard men in garish tights - The Slatehead was born - a person whose antics off the rock were just as important as on it. It was a time of hard partying climbers having ample time to not only push the boundaries of climbing but also hedonistic behaviour. Perhaps the best account is given in Paul Pritchard's book Deep Play which chronicles the antics of the time - a highly recommended read.
"... the Slatehead was born, a person whose antics off the rock were just as important as on it."
Similarly in the forthcoming new guidebook to the slate Martin Crook's previously unpublished Slatehead Dairy's will throw even more light into the murky world of Llanberis in the 1980's. In the years that followed the 1983 explosion, the Rainbow Slab, Never Neverland, Vivian Quarry and Australia all got their major lines ascended. Around 80 routes were climbed between 1983 and 1985 of which 30 are still considered starred classics. Development picked up more speed and in 1986 over 100 new routes were added, around 80 the following year, and over seventy the year after that. Then almost as quickly as it started the new routes dwindled.
A view of the classic E1 5b crack of Bella Lugosi is Dead
© Mark Reeves, Apr 2011
The Sport Climbing Revolution: Slabs are for Softies
If you can turn your brain off, and just climb, then the slabs of the quarries are invariably easier than routes of similar grades, it does however take a long time to train you mind in the ways of the runout slab. There came a point though when the climbers started to look away from the slabs, and turn to steeper and blanker rock.
This corresponded with the development of sport climbing in the UK, many climbers were enjoying the luxury of sport climbing in Europe, whilst collecting their dole money via the post and upon their return many realised the full potential of the quarries.
Three routes stood out that ushered in this new era, the first two by John Redhead in Vivian Quarry where he sculpted two utterly horrendous routes that suited his height and finger strength. The first, Manic Strain is still considered F7c+ or 8a, whereas Misogynist Discharge is no push over at 8a+, and features more of a scrape than a chip on its crucial foothold.
Later that year came a four pitch masterpiece from Johnny Dawes in the form of The Quarryman. Its third pitch has been made famous by his Stone Monkey video, where Johnny climbs the gymnastic and powerful groove. A little later Dawes went on to add the classic Bobby's Groove and the ultra technical Untouchables Arête.
Another of the main sport climbing activists on the scene was Nick Harms. In 1986 he made the first ascent of one of the more amusingly named routes; Watch Me Wallaby Wank Frank and added among others Cwms The Dogfish, Tru Clip, and The Dark Half - all of which are fantastic high end sport climbs. None of his routes have diminished in reputation over the years, and just a sighting of Nick in the book 'The Power of Climbing", will make you realise that even in those days the ability to be totally ripped despite rampant hedonism was still possible.
What set many of these routes apart from say European or limestone sport routes in the UK, is the moves. Often a scene of much frustration for the climber, the technical on/off nature of the slate cruxes, that have more to do with feet sticking to a hold than the ability to pull hard. This gives slate sport its very own style, where relentless body tension is needed to keep in contact with the tiny holds.
......And the Beat Goes On
Slate climbing is like flairs - if you live long enough then it is going to come back into fashion at some point, and four years ago saw the return of the slate. The resurgence started the activity of re-equipping many of the slate's classics, a necessary act as many of the bolts were passed their sell by date.
Along with the re-equipping was some controversial retro bolting in several hitherto forgotten areas that had routes of reasonable quality but a dearth of gear. These areas were brought 'Kicking and Screaming' as some people put it into the real world of the Naughties. The ultra classic routes were rightly left as they were, whilst some routes that had maybe seen a couple of ascents in a decade were seeing many ascents a week, just days after they were equipped. The quarries almost felt alive with climbers again.
At this time the author of this piece carried out an act which sparked a new revolution, a monster that at times seemed out of control. The act was to bolt three routes, one in particular a F3 in Dali's Hole up a clean, thin and beautiful dolerite band. Before you could blink there were easy routes popping up all over the place. Some climbers were literally excavating routes from nothing, cleaning back until they reach something solid, as quite literally tonnes of slate came down.
Whilst on the one hand low end sports routes were exactly what the quarries needed for their popularity. The flip side of this was that some venues now look grid bolted, and the latest boom in the quarries almost did more damage to us climbers than anything the quarrymen managed.
With not unusually over 40 people climbing in Dali's Hole, the owners of the land, the electricity generating company First Hydro or their Japanese multinational owners started to get nervous. Conflict and confrontation flared and it resulted in First Hydro threatening to ban access to the quarry for climbers. I say threaten, as a site this big with so many access points means that policing such a ban would be near impossible. However to reduce the risk to members of the public being encouraged off the path at Dali's Hole they erected a high barbed wire fence - which was subsequently chopped, then re-erected, and re-chopped.
In recent months the BMC has been negotiating an access agreement with First Hydro.
Alongside this 'everyman' revolution a small number of climbers took advantage of easy access to a drill, bolt and develop a new set of modern test pieces. None captures the cutting edge of slate climbing more than The Serpent Vein, which was actually a project from the 1990's that was left uncompleted by that generation of locals, it was James McHaffie who eventually climbed this at F8b. Steep, intimidating and exposed, the route has yet to have a second ascent, and after Johnny Dawes Meltdown project in Twll Mawr, is possibly the hardest route on slate.
Slate's best sport testpieces
• The Quarryman Groove F7c+/8a – Relive the Stone Monkey video, well worth the abseil in and jumar out for a top rope!
Bold and Difficult Slabs
Whilst may of these routes have been on-sighted, they often have only seen one ascent in this style by some of the best climbers of our generation. In particular Leo Houlding's onsight of My Halo and Patch Hammond's Beta On-sight of Raped By Affection stand as two of the most impressive on-sight ascents the quarries have seen.
Mark Reeves is a photographer, climbing instructor, writer and film maker.
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: